January 2, 2011
COLD, COLD more COLD and the first white Christmas in Atlanta since 1882. Wow, morning lows in the 20’s and a few day time highs only in the 30’s…..and yes, this is Atlanta, Georgia. However, those of us living in Central Georgia, just have to wait a short time and weather will either moderate or go to the opposite extreme….in this case, temperatures approaching 70 by 1/1/11.
Today, on 1/1/11, we experienced a dramatic change in the weather with a lovely rain and temperatures in the upper 60’s which made for some wonderful natural observations. At 7 pm, I took a walk around my pond and there was a great deal of activity within the water. Mosquito fish are on the surface and the leaf litter (detritus) on the pond bottom is alive with last year’s green frog tadpoles and spotted salamander larvae. Literally hundreds, if not thousands of larvae amphibians make the pond bottom a mass of movement. The tadpoles and salamanders do not like the light and thus when the spotlight shines on them; they bolt underneath the leaf litter.
At my feeders over the past week, a few new birds have shown up at my house finches are feeders, the first of these species for this year. A small flock of purple finches arrived about 5 days ago, which consisted of a couple of males and 3 females. They are mixed in with the very abundant house finches. If you happen to have difficulty in distinguishing purple finch from house finch, the females are the easiest to identify. Female house finches are uniform brown headed while the purple finch female as two very bold white stripes on the face. In regards to males, the purple finch is more raspberry in color and the belly of the purple finch is very clean whereas the house finch male has streaks on its belly. With just a little practice, the differences become much more obvious. In addition, yesterday (12/31/10) I had my first flock of pine siskins. These are wonderful little finches with yellowish wing bars and they are more slender than the other finches that may be visiting your feeder. Sparrows, including song, white-throated, swamp and one fox sparrow have also been about kicking up leaves in their search for seeds.
The following images are provided to assist you in identification of Purple finch, house finch and pine siskin.
The bird on the top right is a winter plumage American Goldfinch. The middle left is a male purple finch. Note the raspberry color, fairly large bill and unstreaked belly. The bird on the middle right is a male house finch.
The bird barely visible on the top right is a male house finch. The top left is a winter plumage American goldfinch. The middle two birds are female house finches. Note the uniform brownish head and face as well as a small beak. The bottom left is a female purple finch. Note the two white stripes on the head and the large beak. The bird on the lower right is a pine siskin. They have yellowish wingbars, heavily streaked breast and belly and very tiny beak.
The two reddish birds on the right of the feeder are male house finches. The bird on the top left is a female purple finch. Again, note the large beak that almost appears to have a uniform blend from the top of the bird’s head. The bird on the lower left is a pine siskin. Note how much smaller the siskin is compared to the purple finch.
This bird, in immaculate plumage, is a female purple finch. The bold white eye stripe and malar stripe is characteristic for a small finch but may be confused with a female rose-breasted grosbeak. Rose-breasted grosbeaks are not winter residents thus are not typically in our region during the time when purple finches reside. In addition, the grosbeaks are larger than purple finches and have a light white line down the crown and an absolutely massive beak, both of which can help to distinguish that species.
You may also have wondered where have the chipmunks gone. Chipmunks, during cold weather enter their burrows and sleep during extremely cold times. If the cold spell is lengthy, these little squirrels will sleep for a while then awaken to feed from their caches of food that they have stored underground. If the weather warms, such as today, it would not be unusual to see a chipmunk out of its burrow visiting a bird feeder and running back to its den with full cheek pouches to resupply it cache of food. Thus, chipmunks do not hibernate but their extended sleep, awakening, sleep, awakening is called TORPOR. This is a survival technique but unlike animals that hibernate, chipmunks do not put on thick layers of fat to assist them in getting through the winter. Thus, they have to store food and feed periodically through the winter. Chipmunks, while sleeping, having a lower heart rate but if disturbed, they can be awakened fairly easily and quickly. Another squirrel species in our area that does hibernate is the Eastern woodchuck AKA, groundhog. This is the largest member of the squirrel family in the Southeastern U.S. and they feed heavily during the summer and fall and by October, they enter their burrow to sleep through the entire winter. Their metabolism greatly slows, including heart rate and respiration and they do not awaken until early March. Even if disturbed, they cannot be awakened and they appear to almost be in a comma. Groundhogs attain their greatest weight just prior to hibernation and exhibit their lowest weight at emergence from the den in the spring. Once again, nature is so diverse in the adaptations of life that allow for survival of species in the extremes of climate, lack or abundance of food and even in the different behaviors that species within a family may exhibit within the same region.
The Eastern chipmunk does not hibernate! Instead, during extremely cold weather, they enter their burrow to sleep, sometimes for a couple of weeks at a time. They awaken periodically to feed from food caches they have within their burrow. This form of short sleeps and wakeful periods is called Torpor. If the weather warms, it is not unusual to observe chipmunks above ground, scurrying back and forth from bird feeders where they frantically are provisioning food stores in their burrow. The Eastern chipmunk is the only species of chipmunk found in the Southeastern U.S.