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Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Winter Birds

" two seasons are ever the same and if you look closely you will see different things every winter"

Snowy owl on a power pole
A common winter sight

I admit it. Winter isn't my favorite time of the year. I often find myself depressed and fed up after days of cold and blowing snow. My eyes and heart long for the color and life of the other three seasons. One thing that brings me solace during these dark days is the birds at our feeders. So colorful and full of life, they always make me smile and often fill me with wonder at their hardiness.
My winter walks in the countryside are quiet affairs. One really has to look hard to see any living thing, but each small prairie town is an oasis of life during these cold months. You can hear the chatter of birds squabbling at the feeders and amongst the fruit trees and berry bushes. Periodically you can hear the twitter of bohemian waxwings as the raid the mountain ash and my decorative crab tree. Some years, the black-capped chickadees start their song almost immediately after Christmas. I always like to imagine they are singing "spring's coming! Spring’s coming!"
There are always woodpeckers to watch. The downy and larger hairy woodpeckers are constantly at the suet. It seems as though there is always one northern flicker that overwinters in my yard. It can vary from the red-shafted or yellow-shafted races, as we live in an overlap in their territories. Sometimes if you look closely you will find a hybrid. This year it is a red-shafted flicker. In early winter I can watch the upside-down antics of one of my favorite birds; the white-breasted nuthatch. I see them less in the latter half of the season.
One thing I have learned from living in the country is that some birds actually migrate here for the winter. Most Decembers bring the redpolls. The "common" come from the boreal forest and the "hoary" redpolls from the arctic tundra. The snow buntings also move onto the prairies. They never feed at my feeders, but can be seen in open fields in large flocks as I drive along the backroads and highways.
Female pine grosbeak
Another thing I have learned from watching nature over many years is that no two seasons are ever the same and if you look closely you will see different things every winter. The obvious example of that is the weather. Some winters (like the last one) are long and bitterly cold and then some are like this one and are very mild. Some years there are no redpolls. One year we had a junco overwinter at our feeders and on another year an American tree sparrow. One winter (much to my surprise) there was a female cardinal that returned several times to my feeders. Once I observed many short-eared owls in a frozen marsh near my home. It was 30 below zero and I filmed them as they dived into the snow hunting for rodents. This winter there have been a flock of pine grosbeaks at my feeders. One of them is a gaudy red adult male. The rest are females and immatures. It's the first time this has occurred in the eighteen years that I have lived here. 

Male pine grosbeak
I drive many miles as part of my employment and I usually see a few snowy owls over the course of the winter. This year I have seen them every time I go south onto the prairie near Three Hills or Drumheller, Alberta. It's a reminder that there are patterns in nature that are larger than the human experience. Wheels within wheels, the cycles of our planet may be revisited over and over with the coming of the seasons or just once in a generation or even longer.

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