Notes on a peculiar winter

Dr. Bob Collier
Nature notes

The month of February has certainly added on to what has been a peculiar winter. Our big weather has been a 2-inch snow on Jan. 6 and 7; since then we’ve had mostly spring weather. Warm temperatures, occasional showery days. The temp reached 77 degrees on Feb. 12, an all-time record for the day. The trees haven’t come out yet (at time of writing), but the allergists hereabouts report that they are already making pollen. Allergy season has begun.

We had jonquils blooming for Valentine’s Day, and blue, and blue-and-white, violets are in bloom in my yard. I noticed a small fruit tree of some sort down on Woodland Avenue on Feb. 15, covered with pink blossoms. Up along Grove Drive in Fountain City is a very large Chinese, or saucer, magnolia, usually the earliest tree to bloom out in the spring (and usually the first to get frozen back). We noticed it had big pink buds ready to go on the Sunday of Feb. 12.

The birds? People have been reporting all sorts of unexpected early ones the past month – an ovenbird in one yard, an orange-crowned warbler in another. And robins? Robins, like the bluebirds, are around here all winter. They are generally in reduced numbers as compared to springtime. But this year, we’re having hordes of them – flocks of 50, even 100. The ground under my big hackberry trees is covered with berry seeds dropped by the multitude of robins.

An article in the winter edition of Living Bird magazine, put out by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, reports that this is part of a trend, due in part to more urban landscaping, which robins favor, but also due to the warming climate. It seems that instead of wintering in the sunny Deep South, many more robins are choosing to winter closer to home, still able to find sufficient food supplies in their now less harsh local winters. In the last 25 years their data reveal more than double the number of wintering robins in the Northeast, and an 11 percent increase even in Canada and Alaska. Apparently, those robins that do choose to migrate southward are going shorter distances, many of them deciding to hang out in balmy East Tennessee.

This is not to say that anyone has been complaining about the springtime weather here in February. With no leaves, bugs and gnats out and about, and T-shirt temps, it has made for some very pleasant birdwatching. I had a particularly good day on Feb. 20, the last official day of the Cornell Lab’s annual worldwide Great Backyard Bird Count. I set out, and dutifully and methodically counted all the birds I could find in my favorite spot of fields, woods and briery patches up in Union County. It turned out to be one of those better-than-average birding days – it was a Seven Woodpecker Day. I had hoped it would be, what with no leaves out, the birds very active, and no spring migrants as yet to divert one’s attention.

There are 20 or so species of woodpeckers that occur in North America, between our borders with Canada and Mexico. Seven of them are to be found in our region. The downy and red-bellied ones frequent our feeders all winter and are familiar to most of us. The flickers are common here too, but spend a lot of time on the ground, eating their favorite food, ants. They are strikingly beautiful birds when seen close up or through the binoculars. And then there are our huge, vociferous, OMG birds, the pileated woodpeckers, not a rare bird around here.

A yellow-bellied sapsucker has been eating suet at my feeder all winter. I’ve noticed that when the suet runs out, the sapsucker, instead of just flying away, sits and stares at the empty suet cage, as if he thinks it will somehow refill before his eyes. Sapsuckers are here only in the winter. In the spring they will be back up north, nesting anywhere from Canada down to the Great Lakes, and even into the high elevations of the Smokies.

Hairy woodpeckers are larger versions of the downies, with a longer bill, subtle differences in some of their tail feathers, and a different call, or vocalization, as birders are prone to say. They are around, but are outnumbered by the downies by 10 to one, and are much less social with us people than the downies. And, they are probably often mistaken for downies when seen.

Least common around here are the fancy red, black and white red-headed woodpeckers. They are hard to find, but a beautiful sight when you see one. They live all over the eastern half of the country, but for reasons not understood have become very scarce in the East Tennessee region. A couple of years ago, we were out in Montgomery Bell State Park near Nashville and were seeing them five at a time one afternoon, but a person here in Knoxville can hardly buy one for a spring or winter bird count.

Happily, though, over the past couple or three years more folks are reporting red-headed woodpeckers. A couple in Union County had one coming into their yard regularly, to eat bites of food from their dogs’ dish. Most peculiar, but I have photographs to prove it. And this year, a person out in Sharps Chapel has been reporting seeing one in the woods near the lake on a frequent basis.

With this cast of characters, we go back to the Seven-Woodpecker Day. With downy and several red-bellied guys promptly checked off, I was prowling along quietly in some big trees when I came upon not one, but two red-headed woodpeckers!

One was the super-spiffy adult red, black and white version. The other was an immature bird, hatched last year. They have brown heads till the spring following their birth, and his head was changing. From adolescent brown, it had red patches on the throat, and on the back of the head – sort of like a teenager with a nice splash of green or purple in an otherwise decent head of hair. I figured that now, I had a good chance for all seven. But it was afternoon already.

A yellow-bellied sapsucker and a flicker came along nicely, and then I found a female hairy woodpecker working away at a dead limb, searching for a juicy grub or two. I had seen a male hairy excavating a nest hole in the vicinity a week before, so had been hopeful. And then, the final woodpecker, and also the last bird of the day, around 5:30 and dusk approaching. There was the King of the Woodpecker Hill – a big pileated bird, squawking loudly from a big, distant ash tree! Hooray for all seven, plus a good bunch of other winter birds, all greatly enhanced by sunshine, temps in the 60s and yet none of those pesky leaves to prevent excellent looks at them all. Not a bad way to spend a February day in East Tennessee.

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