Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

January 10, 2014

Picture a Polar Vortex

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 10:29 am

First came the snow – lots of it. This was followed by blasts of fierce arctic wind and temperatures plunging into the negative double digit range. The weather folk called it a Polar Vortex and gave us a terrifying term to replace what would normally be called a “cold snap.” Partly as a victim of cabin fever and partly because of guilt for having it, I was strangely drawn to document some of this and prowled around the county seeking scenes of stark whiteness, crisp blueness, misty ice fogginess, and animal toughness. I was not disappointed on any front.

I here present some of my results in the form of an annotated photo essay. Let’s just call these “Cold Snaps” and chuckle softly to ourselves at the extreme cleverness of that title. O.K., at least allow me to chuckle softly at my delusional fever-driven cleverness incited by extreme conditions.

There is something visually beautiful about wild winter weather. The storm rolled in like a freight train and blanketed the county with a thick layer of snow. Just down the road, the winds blew so hard across the fields that even the roadside telephone poles had to submit to their ferocity. Never mind that the pole in the second shot had been leaning northward for years.


South of town, the waters of the quarry refused to freeze over when the arctic blast followed on the heels of the snow. Boiling like a frigid kettle of dry ice, the relatively warm waters generated an ice fog which coated everything with sparkling crystals. It was minus 8 degrees when I took this snap.

Although most of the river was frozen over, fast open stretches of the Raisin joined forces with the quarry waters and resisted the freeze. Ice fogs made for some stunning sunrise views when the shoreline Cottonwoods cast their shadows on the ghostly veil. Canada Geese dealt with the situation by bundling together, tucking their heads deep into their back feathers, and waiting out the stark cold nights.


A lone Bald Eagle surveyed the scene from the south side of the smoky river. She is one of several that make the rounds.  About the only thing that restricts the distribution of winter eagles is the presence of open water. As fishers and duck hunters they will congregate wherever their prey can be found and captured. Based on the dirty white head and eye stripe, she has seen 3 winters and is now engaged in her fourth (clothed in the so-called Basic III plumage of a 3 ½ year old).  Is she a she? Well, I really don’t know but am 50% sure. It’s a shame to call such a majestic bird an “it.”

The bright red butt of a House Finch added a dash of welcome color in the Arctic landscape. Puffed up against the elements, this bird was waiting its turn at a birdfeeder. They say that the intensity of the red on a male bird is a by-product of the pigments of the food they obtain just prior to their molt.  The dull colored females deliberately select the brightest males as their mates. From the looks of it, this House Finch will have to beat back the chicks with a stick (if, that it, he survives until Spring).

Across the road from the finches, a flock of Tree Sparrows gleaned seeds from the field plants lining the farm field. I believe the temperature at the time was around minus 2, but I doubt they noticed. Tree sparrows are Arctic visitors who nest in the Tundra regions of the high north. They over-winter in the balmy setting of the winter Midwest and make their living in the weedy fields and around the domestic bird feeders of the suburbs. Although sparrows as a group can be hard to identify, the dark breast spot, rusty crown and eye stripe, and bi-colored bill are definitive Tree sparrow traits.


I end my photo safari where I began with the squirrels of my back yard. My previous blog dwelled upon this subject and ended with some thoughts on the Red Squirrel. In short, you’ll recall that the Fox Squirrels have been braving the weather and eating all of the Red Squirrel’s carefully stored nuts. The Reds didn’t emerge from hiding until yesterday and – as predicted – they were ticked. One of them, pictured in the second shot, ran wildly from limb to limb creating mini-blizzards as it knocked piles of snow off the branches. It was visibly upset and I shudder to think what it will do if it catches the offending Fox Squirrel (looking rather guilty in the first shot).

The Polar Vortex may be over but the Squirrel Vortex is back.

1 Comment »

  1. […] they are now converging, it seems, as a result of interbreeding. See also Gerald’s photoessay “Picture a Polar Vortex,” which shows the ferocity of the vortex and various creatures “hanging out” in […]

    Pingback by Fieldwork 101: Naturalist defers to Polar Vortex, but Pair of American Black Ducks Carries On « writing as a naturalist — January 21, 2014 @ 6:01 pm

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