The sun’s intensity is overwhelming, amplified by the reflections from the heavy snowpack on the surrounding steep ridges. I had forgotten how luxurious the sun’s caress could feel, and settle into my “spot” overlooking a deep, open valley. It’s late February, and the sun’s relative position is now high enough to bring its warmth, absent for months, to the valley bottom. Seven turkeys are in the bottom busily scratching and pecking in the snow. With my spotting scope, I verify they are all jakes, or young males. I see movement at the tree line. It’s a fox squirrel. He hesitates at the edge of the woody cover, perhaps wondering if it’s safe to expose himself. Choose wisely little buddy, I think, there are likely many predators watching.
Holed up for weeks waiting out repeated artic blasts, and maybe sensing an easy opportunity for finding a food tidbit in the turkeys’ scratchings, the squirrel chooses food over safety. It bullets out of the wood line crossing an expanse of open snow and joins the turkeys. Moments later, six more squirrels (two fox and four grays) bolt across the open snow and join the turkeys.
It’s an interesting and comical scene, a procession of seven turkeys scratching through the snow loosely followed by seven squirrels darting back and forth behind them. Occasionally, a squirrel gets too close and a turkey chases it away. The turkeys systematically work their way farther from the tree line, leading the squirrels into almost certain danger. I wonder if the intoxicating warmth of the sun and the chance of easy food has clouded the judgment of the squirrels. One of these guys is not going to make it back, I think.
In my mind, I flip through the various predator species I know are in the area. Which one will it be? The squirrels have the turkeys’ keen senses to their advantage. Any predator approaching on foot will most certainly be detected by the turkeys, giving time for the squirrels to reach the safety of the distant trees. No, it’s going to be an aerial predator, most likely a red-tailed hawk. There’s a breeding pair that frequents this valley. The turkeys will ignore the hawk as it poses no threat to them, leaving the squirrels to rely on their own defenses.
I pan the spotting scope across the surrounding wooded ridges, looking for any sign of the resident hawks. Nothing. Meanwhile, down in the bottom, one of the squirrels has fallen behind the procession, occupied with excavating something out of the snow. Opportunity, I think, it’s going to happen soon.
Sure enough, I see movement out of my peripheral vison. It’s one of the hawks, and he’s swooping down fast towards the squirrel. The hawk’s position is perfect, with no chance of his shadow cast announcing an early warning. I tense up, uncertain if I’m playing the role of the squirrel, hawk or spectator in this encounter about to unfold.
The hawk slows his momentum, climbs in elevation, and lazily circles over the turkeys and squirrels before heading off. What? I think. Why did the hawk abort? It seemed like a sure thing. I grab the spotting scope and pan from turkey to turkey and squirrel to squirrel. I can’t discern alarm signs in any of them. I pull my eyes away from the scope, and scan across the entire valley and adjacent ridges. Still nothing. Back to the scope, I pan around the turkeys and squirrels looking for some clue. I spot a large shed whitetail deer antler, dial the scope’s magnification up to 60x, and try to figure which buck it belonged to.
I leave the antler and widen the scope’s field of view. Suddenly, I become aware that I don’t see any squirrels or turkeys. I look up from the scope and catch sight of a fleeing turkey entering the woody cover with a mature bald eagle right behind it. The eagle pulls up, breaking its pursuit at the tree line and quickly flies off out of sight.
I can’t believe it, I think. Distracted by an antler and I missed the movie’s climax. Instead, all I got to see was the film’s two-second trailer.
It’s now clear whose judgment was affected by the sun’s intoxicating warmth!