Hubbard Fellowship Blog – Olivia and the Snowbirds

This blog – text and photos – are by Olivia Schouten, one of our Hubbard Fellows.  Olivia and her colleague Alex Brechbill will be wrapping up their year with us next week.  It’s been a fantastic year, and we will miss their thoughtful observations and good humor. 

Last month I got the chance to blabber about my love of November and autumn, but now I can talk about something I love about winter! We’ve actually had snow this year (I haven’t gotten much these last couple years living in Kansas), and while that’s not what I’m going to talk about, I do think the colder weather is what brought this particular piece of winter to my back patio.

I’m talking about snowbirds! Dark-eyed juncos and American tree sparrows to be exact. These little sparrows nest far to the north during the summer, and while they do come south for the winter, they stop just at the leading edge of the cold, sometimes not even reaching as far south as Kansas during warm winters. They can be found in mixed flocks pecking around on the ground, especially under bird feeders, for seeds throughout the colder months, twiting and seeting away.

One of the house sparrows I usually end up with feeding at my bird feeder, all fluffed up against the cold.

I mention these birds because they arrived on the Platte today (Dec. 4)! Or at least, that’s when I noticed them for the first time. I have a bird feeder set up just outside the kitchen windows, and I’ve been supplying the local birds with black oil sunflower seeds for a couple months now. The vast majority of visitors have been nonnative house sparrows, so imagine my delight when I noticed a little group of tree sparrows had stopped for a snack this morning! Shortly afterward, a small group of juncos joined them, and I knew immediately that winter had officially arrived.

An American tree sparrow searching the snow for seeds.  As a bird lover, it was very exciting to find them at the bird feeder this morning.
Dark-eyed juncos have a lot of personality, flittering around in large flocks and standing out against the snow.  White tail feathers flash every time they fly off.

While several species of birds certainly fly south for the winter, with all members of their species fleeing to Central or South America for warmer climes and plenty of food, you might be surprised at how many of our local birds actually stick it out. For example, robins can be found in most portions of their range year-round, and I’ve witnessed more than once a robin singing on especially warm winter days. Meadowlarks are another species that can actually be seen in much of their range for the entire year.

This meadowlark’s yellow breast stands out even more brightly against the snow than it does in the summer prairie.  That’s probably why it took me forever to get a photo where it was actually showing it off.  Four or five have been hanging out in the yard around our shop since November.

Now, it’s very likely that the robins and meadowlarks seen in the winter aren’t the exact same birds that nest in that location in the summer. These species do migrate to an extent, with their range shifting south during the winter months, leaving their northern reaches free of birds and inhabiting new areas in the south. However, theirs are not migrations of thousands of miles. Instead, birds only move a few hundred miles at most. The behavior of these birds also changes drastically during the winter months. They are much more reclusive, and since the males aren’t singing constantly, they certainly seem to disappear.

So while juncos and tree sparrows have a reputation as cold-enduring species, I think it’s worth giving our other local birds some recognition. They’re here during the winter as well, they’re just not as obvious about it.

Photo of the Week – December 6, 2018

Picture this, if you will:  A foolhardy photographer has made his way onto a large frozen wetland slough in a prairie along the Platte River.  After his boots punctured the thinner ice along the edge of the slough, he has carefully, with dripping boots,stepped up onto the marginally thicker ice beyond and is now army crawling across the frozen surface, trying to ignore the cracking sounds all around him each time he moves.  He knows his life isn’t in danger (the water is only a few feet deep and he’s 50 yards from his truck), but there seems a very good likelihood of submerging the camera equipment he’s carrying and of getting suddenly and uncomfortably wet and cold.

From a distance, it’s hard to see what the photographer is risking so much to photograph.  Every minute or so, he appears to stop and aim his camera at the base of rushes and other plants protruding from the ice, even changing lenses several times to get different perspectives.  Of plant stems in the ice?  What a loon.  …Actually, that’s a patently unfair slam on loons, which have infinitely more sense than this chucklehead seems to have. 

Let’s hear the explanation in the photographer’s own words, for whatever that’s worth.

Yeah, I get it.  And I’m glad (as I very often am) that no one was ACTUALLY watching as I slid myself and my gear across the ice earlier this week.  But what I was chasing were little cone-shaped pieces of ice suspended above the frozen surface of the wetland.  I found them strangely attractive and an intriguing mystery.  What caused the ice to form a cone in the first place, and why were those cones so far above the surface of the surrounding ice?

I certainly don’t have a definitive answer to those questions, but I have hypotheses.  I’m guessing there are pieces of relevant information, including that it both rained and snowed recently, that temperatures have been hovering right around the freezing mark over that same time period, and that there is water flowing out of the slough and – probably – lowering the level of the ice. 

Even with all that information, though, I’m still struggling to understand exactly what I was seeing.  I’m thinking maybe the raised cone-shaped ice was formed by snow/sleet/frozen rain accumulating at the base of the plants – both because of wind eddies around the stems and maybe also water running down the stems from above.  I’m pretty sure the elevation of the ice went down in the days prior to my little photo adventure.  But how did the cones become detached from that ice?  

Whatever happened, it created an awful lot of those little cones across the top of that particular wetland slough and others like it.  I’m guessing a more experienced and smarter person than I could have drawn helpful inferences from the uneven surface of the ice.  There were shallow cavities in some places and raised areas in others, but for the life of me, I couldn’t figure out what was driving that pattern.  Instead, I focused on photographing the cool little cones and trying not to get anything other than my waterproof boots wet.  In that, at least, I was successful.

They were even attractive from above!
The connection on the left side of this stem between cone and frozen wetland surface is probably a big clue to what was happening.  I have no idea what it might mean.