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!!


Deejbrown said...

Our count was also low on the birds we most expected to see: Waxwings, Robins, Blue Jays, sparrows but we were treated to the Bird of the Day by seeing half a dozen Redpolls! Also a gazillion Juncos, Crows lookin' good, plus 3 bonus Pileateds.

I have been participating in the Christmas Bird Count for about 15 years and wouldn't miss it. I am reassured to learn about the vagaries of bird populations from this post.

Anonymous said...

I very much enjoy your blog. I myself like to photograph birds and design gardens that make them feel safe. You have many beautiful images on your site.


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