January is one of the darkest (and usually) coldest months

A new year has begun by man’s calendar, and the bird sitting on the tree branch hasn’t noticed. But the blossom in the bulb buried deep in the earth is beginning to stir. Man is the only creature that finds importance in the beginning of a new year.

The span of daylight begins to lengthen noticeably by mid-January, reaching toward the vernal equinox in March and heralding spring. Sunrise still lags and will do so for at least another week. Sunset is already changing, and by the end of the month it will be a half hour later.

A White-throated Sparrow broke the new year’s silence first on the mountain top with snatches of its spring song. It will resurrect a memory of the full song by late spring. The chickadee was soon to follow with bits and pieces of song. Territorial calls will follow within a week, with cardinals joining the announcements by the third week of January. Wrens bubble with song every month of the year.

Each January man looks to the future, to newness strengthening hope for the future. If you don’t keep a nature journal, I encourage you to start. You don’t have to be a writer to keep a notebook with your observations. You don’t even have to write in complete sentences. You will gain insight into the wildlife around you.

Many journal keepers sketch what they see. A stick bird, or circles with ears and a ringed tail for a raccoon, will do nicely for those who can’t draw. Mention the color on a bird’s wings, the size of its body, and any distinctive markings. Point out a mammal’s size, eyes, color, and what it was doing when you saw it.

There are no hard and fast rules for what you put in a nature journal. Most journal keepers record the date and time they observed something special. It is interesting to make notes of the weather, and what species you’ve seen and unusual behavior.

A nature journal helps you keep in touch with the pulse of life as it records the seasons year after year. It gives you a sense of place and your role in that place. All you have to do is observe the world around you. People are so transient now that a sense of place is difficult for some to feel. A nature journal brings into focus how interconnected human life is when shared with the life of the forest. It also makes you more aware of how human actions impact others.

The Red-bellied Woodpecker is a year-round resident of the mountains and not shy about coming to backyard feeders for sunflower seeds and suet. He is a bright spot in the winter grayness. The Red-bellied, along with the Hairy and Downy Woodpeckers, are frequent feeders. Suet is a major draw for all of them.

The Red-bellied Woodpecker doesn’t have a red belly. It is a pale rosy color. It has a distinctive black and white, zebra-striped back. Its wings match in color and pattern, and a large, bright red patch covers its head and neck. It isn’t too selective about food and will sample anything that appears to be edible. It particularly enjoys pine cone seeds and various fruits and will sip nectar from wells drilled by a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker. It devours acorns, and stores many of them when they are available. The Red-bellied caches food along with other birds, and relies on it when other sources become scarce.

The woodpecker’s sticky tongue is long and well-adapted to finding food and stashing it in the bark of trees. It caches acorns, corn, fruit, seeds and even insects. Seeds from bird feeders become increasingly important in their diets as winter progresses.

They don’t migrate, but they do wander widely in the winter, always searching for food. They are active and aggressive at feeders, even displacing aggressive Blue Jays easily.

If you want to attract woodpeckers, the more suet, sunflower seeds and peanuts you put out, the more you will have.

Purple Martins will be spotted returning along the coast in late January. Great Horned Owls will begin to sit on eggs by the third and fourth week of January, with Barred Owls following quickly.

White-tail deer are shedding antlers, which become good sources of calcium for forest ground creatures.

Tufted Titmice will begin to sing by late January as will the chickadees.

Red-tail, Cooper’s and Sharp-shined hawks begin watching feeders for easy meals of songbirds.

Keep out plenty of fresh water for drinking and bathing.

May you always hear the whisper of wings. Happy 2016.