Birding in Winter

Common Merganser_Winter Bird Count_FCNC-CO_LAH_2471-001

I have a tendency to be a fair-weather birder. Give me warm, sunny days, balmy breezes, and sparkling blue ponds and lakes. Trees are full of leaves, bugs, and birds. With all the summer migrants in town, trip lists run long. Singing males are easier to spot, and the rituals of mating and raising young, offering additional opportunities for the wildlife photographer.

It has taken me a long time to appreciate winter birding. Temperatures dip below freezing and it may snow. Roads can be treacherous, providing unwanted excitement just getting to the birding destination. Many birds have heeded to call to migrate, and those left behind tend to be drab, matching the winter landscape. And then there’s the silence. I hear no songs, not even much chirping. Yes, there are birds out there, but where?

And yet…

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Birding Pueblo

American Robin_RoselawnCemetery-Blende-CO_LAH_0764For years, whenever I’ve gone to Pueblo to go birding, I’ve headed to Lake Pueblo state park. How can any place else compete with a large reservoir surrounded by arid open space, watered picnic areas, and, along the Arkansas River below the dam, a birdy stretch of riparian trees and bushes. Pueblo Reservoir gets its share of rarities as well—out-of-state gulls in particular. I’ve picked up a number of lifers there.

This time, however, we went to Pueblo and didn’t go to the state park! I’d heard that there are other places in Pueblo where you can find birds. Well, maybe.

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Signs of Spring

Rabbit @ Big Johnson Res. 2008apr17 LAH 016There’s still plenty of cold and snow to go around, but the faintest signs of spring are beginning to appear. Gazing out a friend’s  window this week, I was enjoying the view when I noticed that the uppermost branches of the nearby ash trees didn’t appear quite smooth. A few weeks ago they looked as if they were tightly hugging themselves. Now—could those be buds swelling?

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My Annual Mid-winter Attitude Check

Hoar frost_LaVeta-CO_LAH_2371

I love wintertime. I love the snow, the icicles, and even the subzero temperatures (probably because we so seldom get them). Having grown up in the monotonous weather of southern California, I think winter is amazing, even after 25 years in Colorado.

However… sometimes we just get too much winter. Not in quality—Colorado winters are milder than one might suspect—but in the quantity of days when winter is likely. We’ve experienced a hard frost and snow as early as September 8 and as late as mid-June. I like winter—but I like summer too!

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Gimme Shelter

House Finch_LaVeta-CO_LAH_2316The summer birds have all departed for southern climes or lower altitudes. Many of our human friends have done likewise. Those of us who remain are simmering soup, digging out winter clothes and making sure our homes are snug and warm. The birds who hang around all winter have the same needs—high energy food, winter clothes and snug, warm homes.

We can’t help much with the wardrobe—birds already have down jackets! When they get cold, they simply puff up their feathers, trapping warm air against their bodies. This works remarkably well—until the wind kicks in. And we have a lot of wind.

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Persistent Perennials

Lychnis coronaria - Rose Campion @DBG LAH 033We had our first hard freeze over a month ago. Most of the deciduous plants and perennials in my yard are now dormant—some with dry brown leaves still attached, others with bare stems. But remarkably, not everything looks dead. In fact, a surprising number of plants still sport green foliage.

I’ve often chosen or rejected a plant for my garden based on when it leafs out in the spring. Too early and the tender new leaves are withered by a late snow. Too late, and half the season is gone before the yard looks complete. But I never considered the other end of the season—how long will the plant stay green before going to sleep for the winter?

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Snow-tolerant Veggies

Yes, it’s May. And yes, it’s still snowing. In fact, we had temperatures around 20 degrees, with snow, over the past few days. The prediction is for warmer weather, but in previous years we’ve had snow and lows below freezing well into June. Of course I’m anxious to get my garden growing—but what will survive our winter/spring weather? Surprisingly, quite a lot!

Kale
LAH_7318We were gone last fall, so I never got around to pulling out last summer’s freeze-killed veggies. It turns out that was a good thing. With no protection at all, my Starbor kale roots survived our Zone 4 winter, and new growth is appearing from a dead-looking stump. I expect the kale plants to bolt as soon as it warms up a bit more, but in the meantime, I’m harvesting kale now. I plan to include kale in my garden again this year, starting seeds inside and setting out plants in late June to mature in September and October, after frost sweetens the leaves. You can bet I’ll leave those plants in place next fall, maybe with a bit of mulch or a row cover, for yet another early harvest. Continue reading “Snow-tolerant Veggies”

Winter Water Solution: Heated Birdbaths

House Finch_LaVeta-CO_LAH_2316_filteredI’m gazing out my frosted window at the birds in our backyard. In the four hours since sunrise, the thermometer has only climbed from 13 to 15 degrees. Tiny snowflakes waft down onto the deck and bird feeders. The predawn fog has frozen onto every twig and blade of grass, turning the landscape into a fairyland of hoar frost.

The birds—House Finches, Dark-eyed Juncos, a few pigeon—are devouring my black-oil sunflower seeds as fast as their little beaks can crack the shells. A flicker has staked out the suet feeder. (I miss the nuthatches and chickadees from our old house, surrounded by pines.) But as popular as the feeders are, the birds are also flocking to my heated birdbath.

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Seeds to Start in January

geranium-bold-charm-rose-csu-lah-162For an avid gardener, January can be a difficult time of year. Sure, we can dream. The seed catalogs that have been arriving for a month now are filled with post-it notes, dog-eared corners, and bright yellow highlights. At the same time, I’ve decided and re-decided (at least a dozen times) where I’m going to plant each seedling once the weather warms. I love the optimism of dreaming, but sometimes I just want to get my fingers into some soil—even if the “soil” came out of a bag of potting mix.

At this time of year, gardening outside is pretty much impossible. The ground is frozen, and there’s still a layer of snow in the shadows on the north side of the house. Besides, it’s cold out there!

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Cold Brrrrrds! (a rerun)

birders_laveta-co_lah_7416Here it is noon on Saturday, and it’s currently -5 outside. Everyone is talking about the weather—especially because yesterday the temperature soared to 60 degrees. The entire country is shivering. Adding to the discussion is the fact that today is our local Christmas Bird Count. Hardy birders are out counting even hardier birds. Brrrr!

While the frigid conditions outside seem unusual for our area, an arctic cold front isn’t actually all that rare. Please go back to 2013 and see what I had to say then about Cold Brrrrrds! I think it is appropriate for today as well.