After leaves drop, easy pickings are revealed

After leaves drop, easy pickings are revealed
John C. Lorson

As the leaves fall and the forest thins, new views open up for both man and beast, and food gathering becomes easier for some species, more perilous for others. At this time of year, take the opportunity to look for things you’ve missed along the way when the woods were thick and full.

                        

The wild turkeys I’ve passed along the trail this week seemed to have had no clue of the fate awaiting most of their puff-chested, farm-raised brethren in the coming week. That's probably a good thing as they're already trying to wrap their tiny brains around where all their own protective cover has gone.

Here in late November the leaves are all but gone, save for those of the occasional pin oak, which cling in browned-out rebellion until just after the world has finished cleaning its gutters in the spring. A few more close encounters with the brightly clad and (apparently) terrifying likes of me, and the closest I’ll get to those turkeys is a half-mile away across 100 acres of corn stubble. The birds may actually have a better survival rate when the lack of cover forces them out into the open as opposed to time spent picking their way through the summer forest. The “see and flee” strategy works well for the sharp-eyed and swift birds.

For other creatures the newly naked forest means nothing but trouble. Squirrels, mice and small birds have all seen their lives change dramatically in the past few weeks. If you’ve been seeing a lot of raptors hanging out on utility poles and low limbs lately, you’re witnessing a bit of a banquet. The thinned forest canopy, along with the annual dieback of ground plants — not to mention the agricultural harvest — has created an all-you-can-eat buffet for birds of prey.

Be sure to take a few minutes to pause and watch for an attack. The hunt is often so effortless at this time of year the birds seem to do little more than drop off their perch and onto their meal. Of course this behavior happens year round to a certain extent, but the pickings are never easier than when the young of the year encounter a frost-altered world for the first time.

Warm-blooded animals, or homeotherms, need to eat more during cold conditions simply to maintain a constant body temperature. Therefore, they tend to spend more time running around in search of food. Unfortunately for prey species, the more you run around, the more vulnerable you become to those who would like to eat you.

Life does become more difficult for hawks, eagles and owls as the winter wears on, not because their prey moves around any less, but because there are significantly fewer critters of the ground from which to choose than when the winter was just beginning.

Humans, of course, fall into that same “warm blooded” category, and we’re no more immune to the need to “eat for heat” than those little deer mice dashing about under the brown grass. Lucky for us, we don’t typically need to sit atop a telephone pole to wait for our next meal to come along. Of course I do have many friends who perch in a similar fashion waiting on their venison.

As a traveler on the trails, a newly leafless corridor offers both plusses and minuses. On the positive side, you can now easily see things you may have simply passed without notice only a month ago. A massive streamside sycamore, a wall-sized sandstone outcrop or that single young ginkgo tree that still holds on to every golden leaf long after the rest of the world has gone brown, these are the gifts of the naked woods.

Conversely, with nothing to hold back the winter wind, one should be mindful of its direction when setting out for a ride. A tailwind that effortlessly blows you down the trail at 15 or 20 mph can make the world seem 10 or 15 degrees warmer than that same wind turned directly in your face. I’ve encountered many a shell-shocked traveler struggling to make it back from an overzealous, tailwind-fueled outbound trip that turned windy, cold and ugly on the rebound.

If given the choice in winter, you should always set out into the headwind. One rarely overestimates his or her own ability while pressing into the wind. Once you’ve had all you can take, you can simply turn around to enjoy the quiet calm of coasting along with the wind at your back. The toughest of the work is already done. Oh, that life offered such options for everything.

Remember, if you have comments on this column or questions about the natural world, write The Rail Trail Naturalist, P.O. Box 170, Fredericksburg, OH 44627, or email jlorson@alonovus.com.


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