Archive for January, 2011


Little Red appreciates the new Blue Jay feeder too. Every afternoon, once the main crush of Blue Jays has moved on, this little red squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus) arrives to enjoy his share of the treats. He can reach the feeder very conveniently by dropping from a nearby branch and scrambles back home the same way. In the photo above, he (she?) is keeping a wary eye on me as I stand at my kitchen window.

We don’t have the larger grey squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis) that were more than abundant at our former Toronto-area home here, and I don’t miss them one bit. Little Red is a cute little guy though, and it is nice to see him. These smaller squirrels don’t seem to gather together in large numbers in the manner of their outsized kin. Red squirrels prefer coniferous forests, with their abundant supply of cones, but are adaptable and widespread.


It’s common to hear a red squirrel expressing his annoyance at an intruder with angry chattering. They’re feisty individuals, and will chase away much larger interlopers, but I’ve noticed Little Red avoids the Blue Jay hoards. While grey squirrels stick to nuts and seeds, red squirrels have a more varied diet, and enjoy a range of food items that includes insects, bird eggs and even young rabbits and frogs, and fruits and mushrooms. Probably other small creatures don’t find Little Red as cute as I do! In the fall, red squirrels cache food to help them make it through the winter. In conifer forests, you may find piles of cones assembled by a red squirrel. I found this cache, in the photo above, in a forest with many Scotch pine (Pinus sylvestris). Red squirrels don’t hibernate, but during severe weather, they may go into a state of torpor for an extended period.


During breeding season, red squirrels build large, grassy nests formed into round balls in the branches of trees. In winter, however, a more secure home is need, and a cavity in a tree offers a snug, dry spot to spend the night. When moving firewood we had purchased recently, I came across a split log with stuffing hanging out. I carefully removed the stuffing and found a cavity of about 3 inches in depth behind the opening. It probably served as the winter home of a red squirrel. The stuffing was soft and clean and grassy. It looked like a comfortable winter hideout. Hopefully, the squirrel had moved on to a summer nest before the tree was cut down for firewood.


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Misty Morning


January Mist

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My birdfeeder attracts an assortment of the usual suspects, Chickadees, American Tree Sparrows, Goldfinches, Mourning Doves and others. However, by far the dominant visitors in both numbers and attitude are the Blue Jays. Dozens of them take over the feeder each morning when I put out fresh seed, keeping the smaller birds at bay. In an effort to lure the Blue Jays to a separate location and allow the smaller birds better access to my main feeder, I set up a second feeder behind the house this fall.


I stock the second feeder with striped sunflower seed, instead of the smaller oiled sunflower, and add peanuts and a bit of cat kibble. The feeder is definitely a hit, and while it hasn’t lured the Blue Jays totally away from the main feeder, it has helped. I can watch the new feeder from my kitchen window, and while the blue marauders aren’t good neighbours to their feathered peers, it is a delight to watch these beauties come and go. Such handsome birds!

Few smaller birds visit this feeder, at least while the Blue Jays are around, but I did notice Downy and Hairy woodpeckers stopping by. I attached a suet feeder for the woodpeckers to the post underneath the feeder, where it would be kept dry and the woodpeckers would have less competition from the Blue Jays. As you can see in the first photo, this wasn’t entirely successful, but the woodpeckers do approve of it, and a steady stream of the black and white Hairies and Downies appreciate the suet.


In Birds at Your Feeder, a compilation of research from Project Feeder Watch, authors Dunn and Tessaglia-Hymes note that groups of 15 to 50 jays may spend the winter together within a relatively small area and concentrate on one feeder. Many flock members or their offspring may return to the same wintering area in successive years. Flock turnover is high as about half of adult Blue Jays die each year.

Blue Jays usually carry off several food items from each visit, filling their gullet before taking flight. Blue Jays may travel as far as 2 1/2 miles with their food and in fall, this behaviour makes them important seed distributors. Plants with heavy seeds, such as oaks with their acorns, may depend on Blue Jays as distant dispersal agents. Of the many species of creatures that rely on acorns as a food source, only Blue Jays carry them far from the parent tree and bury them in sites where germination is possible.


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Will I Ever Be Warm Again?


This Sunday and Monday, we shivered through another cold snap. Yesterday, when I looked out the window and checked the thermometer in the morning, it was -34°C. That’s cold, very cold. By the time I had made my usual rounds outdoors, looking after the horses, topping up the birdfeeders, I felt like I would never be warm again! Even turning up the furnace and sitting close to a blazing fire didn’t seem to reach the deep freeze that had settled into my bones.

Thankfully, today the temperature has ameliorated and it is comparatively balmy, a mere -18°C this morning. If I’m glad, I can’t even imagine how glad the birds are, outside day and night. Their very survival never fails to amaze me. But there they are, coming and going at the feeder as usual. In the photo below, you can see a little flock of American Tree Sparrows on the ground, while a Downy Woodpecker approaches the suet on the post. The whirr of wings near the grass stalk to the right is a Chickadee, and a Blue Jay is about to exit the scene. These were the birds brave enough or hungry enough to approach while I stood near the feeder to take their photo, but many more were waiting in the wings for me to leave them to their breakfast in peace.


About this point in the season, I begin to long for something green and growing. I’m not a big seed-starter and don’t have Grow lights. I have a modest windowsill garden to admire, though. Each year, my sister gives me an amaryllis bulb for my birthday just before Christmas, a longstanding tradition. I added a second bulb from the post-Christmas sale table and a few paperwhite bulbs. So far, the paperwhites are off to the best start and it shouldn’t be too long before they are ready to bloom. The amaryllis bulbs take a bit longer to get underway. They should bridge the gap to the spring growing season nicely once some mysterious rhythm convinces them it’s time to grow.


