Winter Perks: Color and Contrast at the Feeders

Maintaining bird feeders in winter not only attracts a variety of wildlife, but adds some lively color and contrast to the monochromatic landscape of an overcast winter day.


Part of a flock of about 30 mourning doves

The quintessential bird for winter color and contrast has to be the cardinal. A brilliant red male with a backdrop of evergreens and snow is an unforgettable scene.  We’ve had 6-8 at the feeders this winter, more than in previous winters. I like to think that my conservation plan for the property has something to do with that. The plan targets habitat and wildlife diversity, and includes the development and maintenance of brushy habitats preferred by cardinals. Unfortunately one cardinal, perched in a large Norway Spruce near the feeders, recently fell victim to a Sharp-shinned Hawk.


Northern Cardinal, female


Northern Cardinal, male

Noisy, raucous and bossy around a feeder, jays can nevertheless be counted upon to add a little excitement as well as color to the scene.


Blue Jay

I don’t mind that a flock of evening grosbeaks seems to consume its weight in sunflower seeds in a brief visit to my feeders because they’re so colorful and uncommon. Prior to this winter, my last backyard sighting was roughly 15 years ago!


Evening Grosbeaks, male in foreground

I never tire of watching the upside-down maneuvering of nuthatches. The Red-breasted nuthatch was in the mix last year, but no sightings of it to date for the winter of 2012/2013.


White-breasted Nuthatch

Many people, myself included, think of the Black-capped Chickadee as THE winter bird. A constant presence in the woods as well as the backyard, they’re adorable, tame little creatures that never fail to brighten a day, even during the worst of winter storms.


Black-capped Chickadee

The ubiquitous starling, commonly seen in large flocks feeding in open areas and around active farms, isn’t a regular visitor to the feeders. This solitary bird has been feeding on grain and suet, then retreating to the shelter of an old, dilapidated martin house (a compartmentalized nesting structure that has long been occupied by several starlings during the nesting season). Often referred to as “blackbirds”, close inspection suggests otherwise!


European Starling

Unfortunately, these lovely little songbirds are infrequent visitors and usually offer just a glimpse, darting in for a single seed, then away to a distant perch just as quickly.


Tufted Titmouse

Farmland in central New York, abandoned as well as active, provides considerable food for wildlife in winter. Corn residue in harvested fields, seeds in spread manure and the persistent fruits of shrubs found in open areas, along the edges of woodlots and in fence rows, attract and support a variety of wildlife. Deer, turkeys, crows, cardinals and many other species depend on these habitats. Attempts to add this popular, exotic game bird to the list usually fail, particularly at the higher elevations where deep snow and predation exact a heavy toll on the species. Despite the unsound biology of “stocking”, the release of pen-raised pheasants into the wild persists. Occasionally, a bird or two lives long enough to discover supplemental feed, prolonging life and providing a spectacular display of colorful plumage.


Ring-necked Pheasant, male

All photos by NB Hunter


Frosty Fruit

My interest in detailed landscapes and foreground objects was influenced by my work. Teaching the identification of woody plants – trees, shrubs and vines – requires it. Close examination of leaves, twigs, buds, flowers, fruit and bark is a critical step in the deductive process of identifying plants in the field. Now hiking with a camera rather than students, that interest persists.


Sugar maple leaf in early December

With the exception of the rose fruit (late October snowstorm), these photos were taken in December and January.




Common Buckthorn, native of Europe and Asia, naturalized in eastern U.S.


Highbush Cranberry, also American Cranberrybush Viburnum


Larch cones


Multiflora Rose, Asia, invasive


Wild apple

All photos by NB Hunter, 2010 – 2012

Bird Feeder Predators: Cooper’s Hawk

If you are committed to feeding birds and observing the wildlife activity around feeders, sooner or later you’ll see predation of one sort or another. Aside from domestic cats, which I believe are the number one backyard predator, two species likely to appear are the sharp-shinned and Cooper’s hawks.

On several occasions I’ve seen sharp-shinned hawks attack my feeders and disappear so quickly that I was left wondering “what just happened”?  Identification was based on the size and speed of the grayish blur, not detailed field marks.  Like other bird hawks (accipiters), this species is well equipped for preying on small birds. Roughly jay-sized, with a long tail, it maneuvers well while flying at a high speed. On one occasion, a gold finch perched above my thistle seed feeder disappeared instantly in the grasp of a sharpie, as though hit by a bullet.

