February phenology

Holy Wisdom MonasteryCare for the Earth, Friends of Wisdom Prairie, Phenology 5 Comments

By Sylvia Marek

Cedar waxwing feeding on crabapple

Cedar waxwing feeding on crabapples

Phenology is a science focused on observing and recording biological events from year to year and their relationships to the change of seasons and climate.

These are the “normal” phenology events we expect to see here and in the Madison area this month. We would love to hear about what you are seeing on the grounds of Holy Wisdom Monastery. Please comment on this post with what you are observing, where at Holy Wisdom and the date you observed the event.

“Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul, and sings the tune without the words, and never stops.”  –Emily Dickinson


February is usually a month of cold, snowy days with some mild days. I have recorded temperatures ranging from -25 below zero to 60 above. No two February months are the same. It is still winter in February but there are subtle signs that the season is changing. Birds start to sing and their behavior changes. Mammals court and mate. By the end of February daylight increases to 11 hours. Buds swell and sap flows. The sun is warmer.  Most plants respond to longer periods of light rather than warmer temperatures.  What effect will the rapid changing climate have on the above and the following observations I have made?

Resident birds

  • Winter flocks of Cardinals break up and pairs start to form.  Male and female Cardinals counter-sing “birdy, birdy, what cheer, what year” throughout the day.  Feather tips wear off and reveal more vivid plumage.
  • Chickadees whistle “fee-bee” songs.
  • White-breasted Nuthatches give rapid “ank, ank” and “wa-wa-wa-wa” calls.
  • Woodpeckers drum. Red-bellied Woodpeckers call “quirr-quire.”
  • Tufted Titmice call “peter, peter.”
  • Blue Jays form courtship flocks usually led by one female. Look for bobbing displays and listen for musical “wheedle, wheedle” calls.
  • Mourning Doves remain in flocks. Males begin long “coo-coo-coo-coo” courtship songs and chase females.
  • Goldfinches gather in smaller flocks. Males begin their partial molt and new feathers are bright yellow.  Males sing sweet warbling songs. They do not nest until July and August.
  • Flocks of Cedar Waxwings wander here and there.
  • European Starlings prepare for breeding and begin to whistle. Beaks turn yellow and feather tips wear off revealing iridescent plumage.
  • Large flocks of noisy Crows gather.
  • Turkeys form large flocks.
  • Red-tailed Hawks perform aerial displays. Pairs soar close to one another.
  • The Cooper’s Hawk pursues small birds.
  • Great Horned Owls continue to call and mate. Look for an abandoned Crow or Hawk nest. You might see feather tufts of the female peeking over the rim. She usually lays 1-2 eggs in mid-February and begins incubating.
  • Barred Owls call “who cooks for you” more frequently.  They usually nest in March.
  • Look at tree cavities for a well-camouflaged Gray or Red Screech Owl.  Listen for their whinny or monotone call usually well after dark.

Winter visitors

  • Dark-eyed Juncos form larger flocks, chase and sing trilling songs.
  • Tree Sparrows gather in larger flocks and start singing sweet “tinkling” songs.
  • Look for Purple Finch, Pine siskin, brown creeper, red-breasted nuthatch and Golden-crowned Kinglet in wooded areas.
  • Along roadsides, fields and prairies look for Snow Bunting, Horned Lark, Lapland Longspur, Rough-legged Hawk, Harrier, Shrike and Snowy Owl.
  • Perhaps you can find a Saw-whet Owl roosting in a conifer.

Irregular visitors from the north

  • White-winged and Red Crossbills
  • Evening and Pine Grosbeaks
  • Common and Hoary Redpolls
  • Bohemian Waxwings
  • Short-eared and Long-eared Owls

Early migrants from the south 

  • In late February look for male Red-winged Blackbird, Grackle, Robin, Eastern Bluebird, Eastern Meadowlark, Sandhill Crane, Eagle and Woodcock.


