Happy Winter Birthday

Today is the first day of winter. Actually, the solstice occurred yesterday at 11:19 PM (EST), making today the first FULL day of winter. The winter solstice is also called midwinter, shortest day, longest night, among others, and according to Wikipedia, the hiemal solstice, a new term for me, and a new word for Scrabble!

Today is also my sister’s birthday. My only sibling, she was born when I was 7 years old and brought home from the hospital on Christmas day, the best present ever. To add to my holiday joy, her arrival was paired with the Christmas blizzard of 1966, my earliest memory of snow. So much snow. To this day, I love snow.

This morning, I got up early to watch the sun rise. No, not true, I got up my usual time, but being the longest night of the year, it was still dark. I went outside to unplug an annoying holiday light, chiding myself for leaving it on all night, for polluting the dark on the longest night, the darkest night. Out in the bitter cold, I found the yard crisply coated in beautiful sparkling frost. Hints of pink and gold began creeping in from the edges of the sky. It was magical. Thanks to that annoying lamp, I found joy in the natural beauty of this first winter morning.

Happy winter solstice, and happy birthday to my little sister. I wish you joy in the season, warmth from the cold, and opportunities to appreciate the natural beauty of winter.


A Moment


Helleborus spp. (Winter or Lenten rose)

Here in the northern hemisphere, it is the official first day of spring.

It is the day of the vernal equinox, that moment when the sun shines directly on the equator, when one season ends and a new one begins. That moment occurs today at 6:45 pm EDT.

For me, it is still winter. The outside thermometer agrees; it is exactly 32°F while I enjoy my hot morning tea and cozy warm sweater on this last winter morning.

It’s been a good winter. I’ve had plenty of snow and cold and good birds and completed projects. There might even be some more snow today. I love winter.

Like most people, I also love spring. I appreciate and need the revitalization of colors and plant growth, the arrival of summer birds, the warm sunny breezes on my face, and the energy that comes with the season. But I also feel a sense of apprehension. Winter is sometimes called fierce, and summer described as unrelenting. I find that spring has a force of urgency and determination that can be intimidating; it will push its way in without hesitation.

So, I will savor every last minute of winter today. Then, this evening, and not a moment before, I will welcome spring with open arms.

Happy Spring!


Red Red Robin…


American robin, Leesburg, NJ. 2015 by E. Thompson.

When I was a child in Philly, watching birds in the teeny back yard with my mom, seeing a robin meant that spring was upon us. We would sing that old ditty about the red, red robin that comes bob, bob, bobbin along…

We did not see robins in winter.

Robins form large flocks in winter, and they may or may not be in your area. I now live in an area of southern NJ where huge flocks of robins spend their winter. But I only see them pass over in great numbers in the morning and again at dusk; they don’t visit my garden. In spring they will move north for their summer nesting areas, and my summer robins will return from the south to nest and catch worms in my yard.

The American robin (Turdus migratorius), is migratory, hence its name. Migratorius means “to go”. The robins of our backyards in summer are not the same robins we see in winter: if you see any in winter.

We just had another snow storm and it was a big one; about 7 inches of snow fell. If you’ve read my previous posts, you know that I love snow. And while I know that many of you are tired of it, I am not.  Seriously, I wouldn’t mind if winter stayed for another three months. I am, however, getting a bit tired of the laces on my boots.

Anyway, this snowstorm, and the ice storm, and the snow of last week, provided endless opportunities for photographs. I am sure you all have awesome pics of this winter wonderland. So, I will not bore you with yet more wintry, snowy pictures…except for this wintry, snowy photo of a robin.

I have had huge unexpected flocks of robins hanging all about my house and yard during and after this storm. They have been lined up along the roof edge, with synchronized bobbing, drinking from dripping icicles. And they have been covering the Juniper shrubs like Christmas tree ornaments, devouring the berries and flinging the snow with their busy wings.

Robins prefer to eat worms and other things in the soil, but when they find themselves in an area of deep snow, they will resort to berries.

I don’t know if these are the wintering robins that usually remain aloof and overhead, or early migrants that signal the arrival of spring. Either way, it’s been a real treat to watch this post-snow behavior of the robins in my yard.

Are you seeing robins in your yard?


Confetti Snow

Confetti Snow, E. Thompson

Confetti Snow, E. Thompson

Snowflakes that fell the previous night, strewn about my garden like confetti, are starting
to dissipate in the touch of the early morning sun.

“…isn’t it a wonderful morning? The world looks like something God had just imagined for his own pleasure, doesn’t it? Those trees look as if I could blow them away with a breath-pouf!   I’m so glad I live in a world where there are white frosts, aren’t you?…”

~Anne (Anne of Green Gables, L.M. Montgomery)

Cold Chickadees

Poecile carolinensis © Errol Taskin

When it’s this cold I think about the birds a lot. Well, I pretty much think about birds all the time, no matter what the weather. But when it’s bitter cold or windy and stormy, I worry about them.

I remember reading something about how a chickadee, having spent overnight in extreme cold, has only enough caloric resources left to find food within two hours in the morning or it will not survive. I find that worrisome.

            Just yesterday when I was thinking and worrying about cold little birds, a friend of mine posted a photo of a chickadee on a snowy tree branch. It’s a Carolina chickadee (Poecile carolinensis). A tiny little bird, a chickadee weighs about as much as two nickels.

          My friend has been thinking about birds, too. I don’t know if she is worrying, but she does put out food for them. She got herself new binoculars and watches birds from her office window. Her office is on an elevated level of a barn-like building facing into the woods, in eastern Pennsylvania. She is basically sitting up in the tree canopy. How cool is that?

