Last night the temperature dropped to seventeen degrees. Some time between the ball drop in Times Square and the sunrise over the Wilson Prairie, an arctic blast swept across the prairie, freezing everything from the ponds and stock tanks to the pipes in my wellhouse. Needless to say, this first day of 2018 saw me running to the hardware store to try to improve the insulation over the well pump with more heat tape, foam fittings, a heat pad, and an incandescent bulb. After all that business was over and done, I needed a reason to appreciate the wintry conditions, so Zev and I went for a brief walk onto some property we have access to a few miles from the house. There is a particular pond here, located not too far from the fenceline, loaded with smallmouth bass, catfish and sunfish, not to mention bullfrogs, water snakes, and sliders. But with the mercury still poised at 25 degrees in spite of the blinding afternoon sun, there was little chance of seeing any of the aforementioned residents today. What we did see were birds. A loggerhead shrike flitted between the blackjacks. House sparrows hopped noisily in the fallen leaves. A northern mockingbird watched us from the drooping outer branches of a mesquite tree, its normally ever-changing tune stilled inside it. A male American kestrel, its feathers aruffle, surveyed the prairie below its perch for something small enough to capture. In a the lowest branch of an elm, a redtail hawk watched a fox squirrel for a lapse in judgment.
We walked across an open clearing, where a pair of killdeer piped their shrill alarms as they raced across the open ground on thin legs. Mourning doves pecked and scratched nearby, but took to wing in their sudden, explosive flight upon sensing our approach. We passed under the rusty barbed wire fence, then walked the twenty yards south through a healthy section of little bluestem-dominant prairie to the pond. Upon first sight the scene appeared still and lifeless, a thick sheet of ice spread across the surface of the water, with the crooked black silhouettes of post oaks reflected as rippled shadows. The muted forms of submerged roots and deadfall shown opaquely from the murky brown depths, their outlines broken by sunlight reflecting off the ice in blinding patches.
We broke through the dense stands of sugarberry that line the water’s edge, their leafless branches spotted here and there by the parasitic evergreen mistletoe. This plant, more widely known as a holiday invitation to kiss beneath, holds no such amorous intentions with the trees it uses as a host. The scientific genus name, Phoradendron, means ‘tree thief’, an befitting title for the mistletoe, which attaches itself to a tree and sends rootlike structures into the branches, which it uses to vamp up water and nutrients. While too much mistletoe can be a detriment to trees, its presence in an ecosystem is generally a healthy one, as its berries provide food for a variety of songbirds. The ovaline, waxy leaves also make choice nesting sites for these same birds, as well as food for the great purple hairstreak butterfly, a magnificently colored metallic species whose lime-green oddly wedge-shaped larvae feed exclusively on the plant.
As we broke through the thicket, a blue-grey gnatcatcher darted in front of us. While not an uncommon bird, it is a seasonal visitor seen most often in summer here in the cross timbers. In spite of the avian diversity we were experiencing the air was devoid of birdsong, so I relied on the white-edged retrice feathers to identify this nervous species.
As we approached the bank a great blue heron took flight with a hushed whoosh of its five foot wingspan. It must have been trying to figure out a way to go ice-fishing, although if so I doubt it was having much success, as the ice along the pond’s edge was thick enough to support my weight.
Zev was enthralled with the icy pond, and took to casting rocks and branches across the surface. With little friction and no external force acting against them, they skated all the way to the other side. Uphill from the pond’s eastern bank a dense patch of greenbrier provided the only meager bit of verdancy to the frozen scape of browns and greys. The pallid, sea green vines, their thorns rigid and sharp, complimented the few cordate mottled leaves that remained. Shiny clusters of the greenbrier’s characteristic black berries hung from them.
Further out in the field a group of ashe junipers grew, their branches loaded so thickly with their own powder-blue fruit that the trees appeared solid blue from a distance. All these fruiting winter evergreen species would explain the diversity of bird life we were seeing. As we watched a northern cardinal’s bright red plumage dropped down from one of the junipers and landed in the path at trailside. I pointed it out to Zev.
“It’s a male”, he added, which opened the door to the topic of sexual dimorphism in the animal kingdom. After giving him the definition of the word I asked if he could think of any other examples besides cardinals.
“Cowbirds”, he said, “and cattle egrets.”
“That’s right”, I said, impressed with his quick response.
“Monarch butterflies”, I said, referring to the characteristic black spot of androconial scales on the hindwings of the males.
“Lizards”, Zev came back with.
“What about rattlesnakes?”, I quizzed him.
“You can tell the difference in their tails”, he replied. “Praying mantis”…
Our conversation continued as we crossed back under the fence and headed down the trail toward the gate. As we walked, a small flock of eastern meadowlarks passed overhead on swift wings. Behind us the icy pond and bare sentinel oaks and lively junipers stood as if transfixed in time, a world entombed in the grip of winter.