One of my favorite times to explore this little fragment is when it’s very cold. Last Tuesday’s daytime windchill reading was about 5 degrees, and I wanted to see how the forest birds were faring. Except for the creaking of trees and the occasional call of a woodpecker or wren, it was amazingly quiet down in the woods, as if all humans but me had suddenly departed the planet. Even more than usual, I marveled that I was in a forest in the middle of a city.
At 2:00 the sunny snowy woods were so brightly lit that even tiny cracks in tree bark stood out with surreal clarity. Familar views looked new and strange.
The few birds I saw were fluffed up and busily searching for food. Though Robins had been everywhere two days before, they’d now vanished – I pictured them huddling in the neighborhood holly trees waiting out the frozen ground. Woodpeckers were highly visible and seemed unaffected by the cold. Fresh wood chips already littered the snow at the base of snags – in this forest of dead ash trees the sapsuckers, downies, hairies, red-bellied and pileated were all finding plenty to eat.
The only resident woodpecker I didn’t see was the Flicker, but having found the feathers of one recently I knew they were around. Since Flickers forage on the ground more than other woodpeckers, maybe this was just a day to sleep.
The downies in particular were enjoying the foraging opportunities of the many brush structures I’ve piled up around sensitive areas like springs and plantings.
No surprise, the most visible birds in the brush piles were Carolina wrens, who have embraced these structures as their own little territories.
This one was busily digging in the less frozen duff under a brush fence.
The small spring down the hill from the LNC had open water despite the air temperature.
Steam was rising where the relatively warm water emerged from underground.
Heading back in late afternoon, I spotted this unmoving fluff ball on a branch, apparently settled in for the night.
The rufous tail suggested a Hermit thrush, the only thrush besides a Robin likely to inhabit these woods in winter. As the light waned and my toes went numb, it was hard to imagine how this bird could survive the night. Most of the resident birds – the woodpeckers, wrens, titmice, and chickadees, were already snuggled up in a cozy cavity somewhere. I considered going back in the morning to see if it was frozen to the branch.
The only brown-backed thrush that winters in North America, the hermit is obviously hardy and adaptable. Surviving on shriveled winter berries and insects, male Hermit thrushes are the first forest thrushes to head north in spring. Though they get the best pick of territories, the strategy is not without risk. This excerpt from “Life Histories of North American Birds” by famed ornithologist Arthur Cleveland Bent describes the possible consequences of early migration. Reading it, one is struck by how abundant migratory songbirds still were in the early 20th century.
“During the height of the migration large numbers (of Hermit thrushes) are often seen in the parks and churchyards among the tall buildings and bustling life of our larger cities. After the ordeal of the nocturnal flight the birds are hungry, often exhausted, and at such times exhibit little fear and may be seen feeding about dooryards, allowing human observers to approach near to them. It they are caught in a snowstorm this behavior becomes even more pronounced. I have had individuals, benumbed by the cold, eat out of my hands, and one bird even allowed me to pick it up to be carried to the house to be warmed.”
Hopefully the hermit thrush I saw survived last week’s cold snap – I’ll be watching for it.