Birder’s Almanac – January

Short days and cold nights dominate the environment in January. Birds are physiologically well suited to endure low temperatures, but cold weather can adversely affect their food supplies. With persistent deep snow, ground foragers must migrate, resort to feeders or odd niches, or die. Frozen water drives waterfowl first from ponds, then reservoirs, and in harsher winters from Lake Erie itself, while a few bodies of water where special circumstances prevail—springs, rapids, dam overflows—can host noteworthy local numbers of ducks. Hot-water outflows at Erie shore power plants invite hordes of diving waterfowl and gulls. Birds like rails and snipes and great blue herons may pass the winter at spring-fed wetlands, seeps, or sheltered ditches. The huge outflow of the spring at Castalia in Erie County never freezes, and is a magnet for ducks, most interestingly tender dabblers like gadwalls, wigeons, and shovelers seldom seen elsewhere in the state at this time.

For a few other birds, like insectivorous brown creepers, even feeble winter sunlight is enough to stir prey hidden in tree bark. Eastern phoebes may persist in mild January weather to take advantage of winter stoneflies. Acorns and other nuts, cockleburs, dried grapes, seeds, sumac, grasses, ragweed, sunflowers, locust beans, and the like persist to feed many others. Feeders tended by humans allow some birds to pass the winter further north than might otherwise be possible. Landscape plantings of hawthorns, crabapples, etc. are another important food source. Raptor numbers fluctuate from year to year with local abundances of rodents and smaller birds, just as the numbers of certain boreal birds—snowy owls, winter finches—vary with the supplies of food further north, dearths of which periodically bring them to Ohio. In recent years, small numbers of merlins have taken to wintering in urban settings in both the north and the south, and several golden eagles have wintered in Muskingum County, an eventuality unforeseen ten years ago.

As many as 150 bird species may be found in Ohio during January. Sparrows, blackbirds, goldfinches, and the resident species can be found in good numbers. Winter finches (red-breasted nuthatches, pine siskins, crossbills, redpolls, evening grosbeaks) can be uncommon or absent, often in biennial cycles, likelier recently in winters whose Decembers fall in odd-numbered years. Raptorial visitors like northern shrikes, rough-legged hawks, and harriers share the landscape with year-round predators. Variable numbers of owls of the north, like short-eareds, long-eareds, and saw-whets, roost winter-long in suitable habitats, while local owls, especially great horneds, may begin nesting late in the month.

In general, little turnover among birds occurs during January, but by mid-month, smaller gulls like Bonaparte’s largely depart the frigid Lakefront, as do young individuals of larger species like ring-billeds, leaving the foraging grounds to those better prepared to survive demanding conditions. Diving ducks, like mergansers, goldeneyes, scoters, buffleheads, scaups, canvasbacks, and redheads occupy open waters of Lake Erie, or retreat only as far south as necessary. Lake Erie’s hordes of wintering red-breasted mergansers constitute the lion’s share of the species’ numbers worldwide, and they continue to pass far offshore, or bob in the waves as long as the Lake remains unfrozen.

In the northwestern marshes, fair-sized flocks of snow geese and tundra swans pass the winter. In the south, large roosts of both black and turkey vultures gather to do the same. A recent curiosity has been the number of rufous hummingbirds that persist, often at feeders, into January. In 2004, eight rufous hummingbirds were seen in January, one of them as late as the 23rd of the month, a new record date.

—Bill Whan

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