This is the time of year when I find myself much more aware of what’s happening in my immediate surroundings. When trees shed their leaves and snow covers the ground, wildlife is easier to spot, and if you look closely, all sorts of bird and animal prints mark the snow.
When I look out my window, I see my neighbor’s angus cattle, cows with their calves born this fall, scattered across the large pasture to the southwest. The rancher has come with hay to feed the hungry herd. The cows and calves, indistinct like black specters in the mist, follow behind his tractor hauling hay. Every once in a while, I’ll catch a glimpe of a ghostly shape gliding among the cattle — a coyote — now you see me, now you don’t.
I head toward the barn to feed the horses, their soft whickers announcing how much they appreciate me, but much more, the food I bring. The dogs cruise out and about, picking up enticing coyote scent and occasionally disappearing down by the ditch to check out a deer carcass. They clued me in when they brought home a deer leg and puked up wads of deer hair.
Red tail hawks glide overhead along with pairs of ravens, intent on raven business. I attempt to imitate their calls without success; they ignore me. Both these birds benefit from what happens in the cow pasture, from discharged placentas to the occasional dead calf. They also snack on the deer carcass in the empty irrigation ditch, the ditch where water once flowed and cottonwoods and wildlife flourished before it was piped. Further away, I hear the distinct chortle of a pair of bald eagles in a cottonwood snag.
Chipping and hooting, a covey of valley (California) quail scurry past me. These non-native birds, introduced to eastern Washington over 60 years ago, have prospered here in the Methow Valley, thanks in part to being fed by us or freeloading from the chicken coop. I must confess, I do throw cracked corn out to them because they’re entertaining, marching along in formation like a military unit as the general, the cock sporting his jaunty plume, scouts out the terrain. They pop up from the rough when they think the coast is clear, but if anything alarms them, they about face and scurry back to safety. As a last resort they’ll fly, simultaneously launching upwards with a loud flutter of wings.
Meep-meep-meep, a magpie sails past me. The magpie is ubiquitous all year round, talkative and canny, a beautiful corvid characterized by iridescent blue-black feathers and a long-tailed-looping flight. We have two magpie nests on our property, and one summer several magpie fledglings drowned in our horses’ water trough until I installed a little ramp. On another occasion, my dog brought me a magpie fledging, unhurt, that I contained and fed in a fish tote until it was ready to fly away. Along with the northern flickers, the magpies are often at the suet feeder during the winter.
Mule deer are regular visitors, not quite as tame as Twisp and Winthrop town deer, but close. Last winter with the heavy snowpack and sub-zero temperatures, they often shared the hay tossed down for the horses. Mostly, they’re the bane of our newly planted trees, chewing down limbs or stripping the bark off any tree that doesn’t have a cage around it.
Being intimate with the natural world surrounding me, rather than the hardscape of the city, is one of my favorite things about rural life. It’s soothing, ever-changing or predictably the same, entertaining, and educational — and its free.