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Colors of fall brighten

By Ranger Steve Mueller

Ranger Steve

Now that leaves are down and brown, the colors of fall brighten yards for those who feed birds. The first white snow will bring out vivid color when cardinal red appears like a Christmas ornament lighted from inside. Male Northern Cardinals beam with color against a white fluffy coating on evergreen boughs. 

The first snow brings excitement for young to old and is most enjoyed when large flakes drift slowly without the threat of dangerous roads. The threat to bird survival increases with the loss of active insects but avian migration has moved many to winter grounds where invertebrate activity continues. Locally, bird residents have shifted their diet to seeds and hidden dormant bugs. 

Some birds like the Brown Creeper remain almost as hidden as dormant insects. I saw one climbing in spirals up a large oak but only because its activity captured my eye. The brown and white pattern make its feathers almost invisible against oak bark. The movement of climbing from the base of a tree upward and then flying to the base of another to climb is characteristic of its nature niche behavior. As the creeper climbs, it probes its long thin curved bill into bark crevasses for eggs and inactive insects. The activity easily goes unnoticed.

Blue Jay’s back, tail, and head crest are iridescent blue and accented with mottled white on feathers. It brings cheer to the yard. They arrive decorated with a black necklace on a gray breast. Along with the cardinal, jays are colorful birds flitting through the yard. Most birds are subdued with black, gray, and white but often sport patches of rust color like seen on the Black-capped Chickadee, Tufted Titmouse, and White-breasted Nuthatch. 

Anticipate that winter will bring Red-breasted Nuthatches, Common Redpolls, Pine Siskins, and Evening Grosbeaks. All have been reported this fall coming from the north but none have paid me a visit this year. A favorite with a glowing sun bright yellow on the Evening Grosbeak and for our region it has had a limited occurrence in recent decades. This year they are a scattered treat arriving this far south. Their large size and bright color makes one think they would be typical in a southern rainforest. Instead they mostly remain north in the boreal conifer forest. When we lived in northern Minnesota they were daily regulars at our winter feeders. 

The Red-breasted Nuthatch is a northern species that more commonly spends the winter in our area than the grosbeak. It is most frequently seen among pine and spruce trees that establish in yards. The red breast contrasts them with the white underside of the White-breasted Nuthatch. Even the White-breasted Nuthatch has a touch of cinnamon on the belly near the tail. Brighter than cinnamon are red feathers covering much of the body on Pine Grosbeaks, but they only arrive in eruptive years where they flock to berry trees. Keep watch.

Common Redpolls are seldom common winter visitors from the north to our region but have arrived this year. Perhaps this year’s seed production was small in the north forcing birds south. They look a bit like a small House Finch but red is restricted to a small tight red cap, black chin, and red on the upper breast. Unlike House Finches, redpolls lack red on the back. Their bills are pointed and smaller than a House Finch’s bulky beak. 

Pine Siskins forego red and have yellow wing bars that might be difficult to discern. They look somewhat like a female House Finch but have a smaller pointed beak and are slimmer.

This year I have not seen five of the species described above at our bird restaurant. A Fox Sparrow has been foraging on the ground among fallen leaves. Leaf cover is left under the front yard sugar maple creating winter habitat. This sparrow has dark rust streaking on the breast, a reddish-brown back and brighter foxy red tail. 

Even though fall leaf color is gone, enjoy the end of fall and throughout the winter with brightened bird colors in neighborhoods now that leaves do not block viewing. 

Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be directed to Ranger Steve (Mueller) at odybrook@chartermi.net – Ody Brook Nature Sanctuary, 13010 Northland Dr. Cedar Springs, MI 49319 or call 616-696-1753.

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