Our first positive step towards summer came Saturday as we passed into the winter equinox and the days start getting longer. It’s good to know that the sun will be a little higher in the sky each day and I will be looking forward to the shorter nights.
It might sound a little funny but this is when I start watching for the first signs of spring. The great horned owls must be feeling a little spring fever because they are starting their courtships and their hooting calls can be heard in the evenings throughout southern Wisconsin. I heard a pair of these large owls calling to each other at the end of the valley last night, “hoo, hoohoo, hoo, hoo.” The deep voice of the male owl calls to his mate, she is larger than him but returns her love call with her higher notes. For me, these are the first songs of spring and hinting that love is in the air; all you need to do is listen.
I love the winter goldfinch. It is just as beautiful in winter plumage as it is in its bright yellow summer plumage. For half an hour I watch a dozen of them on the bird feeder. Looking closely I could see subtle differences between the colors of their feathers. It’s a lot harder to tell one bird from another in the summer before the young appear. In the autumn and winter months the finches flock together, often reacting as one. They are patient eaters turning a single black sunflower seed around in their beaks for thirty seconds before finally breaking open the shell to get the tasty meat inside.
A little white-breasted nuthatch occasionally flies up to the feeder and steals a sunflower seed from under the noses of the finches, then promptly flies off with it. Nuthatches are very busy little birds rarely standing still long enough for a snapshot but I really enjoy all their antics as they move up and down the tree limbs. Right side up or upside down, frontward or backward, under and over, always busy, staying close to the bark as they move. Nuthatches don’t have the stiff tail feathers that woodpeckers have that help support them.
The snow has been coming on and off all week and there is 8 to 10 inches of powdery snow on the ground. It hasn’t been warm enough put a crust on the snow as the temperature hasn’t been over 25 degrees for several weeks, it’s been a cold December. The Wisconsin winter weather hasn’t chilled the spirits of the three robins that are hanging out in the large cedar trees. They never come to the bird feeders and prefer to feed on the nearby sumac berries. I’ve also seen a few bluebirds this week, it doesn’t seem like I’ll ever get used to seeing robins and bluebirds here in the winter even though I’ve seen them here for the past ten years.
A bald eagle enjoys the sunshine from his lofty perch in the cottonwood tree. From there he can watch a stretch of open water of the Kickapoo River. Most of the river is frozen over and the Eagle is limited to a place where he can catch a fish. Bald Eagles are very resourceful when it comes to finding food and can survive on deer carcasses and other carrion, if the snow doesn’t get too deep. They can always fly over to the Mississippi river some fifty miles to the west where they can find open fishing water below the locks and dams.
A flock of cedar waxwings circles over the house Thursday morning, then lit in the top branches of an elm tree. They were too far away for a good view, but I was able to count 54 of them silhouetted against the sky. They, too, like the sumac berries but prefer the berries of the cedar trees. A flock of cedar waxwings is always on the move, always searching for a grove of cedar trees with enough blue cedar berries to feed them all. I may not see them for a week or two and then there they are flying in a tight group as they circle over the cedar trees.
A single little tree sparrow has joined the 20 or so juncos that pick up birdseed on the ground under the feeders. I thought it strange that there was only one; after all, tree sparrows tend to flock up like the juncos. It brought back memories of my winter bird feeders in the 1960s. There were times when I counted from 100 to 300 tree sparrows at my feeders. These days, I rarely more than 20 tree sparrows per flock.
Another breath-taking sunrise that sure makes me glad that I’m there to see it. Within the hour a kestrel perches on a cold power line in the blue sky and sunshine. It was a cold night and the little falcon is hungry and eager to catch a vole for breakfast. I have seen several Kestrels in the area this winter and as long as there are field voles to catch they will probably spend the winter. A little further down the road a larger hawk stands on the very top of a power pole. I had seen a few rough-legged hawks lately but this was the best look I’ve had at one. Snowy owls are not the only birds that come here from the far north. These hawks spend their summers on the arctic tundra where there are few if any trees. Soaring over the Tundra they occasionally pause and hover in midair like a kestrel. They may quickly dive to the ground to catch a vole or lemming. When food is scarce, they drift down into the northern United States to find food. They prefer open country that reminds them of home.
The Kickapoo Valley is so lovely in every season!