Winter solstice is when the sun is lowest, the days are shortest, and the nights are the longest. We've turned the corner now, and slowly the nights will shorten, as the sun gets a little higher in the sky with each passing day. It's a good reason to keep the hope of spring in our hearts.
There are other things keeping spring on our minds around here, the spring-like weather being the most obvious. We had a couple of weeks of "ground freezing" temperatures in November, but the weather has been like late March ever since. When I spotted a couple of water striders in the stream today, I had to stop and remember what the current date was. The water striders are pretty hardy, and don't seem to mind the frosty days of early November—but when the freeze comes, they disappear. And they were gone when the freeze came, but now it's thawed like spring and they are back.
I haven't seen any chipmunks emerging from their winter dens, which kind of surprises me. After all, it has been warm enough. There have been several robins hanging around in this small valley. They never come to the bird feeders though, and they seem to be taking advantage of the abundance of sumac berries in the area. I usually watch the robins eating sumac berries in late February and March, after they return from down south. The past few years, there are lots of robins that don't even bother to leave Wisconsin in the winter.
It's the beginning of January and the ground isn't frozen. The ground moles are still leaving tunnels in the yard, which means the earthworms are still near the surface. I don't remember the ground being unfrozen this far into winter, every. There was a time when I paid close attention to such things, because I helped dig graves.
There's been a few reports of some gardeners having tulips or crocuses peek through the ground on the warm side of the houses. They wanted to know if there would be flowers in the spring. Truth is, I'm not sure, but when and if the ground does freeze, put a few inches of mulch over them to keep the ground from thawing until spring. Straw or pine needles work good.
Several people told me they've heard Great Horned owls hooting every evening. It seems a little early for them to start courting, but it must feel like spring to them too. Great Horned owls are one of the first birds to start nesting in the spring, here in southwest Wisconsin. The female may be on her eggs as early as the second week of February. It will be interesting to see when she lays her eggs this year, especially if this warm weather holds.
I was in the right place at the right time the other day, when I spotted a Northern shrike. The robin-sized shrike was perched alone on a high line near some open grassland along a gravel road. As my car approached, he flew off, and I was able to see the distinctive white outer feathers of his tail and the white windows in his wings.
Shrikes are solitary birds that hunt alone. They resemble a large, gray, songbird but have a hooked beak like a hawk. In the winter they prey on voles, mice and small birds, if they can catch them. They are sometimes known as "butcher birds," because of their strange habit of impaling their food on the thorn of a thorn bush, or a barbed-wire fence. The shrike is also well regarded as a songbird. He sings a variety of beautiful songs, all run together like a mockingbird or a catbird.
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