As winter settles in around us I really regret having to abandon our ritual of long, evening sits out on our deck and the necessary nighttime (and daytime) closings of the windows of our house. These actions, which are absolutely necessary considering we live in a site with a real winter, seal us off from all of noises and all of the wonders of the nighttime ecosystem around us.
Late last December I took my dog, Izzy, out for a post-dinner stroll around the yard. It was about 7 pm and it was a fairly mild, clear evening with an almost full moon. While we were out I heard a familiar “Who … Who” call of a great horned owl coming from the tall blue spruce tree in the front of my house. I took the dog in and gathered up my family (everyone was home for Christmas) so they could come and listen. The “who’s” were still coming loud and regular, and we angled ourselves relative to the spruce tree so that we could see the silhouette of the calling owl against the moon-lit sky. Then, we heard another great horned owl up in the bare poplar trees far across the street answering the first! We went in for the binoculars and found the second owl perched up on one of high, bare branches. The four of us (Deborah, my daughter Marian and my son Joe and I) stood out there for nearly an hour listening to the “conversation” between these two owls.
Great horned owls mate in the winter, and I assume that these were a potential mating pair working out the details of a closer encounter (after all of these noisy people went away!).
We also have eastern screech owls around my house. We usually hear them in the summer and in the fall. It is unlikely that they would be calling on the same night as the great horned owls since screech owls could be prey for the much larger great horned owls. The screech owl’s call is a very distinctive, extended trilling song that has a number of variations and functional adaptations. Screech owls also have sharp, barking-like calls that they use when they are disturbed or upset, and harsher, descending “whinnies” that they use to mark their territories. You seldom see screech owls although they are very common and are very tolerant of people. Their camouflage is excellent and they spend most of the daylight hours well concealed in their tree holes or wedged up against the concealing bark of a tree. Their calls, though, fill the night almost all year round.
The transition of summer to fall for me is marked by the change of insect night sounds. The late summer cicadas give way to the chorus of crickets that chirp away throughout the night. I never seem to notice, though, exactly when the crickets stop chirping. Winter shuts them down probably around the same time as it drives us in from our deck and forces us to close up our windows.
Last night right before bedtime, I took Izzy out front to get her to urinate one more time before bed. Our front yard, especially at the edge of the road, is a highway for all of the neighborhood dogs and cats (not to mention any passing raccoon, possum or skunk), and their scents almost always stimulate Izzy to add some of her own urine to the communication mixture. Last night, though, a young buck was out in the yard munching on the remains of the day’s sunflower seeds in my bird feeder, and he was reluctant to give up his nighttime snack. The buck retreated across the street and repeatedly snorted at me, telling me to go back inside. He refused to run away (the deer have become very familiar with me and, often, they won’t even run if Izzy makes a dash toward them (she never gets very close, though. She recognizes the very large size difference!)). The buck continued to snort at me and I ended up taking Izzy out into the fenced side yard (where, by the way, she refused to pee).
One night this fall we heard a scream that seemed to be coming from our orchard just outside of our side fence. It was a blood curdling sound that gave me the chills and made Izzy crawl into a corner of the living room. I went out on the deck with a flashlight and heard the scream a few more times, but I could not see the source. From the sound, though, I was pretty sure that it was a red fox. I just wasn’t sure why it (and I am pretty sure that “it” was a “she”) was screaming. Red foxes (especially the vixens) make astonishing noises during mating (but that occurs in the spring) or when they are being attacked or under severe distress. I wasn’t sure if there was a territorial dispute going on among our foxes (we have seen them running across our field at dusk) or if something like a coyote (we have seen a few of these nearby, too) was threatening it. After a few minutes the screaming stopped, and checking the area the next morning I could find no evidence of any serious altercations. Maybe the screaming worked?
Raccoons are terribly impressive animals. I have seen raccoons stare down a 90 pound lab who was an absolute killing machine when it came to animals like woodchucks. Even the lab, though, recognized that raccoons were not something to mess with. Raccoons are nocturnal foragers looking for almost anything from spilled bird seed to grubs and worms to garbage to fill them up. Raccoons are also, apparently, a bit antagonistic with each other especially if food or living space is in short supply. We hear tussling raccoons especially in late summer when the rapidly growing kits have become increasingly independent and self-sustaining. We hear this a lot in August!
Finally, a soft quiet incredibly welcome sound of Spring: the spring peepers! A nice way to start Signs of Winter, thinking about the Spring that is not too far away!