Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010

Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010
Photo by R.E. Berg-Andersson

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Winter Birds

I don't know what it is but there has been something about the latter half of this year that has made me disinclined to write here, for which I am sorry for my few but patient readers. Aside from my recent visit to Gettysburg I have not been inspired by much, and those birds I see at the feeder are the ones I always see at the feeder.

So I will note them to the world.

According to the annual winter finch forecast, it will be a so-so winter. No major flights south for pine or evening grosbeaks or either type of crossbill, perhaps there will be some pine siskins and purple finches. All of them fly south when the seed crops in their more usual northern territories are poor. (MH and I saw a couple of female purple finches at our house feeder early in December, but none recently.)

Female cardinal, male house finch, junco. (Margo D. Beller)

Then again, if the red-breasted nuthatch did come to my feeder, it would find a lot of competition and likely go elsewhere.

At the moment I have 3 feeders up (a fourth will go up once it starts snowing in earnest because it holds more seed), 2 of which hold sunflower seed. In the dawn one of my favorite birds, the cardinal, comes to feed, soon followed by the black-capped chickadee family that roosts in my hedge and their cousins the titmice. A white-breasted nuthatch or two will fly in for a seed and red-bellied and downy woodpeckers will get some suet.

However, soon enough the seed eaters will be chased off by a flock of what I consider pest birds - house sparrows, house finches, jays and mourning doves.

There are people who enjoy feeding whatever bird comes to their feeders, no matter how much of a pig it makes of itself. I do not.

With the exception of the jay, which dive-bombs the feeder to stuff its crop with seed and then flies off, these pests will just sit in the feeder and eat, dropping seed bits down to the squirrels, fighting off the other small birds and the skittish cardinal. The mourning dove is a recent pest. Once it figured out how to jump off the feeder's roof and sit on the perch it hogs the space and just sits there, using its thin bill to find parts of seed already broken.

These are the times when I go on the porch and knock on the window to scare them all off.

The chickadees, titmice and nuthatch have learned they can then rush to the feeders, grab the seed and go.
Black-capped chickadee (Margo D. Beller)

Also at this time of year, grackles, starlings and blackbirds end their mating pairing and join together in huge flocks that wheel about in the sky. Several times during the colder months a flock that can be anywhere from 12 to 2000 will descend on a lawn, poke under leaves, in grass and in feeders for food and then take off, only to land a few lawns on and repeat the process, making a racket in the process.

If I am in my office (with the screen open for the sun's warmth) and see them across the road, I am quick to get downstairs and pull in the feeders. By that time there are usually a few hundred on my back lawn. One of my feeders is in a squirrel-proof cage and the suet feeder hangs upside down (not a natural position for a starling or grackle) but the house feeder is exposed. Once the feeders are safely inside I am fascinated to watch all this mass of black birds, and relieved when they decide to move on.

Other winter visitors are more benign. When the chipping sparrows have left, their cousins the juncos arrive. In New Jersey, the gray juncos are all males. Junco females, which are brown, fly farther south than the males, who presumably stay in places like NJ so they can get up to the far northern breeding territories faster come spring.

There was a time when I really wanted to see a junco, and the first one I did see was in New Hampshire. I laugh to think of that because there hasn't been a winter in the 20 or so I've been in this house when a junco didn't show up, trying to find seed bits on the ground before the squirrels get them.
White-throated sparrow (Margo D. Beller)

White-throated sparrows are the other winter migrant. They show up around the time the catbirds leave. Unlike the juncos, both sexes overwinter in my yard and throughout the region. They are big, like their cousin the song sparrow, but do not have the messy streaking or central spot. Instead, they have white or tan "eyebrows" and the tell-tale white throat. When breeding season approaches, the males' white gets very bright and you can see bright yellow at the end closest to the eye. The territorial song has been described as "oh, Sam Peabody, Peabody, Peabody" or "oh sweet Canada, Canada Canada" depending on whether you are.

White-throats scratch around under the feeder, although sometimes I see them in the house feeder or in the caged feeder, pulling out seeds or seed bits. Decades ago, as it was going to dusk, I looked at the birds under the caged feeder and found a rare surprise - the larger, redder fox sparrow with the white-throats. Other years I've found white-crowned sparrows under there.

Finally, when you have so many birds - pest and otherwise - hanging around a feeder, you are going to find raptors.

Cooper's hawk (Margo D. Beller)
The other week I was watching the birds eating when the finches scattered and one chickadee seemed frozen in the caged feeder. This can't be good, I thought, and I walked outside just as a Cooper's hawk flew into the yard. It saw me, hung a U and took off for a nearby tree. By this point the chickadee had taken shelter in a bush and there was a lot of nervous calling. Finally, off flew the Coop.

We've also found the smaller sharp-shinned hawk munching on a mourning dove in the snow. MH has seen redtails dining on squirrel. One year we had several turkey vultures on the lawn after they found rabbit that had died under some hedges in the corner. In January, if I care to rise way before dawn, I might hear great-horned owl hooting its territorial call as mating season begins.

So winter isn't a dead season, even if it feels like it to me, especially at times when there are many feet of snow on the ground as we had last year.

I'll have to remember the words of poet William Blake:

In seed time learn, in harvest teach, in winter enjoy.

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