So, what is up with the chipmunk population this spring?
It’s well past the time when they should be lurking and scampering around our backyards and woodlands. The last few years the little imps have been ubiquitous and, depending on your perspective, entertaining or annoying us nonstop.
This year? I’ve seen only a handful, and others have expressed similar observations. I’ll share what others have written based on my request in last week’s column. At the end, I’ll share what my favorite wildlife expert has to say on the topic.
First, the people like me who have noticed a lack of chipmunks this spring:
“I finally saw a chipmunk at our house yesterday,” wrote Susan of Nelson. “Just one so far. We have plenty of gray and red squirrels, and it has been weird not to see chipmunks.”
I often preach about enjoying what nature hands you regardless of the season, but I have to admit that my thoughts drifted toward spring a few times this week.
It wasn’t the general mildness of this winter that got me thinking about spring. In fact, I’m still holding out hope for more snow, although that may be an unpopular thought.
But three separate incidences steered my mind toward spring recently. First I noticed buds on the trees that line my street and the crocuses are in full bloom in the garden. Then I visited the neighborhood pond and heard the wonderful chorus of red-winged blackbirds. Finally, I dug deep into my video archive and came across “Spring and Summer Songbirds of the Backyard,” a short documentary narrated by George Harrison (no, not the former Beatle).
With so much mild weather, I wasn’t caught off guard by seeing the buds on the trees or the crocuses in bloom.
Winter officially may still have about four weeks to go and, in New England, goodness knows how many weeks or months left unofficially, but it’s not too early to start discussing spring migration.
I’m not trying to jinx the mild weather we’ve had and cause a winter that lingers into May like some of our recent winters. Even if winter does roar back, there are still plenty of birdwatching opportunities to be had. It’s a hobby for all seasons.
Regardless of what happens in the weeks ahead, signs of spring from the world of birds are here already. One morning as I walked to fill the feeders I noticed the extremely pleasant and welcomed sounds of cardinals, Carolina wrens and song sparrows singing their hearts out.
Red-winged blackbirds, one of the earliest signs of spring, have returned already to many parts of New England. Pat from Sandwich wrote to say she had six red-winged blackbirds in her backyard last week. There have been other reports of red-winged blackbirds in New Hampshire, including one report by Brian of Keene, who included the sighting on the American Birding Association’s bird news website.
Attracting birds to a birdbath is one of the more underrated joys of the hobby.
Perhaps it is because I failed on my first several attempts to get birds to visit the birdbath I offered. I started to think it was a waste of time to even try, but about then, I glanced out at the birdbath and saw a magnolia warbler cleaning itself. Of course, birds such as magnolia warblers are not going to visit your birdbath too often, but to see even the most common of birds at a birdbath is a thrill.
Many people focus the majority of their attention on bird feeding, and rightfully so, as that has a high success rate of attracting birds. Bird houses are another aspect of the hobby that get a lot of attention, particularly bluebird boxes. That is also understandable as it is nice to know that you are helping to assure the next generation of birds.
I have found that far fewer people discuss the birds that show up at their birdbath. It is a bit trickier to attract birds to a birdbath than to a feeder, but when it does happen, it makes the extra effort well worth it.
Birds don’t always look like they do in field guides.
There are variations within a bird species due to obvious reasons such as age, time of year or sex. Immature birds take time to achieve adult plumage. That could be a few months or, in the case of the bald eagle, four or five years. Male wood ducks, one of the most splendid birds in New England during breeding season, is a dull brown duck after shedding its breeding feathers. Sexually dimorphic birds, such as cardinals, have obvious differences between males and females.
Sometimes, even the sun can make birds look different. Grackles may appear purple, green, blue or black, depending on how the light hits it. Male indigo buntings can look spectacular or rather ordinary depending on the sun.
There are also regional differences among bird species. Blue jays in New England, I have found, are much brighter and larger than the blue jays in Florida. I’m also surprised when I see how small the blue jays are when I visit my brother in southern Florida.
Some bird species have different morphs. Most of the red-tailed hawks in New England are lighter overall than their western counterparts. This is also commonly referred to as a phase. The best example of a morph I can think of is not a bird at all, but the gray squirrel. Gray squirrels also come in white and black. In fact, in some parts of the country, black gray squirrels are the norm and gray ones are the rarity.
It is not uncommon for birders at designated hawk watch sites to see more than 1,000 hawks in a single day. The fall hawk migration is most certainly a sight to see, particularly if the conditions are right.
With the sheer number of hawks and other birds of prey that migrate south through New England in the fall, it is tough to imagine that any of them remain in our region once the migration is over. But, of course, we do see a fair amount of hawks throughout the winter months in New England.
Red-tailed hawks, red-shouldered hawks and our accipiters, sharp-shinned and Cooper’s hawks, are the most common hawks we see in New England during the winter. Other birds of prey that we continue to see in our coldest months are the peregrine falcon, vultures and, of course, bald eagles, which congregate in large numbers where water remains unfrozen.
There may be a hot-looking red head at the lake or perhaps a bleach-blonde beauty.
Oh, and don’t forget about that Icelandic number that’s been hanging out at New England beaches.
Don’t worry, you have the right column. I’m still talking about birds.
The aforementioned attractions are just a few of the unusual birds that may be seen in the area during winter.
News of such sightings travel quickly along the grapevine, but Rare Bird Alerts are also available to everyone with access to the internet. Simply do an internet search for “rare birds” for the state or specific location you are interested in. Dedicated birders keep the alert lists updated and it is extremely helpful when you’re trying to track down something rare or unusual, or just interested in knowing what’s out there.
For those who feed birds, it seems that there are slow times, busy times, and routine times.
It can be disconcerting and frustrating during the slow times. You glance out of the window hoping to see a few birds to lift your spirits or to just appreciate a bit of nature during the day, and nothing is there. It can be worrisome because the thought often arises as to whether or not the lack of birds indicates that something is wrong with bird populations.
Populations of many bird species, of course, are indeed in decline. But a slow period at the feeder is typically not an indication of a broader concern. There are certain times of the year when birdfeeders go through a slow period. Seasonal fluctuations are normal. We are perhaps going through one of those fluctuations now as I’ve received a few emails recently wondering why the birds have suddenly stopped visiting.
Bears are among us. We all know that, of course, but it seems that the bear population throughout New England is thriving, and the large animals are showing up more than ever and in places not seen before.
My closest call with a bear came about three years when I was jogging through the woods. It was a hilly trail with many twists, turns and curves. Heavy metal music blared through my in-ear headphones. My eyes were trained on the ground to watch for roots, rocks, downed branches and anything else that might trip me up.
I turned a blind corner and noticed a blur cross before me. I stopped in my tracks, killed the music and looked to my left to see a large black bear sitting next to a tree about 15 feet off the trail. The bear had crossed the trail in front of me and settled at that spot. It was as curious of me as I was of it. Thankfully, it was showing no signs of stress or feeling threatened. It was just kind of there looking at me.
I looked at the beautiful animal for a minute or two and headed back the way I had come.
For one of the few times in this column’s history, the accompanying photo will not match the content.
The reason for that is quite simple. I am yet to get a decent photo of the main subject. Even as I receive emails from readers across New England about evening grosbeaks showing up at feeders, I have yet to host them at my feeding station. I am also yet to see them in the “wild” closely enough to get a good photo.
Tricia from Alstread wrote in the day after Thanksgiving to say she had evening grosbeaks at her feeder. She was hopeful there may be an irruption of the birds this winter. I, too, am hopeful.