Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Going South for the Winter

It is January. The snow is a hard, crusty boilerplate.  Some houses in the neighborhood have been abandoned temporarily for a few months of living down south.  Similarly, many birds have left us for Central America or even farther south. I am staying here for the most part and hoping winter will be short.  It is all a matter of perspective, as this writer suggests.

To shorten winter, borrow some money due in spring.

                          W. J. Vogel
But, following that plan could result in losing some friends.  Better to tough it out. Winter is also a time of solitude, so I'll catch up on reading and other quiet passions.

For these winter months, the woods seem deserted of the springtime song of courting birds and our bird feeders are seeing waves of birds hungrily seeking suet and oil-rich sunflower seeds. These are the hardy ones, or so I presume.  Maybe they are just intent to get the best nesting spot when spring comes?  Somehow, they have evolved to find shelter and food in a time of want. I treasure these few birds. Winter is no time for the weak, whether man or bird.

Foremost among these hardy ones is the Tufted Titmouse, ever shy even in winter.  It waits in a nearby bush for a moment when the feeder is nearly empty, grabs a seed and again takes refuge in the bush to crack open the sunflower seed.  I've tried to get them to take seed from my hand, and they just cannot bring themselves to land even when the feeder is empty.

Another of my favorite visitors is the Black-capped Chickadee. They have none of the shyness of the Tufted Titmouse. While tending a feeder today, it only took them a few minutes to begin feeding out of my hand. They are so light that I felt no sense of weight when one landed.  They are precocious, but also discriminating.  Once in my palm, they pick through the seeds to find the plumpest one.  Didn't you always pick the best apple from the bowl?

Perhaps the Chickadee gives an insight into why some birds remain in winter.  They cannot store up fat and that is a requirement for long distance migration.  So, they stay out of necessity and even have to feed on the foulest day to survive.  None of this implies anything about my neighbors who go south each winter.  Really!

I must also add a third winter hold-out that brings joy to us every time that we see it.  The Northern Cardinal shares the shyness of the Tufted Titmouse, and the reason seems pretty obvious. Even on a gray day, the male's color is rich and lustrous. They are an easily seen target for a hungry hawk.  When I get up at first light, they are always on the feeder at the hour when the brilliant red is hard to see.  The same goes for the evening when they are always last  to leave. When he comes in at midday, he grabs a seed and retreats into the nearby bush, again for safety.

So, these are three of the reliable winter guests at our bird feeder.  All are entertaining, and if not rare, are still savored each January. But, sometimes we also get migrants from even farther north. In 2012, we had a rare influx of Snowy Owls from the high arctic. That caused great excitement  to all who were able to see one of these beautiful big owls. Only a few Snowy Owls were seen in our region and people traveled for hours just to see one.

In 2013, another unusual bird has decided it is "Going South for the Winter".  In years when the spruce or beech seed crop fails, the Common Redpoll abandons the boreal forest of northern Canada and comes south to visit us.  Yes, we are living in this bird's "South".  My reference says it commonly survives to -65° F.  That's real winter.

At first sight, a flock of Redpolls looks like a group of House Finches or common Sparrows.  In fact, it is often in a mixed flock with House Sparrows, Goldfinches and maybe a few Pine Siskins.  Where we were content with one Snowy Owl last winter, our group of Redpolls has swelled on some days to over fifty.  We love to watch them. The brilliant red cap on its head and the light red blush on the male's streaked breast are lovely.

They perch in a wonderful array of attitudes, and never stay in place for long.  Getting them in the camera viewfinder and in sharp focus is a frustrating string of failures with only a few successes.

They can be comical as they skip across the snow, scattering snow crystals.

They are a social bird, and often interact in ways left to human conjecture.

This little red capped bird reminds me that winter has many levels.  The Common Redpoll, like the Snowy Owl, makes me admire how animals somehow survive. They do it in a far simpler (but more desperate) way than we can imagine.  Our hard winter is another's average. Going south for the winter now means something new to me.

Accept winter for the joy that spring will bring. It is the season of perseverance.

Paul Schmitt

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