You always hope for a storm, but sometimes all you get is a flurry or two.
I’m not talking about a high school student who didn’t study for a test and is praying for a snow day. I’m talking about birding, of course.
The other day I visited a preserve in southern New England for the first time. I was struck immediately by the vast fields and several small wooded areas that looked to me like islands among the grassy expanse. My first thought was that this place is probably hopping with bobolinks, bluebirds and all sorts of other birds in the spring and summer.
But this wasn’t spring or summer. It was a dreary, raw winter day and the grass was short and brownish-yellow. Lifeless. The wooded islands were void of leaves and you could see the gray sky through the tangle of trunks and branches.
My plan was to walk along the edge of the wooded areas and see what was lurking in there. The anticipation of the new walk at a new place faded over time as close to an hour had passed and a few crows cawing in the distance was the only sign of birdlife I had noticed. I wanted to zero in on the crows to see if they were mobbing a hawk, owl or some other intruder. I couldn’t even find the crows in the sky, let alone zero in on them.
The anticipation may have faded, but my appreciation of the walk remained high. I spent much of 2019 battling off-again, on-again tendinitis in my right foot and hobbling around by putting pressure on the part of my foot that hurt the least. Walks on uneven terrain were out of the question. To be able to walk pain-free is something I’ll never take for granted again.
So I was enjoying the walk, birds or not. I made plans in my mind where Continue reading →
The birding had been slow — not dreadfully slow, but slower than usual, for sure — when we rolled up beside some evergreens in a front yard. We noted a flurry of activity (finally) and stopped for a closer inspection.
A half-dozen juncos flitted close to the ground, flashing their white-edged tails. Suddenly, a yellow bird flew from one tree to another. Any yellow bird that is not a goldfinch is cause for “ID at all costs” during a Christmas Bird Count. Not that goldfinches aren’t welcomed species, but they are rather expected to be seen in New England in December. Other yellow birds, not so much.
It landed just long enough for us to get a decent look and for Frank to get a few good-enough photographs. It was a warbler, for sure. We immediately thought orange-crowned warbler as they are the warblers most often seen during a New England Christmas Bird Count. Frank inspected the photos on his camera — something that wouldn’t have been possible 20 or 25 years ago — and determined it was a Nashville warbler instead. In the flurry, we also noted a ruby-crowned kinglet scurry from one bush to another. All the while, a Carolina wren belted out a song from a telephone wire across the street. As a birdwatcher, you love those flurries. You really love them during a Christmas Bird Count.
Frank and I cover a coastal area of Connecticut and have done so for going on 20 years. For that area, we finished the Count with 52 species and close to 2,000 birds. Not bad, not great. We’ve had better years, to be honest.
The Christmas Bird Count is an annual citizen science project that has grown from 27 participants in the inaugural Count in 1900 to now more than 75,000 participants each year. Keene was one of the original 25 Count areas. The data is used by ornithologists and other scientists to track long-term trends of bird populations.
Yes, it’s scientific and for a great cause. But, really, most people do it because it’s great fun. It’s an excuse to take a December day and watch birds from sunrise to sunset (even longer for the owlers.) It does, however, become a responsibility for participants. You don’t want to miss a day and let down the birds or your fellow birders.
Weather plays a big role in the amount of fun you have. Here in New England, a mid-December day can be 50 degrees or zero degrees. It can be sunny, cloudy, rainy, snowy, or any combination thereof. I’ve done Counts in blizzards and I’ve done Counts when it feels like early September.
This year’s Count was cloudy, cold and breezy. I’ll take it. It could have been a lot worse. The breeziness may have kept some birds hunkered down, but I don’t think the lack of birds we saw was due to the weather, except for the freshwater ponds. We visited a few ponds that had been frozen a few days prior to the Count so most ducks flew off for open water. We did see a lot of gadwall, a few ring-necked ducks and hooded mergansers, and, of course, tons of mallards.
We had other successes, too, such as the Nashville warbler and kinglet. Other highlights included several hundred brant, a gray catbird, a peregrine falcon and seven common loons on Long Island Sound.
Frank and I discussed the demise of the monk parakeet. We used to count dozens of the bright green birds along the coast and this year we had only one fly over our heads. Its squawking alerted us to it. Monk parakeets, of course, are not native to New England, but an escaped shipment from JFK Airport decades ago led to an established colony along the Connecticut coastline. They used to thrive here; now, they are all but gone. They build huge, heavy nests made of sticks on utility poles, so we concluded that the utility companies must have had something to do with their disappearance. That’s just a guess, however.
Want to get involved with a Count in your area? Most local Counts have been done already this year, but start planning now for next year. Do an Internet search for “How do I join the Christmas Bird Count” and the first result will be a link to the National Audubon Society’s CBC page. You can also check out historic local results from your area.
