Season change alters wildlife behavior in backyards

Barbara Hootman Columnist

Winter will give over the seasonal reins to spring this week, and for most of us it isn’t a moment too soon. Nature lovers are ready for more migratory birds to start arriving, and gardeners can’t wait to dig in the dirt, coaxing vegetables and flowers into growth.

The Valley still hosts birds that are moving through the area on their way north to breeding grounds. The Red Fox Sparrow spends the winter in the Western North Carolina mountains but will be on the wing north soon. Migratory waterfowl land on area ponds and lakes to rest and feed, sometimes for weeks. They can be evident one day and gone the next. Owen Park lakes, Lake Junaluska and the ponds on Lake Eden Road are good spots to see migratory ducks. If you have a friend with a lake or pond, drop by to see what ducks may be visiting.

Jim Polen, an avid bird watcher, saw the Common Goldeneye Duck at Lake Eden. He said it was the first time he had seen the duck in this area in seven years. He also reported seeing a Ruddy Duck at Lake Eden. The Common Goldeneye had been at Lake Eden for about 10 days. The Ruddy Duck showed up at Lake Eden on March 1, and Poling expects it to be there for several days. The Goldeneye Duck may continue its northern journey any time. The ducks are beginning to grow breeding plumage. The Ruddy Duck is showing the breeding plumage and the characteristic sky-blue bill.

The Common Goldeneye Duck is on its way to breeding grounds in Canada and Alaska. It nests in tree cavities, abandoned woodpecker holes and man-made boxes. With a streamlined body and a short tail, it is a diving duck.

The males have blackish iridescent green heads with a white circular patch between the eye and the base of the bill. The females have chocolate brown heads, a whitish neckband, and gray back and sides with speckles. The bill is also blackish and almost yellow at the tip. They are definitely distinctive winter visitors to area ponds and lakes.

The Ruddy Duck is an odd-looking, little diving duck with stiff tail feathers. It is an easy duck to identify, especially during take-off when it paddles across the water surface gaining momentum to liftoff. It seems almost helpless on land. Flocks of “Ruddies” wintering on lakes keep to themselves and seldom mix with other ducks. However they are tolerant of Coots that also forage for food by diving.

Pairs of Ruddy Ducks form after they arrive on breeding waters. They have a long spring migration (the fall migration is a slow process as well). They breed mainly in the prairie pothole region of the U.S. and winter in wetlands throughout the U.S. and Mexico.

The Red Fox Sparrow is a chunky, round-headed sparrow, the largest of its species. The bird calls Western North Carolina home only during the winter months. It breeds across the Alaskan and Canadian boreal forest. When in WNC during the winter, it stays in dense undergrowth, forest and woodlots. It is a solitary, shy bird that stays under cover except when defending a food territory. When it sings in late winter you hear the clear musical notes and whistles. But you have to look closely to spot the shrub it is coming from. It eats a wide variety of seeds and berries.

The Red Fox Sparrow and Towhee scratch backward with a double-kick that makes a lot of noise scratching in leaf litter. Often it can be found on the ground picking up choice seeds under bird feeders.

The Red Fox Sparrow migrates north in early spring, and most of the birds arrive on breeding territories by early May. They spend a couple of days selecting mates, and the breeding-nesting cycle begins. Their breeding territory is a wide band that stretches from Newfoundland to northern Alaska. They return to the Valley in late October.

Kate Shawgo said she heard spring peepers on March 1. Peepers are small frogs with loud calls that can be heard up to a mile. Only the male makes the call. The frog has a pronounced “X” on its back. It is found near water and shallow pools of water where the frogs mate and lay eggs. They are nocturnal, so you will only hear them at night.

Crows begin nesting by late March.

This is the peak of waterfowl migration.

Swallows and Phoebes arrive by late March.

Bluebirds continue to stake out territories.

Goldfinches are beginning to molt into their brilliant yellow plumage.

Keep out plenty of water for bathing and drinking, and keep watch on your bird feeders. Male bears are up and about.

Spring officially arrives on March 20, which is the Vernal Equinox.

May you always hear the whisper of wings.