Monday, January 8, 2018

Winter Bird Watching from Inside Out

By Beth Sullivan
The transition from 2017 to 2018 hasn’t exactly gone as planned. Being hit by the flu really set me back on any resolutions to get out and hike, not to mention the bitter cold and a blizzard to boot.
However, I have really been able to enjoy some great winter bird watching right from my windows and have had the opportunity to contribute to Citizen Science as well. The local Audubon Christmas Bird Count has ended, and while I haven’t seen specific results, a glance at the eBird website is a great way to check up on highlights and rarities. Sitting stuck indoors, it is hard to get excited over a rare goose that has strayed from Greenland that I can’t get to. But I can be excited about the flashes of color outside my window and centered around my feeders. The miracle of these littlest of birds who are constant and reliable, no matter what the weather, is what I have concentrated on this last week or two, and to make it count, I report to Project Feederwatch. You can find out more about Project Feederwatch here.
For now I am concentrating on observing how these sweet fragile creatures withstand the weather that has had us all complaining. There are two main groups of birds to watch now: those that are migrants, that come here for their “southern getaway”, and those that have been here all along, our residents.
The most common migrants are the white-throated sparrows and the dark-eyed juncos. They most often arrive in flocks of varying sizes, and once they have established their winter home territory, they don’t move very far.
The White Throated Sparrows arrive in September and leave in May, not seeming to mind the snow.

A resident, the Titmouse will puff up and cover its feet in the cold.

Many locals to see

The locals are those that probably nested within “an acre” or so of your house. The cardinals, house finches, Carolina wrens and even blue-jays may have nested within eyesight of your house. Each of those species had a nest I could watch this summer. It’s fun to guess which of the birds I am hosting now may have been raised under my watchful eyes. As cavity nesters, the chickadees, titmice and nuthatches probably nested more into the wooded areas but are easily drawn out into our yards and to our feeders. Banding studies have shown that family groups of these species will stick together, sometimes in mixed-species flocks, and loosely roam, but not very far if they have a food source during the winter.
During cold, a bird has one mission: to stay alive. To do that it must eat. A lot. A bird’s metabolism is normally very high, and in order to keep up that rate, to keep warm and maintain vital functions, a bird will spend almost all its daylight hours searching for and consuming food. Our local winter birds have a couple of choices. Most rely on seeds of some kind. Volumes have been written about seed choices and feeder styles, but generally speaking, offering a variety will attract a variety. Nuts and seeds provide fats and proteins essential for winter survival. Suet is even more concentrated energy and is very attractive to the woodpeckers in our area. Woodpeckers have the added ability of digging deep into rotting wood to uncover grubs and insects that may be hiding deep under bark. More protein.
Along the woodland edges I often watch birds foraging in the vines and shrubs. Many plants have not yet been stripped of their fruits. Vines of Virginia creeper, fox grape and even poison ivy provide seeds that persist. Juniper and red cedar fruits are waxy coated, and the seeds within are ripening now. The same is true of many of the hollies and viburnum species. If you gardened with native plants, you have offered seeds and fruits that will remain as ‘feeding stations’ well into the winter.
Bluebirds prefer berries, but in the winter, suet is welcome.

Providing a variety of feeding stations will attract a variety of birds as they express their feeding preferences.

Goldfinches are residents but they will form flocks and roam the area during the winter.

Check all the views

As I move from window to window, I can enjoy all of my birds. I can watch as they choose their favorite manner of eating. I can enjoy the relationships: tolerance or intolerance among species as they take places on the feeders. I watch them hop and scrape to find the snow-covered seeds on the ground or enjoy the antics of birds that are not used to clinging, attempt to balance on suet like a woodpecker. They will puff up their feathers, seek a sunny lee side of a tree trunk, and never really complain about how cold it is.
Grab your binoculars, a note pad, and a warm cup of tea and enjoy watching the littlest of the hardy winter creatures. Then when it warms up…..wander farther afield. The birds will await you there as well.
This Red-bellied Woodpecker will work the trees for food, but also will visit the suet feeder.

Like many birds, this Nuthatch seeks out the sheltered side of a trunk.


Photographs by Beth Sullivan.

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