Harbingers of winter

Uh oh, look who’s coming to town. I’ll give you three guesses and the first two don’t count. Don’t read between the lines. Well if you guessed slate-colored juncos, you guessed correctly.

Two of them have been at my sunflower feeder for a week now. Actually these sparrow-like birds with a slate-colored back and white undersides with white outer tail feathers are ground feeders. Normally, they spend the summer months up in northern Canada, migrating south to the midwest in very late fall or early winter to winter-over with us. Just when our early fall weather seems to be gaining a little traction from late summer, Mother Nature seems poised to pull another rug out from under my favorite season. We’ve seen it happen so many times lately. With that out of the way, I’ve got to tell you, these birds are arriving down here weeks and weeks ahead of schedule. They’re usually arriving down here when winter weather gets serious. They love cold weather, and the colder the better.

And if you’re an outdoor person, these next two weeks will be interesting. We’re seeing the tail-end of the migration of most songbirds. The last of the large flocks of robins and flickers are passing through. And except for those big grain-fed mallards that won’t be coming down out of Canada until the last minute, the bulk of the waterfowl are pretty much a thing of the past. The geese are still lingering, but most of the ducks have already migrated. Long story short Mother Nature gives us several “near-miss” warning signs that tell us fall weather is almost over and winter is just around the corner. For example, the beautiful fall colors of the tree leaves; crisp fall mornings; frosty nights, especially that first big killing frost; and of course, the south-bound flights of migrating ducks and geese. But the most sure-fire of them all is the arrival of flocks of slate-colored juncos in our backyard bird feeders. They are the real deal. It’s carved in stone and you can take that one to the bank.

About those late hummingbirds

One of the great things about doing an outdoor column like this is the people I get to meet, all the nice phone calls and the countless chats over gillions of cups of coffee. At this time of year, hardly a week goes by without at least two or three phone calls about hummingbirds. The most common question is “When should I put my feeders away?” In cooler climates, like much of Iowa and the Midwest, the last of the local hummingbirds may leave before the end of October. However, if you leave your feeders up for awhile after they depart, it’s possible that some late stay-behinds might show up. So go ahead and leave them up as long as you want. No, you’re not going to stop them from migrating. This is a myth. As a group, hummingbirds are already migrating south by late June. They nest, fledge their young, then turn around and head south again. Ruby-throated (the one you see around here) hummingbirds are on the move by late August and are generally gone from their nesting grounds by the end of October. I think the only problem with feeding late fall hummingbirds and Baltimore orioles is that the nighttime temperatures might drop down to the freezing point. When that happens, the liquid in the glass feeders will freeze and break the feeder.

Question of the week

Why do trees change color in the fall and what determines if we have a good display on a given year? Answer: Those magnificent colors you see in the fall are actually there all summer, it’s just that you can’t see them because of the green chlorophyll in the leaves. As our days get shorter and our temperatures cool down, trees cease green chlorophyll production causing the reds to form, and oranges and yellows to show. Any sugars trapped in the leaf will react with each other in the presence of sunlight – thus more sun, the more brilliant the red colors. The best weather conditions are the same ones we enjoy in the fall – bright, cool days and chilly but not freezing nights. The slightest change – too hot, too cold, too wet or too dry – can slow the process or cause trees to lose their leaves before they change color. And if a cold snap followed by some wind shows up that’s all she wrote. The leaves are going to start falling.

Upland hunting season notes

(Currently) Rooster pheasant season now open Oct. 26 to Jan. 10; Mourning dove Sept. 1 to Nov. 9; Bobwhite quail Oct. 26 to Jan. 21; Crow season closes Nov. 30; Rabbit and squirrel now open. Note: Be advised of the new season regulations on pigeons. There is now no closed season on pigeons. The season is now continuous. Trapping for fur bearers such as coyote, mink, muskrat, weasel, striped skunk, badger, opossum, fox (red and gray), raccoon, beaver, otter and bobcat now open. The furbearer season for the aforementioned closes Jan. 31 (except for beaver which closes April 15).

Wild turkey hunting:

Combination gun/bow is Oct. 14 to Dec. 6. Archery is only Oct. 1 to Dec. 6 and Dec. 23 to Jan. 10.

Semper Fi.

And now have a good weekend.