If one color predominates West Virginia in early winter it would be gray. The tree trunks, now denuded of all leaves, stand row after row, creating smudgy mass of grayness that covers the land. Out of this smudgy mass, deer and squirrels materialize like apparitions, shifting into existence, then fading back into the gray.
I’ve come deep into the woods for a bit of winter squirrel hunting. Hunting squirrels in winter, when the autumn mast has mostly fallen and been buried by nimble paws, is a bit of a challenge. The bare trees leave them exposed to hawk eyes, so they spend as little time exposed on the ground or in the canopy as possible.
I spot a squirrel flicking its tail as it runs up a tree trunk in the hollow below me. I sneak down to the tree, knowing fully well the squirrel will be aware of my approach. But I also notice that this tree has few limbs sticking out towards other trees. If the squirrel slips onto the other side of the trunk to hide, I know that it will not be able to leave the tree without exposing itself for a few seconds on the ground.
I sit and sit. No squirrel moves upon the tree trunk. I think he’s given me the slip somehow. But I’m still not convinced that he has escape.
I sit in the gloom that surrounds me. A pair of turkey vultures cast around in the sky above me. Ravens croak from the distant ridge. A diminutive downy woodpecker hammers away at a dead oak.
Over my right shoulder, a bit of movement catches my eye. I turn my head to look in that direction, and my eye notices a russet form on the bark of a little beech tree some 10 feet behind me.
It is the size of a mouse but bird shaped. At first, I tell myself that it is nothing but a fallen leaf that has somehow become stuck on the tree. But that little delusion is soon cast aside as the form begins to move.
I recognize it as a Carolina wren. The rusty brown color gives it away from all other wren-like birds in this area, and the elegant white stripe above its eye give it almost aristocratic countenance.
But as moved as I am by its beauty, I know what it coming. Carolina wrens are little tattlers. If they spot a human sitting in the forest, they instantly start buzzing out little churring alarms, and if one wren spots you, it won’t be long before other ones in the area will show up and starting buzzing you as well.
I suppose it took this one about two minutes to realize I was human, but when it did, it started its alarm routine.
And then the trees around me came alive with churrs. This one wren had been traveling in a little flock of five or six birds, which is not unusual during the winter months, and when this one spotted me, its flock joined in the mobbing.
So my squirrel stalk ended. My location was being broadcast every bushy-tailed tree dweller in the hollow, and I backed out of the woods and headed off for a different stand.
A piece of me wanted to curse the birds, but a larger part of me marveled at them. These same wrens nest in my mother’s hanging baskets every summer. They don’t mind the human presence at all then. Only when she takes the basket down to water the flowers does the mother wren go flying out. She makes no alarm calls, and when the basket is restored, she returns to her nest as if nothing happened.
The wrens know that nesting in hanging baskets protects their eggs and chicks from virtually all predators, so they are willing to tolerate the bumbling of humanity all around them.
But in the dead of winter, the mere sight of a human will launch them into mobbing alarm displays.
No one hunts wrens. They are protected by federal law, so they would have no real reason to fear a human wandering the woods.
I suppose they are just so sensitive to predators in those days when the leaves no longer block the sun and occlude the hawk’s vision that they will announce the presence of anything that even remotely looks threatening.
Their tolerance of humanity in summer doesn’t extend to encountering us during their winter foraging.
And I, like any predator busted from his stalking, slink away to try again somewhere else.
*A winter wren is a distinct species of wren that is not the same as the Carolina wren. I am merely being poetic here.