As a difficult and challenging year winds down and the pandemic shows new surges, I find much comfort observing nature. The transition from late fall into winter to me represents more of a beginning than an end. Small daily and nightly events take on major significance for me this year. Trees in our woods create their own slow adagio in autumnal symphony, as brown and gray trunks harmonize with the gray-green lichens on their bark. Freshly fallen oak leaves permeate the air with their tannic acid smell even as acorns sprout in the dark soil underneath them. Witch hazel has lost its leaves too. And now its nut-like capsules pop open and shoot out their black seeds, while its bright yellow blossoms light up the woods like miniature fireworks.
A late-flying, solitary bat flies in circles over the paddock, its wings lit by the sinking sun. This might be its last meal of flying insects until it awakens from hibernation next spring. Many folks might envy a bat, wishing they could sleep through the winter to avoid the resurgent pandemic and feelings of isolation and despair. Instead, this bat represents a victory to me. Our bats have suffered through their own epidemic, a fungal disease. This bat made it through. A white-tailed buck with bone-colored antlers slips cautiously through the brown woods along our stream buffer. His frantic days of doe-chasing and avoiding hunters are coming to an end. He’s likely to bed down in a nearby thicket and come out to feed tonight, regaining his weight and composure. Around him, groups of robins fly through the woods. Attracted to the nearby spring, they call excitedly. I even hear brief bits of their spring song.
At night we hear a male fox’s double bark from the front yard. Foxes become vocal this time of year, as they stake out territories and pair off. Next day I arrive home to see him standing in the paddock next to the barn door. He lifts his head to give the same bark. As he turns around to leave, his magnificent, white-tipped tail follows him though the woven wire fence and into the woods beyond.
At dusk, a pair of great horned owls call to each other from along the creek. His hoots are pitched lower, even though she is bigger than he is. They are courting each other now and will likely lay their first egg in late January.
The live nest camera at the National Conservation Training Center reveals the eagles have started repairing their old nest for the new season. Fresh straw has been brought to the nest and a few new sticks line the edges. No eagle appears but a pair of ravens pass overhead, flying close together with synchronized wing beats. They perform a barrel roll as if in tandem, matching wingbeats stroke by stroke. Like the bald eagles, ravens will soon begin their nesting season.
As the sand in the hourglass of 2020 runs out, I see and hear promises of new beginnings. Nature’s message is “carry on!”
Doug Pifer is an artist, naturalist, and writer. He has a Master’s Degree in Journalism from Penn State and has been an editor and art educator. His illustrations have appeared in various books and magazines and he has been a contributor to The Observer for several years. He lives with his wife and assorted animals on 5.7 acres in a historic farmhouse near Shepherdstown.By Doug Pifer