The afternoon is cloudy and cool with temperatures in the 40s and a light breeze; good conditions for walking the autumn woods. The trail that I walk goes by ponds and swamps and then through woods. It continues along to the edge of a lake.

Nearly all the deciduous trees are devoid of leaves, but I do see some yellow aspens and willows. Among the shrubs are raspberry, blackberry, blueberry and rose; all hold red leaves. A few red oaks, sugar maples and ironwoods have brown leaves.

But the conifers in this mixed forest stand out as being mostly green. In the swamp, tamaracks are putting on their yellow-gold show before dropping their needles.

I see plenty of wildlife preparing for the coming cold. Deer and squirrels scatter into the woods as I pass by. A beaver works on its lodge and cache, dealing with the impending chill. I also see a chipmunk as it gathers food for its winter den. Though sleeping much of the cold season, they keep a food stash for their waking times.

Movement in the forest floor leaves reveals a garter snake on its way to a winter hibernaculum. Some late-season moths (linden loopers) cling to tree bark. No hibernation for them; this is their active time of breeding. But it is the birds that I especially take note of.

Many of the obvious sights are those that continue to be active and spend winter with us. I see chickadees and nuthatches along with woodpeckers. I watch as a large pileated woodpecker feeds on crab apples. The local crows and ravens are loud with their blue jay cousins. The jays are in a flock and are likely migrants.

Also flocking are robins that are feeding and resting before moving on. Other groups of migrants include sparrows — mostly white-throated, mixed with some juncos.

Not in flocks are more birds southing. A tiny winter wren explores among the downed logs while a hermit thrush silently moves through the branches. I do not see any warblers as I did last week, but I do watch another group of diminutive birds.

Looking closer, I see ruby-crowned kinglets actively and nervously feeding. A wood duck on a pond, tells me that some water birds are here, too. But it is the discovery at the lake that makes me stop and take a closer look.

As I approach this larger body of water, I hear a sound that is almost like that of waves hitting the shore. Not enough wind for waves, I examine this scene and find that a flock (also called a "raft") of coots are active here.

Coots are regular migrants — some years very common. They are black with a pointed white bill and a little white on the tail. These chubby birds, about 15 inches long, are usually seen in water.

Observing them in this aquatic site may make us think that they are ducks. Instead, coots are a kind of rail. Unlike other rails, they frequently swim. This is done even though they do not have webbed feet. Instead, they use pads on their toes. They are at home in water and on shore.

Watching coots walking on land, we can see why another name for them is "mud hen." Not as strong fliers as ducks, they tend to stay more in wet shelters than fly.

What I observed was a flock of these dark birds taking shelter at the edge as I came by. With the waters getting colder, they will also be migrating south in coming weeks.

Larry Weber
Larry Weber