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Northland Nature: 'Upside-down birds' consistent, persistent

Mar. 15—As we get to the vernal equinox — the first day of spring — we can look back at the "winter" of 2023-24.

Often called the "winter that was not," the record-setting season was far from the usual. Not only did the temperatures average considerably above normal, they did not dip below expected very often. Only about a dozen days in January recorded subzero readings and two more in late February.

In addition to that, we are still heading for what might be a record of least snowfall for a winter. (This follows the winter of most snowfall.) It did get cold enough for ice to cover lakes, but this was sporadic, leading to an early ice-out. Was there anything that was more consistent with a "regular" winter?

We get used to it each year, but the daylight-darkness pattern of sunrises and sunsets continued as expected throughout fall to spring. In early February, we reached 10 hours of daylight. In late February, this grew to 11 hours. And now at the vernal equinox, we have 12 hours of daylight.

With the recent return to daylight saving time, we note the sun rising at about 7:15 a.m. and setting near 7:15 p.m. The weather may not have been too winterish, but the daylight lengths continue. Very important for nature, many happenings are triggered by this lengthening photoperiod.

The shorter daylight in the fall brings the leaf drop and bird southbound flights. Conversely, the longer days will bring out leafing and migrants in spring.

Throughout the 90 days of winter, I saw some consistency as compared to other winters. The lack of snow and cold meant fewer birds at the feeder. I never did get to host flocks of finches. But five kinds of birds were regular visitors despite the weather. Three kinds of woodpeckers, downy, hairy and red-bellied, along with black-capped chickadees and white-breasted nuthatches, were regular arrivals. All of these birds are permanent residents — not migrants.

Of these birds, the chickadees and nuthatches showed perfect attendance. Both of these tiny ones made regular meals of sunflower seeds and suet. There may have been a half-dozen chickadees and a pair of nuthatches.

White-breasted nuthatches are a bit larger than chickadees, about 6 inches long, and bluish on the back with a black head offset by a white underside. Bills are long and pointed. It is the bills that give the birds the nuthatch name. They "hack" at nuts and seeds. (There is a second kind of nuthatch in the region: the red-breasted nuthatch. Though they often visit feeders, they avoided mine this winter, finding plenty of pine cone seeds).

The white-breasted nuthatch is also called the "upside-down bird." This rather strange label refers to their behavior of going headfirst down tree trunks. Lifting their heads back to look around, they give a pose we often see. Flying to a tree, they come down in a vertical pose, adjusting their feet so they face down. Going down a tree this way, they can find seeds and other food that may be overlooked.

As the winter proceeded, they became more vocal and regularly gave their nasal "yank, yank" calls at the feeders and on branches of nearby trees.

Now as spring happens, they pair and begin mating. Nests are frequently in sites behind loose bark and usually go unnoticed. This season, we will hear them in trees more than at feeders, but we appreciate their consistency and persistence all winter.