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Kinnikinnick, and winter in the woods

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By Sylvia Brockner

Winter seems to have settled in with a fairly stable blanket of white. However, it is not too deep for walking in most of our area, and all but the back roads are fairly passable. This makes it possible for most anyone to get out to see what winter has in store.

Although our nesting birds have mostly returned south for the winter, and the birds that stay here all year have no thought of nesting, winter is a good time to look for bird nests. Many of our summer birds nest in deciduous shrubs and trees. With the autumn leaf fall, these nests become much more visible. This makes finding the nests easier, but then comes the fun of trying to figure out who made the nest. Was it the black-headed grosbeak that you saw all summer in the area, or was it the warbling vireo, which you heard singing there every morning in June?

Now comes a little detective work. The nest was placed low in a crotch of an alder near the creek. Too low for a vireo and too large a nest. It was rather poorly constructed, and I concluded that it was the nest of the black-headed grosbeak. A little while later I found the nest of the warbling vireo 30 feet or more up in the crotch of an aspen twig. It was finely woven of grasses, a sturdy nest that could sway in the breeze at the tip of the limb without falling apart.

It is a bit more difficult to find nests in the ponderosa pine, but even there snow tends to collect in the bigger nests of hawks and owls, so they can sometimes be found by looking for a pile of snow that is left after all the fluffy flakes have melted or been blown from the branches.

Old crow and magpie nests are easily seen along streams, where those birds tend to build in narrow-leaf cottonwood trees and willows. One reason for looking for nests in winter is that birds which raised a successful brood this year are very likely to return to the same area to nest next summer — thus making it easier to locate the new nests next summer.

The nests of cavity birds such as woodpeckers are easily found in winter, but it is difficult to tell how old they are. Cavities that were made and used last summer may appear lighter in color and cleaner looking than old cavities, which are black and weathered. As a rule, woodpeckers make a new hole every spring but will usually return to the same area. In winter, the old cavities are also a likely place to look for small owls.

Saw-whet and pygmy owls will often roost during the day in old hairy woodpecker cavities in winter to escape the cold and snow. Just a gentle tapping or scratching on the trunk will often make a sleepy owl stick his head out of the cavity to see if some predator is climbing the tree. Of course, the nests of ground nesting birds are impossible to find in winter, for they have long since disappeared beneath the snow and bent-over weeds and grasses.

Patches of kinnikinnick can still be located in the snow and by the tracks of small animals and birds around them. There was a good crop of green berries this fall, but how many of them survived to mature, I don’t know. These brilliant red berries are eaten by chipmunks, ground and tree squirrels, mice, voles, grouse, turkeys, Steller’s jays, band-tailed pigeons, Towsend’s solitaires and some sparrows and thrushes.

I have always enjoyed cutting a few sprigs of kinnikinnick for Christmas decorations, but they are sometimes difficult to find with the red berries. If you do find kinnikinnick in your yard with red berries, one word of caution: They are woody vines; if you try to pull up a piece, they won’t break off and you might pull up 20 years of growth with one tug. So, cut the short branches and place them in water. Unlike holly, they will not keep out of water. A bonus of putting it in water is that the already formed flower buds will open in the warmth of your house. Usually by late January, you will have little white bell-shaped flowers to welcome the New Year. Enjoy the woods in winter and have a happy holiday.