A Nuthatch Winter

This male white-breasted nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis) retrieved a seed from tree bark crevices. Notice the long, third toe used for balance.

The tiny, high-energy nuthatch is one of my favorite winter birds. Why the curious name “nuthatch”? “Hatch” was the Middle English word for hack or pound: nuthatches obtain much of their food by placing acorns and other nuts in bark crevices to hammer or hack open. They also store nuts and seeds under loose pieces of bark. I’ve seen red-breasted nuthatches use tiny sticks and other objects to lever the nuts out of a hiding place.

If you live near woods, or have trees in your yard, you’re likely to hear and see nuthatches. The white-breasted nuthatch is a year-round resident in Minnesota, and in most of the United States, Mexico and part of southern Canada.1 Its smaller cousin, the red-breasted nuthatch, is present in fewer numbers during the winter because most remain on their northern breeding grounds — unless there’s a shortage of spruce seeds, their primary food. In that case, they migrate in large numbers to the northern and eastern United States. This movement is called an irruption and it’s happening in 2018. (I saw my first red-breasted nuthatch of the season in our backyard on August 27.)

Similar in size to a house sparrow, the white-breasted nuthatch is a small bird with a big voice. I hear them call on the coldest winter days when most birds are silent. Its call is described as a nasal “yank-yank”. During the breeding season, the males also make a nasal “wha-wha-wha” song. They like deciduous trees, especially white oaks. Favorite foods include the nuts or seeds of oak, hickory, beech, maple, pine and spruce in the winter. They often come to suet and sunflower seed feeders, too. Insects and spiders are choice foods for the summer.

This red-breasted nuthatch (Sitta canadensis) uses a stick to search for hidden seeds in the bark of a red pine. (Photograph used with permission.)

The tiny red-breasted nuthatch is present year-round at our cabin in east central Minnesota. Smaller than its white-breasted cousin, it’s about the size of a kinglet. Its song is also a nasal,“yank-yank,” however, it is higher pitched and has been compared to the tone of a toy tin horn. They frequently make fast, high-pitched squeaking calls. Red-breasteds favor coniferous forests, but can also be found in deciduous woods, parks and yards during a winter irruption. They eat the nuts of spruce and other conifers in the winter, and visit feeders for suet, sunflower seeds and peanuts. Insects and spiders are summer favorites.

Nuthatches are cavity nesters — red-breasteds often select dead aspens because the wood is soft and easy to excavate. White-breasteds nest in both deciduous and conifer trees — they’ll frequently use an old woodpecker nest, rather than dig out a new cavity. Both build a bed of grass and shredded bark, then line it with fur, feathers and other soft material. Each species raises one brood per year.

White oaks are a favorite food source of white-breasted nuthatches.

Both species sport blue-gray, black, and white coloration. However, the red-breasted nuthatch has a wide, black eyestripe, whereas the white-breasted shows mainly white around its eye. Upper parts on both nuthatches are blue-gray. All have a black crown except for the female white-breasted nuthatch, which has a blue-gray crown. Red-breasted nuthatches have rusty or rufous-colored underparts in contrast to the white-breasted’s mainly bright, white belly. Both species have a long rear toe that is used to grip the bark of trees. (Other climbers, such as woodpeckers and brown creepers, use their tail to support themselves when climbing a tree trunk.)

Red-breasted nuthatches are easily identified by their small size, rusty colored underparts and high-pitched calls.

 When you’re outside on winter days, listen for nuthatch “yank-yank-yank” calls and keep an eye on tree trunks for tiny blue-gray, black and white birds intently inspecting the bark. Since nuthatches often join small flocks of other winter birds, you might also see downy woodpeckers, brown creepers, chickadees and kinglets as an added bonus!

1North America has four species of nuthatch: the brown-headed and pygmy nuthatches, in addition to the white-breasted and red-breasted nuthatches. There are 25 nuthatch species worldwide.

