Thursday, January 22, 2015

DE: Owls, Cycles, and Sky - Bombay Hook NWR

Clearly the people who don't like winter are not having a good week. Oh well. The rest of us out here are enjoying the cold and wildlife and scenery and snow and the owls! Winter has really settled in and we've just passed the meteorological mid-point of the season. We notice storm cycles and freeze/thaw events as hallmarks of January and February. The pace and intensity of winter feeding  shifts among birds and mammals. Courting, nest maintenance, mating, and egg-laying begins with eagles and owls in January.

Holly hedge and one of hundreds of hungry robins.

This week I looked out of my office window across to where a huge, old hedgerow of American Holly grows and noticed a lot of activity. There was a forecast of snow and like people flocking to grocery stores to get milk and toilet paper, American Robins were invading the hedge by the hundreds! A lot of folks  think that Robins are a sign of spring and aren't used to seeing them in mid-winter. Get out some more and you'll discover that not only are they here all winter, but they are here en masse! By afternoon the hedge of holly had been cleaned of every berry! Freeze/thaw cycles help to ripen wild berries, breaking down complex sugars through several natural processes. Berry-eating birds are keen to watch for winterberry, holly, oak-leafed viburnum, and poison ivy berries and clean them off when the time is right.

Crystal clear surface ice in Bear Swamp, Bombay Hook NWR

We are cycling regularly now between hard freezes and melt-offs. One day a pond may be open water, the next topped with ice. Shallow swamps and bays can freeze and thaw dozens of times in mid- winter. It pays to visit the water's edge often to look for tracks in snow on icy surfaces, or when open, for ducks, herons, and geese foraging for quick meals in the open leads before it freezes over again. 

Ice stacking at the high tide line. Bombay Hook NWR, DE.

Everyday cycles of the tides will push ice up to shores and banks, building ice dunes that can get quite high! Almost all of the tidal marshes now have collars of ice. Along our big tidal rivers with plenty of wind to push floes around, there may be walls and dykes of ice. Ice dunes form so high at Presque Isle State Park in Northwest PA, that beach hikers are advised to strap on ice spikes or crampons - or else stay off the lake front.

Beautiful skies after an arctic front passes over Bombay Hook NWR, DE.

Skywatching is spectacular in mid-winter as arctic fronts bring the driest air of the year. Night skies, ushered in by Orion the Hunter, spill the Milky Way from horizon to horizon. Daytime skies are deep blue with racing clouds on the back end of fast moving Clipper systems that come almost weekly now. Landscape photography is especially rewarding in mid-winter as beautiful scenes can change by the minute in low golden sunlight and shifting patterns of clouds.

Bufflehead males and females are staying close to each other.

As daylight begins to linger in the late afternoon, our arctic avian visitors begin to exhibit pairing and courting behaviors. Great feeding flocks of snow geese, Canada geese, and tundra swans cycle back and forth from fields and open water. Echoes of waterfowl hunters' guns remind us that the hunting season is coming to an end, but rafts of ducks will continue jump from the sound of guns to settle in quieter and safer waters down river for a short while yet.

Photographer framed by jetty walls. Port Mahon, Delaware River.

My favorite cycle of the mid-winter season is the dawn-to-dusk light show of golden rays as each day the sun climbs a bit higher in the sky. My daughter and I spent a very late afternoon at Port Mahon on the Delaware River this week catching the sunset over the vast tidal marshes there. Short-eared owls dipped and bobbed in the fading light, red sun illuminating their round faces. She found a screech owl popping out from a wood duck box for a sun bath. Later in the week she photographed a lone snowy owl perched watching in the marsh.

Red-phase screech owl wintering in a wood duck box, Bombay Hook NWR. Photo by Emily Eppig Curran (!)

Short-eared owl hunting at dusk, Port  Mahon, DE. Photo by Emily Eppig Curran (!!)

Snowy owl in the marshes at Port Mahon, DE. Photo by Emily Eppig Curran (!!!)

Owl woods at Adkins Arboretum, Ridgely, MD.

I visited Adkins Arboretum this week on the Eastern Shore and was treated to a rather long and loud conversation of barred owls in the low woods. Our permanent resident owls, including the barred, screech, barn, and great horned owls have started their courtships. Without summer leaves to block the view we go owling in winter, looking for perched owls, nesting owls, listening for owl calls and calling them to us. It's a winter tradition we've kept since both Em and George were very young and now she includes her own children on these cold owl outings.

Song sparrow rooting for insects in grass, Adkins Arboretum, MD.

Winter sparrows of many species flit from tufts of grass to weedy edges. White-throated, song, fox, savannah, and others test our observation skills. Winter flocks at the feeders include more sparrows by the day as the feed heavily before and during our periodic snow storms.  I returned from a long day of meetings to find all of my feeders nearly emptied! Sure signs of another storm on our doorstep!  Happy Winter!

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