Saturday, November 27, 2010

Unexpected Winter Birds

Dark-eyed Junco in February - a common winter sparrow
It is only a matter of time before winter arrives in full fury. Freezing nighttime temperatures are becoming more common than frosty nighttime temperatures.

You see the effects of this reality whenever you look at your bird feeders, go out for the mail, wander in the woods, or amble a town street. Most species which fill our woods and fields with song and movement from late Spring through early Fall are gone.

Internet bird notes and e-mail bird list-serves provide regular updates about what is being seen where; in particular they report on the unusual and unexpected birds for this time of year and our corner of the world. When someone from outside of the active bird watching community sees something that strikes them as unusual or unexpected, the report often comes with a surprised, “I’ve never seen that bird around here” ... or an implied, “What is that bird doing here at this time of year?”

Red-bellied Woodpecker in February
In the category of “never seen that bird before,” there are two which often bring such a response in southeastern Vermont. One is the Red-bellied Woodpecker. A feathered flatlander, this southern species has been extending its range northward. The first confirmed nesting in Vermont was in Brattleboro in 2001. Like the Downy, Hairy, and Pileated Woodpeckers, it does not migrate.

An aside: Birders have an imprecise vocabulary for describing bird populations: Abundant (you can’t miss it) - Common (you will probably see it) - Uncommon (you might see it if you are lucky, but no surprise) - Rare (you are really lucky if you see) - Accidental (you won’t see it because it just doesn’t belong here).

Red-bellied Woodpecker is uncommon in southeastern Vermont. You might see it, but it’s no surprise. It may even live in your neighborhood, in which case you will think it is common. The Red-bellied Woodpecker population in our area has grown significantly since its first nesting in 2001. It may not be too long before it will be as common as the Downy or Hairy Woodpecker. The Red-bellied is larger than the Hairy Woodpecker. It has a red stripe over the top and back of its head, a plain white breast, a barred black and white back, and a red belly that is almost never seen.

Caroline Wren in December
Also uncommon is the Carolina Wren. Like the Red-bellied Woodpecker, this is a southern species which is moving northward. Unlike our other wrens, the House, Winter, and Marsh Wrens, it does not migrate, though in severe weather it may “withdraw” (which may mean that many individuals get done-in by the severe weather). The Carolina Wren is solitary, or in pairs. It stays on territory year-round, and defends its territory against other intruding Carolina Wrens. It has the delightful habit of singing year-round. If you have a Carolina Wren, you may hear its rich, rolling, triplet notes that sound something like “tea-kettle, tea-kettle, tea-kettle” or “chur-ee, chur-ee, chur-ee.”  This wren will sing any time during the day, and any time during the year, except in the most atrocious weather.

American Robin in January
In the category of “What is that bird doing here at this time of year?”, there are also two that commonly elicit the question. The first is often reported with words such as, “I just saw a robin!” This is followed by, “It sure doesn’t look like spring out there to me!” or “Aren’t they supposed to go south for the winter?” No, it is not spring and won’t be for some months, and, yes, and they do go south. But for American Robins which nest far north in Canada, this is the south! Most range maps for the robin show it as a year-round resident in southern New England, barely fifty miles to the south of my home. Birds are not very good at reading range maps, however, and consequently robins may be seen in our region any month of the year. Some robins, I am sure, winter in our woods. Others move north and south with changes in the weather.

American Robin in February
I grew up watching robins hunting earth worms on the lawn of my city home, and so concluded that robins eat worms. But like most birds, they are omnivorous. Worms provide protein for nestlings during Spring and Summer, but during the rest of the year, berries and fruit with their high sugar content fuel a robin’s energy needs and keep its metabolism functioning.

In Spring, the robins disperse in pairs to raise their young. They are seen everywhere. If you don’t see or hear a robin when outdoors during the breeding season, you simply are not looking or listening. But in winter, they gather in flocks and wander about. Int the last ten years, the Brattleboro Area Christmas Bird Count has recorded robins every year except one. The number counted has ranged from one robin, to over 150 robins. During winter, there is no assurance that you will see a robin on any given day, but on any given day you may see a robin.

What is true for the American Robin is also true for another member of the thrush family, the Eastern Bluebird. If the response to the winter sighting of a robin is surprise, the response to a winter sighting of a bluebird is likely to be astonishment. Some of the reason for this reaction to the bluebird in winter is undoubtedly due to its recent rarity. For many years, bluebirds were so uncommon, that any sighting at any time of the year was greeted with joy and astonishment. The population recovery of the bluebird has been a conservation success story.

Eastern Bluebird in November
During breeding season, the bluebird disperses in pairs. The rest of the year, it gathers in small, loose flocks. Like the robin, it is a year-round resident in southern New England. Like the robin, it does not read range maps and may be seen any month of the year in southern Vermont. Like the robin, it migrates in late fall and early spring, perhaps. The Brattleboro CBC has counted an average 20 bluebirds during the last ten years.

There is no need to be astonished, or surprised, at seeing a bluebird during the winter. On the other hand, elation at a winter bluebird sighting is always in order. Few birds have the ability to catch my breath the way a bluebird does. In the words of naturalist John Burroughs, the Eastern Bluebird is the “bird that carries the sky on its back and the earth on its breast.”

Good Birding!

8 comments:

eileeninmd said...

Great post, Chris! Your photos are wonderful. I am always on the look out for something different or an unusual bird in my yard.

Gary said...

Great Essay. Send some of those woodpeckers my way. Actually one was seen last week on the N. shore of Lake Superior. I only recently realized that Robins eat berries as well as worms, which accounts for their late exit from here. Great photos and keep passing along the good info. Remember to send the woodpecker.

FOLKWAYS NOTEBOOK said...

Chris -- I enjoyed reading about the bird behavior of some of our non-migrants. I now realize how fortunate I am here in KY as bluebirds are abundant in my area on Bear Mountain. Just yesterday I saw a small flock in my field. They truly are so beautiful with their blue backs. I moved here three years ago and have, from day one, seen this small flock bounce around our creek area. When its nesting time they stay closer along the larger of the two creeks. I did not know the story of the bluebirds recovering from a population decline -- I plan on researching this success story. Thanks -- barbara

Jen said...

I had no idea there were Carolina Wrens up in New England... That gives me something else to look for when I'm in Mass. for Christmas! Also, I love that bluebird quote.

Bill S. said...

Great post. We are in the woo's of winter here. Lots of snow and only a few birds in the backyard left.

Wilma said...

Very timely post, Chris -- we just saw a flock of robins in our yard this afternoon. I have never seen them this late in the year around here; maybe they are still heading south or maybe they will try to stay here for the winter. I'll let you know...

cheers,
Wilma

PS -- great photos. It is hard to get good exposures of birds on a snowy background.

Wilma said...

Very timely post, Chris -- we just saw a flock of robins in our yard this afternoon. I have never seen them this late in the year around here; maybe they are still heading south or maybe they will try to stay here for the winter. I'll let you know...

cheers,
Wilma

PS -- great photos. It is hard to get good exposures of birds on a snowy background.

Oak in the Seed said...

Great post and super review of the birds we will see on our upcoming CBC! As always, your photographs draw me right in and help me feel I am part of your experience!

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