Aged winter fades rapidly with spring’s upcoming arrival

Barbara Hootman Columnist

Trickling waters are awake after having been silent for months. Soon the earth will feel soft and alive under foot. Now we begin to feel and see the flow of a new spring.

Sap is moving upward in the trees. Soon the soft, fuzzy catkins on the willows will open. The buds on the dogwoods and lilacs are beginning to look impatient but are still sealed against a sudden cold snap of late winter. They refuse to rush to herald the arrival of a new season.

Waterfowl migration is already underway with many of the wintering ducks growing anxious to make the trip to their northern breeding grounds. The Redhead ducks are still on area lakes but will leave within a couple of weeks. They form pairs on the winter grounds and are ready to nest when they arrive on their breeding grounds. They breed in western U.S. and Canada, though a few breed in the Great Lakes region. They are diving ducks that feed on seeds, rhizomes, tubers of pond weeds, wild celery, water lilies, grasses and wild rice. They also feed on mollusks, aquatic insects and small fish.

James Poling, an avid local “birder,” spotted Redhead ducks at Owen Lake on Feb. 27. Earlier the same day he also saw Redheads at Lake Junaluska. The ducks will be in the Western North Carolina lakes and ponds for only a couple more weeks. As they rest and feed in Valley waters, they provide bird lovers a chance to see them as they migrate north.

Carolina chickadees usually remain with the same mate for several years. In winter they live in flocks of two to eight birds and defend an area against other birds. By the end of the month they will go to the woods two-by-two to start another nesting season.

Each Carolina chickadee has a rank in the flock. When nesting season arrives, the highest-ranking members get to nest within the flock’s territory. Lower-ranking birds nest further from the flock’s main territory. Some have to establish their own territories.

Most chickadee flock members stay in the same group throughout a season. A few birds join other flocks, and some move back and forth between flocks. Birds moving from one flock to the other have different rankings within each group.

Wild turkeys are beginning breeding season. All you have to do is follow the gobbling sound made by the males and you will find a flock (the turkey gobble can be heard for a mile or more away). Cindy Medlock, of the Bee Tree Community, reported 22 wild turkeys in her yard recently.

Wild male turkeys provide no help in raising the offspring, called poults. Newly hatched chicks follow the hens. After a few days with the hen, the chicks become skilled at finding food. Several hens join forces and form large flocks that include hens with chicks. There is strength in numbers.

During early spring, wild turkeys search the forest floor for acorns, pecans, seeds, hickory nuts and wild black cherry seeds. They also eat hemlock buds and evergreen ferns. As late spring arrives, grass and weed seeds become available. They also eat insects that provide the protein they need.

Some people are surprised to see turkeys fly, since they usually see them walking or running, They are short-distance fliers that can reach speeds up to 55 miles an hour. Females tend to fly more than males; males run more than the females. Turkeys can run up to 25 miles an hour, out-running many predators. Courting males attract females with gobbling sounds and tail-fanning. Their tails have beautiful, big feathers. Males breed with multiple females. Outside of breeding season, they form all-male flocks.

Female wild turkeys have a pecking order, as do males. Only experienced females head the hen flocks with chicks. They are usually older birds still young enough to breed. Male hierarchies change constantly.

Coyotes, bobcats, raccoons, eagles, Great Horned owls and man are wild turkey predators. Nest predators include raccoons, opossums, skunks, gray fox, woodchucks, rat snakes and rodents.

A wild male turkey’s head changes color with his mood. It can be red, pink, white or blue.

Keep out plenty of fresh water for bathing and drinking.

Keep watch on the bird feeders. Black male bears will be prowling any day looking for food.

Woodpeckers continue to drum to establish territories.

Mocking birds are singing complete songs that announce their territories.

Male skunks are wandering, looking for mates.

Hawk migration begins by midmonth.

The morning chorus of bird song is getting stronger each day. A full bird choir will soon greet daybreak with full song. The rising of the sun is something to sing about.

May you always hear the whisper of wings.