According to the calendar, the halfway point between the winter solstice in December (the first day of winter) and the vernal equinox in March (the first day of spring) is early February. Not everyone appreciates this cold season and there are many who are looking toward the coming warmth. This can be seen on Groundhog Day, Feb. 2.
This short month, that ironically can feel like the longest, responds with plenty of changes. The daylight rapidly gets longer and by the time we exit, we have 11 hours of daylight. This extra light triggers more happenings with the wildlife wintering here. We notice lots of sounds and movements from crows and ravens. Woodpeckers do much drumming, chickadees call and owls are more vocal at night. Squirrels and rabbits become more active around the yard as they notice and confront each other.
Though February days can get quite cold, the fluctuation is great enough that we can expect mild times as well. The dry air persists and though we usually do get snow, we don't very often receive large snowstorms in this month. Those of us who feed birds frequently see changes at the feeders that make the second half of winter continue to be interesting.
Like many others in the region, I feed birds near the house throughout the winter. Looking out at these avian neighbors is a source of lasting interest and satisfaction. I begin in autumn and quickly the local songbirds discover the food. It may be the chickadees, nuthatches, woodpeckers and jays that are permanently here beginning the snacking on sunflower seeds, but they also have the company of migrant juncos and various sparrows, feeding before they depart for the south. Getting into winter, the feeders host the usual birds that have settled in for the whole season. This year the regulars, ones that came by each day in early winter, included black-capped chickadees, white-breasted nuthatches, red-breasted nuthatches, blue jays and woodpeckers, downy, hairy and red-bellied. These "same seven" were sometimes joined by the large pileated woodpecker hanging from the suet. And then finches started to change things.
Finches are a large and diverse group of small birds that include sparrows, cardinals, grosbeaks and many that carry the name of finch. Each winter I expect and host finches of some sort. This year began as the winter of the goldfinches. These black and yellow birds that often nest amongst take on a drab olive-green plumage in winter and they form flocks. By late December, they were joined by the larger purple finches. These sparrow-like birds were easy to discern from the goldfinches. Males are a reddish color, often bright, and the females are brown and streaked. Together they arrived at the feeders during the cold days of December and early January. But January, with its chilly beginning, changed mid-month to become mild. And the finches responded.
There were days early in the month when more than 100 birds filled the feeders and the ground beneath. Then came the January thaw. It was quite a shock to survey the feeders when the mild days arrived and see fewer than five finches.
I wondered if they would return. Their absence was temporary and when the long-lasting mild days slowly subsided, the birds began to return. I was still seeing finches, but now the flocks were of 20-30, mostly purple finches. And I began to suspect that this might be the way it was going to continue. But the feathered visitors brought surprises again.
A few days ago, a neighbor told me of seeing pine siskins. These small finches, cousins of goldfinches, but more streaked and less colorful, had been absent all winter so far, not even recorded on the Christmas Bird Count of late December. The next day one arrived at my feeder. And there were more the following day. Word seemed to also spread with the redpolls, another small finch, and they began to come in numbers as well. Last week, I estimated about 100 finches made up of four species: purple finches, goldfinches, pine siskins and redpolls had discovered my feeding. As we ended the week, maybe 150 were present. The second half of winter may be a great finch time.
I have seen winters when pine siskins and redpolls moved in late to the feeders and the flocks remained feeding and calling as the winter waned. Will that happen again this year?
I'm glad to have the pine siskins and redpolls and I enjoy the four-finch days that are here now. I hope their presence does not diminish the other birds and they will remain as well. Late winter will be more interesting with all of these birds as they and other critters prepare for spring.
Retired teacher Larry Weber lives in rural Carlton County and is the author of several books, including “Butterflies of the North Woods,” “Spiders of the North Woods,” “Webwood” and his most recent book, “In a Patch of Goldenrods,” which is available for purchase at the Pine Journal. Contact him c/o firstname.lastname@example.org.