Sigrid Sanders
Winter Woods

A cycle has no end and no beginning. The cold of winter induces dormancy in many of our plants; life processes are slowed down; the deciduous forest "sleeps."
         - E. Lucy Braun, Deciduous Forests of Eastern North America

There's nothing pretty about these woods in winter. Gray, battered, wet and bleak, the tall oaks and hickories stand starkly bare and blotched, as if stripped naked, unkindly exposed. Every scar, swollen joint, crooked limb and ragged break revealed. The evergreens droop. On the floor of the woods, withered vines, broken branches and parts of trunks, dead leaves, stump holes and fungi spread in a jumble of litter. It's generally a mess. It's cold and often rainy, windy, darkly damp and chill, but not cold enough for the saving white grace of snow. Some leaves remain on the white oaks, crumpled red-brown leaves that rustle in the wind, and on the few small beech trees here and there, pale, papery copper leaves crinkle and glow with a chalky light. The trees and branches stoop and creak and moan and scrape in the wind. But mostly, under all, lies a deep, unsettling quiet.

And then - a burst of thin, high ti-ti-ti calls from the pines shatters this bleakness with a light touch of color and life. Two Golden-crowned Kinglets flit through the needles and over and under the branches, upside down and sideways, tiny grayish quick-moving birds with white wing bars, black and white striped faces, and jewel-like orange and yellow crowns. Nearby, in dense low shrubs, a Ruby-crowned Kinglet chatters a dry, stuttering jidit-jidit-jidit and makes its way from branch to branch until it's close to where I stand, almost eye-to-eye with me, another very small greenish-gray bird with white wing bars, but a plain, round gray head, a white eye ring that makes it look alert - and what seems like a more sociable and curious nature as it seems to check me out. A sliver of the ruby crest on the very top of its head, not fully fluffed up, can be seen. Then it darts away with another stuttering call.

It was mid-January, and I had come outside for a walk during a break in rain that had lasted for days, a heavy, drenching, long, cold, plodding rain, with temperatures just above freezing, brooding, gray, relentless rain that felt as if it would never stop. The ground became sodden and brown. Rainwater streamed down the hillsides and gushed through the runoff gullies, stood in pools and puddles all over the yard, hung in tiny silvery drops from the frail branches of small trees. The clouds hung low and thick. My own mood reflected the weather, dark, gloomy and depressed. Dispirited, discouraged. Irritable and restless.

I won't say the kinglets made that dark mood vanish, but it's hard to watch them and not feel at least a little lighter of heart. Diminutive, lively birds with exquisite touches of color, they animate the trees - Golden-crowned Kinglets usually higher up, keeping their distance, most often in the pines, while Ruby-crowned Kinglets travel lower, through the forest understory, shrubs and thickets and low branches of trees, and often seem curious about me, at least long enough to have a quick look before moving on. Both search for spiders, insects and their eggs, and other small prey, and eat small amounts of vegetation like fruits and seeds. Their patterns of movement are quite different - the Ruby-crowned more erect and direct, less shy and distant, often flicking its wings and sometimes hovering to reach under the surface of leaves. Both are constantly in motion, but the Golden-crowned seems more flighty and airy as it moves over branches, gathering food from tufts of pine needles, tips of branches, under bark, often upside down or sideways, and moving more erratically, unpredictably than the Ruby-crowned, which usually makes a steady progress from one spot to another.

Kinglets are among several species of birds that migrate to this part of the South for the winter months and are only here at this time of year, while more colorful, sun-loving songbirds like tanagers, vireos and most warblers leave here to spend winter in the tropics. Fox Sparrow, Hermit Thrush, Brown Creeper, Winter Wren, White-throated Sparrow, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Dark-eyed Junco, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker and the kinglets and others - the winter birds bring something of the north with them - hints of northern New England, Canada, Alaska and the Yukon - of boreal spruce forests and bogs and frigid hidden lakes. A few of them come here, to this small, second-growth woodland, a much less picturesque and storied landscape - a place where the ancient stories of the forest have long been lost along with the trees, cut over and over again. But as they settle in for the winter each year, playing their parts in the woodland community, these small, inconspicuous winter birds weave new stories, helping to create a new cycle of rebirth and recovery in the history of this place.