I hate to admit it, but there often seems to be a bit of luck associated with my more interesting and unusual photos. Such was the case with an experience with a Cooper’s hawk during a cold, snowy spell at the end of December, 2012. My two backyard feeding stations were bustling with bird activity, at least 50 birds and a half dozen species in all. I had the kitchen window cracked open a few inches to photograph redpolls when luck intervened. Something happened lightning fast: right before my eyes, everything disappeared  – birds, squirrels – everything. Well, almost everything. Across the yard, in a cedar snag  installed as a perch beside a feeding site, sat a crow-sized hawk. It moved once, to a better perch, sat motionless for a few seconds, and then flew. After reviewing the photos, I was able to determine exactly where it was perched, and the distance from head to tail: 16-17 inches. A small male Cooper’s hawk and large female sharp-shinned hawk can confuse even an experienced birder. In this case, the measured length and vertical streaking on the breast indicate that it was a juvenile Cooper’s hawk (the juvenile status might be the reason it came up empty handed!).


Juvenile Cooper’s hawk arriving at a backyard bird feeding site


Juvenile Cooper’s hawk perching near a backyard bird feeding site


Juvenile Cooper’s hawk

All photos by NB Hunter, 2012

Ice and Open Water


A muskrat on ice, eating and grooming after foraging in the shallow, open water below

A couple of windy days with temperatures near zero have me thinking about the weeks ahead. The days are noticeably longer and the sun higher in the sky, meaning the open, ice-free zones on local lakes, ponds and streams will be expanding and full of life. Many of these special places are very accessible, near walking trails and secondary roads, providing great opportunities to observe and photograph the retreat of winter.


Geese battling for rights to open water; a small flock of new arrivals was charged and driven back to the water’s edge


A pair of mallards


Mute swan at rest on ice


One of my favorite places to be in at this time of year is a ground blind just beyond the bank of a stream bordering a managed wetland. On this occasion, the water was free of ice, except for a narrow strip along shore, the sky was bright, and the place was alive with geese overhead and ducks on the water. Recent sightings of bald eagles added to my excitement and anticipation. Eventually, I spotted two mergansers, diving and feeding along, advancing upstream in my direction. I was preparing for a photo of them on the open water when, suddenly and unexpectedly, a submarine-like form appeared under the ice in front of me. Mesmerized, I just stared into the water, forgetting about the camera in front of my nose, as one of the mergansers fed along under the ice, then burst to the surface right in front of me! I failed to get that perfect action shot, the one I really wanted, but this photo keeps the memory alive!


Common merganser

All photos by NB Hunter, 2012

White-tailed Deer and Turkeys Feeding in Deep Snow

The central New York winters of 2007 and 2008 provided many opportunities to observe and photograph wildlife behavior in deep snow. I had my first digital camera, a Nikon Cool Pix 5700, and deer and turkeys were plentiful near home. I managed to get a few photos, but not enough. I didn’t feel a sense of urgency then, because frequent snow storms and persistent snow cover of a foot or more were common. That hasn’t been the case in recent years.  I had to tap into those archived point-and-shoot photos to complete this story!


Heavy snow in late winter can be very stressful on deer and turkeys, especially when it follows long periods of continuous snow cover. When this occurs, the search for food may override other survival instincts such as the avoidance of humans. In the snow belt, most of the available, naturally-occurring food supply is severely depleted by February. This is particularly true of woody browse for deer within five or six feet of the ground and persistent seeds and fruits for turkeys. Adding to the dilemma is the fact that fat reserves are depleted too, metabolism is increasing with the longer days, and many adult white-tail does are nourishing fetuses.


Wild turkeys feeding on the fruit of multiflora rose (an exotic, invasive species) in mid-December; for the most part, this food source will be gone within a few weeks

I’ve been pruning several dozen wild apple trees on my property, because they’re badly in need of crown cleaning and structural pruning, but also to feed deer and rabbits. Of the hundreds of branches and twigs on the ground, virtually all have been browsed by deer  and roughly 20% have been browsed and stripped of their bark by cottontails. In some cases, deer have re-browsed the apple twigs well beyond the slender, nutritious twig ends. The rabbits will continue to feed on the twigs and bark for the remainder of the winter.


