When the weather is this mild, birds can relax. At the Patuxent refuge on Saturday hardly a bird was stirring, save for a party of killdeer that broke from resting to have a protracted and luxurious wash in the shallows of Cash Lake. On the opposite mudflat a handful of snipe were probing for worms; beyond them Canada geese drifted languorously across deeper water. That was all. Quiet, still, calm. Softly singing crickets added to the surreal summery air.
It must have been quite unlike December for some time. True, the Buckeye gliding low over the grass is a butterfly in the Nymphalid family, of which many species hibernate as adults. Perhaps not so unseasonal. But the miniature dragonfly that checked us out on the boardwalk would have emerged from its watery existence this autumn, yet continues to fly and hunt almost as late as Christmas day.
The following day found Blackwater refuge similarly placid. The only ripples on the water came from occasional jumping fish. Not a breath of wind stirred the Loblolly pines. Bald eagles, well fed and well rested, perched contentedly in ones and twos on prominent branches, few of them feeling the need to fly. A pair of harriers was much more active, a glorious sight as a male and female hunted in turn over long grass. They take smaller prey and probably need to feed more often, though for a harrier flying looks like fun anyway.
Wildfowl numbers seemed low; perhaps many of the ducks and geese that would usually spend the winter in the Chesapeake region remain further north for now. Happily, though, the usually elusive white pelicans were resting within easy view of the wildlife drive.
Weather this warm may seem kind, but if it continues for too long it may yet prove disastrous. Insects that emerge to breed months too soon will not be successful. And as I’m learning from Bernd Heinrich’s Winter World, some birds and mammals in northern climate zones are so well adapted to feeding in ice and snow they’ve come almost to depend on it. Let’s hope the winter wonderland returns soon enough.