They also bring the woods a character unique to this time of year, each species occupying a slightly different niche, and usually found, as the winter months go on, in predictable, familiar places. The Golden-crowned Kinglets, for example, which nest in the boreal spruce forests of Canada and in the far west, here in winter could usually be found in the pines or in areas where pines mixed with hardwoods. The Ruby-crowned Kinglets - whose breeding grounds are spruce forests even further north and in the western U.S. - seemed to prefer more shrubby habitat here but were adaptable, and I could expect to hear their staccato chatter almost anywhere - around the house and yard, the edge of the woods, or even in the deep woods, especially around the wetland.

When I left the house that mid-winter afternoon, I stepped outside into quiet - not silence, but a deep, pervading quiet, mostly because of the absence of insect sounds, the humming, buzzing, whining background that's always there in other seasons of the year. Instead there was the hollow sound of wind in the trees, the gushing of water in the creek and gullies, a stiff rush in the pines, a creaking in the hardwoods, a sigh, a moan. And a background quiet I could feel as much as hear.

At first I followed the driveway, an unpaved pair of tracks that served as a rough trail through the bare oaks and hickories that surrounded the house, across a small flat bridge over a runoff gully and up a hill, into a section of water oaks and pines where the kinglets shook off some of my dreary mood. I heard the traveling cuk-cuk-cuk-cuk-cuk of a Pileated Woodpecker from somewhere deep in the woods, and the chek calls of Yellow-rumped Warblers scattered in the pines. Two Turkey Vultures and four Black Vultures soared against the gray clouds. A small flock of Cedar Waxwings flew over much lower, scattering high, thin, mewing calls. As I watched, they fell out of their tight flying formation into several pines and cedars, falling like a shower of sparks that turned into birds as they touched the green needles and perched there, fawn-gray birds with crests, black masks, and tips of gold on the tails, and red enamel touches in the wings.

Then something startled them into flight and they rose with a spray of glassy calls, flowed into formation again like a cloud, and were gone.

I continued to follow the driveway up the hill, surrounded on both sides by pines, water oaks, sweet gums and tulip poplars, and a withered tangle of briars and understory growth. The woods in winter stand cloaked in a different kind of mystery than in summer, fall or spring. Without the heavy foliage they're more open and easier to walk through. No yellow-jacket nests, fewer spider webs and spiders, and the thorny undergrowth is relatively benign, compared with summer's ankle-grabbing vines. In the bare branches, nests from last summer can be seen, and the myriad shapes and textures of trunks and limbs and patterns of lichens can be admired, and the tracks of scars explored. Sounds are more distinct, because there are fewer of them, isolated and singular in a way impossible among the constant chorus of insects, frogs and birds in other seasons.

But though the woods are more open, they stand aloof. Stripped of their spirited thick clouds of foliage, they withdraw into themselves, each tree. Walking among them, especially on a misty gray, cold day, is like walking among the columns of a ghost town. They are evocative, but not communicative.

Oh well - that's really not the trees, I think, but me, a reflection of how much I do not know about these woods, which is a very great deal. I spend a lot of time outside, walking and sitting and watching and trying to learn, but most of the time my attention is on the birds, a fascinating part of the woodland community and the one that most interests me - but far from the whole story. There are so many other aspects of the woodland community about which I know almost nothing - the soil and the microorganisms that live in it are a universe in themselves; of the trees - perhaps the single most important part of the woods - I can only name the most obvious ones; other plants, ferns, fungi, insects, spiders and scorpions, frogs, salamanders, beavers, foxes, bobcats, and lichens and moss. What I have learned about these woods is only glimpses, fragments.

"Let us envision the forest as an aggregate of plant and animal life," wrote Lucy Braun in her classic Deciduous Forests of Eastern North America, "an aggregate of trees of the canopy and lower layers, shrubs and vines, both large and small, herbaceous plants of the forest floor; mosses and lichens on the ground, on rocks, and on tree trunks, fungi, both parasitic and saprophytic, and also of the animals - grazing, burrowing, leaf-eating, seed-eating - the mammals, the birds, the insects, and the micro-organisms (plant and animal) above and below ground; an aggregate of interdependent and interacting organisms. From among this aggregate of multitudinous forms, the trees stand out preeminent, because of their superior size and because of their pronounced influence upon all of the forest inhabitants. Yet each member of the forest community plays its part, in competition, in contribution to organic detritus, in giving to the forest its many aspects, both local and seasonal."[1]

Writing in 1950, Lucy Braun was attempting "to present information on the original forest pattern of eastern North America and on the composition of virgin forests,"[2] even though, as she says, very few remnants of these forests remain, and there's little direct information about them. "Such records as there are of the nature and appearance of the American forests of pre-colonization days are meager and fragmentary. They may serve to substantiate the evidences afforded by the remnants of today, but seldom do they enable one to visualize the original conditions."[3]

So this ordinary second-growth woodland where I lived in northeast Georgia was far from the forest she had in mind - and yet, it is the same. It has been abused and badly used, so that today we can see little resemblance to a virgin climax forest. But if left alone and given enough time, it will recover. Second-growth woodlands like this are the old-growth forests of the future. And Braun's description of the forest as a community of plants, animals and other components applies equally well to this kind of struggling, but recovering place though it is young and comparatively impoverished.