If you do sign up, be prepared to have fun. Just be ready to bundle up.
Here’s the latest For the Birds column, written just before the cold snap last week. Now it’s back up in the 50s, go figure.
Birds would fare just fine without human interventions such as bird feeders, birdhouses and birdbaths. They were, after all, here long before we were.
Even in the most extreme cold conditions, such as those we experienced last week and will certainly feel again soon, birds would do just fine without us. Without a doubt, the aforementioned human interventions make birds’ lives easier in the winter. Feeders are an easy source of energy, birdhouses offer refuge from the wind and heated birdbaths are a water source when everything else is frozen.
But, still, the majority of birds would survive even without those things. But how? They are small, delicately built (seemingly) and exposed to the elements. They are not, however, defenseless. They have plenty of strategies to survive the extremes. Let’s take a look at a few of them.
They know to seek shelter. When a driving wind accompanies cold temperatures, you won’t find birds out in the open. A hungry bird or two may brave the wind to visit a feeder briefly, but for the most part, birds hunker down.
That’s when birdhouses come in handy. Birdhouses should be cleaned after the nesting season for sanitary reasons and to make room for birds in the winter. Old woodpecker holes are utilized as well. I once saw a chickadee huddled in the corner of an eave during a snow storm. It was so small and still I almost missed it.
I have a sizable brush pile in my backyard and junco and white-throated sparrows love it. They use it to hide from predators under normal conditions and hunker deep in the crevices during cold, windy weather.
Birds will often huddle together in these shelters, too, for extra warmth.
Many birds will also puff up their feathers to trap warm air near their bodies and keep cold air away. Some tiny birds such as chickadees and white-throated sparrows look almost comical with their feathers puffed up as if they are trying to look big and tough. Not that the birds really care what I think about them, especially when it’s 10 degrees out.
Birds do not hibernate, at least not really. They do sometimes enter a state of torpor, a temporary hibernation-like state in which their body temperature lowers and their metabolism slows. Shivering is another strategy employed by birds to retain heat.
Surviving extreme temperatures and blustery snowstorms is all part of the risk our year-round birds take by forgoing migration.
Migration is fraught with danger. There are buildings to crash into, exhaustion to fight, predators to avoid, and hundreds of miles to navigate without getting lost.
Staying in New England has its challenges, too, as I mentioned above.
For me, I appreciate our year-round birds immensely. Winter is long and dark in New England and I can’t image how dreary it would be without our chickadees, blue jays and other year-round birds.
I’m heading to New Hampshire for a few days of camping. It’s been a while since I’ve paddled any lake, pond, or river in the Granite State and I’m looking forward to seeing what wildlife will be around. Of course, I’ll let you know when I return. In the meantime, here’s a For the Birds column from 2004 about this very subject …
A great blue heron lifted its skinny four-foot frame out of the water and used its six-foot wing span to carry it to another spot on the lazy river. It was spotted again around the next corner. A wood duck skulked into the vegetation and disappeared without a trace. Once a wood duck vanishes into the sea of huge green leaves, you can forget about seeing it again.
A muskrat braved a crossing at a swelled portion of the river, using its tail as a rudder. Marsh wrens proudly belted out their peculiar, almost comical, song.
Meanwhile, there were many constant companions. Red-winged blackbirds boisterously claimed various plots of the river’s edge as their own, dragonflies zigged and Continue reading →
The sightings emailed in from readers have been so interesting that they have warranted being the topic of columns for several weeks in a row now. It’s creating a backlog of column ideas for me, but that’s a good problem to have. Besides, spring is the most active time for birdwatchers, so I shouldn’t be surprised.
A quick rundown of my own highlights as spring migration trails off and the birds get down to the important business of nesting:
I haven’t seen my rose-breasted grosbeaks in a few weeks. I’m hoping they are hunkered down on nests. I have, however, seen my ruby-throated hummingbirds Continue reading →
After a three-hour drive to visit my brother Gregg in upstate New York, it was nice to relax and watch the black-capped chickadees forage in theblue spruce trees outside his kitchen window.
A flock of dark-eyed juncos darted past the window and settled at the base of his house where a bare patch of ground offered the only hope for these ground-feeding birds. The rest of the yard was buried under snow and ice.
A glance back at the spruce trees proved what I had thought all along: The chickadees were not alone. It was a mixed flock of chickadees and tufted titmice poking at the Continue reading →
I’ve always believed that and am reminded of it every time I step foot in New England woods, a field, a marsh or along a coastline.
For the birdwatcher, not every walk is filled with birds, but there is always something interesting to discover or observe. Even if you’ve walked your patch a thousand times, the next walk almost always holds something special.
