Saturday, December 22, 2012


Eastern Bluebirds favor orchards during winter.
During the winter months, it is not uncommon to hear the question, “Where are all the birds?”

A flip answer would be - “They’ve gone south” - which they have. Most of the birds which fill our landscapes during the summer are tropical birds which return to the tropics in Central and South America during our winter months. Most of the warblers, vireos, thrushes, and flycatchers fall into this category. Many other birds move to the milder climate of the southern states: This includes many species of waterfowl, wading birds, and raptors, plus some of the hardy songbirds.

On the other hand, boreal species from the north also move south, driven by changes in the weather, but also, and probably more importantly, by the availability of food in their northern homes. Food availability means that some winters they more or less stay home, while other winters they irrupt southward. When there is an irruption, we may notice their numbers. When they stay home, we may ask that question about where they are.

Common Redpoll has irrupted into New England this winter.
As we watch our feeders, or wander about on our skis or snow shoes during winter months, it often seems as though we are seeing very few birds compared to what we remember seeing in other years. For example, two years ago during the holidays, my feeders were inundated with northern birds. Flocks of Common Redpolls, and mixed flocks of Evening Grosbeaks and redpolls descended in swarms. I was filling my bulk feeders twice a day. This year as of the time of writing, my feeders have been visited by a small flocks of 15 redpolls, while the grosbeaks have been completely absent.

In October, flocks of 200+ Pine Siskins swarmed about my feeders. During December they have been absent. Where are they? Undoubtedly, they have gone further south, in spite of the dependable food source at my feeders ... because ... birds do not simply rely on bird feeders, but in fact, derive most of their food most of the time from naturally occurring food sources. If those sources do not seem adequate, they move on.

White-breasted Nuthatch is a year-round feeder bird.
There are two citizen science projects which provide a snapshot of where the birds are during the winter. One is the Great Backyard Bird Count. This is primarily a feeder count which is conducted on the President’s Day weekend in February. To learn how you can participate (in the comfort of your home) visit this website:

The second citizen science project is the Christmas Bird Count. In its 113th year, the CBC engages over 60,000 people in about 2500 locations.

There are several Christmas Bird Counts done in southeastern Vermont and southwestern New Hampshire. I participate in the Brattleboro Area CBC on the third Saturday in December, so that is the one I can write about.  Here is a snapshot of where the birds are around Brattleboro.

Many participants returned from their day of counting speaking of how hard it was to find birds and how low the numbers were. But when the counts were tallied, the number of birds counted (4100) was slightly above the ten year average (3900).

With open water in the Connecticut and West Rivers, waterfowl were well represented by Canada Goose, Mallard, and American Black Duck. Most significant was the number of Hooded Mergansers. Consistently present on the count, this year the 138 “hoodies” was five times greater than in any previous year.

The winter finches and boreal species showed no consistency as a group. The American Goldfinch was hard to find and the count was the lowest in the last 15 years. Pine Siskin, so abundant in October, was absent. Evening Grosbeak, consistently present the last 11 years was absent. There are usually a few Purple Finches in December; not this year.

Pine Grosbeaks appear in SE Vermont every 5 or 6 years.
On the other hand, Pine Grosbeaks appear every 5 to 6 years. This was their year. Common Redpolls show a consistent pattern of being present every other year. This was the year they were expected, and they did not disappoint; counters tabulated the largest number of redpolls (almost 300) in recent years.

Sparrows were hard to find, but the winter sparrows, American Tree Sparrow and Dark-eyed Junco were within their expected numbers, along with small numbers of Song and White-throated Sparrows.

Red-bellied Woodpecker has continued its expansion in Vermont.
The Red-bellied Woodpecker which first nested in Vermont in Brattleboro in 2001 continued its steady population increase.

Blue Jay and American Crow had their smallest numbers in years. Putney Mountain Hawk Watch counts migrating Blue Jays (when not counting hawks); they counted hundreds of jays. Apparently, the Blue Jays kept on moving because they were difficult to find in the Brattleboro area.

Other common feeders birds were present in average or above average numbers: Black-capped Chickadee (up), White-breasted Nuthatch (up), Downy Woodpecker (down slightly), Tufted Titmouse and Northern Cardinal (steady).

American Robin often winter in Vermont, feeding on fruit.
Some species are seen in flocks, and may be very localized. Horned Larks were in Vernon (180). Eastern Bluebirds were mostly in Dummerston (total 59 verses 10 year average 25). American Robins were scattered, but with a large flock in an old Dummerston orchard (total 244 verses 10 year average 44). Only one small flock of Cedar Waxwings (31) was found around Sunset Lake.

