Virginia Nature Journal for January

  • BurnsPoem

     After the merry Christmas holidays and the high spirits of Hogmanay and Ne’er Day in Scotland, January stretches out, dark, drab and driech. February too promises precious few fine days, although the longer daylight hours are cheering.

    It is time for those at work and home to hunker down, and for snowbirds to fly out of blizzard-blasted northern states and Canada, past chilly Virginia to the warm blanket of southern Florida.

    grosbeak
    Young Rose-breasted Grosbeak. Courtesy Geoff Giles

    Birds too are on the move. The neotropicals headed further south several months ago, although a few hardy individuals stayed on in our Williamsburg area through the light snows and recent ice-storm. How would they manage without the hospitality of feeder stations in gardens and yards? Every year, there are reports of a hummingbird and a tanager lingering here in mid-winter, and a Rose-breasted Grosbeak visited a friend’s garden this month. I wonder if these vagrants are seasonally disoriented or knowingly hanging around avian soup kitchens, but they are thrilling sights for being among our most colorful birds.

    A flock descending in the backyard like a sudden squall can lift a brow leaning at the computer for a welcome moment of respite from concentrated work. Mostly American Robins and occasionally Red-winged blackbirds or grackles, they are probably not the residents of other times of year for those birds have temporarily gone to more southerly neighborhoods. The winter relatives have come down from the north to feast on left-over berries of holly, wax myrtle, and red cedar. Why the locals moved away before emptying their larder puzzles me, but the policy helps the migrants who replace them. The wrens, nuthatches and chickadees seen at this time of year may also be newcomers, but I like to think my special friends, the cardinals and bluebirds, stay with us the year round. But how could I know unless I banded them?

    bird feeder
    Small bird feeder – fat, grain and seeds

    We only see White-throated Sparrows and Dark-eyed Juncos in the coastal plain in winter. They skulk around the shrubbery, ignoring the gardener at work nearby, and take turns to peck suet on the feeder. Juncos are nick-named ‘snowbirds’ because they are regarded as harbingers of hard weather. In the mountains above 3,000 feet, they are the only birds you can count on seeing throughout January. The deer have no choice but to stay the year round, and many animals perished of starvation in the very hard winter five years ago. Bears are safe from the elements while torpid in their dens. Most other birds and critters move down the valleys to better pickings around creeks or to even further afield. But you can tempt some of them to stay.

    big feeder
    The Big Feeder

    Last fall, I hauled 200 pounds of whole corn and chicken scratch in a barrel 20 feet up in the low canopy between two trees. The job needed a hand winch and a block and tackle. Under a hole in the base of the barrel, a small propeller spins automatically every 12 hours, scattering grain in a 50 foot radius for six seconds. A gamecam monitors the area and a motion detector rings in the house 100 feet away to tell me when to grab binoculars. But the hefty feeder was not installed for the benefit of viewers; it feeds the hungry while I am away, and only needs replenishing every two months.

    Winter trees are wisely bare and silent, but this helps me to see further into the woods. The season is not dead; wildlife are coming to their Time Square.

    In the past few hours, several deer came to nibble grain. Four ruffed grouse in cuddly feather balls strutted around, and two fox squirrels, so much larger and more handsome than gray relatives, darted back and forth with grain to a hiding place. And there was rarely a moment when small birds were absent. There was no fighting over food and, despite the bitter cold, most visitors were in mated pairs. A pineal gland tells them the time of year. I recorded a mother bear grubbing under the feeder with two adorable cubs, but now she may be dreaming of spring with a tiny newborn pup or two attached to her teats. January is hard, but has its compensations, and is full of distant anticipation.

    Next Post: The Soda File

     

Christmas Birds

cardinal
Northern cardinal at our feeder Christmas Eve

Our friends and neighbors turned up early for a hand-out on Christmas Eve in Williamsburg. They looked snug in their colored winter jackets and were eager for suet, seed, and nuts. I recorded them in my FeederWatch tally sheet—northern cardinals, Carolina chickadees and wrens, tufted titmice, white-breasted nuthatches, red-bellied and downy woodpeckers—adding notes about the weather (sunny and cold) and how long I had watched the feeder (time for two cups of coffee).

Project FeederWatch is a citizen scientist program of the Cornell Lab for Ornithology in Ithaca, NY. It recruits amateur birders from across and up and down the North American continent who record winter bird populations in their backyards.  Over time the data show which species have stable numbers or are increasing (most of those above) or becoming uncommon (too many). The five species recorded most in our area were: Carolina chickadee (98% of sites), dark-eyed junco (93), downy woodpecker (92), mourning dove (92), and northern cardinal (90). Sometimes we have an exciting “irruption.” Last year red-breasted nuthatches moved into our area ahead of cold fronts, and hungry snowy owls migrated to Virginia to avoid a scarcity of Arctic lemmings.

Last Sunday local birders were out in force braving the weather for the 114th Christmas Bird Count of the Audubon Society, which provides a snapshot of North American bird populations. The Williamsburg crowd fielded over a hundred volunteers and identified more than a hundred species that day, including some rarities for this time of year—western tanager, Baltimore oriole, and three humming birds (at heated bird feeders!). In that other bird-loving nation, the British Trust for Ornithology sponsors a survey of breeding birds for the same reason, and wisely in a warmer season of the year.

robin and letter box
Happy Christmas!

No British bird is more beloved or more closely linked with Christmas than the robin (not a close relative of the bigger American robin). Intolerant of its own kind, a robin will often strike up a friendly relationship with a gardener while waiting

for worms when a fork turns over a sod. For centuries they were known as redbreasts until 1855 when the British Postal Service introduced a skirted scarlet frock coat and black felt top hat for postmen. When the staff were nicknamed Robins, the same name stuck on redbreasts. If you ever wondered why so many British Christmas cards depict the robin with a red postbox now you know!