November Bulbs: Hope for the Spring

‘Maureen’ tulip bulbs bloom in late spring.

In the darkness of a warm, late November evening, my sister planted hope for the spring in my garden: five waxy-smooth, tear drop-shaped “Maureen” tulip bulbs. As she dug the bulb planter into the moist earth, the soil released fresh scents of spicy bee balm, native geraniums, and the pleasant odor of dirt and old leaves.

We nestled each bulb into its own little chamber, filled each space with dirt, lightly watered them and returned the blanket of fallen leaves. I placed a temporary cover of chicken wire and stones on the soil, until it freezes, to discourage squirrels from digging up the bulbs.

Spring bulbs emerging from their winter sleep is a highlight of spring for me.

I think about those small packets of life tucked into the dark earth, and wait for them to ride out the winter. Yes, it’s later than desirable to plant bulbs, but it is how it worked out this year for many reasons. I choose to have hope that they will survive. While I wait, I’ll dream of a mild April day when I’ll walk out the back door and spot bright green shoots poking up through the wet soil. I’ll watch them form buds and bloom; cool ivory against a field of blue Siberian squill and green foliage. In a special way, I will recall the two “Maureens” in my life: a wise aunt who died this past summer and a wonderful young niece who shares her name.

A ‘Maureen’ tulip from a previous spring.

Winter Trees

A weathered old northern red oak (still living) has been a home to many birds and other animals.

A weathered old northern red oak (Quercus rubra) is home to many species of birds and other animals.

A tree’s beauty is easily noticed in three seasons: Spring’s first green haze of buds; summer’s rustling crown of leaves; and autumn’s smoldering colors. Winter uncovers a different kind of beauty: that of bark, interesting shapes, animal shelters and open sky — the guts of things not often seen.

A small stand of northern red oak, at our cabin along the Snake River in Pine County, MN, includes a tree that was sheared off in a summer windstorm two decades ago. Neighboring branches hide the jagged top most of the year, but in winter the scarred wood’s polished grain and shape are revealed, along with hidden nesting cavities. Squirrels, great-created flycatchers, red-bellied woodpeckers and most recently, pileated woodpeckers have nested and raised their young in this red oak.

Crabapple trees (Malus) provide food for many birds and add winter color.

Crabapple trees (Malus) provide food for many birds and add winter color.

Crabapple trees, especially those with long-lasting fruit, add warm crimson to the stark black and white landscape. Their small shapes and curving branches remind me of bonsai trees. By late spring, most of the plump fruit will be consumed by cedar waxwings and robins.

The bark of river birch (Betula nigra) is multicolored and has a shredded texture.

The bark of river birch (Betula nigra) is multicolored and has a shredded texture.

Bark patterns and colors are more pronounced in winter with fewer distractions from the rest of the plant world.  One of my favorites is the papery bark of the river birch. The colors range from soft brown to salmon, pink and ivory. The bark shreds and flutters in the wind. Paper birch bark (Betula papyrifera) is pretty too, especially at sunrise and sunset when low rays add blush to the tips of twigs and branches.

White spruce (Picea glauca) and other evergreens shelter many creatures.

White spruce (Picea glauca) and other evergreens shelter many creatures.

The white spruce has grayish-red bark with a rough mosaic-like texture. Its evergreen branches shelter cardinals, kinglets, juncos and chickadees. At the end of winter, new burgundy cones appear, like tiny ornaments, on the tips of branches.

New cones form on a white spruce.

New cones form on a white spruce.

Winter trees reveal the hidden face of nature — textures, hues, patterns weathered and worn — and more open sky to view the moon, stars and urban sunsets; beauty to the eye that looks carefully. What do you see?

Winter sunset over Saint Paul, MN, on Feb. 22, 2017.

Winter sunset over Saint Paul, MN, on Feb. 22, 2017.

