Northern Flickers are skittish birds. They don’t sit still for photographers, and the slightest movement, even if apparently out of eyeshot, or a dull noise, will set them flying. I think it has something to do with how they spend their time, and with their focus. Generally, perching birds are already looking about, surveying the landscape from a twig or branch — looking for food, company, or predators. Flickers, though, are woodpeckers (Colaptes auratus). They spend a fair bit of time hammering on trees, though they also hunt insects on the ground, so I’ve come to believe they’ve developed a hair trigger sensitivity to danger. You wouldn’t see a predator coming if you were trunk-facing most of the afternoon, nor if you were kicking up leaves for ants.
All this is prelude to the fact that I’ve had to accept compromises — if the sound of a sliding door will scare them away, or our picture windows opening out to the deck, I’m happy enough to take my photographs through the window. So it was this morning, when a red-shafted male settled on the wire frame of the hanging planter in the snow, poking at the coconut fibers. Now, in other months I’d consider they were after the fibers themselves for nesting, as some other birds are (I’m looking at you, scrub-jays), but that usually doesn’t happen until springtime, and with the flickers, rarely I think, even in their late winter breeding season. No, instead I imagine this bird was after seeds nestled in what is left of the box, now that most of last week’s two-foot snow has drifted off.
If the snow was blown off the railing in the 50mph gusts of the afternoon before, it is still everywhere else, in knee-deep ditches up side streets. Along the dairy road today, the plows have pushed it against split cedar fence posts, and the winds have smoothed it into modernist undulations: slipstreams, and beyond, broad flat expanses where only a few weeks ago the ragged cornfield had been reduced to stubble.
A group of mule deer occupy the middle ground of a hill in the west. On the crest of the same hill, above the pasture, another silhouettes. They seem confused. The rut has wound down, but the group dynamics persist, knots of does and single bucks together, involved in the gravitational pull of each other, browsing and following and pretending to ignore. But the snow has changed everything. A sense of winter survival has crept in, as though with the dance losing energy, a low voice has come over the PA system asking everyone to gather their things. The band will play a slow one. Then if you don’t mind…someone will be coming around to clean between the seats. Time to go home.
To the east, Goat Hill catches the brilliant light that follows a winter storm. The deep terra cotta strata of the uplift are never as clear as when they contrast with bands of snow, like the blood-red and white of Acoma pottery. Geologists know the hill as the Bellvue Dome. At first glance, it seems just a continuation of the Hogback, with the characteristic eastern slope and sheer scarp facing the setting sun. But the gentle arch of the anticline, the eroding course of the Poudre River at its base, where it winds through Pleasant Valley, set it apart. It shares history with the Rocky Mountains themselves, the long series of tectonic shifts that folded and reformed these ranges up through the Laramide orogeny some 60-80 million years ago.
I stop on my walk to help a woman dig out her car from the ditch at the end of a long drive. The afternoon sun has softened the snow, but only for a few hours. We’ve had a heck of a November, she says. All the white stuff. It’s not that it’s early, it’s that there’s so much already, winter still weeks away. I straighten, thrust the shovel into the bank as she climbs back into the sedan to try again.
A kestrel sits on a fan of bare treetop above the cornfield. That much is the same, winter or summer. She hunts the valley relentlessly. It’s the paradox of time. In its endless wheeling, the folding and reforming earth, the seasons coming round again like carousel ponies, the ancient architecture of Goat Hill, the deer in their dancing, this rural idyll will never appear again in quite the same way. And still, a devilish voice tempts us. It might, you know. It might. It might last forever.