At this month’s meeting of the Jackson Hole Bird and Nature Club an attendee remarked that “winter is half over.” She was pleased, meaning that there’s only January, February and March to go before April and spring. Well, we shall see.

One thing seems sure: Winters aren’t as harsh as they used to be in Jackson Hole back a few decades ago. Talk to some old-timer or visit the Jackson Hole Historical Society and Museum.

Here’s one way I wrote about local winters for a book titled “Winter Wings,” published a dozen years ago:

“Winters are long in the northern Rocky Mountains — long, severe and hard. Yet more than 120 different bird species remain there and survive through the frigid months.

“In fact, winter never entirely leaves much of the region. Glaciers and snowfields are essentially permanent through the year. Below-freezing temperatures can occur on any day of the year, and they do occur commonly for much of the region that lies above 5,000 feet in elevation. Plant growing seasons end with the first hard frosts by September or October, not to resume until May or June of the following year — perhaps seven months later. Snowfall begins to accumulate by mid- to late October. Even at elevations below 5,000 feet or in sheltered valleys, winter is a six- or seven-month season.

“Snow cover is early, deep and reluctant to yield. Ponds and small lakes can freeze over by November, creeks in December. Winter storms are frequent and can be hard to the point of grimness. Prolonged cold temperatures ranging to minus 30 degrees Fahrenheit, minus 50 degrees Fahrenheit and even to minus 60 degrees Fahrenheit occur and may persist for weeks. No relief as a result of moderating effects of the oceans reach the Northern Rocks. Challenges from winter’s cold actually seem to intensify and compound. Nevertheless, these rigorous conditions are somehow endured by wintering birds and other animals.

“Winter in the northern Rocky Mountains has its own special beauty and appeal. However, it is also a demanding, relentless obstacle to each animal attempting to endure it.”

The book “Winter Wings” is graced with photographs by Tom Mangelsen and, to our delight, an endorsement by Mardy Murie. She wrote this:

“There is no denial; winter birds are the brave ones, the colorful ones, the popular and respected ones. They are the feature that gives the most meaningful accents to our Rocky Mountain world. Brave winter birds! We salute you. May your endless search for food be fruitful.”

Every winter is hard on birds, even winters we cosseted humans consider mild. Winter days are short and nights long, limiting time for diurnal birds to forage. Snow cover that people may think of as scant is still cover for a seed-eating bird. A barely frozen-over body of water is still inaccessible to waterfowl.

One of the rewards you can receive by providing seed and water and water to birds is an opportunity to watch some species as their spring molt proceeds.

Birds gotta molt — gotta replace part or all of their plumages, shed old feathers and grow new ones. (Feathers wear out, get damaged or eaten by pests.) All birds molt at least once annually, generally in synchronicity with their breeding cycle; the birds want to look their best in courtship. Some birds molt all their feathers, some undergo a partial molt, and some birds wear their feathers to reveal underlying ones. Some birds experience brightening of color in their feather pigments rather than feather renewals.

In that latter category would seem to be the house finch. For a couple of weeks now some of the house finches coming to my feeders are displaying subtly increasing brighter plumage, and I believe it’s a result of pigment enhancement. (I can’t do experiments on birds, which is all the best for everyone.) The goldfinches I see occasionally seem to be in the feather wear category.

Catch a glimpse of some favorite bird perched at your feeder in early morning, illuminated by a shaft of sunlight, coming into spring splendor, and enjoy one of your rewards.

Field Notes: Summarizing the result of the local Audubon Christmas Bird Count:

In Jackson Hole on Dec. 20, 46 observers saw 49 species on count day, three more species during count week. A total of 2,542 individual birds and nine mammal species. Susan Marsh compiler.

In comparison, Teton Valley, Idaho, on Jan. 3: 42 observers, 53 species, two more in count week.

House finches are getting more colorful (Wes and Shirley Timmerman). I heard someone witnessed a red squirrel harvesting mushrooms and hanging them in a tree. Wolves were seen on the National Elk Refuge days before supplemental feeding was scheduled to commence.

As recently as a couple of weeks ago a black bear was spotted at around 10,000 feet in the Teton Range by two separate parties. As it goes, be bear aware. At all times.

2015©Bert Raynes

Bert Raynes writes weekly on whatever suits his fancy with a dash of news on nature and its many ways.

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