Already, these young woods have grown into a complex and diverse community with enough to explore for a lifetime - and I only barely scratched the surface. What I did learn by living there and spending time outside every day is a much deeper appreciation for the vitality and diversity of places like this, not old-growth, pristine or spectacular, but the ordinary woods around where we all live, places that are too often overlooked and undervalued and, as a result, disappearing fast. I don't like to sound like all doom and gloom or to focus on the negative side of things. I would much rather write about the good - the fascinating world of birds in forest and field. But I can't ignore the tragic loss that is underway, right under our noses today. And on these 16 acres in northeast Georgia at the end of the 20th century, I was at ground zero, right in the middle of the advancing forces of suburbia.

As I got closer to a wider clearing on one side of the driveway, I slowed and then stopped while still several yards away. The wooden remains of an old grape arbor stood here, a grid of square posts each about five feet tall, planted in rows of three - eighteen in all. Lengths of wire were still attached here and there, but posts and wire were thickly overgrown with tall grass, thorny vines and other weeds - all dead or dormant now - and small pines and sweet gums. Beyond the clearing were the mixed woods and a dense understory, the ground on the edge of the woods thick with red-brown pine needles, and there - sure enough - five big plump bright red-brown and gray Fox Sparrows were scratching in the pine needles with one Hermit Thrush. The Fox Sparrows, whose summer homes in the far north are brushy thickets and dense low vegetation, and the Hermit Thrush, perhaps coming here from the woody margins of a pond in a New England hardwood forest, shared a liking for this particular scrubby spot around the old arbor, and I often found both here. The Fox Sparrows were big and boldly colorful, clearly sparrows in shape and pattern and behavior, but much more impressive in appearance than the typical "little brown sparrow."

Their coloring was a lush reddish-brown and dove gray with touches of white, streaked and mixed in intricate and variable patterns, especially on their faces. Red-brown spots dusted their white breasts. Despite the name, not all Fox Sparrows are so red in color - they are extremely variable, with 18 different subspecies, divided into three or four different groups - but these belonged to the easily identified Iliaca group, characterized by the bright red-brown coloring, which is what made them so impressive. These five were foraging in a thick carpet of pine needles that closely reflected their own color, and on weedy ground, scratching up the needles and debris with two-footed hops, searching for insects, spiders, fruits, seeds and other food. They are shy birds, never straying far from dense vegetative cover, but they looked very much at home and almost placid in the open here, with thick bushes not far away, and moved one behind the other, scratching and pecking, in a loose line of follow-the-leader. So I could watch for several minutes, absorbed for a while in the varied and intricate patterns of the feathers around their faces.

The Hermit Thrush, in contrast, foraged alone and looked much more wary. More slender and erect in its posture, with head held high and tilted slightly back as it looked around, it ran quickly across the ground, stopped, looked around, stabbed at the ground, flipping up some litter, then ran to another spot and looked around again. It seemed to spend much more time looking around than eating or even hunting. Although its coloring was a more subdued, less eye-catching dull brown, with a white breast spotted in brown, its face was interesting, appearing more alert or more interested in its surroundings than the sparrows, with a thin white eye ring enhancing this watchful appearance, giving it a wide-eyed, perpetually startled look.

A Hermit Thrush generally lives up to its name year-round, and its solitary behavior gives it a certain air of mystery. Though it may often go unnoticed because of its quiet, reclusive habits, it isn't exactly shy. Here in the winter one often comes out to forage in the open, frequently in the company of other small birds, like the Fox Sparrows or a feeding flock of chickadees, titmice and kinglets. Like other Hermit Thrushes I've watched in the winter, this one seemed to have a regular pattern, a route it followed each day, going to particular spots at particular times. But even in a crowd, there's always something solitary about the Hermit Thrush, quite unlike the more social Fox Sparrows, in this case. It keeps its distance and goes its own way. Maybe it's the Greta Garbo of birds, so famously celebrated for its ethereal song - but all it really wants is to be alone.

