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SCOTT SHALAWAY The taste of winter finally arrives



Published: Fri, January 21, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



What a difference a week makes. Last time I wondered if winter weather would ever arrive. No sooner were those words in print than single-digit temperatures triggered school delays and closings. Then 2 inches of fresh snow turned the landscape into a winter wonderland.

Cold temperatures increase the energy required for wild birds to maintain their body temperatures, and snow cover makes natural foods difficult to find. That's why feeder activity picks up when it snows. As I write this, 57 individuals of 14 species are helping themselves to my handouts.

Headed into woods

The newly fallen snow just begged to be disturbed, so this morning I headed into the woods. Fresh snow heightens my sense of hearing. I listen more intently because the snow seems to amplify environmental sounds. The harder I listen, the more I hear. A deer snorting on the ridge. A turkey calling in the valley. A squirrel leaping from branch to branch. A ruffed grouse drumming in the distance.

In the snow, nothing escapes notice. Tiny tracks reveal the hurried trail of a deer mouse in the yard. What it was doing above the snow I can't imagine. Frigid temperatures and the threat of aerial predators make above ground journeys risky.

Splash of blood

In the old field below the house a pile of feathers and a splash of blood identify the spot where a red-tailed hawk, or maybe a great-horned owl, killed a cottontail. Only puffs of fur remain.

Fresh snow reveals evidence of the unseen that surrounds us. It makes us think and forces us to question how nature works. Those who prefer not to venture into a cold midwinter snowscape can pull up a comfortable chair and watch the feeders. Seeds, fruits, and berries are much more difficult to find after a snowfall so backyard buffets are irresistible.

The small flock of cardinals, perhaps a family group, that has hung around since September is now joined by ten more red birds. There's no more magnificent winter sight than a flock of cardinals in a leafless tree against a snowy background. And today that scene greets me each time I look out the window.

Downy, hairy, and red-bellied woodpeckers take turns on the nut feeders. These simple tubes of hardware cloth are always occupied. A mixed flock of chickadees, titmice, nuthatches and a single Carolina wren splits its time between the nut feeders and sunflower seed tubes.

Ground feeders feast

On the ground mourning doves, song sparrows, juncos, and white-throated sparrows appear in the largest numbers I've seen all year. They feast on the millet, cracked corn, and black-oil sunflower seeds I scatter on a small area I've swept free of snow.

And the finch feeders finally have no unoccupied perches. I've had a handful of goldfinches since early fall, but on this day at least 20 take turns at the tubes filled with nyjer seed and sunflower chips.

The most exciting sight, however, is a new arrival. Three pine siskins mingle among the goldfinches on the nyjer feeders. A few had appeared back in September, but I haven't seen any since. These drab little finches, recognized by flashes of yellow on the wings and tail, are irruptive migrants from the north.

Siskins live "permanently" in the coniferous forests of the Rocky Mountains, southern Canada and the northern tier of states in the Midwest and northeast. Their favorite winter foods are seeds of northern trees. Therein lies the explanation for their wandering ways.

The number of seeds these trees produce from year to year varies greatly. Some winters trees hang heavily with seeds; other years they're virtually bare. Typically, it's a two-year cycle.

Wandering for food

Such an unreliable winter food supply compels siskins to wander in search of food during lean years. They move south and often visit bird feeders stocked with nyjer and sunflower seeds.

Regardless of the season, a great day afield requires only the right ingredients. Any nature watcher could write a recipe for winter: January snow PLUS 20 degrees F EQUALS a backyard full of birds.

sshalaway@aol.com




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