Snowjam 2014: Birds, Beeches, and Blue Sky

Atlanta doesn’t see a lot of snowfall, but when it does, it’s a major event. A recent snow here, “Snowjam 2014,” made national news as a panicked city shut down government, businesses, and schools, leading to paralyzing traffic jams that stranded people on roadsides and forced them to camp out in gas stations and grocery stores. Yesterday we had a second snowfall (mixed with sleet and freezing rain) that shut down much of the city. Having grown up in New Jersey and Vermont, I find the frenzy and lack of preparedness for snow here to be somewhat unfathomable, but I have enjoyed the excuse to slow down, admire the change of scenery, spend time with my children, and hunker down in warm pajamas. Although the weather this week was dreadful with driving sleet and howling wind, it made for some magical scenery, which we enjoyed from our warm house while making homemade soup and coffee cake.

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Snowjam Sparkle

One of the nicest things about my snow day is that it afforded me the luxury of watching my bird feeders throughout the day–and were they ever busy! (I’m only mildly embarrassed to admit that I stayed in my pajamas all day long, though I did go outside a few times to refill bird feeders.) Even amid driving sleet and icy wind, the birds stayed active. I am always amazed how such small creatures, warm-blooded like ourselves, survive in such wretched weather. One of the ways they do this is by keeping their bellies full. Many species of birds put on an insulating and energy-giving layer of fat in the winter (much like some of us do!), so they spend the majority of their day seeking out fatty food sources—all the more reason to keep those feeders full during bitter cold weather. You’ve probably witnessed another strategy birds use to survive the cold, which is by puffing up into the shape of a little round ball to trap insulating heat close to their bodies. Birds also fight the cold by staying out of the elements, finding cover in dense foliage or cavities, and some species huddle together to share warmth. Some of the smallest and hardiest birds, like chickadees, drop their body temperature more than 20 degrees Fahrenheit at night to save energy. How lucky we are to be able to warm up with a hot cup of cocoa or by turning up our thermostats! Appropriately, my family ended the day by curling up on the couch with blankets and watching the PBS Nature “DUCKumentary.”.

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Female Northern Cardinal puffed up against the cold

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Female Eastern Towhee taking cover from the storm

This morning, sun shining, I woke to sound of a steady drip of ice melting from trees and a thundering crash of snow sliding from the roof. I dressed and readied myself quickly to get outside to hike in the woods at our local park before the magical blanket of snow was gone. My two children, ages 10 and 12, having had their fill of television and video games during the sleet and snow, willingly pulled on their boots to join me. Watching our step as we crunched through the wet snow and keeping our heads down to avoid pelting snow and ice melting from the trees made bird-watching unfavorable. Birdsong filled the air, however, and we were lucky to spot the resident pair of Barred Owls roosting in their favorite pine tree. In the wetlands by the lake, dozens of sparrows were scratching in the mud looking for good things to eat, and a Belted Kingfisher zipped by, sounding his loud, rattling call. What struck me most on this morning’s walk, however, was not the birds, but the trees – their starkness so beautifully accentuated by white snow and blue sky.

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Pondering the climb of the Ladder Tree

American Beech trees were particularly dazzling with coppery leaves fluttering in the breeze and adding a flash of color to the landscape. Young beech trees and many species of oak hold their leaves through the winter, a trait called marescence that may help them weather the hardships of the season. One possible advantage of marescent leaves–defined as “withering but not falling off”–may be that they help the tree withstand stress from cold temperatures and improve water balance. Holding leaves through winter may also provide frost protection for new buds and twigs or deter animals from feeding on them (since dead, dry leaves are less nutritious and palatable). Another theory suggests that by dropping their leaves in spring, beech trees are delivering an organic mulch at the time when it is most needed by the growing parent tree. I like the suggestion of Michael Snyder, a Vermont forester, who suggests that marescence may be “helpful to trees living in dry, cold, deer-infested environments,” but that because all trees evolved from evergreens, it may also be a “sign that beech and oak are evolutionarily delayed, still on their way to becoming fully deciduous from their more evergreen past” (northernwoods.org). Whatever the reason, the beautiful golden hues the beech leaves added to our walk today was not overlooked.

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Beech trees and blue sky

We returned home with wet hats and cold feet. The kids settled in with a cup of cocoa, while I took a hot shower before putting my pajamas back on, pouring a second cup of coffee and sitting down to work. Though the cold lingers long this winter and snowy weather has kept us from our regular routines, what gifts Mother Nature constantly provides.

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Hot Winter Nights

Winter is a great time for viewing wildlife. Even in the cold, gray, wet weather that makes many of us cringe and stay indoors, much of the animal world stays active, and the absence of leaves on the trees makes wildlife easier to spot, especially birds. Some animals aren’t hindered by winter’s chill at all, instead finding it the perfect climate to “turn up the heat.” Believe it or not, winter is the best time of the year to observe several species of raptors that begin courtship and breeding even during the coldest and darkest months.

The Great Horned Owl is one of the earliest breeders in North America, beginning courtship calls as early as October and choosing a mate by December. The male attracts the female’s attention by puffing up his white throat and hooting while bowing to her. If the female is sufficiently impressed, she joins in the bowing and hooting, and the birds may remain mates for their entire lives. Breeding typically occurs in January or February with females laying one to four eggs that hatch in about seven weeks. Now is the best time of year to get out and look for these birds, particularly while the bare tree branches make it easier to spot their nests, which are often taken over from hawks, crows, or squirrels. In fact, here in Georgia these owls have already been spotted on their nests, used only when the females are brooding eggs and tending to their young. Be sure to look for the two ear tufts popping out from the top.