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January Moon

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Friday was the 21st of the month, one month on from the December solstice. It is wonderful to see the days growing longer. On Friday, the sun rose here at 7.35 AM and set at 4.54 PM, bringing the length of the day to 9 hours, 18 minutes and 49 seconds. At this time of year, every second counts!

A month ago, the sun was setting at 4.23 PM. If I didn’t have the horses in the barn for the night by 5 o’clock, I was working in the dark. But now I have a bit more leeway. The photo above was taken at 5.20, and as you can see, it was still quite bright outside. How cheering, to know we are slowly, slowly, marching toward spring.

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When Birdgirl was visiting in the fall, her sharp eyes spotted this cocoon, attached to a board in the corner of the dark, enclosed entrance to the barn. She thought it was a Polyphemus cocoon. The Polyphemus is a large, handsome silk moth. An exciting find! However, when I read up about cocoons, I learned that Polyphemus moths generally hang their cocoons from a tree branch. Their cocoon is enclosed with a leaf, which may stay on the tree all winter, or fall to the ground.

This cocoon is probably that of a related moth, the Cecropia (Hyalophora cecropia). Cecropia cocoons are fastened to a branch or board or some other flat surface. They are not constructed with leaves and don’t hang down from branches. Cecropia cocoons are typically three to four inches long and vary in colour from pale tan or grey to brown. The outer covering is somewhat angular. Inside, a tightly woven second cocoon with rounded ends surrounds the pupa. Even though it is so tightly wrapped, the pupa is not completely safe. The cocoon may be probed by a bird or investigated by a mouse or squirrel. Parasitic wasps may also lay eggs in the larvae, eventually killing it.

I’ve just been fortunate enough to see a Cecropia on one occasion. These largest of North America’s native moths are spectacular. The photograph below was taken by Slomoz (Marvin Smith). He has an excellent post about Cecropias at Nature in the Ozarks. Smith notes that the release of large quantities of the parasitic fly Compsilura concinnata, introduced to North America to control the also introduced gypsy moth, has contributed to a decline in the Cecropia population.

Cecropia Moth (Hyalophora cecropia)

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The busiest, most colourful corner of the garden in winter is the birdfeeder. A steady stream of birds flit in and out, brightening some otherwise dreary days. I placed our Christmas tree near the feeder so that it can enjoy a second career as a bird shelter. It looks just as pretty decorated with snow as it did with Christmas ornaments.


The winter garden isn’t as eye-catching as it will be in June, but with the crisp, white backdrop of snow, there are still interesting textures and shaped to admire. I usually just turn my birdbath dish upside-down, and I like the little white cap it wears all winter.


My resident garden raccoon looks pretty cute too, peeking out from a snowy blanket.


I never clean up my garden in the fall. I leave all the seedheads and litter in place until the spring so that the birds can forage for any bounty the plants might offer, and insects and other tiny critters can shelter under dead leaves. But I am also a beneficiary. The stalks and seedheads add interest to the yard. Shown above is a coneflower, with swirls of grass blades in the background.


And here is Coreopsis verticillata “Moonbeam”. It’s delicate stems make a lacy pattern in the snow.


The largest coreopsis in my garden is Coreopsis grandiflora “Mayfield Giant”


The flat heads of the sedum capture little pillows of snow.


I planted this little corkscrew hazel (Corylus avellana), currently about 2 feet tall, near the birdfeeder with an eye to providing winter interest and perching spots as the plant gets bigger. I bought it late in the season, and it was hard to tell how healthy it was, since it’s already twisted and gnarled-looking. If it doesn’t survive the winter, I’ll try again in the spring.

There is still a bit of colour to be found, even in winter. Below, the rose hips add a touch of red.


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Dear thoughts are in my mind
And my soul soars enchanted,
As I hear the sweet lark sing
In the clear air of the day.
Irish traditional

The Horned Lark (Eremophila alpestris) is the only lark species native to North America. Meadowlarks, which might come to mind, are actually related to blackbirds. The Horned Lark is widely distributed through desert and prairie regions and agricultural lands. In southern Ontario, Horned Larks are most abundant in the southwestern corner of the province, but breed across the region south of the Canadian Shield. I’ve come to think of Horned Larks as winter birds, even though they are here year round, because that’s the season I am most likely to see one.

I recently spotted a flock of birds foraging for grain near the side of the road. It’s common to see winter flocks of Snow Buntings, and at first I thought that’s what these birds were. However, as I drew nearer, I realized they were Horned Larks. I grabbed my camera and shot the photo, above, through the car windshield.

Horned Larks are grassland birds and probably were rare in Ontario until European settlers cleared the land of forests and began farming, allowing the larks to expand the eastern edge of their range into new territory. The Horned Lark is an early nester, ofter beginning a clutch of eggs in April. By mid-summer, Horned Larks become inconspicuous, and are easily missed by the casual observer. Nests are constructed on the ground in sparcely vegetated pasture or even ploughed fields. Babies leave the nest before they can fly, at nine to twelve days of age. They are fed by the parents for a few more days and fly 4 days after leaving the nest.

During breeding season, the male performs an impressive display. He silently flys high into the sky and then begins singing as he circles and hovers several hundred feet above the ground before dropping into a steep dive back to earth. Perhaps it was this behavior that inspired the Irish folk song, The Lark in the Clear Air.

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Being a Compendium of Ideas about How to Spend a Cold Winter Day by US CATS.

You can curl up on the chesterfield.



You can doze on a chair.



You can sunbathe in a warm corner.



You can guard the stairs.



Any time is a good time for a little wash.



You can snooze on the bed.



Best of all, you can cozy up with a friend.


Tonka and Capone

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