Thaws and feathered fisherman


By James McGuire

Contributing columnist

January is winding down, presenting its valedictory hurrah before passing into history—the final few days of the first month that kicked off our brand new year.

Meanwhile, February awaits, eager to get going and perhaps—since this is a leap year, which gives the month an added day—plans to show off with an extra bonus of lingering stamina.

It has recently been bitter cold with a bit of snow. Car batteries died, water lines froze, and a trip to the grocery was akin to an arctic expedition.

I burned through my woodpile at twice the usual rate.

But we’re now into that interim mild spell long recognized as the January Thaw. As usual, this moderate interlude begs the question: was the previous blast of bone-numbing cold the harshest weather winter is going to throw at us this time around? Or is winter simply taking a short breather, gathering its forces, before making a new, even worse, onslaught?

I suppose we can wait for the groundhog’s upcoming prognostication—though I have little faith in a sulky, semi-somnolent rodent’s divination. Nor do I trust my own capabilities at soothsaying.

Ohio’s winter weather is too fickle. Sure, as a lifelong Buckeye, I’ve always paid decidedly close attention to seasons and weather patterns—and would like to think I’m smarter than a woodchuck.

But I’ve been fooled way more often than I got it right when it comes to accurate predictions regarding January Thaws and their aftermath.

Decades of experience is worth less than you might imagine. While January Thaws are certainly a welcome remission, only the weather gods know whether they will prove permanent or temporary. And only time will eventually provide an answer.

I’ve lately been spending more hours than I’d care to admit watching a certain kingfisher work the pool directly in front of the cottage.

Kingfishers are quite common here along the river. Throughout the seasons—and to a great degree regardless of water conditions—chances are there’s apt to be a kingfisher around, perched on a lower limb overhanging the water somewhere upstream or down.

I see them practically every day. And often, the moment I step outside, I’ll startle one nearby—which instantly prompts a loud indignant rattle-call reaction as the indignant bird flies off.

Belted kingfishers, as they’re listed in the bird books, are ambush predators. They live and hunt along the edges of creeks and rivers, lakes and ponds. Mostly they eat minnows and small fish, but during the warmer months, they’re not opposed to dining on a frog, crawfish, bug, or small reptile. However, come winter, a kingfisher’s sustaining fare is almost exclusively minnows and small fish, since alternate foods simply aren’t available.

Winter is a difficult hunting time. Staying alive means the birds must regularly secure an adequate supply of food.

A lot of the field guides say kingfishers only hunt “unclouded” or nearly clear water. Which sounds logical. You’ve got to first see a potential prey before you can dive on it and try to nab it for a meal. But in practice, on multiple occasions, I’ve watched kingfishers successfully hunt my homestretch pool when the water was high and muddy, the color and opacity of heavily creamed coffee.

What they’re doing, of course, is watching for some hapless minnow the swirling under- currents have providentially washed up to the surface. Or spotting a fluttering minnow that has inadvertently beached itself momentarily along a shallow backwater edge.

Winter serves up more days when the water is high and discolored than you might guess. Both rains plus melting ice and snow can quickly raise and roil the stream—so optimum clarity isn’t always the case.

Too, there’s winter’s sheathing ice! Often there’s an ice shelf 30 feet wide bordering each side of the Cottage Pool, with a 20-foot lane of open water flowing down the middle between these two snow-covered barriers. Upstream, the band of open water is often even narrower.

The extended limb where the kingfisher I’ve been watching sits to spot and waylay prey overlooks a small moving “window” of open water.

Finally, in addition to the ice and sometimes opaque water, there’s the cold itself. Single-digit temperatures are brutal on wildlife. For a little bird dressed in a thin cloak of blue feathers, failing to consume sufficient daily calories will quickly prove fatal.

But my Cottage Pool kingfisher is a hard worker—a tireless, patient hunter willing to keep at it for hours, making dive after dive into the icy flow. Pretty often he returns to his perch clutching a fish in his vise-grip beak. He then gives the wiggling minnow a couple of coup de grâce whacks before gulping it down.

As a fellow angler, I truly admire the plucky bird’s skills and staunch fortitude. It takes a fisherman to appreciate a fisherman. I’m just thankful I don’t have to endure ice-water baptisms to eat!

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