Nature Notes 4: Looking Back at Winter

April 3, 2014
Fawn Lake under a cover of snow on February 6
Fawn Lake under a cover of snow on February 6

By Susanne Harrison, Occasional Contributor

I’m sure that most of us were thoroughly tired of this unusually cold and snowy winter. It was discouraging to have storms every few days, with piles of snow, high and impenetrable along the driveways.  We retreated into our warm homes, drank cocoa and soup, and fell into a stupor, watching the Olympics.

The creatures outside in nature weren’t so lucky.  After the two big snowstorms in February, or was it three, the deer tracks disappeared.  I assume they huddled together in the swamp out back where they might get liquid water from the stream and find some protected vegetation under the snow to chew on.  At this time of year, they are vulnerable to starvation and coyote attacks, although I haven’t seen a coyote for quite a while.

The local bird population was busy at our bird feeders and kept us entertained daily.  They seemed to arrive in clusters throughout the day, competing for one feeder or another, and then disappear for several hours only to return for a late afternoon snack.  We don’t have any exotic birds, just the ordinary New England ones: cardinal, chickadee, sparrow, nuthatch, junco, blue jay, titmouse, downy, hairy and red-bellied woodpeckers, goldfinch, house finch, mourning dove and Carolina wren.  An occasional hawk swoops by.

Each species of bird has its own habits.  The chickadee lands on the feeder, picks up a sunflower seed and flies to a nearby tree branch to remove the shell and eat the seed.  The Carolina wren likes to sit in the feeder and discourage any other birds from joining him.  The goldfinches, which are a dull olive color in winter, usually sit on the thistle seed feeder eating for quite a while.  There are many ground feeding birds such as juncos and mourning doves that prefer a scattering of seeds on the deck and only use the hanging feeders when the ground food is gone or is covered with snow.

When it is particularly cold in mid-winter, the birds need some fat to remain healthy and we hung a suet feeder from our deck rail.  The woodpeckers are the most active suet eaters, the small downy variety being the most frequent.  It is always a treat to see the red-bellied woodpecker because he is an infrequent guest. He usually sits awhile in a nearby tree, chirping loudly so that everyone knows he is getting ready to come and feed.

The birds consume a prodigious quantity of bird food each winter.  This year seventy-five pounds of black sunflower seeds and one hundred pounds of mixed seed were consumed at our deck feeders.  In past years, we have used about fifteen pounds of Niger or thistle seed, but this year less than one pound was eaten.  For some reason, there are fewer goldfinches than we typically have, and although they usually eat Niger seed, they preferred sunflower seeds this winter.

Now that it’s April and Daylight Savings Time has begun there are signs of change.  Large patches of bare ground appeared and finally we seem to have turned the corner and anticipate the return of our migratory birds.  Although some robins winter over in New England now, most still migrate, and flocks will appear any day.  Soon the male gold finches will begin to change color and become canary yellow, and with the arrival of spring, the bird feeders will be taken down and stored until next fall.  We’ll switch to hummingbird feeders and get out the birdbath. If we are lucky, we’ll see a doe and her fawn wander through the woods.

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