With the low temperatures of the 15th-18th of this month, the Wetlands iced over enough to force the Hooded Mergansers to take flight and seek bigger water where they could swim and dive for fish. One merganser returned on January 24 and four were in attendance on the 29th of the month. Canada Geese remained as long as there were small pockets of open water. They too finally departed as snow and more cold weather moved in on the 21st of the month, but returned a few days later.
The female Belted Kingfisher, usually a daily fixture in the Wetlands, disappeared until the 29th when I heard its raspy call coming from the trees on the far side of the Wetlands.
It may be cold outside – hardly an insect in sight, reptiles laying low, groundhogs (usually) sleeping it off – but there’s always birds to entertain the winter hiker. On Monday the 19th, at least three frogs were caught by the Red-shouldered Hawk who frequents the swamp across from the Wetlands Overlook. The hawk may have taken more frogs that day, but I was only witness to three. There was ice on the water, but enough free water remained to allow the hawk to continue hunting frogs. With the water frozen solid on the 21st, I didn’t see the hawk on its now familiar perch in the swamp. However, I saw it take two more frogs on the cold and raw 25th of January. I don’t know if it has any relevance, but it seems that the frogs that this hawk is now catching are smaller than the frogs I’d seen it take previously.
This hawk is becoming a much sought after feature of the Explore the Wild/Catch the Wind Loop. Museum guests are coming down to the Wetlands with the expectation of seeing the hawk and are disappointed when it’s not there. Some ask whether the hawk is part of an exhibit! I suppose that in a way it is: it’s part of the Wetlands’ fauna, free to come and go as they please.
As I was making my last round of the day on the Explore the Wild/Catch the Wind Loop on January 25, I heard an abbreviated call (the last two syllables, “you-all”) of a Barred Owl coming from the tall Loblolly Pines behind the Meadow across from the Bird Feeder Exhibit. I called back. The owl answered. Then silence. I looked but couldn’t visually locate the owl. I walked on. The owl, I assume, went on with whatever it was doing.
An Eastern Phoebe can still be seen on nearly every visit to the Explore the Wild/Catch the Wind Loop.
The cold weather quickened the pace at the Bird Feeder Exhibit. Six Pine Siskins (see Pine Siskins, January 1-15, 2009) were at the feeders during the first week of this period. That number doubled the following week. Pine Warblers have also been very busy at the feeders.
A Winter Wren was in the woods across from the Lemur House on the 18th of the month.
A Hermit Thrush was seen below the bird feeders. I saw two of these winter thrushes together near the Wetlands Overlook and another behind the Lemur House.
Noteworthy was a Gray Catbird seen next to the Ornithopter on January 24 as it dined on holly berries. Although most catbirds vacate the area during winter, migrating as far south as Central America, there are often a few that linger in our area each year. Still, not having seen one at the Museum since October, I was excited to see this bird. Northern Mockingbird and Brown Thrasher, the other resident mimic thrushes at the Museum, can be seen throughout the winter months, although the mockingbird is the standout, the thrasher a bit more reclusive.
I first noticed Northern Cardinals in song on 24 January and occasionally thereafter. Cardinals often start singing early in the year. By the end of February they should be in full swing. It’s not unusual to see them singing amongst newly sprouted Red Maple buds. Females sometimes sing as well, although not quite in the same manner as the males, who, intent on being seen and heard by everyone, in all their redness, seek out the most prominent of perches, stretch themselves out to appear as tall as possible and belt out their song, their bodies shaking with every note. No, the female’s song is more of a whistle-while-you-work kind of song, like a happy worker busy at her craft who can’t help but to start whistling a tune while she goes about her business among the branches of the trees and shrubs.
Besides the cardinals, the lengthening days are apparently having an effect on other avian hormonal flow. Song Sparrows began singing during the last week of January. Evidently, one male was successful in attracting a female, at least temporarily. I watched as a female (I assume it was a female) landed on the ground at the base of a cedar. The male, who had been singing from a perch in a small sycamore next to the cedar, dropped down beside her. The male began to run back and forth in front of her, doing semicircles around her while singing his song. He sang not the loud “here I am” song he caroled from the perch, but a shorter, softer, more subdued version of the same. The female, for the most part, remained stationary, occasionally sidestepping to the left or right, all the while her tail flicking up and down, her wings now and then flashing open, a blur. At times, the female would fly off a few feet, the male quickly following until they were eventually fifty feet from where they had started. The song and dance went on for nearly ten minutes. And then, it was all over, the female flew off and the male resumed his post on the sycamore. He was still singing when I left at the end of the day.
Three Field Sparrows were seen in the tall grass next to the Sailboat Pond. A group of White-throated Sparrows and Dark-eyed Juncos have been seen foraging in several locations along the path around the Explore the Wild/Catch the Wind Loop throughout the winter, lately concentrating on the area between the main entrance to Catch the Wind and the Bird Feeder Exhibit. There is a large, four-trunked Sweetgum on the south side of the path. Look in this area for the birds. Towhees, Song Sparrows, Ruby-crowned Kinglets, and other birds are often mixed in with this group. Still no Fox Sparrows. I thought that the cold weather would bring in one or two of these large, handsome sparrows. There’s still time, but it’s running out quickly.