Suddenly something startled the sparrows and thrush - maybe I made a careless move, or maybe it was something else. The Fox Sparrows flew up in a flurry, into the dense vegetation nearby. The Hermit Thrush half-flew, but mostly ran away and froze with its back to me, standing on a thin branch of a small fallen pine. It perched there, wild eye round and wide, raising and slowly lowering its cinnamon tail, and after a few seconds, ran down the branch and into the woods. When I walked closer, I could still see it not far away, and two of the Fox Sparrows sitting on low branches among the dim tangle of gray vines and brown leaves, waiting for me to leave.

I knew they wouldn't come back out as long as I was there, so I turned around at this point and backtracked for a short distance down the driveway. A Yellow-bellied Sapsucker mewed from the trunk of a hickory. It took me a couple of minutes to find it - surprisingly well camouflaged by the mottled patterns of its black, white and buff-colored back, which blended in with the bark - despite the deep crimson throat and crown, and bold black and white stripes on the face and head. A slight yellow tinge on the belly was barely visible in the gray light. It hitched its way up with erect posture, stopping to probe into sap holes. It came to a cup-like protrusion on the trunk of the hickory, several feet above my head, and I watched as it repeatedly dipped its head into the cup, which must have been holding water. While most woodpeckers either do not migrate or do not migrate far, Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers have been called the "jetsetters of the woodpecker clan,"[4] because they leave breeding grounds in Canada and other parts of northern North America to winter in the southeastern U.S., Mexico, Central America and the West Indies. During the winter we often heard the mewing calls of the sapsuckers, almost always to be found around the house and up along the driveway. Many of the trees were ringed with their sap holes, and tulip poplars seemed to be among their favorites.

As I came close to two large brush piles surrounded by an open area of weeds and grass, a handsome but cowardly Brown Thrasher dived into one of the piles of logs and branches and debris, and a much smaller, more cocky Carolina Wren perched on a dead branch and scolded me loudly. Several Dark-eyed Juncos - small, soot-gray with slightly darker heads, pink bills and white bellies - foraging on the other side of the piles in the weeds, flew up with jingling little calls when I came too close, flashing the white edges of their tails and taking refuge in the low branches of nearby trees. Winter birds for us and much of North America, the juncos come here from forests in the far west, Canada and further north.

A few yards behind the brush piles, I entered the woods on a trail that led first into the gray-green shadows of an older pine and cedar forest - I say older not because I know for sure how old any of these trees are, but because that's how it felt, with tall, thick-trunked pines and cedars that were flourishing and showing no signs of dying out. An upland, evergreen grove, in all seasons this was a quiet, hushed place, the ground cushioned in brown needles, the light filtered in green, the air scented with cedar. I heard the faint ti-ti-ti calls of Golden-crowned Kinglets again, invisible now, high in the pines. The trail wound through the evergreens, and took a wide looping turn around three graceful dogwoods that I thought of as the Three Sisters. A little further past this point, I stopped and listened and waited for several minutes in the gray-green light. Even on a deeply cloudy day like this, there was a clarity about the light and a spacious feeling, a hushed tone, like inside a chapel. Not a cathedral or a grand place, but a refuge, a place removed and buffered from outside noise and activity, a place of stillness and retreat. Wind rustled in the pines and cedars, but it wasn't strong. The air felt cold and damp, the trees drooped with rainwater. Crows cawed in the distance, and a Red-bellied Woodpecker made a chuck-chuck call, but mostly it felt very quiet, very still, as if the trees around me were empty.

Then, in the blink of an eye, the quiet began to erupt with the lively chick-a-dee-dee-dee of Carolina Chickadees, the day-day of Tufted Titmice, and the squeaky-dee, squeaky-dee of Brown-headed Nuthatches - all in the trees right around me. Another Ruby-crowned Kinglet stuttered. A Downy Woodpecker hitched up a pine trunk and out on a stub, stopping here and there to tap on it, until it found a spot it liked.

[1]E. Lucy Braun, Deciduous Forests of Eastern North America. Originally published 1950. Copyright 2001, The Blackburn Press, Caldwell, New Jersey. Page 3.

[2]Braun, page 8.

[3]Braun, page 7.

[4]Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, "Yellow-bellied Sapsucker: The Master Sap Tapper," by Mary Deinlein, August 2003.

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