Apple twigs after repeated browsing by deer in late winter; apple twigs are a preferred winter food, but most nutritional value is in the small twig end and buds

The remaining photos were taken in late February (23 and 24), 2007, soon after a 20 inch snowfall. Mindful of the need to avoid disturbing deer and turkeys at this time of year and adding to their stress, I stayed in my vehicle. I was over 120 feet away, partially concealed by the local community church and a nearby storage building. Wild animals tend to be tolerant of vehicles and I tried to use that to my advantage.


The creation of a crater-like hole and feeding site:
an adult doe pawing at deep, soft snow to expose food at ground level




A dominant doe asserting herself at a hard-earned, crowded feeding site

The following day, a small flock of turkeys joined the deer, searching the small patches of bare ground at the base of the crater-like holes dug out by the deer. It seems that the energy expended by deer to excavate these holes would far outweigh the food value at the bottom. The only apparent advantage to this behavior that I see is the exposure of the dark plants and soil to solar radiation, which would accelerate melting and increase the availability of food.


A deer and turkey feeding site after a couple of days of digging by deer
and some melting from solar radiation


Turkeys feeding and walking on top of the snow as they approach
the crater-like feeding sites in the deep snow


A deer and turkeys working the same feeding holes,
seemingly oblivious to one another

Squirrels Hang Gliding in the Dark???


Few people are familiar with flying squirrels. In fact, many have never even seen one because they’re nocturnal. Those that have were likely introduced by accident: someone may have disturbed a snag or den tree in daylight and several smallish, bug-eyed creatures bailed out, glided to the nearest tree and scurried to the top to escape danger. I fell into that category, until a late evening call from a friend several years ago. It was summer, and he said “get over here, I just put some feed out and there’s something I want you to see; and bring your camera”.

For well over an hour I stood next to the mature oak and hemlock trees in his back yard, staring at the feeding platforms attached to two of the trees. I watched in amazement as flying squirrels glided in from the darkness and from tree to tree, fed, scurried into and out of feeders and bolted up, down and around tree trunks. Movements were lightning-quick. When squirrels were not in a stationary position, I rarely photographed what I saw. An attempt at a photo of one could result in an actual image of 4. A group shot often ended up with an image of an empty feeder or various blurred body parts on the edge of the frame! Normal behavior for them I suppose, but my thought was that of complete chaos! As it got darker, the number of squirrels, like the mosquitoes, increased. I remember 10 or 12, but  counting was a bit of a challenge. It was an enlightening experience to say the least. I’ve made dozens of trips since then, never tiring of the show or the opportunity to learn something about these fascinating creatures of the night. Oh, and I learned a thing or two about photographing critters in the dark too!


If bird feeders are maintained regularly on a property in close proximity to forestland with mature trees, there’s a chance that flying squirrels will eventually be discovered gliding into the feeders just after sunset. Large trees are essential habitat, providing launching and landing sites, cavities in tree trunks and large limbs for den sites, and an abundance of fruit for food. Aided by furred membranes between the legs, a flattened tail and large eyes, flying squirrels can glide 40 or 50 feet with ease, much greater distances under certain conditions.



Everybody loves sunflower seeds but in the wild, flying squirrels are opportunistic feeders, eating just about anything, including nuts, fruit, fungi, insects, mice and carrion.


When not out and about at night, flying squirrels live in tree hollows or cavities, often using woodpecker holes. They’ll build several nests, scattered over an acre or so, which provide shelter as well as a place to raise their young. They’re gregarious and, incredibly, there may be as many as 40 or 50 in a large cavity den.


All photos by NB Hunter

Winter Wetlands… and Wonderlands

My winter bucket list for outdoor photography includes eagles, grouse, pileated woodpeckers and wetland landscapes. Frigid temperatures and six inches of new, powdery snow led me to wonder if grouse would be roosting on the ground, under an insulating blanket of snow. My beagle flushed a bird from under the snow, no more than six feet from my feet, while he was being leash-walked, suggesting that I had the right idea. I then searched for hours, over a two-day period, and found nothing! The odds really weren’t in my favor: I only knew of just two pairs in my search area of about 75 acres, and the new snow wasn’t that deep (eight to ten inches or more would have been better).


