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Pine grosbeaks feed in a crabapple tree

A male pine grosbeak feeds on crabapples in winter. (Photo by Larry Weber)1 / 2
A female pine grosbeak gets nutrition from frozen crabapples. (Photo by Larry Weber)2 / 2

When we get to the end of January, we are about halfway between the winter solstice of December and the vernal equinox of March. This midwinter time is marked by many interesting phenomena. For the first time in about three months, sunset is now at 5 p.m. and will continue to get later. The sun rises earlier each day and the present 9 1/2 hours of daylight will rapidly expand to 10. And more is happening with the Northland nature.

It is a long time from now until spring, but critters are preparing. The wild canines are into their breeding season and the regular marking of their territories speaks of this. Also around the birdfeeders, I have seen a different behavior among the squirrels. All winter they seemed to be interested only in the food available, but now they appear to be noticing each other. This chasing movement is often referred to a pre-mating; true mating season is still about a month away.

The hairy woodpeckers drumming that I heard last week was not just a quirk and I continue to hear it this week during my walks. Also, large pileated woodpeckers have been calling.

Last week as I was walking in the pre-dawn in minus 25 degrees, I was surprised to hear the calling of a great horned owl. Since they are early breeders, was this also a pre-mating territorial call?

Last year in early February, our coldest month of the year, I was also surprised to hear a ruffed grouse drum and in a previous February, I noted a turkey gobbling. It seems as though some wildlife is noting the longer days and trying to quicken the steps toward spring. Which is exactly what we do with the date we call Groundhog Day: look forward to spring.

There appears to be plenty of activity going on now among the critters that winter here. While the cold snaps slow them down as they seek shelter, this milder times brings them out again. As I walked this week in the early hours, I watched a ruffed grouse feeding on roadside tree buds; at this hour, these birds are safer to grab a snack. Down the road a ways, I saw a flock of redpolls that left the feeder to have meals of alder and birch seeds. A pair of hardy ravens flew over, calling as though the cold were not present.

Though much is seen while walking, often along the roads or woods trails, I noted several sights from the car as well. An adult bald eagle perched high in a tree, looking over the winter landscape with superb vision, to find a meal of sorts. A rough-legged hawk caused me to pull over for a closer look. A flock of ravens and crows showed their presence and that of a roadkill deer.

Much can be seen now in the winter scene by those who look, even from the highway. This is when the location of winter owls, such as great gray owls, are frequently detected as they sit in the trees and poles of the roadsides. And sometimes these sightings happen as we drive through town.

This happened to me while driving this week. The street led to a four-way stop and I paused here as expected. I noticed movements in a nearby tree, a crabapple, still filled with the tiny apple-like fruits. Unlike its larger cousin, we normally do not harvest the products of crabapples. And so, the branches held large numbers of these marble-sized "apples." Being here all fall and winter, they were dry and frozen, not looking very appetizing to me. But indeed, they were being eaten. As I prolonged my stop at this intersection — fortunately, no traffic was behind me — I watched a flock of birds devour the crabapples. A closer look revealed two kinds of birds: starling, the dark non-natives that live and thrive in the region all year, and pine grosbeaks.

Pine grosbeaks are a type of finch. As finches go they are quite large, nearly as big as robins and quite colorful. Some of the birds had reddish bodies with dark wings and tail. Wings also held white markings, wing bars. These showy birds were the males. Females, also present, had similar wings and tail, but a body of gray with yellow-olive head-feathers. They were in no hurry and I observed them at my leisure until driving on.

Pine grosbeaks are a regular wintering bird in the region, breeding in the boreal forests of the north. I see them every winter, even occasionally at the feeders; this year I had seen few. But this flock in a streetside tree at midwinter was a great delight to watch. In a couple of weeks they may be gone, heading north again. But for now, I had some great birding while at a stop sign.

Retired teacher Larry Weber is the author of several books, including “Butterflies of the North Woods,” “Spiders of the North Woods” and “Webwood.” Contact him c/o budgeteer@duluthbudgeteer.com.

Larry Weber

Retired teacher Larry Weber is the author of several books, including “Butterflies of the North Woods,” “Spiders of the North Woods,” “Webwood” and “In a Patch of Goldenrods.” Contact him c/o budgeteer@duluthbudgeteer.com.

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