Speaking of Nature: Waiting for winter
Bill Danielson photo
One of the local titmice made a quick appearance last weekend and almost seemed to wink at me before flitting off to the
woods once again.
Bill Danielson photo
Sighting a brown-headed cowbird is not particularly unusual in March (when this photo was taken), but seeing one in December is definitely noteworthy.
By the time this column hits the newsstands, we will be just nine days away from the official start of winter — that magical day when we in the northern hemisphere will find ourselves turned as completely away from the warm, loving embrace of the sun as possible. The desk blotter calendar in my office indicates that this happens on Dec. 21, which means that the Earth (tilted on its axis) will actually start to “round the corner,” as it were, and bring us closer to the sun once again.
It has always seemed a little strange that we don’t experience the full force of winter until we are in an orbital position that brings us longer periods of sunlight with every passing day. At first, the photoperiod will increase by one minute per day, but then two and three minutes will be added each day. By March, we will once again reach the point where we have 12 hours of day and 12 hours of night.
As seductive as that may sound, in the here and now we find ourselves waiting for winter. And, as always seems to happen at this time of year, I once again find myself in the doldrums. This past weekend, I spent two very pleasant mornings sitting by my kitchen window and observing the comings and goings of the various birds at my feeders. With my favorite pen poised above the waiting pages of my field journal, I sipped coffee, watched and waited. It’s easy for me to spend several hours doing this and I enjoy thinking in the quiet of the morning with the ticking of the kitchen clock for company.
First and foremost on my mind was the rather unexpected turn that my pigeon project has taken. On Nov. 14, I wrote a column that talked about the small, citizen-scientist research project I am conducting in my own backyard. Trapping the birds appeared to be easy and I felt that I was on track to have 24 birds banded by the end of year. Oh, how times have changed.
I haven’t been able to capture a single bird since and I find myself in the midst of the most peculiar mental 180. The initial motivation for trapping and banding the birds was to try to understand “the enemy.” By the end of August, I had so many pigeons visiting my porch that they would simply vacuum up all of the birdseed that I could put out, leaving next to nothing for the smaller birds that the seed was originally intended for.
But now things have changed. The pigeons are still around, but their numbers have dropped off and they almost never come to my porch. My initial desire to discourage the horde without hurting them has been fulfilled, but I now that I’ve made an investment of interest in these birds, I find myself wishing they would visit.
This weekend, after weeks of vigilance, I finally managed to read a number on a band. I’ve seen banded birds here and there, but this time one actually worked up the nerve to visit my feeders and I was able to identify the bird as Y4. So where, I wonder, have all the others gone? Did my trapping campaign scare them off, or is this just a product of a natural seasonal shift in behavior? I have a feeling that it’s a little of both, but why speculate when time may provide an answer? Rest assured that I will keep you apprised of the details as they unfold.
Let’s see, what else has happened lately? Well, I spotted my first American tree sparrows of the season on Nov. 24 and, since then, they have moved themselves right in and become regulars at my feeders. This coincides nicely with their arrival on Nov. 22, 2012, and the first sighting on Nov. 25 in 2010. My 2011 notes seem rather sparse and make no mention of tree sparrows until December, but then again Tropical Storm Irene did jumble things up quite a bit that year.
I was also quite surprised to see a pair of male brown-headed cowbirds at my feeders on Thanksgiving Day. Susan and I were packing up to visit my parents for the holiday and while I was having breakfast, I happened to catch sight of those two birds as they ate. I remember thinking that they both looked nervous and unhappy and huddled together in what appeared to be a desperate effort to establish a sense of security. There was also a lone common grackle that was seen around my house at the same basic time, but none of them have been seen since. Either they got it into their heads that this was no place for them to be in the winter and they headed south, or they paid for their carelessness.
I have also been watching the house finch population with great interest. Even as early as October I noticed a fairly severe flare up of conjunctivitis among the house finches. There were several birds that were infected and one or two that seemed to be rendered blind as a result. Then we had a cold snap at the beginning of December and I haven’t seen an infected finch since. A review of my records suggests that numbers of six to eight are not too uncommon, but my maximum number sighted has now dropped to only four over the last couple of weeks. The survivors seem healthy, so I hope they will be spared any further infections.
And finally, just in time, a solitary tufted titmouse visited my feeders last weekend. As you know, I keep a list of birds that have been seen in my yard. Each month, I start a new list and I usually have a lot of fun on the first weekend of every month because I get to put lots of checks in lots of boxes all at once. It turns out that some birds are present every single day, while others seem to make quick cameo appearances just to remind me that they’re still around.
Though things seem to be quiet outside right now, there are still a couple things to look for. I know that I myself will keep my eyes open for the possible appearance of red-breasted nuthatches. They do not visit my feeders every year, nor do they seem to stay long even when they do show up, but they are fun to watch.
I have also heard that this is an irruptive year for snowy owls. The last time I saw a snowy owl was when I visited the Sachuest National Wildlife Refuge in an attempt to break the 20,000-photo mark in 2011. The bird was an immature and it was spending the day on a rock offshore. I could clearly see that it was a snowy owl and I even have the photo to prove it, but it is not a publishable photo. For that I will need some really good luck.
And then, of course, there is my annual torture at the “hands” of the local harriers. I haven’t seen any yet, but I’ve got one camera dedicated to the challenge of capturing an image of this tricky bird. Now I just have to keep my eyes open. But this shouldn’t be a problem. I’ll just sip at my coffee and gaze out the window while I’m waiting for winter.
Bill Danielson has worked as a naturalist for 16 years. In that time, he has been a national park ranger, a wildlife biologist and a field researcher. He currently works as a high school chemistry and biology teacher. To contact Bill, or to learn more about his writing, visit www.speakingofnature.com