Great horned owl

photo: Jim Wilson

Great Horned Owls are not the only owls getting “busy” this season. Barred Owls also begin reuniting with their mates and refurbishing or scouting for nest sites in the cold months of winter. I’ve been hearing the local pair of Barred Owls hooting it up in my neighborhood for the past month, and I have been fortunate to see them roosting together in our neighborhood park the past two winters. I will be keeping my eyes peeled again this season! At AWARE wildlife center where I volunteer, our pair of nonreleasable Barred Owls, Gazer and Tappy, have become increasingly vocal.  As is typical in the wild, Tappy offers food to Gazer, and they are frequently seen preening each other. Gazer must be impressed with Tappy’s attention–she laid her very first egg in late fall (though did not incubate it)!

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My local Barred Owls roosting together last February.

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AWARE’s educational owls Gazer and Tappy are frequently seen preening each other.

Bald eagles are also early breeders, typically building their nests and laying eggs by mid-February, even earlier in southern states. (During a recent trip to Florida, I saw two bald eagles on their nests on New Year’s Eve!) Eagle’s nests, usually made of sticks and other plant material and found in big trees near large bodies of water, are the largest nests of any bird in North America. These enormous structures can measure over nine feet in diameter and twenty feet in height and can weigh more than two tons! A pair of eagles will typically use the same nest for many successive years. Eagles have a spectacular courtship ritual involving vocalizations and acrobatic flights that sometimes include a spiraling freefall from great heights with interlocked talons. What a thrill it would be to see this amorous display!

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Bald Eagle on a nest in Cedar Key, Florida — 12/31/13

Red-tailed hawks are also getting ready to breed at this time of year by building or refurbishing their nests of twigs, foliage, and other plant matter. Eggs are typically laid in March or April, depending on latitude. Like eagles, Red-tailed Hawks have dramatic aerial courtship displays. The male and female soar in circles calling with their unmistakable shrill, raspy cries. The male dives steeply then rises again, repeating this display several times. The display sometimes culminates with the pair clasping talons and plummeting in a spiral toward the ground before pulling away. Because Red-tailed Hawks are possibly the most common hawks in North America and are well-adapted to living in proximity to humans, careful observers are sure to be rewarded with sightings of these beautiful birds.

Witnessing these powerful birds is a reminder of what an incredibly diverse and magical planet we share. For those inclined to stay indoors in the winter months, several websites with live “nest cams” offer viewers the unique opportunity to watch these birds building nests, brooding eggs, and raising young in real time (see below for links), but how much more fascinating it is to witness it in person! So, before the leaves obscure the treetops, bundle up, grab a pair of binoculars, and keep your ears open and eyes toward the skies!

Recommended Nest Cams:

Watch Georgia’s beloved Berry College Eagles raise their young for the third year in a row. Mom is already incubating two eggs! Or check out the Atlanta Falcons (Peregrine, that is!).

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology is a trove of all sorts of information about birds and has nestcams for several species of birds. Tune in to this year’s livestream cameras here.

A Christmas Reconception

I recently rediscovered the following Lawrence Ferlinghetti poem on a blog I enjoy, http://radicalfarmwives.com/.  It takes some jabs at commercialized Christmas, and I thought it worth sharing here with those of you who appreciate nature’s gifts. Truly, life’s most beautiful treasures aren’t for sale. So, as we enjoy listening to carols, decorating trees, and opening presents this holiday, let’s take a moment to reflect on the amazing wonders nature bestows on us, as well as the greatest human gifts  — faith, hope, charity, and love.

CHRIST CLIMBED DOWN

Christ climbed down
from His bare Tree
this year
and ran away to where
there were no rootless Christmas trees
hung with candycanes and breakable stars

Christ climbed down
from His bare Tree
this year
and ran away to where
there were no gilded Christmas trees
and no tinsel Christmas trees
and no tinfoil Christmas trees
and no pink plastic Christmas trees
and no gold Christmas trees
and no black Christmas trees
and no powderblue Christmas trees
hung with electric candles
and encircled by tin electric trains
and clever cornball relatives

Christ climbed down
from His bare Tree
this year
and ran away to where
no intrepid Bible salesmen
covered the territory
in two-tone cadillacs
and where no Sears Roebuck crèches
complete with plastic babe in manger
arrived by parcel post
the babe by special delivery
and where no televised Wise Men
praised the Lord Calvert Whiskey

Christ climbed down
from His bare Tree
this year
and ran away to where
no fat handshaking stranger
in a red flannel suit
and a fake white beard
went around passing himself off
as some sort of North Pole saint
crossing the desert to Bethlehem
Pennsylvania
in a Volkswagen sled
drawn by rollicking Adirondack reindeer
with German names
and bearing sacks of Humble Gifts
from Saks Fifth Avenue
for everybody’s imagined Christ child

Christ climbed down
from His bare Tree
this year
and ran away to where
no Bing Crosby carolers
groaned of a tight Christmas
and where no Radio City angels
iceskated wingless
thru a winter wonderland
into a jinglebell heaven
daily at 8:30
with Midnight Mass matinees

Christ climbed down
from His bare Tree
this year
and softly stole away into
some anonymous Mary’s womb again
where in the darkest night
of everybody’s anonymous soul
He awaits again
an unimaginable
and impossibly
Immaculate Reconception
the very craziest
of Second Comings

*Note: I used to love teaching Ferlinghetti’s poems when I was a high school English teacher, not only because he creates such vivid images, but also because he makes a point to make his poems accessible to ordinary people, not just educated intellectuals. (He even writes about underwear!) A major influence on the Beat movement, Ferlinghetti, age 94, is still writing poems and staying involved with the San Francisco bookstore he opened in the 1950’s, City Lights. To learn more about his work, a good place to start is http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/lawrence-ferlinghetti.