One wintry day in the White Mountains, my granddaughter and I learned how robins find food in the cold.
It was late autumn by the calendar, but well into winter by the hard, frozen ground and biting wind along Saco Lake. My eldest granddaughter, still my only granddaughter at the time, had just turned five, and we were out for a chilly hike on the Saco Lake Trail.
It felt good to get into the beech forest at the northeast corner of the lake. The trees had no leaves, but they still provided shelter against the wind that was whistling across the frozen lake.
The leaf litter was decorated with a light dusting of snow from a couple of early flurries, but the trail was clear. The weak sun had managed to melt the snow in the relatively unshaded path.
Just as we began climbing into the hardwood forest, we stopped to behold an apparition from another season. A robin! He was about twenty yards ahead of us on the trail, and he was feeding on something under the leaves.
No harbinger of spring, this robin was a leftover of last summer. He was probably fueling up one last time before heading for someplace warmer.
But what had kept him here so late in the year? What could he possibly be feeding on in this frozen desolation? Was there really enough food that this bird would rather stay here than to head for Dixieland?
Whatever there was, I figured there were not many opportunities for the robin, and he needed whatever he could get. I tried to explain this in five-year-old terms, and my granddaughter and I waited where we were until the robin left of his own volition.
We watched as he turned over one leaf after another, pecking and swallowing half a dozen somethings under each leaf.
After several minutes, the robin flew off, perhaps to find another patch of whatever he was eating, or perhaps to begin his belated migration.
My granddaughter and I were both very excited to learn, if we could, what the robin had found. We rushed up to where he had been feeding and turned over a leaf.
The leaf litter was filled with little beetle larvae. In an area of about ten square feet, every leaf we turned revealed between five and ten grubs, each about twice the size of a grain of rice.
There is much I could learn about these beetles. It is possible, though frankly unlikely, that even "real scientists" don't know any more about them than I do. What species are they? Were these the last brood of their species for the year, born too late and doomed to freeze, or would they burrow deeper into the soil and survive the winter? Had they been there all along, just under the top layer of leaves, or had something prompted them to come near the surface just for today, just for this afternoon?
The robin knows.