The great horned owl is a winter breeder in Georgia. By January, many great horned owls already are incubating eggs in their nests. GREG HUME/CREATIVE COMMONS

Today’s winter solstice marks the year’s shortest day

Charles Seabrook’s “Wild Georgia” column appears weekly in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Winter arrives today, December 21, 2019, at 11:19 p.m., the moment of the winter solstice, when the North Pole tilts farthest from the sun. For us in the Northern Hemisphere, this first day of winter also will be the shortest day of the year.

Day length in Atlanta today will be only about 9 hours, 54 minutes. In terms of daylight, that is about 4 hours, 29 minutes shorter than on the longest day of the year last June 21 — when the summer solstice ushered in the first day of summer.

The good news is that after today, the days gradually grow longer. The sun will climb higher into the sky each day. The nights will shorten and the days will lengthen eventually into spring and summer. A month from today, we will have gained 21 minutes of daylight.

Winter is thought of being the season of drabness and somnolence. In Georgia, nothing could be farther from the truth. Pines, cedars, magnolias, hollies, Christmas ferns and other evergreens stand out now in winter-brown woods and amongst leafless hardwoods.

Many of Georgia’s summer-nesting songbirds have migrated south for the winter, but year-round residents — cardinals, bluebirds, blue jays, chickadees, woodpeckers and others — still brighten our woods and yards. In addition, several northern-nesting birds — kinglets, sparrows, yellow-rumped warblers, cedar waxwings and others — are spending the winter in Georgia.

Winter also is the best time of year to watch for waterfowl on wetlands, lakes, and rivers. Gray foxes, red foxes, opossums, bobcats and raccoons soon will begin courting and breeding. Rare and endangered right whales are arriving along the coast for their calving season.

Great horned and barred owls are courting; listen for their hooting. Eggs in some bald eagle nests may be close to hatching by Christmas Day.

Merry Christmas.

IN THE SKY: From David Dundee, Tellus Science Museum astronomer: The Ursid meteor shower reaches a peak Sunday night of about 15 meteors per hour. Best viewing: In the east from about midnight until dawn. The moon will be new on Wednesday night. Only two planets are visible now: Venus is low in the west at dusk and sets about two hours later; Mars is low in the east about two hours before dawn, and will appear near the moon on Monday morning.

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