A recent walk on the nature trail behind my house drove home that point. I wasn’t expecting much in terms of birds as the temperature was in the low 20s and the pond at the end of the trail was surely frozen.
Turns out I was right. Hardly any birds to speak of on this walk, but it was enlightening nonetheless.
I got to the pond, which is about a 20-minute walk, without seeing a single bird. The frozen pond, obviously, did not offer any hooded mergansers, ring-necked ducks, or even Continue reading →
My latest For the Birds column releases my personal top 10 birding moments for 2018. Recapping the previous year is my favorite column to write each late December or early January. This year, instead of blasting out the top 10 all at once I’m going to spread it out and reveal two each day, starting today (Jan. 1, 2019.) This post will include Nos. 8 and 7.
Feel free to comment or send me an email with some of your 2018 birding or nature highlights.
8. First New England northern bobwhite. I saw one of these ground birds in Delaware many many years ago, but I finally got my first New England sighting this fall. It is a species in serious decline and would be nice to see them thriving again.
7. Breeding Atlas. Connecticut is undergoing an ambitious three-year survey of its breeding birds. The state is divided into more than 100 blocks that are covered by volunteers. My block features lakes, marshes, mountains, and woods.
There has been a lot of talk lately about winter finches. There usually is this time of year.
I have read accounts of people seeing big flocks of pine siskins. Siskins are probably the most common winter finch that irrupts into the middle and southern parts of New England sporadically in winter.
Winter finch is not an official term with a clear-cut number of species that nicely fits the category. Rather, it is a general term used for members of the finch family that breed up north and typically spend their winters up north, but irregularly move south during the winter as food sources dictate.
The species most commonly associated with a winter finch irruption include pine siskin, common redpoll and purple finch. Larger finches, such as pine grosbeak and evening grosbeak, are also species seen at backyard feeders throughout New England during the winter.
But birds do not even have to be finches to fall into the loose category of “winter finch.” Often, the red-breasted nuthatch is lumped into the category due to its great abundance at feeders some winters and being a no-show during other winters.
So far this winter I have seen a lone female purple finch at my backyard feeding station. That has been the extent of my winter finch season so far. The nature of a winter finch irruption, however, could mean a sizable flock of pine siskins can show up and empty out my Nyjer seed feeder at any moment.
I did see a few red-breasted nuthatches on a recent trip to northern New Hampshire, but that is part of their breeding and winter grounds, and would not fall into the category of a winter-finch sighting.
Admittedly, it took a minute or two to identify the female purple finch that has been visiting my yard. It was clearly something different, so I knew I had to lock down an ID as soon as possible.
Female purple finches are streaky brown in plumage. It didn’t have the look or feel of a sparrow, so I eliminated those possibilities immediately. It looked a lot like a house finch, but was more heavily streaked and slightly larger and plumper overall. The thick bill further eliminated any sparrow possibilities and after very briefly considering the female rose-breasted grosbeak, I was able to nail down the ID as a female purple finch.
In the past when I have seen purple finches, it has usually been a pair so getting an ID was easier because I had the more colorful male to observe.
For whatever reason, regardless of how great a winter finch season it is throughout New England, my yard typically does not drive in a lot of these birds. While I’ve read about several backyards being ambushed by pine siskins already this season, I haven’t seen a pine siskin in about 10 years. That species typically irrupts every three or four years.
If nothing else shows up at my feeders all winter, I still have my regular feeder birds and my female purple finch. And I’m good with that.
A Red-breasted Nuthatch perches near a bird feeding station in Danbury, Conn., Oct. 2016.
Here’s the latest For the Birds column, which runs weekly in The Hour (Norwalk, Conn.), The Keene (NH) Sentinel and several Connecticut weekly newspapers.
I wrote three weeks ago about my affinity for the nuthatches we see in New England.
In the middle and southern parts of the region we see white-breasted nuthatches much more frequently than its smaller cousin, the red-breasted nuthatch. The latter variety, however, is seen more often in the northern reaches of New England.
The red-breasted nuthatch does show up at feeders in the middle and southern parts, especially in fall and winter, but not too often and in varying degrees depending on the year. In fact, the little birds will venture all the way to Florida during winter migration.
With that said, I was happy to receive an email from Dean a few days after that column appeared.
“You mentioned red-breasted nuthatches, which reminded me that I have not seen one in years,” Dean wrote from his Marlborough, Conn., home. “They are such cute little birds. Then two days after your article what shows up but an RBN at the feeder.”
A few days after Dean wrote me that email, I was sitting on my deck watching my feeders. It was an unending flurry of black-capped chickadees, tufted titmice, white-breasted nuthatches and downy woodpeckers. I got so tuned into seeing those species that it didn’t immediately register in my brain that a new arrival had appeared.