I am standing alone next to the lodge where last September, in the final crepuscular moments of a long summer, I crouched in silence watching a beaver slip out of the water to begin his nightly forage.
This morning, as American robins hop around the ice that still covers most of the pond, I wonder if the residents of this stick-built home have emerged from their winter hiding. It is certainly time, but I have seen no fresh wood chips, no whittled stumps around the bog this spring. The only mammalian life I have encountered on the beaver pond since the ice began to retreat, was a lone river otter using the pond as a thoroughfare a couple weeks ago.
As I survey the pond, a dark sooty fox sparrow—my first of the season—calls from a nearby branch, then poses for the camera. Soon, his short, sweet fluty song will fill the woods. Oh to be a female fox sparrow in spring, wooed by such a charmer! How could any resist his brief beckoning bursts: 𝘊𝘩𝘪𝘱, 𝘊𝘩𝘪𝘱, 𝘸𝘩𝘪𝘴𝘵𝘭𝘦, 𝘵𝘳𝘪𝘭𝘭… 𝘊𝘩𝘪𝘱, 𝘸𝘩𝘪𝘴𝘵𝘭𝘦, 𝘤𝘩𝘪𝘱 𝘵𝘳𝘪𝘭𝘭… always ending in a soft, fading trill that hangs in the ear, leaving one wanting more.Beyond the sparrow, a white blur disappears beneath the boardwalk. I kneel and scan for more movement. From the nearest corner, a dainty pink nose emerges then retreats. In a flash, it is at the other side of the walk. A furry, whiskered periscope bearing black eyes and erect, white-tinged ears, rises and falls.
No sooner is it back under, than it emerges fifteen feet away, at the far end of the wooden span, where it slinks into the light, pausing atop a thick spruce root. It’s long, slender body is almost finished molting. No longer bearing the solid white that has camouflaged it successfully through winter, the tiny short-tailed weasel is now dressed for spring, sporting a dashing fawn top stripe fading to white flanks and belly, and trailing a bushy, brindle tail, tipped in black. Over the next few weeks, that top stripe will bleed down its flanks, and the brindled tail will fill in until only its belly is still white. Thus it will remain until fall, when the white will return and begin the cycle anew.In no mood to be exposed, the weasel takes one look then bounds down the trail. Five elongated leaps carries it twenty feet. A final bound sends it nose first into a tangle of beaver-cut branches.
Short-tailed weasels, also known as ermines, are amazing predators. Around the bog and the neighboring muskeg, these half-pint hunters mostly sniff out voles, but the larger males, weighing in at just over a half pound, are capable of taking down a snowshoe hare six times their weight!
I find a comfortable, out of sight vantage, and wait twenty weasel-free minutes before deciding to continue my walk. A mated pair of mallards watch me nervously from the pond as I rise. The fox sparrow calls from a new perch. Across the trail from the sparrow, a red-breasted sapsucker noisily excavates a nesting cavity.
Around the bend, at the edge of the muskeg, I find a blue rubber glove—the kind every grocery clerk is wearing these days. It is lying on the side of the trail, folded flat. It appears unused. I pick it up and tuck it in my pack.
A few weeks ago such detritus would have left me curious, wondering what happened here. 𝘞𝘢𝘴 𝘵𝘩𝘦𝘳𝘦 𝘢𝘯 𝘢𝘤𝘤𝘪𝘥𝘦𝘯𝘵? 𝘞𝘢𝘴 𝘧𝘪𝘳𝘴𝘵 𝘢𝘪𝘥 𝘥𝘦𝘭𝘪𝘷𝘦𝘳𝘦𝘥? I would have asked. But not today. Today, a rubber glove on the trail serves to remind me that as sparrow and ermine sing and molt their way innocently into spring season, I haven’t the same luxury.
Indeed, I have a very different luxury! I get to rise every morning and walk these trails among so many birds, weasels, and beaver, as they complete migrations, sing songs, court, mate, build nests, hunt, forage, raise young, and dispute territories, reminding me that we Homo sapiens are but one little cog in a big machine that is capable of functioning just fine with or without a pandemic, and that, perhaps, hunkering down ain’t such a bad thing at all.