Shawnee News-Star Sunday February 25 2018 Becky Emerson Carlberg Two years ago the temperatures were hitting the seventies and eighties in late February. Of course, it was unseasonably dry. This morning I watched the glass doors turn cloudy with condensation as the temps went into free fall and dropped from seventy to thirty degrees in […]
Shawnee News-Star Sunday February 25 2018
Becky Emerson Carlberg
Two years ago the temperatures were hitting the seventies and eighties in late February. Of course, it was unseasonably dry. This morning I watched the glass doors turn cloudy with condensation as the temps went into free fall and dropped from seventy to thirty degrees in three hours. Real rain fell from the sky in torrential bouts that turned to ice on the branches as freezing point was passed. The trees crackle as the wind moves their limbs. The Japanese Garden prairies were mowed last Wednesday and borders and paths around our land were cut yesterday. The moisture will help the overwintering plants and wildflower seeds.
The precipitation was creating problems with the resident squirrel population. I thought we had, at most, four red squirrels that hung around the bird feeders. Apparently there are eight. Squirrels were on the feeders or below scratching the ground before the showers intensified, furiously eating while holding their fluffy tails over their backs as an umbrella to shield them from the pelting drops. They just might need that last blast of protein to help keep warm during this icy cold snap.
Yesterday the crow had warned me about the weather change, I think. The murder of crows had been periodically cawing and yelling, and I could see no bird of animal they had decided to torment. Yes, a flock of crows is called a murder. The term dates to the 15th century when crows and ravens were often seen at execution sites and cemeteries, considered buffets from a crow's point of view. In a gentler vein, a flock of owls is known as a parliament of owls.
A collection of woodcocks is called a fall of woodcock. The Deep Fork Audubon group had planned an evening field trip this week at Sacred Heart in hopes of witnessing the woodcock. The weather delayed our outing since no one wanted to brave sub-freezing temps and muddy fields to see a bird smarter than us that was probably keeping warm and dry and not flying about. The woodcock (Scolopax minor) may travel alone or in small groups known as 'flights.' The bird is the size of a robin, but since it is disguised in camouflage patterns of russets, browns and blacks, most people have never seen it. Since the woodcock digs and pulls out earthworms and eats insects such as grasshoppers and larvae, its' bill is quite long and sturdy.
The habitat of the woodcock is disappearing around Shawnee as open fields and woods are being developed. The land directly across from St. Gregory's University had formerly been prime woodcock territory, a place where males would perform their courtship dance in the air, followed by mating and family life. The woodcocks are gone. Houses have covered their habitat.
Sacred Heart is nine miles east of Asher in the extreme southeast edge of Pottawatomie County. It was established as a Catholic mission in 1879. The academy for girls, boarding school for boys, blacksmith shop, convent, bakery, stables, and farm were built. Most of the mission was destroyed by fire in 1901, leaving the sandstone bakery, two-story log cabin, rock building foundations and two cemeteries. The remnants of the mission eventually reverted to a priory. Most things moved to St. Gregory's College in Shawnee. The priory closed in 1965. The Sacred Heart Catholic Church, built in 1914 and a short distance away from the mission, still stands on Bald Hill, the highest point in Pottawatomie County.
The mission site is quiet. The landscape stands as testimony of a former community with thick trifoliate orange (Poncirus trifoliata) hedges and quince bushes. Pecan groves dominate part of the 640 acre property with the meandering creek and ponds. Woodcocks like the edges of thickets, cleared areas and abandoned fields with trees ringing the perimeter. The normal singing range of a male is about ¼ acre and the nesting site may be 250 feet away. Woodcocks are birds of mystery. If the mother is disturbed, she will grasp her little chicks in between her thighs or feet and fly each one to a place of safety. The woodcock range is the eastern part of the United States, but they reside year-round in Oklahoma and the southern states.
The male woodcock has a spectacular courtship display. In order to attract a cute lady, he has already formulated a plan. Early just before sunrise or sunset, the bird begins his ground display by singing 'peents' that sound oddly like a large insect buzzing. The guy then takes off into the air, chittering and twittering as he climbs higher and higher into the sky. He is trilling his flight song. At the exact moment only known to the bird, he suddenly begins plunging earthward, his chirps becoming silent until he brakes and lands at the same spot he started. According to the 'Birds of America' article, the male woodcock struts like a tiny turkey-gobbler with drooping wings and upright spread tail. He alters his song to hard 'paiks.' The buff bird may perform his show ten times within twenty minutes or even longer on moon-lit nights.
The woodcock picture is from my antique 1936 'Birds of America' prepared under the Auspices of the University Society. The large book was edited by T.G. Pearson, former president of the National Association of Audubon Societies. The American woodcock goes by many names. In the same sandpiper family as the snipes, the woodcock may be known as the big-headed snipe, wood snipe, big mud snipe, night peck, bogsucker, pee-wee, whistler, big eyes, and timber doodle. When you hear someone say they are going 'timber doodling,' know these hardy souls are out early or late in the day in pursuit of hearing, seeing and taking photos (evidence) of the elusive woodcock. So many things in nature that people do not know about. Take time to learn about your wildlife neighbors. They will surprise you.
This evening the rain had slacked off to a mist. The temperature is below freezing. The thistle/Nyger sock loved by the goldfinches was frozen solid and taken to the greenhouse to thaw. The rain gauge cylinder was hit with hot water to dislodge the ice so it could be released, warmed in the house and the precipitation measured. The ice had to be chipped off the base of the bird feeder. Tree limbs were bent to the ground. When the wind gusted, loud cracks could be heard behind the house; limbs were splitting and coming down.
Winter in Oklahoma. Time to turn on the television to see some snow. Olympics here I come!