As a way to usher in a New Year, I like to rise early to take stock of the world outside.
The first dawn of 2015 found me—bundled in warm clothes—wading through five inches of snow that carpeted Poudre Park white on Christmas.
The mountains surrounding this northern Colorado hamlet were splotched in dawn grays. The air was fresh and frigid. It felt like ice crystals formed in my nostrils with each breath.
The first places I visited were the bird feeders in the front yard. The feeders hang from poles about six feet tall. The morning, though, was still too early for the American goldfinches, mountain chickadees, juncos and other types of birds that come feeding during the warmer parts of the day
The snow under the feeders was packed down and marked by hundreds and hundreds of tiny, needle-thin cross-hatches of tracks left by yesterday’s visitors.
Life and death in the snow
When there is snow on the ground, I shovel away a large patch where I can spread around millet, cracked corn and sunflower seeds favored by doves, Stellar jays and other ground-feeding birds.
This morning—a foot or so away from the cleared patch—there was an impression in the snow about the size of my hand if I spread my fingers wide. The edges around the imprint were fluffy.
It took me a moment to realize this was likely a spot where one of the Great Horned Owls that live in the mountain forests swooped in during the night to capture a mouse. Most likely, the mouse was feeding on the nearby seeds and, sensing danger, tried to escape by scurrying under the snow.
It didn’t work. Great Horned Owls have remarkable hearing. Ornithologists say the owls can hear a mouse moving around under a foot of snow.
Our backyard is edged by the Poudre River. The stream is largely frozen over, save for a narrow channel. Farther down the river, as well as up the river a ways, the Poudre freezes over completely. This creates a mass of ice that can be traversed to get from one shore to the other.
For the last couple of years, a bobcat has lived in a den somewhere among the trees and rocky crags of the huge mountain on the far side of the river. Local residents have spotted the cat strolling along the ice-covered shores in the early mornings. Others have heard it screech in the night. I’ve never seen or heard it.
This morning, however, it was clear the bobcat came visiting in the night.
The tracks are easy to identify in the snow. A bobcat’s hind legs sink into the snow and make what looks to be a small handle at the back of the print.
The tracks came down along the river bank and turned up into the backyard. They went straight to an old sawed-off tree stump that’s about a foot tall.
There, the bobcat hopped up on the stump for, I imagine, a better view of the night terrain.
It had been a clear, starry night. The moon is in what’s called the Waxing Gibbous phase. The word Gibbous dates back to the 14th century and is Latin for humpbacked.
In this phase, on the first night of 2015, the moon was more than 80 percent illuminated, but it wasn’t yet a full moon.
For a bobcat, it meant good moonlight for spotting the next meal or identifying lurking dangers.
I wondered: Did the bobcat just pause for a moment on the stump? Or did it stand there for a while contemplating the world, the same as I was doing as the morning light grew brighter?