Christine's All-Weather Field Notes: 1/13/2016
Thursday, January 21, 2016 9:30 AM
On New Year’s morning, I mimicked the call of a red squirrel to see if the Golden-Crowned Kinglets would be curious enough to come down from the treetops. We were breaking trail through fresh snow in a fairly young forest of spruce, white birch, and poplar — young, in forestry terms, meant this forest had started to regrow after the land was clearcut and the brush burned in the 1940s, just before the area was dammed and drowned to create Flagstaff Lake at the foot of the Bigelow mountains.
Three kinglets followed a couple of chickadees over, bringing along a little Downy Woodpecker and a Red-Breasted Nuthatch. Kinglets, a tiny, hyperactive bird that weighs no more than two pennies, are at home in the Northern forests and manage to survive nights as cold as 40 below by cuddling together. They gave me a look-see, shared a few tinkling bell-like calls, foraged for insects in the spruce needles, then flitted off with the chickadees, followed by the nuthatch — all of them trolling for tiny, dormant insects in bark and bud.
Biologists theorize that this mixed-flock approach serves to increase the chances of winter survival, even though these companionable species are competing for some of the same food. Though, perhaps, there are fine gradients in what each probes for: the chickadees mostly eat seeds, the kinglets go after tiny insects in bark and evergreen buds, the woodpeckers nick away at insects buried in bark crevices and below, and the nuthatches go for tiny bugs and seeds. It may be that their particular niches (an ecological term, as it is used here) in the winter food web of the Northern forest do not overlap, or if they do, the benefits of alerting each other to potential predators or uncovering food sources outweighs the risks of going after the same scarce harvest.
I tried to entice over a roving flock of Winter Grosbeaks chattering gregariously in the distance, but they were so noisy they couldn’t even hear me. Finally, I mimicked the call of a Barred Owl, which shut them up for exactly 20 seconds, then sent them back to unconcerned nattering.
The Evening Grosbeak, a large yellow-and-black finch with a beak like a nutcracker, makes its home in Northern and high elevation forests. In winter, it gangs up to wander near and far around the landscape, sometimes visiting backyard feeders to hang out for a time, furiously cracking sunflower seeds like late-night mah-jongg players in northern China, then vanishing back into the forest after white ash seeds, among other things. In summer, they switch to eating insects. A particular favorite is the spruce budworm, and a notable number of grosbeaks in an area can be a sign that a serious budworm outbreak is beginning.
It is not entirely clear why Evening Grosbeaks are in decline across their range. Project FeederWatch reports that Evening Grosbeaks were showing up at feeders half as often from the late 1980s to 2000, and flock sizes were down 27 percent. Disease, habitat loss due to logging, and warmer winters factor into the decline, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
We passed farther into the silver light beneath the sheltering canopy of straight spruce, each with a trunk the breadth of a blue-plate special at Moody’s Diner, then slogged through a half-frozen forested wetland crisscrossed by still more intriguing animal tracks before coming out to the shore of Flagstaff Lake.
After scraping a mound of snow off a log with a view of snow blowing off the top of Avery Peak, we sat down to a cold lunch. Thus fortified (as Victorian adventurer Isabella Bird used to say after her daily ration of a handful of raisins and a slug of cold tea), we backtracked up the trail for a closer look at the animal tracks in the snow that seemed, at a glance, to have been those of an ermine: a small and slinky weasel with a white winter coat and a black-tipped tail.
But there were new tracks on the trail, stepping in our own footprints. Apparently, we weren’t the only ones on the prowl.
Next week, Christine Parrish determines who was stalking her through the winter woods.