Friday, November 19, 2010

First snow of the season

Last Friday our first real winter storm of the season blew in, covering Billings with record amounts of snow, accompanied by bitter cold single-digit temperatures. It was a full 180 from the previous weeks' Indian summer feel with highs in the 60s. It was early October last year when I wrote about the first snow on the ground; now that we have waited until late November for the white blanket to cover us, it seems that winter has arrived with an urgency. The cold and snow have been persistent for the last several days; highs are around 3 degrees each day and a new dusting of snow graces the ground every morning.

The winter weather doesn't deter our local wildlife from going about the business of finding food to fuel their bodies to stay warm. Our feeder has been occupied by chickadees (Poecile atricapilla) and house finches (Carpodacus mexicanus), two species that will remain in the area all winter long. The male house finch (left) is distinguished from the female by its red head and breast. The female (below) is a brown and tawny colored bird, sometimes described as "drab". This is typical of many bird species; the male bird is colorful, which helps it to attract mates in the spring. Females are dull-colored so that they are camoflauged when sitting on their nests. That way they blend in and don't attract predators to their helpless eggs or hatchlings. House finches often travel in small flocks and are regular visitors to bird feeders, often nesting on or near buildings. They feed on nuts, seeds, berries, and insects (making them an omnivore, an animal that eats plants and animals).

If the animals can get out in this cold, we should be able to as well! I encourage you to put on some warm layers and head out to explore the winter wonderland. You are likely to find some tracks in the snow, such as the deer tracks I captured in the photo on the left. Follow the tracks backwards to see where the animal came from, and where it stopped to feed or rest. Put together the puzzle pieces as you get a unique glimpse into the life of an animal that is not visible at any other time of year.

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