As we move through this winter month of February, we note signs of the season moving on. Though days can and usually are chilly, others may reach into the 40s. And of course, the ample snowpack is still with us. But days are getting longer.
By this date, we have reached a threshold in the annual cycle. With the sun rising at 7:23 a.m. and setting at 5:23 p.m., we now have 10 hours of daylight, up from the eight and a half at the winter solstice. This lengthening continues throughout this month. By the end, we have 11 hours as we move toward the vernal equinox March 19.
It is hard to not notice these longer days even if they are cloudy and cold. Our commutes are brighter now. We who wintered here are not the only ones to notice such changes and any observing of local wildlife reveals their responses to the longer days.
Gray squirrels in my yard that have joined birds in dining on seeds during all the cold times are now looking more at each other. Their feeding is interrupted by some chasing each other in what appears to be pre-mating behavior.
Also, a plethora of tracks from wild canines — foxes, coyotes and wolves, along with rabbits and hares — tell us their nocturnal activities have increased. (Longer days equals shorter nights.) While true hibernators continue their sleep, those not so deep in slumber — skunks, raccoons and chipmunks — may make an appearance in our neighborhoods on mild February days.
Among the birds, it is too early for spring migrants, but with those that persisted all winter, there are changes. Ravens fly in family units, perhaps pairs. Crows are more gregarious and vocal. Blue jays start to give their “weedle-eedle” calls. Chickadees begin singing “feebee” songs and nuthatches add “yank-yank” sounds to the scene.
Out in the woods, I hear more owls at night and turkeys gobbling in early morning. But I find that it is the woodpeckers that are now most notable.
While many birds proclaim their breeding territories with a series of songs, most woodpeckers proclaim their ownership by using their powerful beaks to rap against the sides of tree trunks and branches, producing loud sounds called drumming.
Both downy and hairy woodpeckers that wintered here have been drumming for some time. I heard several during January (including Jan. 1). What began sporadically has become more regular. Now during walks in February, I hear that the pileated woodpecker has joined them.
Among our four woodpeckers that winter in the Northland, pileateds are by far the largest. Downy are about 7 inches and hairy and red-bellied are nearly 9 inches; pileated are almost twice that.
Though their bodies are mostly black, white markings are on their wings and neck. Above the head, they carry a pointed red crest. In addition, males have red near the bill — “a red mustache."
Birds are very powerful and use the bill to dig through bark of trees to extricate insect larvae within. Often while digging, they discard rather large chips of wood on the nearby ground. This strong bill is also great for producing a sound that will loudly resonate through the forests now in mid- to late winter.
Recently, as I walked on a silent cloudy mid-winter morning, the silence was broken by a loud drumming from deep within the woods. I paused and waited for a repeat, which it did several times.
We will hear from these giant woodpeckers many more times as we move through late winter into their spring nesting season.