For the Birds: New England’s unpredictable winters

Photo by Chris Bosak A young Cooper's Hawk eats a squirrel in southern New England in Feb. 2015.
Photo by Chris Bosak A young Cooper’s Hawk eats a squirrel in southern New England in Feb. 2015.

Ah, a New England winter. There’s nothing like it.

Zero degrees one day and mid-50s a few days later. Arctic chill to pleasant spring-like weather in the blink of an eye.

Personally, I enjoy both extremes of a New England winter. I’ve said before that one of the great things about being a birdwatcher is that the hobby can be enjoyed regardless of the weather: hot, cold, rainy, snowy. The biggest impact weather — temperatures, anyway — has on birdwatching plans is whether or not the ponds will be frozen.

In the extreme cold, everything is frozen. Small ponds, large lakes and wide rivers are frozen solid. When that happens, I do my birdwatching at home and in the woods. (Lately, it’s been mostly at home, to be honest.) The feeders get particularly active in bitterly cold weather as birds feed with a sense of urgency to fuel up for the cold night ahead. All the birds you’d expect to see over the course of a winter sometimes show up in one day, especially in extreme weather. Cardinals, blue jays, mourning doves, juncos, white-throated sparrows, house finches and, of course, titmice, chickadees, nuthatches and woodpeckers can all show up on those days. Who knows? A pair of Carolina wrens may even show up.

Those types of frenetic feeder days are often accompanied by a visit from an opportunistic sharp-shinned or Cooper’s hawk, but I haven’t seen them around this winter yet.

The woods are usually fairly quiet during a deep freeze, but you can come across the occasional titmouse or chickadee.

Then a thaw will come. The feeder activity slows, but the ice recedes, too. Time to hit the ponds and see if any ducks are still around. For the first day or two when open water returns, typically nothing is found — or maybe a few mallards if you’re lucky. But persistence may pay off if you check daily. Maybe a nice group of ring-necked ducks or a handful of hooded mergansers will join the mallards.

In a way, I almost prefer a deep freeze over the thaws. We live in New England, right? What’s a New England winter without some bitterly cold temperatures? It makes us appreciate the other seasons that much more.

That said, I will admit that I’m often guilty of allowing some false hope about spring to creep into my mind. Spring is not too far away, really. As proof, this week I walked past a flower bed at work and saw snowdrops poking out of the ground.

I hope those flowers know what they’re doing. It’s not wise to underestimate a New England winter.

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