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Northland Nature: Thanks to ‘the regulars’ throughout winter

A gray squirrel finds seeds on the feeder despite the falling snow. Photos by Larry Weber1 / 3
A black-capped chickadee feeds on suet. They come to the feeders every day.Photos by Larry Weber 2 / 3
Goldfinches feed on seeds; they are the only finches for many of us this winter. Photos by Larry Weber 3 / 3

The winter solstice, the first day of winter, was on Dec. 21. The vernal equinox, the first day of spring, will be on March 20. As we travel through this winter, by the time we are in early February, we are halfway into the cold season.

And what a winter it has been so far!

There have been colder Decembers than we had in 2013. There have been colder Januaries than that we just exited in 2014. But the combination of these two months is one of the coldest December-January ever recorded.

The accompanying snowfall of January was far below normal, and that of the previous month was far above normal; and at midpoint in the winter and the snow season, we are at about normal.

With the days getting longer, we now have sunsets after 5 p.m.; things are beginning to look a little different. And maybe that is why now, in midwinter, we begin to look towards spring.

We even have a ritual where we supposedly ask a hibernating furry rodent, the groundhog (woodchuck), to tell us what to expect in coming weeks.

Probably few animals get so much attention for just a day, while being fast asleep. Through a series of superstitious stories and misidentification, the critter has been given powers that it neither possesses nor needs.

While Northland groundhogs are deep in their snow-covered burrows at this time, I like to look out at a few of their cousins that continue to be active now, the squirrels.

When it comes to squirrels, we have two groups in the region: the ground squirrels and the tree squirrels.

Ground squirrels, including the groundhog and the little one in the yard, the chipmunk, tend to sleep through winter.

The arboreal ones, the gray squirrels and red squirrels, remain active. It has been a chilly last two months and when looking out at the feeders on sub-zero days (almost 50 days of December-January recorded zero degrees or lower, and nearly 20 remained in the negative numbers all day), it is great to see some companions.

Gray squirrels and red squirrels readily go to bird feeders in daytime while the big-eyed flying squirrels arrive at night. All find that the sunflower seeds that were put out for birds are quite tasty for them, too.

Although I give seeds to the birds, adding some extras for squirrels is worth the effort. They also are interesting to watch.

But it is the birds that accept my meals that I find most comforting. With fluffed-up feathers to add insulation to their coats on chilly days, they deal with the present conditions.

I began the season with nine species coming by each day. But with the snowfall of early December and the deepening cold to follow, three left. The junco, red-breasted nuthatches and blue jays that I saw at first moved on.

In the weeks that followed, the regulars, six species, continued to feed here. These same six that are here every day add much to the winter, and I’m once again reminded that these non-migratory birds could make it fine in the woods without my help, and I think that I need them more than they need me.

Most consistent of all are the diminutive chickadees. Arriving as they do, alone and quickly to take seeds to a nearby branch to eat, they are a bit hard to count. I estimate about 10 are wintering here.

A pair of white-breasted nuthatches are present as well.

Using their strong beaks, they break open sunflower seeds (the name refers to the hacking motion to open the seeds and nuts). Their arrival is usually in an inverted pose as they creep down a tree head first. Some people call nuthatches the “upside down” birds.

With the absence of redpolls and siskins, our finches this year are the goldfinches. I notice about a dozen arriving for breakfast, often very early in the morning. I keep thistle seed just for them.

Three kinds of woodpeckers, the downy, hairy and red-bellied, are quick to locate the suet and regularly take a snack here. Both the downy and hairy are in male-female pairs. The red-bellied is a lone female.

Two others have recently been at the feeders for brief visits: the huge pileated woodpecker hung from a ball of suet a few times, and a shrike arrived looking for something to eat. Despite an abundance of sunflower seeds, thistle seeds and suet, the shrike was after another meal — one of the smaller birds. It did not succeed.

Keeping the feeding sites filled costs a few dollars, but being able to watch these squirrels and birds here each these cold days is well worth it.

Thanks to the regulars, for being daily visitors at the feeders.

Larry Weber

Retired teacher Larry Weber is the author of several books, including “Butterflies of the North Woods,” “Spiders of the North Woods,” “Webwood” and “In a Patch of Goldenrods.” Contact him c/o