Monday, November 30, 2020

5 Minutes in Nature: Winter flocks

Flock of Ducks and Olympic Mountains, Washington

If you’re in one of the many communities that are returning to stay-at-home orders, you might find some enjoyment in appreciating how social some animals are this time of year.

This post is part of my 5 Minutes in Nature project, a series of short activities designed to help you relax and feel closer to nature. Numerous studies have found that spending even a few minutes outdoors is good for our well-being.

There are many animals that largely isolate in the summer, but gather in flocks in the winter. Bald eagles are just one example. In the summer, most won’t tolerate another eagle within a mile of their nest. In the winter, you can sometimes see dozens roosting in the same tree.

Bald Eagles Feasting Along Nooksack River, Washington

For many animals, breeding season can be competitive. For every animal that finds comfort in nesting together — herons, puffins and terns all come to mind — there are many more that try to keep their resources to themselves. Eagles, crows, most waterfowl, all fit into this category. In the winter, however, more value community over solitude.

So for this 5 Minutes in Nature activity, take five minutes to study animals that are flocking together. Here are a few ideas to get started.

Crows Flying to Roost, Bothell, Washington

Look for crows. Crows are one of the most social creatures in winter. Since they thrive near people, they should be easy to find. About an hour before sunset, watch the sky to see if you can find huge flocks of crows flying to their roost.

Owls prey on crows and there is safety in numbers. Roosts can hold 15,000 crows or more and there is probably a roost near you. There are two sizable roosts within about 10 miles of Seattle.

Snow Geese Flying in Formation, Skagit County, Washington

Watch for formation flying. If geese winter near where you are, scan the skies to see them fly in formation. It’s an incredible example of cooperation.

Geese fly in a V formation to conserve energy and make it easier to cover long distances. When a goose flies, it leaves behind a patch of rising air. Its followers are very sensitive to air currents and position themselves to take advantage of that lift. If you are able to watch them long enough, you will also see them trade positions to give others a break in the easier air.

Pied-Billed Grebe Swimming, Seattle, Washington

Visit your neighborhood pond. Your neighborhood pond probably always has a decent population of ducks, but in the winter, you’re likely to find a greater variety of waterfowl.

In my case, in the summer, the ponds are full of mallards. This past weekend, however, I visited a pond and found wigeon, pied-billed grebes and ring-necked ducks in addition to the usual mallards. This is an opportunity to look closer and notice variation among the sheer numbers.

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