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Northland Nature: The New Year begins with winter finches

In our calendar, we call Jan. 1 the beginning of the new year. It also marks a time when our holidays are winding down and for many vacation time is soon to end. As far as weather goes, this is also the start of what is statistically the coldest and snowiest month of the year.

According to the National Weather Service, the average temperature of this month is 10 degrees and we may expect a half to two-thirds of the days with sub-zero readings. Snowfall now amounts to nearly 19 inches; the most for any month. Jan. 1 may be our new year, but since the annual trip around the sun is cyclic, it really has no beginning or end. There are, however, two natural happenings during these first few days of January that, I think, tell of a starting point.

The first of these is perihelion: the time when the Earth is closest to the sun on our elliptical orbit around Sol. We are about 91.5 million miles at this time and 94.5 million in early July when it’s aphelion, the greatest distance. It is thanks to the angle of our planet’s tilt, the cold and warm temperatures exist when they do.

The second natural happening now is that the sunrises — which have been getting later each day since June — start to occur earlier. Sunrise at nearly 8 a.m. slowly moves towards earlier times. Sunsets have been getting later for a couple of weeks already. These sunrise and sunset times are small steps towards spring. But we need to go through much more winter before we get there.

We all have our ways of living in the long cold and dark season and many of us find winter as a time of fascination and joy. I believe in getting out into the winter weather on a daily basis. With proper preparation, I find looking around in the winter woods has much to offer. Besides the cold, the Northland has a lasting snow cover. Such a blanket is a terrific setting for recording animal tracks. I may pass this way in the daytime hours and not see who was here at night, but thanks to the plethora of tracks, I know what other critters have also came by. I usually expect to find tracks of about 10 kinds of mammals during my treks. And their diversity and activity vary much as we proceed through winter. There’s a new story out here every day. Back at the house, I find looking out at bird feeders and noting their activity is also a great way to keep in touch with local winter wildlife.

I began the feeders about mid-October. At that time, some migrants such as juncos and white-throated sparrows came by, but moved on. Otherwise, the permanent residents of black-capped chickadees, white-breasted and red-breasted nuthatches, and several woodpeckers — downy, hairy, red-bellied and pileated — came and continue to feed here. While many birds will eat and go, I can expect to see these regulars each day until the feeding is stopped in April. The first day of the year is one day that we usually allow ourselves to sleep late and we expect a cold day. But rising when we do and looking outside, we are greeted into the new year by the feeding birds. They can and do survive without our handouts near the house, but seeing their activity on these winter days is a great help to us.

In addition to the regular birds at the feeding sites, each winter I look forward to watching finches of some species to arrive and remain here for weeks, maybe until April. For the most part, finches are small, often sparrow-sized, birds. Several kinds nest here, others breed in the far north, but often winter with us. They readily come to feeders. I could be hosting goldfinches, pine siskins, purple finches, redpolls or pine grosbeaks. I usually don’t know who will arrive until we begin the cold season.

This year, in the shortening days of November, I watched as a few goldfinches showed up at the feeders. Soon there were more and I estimated about 30-50 in a flock as the deeper cold of December moved in. These olive-yellow birds were then joined by larger cousins, the purple finches. Males are red; the females are streaked and brown like a sparrow. With plenty of food available, this group rose to about 100 individuals. The vast majority of these were goldfinches, but with each day, more purple finches are here. They may soon outnumber the goldfinches. And as I looked out on a recent morning, I noticed a scattering of redpolls as well. It looks like I will have finches again this winter, but I’m not sure which ones. Though feeding birds in winter may appear to be the same ones all the time, there are quite a lot of dynamic changes going on here.

As we go through the cold days of January, I expect to see changes and activities from the finches that are wintering here. It is a long time from now until April and I plan to be watching these birds each day. And just like it is with the animal tracks in the snow — there’s a new story out here every day.