Red-Breasted Nuthatch near a suet feeder

Red-Breasted Nuthatch near a suet feeder

In what I consider the generally bleak winter landscape here in New England, there are still things of interest to be found when we tramp around outdoors. Whether in your own backyard, the woods, on nature trails, in open fields or on the side on the road, there will be something of interest to find.

Because most leaves have been shed by woody plants, we can see where birds have nested earlier in the year. Northern Orioles attach their unique hanging nests to slender, drooping, tree branches. Often their nests incorporate a piece a colorful ribbon or yarn, especially purple ones. Some birds’ nests are very durable, but others are constructed to last only until the nestlings get to the fledgling stage and not much longer. Of note this year are the abundance of paper wasp nests as well.

Many birds do not migrate south and can be found year- round wherever there are food sources available. Crabapple trees can be an important source of food during hard winters with a lot of snow cover. Crabapples, whether still on the trees or fallen on the snow are eaten by many birds, but Robins and Cedar Waxwings are especially found feeding on the fruit. Bluebirds, Starlings, White-throated and Song Sparrows often join them. Waxwings in particular may be found in large numbers, and they can be identified even before you see them by their high pitched whistle. Later in the winter, fruit of winterberry and cedar may be eaten by these same birds. Sumac berries are usually at the end of the list, but after a long, cold winter with little else available until spring, sumac is better than nothing. Suet feeders may draw a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker or even a Red-breasted Nuthatch, both birds living far to our north during the breeding season.

Yellow- bellied sapsucker on suet during a blizzard

Yellow- bellied sapsucker on suet during a blizzard

Hawks are much more visible during the winter, especially as they fly by day and perch in the leafless trees looking for their next meal to show itself. Hawk identification gets easier as many hawks, such as the Broad- winged, migrate in the fall. Red- tailed hawks are easy to spot, especially if seen from the back when they are perching. Power line right- of ways are good spots to see many hawks as the open areas provide them a good field of vision. Red-shouldered hawks also may remain, but tend to be found more in the southern part of Connecticut.

Check out woodland areas where there are good stands of white pines and hemlocks and there might be evidence of the behemoth Pileated Woodpecker. Deep rectangular holes hammered in the trunks of pines are signs of a Pileated searching for carpenter ants or other insects. Often they return to re-tap these holes on a regular basis so a stake- out may be in order if you want to see one of these magnificent birds. They have a distinctive call, as well, and will often be very vocal when they land on a tree. Given their size, it is singular that they are seldom seen by many people. Barred owls are a good find any time of year, but winter jaunts into the woods can be rewarded with a sighting. Look for them on lower branches of evergreens, and listen for raucous calls of blue jays or crows to lead you to roosting owls.

Signs of recent Pileated Woodpecker activity

Signs of recent Pileated Woodpecker activity

One of the most distinctive fruits seen in the landscape or the wild is that of the Winterberry- Ilex verticillata. The bright red berries are often so numerous that snow easily collects on the clusters and makes for a stunning display. This year turkeys were feeding early on winterberries within reach, although the berries are usually a late winter food for most birds. As with the crabapples, birds will eat these during the winter or sometimes even late fall if food supplies are short. Cranberry viburnum is also a shrub that that provides a splash of color in the dull winter scenery, while not an important food source for too many bird species.

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Insects may be far from our minds during the winter, but their presence is really not far away. Some overwinter as eggs and egg cases of some are easy to find. Mantis egg cases are laid on stems of many plants and are readily found on plant stems and stalks in fields or other open areas. Also gypsy moth eggs can be found on lower parts of tree trunks. Cocoons of the Promethea and Cecropia giant silkworm moths can be found by checking for a rolled leaf tied by the petiole and dangling from a stem or branch (Promethea) or looking for leaves tied along a branch (Cecropia). Also, if the weather warms up for a few days, lightning bugs may appear on the sunny side of tree trunks where they overwinter in bark crevasses and cracks.

Fireflies on a sunny trunk on a warm January day

Fireflies on a sunny trunk on a warm January day

Winter is an ideal time to check out the form and growth habit of deciduous trees. Catalpas, Black Gum, Dawn redwoods and Pin Oaks have distinctive branching that is especially evident after the leaf fall. Beeches and sycamores have distinctive bark all season, but coupled with the growth habit made evident in winter, the bark is enough to add interest in any landscape. Both Gingko and beech trees have distinctive growth buds that make winter identification all the easier.

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Classic White Oak growth habit at maturity

 

I get out of the winter doldrums by getting attuned to whatever presents itself as a point of interest in an otherwise cinereal landscape. Sights and sounds still can provide an interesting addition to a winter walk and give a sense of vitality still evident in nature.

Pamm Cooper                              All photos © 2014 by Pamm Cooper