Winter in Alabama’s Black Belt
OFF THE PORCH with Judy and Don Self
Winter kinda sneaks-up on you in west central Alabama. Sometime in the last couple of weeks the riot of colors that was fall has been replaced with the subtler browns and grays of winter. Even the green of the pines and holly seem subdued. The winter rains have also come and with them new color, hundreds of fungi that have erupted from the forest floor. We’re certainly not mycologists, but we’re always fascinated by the incredible variety of forms that fungi assume.
An early January walk/crawl around the back woodlot provided encounters with opalescent white and rich chestnut mushrooms and creamy yellow earthstars protruding from the leaf litter; rich purplish-brown jelly fungi sprouting from a fallen water oak branch; delicate pink shelf fungi on a yellow poplar blown over by hurricane Ivan; and feathery orange parchment fungi joining with lichens and mosses to cover part of a water oak that lost its race to the sunlight. And in this tiny forest, a dragon (OK, so its and anole, but he was most obliging). I’ll leave the identification of these fascinating plants to the professionals; my field guide contains only about 10% of the 6,000 species of fungi that occur in North America! But for those of you who may still be suffering from a lingering case of warbler neck, Ole Doc Don highly recommends a good mycological crawl.
Speaking of birds, a hairy woodpecker took-up residence in the uppermost two feet of that dead water oak. Winter seems to be the season for woodpeckers, with our woodlot hosting not only the hairy but also downy, red-bellied, and pileated woodpeckers, northern flickers, and yellow-bellied sapsuckers. Most of our winter birds have also arrived. The usual hoard of goldfinches and chipping sparrows has joined the northern cardinals at our feeders and a few pine siskins have joined them. Our eastern phoebe is back, but we haven’t seen our hermit thrush yet. Mixed flocks of yellow-rumped warblers, Carolina chickadees, tufted titmice and both golden-crowned and ruby-crowned kinglets now move through our woods and thickets. Brown creepers, blue-headed vireos, and orange-crowned warblers occasionally join them. Eastern bluebirds patrol the edges of our fields like miniature falcons. It’s the breeding season for great horned owls, but we’ve not yet been serenaded by them this year. The barred owls however are in full voice. And as always, our sharp-shinned hawk is back. We have mixed emotions about him, but Judy points-out that when he sits atop the bird feeder post, he saves us more than a few dollars on black oil sunflower seed!
If you’re avid birders like us, winter might seem like a bit of a letdown. After all, the fall migration is over and the time for Audubon Christmas bird counts has now passed. But take heart! If you like to travel a bit, the Alabama Ornithological Society winter meeting at the DCNR’s new 5 Rivers facility on the Mobile causeway in Spanish Fort is coming-up January 23-25. Of course, if you’d rather stay home, the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology Great Backyard Bird Count takes place February 13-16. This is one birding event that you can enjoy in your bunny slippers with a hot cup of coffee. Visit them online at www.birdsource.org/gbbc for the details.
And finally, a note on the weather: We alluded to our winter rains. Well, they pass quickly and are followed by days of bluebird skies. Today was one of those bluebird days with a nice breeze out of the southeast and a high of about 70° F. Not bad for the dead of winter!