Bird list & natural events, December 2012

December eventually produced some winter weather, a slower schedule of outdoor work, and the chance to pay more attention to our winter birds and other natural happenings. We spend far more time indoors, doing office & personal work, yet also tend to spend more time in the woods and non-field parts of the farm than during the growing season, giving us a different perspective on the natural world here. Read on for weather notes, bird observations, and more.

Most of December was dry and relatively warm, continuing the conditions that so worry us in terms of extending the drought and not knocking back pests & weeds over the winter. The rain, snow and colder temperatures of late December were very welcome, though we’re still around 12″ below average precipitation for the year. For reference, we’d need an estimated 10-12 feet of snow this winter to bring our precip totals and soil moisture back in line. In other words, to get back to normal by spring, we need either 2-3 times the record snowiest winter for Columbia (45.6″), or to equal the overall wettest winter on record for Columbia (12.3″ precip). It’s a measure of this drought’s severity that, at this point, ending it in a timely fashion would likely be almost as disastrous as continuing it.

We have more time to talk walks around the farm this time of year, and enjoy exploring the various colors and textures available to an observant eye. Whether bark or fungus, there’s always something to discover.
The unusually warm conditions stretching through most of December produced a lot of unusual natural activity. Above left, daffodils shooting up (Joanna cleared some of the surface soil away from these when digging Jerusalem artichokes). Above right, an active frog; Eric also heard spring peepers in the woods mid-December. We’ve seen a number of buds forming on shrubs and small trees, and hope the recent cold spell discourages this kind of problematic early behavior.

Winter is a good time to observe and enjoy everyday birds. Even species as common as Chickadees and Titmice are attractive and interesting to study, each with its own behaviors, social structures, vocalizations, and more. Feeding out a bit of grain on our kitchen porch is a good way to practice basic bird photography and learn more about the common species that form a backbone of the farm’s ecology. For example, we always enjoy the fact the Red-Bellied Woodpeckers are quite happy to bully Blue Jays away from a preferred food source, despite the latter’s reputation and larger size.

Several unusual birds also passed through in December, including four Bald Eagles that soared overhead during a farm tour for new CSA members (good timing!). Interestingly, we hadn’t seen any kind of sparrow in several months until a lone American Tree Sparrow showed up in a flock of Juncoes right around Christmas. One explanation may be that our need to graze goats on given pasture areas more than once this year (due to extreme drought) reduced the amount of thicker brush and regrowth that’s normally left on areas grazed early in the year. All our pastures are eaten down pretty low, and most sparrows prefer thick vegetation. Preserving these habitats is normally a side benefit of rotational grazing, but their temporary loss is another manifestation of drought.

RECORDED IN DECEMBER (31 species, 8 new relative to November, 8 unobserved since November)
Great Blue Heron
Snow Goose
Canada Goose
Turkey Vulture (normally winters to south; seen one warm day, soaring on strong south winds over farm)
Gull, unidentified (almost certainly a Ring-Billed Gull, seen soaring overheard on the same warm day as the Turkey Vulture)
Cooper’s Hawk
Red-Shouldered Hawk (absence a quirk of observation; saw one on Jan 1)
Red-Tailed Hawk
Wild Turkey
Mourning Dove
Barred Owl (relatively frequent sightings)
Great Horned Owl
Belted Kingfisher
Red-Bellied Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker (an unusual visitor to our deeper woods)
Northern Flicker
Pileated Woodpecker
Blue Jay
American Crow
Tufted Titmouse
Black-Capped Chickadee
White-Breasted Nuthatch
Brown Creeper
Carolina Wren
Winter Wren (regularly hanging out around the compost piles)
Golden-Crowned Kinglet
Eastern Bluebird
American Robin
Cedar Waxwing
Yellow-Rumped Warbler
Northern Cardinal
Song Sparrow
American Tree Sparrow
(first record for the farm)
Dark-eyed Junco
Red-Winged Blackbird
American Goldfinch
Purple Finch (heard but not seen)

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