Field Notes: Meet a Few of Ohio’s ‘Snow Birds’
(This is the first of several Field Notes focusing on our feathered friends as we get ready for the Birds in the Hills Festival, which will occur on Mother’s Day weekend, May 6-8.)
By Joe Brehm, Environmental Education Director
Birds are famous for migrating south for the winter and north in the summer, but something that may surprise you is that we are “south” for many bird species. Those of you with bird feeders can attest to this seasonal difference in avian customers. One of the most notorious examples of these winter residents is the dark-eyed junco. Its scientific name is Junco hyemalis; the Latin root of “hyemalis” means “of the winter”. When juncos first show up in the fall, there is a good chance they are bringing the first snowfall with them. My earliest observations of juncos in 2021 and 2020 were October 22nd and October 30th, respectively; temperatures started dipping into the 30s shortly thereafter. These “snow birds” spend a lot of time scratching for seeds on the ground, will visit bird feeders, and can be identified by their pinkish bills, slate gray color, and white patches on their outer tail edges as they fly. Juncos seem to relish the winter weather and so we are immediate kindred spirits. They depart by mid-April to breed in the mountains and north country; if the weather and timing allows, you can sometimes hear their metallic bell-like song in the week or two preceding their departure.
I will never forget an encounter I had with juncos during an archeology field school in the Garnet Mountains in Montana many years ago. One of the instructors was very woods wise and knew that I loved birds. One afternoon while we were picking apart the trash pile of an old mining town, he motioned me over and led me to a shaded part of the forest. Brushing back the vegetation, he revealed four pink junco babies, hatched within the last day or two, in their nest on the ground. The parents were out foraging on their behalf, perhaps tugging at the mouse-tail-shaped seeds of douglas fir; we departed quickly and quietly.
Another wave of winter migrants can not only fly but also swim, and swim well: the diving ducks, grebes, and mergansers. One of the most common and beautiful of these species is the hooded merganser, which cruises open water of all types. Both males and females’ cartoonish heads look squished and elongated, like they were caught between two softshell turtles and barely squeezed free. Their wild heads are topped with mohawks and punctuated with keen predatory eyes. I once snuck up on a small flotilla of hooded mergansers on the Hocking River on a frigid snowy day. They paddled in a calm, smooth stretch of greenish river, diving a few at a time. One of the females came up with a big crawdad in her orangish bill and swam downriver to eat it in peace while the others trailed behind.
During the coldest snaps, especially when parts of Lake Erie freeze over, Southeast Ohio can be graced by the wings of myriad other waterfowl. This year, members of the Athens Area Birders even sighted trumpeter swans at Dow Lake (the first eBird record for this species in Athens County). Lake Snowden and the Hocking River also play host to ducks such as greater and lesser scaup, ring-necked ducks, redheads, canvasbacks, buffleheads, common goldeneyes, and ruddy ducks. These ducks, many of them brightly colored, stir the soul as they float asleep with bills tucked into their wings or dive like tiny feathered dolphins into clear winter waters.
I’ll be writing about birds throughout the coming months because I am excited to share the pursuit of beauty on the wing with you all at our upcoming Birds in the Hills Festival, May 6-8th at Camp Oty’Okwa (there will also be a new concurrent nature writing festival called Words in the Hills). Stay tuned for more avian inspiration and let us know what you’re seeing out there.
(Field Notes is an occasional series that takes readers into local forests to learn about our natural world. Become a citizen scientist and join the more than 607 volunteers who have contributed close to 20,000 observations via iNaturalist to our “bioblitz” of the WNF’s Athens Unit, documenting roughly 3,904 species of plants, insects, fungi, mammals, birds, and more. You can join us by following instructions here.)