According to British folklore the robin got its redbreast from blood on the cross. But no birds feature in the Nativity story even though doves are common in Bethlehem and are biblical symbols of peace and love.

Turtle dove
Turtle dove. Morris’s British Birds 1891

Noah released a dove to test if the flood waters had receded. On its second flight it returned to the Ark carrying an olive branch, which signified the end of God’s wrath with mankind. Later, Levirate Law prescribed that people who were too poor to afford a lamb or kid could offer instead two turtle doves for the annual sacrifice at the Temple.

Mourning doves are common in Virginia gardens, where their forlorn cooing draws attention. But living in the Bible Belt affords them no special protection because these messengers of peace are game birds that will be blasted out of the sky after the hunting season reopens on December 31, up to a legal bag limit of fifteen a day.

Peace to all our gentle doves and to my readers at this Season.

And in the New Year may there be greater Peace between Men and with Nature.

Next Post: Shifting Baselines

Seventeen Year Itch

Back in 1996, Bill Clinton was still in his first term of office, Charles and Diana agreed to divorce, the Unabomber was apprehended, and Ella Fitzgerald died. That year I hadn’t even dreamed of moving permanently to North America: I was living in Yorkshire where mad cow disease was seizing the headlines in England. While so much history has flowed through newspaper presses since then, Brood II cicadas were all the while secretly sucking at tree roots waiting for the calendar to flip over to 2013.

I encountered the brood a couple of weeks ago at a rest area on the I-64 west of Richmond.  The first thing travelers noticed after stepping out of their cars was a chirping racket coming from every direction. I had heard the sound only once before when a 13-year brood of cicadas was emerging near home in 2011. This year it is the turn of the 17-year ensemble to sing.cicada on grass

For a few weeks every 17 years local residents have sleepless nights. The noise can be as loud as a passing truck, and at 90 decibels reaches a level at which the Occupational and Safety Administration warns we should not be exposed to for more than 8 hours a day to avoid hearing damage. Not being respecters of regulations, male cicadas chirp round the clock.

They are among the great wonders of the insect world, but not only because they have one of the longest life cycles. The question that intrigues me more is how they manage to coordinate mass emergence.  When ground temperatures rise above 64 °F (18 °C) in the Year of the Brood, the fossorial cicada nymphs start to burrow upwards, breaking the surface first at the southern edge of their range (North Carolina) and progressively towards northern limits (Connecticut).  Soon there are incalculable billions above ground, more than a million per acre, but during intervening years you are unlikely to see any at all.  So precise is their timing that local residents can plan when to be on vacation in 2030 during the next big pulse.

They look scary and are the biggest of their kind. They are an inch-and-a-half long with bulging red eyes, orange wing veins and leg stripes, and through their transparent wings you can see a black cigar-shaped body.  They look like bugs in zoot suits and were given the marvelous scientific name, Magicicada septendecim.

I was a member of a naturalist group heading for a wildlife center in the Blue Ridge, but the cicadas in the car park – not you would think the most auspicious place to watch wildlife – were the most memorable sights of the day. They were thought to be a bad omen by superstitious early colonists, who assumed (wrongly) that they were the same as locusts in the Bible which warned in the Book of Revelation: “Then from the smoke came locusts on the earth …” I guess that every seventeen (or thirteen years) there were particularly fiery sermons from the pulpit about the seven last plagues of Armageddon.

For all their fearsome appearance, they are harmless insects. They don’t bite or sting, nor do they eat vegetation as true locusts do. They can cause minor tree damage from “flagging” (browning) during nest-building, but are generally rather beneficial. Soon after mating and egg-laying the adults die, providing food for critters and fertilizing the soil. The only remaining cicadas are immature “instar larvae” hatched from eggs. These nymphs fall from the tree canopy to the ground where those that avoid predation burrow underground to find juicy roots to suck on … and on … and on until the calendar turns.

For the most part, the distribution of 17-year broods and 13-year broods don’t overlap, although they evolved from a common stock a few million years ago.  Today there are 15 broods in North America, twelve with 17-year cycles and three with 13-year, and you will not find them anywhere else.  Of the 3,000 species of cicada worldwide, only seven have periodical behavior.

Burrows and shells from which cicadas emerged in the car park
Burrows and shells from which cicadas emerged in the car park

We watched hordes of them lumbering up tree trunks and walls; we saw many flying unsteadily like old flying boats, often crashing into branches or to the ground where robins were waiting to pounce. For a small bird, a cicada is hamburger-sized (and probably just as nutritious), so the eaters were soon sated. Everywhere across the hard-trodden ground there were holes, about ten to the square yard and a little larger than earthworms make. These were the burrows from which cicadas had recently emerged, and scattered close by were the transparent brown shells (exuvia) which they had worn for so many years underground. They gave us a spectacle I may never see or hear again.

The greatest enigmas are how they know the time, and why coordinate their emergence instead of being independent like most insects. We know of genes that regulate daily cycles in animals, but I can’t understand how molecules make a 17-year timer. And if cicada nymphs were synchronizing eruption by communicating with each other underground, it stumps my imagination.  Perhaps it serves to overwhelm the appetites of predators so that at least some survive to breed, although that theory is controversial. A similar explanation has been offered for mast seeding of long-lived plants. Last year was a mast year for oaks, with acorns lying so thick in our yard that every step sounded like walking on cornflakes.  But mast years are unpredictable – they can be consecutive or after long gaps – whereas cicada years can be written into almanacs for years, even centuries, ahead.cicada on blue

There are few pat answers in nature and the life sciences. That was frustrating when I was a student preparing for exams, but now I think the mysteries are far more wonderful than the facts.

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