December 21 -31
The shortest day always receives mention by the local media. Whether the story garners any connotations beyond a brief mention of the event is usually left to a whim of editors. If stories do emanate, they usually have pagan connotations. The natural world does not have these encumbrances. The southeast part of Wisconsin has about 9 hours and 2 minutes of daylight with an additional 35 minutes of twilight on each end on the 21st and the far north has about 8 hour and 32 minutes. By the end of the period, an additional 4 minutes of daylight has accrued.
An Exercise: Wherever you live, locate the position where the sun rises and sets on December 21. Such an experiment rewards the participant with a sense of place. GNW strongly encourages every person owning land to know their place. All of the plants and animals that live on the land or in the water should be known. This exercise places much more of burden on the landowner, because it requires responsibility and accountability. Knowing the landmarks where the sun rises and sets at various times of the year adds to our sense of being.
Ursid Meteor Showers: Ursid meteor showers occur every year between December 18 and 23. The peak is usually December 21 or 22. These meteor showers are so named, because they seem to fly through the “Big Dipper”, also known as the Bear – an ursid. The meteors usually have between 2 and 10 sightings per hour and are best seen between midnight and 6 am on moon less nights.
Gull Migration: This time period usually provides an appreciable gull migration in the south part of the state. Cold blasts that freeze that largest lakes send observable numbers of gulls moving south. Sometimes these movements will even occur over dry farm fields. Concentrations of many gull species can concentrate below dams on our major rivers. The dam at Prairie du Sac is especially good for harboring Glaucous, Iceland, Thayer’s and Lesser Black-backed Gulls.
Eastern Screech-Owl: Eastern Screech-Owls are the most common urban predator in the southern part of the state. These 8 inch high birds are quite hardy living as far north as Wausau. They are also quite a meal for a hungry Great-horned Owl. Not surprising is the fact, they can be common in areas with few Great-horned owls. A good friend of GNW, Al Shea, many years ago devised a method for systematically documenting the population of Eastern Screech-Owls in the Madison area. He assigned participants in the annual Christmas bird counts specific areas to either whistle for or play recordings of Eastern Screech-Owls. The areas did not overlap and covered the known habitat for the bird. Peak numbers recorded under ideal conditions of light winds and moderated temperatures revealed between 140 and 160 Eastern Screech-Owls for the Madison CBC. Follow-up visits to areas where owls were not found on the CBC night indicate as many as 200 Eastern Screech-Owls reside within 7.5 miles of the state capital.
Snipe and Rails: Southern Wisconsin Christmas Bird Counts have also shed light on the winter distribution of Wilson’s Snipe and Virginia Rail. Both of these species are known denizens of sedge meadows and marshes. Both are also know to migrate to the southern United States to overwinter, especially along coastal marshes. A significant number, however, are found overwintering in Wisconsin. Springs, especially shallow rivulets emanating from seeps can hold a considerable number of these species. The snipe is more comfortable in more open areas, whereas the rail prefers dense stream side vegetation.
Snow Bunting and Lapland Longspur: The longspur nest in the high arctic and usually the first migrants are seen in late September or early October. Snow Buntings, also high arctic breeders, usually do not arrive until later in October. By late November, these two species along with Horned Larks coalesce into mixed foraging flocks in open fields. These mixed flocks can spend the entire winter in the state during milder years. When deep snows arrive in December, occasionally large mixed flocks of these species can be seen flying south.
Winter foraging flocks: Mixed flocks of chickadee, nuthatch and woodpeckers are a staple across the state. In the far north, especially in Forest and Florence counties Boreal Chickadees may enter these flocks. In the far south, Tufted Titmouse, Brown Creeper, and Golden-crowned Kinglet are common associates. These predominately insectivorous birds find foraging together is much more efficient than going it alone. These insect eggs and adults are spread more evenly across the state, thus these chickadee flocks are commonly found every year. Look for them in wooded and shrubby areas of the state. For other species, the food sources are much more variable and species such as waxwings, grosbeaks, finches and redpolls are more nomadic in their movements.