When is a road not a road? When it’s a winter wonderland

Wednesday, January 24, 2018 6:19PM

The group paused. Eric's good ears had detected faint birdsong and he directed our attention to a trailside spruce.

Must be kinglets, sprites of high-elevation conifers.

And yes, a few small shadowy shapes moved in the dark spruce density but Eric had heard a brown creeper.

Golden-crowned kinglets rarely slow down enough to give a viewer satisfaction, but not so brown creepers.

A small avian hunchback worked its way up the spruce, tight to trunk bark, and in view of our small group.

You could go through life not knowing brown creepers exist.

A great example of niche adaptation, they seldom leave their bark world, hitching up and around a tree trunk, probing for insects, then flying to the base of a neighboring tree to begin the rising, circling routine again.

Their mottled brown backs look like bark. Given their camouflage coloring, they freeze in place when sensing danger, hunkering down, minimizing an already modest profile.

Only during courtship do they venture forth — but not far — displaying light undersides in rising circular flight. Rising and circular seem to be an inbred tendency.

They glean bark with a delicate bill that brings a dentist's probe to mind. Long, thin and curved, it probes crevices for insect larvae, and spiders and their eggs, mostly.

When I mentioned a dental probe, Susan said "Thanks for sharing that."

Creepers build their hammock-like nests under loose bark — of course. Challenging construction can take over a month.

When we moved on, Susan pointed to a decaying spruce at trail edge with bark separating from the trunk. We agreed it might host creepers.

Interest in these small forest beings had been sparked.

Winter birds often hang out in small mixed groups. One of the creepers' fellow travelers flew across the trail to land high in a tall spruce laden with cones.

It had to be one of the kinglets. Creepers don't fly to tree tops.

Kinglets forage for the same food as creepers, but not as competitors as they forage conifer branches, not bark.

As I often say, nature has figured things out over the eons. We humans are a newer species. A work in progress. I hope.

Golden-crowned kinglets aren't much bigger than hummingbirds, yet some stay north, surviving cold and ice.

How an insect eating, high metabolism, tiny bird survives is one of many puzzles Bernd Heinrich explores in his book "Winter World."

I saw the book displayed on the front desk at the Toadstool a while back. A timely display.

It is a perfect read for the depths of winter, especially for anyone struggling to feel positive about winter.

Heinrich thrives in winter and is a compelling storyteller—about kinglets and so much more that can stir our sense of wonder and appreciation.

I've used the word "trail" to describe the setting for our outing last Saturday.

It was a Harris Center field trip, a hike up the Pack Monadnock summit road at Miller State Park. More than a road, it's a very popular hiking trail.

Our pause to appreciate kinglets and creepers 15 feet away is one reason why: easy access to the natural world.

We passed from lower deciduous forest up into high elevation spruce, two worlds with different flora and fauna.

Secure footing on pavement allows full attention to both, plants and animals; to cliffs laid bare by the glacier's passing; to vistas out to Mount Monadnock and Boston on opposite horizons.

Some climb alone while others hike with pals, side by side and social.

The road is gated over half the year when the park kiosk closes. In winter it becomes a river of snow meandering up the mountain. In fall it's a river of fallen leaves.

Hard to beat.

I suspect you've heard by now of a plan to run poles and cables along the upper half of the roadway. State agencies and Eversource didn't know the road was a trail.

To their credit, the utility upgrade was halted to allow time for alternatives to a roadway power line to be considered—a process ongoing.

David Baum and I, co-leaders of the Harris Center hike, are part of a group actively encouraging that process.

As part of our outreach, we corralled roadway trail lovers for a group photo on Saturday to communicate support for keeping the road free of utility poles and cables. Over 100 gathered for an exuberant cheer for the trail. To see the photo that captures that spirit, do an Internet search for "Facebook Pack Monadnock Road Alliance."

To put another smile on your face, scroll down the Facebook page and click on a video made of that day by Alliance member Katrina Lewers's daughter Lauren.

Or simply go directly to <vimeo.com/252047934>.

It just might make your day.

If inspired to walk the river of snow (hoping it persists), put on your ice grippers and head out. when you reach the first roadside spruce, listen hard for a single "see" notes of brown creepers, or similar triple notes of golden-crowned kinglets.

Just another treat along the way.