It began as a dull gray morning with a hard edge to the chilly air. I was at Alpine Groves Park checking on a special project. As I slowly passed the butterfly garden, a small movement caught my eye and I stopped. A hermit thrush with puffed-up feathers sat on the lower rail of the wooden fence. Every so often, it turned its head but otherwise sat completely still.
This bird is one of our winter visitors, arriving mid-November and usually staying until the March migration. The hermit thrush is medium-sized and stocky. It is a buff brown with black and brown spots on a light buff to white breast. The bird has a distinct white eye ring and flicks its rusty wing tips and tail. When moving, it will run short distances and hop with both feet.
After a full minute of staring at me, the thrush hopped down from the rail and ran back into the garden, disappearing among the urn-shaped seed pods of the dormant meadow beauty and other earth-toned grasses and leaves. In the winter months, only a very few plants remain in bloom and only a few butterflies will hatch during extended warm spells of three or more days.
Thrushes are not our only visiting snow birds. As I pass through Julington Creek Plantation, I see another species of interest. Many of the smaller retention ponds play host to hooded mergansers. Although there have been reported instances of mergansers nesting here, most of those here during the winter are those that nest in holes in trees far to the north during spring and summer.
The male hooded merganser is brightly colored with chestnut sides, a black back and white head with more white showing when the crest is raised. The female is dark gray with a rusty brown head. The merganser has a relatively long pointed tail for a duck. They prefer small wooded ponds for resting and feeding.
The next morning was a little brighter but still frosty. As I passed by the World Golf Village on International Golf Parkway, a dozen Canada geese lifted off a roadside pond, leaving only tiny ripples on the otherwise still surface. Some Canada geese, usually hand-raised and released, are year-round residents. Other wild flocks visit lakes, ponds and rivers as they pass overhead in their distinctive V-shaped formations.
A large buff-bodied bird, the Canada goose has a long black neck and head with white markings. Many Northern geese have holes in the webbing of their feet from having them frozen. Those from farther west seem to be smaller than those from the Northeast. You can hear their distinctive honking call often before you see the birds.
At my own backyard feeder, I am aware of many new birds. Among those that come to the drip faucet for water are the bright yellow migrating goldfinches, several kinds of warblers and an occasional thrush, catbird or woodpecker, along with the cardinals, wrens, titmice and chickadees that are everyday visitors. We enjoy them so much; it is only a small sacrifice to go out in the cold each day to feed them. We will continue to watch for the more unusual visitors while enjoying these daily friends.