Contrary to belief we do have a winter time in Florida. At least we do in North Florida. It’s amazing when you tell someone you’re from Florida and immediately they think you live in Miami. Horiticulturally speaking Miami resides in zone 10 and here in the panhandle we are zone 8. To put it another way they have Impatiens in December while we are growing Pansies. We are different. North Florida is a unique place where we have extreme heat and occasionally extreme cold.
So here we are in December and last night we got down to the 20’s. It seems to me that many people in Florida take the winter pretty hard as we are so accustomed to being outdoors most of the year. However, for me there are many things to appreciate in the winter that we do not have the rest of the year. One of them is the birds that take temporary residence with us here in the south.
It is my belief that birds and gardening go hand in hand. They sing to us while we pull weeds, eat bugs we may not like, and entertain us when they wiggle their feathers about in the bird bath. I adore birds. I know there are many gardeners who see birds as garden predators. One day at a nursery a woman came up to me and asked how to keep the birds away from her blueberries. Before I could answer she said, “I could always shoot ’em.” It took everything in me to keep my composure and not scream at this lady for her cruelty.
In my opinion gardening is all about sharing. The beauty is shared with strangers, the wisdom is shared with our children, seeds, cuttings, tomatoes, etc. are shared with our friends, so the garden should be shared with nature as well. I have definitely shared with the birds in my garden. I have given up a Pothos hanging basket for a family of Carolina Wrens. As soon as I heard the “cheep, cheep” I climbed up to see the little darlings and felt no regret about my Pothos. The Caroline Wren is my favorite bird. We are fortunate that they are with us all year round with their cheerful call. I love that they are always a twosome and you know because the female will call right after the male makes his call. She is letting him know that she is right by his side. I also love how they always hop around. I know they are really looking for food, but to me they look like they are just so happy that they must hop!
One bird people always associate with the winter is the ruby-red Cardinal. What is interesting about these birds is the struggle they go through to be the brightest Cardinal they can be to attract females. I read that they have to eat certain foods that are hard to find during the winter to become the bold red we see in the trees. So when you notice that one Cardinal that seems to be more brilliant red than the others, truly admire his color because he worked so hard for his beauty. Then there are the females and I’m going to quote my friend Carole because I could not describe them any better, “They have the color of my mother’s favorite lipstick.”
Some of the visitors I have received in my garden include the Eastern Towhee, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Cedar Waxwing, Goldfinches, and my favorite guest the Eastern Phoebe. It seems to me that the Eastern Towhee is the first to arrive. Your standing outside and suddenly you hear this consistant bird call. Then you hear something rummaging around in the bushes or hopping around a meadow and there he is with his coal black face and tan/white body. As a Floridian I’m accustomed to seeing Pelicans flying above me, but as autumn passes by so do the Geese. I will look up expecting to see a Pelican and instead I find a flock of geese gracefully fluttering by. Another bird that reminds me of winter is the Cedar Waxwing for their fondness for holly berries. These guys you have to know by sound to spot them. They are usually way up in very tall trees in large groups. I first came upon them when they were at the top of my Sycamore Tree and I got a crick in my neck trying to see them. The Yellow-rumped Warbler, which I think has a name that is cute as a button (or a yellow button I should say), is a bird that was tough for me to identify. These suckers move very fast and the little yellow “rump” is difficult to spot. Not to mention there are so many different kinds of warblers! These little birds can always be found on dwarf wax myrtles eating their grey berries. Another way I know winter has officially arrived is when I see a goldfinch. Every year I always buy Nyjer seed since this is their particular favorite. During the cooler months the males are a dull yellow, but by spring time they will be highlighter yellow meaning soon they will be on their way home.
A few years ago my friend Carole loaned me a book written by a bird illustrator sharing stories about the wildlife that lived on her land. Unfortunately I cannot remember the title, but I really enjoyed this book. Each small story had a beautiful illustration with it and my favorite was about the Eastern Phoebe. This was her favorite bird. So much she loved this bird that she named her daughter Phoebe. She would tell how this same Phoebe would visit her every year. I had never seen an Eastern Phoebe, but after this story I really wanted to see one. I believe this book took place in Ohio, so I didn’t think it would be likely to see one in Florida. However, one morning while I was sitting on my swing drinking a cozy cup of coffee I saw a bird sitting on a leafless Mimosa tree. I was actually sitting with my then room-mate who also liked birds. We both were unsure of what kind of bird this was. It was hard to tell since it was a cloudy day making its color difficult to make out. Fortunately she sat there for the longest time allowing us to pull out all of our bird identification books confirming that she was in fact an Eastern Phoebe. I was thrilled. The reason she sat there so long is because she was “hawking.” Phoebes will sit very still waiting for flying insects to go by, so she can scoop them up. After this she returned many times making no noise, as the males only use their call in the spring, and would sit patiently waiting. She was always alone, which is typical for these birds when it is not mating season. I was told that the same Phoebe will return again the next year and sure enough she came back to visit my garden. When I had to move from this home I was very sad to leave my dear Phoebe. Although, not long after I had moved into my current home, I spotted an Eastern Phoebe on my crape myrtle tree outside my bedroom window. I’d like to believe that she followed me. I took this as a sign that my new home was exactly where I needed to be.
In conclusion, winter does not have to be a time of solace for the gardener. The elegant bare trees gives us an opportunity to observe these lovely creatures who inspired us humans to fly. Hang a bird feeder in your tree with seeds or suet to help them find food during the bitter cold. Birds do not have to be the gardener’s enemy. After all, The Secret Garden would not be as enchanting without the robin who showed the way into the secret garden.