The New Year began with some nice warm weather—near 50° in the southern part of Wisconsin. The warm weather brought rain, which melted a lot of snow, and it felt like a January thaw. It would be a couple weeks early, but then again, so is everything else the past couple of years.
There’s been plenty of snow to play in—sledding, skiing, snowshoeing—but it’s been too cold to melt the snow enough to build a snowman. I’ve been watching for them but haven’t seen many. The warm temperatures lasted only a couple of days, then the thermometer dropped sharply to around zero. The remaining wet snow froze solid enough to walk on, again making it impossible to build a snowman. Organic Valley employee Wanda Lewison had been waiting patiently for the chance to roll some snow, and her and the kids got right at it. You can tell she has lots of experience, because they created a beautiful country snowwoman complete with a pink cowgirl hat. She sure caught my eye! Thanks, Wanda.
Now that much of the deep snow has melted away, it will make life much easier for wildlife. There are lots of places that are now snowless—places where the deer, turkeys, and other birds can find food on the ground. The muskrat house on the marsh pond was completely covered a week ago but now it can be plainly seen out on the ice. No doubt the muskrats are warm and safe, and sound asleep deep inside.
I watched a pair of sub-adult Bald eagles this morning. They had found a gut pile on the ground on the wooded hillside. I couldn’t see them when they flew to the ground, but got a good look when they flew up into the branches of a nearby tree. They both started preening their feathers and relaxing when a large female Red-tailed hawk dove down from the sky and dive-bombed the eagles, chasing them both off. The fearless female hawk was only defending her territory of intruders—apparently any intruders. She was large for her kind, but she paled in comparison to the female eagle’s wingspan.
I’ve been seeing lots of eagles in the Kickapoo Valley again this winter. I think it’s in part due to the expanded deer hunting seasons. The eagles, being scavengers, are drawn to gut piles left on the ground by hunters who have field-dressed a deer. It’s the way it’s been done since forever. The hunter leaves the entrails in the field to be recycled naturally, which is good, except for the small pieces of lead from the bullet left in the edible remains. An eagle is very vulnerable to even a tiny amount of lead. We’ve created another threat to the eagles through our good intentions.
If you haven’t collected a wasp nest by now you’re probably going to have to wait until next year. I’ve spotted several of these large, round, gray paper nests the past few days. They are usually on the end of a hanging tree branch and very visible after the leaves have gone. The wasp nests I’ve been seeing have been tattered and torn apart by hungry woodpeckers who eat the dead wasps inside. Last summer’s wasp homes will be gone by spring.
Over the years I’ve been asked many times how to find a hawk’s nest. This question is usually asked in the summer when the Red-tailed hawk’s nest is hidden by the thick canopy of green leaves on the trees in the woods. The best time to find the hawks nest in now, in the winter, when they stick out like sore thumbs in the tree tops. They are large nests of sticks two to three feet across, and usually in the highest large branches of a tall tree. Of course, the hawks don’t use them in the winter, but they will begin adding to their nest in late February and early March.
It’s not unusual for a hawk to fly through the yard in the winter. More often than not, these are small hawks known as Accipiters (Cooper’s hawks and Sharp-skinned hawks). They many be attracted to the small birds at the bird feeders, which they are capable of catching and eating. Accipiters come in three sizes—the Jay-sized Sharp-skinned hawks, the crow-sized Cooper’s hawks, and the even larger and more powerful goshawks. All are designed to outfly and catch birds for a living.
It’s rare to see a goshawk these days and they don’t nest in this part of the state, as they spend their summers much further north. In a tail chase a Goshawk can catch a pheasant, wild duck, or Roughed grouse on the wing—that’s fast. In typical fashion, Accipiters are very inconspicuous and stay hidden near cover and prefer to bush-whack their prey by means of speed and surprise. Their short powerful wings and long tails help them maneuver quickly through the thick cover of the woods.
The pictures I tried to take of the six bluebirds I saw Wednesday left a lot to be desired—they wouldn’t let me get close. When I first saw them they were all eating Sumac berries. IWould have been a great picture, with the red Sumac heads and snow all around and the pretty bluebirds, but they would have none of it and flew off before I could get the cover off the lens. Oh, well. It’s still a special treat to see a bluebird in the winter.
have these early winter mornings, the silhouette of a windmill or a dark branchy hickory in the soft morning light. The sun’s first rays casts long shadows on the snow and then splashes across the breasts of the larks. A hawk enjoys the warmth of the new day and preens with pleasure at peace with the world. The turkeys fly down from their nighttime perches and walk off single file to the cornfield, and the cardinals are the first to show up at the birdfeeders. There is something special about each morning no matter what time of year it is. A brisk morning walk is a good way to make peace with winter!
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