There are always a few birds which should have migrated, but have not. Brattleboro recorded this year a Red-shouldered Hawk and a Common Yellowthroat (a first CBC record for Brattleboro).

If you are a reader who is worried about a lack of birds at the bird feeders, I say, “Don’t be.” The CBC suggests that the birds are still around. Except when humans really screw up the environment, the birds are resilient and adaptable. Their population numbers go through regular and natural fluctuations. Once the counters on a CBC thaw out and examine the count numbers, this is confirmed (for most species) year after year.

Stay warm, and if the birds don’t come to your feeders, go out and look for them. Good birding!!

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Red Crossbill

As promised ... Red Crossbill images from last week at Salisbury Beach State Park campground.

There are 7-9 "types" of Red Crossbill, which some consider to be separate species. Type 1-4 occur continent wide. Type 8 is found (rare) in Newfoundland. The remaining types are western. (Sibley) If anyone has any thoughts as to which type these photos represent, please offer your comment.

Red Crossbill (male)

Red Crossbill (female)

Family Quarrel??

Well, she seems to be ignoring him, whatever his complaint.

Red Crossbill (male) (l) & White-winged Crossbill (female) (r)
Good Birding!!

Monday, December 10, 2012

White-winged Crossbill

Last week's trip to the Massachusetts coast yielded a great day of birding with abundant photo opportunities, highlighted by both crossbills. I promised additional photos, but was delayed by the Pine Grosbeaks close to home.

The cone laden pines in the campground at Salisbury Beach State Park are likely to host these birds for some time.

White-winged Crossbills were the more abundant of the two. Images are below. I'll post Red Crossbill photos in a couple of days.

White-winged Crossbill (female)

White-winged Crossbill (male)

White-winged Crossbill (young male)

White-winged Crossbill (l) & Red Crossbill (r)
Good Birding!

Saturday, December 08, 2012

Pine Grosbeaks

A flock of 30-40 Pine Grosbeaks have been hanging out in downtown Brattleboro, feeding on the yew berries next to the Center Church educational wing. As I watched them yesterday, they wandered between the yews, large maples along Main Street in front of the church and behind the church near the railroad tracks.

They make an appearance on the Brattleboro Area Christmas Bird Count in southeastern Vermont every 5 to 6 years. Last time was 2007.

The flock included females, and young males - no mature males.

A treat.

Pine Grosbeak - female

Pine Grosbeak - young male

Good birding!!

Friday, December 07, 2012


Yesterday was a crisp, clear, bright day - a marvelous day for birding and wonderful light for photography. I drove to the Massachusetts shore. Crossbills were being reported in the campground at Salisbury Beach.

The cone-laden pine trees hosted flocks of White-winged Crossbills and Red Crossbills, the most concentrated winter irruption of these boreal species that I have seen. Here is an early sampling. I'll post additional photos soon.

White-winged Crossbill (male)

Red Crossbill (female and male)
 Crossbills usually travel in single species flock (Sibley), but there was a mixed flock (or two separate flocks which decided to forage in the same trees), as seen in this photo ...

White-winged Crossbill (l) and Red Crossbill (r)
Red-breasted Nuthatches were clearly another irruptive boreal species, with numbers almost rivaling the crossbills ...

Red-breasted Nuthatch
 As I stood with two other birders was watching the crossbills feeding, my binoculars picked up a Common Redpoll. I casually named the bird. A few moments later, one of the birders said, "Thank you. That's a life bird." It is always gratifying to help others add to their observations.

Common Redpoll
 In the estuary near the campground, Bonaparte's Gull provided an accesible display of their tern-like hovering ...

Bonaparte's Gull
At Plum Island, a scan of the ocean produced a rare Western Grebe, plus Horned Grebe, Common and Red-throated Loon, Razorbills, Surf and Black Scoters, Common Eider, and Red-breasted Merganser, all fairly close to shore but too distant for photography. At the waters edge was a flock of Sanderling and Dunlin ...

Sandering (l) and Dunlin (r)
A day of Good Birding!!

Sunday, December 02, 2012

Wood Duck - A Birding Irony

Wood Duck - drake
I waited for the traffic lights on the busy avenue to turn red and for the traffic to clear. Then I hurried across the four lanes, the bike paths, the median strip, and the bus lanes.  I stepped into the woods and began to pick my way down the rocky path, descending into the Wissahickon Gorge. At the bottom of the path is the river; I followed the roadway upstream.

