Birds of Nebraska: Newspaper Accounts, 1854-1923

December 4, 1921. Omaha Sunday World-Herald 57(10): 8-W.

December Days Afield Not What They Once Were

By Sandy Griswold.

Shorter grow the days and shorter still grows the time yet remaining for the enjoyment of the sportsmen. The open season on chicken closed weeks ago and on the last day of the present month that on the ducks and geese will follow suit, and this will end all shooting for another long year, during which the birds will be free from molestations at the hands of the hunters and have none but their natural enemies, the hawks and owls, the coyotes and the minks and the cold weather to contend with.

In countless instances, however, I have found that of all days of the year, December days were the ideal days - in the past - for chicken and quail hunters and are still, very often, for the duck and goose hunters. But the wild fowl, scarcer in this region than ever before, have now all gone, save the hardy red-legged mallard and the hardier Canada geese, which still continue to linger along the icy Platte and afford the finest of sport for the sportsman indomitable enough to brave the wintry weather.

In the long ago when we had the quail and the chicken to fill the void left by the departure of the ducks and geese, what glory was there in a day's ramble afield during the month now considered so forlorn and so hopeless.

Where the frowsy willow hedge or windrow runs down to the timber line along the old river's tortuous course, was an indescribably attractive grounds for the hunter in those halcyon times.

Once more I dream that I am there, and the memory thrills me from the hobnailed soles of my shoes to the tasseled top of my corduroy cap. I stop and gaze as one entranced upon the witcheries surrounding me.

The naked hazel buck and sumach bushes stand shorn of all but slender shreds of former leafage, thickly along the slanting hill sides, and it is here that Bob White loves to congregate.

All the bright banners that were flaunting so showily but a few days ago on these hillsides, have disappeared. Tattered and torn and bleached to a sombre brown, they now carpet the ground throughout the silent valley, and down in the lowland swails, where the bright pink of the rose mallow so lately burned, is a tangle of prickly tendrils, faded leaves and drying grass blades. Here the bevy clusters, shielded from the chill winds that sweep in from over the dreary wastes behind us, basking in the thin sunshine and feasting upon the seeds of various weeds so plentifully scattered about.

What a thrill we old hunters used to experience as, after the old pointer or setter had made game, we stepped forward and the birds, with a confusing whir and disconcerting flutter whirled away from amidst the dead stalks. Then they vanished off across the turgid stream behind the dull yellowish curtain made by the fluffy wild cucumber as it clung and drooped from stem and branch, but our heart swelled as we dropped one of those little rosewood beauties before his swift pinions could carry him beyond our reach!

But, alas, we know those thrills no longer, as these royal little tenants of field and copse are protected, undoubtedly by a wise law, from year's end to year's end.

Yet these December days, just like those of inflorescent June and spangled October, have their rare charm, as all the wild universe is beautiful to the lover of nature, and in them the sportsman, in his unbridled enthusiasm, found the finer flavor of his favorite pastime.

Every marking of the gray trunks in the rugged timber of the valley, each cluster of dead fern, every moss patch or weedy crypt, to the delicate filigree of the bare branches and their shifting shadows on the brown baldric of the forest floor, leave a charm as distinctly as the fullness of emerald or frost tinted leafage on its silhouette of shade.

Not a Johnny-jump-up or star-eyed daisy is left to glare out its lonely light in the woods or fields, save where, in some well-concealed cranny, the witch hazel unfolds its unseasonable blossom, warm beneath the cold blue or bleak drab of the skies; or an orange raceme of bittersweet holds out with commendable courage among the stripped branches of the low haw or plum tree; of where, along the lacustral borders, the ghastly bloom of the everlasting wild hemp and ragweed rustle amid their hapless stalks in the wind-swept pasture.

All these the old sportsman used to see as he trod his cautious way behind his gingerly advancing dog. No sense of loneliness oppressed his soul as he ranged along through wood and weed and briar and bramble, alert for the little brown bird whose plaintive call stirred him to the depths of his very soul.

The tan monotony of the wheat stubble was as pleasing to him as was the green fields of waving corn. December days were May days to him, when the young quail were as big and plump as their parents, and to be found feeding amidst the tangle of our creek bottoms.

But, alas! These early winter days are forbidden ones now, so far as Bob White goes, and after all I cannot help but feel that it is for the best. And then, and then, if we must continue to shoot and kill, there are those lingering ducks, and Molly Cottontail.

But a word about our winter season. Whatever the calendar may say about the season's arrival here, it has been my studious observation that we do not get the real thing, that is, generally, until along in January. ALl through the present month, with the probable exception of two or three brief cold spells, we experience little but clear skies, balmy sunshine and gentle winds, and not until along at the close of the month does winter get its real grip upon us.

The past fall has maintained the wonders of the whole year, in the way of remarkable weather, and so warm and balmy was the condition of things, that vegetation all took a new start and many of the wild fowl that went south during the few chilly days late in October, all came back, bringing those other boreal birds, the hawks and the owls, for instance, down from their natural haunts in the far north.

While there are few people who enjoy winter as they do summer, there is a certain fascination in the latter's austerity, and yet, from a naturalist's point of view, the well known words of Shakespeare are apropos:

"Now is the winter of our discontent."

Until you go down in the woods in the river valley, or up in those along the old river road, and stand there, and gaze about you, can you appreciate how rare and peculiarly impressive is the sense of absolute silence - the soundless, deathly quiet in earth and air, at this season of the year, and which is only broken at long intervals by the cawing of some distant crow, or the lonely note of the chickadee, and even these are quickly engulfed in the vastness of the chilly silence.

There is a potency in this sense of utter desolation when alone in the soundless woods, on a winter day, that is hardly equaled by any display of nature's most tremendous energies. Nothing seems to so aptly symbolize the spirit of the grim season in its gloom, isolation and grandeur as the lone fish hawk, who only the most termagant blast can drive away, pursuing his magnificent flight adown the dark valley and over the ice clogged waters of the southern stream in quest of a meal, however scanty.

There is but little real gayety in the human heart amidst the bleak wild scenes of winter life such as a driving snowstorm, as we do know them here, sometimes, the sombre landscape, the icy winds that sway the naked boughs of the trees with a dismal creaking -

"Bare, ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang;" the cold light of day and colder darkness; these and all other ghostly things that contribute to nature's annual burial, from an incomparable background on which to protect the tone and temper of all the other seasons of the year; the joy of spring, the luxuriance of summer and the glory of autumn.