Winter has finally returned to Southwest Wisconsin—sort of. We had a week starting off with a little snow, daytime temps in the 20s (below freezing for a change!) and down into the teens at night. It's strange—I usually don't enjoy the cold, but it feels right to me now, more of the way it's supposed to this time of year.
There's lots of spring things to look for during the month of February. The Red-tailed hawks seems to be getting spring fever, and they now can be seen hanging out close together—even perched together in pairs on a lofty branch. In a couple of weeks they will start courting and carrying new sticks to add to their nest.
The Great Horned owls have already started their nesting season, and yesterday, with binoculars, I could see the ear tufts of a female owl as she crouched down, warming her clutch of eggs in a big stick nest. No matter how cold it gets, or how much it rains or snows, she will stay put and keep her eggs warm. These large owls are among the earliest birds to nest in Wisconsin. By the time the leaves start to appear on the oak trees, the young owls will have hatched and fledged.
The Woodcock could return within the next couple of weeks. The male's courtship behavior is a treat to see, and his mating call is often the first thing that lets you know he is back. Peeent, peeent! The "peenting" is followed by a whistling whirr of wings, as he flies high above his dancing ground. He makes a large circle over his favorite territory; then, with a headfirst dive, he twitters to the ground to begin his courtship dance. He may repeat the whole process a thousand times in the next couple of months, and mate with any female who comes across his ten-square-yard territory. I have found active Woodcock nests here as early as the third week of February.
Up on the grassy pastures, where the prairie once grew, the Prairie Horned larks are starting their own lovely courtships. After spending the entire winter on the wind-swept, snow-covered ground, the Horned larks too get an early start on spring love games. These birds are about the size of a large sparrow. The male has little black ear tufts ("horns") and a black mustache above a subtle yellow throat and a black bib. Like the Woodcock, the lark does a courtship flight that makes a large circle above his territory on the ground far below. His sky-dance may take him 600 to 800 feet above the pasture, while he sings a beautiful chirping song. Then, he tucks in his wings, and dives to his mate waiting on the ground. By the second week of February, the female could be sitting on a clutch of up to five white, brown-spotted eggs. Her prairie-style nest is no more than a small hollow place in a tuft of pasture grass. For most of us, February is still very much winter, but for the Prairie Horned lark, it's spring, and time to carry on to future generations.
The Gray squirrels too are in the middle of their family duties. I have noticed in the past couple of days that there have been only about half as many squirrels at the bird feeders as before. This has me thinking that some of the females are busy with newborn, tiny, hairless babies. They are all tucked away in a warm nest of grass and leaves in a hollow tree, somewhere up in the big woods.
I love to watch gray squirrels as they dash through the branches of the trees, never seeming to step off-balance. They run up one limb and down another, then without hesitation, leap through the air to catch the end of the branch of a whole other tree. The squirrel's grip is amazingly sure, and they use their long fluffy tail as a rudder. When it comes to tree climbing, there's none better, and I suspect even jungle monkeys would be jealous. Watching a couple of squirrels chase each other through the branches of a big tree, double-time, is great outdoor entertainment.
It's always encouraging in the depth of February winter, to see these first signs of spring. It's a good reminder to keep the faith that spring will arrive for us too!
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