Off-the-wallBy Bob Spiwak

Our viewing screen is 14 feet wide, 6 feet shy of the width of the house. It is comprised of a couple of 4-foot windows flanking a 6-footer amidships. The viewing area looks out over a small pond and climbs up a rocky flank of Grizzly Mountain to a ridge top about 300 feet above us, where visibility ends in a ragged line topped with pine trees here and there, and a broadcast antenna.

From the base of the mountain we have seen eagles, vultures, bears, raccoons, cougar tracks, whitetail and mule deer, rattlesnakes, bull snakes and garter snakes when we ventured into the 100 yards or so to the bottom where the irrigation ditch used to flow. These were mainly summertime attractions.

With winter upon us, and the hummingbirds gone, fun time arrives as the smaller creatures gather at a half-dozen feeding stations. As the snows deepen and bury natural forage, the populations of birds and mammals increases.

With the coming of this dry Dec. 1, it is more like a “shoulder season” for the wildlife. Not that any of the critters will refuse a handout.

Our predominant winter birds are chickadees, black-capped and mountain and Steller’s jays. These beautiful dark blue, raucous multi-lingual flyers have a mission that seems to be arguing with squirrels. And this is where the entertainment is at its best, better yet from the comfort of a soft chair in a heated house, with a cup of coffee and perhaps a tot of brandy to sharpen our vision.

There is an annual ritual whereby the avians and the mammals engage in a contest to determine who will get the most sunflower seeds. The squirrels are larger than the birds, and more belligerent, and always endeavor to chase the winged seed robbers away. This works to the birds’ advantage, as they are smarter than the squirrels.

So here’s a squirrel at the seed-filled feeder, filling its mouth with savory sunflower seeds. And here comes a pair of jays to join the feast. One will perch nearby as the other accosts the squirrel. Well, what’s an indignant rodent to do but chase the interloper away? He feints and the bird flaps away.

The squirrel pursues, leaping from the top of the feeder to the willow tree’s overhanging branches where the jay has flown. The feeder now is unguarded and the second jay swoops to the tray in time to grab a bite or several as the squirrel, chattering madly, abandons his chase, races to the feeder and the cycle begins anew. Squirrels never seem to learn.

There are other types of wild kingdom entertainments. Recently there was a hilarious event we’ve not seen before.

Two weeks ago the pond iced overnight. We have been feeding wild ducks since last spring. They come daily in large and small groups. On that day, there was a layer of slushy snow on the ice. Sitting at the computer, I watched three mallards making their usual approach. As they made contact, they became aware that there was no water. Their wings dropped, almost in chorus-girl unison, the legs extended, feet vertical as they touched the surface and skidded 15 to 20 feet through the slush, leaving landing strip trails. They made quite an impression. Now, about 10 days later, the trails are still engraved in the pond ice.

Just a couple of examples of the fun and games that continue through the winter beyond the big screen. There’s always something new. It sure beats the hell out of daytime television.