The steep sided valley of the Wissahickon River was Philadelphia’s industrial center in the seventeenth and eighteenth century. As the industrial revolution rendered small mills obsolete, buildings and businesses were abandoned. In 1868, the city transformed the river valley into an urban park. The park wanders seven miles through Philadelphia’s northwest section. On one side it is bordered by neat working middle class neighborhoods, on the other by upscale upper middle class neighborhoods. The single road is closed (forbidden) to motorized vehicles; hikers, walkers, joggers, bikers, and an occasional sedate equestrian use the road and the maintained trails. Deer share their paths with other wildlife. The Wissahickon valley is also a favored place for bird watchers; it is not unusual to see one or more bird watcher staring into the tree tops.

On the day in question, I carried my camera. I knew that there were at least a dozen Wood Ducks along the river. I planned to photograph them.

Wood Duck - drake
The male Wood Duck is arguably the most beautiful duck in North America and perhaps even the most beautiful bird in North America. People unfamiliar with this duck may look at a picture and ask if it is real. Or did some mad artist run wild with his palette?

The Wood Duck is a woodland bird. It likes ponds and streams which are bordered by woods. It will fly, or walk, deep into a forest to eat nuts, insects, or whatever small life it may encounter.

With the return of the forests in Vermont, and with beavers ponds scattered through our hills and valleys, the Wood Duck has made a significant recovery in our state. It is a cavity nester; using holes in large, partially rotting trees, or which have been excavated by Pileated Woodpeckers. Humans have helped significantly by providing artificial cavities in the form of Wood Duck nest boxes.

Wood Duck - hen
The casual, but alert bird watcher may see Wood Ducks in Vermont  every year. The attentive birder will see them. When December is mild and the water is ice free, they are seen on the Christmas Bird Count, glimpsed on the back edge of a pond or gliding around the islands in the Retreat Meadows. In the depths of winter they disappear, but when the ice begins to go out, they will be one of the first waterfowl to return - if the birder searches for them.

The Wood Duck is shy and secretive - the more so during the breeding season. Wood Ducks nest regularly on a beaver pond atop Newfane Hill. I have spent long hours skulking around the edges of the pond, feeding the mosquitos and hoping I could get good photographs of the Wood Duck. Early in the year, the slightest misstep sends the ducks flying. Later, when the female is attending to her young, she senses my approach to the pond edge long before I reach it. She leads her young to the opposite side of the pond, or quickly slips out of sight among the reeds. I could spend a whole summer trying to capture a good image of the Wood Duck and never come close. With all of the wonderful Wood Duck habitat which Vermont has, getting up close and personal with a Wood Duck is very difficult.

 Female Wood Duck watches over her young as they feed themselves

Here is the irony: when I want to get up close and personal with the Wood Duck, I go to a large city park in a big city: the Wissahickon in Philadelphia. I hear planes high overhead. I hear a distant rumble of buses from the busy avenue. I also hear the rattle of the kingfisher, the quacking of the Mallards, the drumming of woodpeckers, and the whistle of the Wood Duck. And I come home with dozens of images of a bird which doesn’t look quite real.

But the Wood Duck is real - and a survivor. In spite of the nineteenth century’s conversion of forest to farmland and pasture, and in spite of heavy hunting, the bird persevered. When hollow trees in the forest became scarce, it found alternatives, like apple trees in an orchard, or hay in a barn loft where it gained entrance by squeezing through a broken clapboard.

Today, with hunting regulated, woodlands restored, and natural adaptability given full reign, the Wood Duck is one of our more common ducks. In the precolonial period, it probably outnumbered Mallards and Black Ducks. It has not returned to those levels, but its conservation status is summarized with these few words: “Species is doing well in all parts of its range.”

Other bits and pieces about the Wood Duck:

Wood Duck perched in a tree
– The Wood Duck is a perching bird and may be seen perched in a tree.

– In the southern portions of its range, it may raise two broods in one breeding season, the only waterfowl to do so.

– Like all waterfowl, the hatchlings are precocial, able to feed themselves shortly after hatching.

– Young Wood Ducks have hooked claws on their feet and hooked nails at the end of their bills; these enable them to climb out of their nest box/cavity, and depending on the location of the nest, climb down to the ground. Alternatively, they simply fall lightly to the ground.

– The scientific name is Aix sponsa: “waterbird in bridal dress.”

– Among the folk names for the Wood Duck are “The Bride,” “Bridal Duck,” “Swamp Duck,” and “Acorn Duck.” The latter reflects the Wood Duck’s frequent foraging on woodland acorns. One observer reports examining specimens taken in the fall with crops completely filled with whole acorns.

There is irony in the accessible presence of Wood Ducks in a major city verses their elusiveness in the natural habitats of Vermont. But it highlights the fact that if you want to see birds, you often have to go where the birds are. The drop-jaw beauty of the Wood Duck makes the trip worth it.

Good Birding!!


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