  • Most are active at night. Tracks in the snow or mud reveal stories of their nocturnal activities.
  • Deer tracks are arrow or heart shaped. Deer continue to browse (tear) and nibble tree branches and shrubs. Males shed antlers.
  • Rabbits hop and put paired front feet behind rear feet. They are courting now. Look for lots of tracks and pinkish-orange urine on snow. They browse or cut branches at a 45-degree angle.
  • Gray squirrels also hop and put paired front paws behind rear paws.  Males chase females with wild abandon and mate.
  • Raccoon tracks resemble our hands (front) and feet (hind).
  • Opossum tracks are star-like and both front and hind tracks resemble hands.
  • Deer mice have delicate paired tracks with a trail drag between. They have long tails and long ears.
  • Voles (meadow mice) and shrews make small meandering tracks that resemble a string of beads. Voles have short tails and long ears.  Shrews have a pointed nose and tiny ears.
  • Rodents and rabbits gnaw bark.
  • Have you seen any coyotes lately? They have 4 toes on each paw (cats have 5). They travel in nearly a straight line (dogs meander).
  • Skunks come out of hibernation on warm days and make meandering tracks as they wander.
  • A chipmunk might make an appearance.


  • During sunny or warm days (near 50 degrees) look for the following:
    • Overwintering adult butterflies such as mourning cloak, red admiral, and angle-wing nectaring on tree sap.
    • Dark speck-like snowfleas (springtails) appearing on top of the snow or on tree trunks to mate or graze on pollen or algae.
    • Gnats, midges, flies, craneflies, snow mosquitoes (they do not bite), lady beetles, box elder bugs, and tiny grasshoppers are active.
    • A spider or strands of spider silk might be found hanging from branches.


  • Sap starts to flow causing the stems of red osier dogwood shrubs to turn bright red and the trunks of quaking aspen to turn shades of green.
  • Pussy willow buds start to elongate and silver, furry catkins start to expand.
  • Examine the buds and bark of the following native shrubs and trees:  ninebark, lderberry, chokeberry, buttonwood, gray dogwood, hazelnut, oak, maple, shagbark hickory, and hackberry.

More things to notice and appreciate

  • Warmth of the sun
  • Sundogs (shafts of rainbow colors on each side of the sun)
  • Sapsicles hanging from maple tree branches
  • Glittering hoarfrost
  • Beautiful sparkling snow and the delicate design of each different flake
  • Silhouettes of open-grown oaks and other trees
  • Did you notice the tiny white-cup fungus (Aleurodiscus oaksii) on the light gray bark of the white oak?
  • Turkey tail fungus is found on dead wood. Notice the variety of colors in the overlapping rows of fan-like fungi.
  • Beautiful lichens can be found on trees and rocks. Most are gray, gray-green, and a few are yellow. They have different shapes.
  • Listen to the wind whispering through the pine trees.
  • Be grateful for the privilege to walk and enjoy the peace and beauty of nature at Holy Wisdom Monastery.

“Is gratitude a moral obligation? I would say it is. The obligation is owed to the earth itself. To be grateful is to live a life that honors the gift. To care for it, keep it safe, protect it from danger, not to discount it or ignore it, but to use it respectfully, to celebrate it, to honor the worth of it in a thousand ways, not just in words, but in how we live our lives.”
–Kathleen Dean Moore, Pine Island Paradox

Sylvia Marek is a highly trained and experienced naturalist. She works for the University of Wisconsin Arboretum and is a first rate birder.

Please share the biological events you notice while at Holy Wisdom Monastery below (remember to include what you see, where and when).

Comments 5

  1. Interesting info on rabbits. I haven’t been out to Holy Wisdom to look, but here in my yard I have seen the pink urine, and wondered what was going on with the rabbits I see every evening under my willows. For sure I will be out to hike the Holy Wisdom land this week. There is so much going on!

  2. My 9-year old son and I visited Holy Wisdom Monastery this morning. We saw geese circling overhead. He noticed a molehill. We heard chickadees and cardinals. We saw many dried flowers, the orange branches of the weeping willows with buds. Over by the garden, we noticed wild turkey tracks in the snow.

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