 

January Thaw

The week’s mild air and slow, steady melt have given voice to the first cardinal songs and chickadee whistles. Robins also call softly throughout the neighborhood. It’s too early to look for bulbs and other new life in the garden, but there’s a lot happening under the snow. I’m excited about the thaw and had a peek at what goes on under the white blanket during the winter!

Where the snow melted away from the lower stalks of a climbing rose, I found bracket fungus growing on the remains of an old stalk that died several winters ago. I hesitated to cut it down (for fear of damaging the plant) and left it alone. Now, nature is returning it to the earth on its own schedule. The fungus, also known as shelf fungus, breaks down the main components in the dead wood and returns them to the soil.

Bracket or shelf fungus, with their striations, remind me of freshwater clam shells.

Bracket or shelf fungus, with their striations, remind me of freshwater clam shells.

I also found a few patches of bright green moss exposed by the melt. I think it is fire moss (Ceratodon purpureus), which remains green under the snow throughout winter. Like the fungus, it is an ancient plant that evolved more than 500 million years ago. The moss breaks down rock and other components that enrich the soil. Moss also helps prevent erosion by holding water and soil in place. Its fresh spring green is a beautiful contrast to winter’s formal black and white.

Fire moss stays moist and green under the snow. It builds soil and helps control erosion.

Fire moss stays moist and green under the snow. It builds soil and helps control erosion.

Both plants replenish the earth and prepare for spring growth. So, in a few months, as you enjoy the beauty of spring bulbs, budding trees and blossoming perennials, remember the lowly fungi and moss that return nutrients to the earth and restore soil to nourish the circle of life.

Living things like this mourning cloak and common milkweed, benefit from the hidden actions of fungi and moss under the snow.

Living things like this mourning cloak and common milkweed, benefit from the hidden actions of fungi and moss under the snow.

Late-Winter Beauty

Star-like snow crystals add beauty to common milkweed (Asclepia syriaca) in early March

Star-like snow crystals add beauty to common milkweed (Asclepia syriaca).

Soft, wet snow falls in early March. White blankets the garden and lawn, outlines tree limbs in frosty ice, and meltwater gurgles in downspouts.  It’s a peaceful scene — and what’s most beautiful to my eye is the common milkweed in our garden.  All winter long, north winds shook the dead, dry stalks and tugged at the pods until the seeds ballooned into the wind on their silky parachutes. A few seeds float free each day, but most still ride the breeze tethered to their pods.  Minute feathery snow crystals etch the silken strands like starry sequins on nature’s beautiful gown.

milkweedwholeThough the stalks are tattered, rough and hollow, soon spring-green shoots will pop through the soil to grow new plants and nourish bees, butterflies and hummingbirds. But for today, I’ll enjoy the crystal-covered seeds and the snowy scene knowing it will soon give way to spring’s warmth.ballerinaseeds2

Silent Snow

Pond Snowy Day

Low, heavy clouds lumber overhead, and the world narrows down to the bare-treed woods and pond.  Outside, I listen to the quiet  —  so still that I can feel the pressure of silence.  All traffic and aircraft noise is muffled and absorbed by feathery flakes.  I hear only the occasional ruffle of wind swishing snow crystals across open space in powdery swirls. A lone crow soars black against the sky not breaking the stillness.

In the morning, the predawn darkness is tinted with the odd light that accompanies a new snowfall.  I am up early and watch as daylight slowly builds beneath slate clouds.  I hear no birds, but there’s a gentle huffing sound: the breathing of white-tailed deer.  Gradually, several appear on the shore of the pond.  They nibble the tips and buds of willow saplings and other tender plants that protrude from the ice-covered pond and its bank.

Pond Deer Feeding

A second group grazes along the pond’s far shore.  As I watch them, I daydream of seeing their spotted fawns in a spring world filled with green leaf buds, lush moss, wildflowers, glorious birdsong, and wood ducks and mergansers sailing on the pond.  But for now, the winter world remains black, white and still.

Pond Distant Deer