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White-winged crossbills in a spruce woods

A male white-winged crossbill in a spruce tree. Note the red color with white wing marks. (Photo by Mark Sparky Stensaas)1 / 2
A female white-winged crossbill. Note the different color patterns. (Photo by Mark Sparky Stensaas)2 / 2

As we experience these mild days in late February, many of us are looking ahead into the coming weeks or months. Cabin fever has been replaced by spring fever. And we notice that Northland nature is also making some changes.

A recent trip to town turned into an observation of very early spring happenings for me. As I left home on this bright and clear day in February, the temperature was many degrees above freezing and turning the crusty snowpack into wet sticky snow, with much melting causing puddles along the road where there was ice and snow yesterday. But as I drove, I saw plenty more. Going by a growth of maples and oaks, I noticed the “tree circles” at their base. This happens as the sunlight of these longer days (now 11 hours) hits the dark bark of the trees, gets absorbed here and is re-radiated out into the snow, melting the snow from around the tree to make a circle. I see this phenomenon every year, but it seems to be a bit earlier than normal this year.

This sighting caused me to look for more. Along the roadside, I also discovered some small trees that were nearly bright red. These are the red-osier dogwoods in their response to the early spring. Nearby were willows that also held reddish branches with some of their well known fuzzy buds. I looked a little higher and saw that the buds of quaking aspens were also opening to reveal furry-looking growths. These trees were setting the pace for the coming of spring.

When I returned home, I went to a sugar maple in the yard and drilled a test hole to check for sap. There was an instant flow. This drive to town had become a lesson in early spring phenology and let me know again that when we look for one thing in nature, we often find it and more.

Last week I had a similar experience. The new snow came in the morning and much of the afternoon, stopping at about dusk. Though the temperatures were well below freezing, it was still warm enough for many critters to be active at night. The following day was clear. All of these conditions made for excellent tracking and so I went out into a couple of woods and fields to read the news of local wildlife. I was not disappointed.

Tracks of deer, squirrels and mice were right in the yard and spoke of their activities at night and the early morning. Going through a woods and onto the field, I saw how foxes and coyotes were about in the open sites and a ruffed grouse trekked in the snow for its breakfast and shelter. Also in the field I saw the tiny openings in the snow, called vole holes, where these subnivean rodents came to the surface. It was no surprise that I also found tracks of weasels, both the long-tailed and short-tailed (often called ermine). A fisher hopped through the woods shortly before I arrived at this growth of conifers.

Here among the spruces were most of the tracks. The active snowshoe hare covered the forest floor. These appeared either to be the hopping gaits of many resident hares, or a few that were very active. They are also responding to the longer days and shorter nights and exhibiting pre-mating behavior. What a great discovery.

But as often happens when we go out to find something in nature, we do find it, but others as well. As I stood surrounded by the abundant tracks of these lagomorphs, I heard a sound that caused me to look up. From the tops of these spruce trees came a series of clicking sounds. There were birds of note here. I called them in closer with a sound of my own and when one alighted on a nearby birch tree, I could see it clearly: a white-winged crossbill.

Crossbills are a regular, though not common, member of the coniferous forest community. The 6-inch birds, a kind of finch, are strange in a couple of ways. The name of crossbill refers to the fact that birds have the upper and lower bills (mandibles) cross, giving the appearance of a deformed bill. Such a mouthpiece allows these birds of the boreal forests to better break open the cones of spruces and pines and feed on the seeds within.

Their strangeness does not end with their bills and diet. They are known as irruptive birds. This term means that they go south in winter sometimes in huge numbers, other times not at all. And they seem to be able to nest through many months stretching from winter to fall.

Though there is some discussion on this, it is mostly accepted that there are two species of crossbills in the region, red and white-winged. Both show sexual dimorphism with red males and yellow-brown females. While the white-wings have a light colored pattern on the wings, reds do not.

The white-winged crossbills that I saw were probably having meals among the spruces as I examined the tracks below. I had not seen them in this woods for years. Again, it shows that when we go in search of some aspect of nature, we may find it and often more.

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