         I am delighted that she is finding pleasure in seeing birds.

So, after a little more reading, I found out that chickadees will consume 30-60% of their own weight per day in high fat food, like seeds and insect eggs, (during the day their body temperature is a warm 108°F), and on a cold night they will go into a state of regulated hypothermia- actually lowering their temp by 20 degrees. Then they will tuck into a small hole in a tree and shiver all night, using up the excess body fat to sustain them. Lowering their body temperature, which slows their metabolism, leaves just enough energy to get them through to breakfast, if it all works just right.


Another study showed that whether the small birds fed at feeders or foraged on their own had no effect on their body weight or loss in average weather. But, when the thermometer drops below 10°F, supplemental food, like sunflower seeds at feeders, made a significant difference in their survival.

So, I hope you will consider putting out some high-fat seeds for the chickadees and other birds as we go into another deep cold spell this week. And I hope you will have the pleasure of seeing or hearing a chickadee. Chickadee-dee-dee…


Cold & Icy


Ice on spirea. (Elizabeth Thompson)

Baby, it’s cooold outside. I’ve had that song stuck in my head all morning. But at least it bumped the other song that had been stuck in my head since last Friday.

At 6am the thermometer reads 0°F. That is way below normal for this region.

There is so much beauty in winter. I love winter. I hear a lot of grumbling from people that are sick of snow and tired of cold. I don’t like being cold, but I love the cold. And snow and ice and frost of all sorts are just so beautiful.

The photo above is ice formation on a spirea shrub. I happened to spot it late last night when I took the dog out for a very quick walk.

I hope you are finding and enjoying some beauty in this winter season.



RBWb Feb 16RBWO- that is the Four-Letter Alpha Code for red-bellied woodpecker. The Alpha Code list is developed by the American Ornithologists’ Union. It is based on the English (common) names of 2,078 birds.

There is also a Six-Letter Alpha Code list based on the scientific names of the birds. So, for this bird, Melanerpes carolinus, the code is MELCAR.

I am often asked why this bird is named red-bellied, when rarely does anyone see a red belly. As you can see in this photo, the so-called red belly is actually more of an orangey wash of color. It is definitely not easy to see if you are just casually observing the bird. This particular male also has a bit of color on his breast.

Males have the red cap that extends to the beak, while females and immature birds only have red at the base of the neck and a tiny patch by the bill.

This puffed up male was enjoying the fragments of black walnut meat stuck in the shells that the squirrels had discarded. I am so glad he could find a nice meal in my yard.

One more thing to add to my “like” list about my black walnut tree.


Snow Moon

IMG_0595Did you know that full moons have names? Most people have probably heard of the Harvest Moon of September. Various cultures throughout history have given names to the monthly moons. Probably the most well known are the names given by the Algonquin Native American tribes.

The full moon of February is called the Snow Moon, for obvious reasons.

Sometimes the name Snow Moon was given to the moon of January. In that case, February’s full moon would be named the Hunger Moon, because hunting had become so challenging.

Coming up in March is the Worm Moon; the ground starts to thaw and earthworms will “show their heads again”. I love it.

You can read more at MoonConnection.com.


Lá Fhéile Bríde

The day of the bride…Saint Brigit’s Day…Imbolc.

The darkest part of the year is over.

Imbolc is an ancient Celtic festival, the festival of lactating sheep, marking the midpoint between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. Traditionally, in addition to blessing seeds and agricultural implements, it was a time of weather divination, watching to see if serpents or badgers came from their winter dens, and if spring would come early. Here in North America, we will be watching for a groundhog.

It is also the feast day of Saint Brigit. Prior to Christianity, Brigit was a goddess. St. Brigit is the patroness saint of Ireland. Her story is long and varied. Foods associated with the day include oats, milk, bread, and ale.

One of her legacies is the Brigit’s cross. The cross is made from rushes and hung to protect homes from fire and evil.

Paying a bit of attention to these ancient Celtic cycles, rather than making me feel otherworldly, actually makes me feel more connected to humans (albeit ancient ones).

While I will not be firing up a cauldron to cook my oats this evening, I will light a candle and raise a glass of ale to Brigit.

If Candlemas be bright and fair

Winter will have another year

But if it be dark with clouds and rain

Winter is gone, and will not come again.


Happy Imbolc!


Big Seeds

Slicing open an avocado for breakfast prompted a conversation with my husband about whether an avocado seed is the largest seed among seeds. I ventured that coconut might be, but was uncertain.


So, after some quick research I discovered that the avocado and the coconut are indeed among the largest of the world’s seeds. But there is another, spectacularly large seed, a 12” seed that can weigh 40 pounds- the coco de mer. Imagine dealing with that on the kitchen counter while you make toast and tea!

It is the seed of a very rare palm tree (Lodoicea maldivica), found only in the Seychelles Islands. (The Republic of Seychelles is so far out in the Indian Ocean, that I had to zoom out many times on Google maps to learn that the closest land is the mainland of Southeast Africa.) No wonder it is rare, no wind or bird can carry that seed anywhere.

The coco de mer seed is so rare that it is protected as a Natural World Heritage Site. Yes, a site. You have heard of World Heritage Sites, which include buildings and places; well a natural site includes flora and fauna such as trees, plants, ecosystems, and even seeds.

“A World Heritage Site is a place (such as a forest, mountain, lake, island, desert, monument, building, complex, or city) that is listed by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) as of special cultural or physical significance.” (Wikipedia)

I loved learning about a new seed this morning. Let me know if you encounter any large seeds today.