Winter. A time of bone-chilling cold, desolation and gloom.
But winter is also a great time for the nature-minded: as the deciduous trees shed their leaves, the forest canopy opens up, and more is revealed. For me, the first thing that winter brings to mind is that this is a great time to see woodpeckers.
In our part of the country, most woodpeckers are with us the year round (except for the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, which is a migrant from northern forests in winter). But during other times of the year, they are usually concealed by the thick foliage as they usually probe the main trunks or high branches. The open woods of winter means they are much easier to spot. Furthermore, in other seasons, the woods are usually filled all kinds of sounds: bird songs, insect chirping and leave rustling. In winter, most songbirds have departed and insects have hunkered down or perished, and there is less sound-muffling foliage, the drumming and hammering of industrious woodpeckers carry far and wide. From the small and friendly Downy Woodpecker to the bold and raucous Pileated Woodpecker, one can count on seeing a few on most days. Of the seven woodpecker species found in our area, six can be regularly observed in the park (with the exception of the Red-headed Woodpecker).
Winter migrants arrive in the park in hordes. Of these, two are the most common: the White-throated Sparrow and the Dark-eyed Junco. To me, their arrival marks the definitive turning of the season. But these birds follow very different migration paths: White-throated Sparrows breed in the forests of northern United States and Canada and follow a north-south route, whereas Dark-eyed Juncos are mostly a “vertical migrants” in that they travel from their summer grounds at higher elevations to the coastal plains (with some lateral movements, of course).
The quintessential winter bird, though, is probably the namesake Winter Wren. They are not numerous, and are not easy to see as they usually forage in the understory or wood piles. That is, until they burst out their songs, then you will definitely notice — they trill a cascade of rapid chatters and squeaks, like flickering flames in the chilly air, while bobbing and pumping their stubby tail at the same time. More than anything, they restore my faith in the resilience of life in the long, cold months.
Other migrants are more erratic. Purple Finches, for example, may not be seen in the area for several winters. But then in what’s called an “irruption year” (usually due to exceptionally harsh winter and/or shortage of food in their northern grounds), flocks of them will descend in the park. They seem to be especially fond of the seeds of the Chinese elms. The winter of 2018-2019 was a good irruption season, and because of their irregular visitation, I was most thrilled to see them. Other winter migrants can sometimes be seen in the park too, such as Long-tailed Ducks, Ring-necked Ducks or even Buffleheads (a diving sea duck), but the ponds in the park are too shallow to keep them for long.
Winter is also an even greater time to see raptors, because not only will you see the magnificent birds, you will — if you are lucky — witness drama. After the harvest, the open fields afford little cover for the rodents, and this creates opportunities for winged hunters. Among these, Red-shouldered Hawks are residents in the park. They are familiar with the terrain and know how to utilize farm machines as lookout perches. Their bulkier cousin, Red-tailed Hawks, also frequent the park. Both Red-shouldered and Red-tailed Hawks belong to the genus buteo and mainly hunt small mammals and reptiles. The productive hunting grounds at Frying Pan Farm Park are a magnet to them.
Cooper’s Hawk, along with its smaller cousin Sharp-shinned Hawk, belongs to the genus accipiter. These agile birds with short wings and long tails mainly prey on smaller birds. They like to hang out around the animal pens and barns where House Sparrows and Domestic Pigeons are abound, waiting for a chance for a lethal strike.
The wintering sparrows, juncos and finches as well as resident birds also attract falcons, the supreme aerial predators, to the park. Of these, the Merlin is strictly a winter visitor, whereas the Peregrine Falcon, the fastest bird on earth, may be the ones that nest in nearby Reston. After they snatch a victim, they like to devour it on the bare branches of tall dead trees. So if you want to see one, that is where you should look. One time I even saw a gliding Peregrine Falcon with a Mourning Dove in its talons. To some, these scenes may look gruesome, but nature is red in tooth and claw sometimes: after all, the predators have to eat to survive too.
One other winter visitor that also follows an erratic irruption pattern that I really want to see in the park, but have not so far, is the Snowy Owl. One has been spotted in nearby Dulles Airport in recent years, and you would think that the open fields and abundant prey at Frying Pan would attract them to at least make a brief sojourn. What a thrill it would be to see one here! Maybe someday.
Speaking of owls: the resident Barred Owls roost here in the winter — that is, they sleep overnight in some fixed places. There are a few reliable spots in the park where Barred Owls roost (if you know where to look). By January, they start to pair and find tree cavities to nest. If I find a nesting cavity, I will make a mental note to check their progress in the coming months, hoping to see the fuzzy owlets emerging in the spring.
A few times in the winter a snowstorm hits. Then the park is transformed into a totally different world: one could be forgiven to think that he’s been transported to the Arctic tundra. Snowstorms put wildlife through extra hardship. When the sun comes out again, they seem to redouble their effort to forage, and they seem to be cheerier than usual, perhaps to celebrate their survival after the blizzard. They are also easier to see in the white background, which is why I like to watch birds after a storm.
The snowfields also reveal activities of wildlife — you may see tracks of foxes or rodents, or the imprints of a hunting raptor. You may even see a Red Fox bounding away in the snow. It is no longer easy to tell which ones are the old wily ones and which are this year’s young, as they too have matured and ready to raise their own family. By mid winter Red Foxes start to mate, at night you may hear their somewhat blood-curdling shrieks when they call to their mates. If the park staff leaves some room for them, we may see newborn kits in the spring, and the cycle of life will be renewed again.
In order to keep this essay more readable, I chose to only include a small set of pictures — it would be too overwhelming and distracting to include hundreds of pictures. I also used low-resolution pictures to keep it concise. If you want to see more pictures I have taken in and around the park, you may visit the dedicated section on my website. It will be continually updated to include my latest pictures.
You may also want to join two Facebook groups that may interest you: Nature Lovers of Virginia for nature-related photos and discussions, and World Bound Travel for broader, including travel-oriented, topics.