A ruffed grouse snow roost site, showing entrance and exit holes

Wetlands rarely disappoint and when all else fails, that’s often where I end up. In winter, swamps, marshy areas and small streams have rich landscapes and animal diversity, are bug free, and are much more accessible on foot than at other times. Once open water and muck freeze, and dense, herbaceous vegetation dies back, many wetland mysteries are unveiled. (I won’t lie – I wear 18 inch rubber boots on these excursions, regardless of the season; in the big swamps, I carry a compass and cell phone too).


Clumps of ferns in a marsh habitat

A Cattail Marsh after Heavy Snow

Cattail marsh

The large northern white-cedar swamps in central New York are natural resource treasures, with unique offerings of solitude and opportunities for reflection and exploration. Small areas of raised ground, no wider than the spread of the crown of a tree, are often occupied by white pine trees. The larger specimens, two and a half to three feet in diameter and towering far above the northern white-cedar and its associates, are centuries old (some nearly 500 years old).


Towering, old white pine, over 30 inches in diameter

Cedar of all sizes, shapes and forms is everywhere. In sharp contrast to the open woods and snow-covered fields on adjacent, upland habitats, these dense tangles of aromatic green foliage and persistent, gnarly branches are a wildlife haven. Snowshoe hares (historically), furbearers, ruffed grouse and deer all use cedar thickets for food and/or cover. Cedar is a highly nutritious (over 25% carbs), preferred food of deer, as seen by a browse line of about five to seven feet above ground if deer have access to it in winter.


Whitetail deer feeding on northern white-cedar

All photos by NB Hunter

Winter Birds: Northern Visitors

The winter of 2012 – 2013 has been exciting in terms of the number and variety of birds observed at our backyard feeders and in nearby natural areas. Of course there are the “regulars” at the feeders: dozens of mourning doves; hairy, downy and red-bellied woodpeckers; chickadees; several pairs of cardinals; juncos; gold finches; and tree sparrows, to name a few. Titmice are more common in recent years and evening grosbeaks are visiting sporadically this year – for the first time in maybe 15 years.

However, two species have really captured my interest, in part because, after nearly 30 years in central New York, this is the first winter that I’ve seen them in abundance. They’re visitors from the North: common redpolls and snow buntings. Both are small, seed-eating birds that spend the summer in tundra regions but range into the northern U.S. in winter. They tend to occur in flocks, which may actually be a swirling aggregation of several species (e.g. snow buntings, redpolls, tree sparrows, horned larks, and others).


Redpoll perched near a feeder

My first sightings were in late December and early January – after real winter arrived! Redpolls, sometimes 30 or more, became daily visitors, preferring thistle seed, but also feeding on the mix of black oil sunflower seed and cracked corn scattered about at other sites. Their constant activity, dawn to dusk,  has given me plenty of photo opportunities, but also made me a regular at the local feed store!


Redpolls fighting for position at a thistle seed feeder

Unfortunately, I have not seen snow buntings at my bird feeders. I discovered these lovely little northern birds while scouting nearby rural areas for photo opportunities. As with the redpolls, it was real winter: a blustery, cold, snowy day in late December.  I noticed a flock of small birds along the edge of a secondary road and stopped to investigate. I got a little too close and they flew, but luckily, not far.


Part of a small flock of about 15 snow buntings swirling over an open field

I soon learned that the adjacent, windswept field, with scattered weed stalks poking up through a foot of snow, was preferred habitat! For the next hour I watched a flock of well over 100 birds, snow buntings, redpolls, and other species, feeding and swirling about, almost as one; an amazing show of synchronized movement. No wonder some call this bird the “Snowflake” – when the light was just so, the flock looked like a lake-effect snow storm, with giant flakes swirling in the wind!

Days later, after the stormy weather had passed, the birds too were gone – except for one. I watched, and photographed, as it plowed through the snow, moving from weed stalk to weed stalk, with the field all to itself.


A solitary snow bunting feeding on weed stalks in an open field

Photos by NB Hunter, 2012/2013

Frosty Winter Morning

Frost2Feb13#127EUnder the right conditions, a bitterly cold winter morning  can provide some magical scenes, especially detailed close-ups. Moist air (and soil), subzero night-time temperatures and bright skies led to these shots of feathery, white frost formations, one on a puddle, the other on the twig of a bur oak tree.

FrostBurOak2Feb13#129EThe photographic window is all too fleeting though: I like the effect of sunlight on white frost, but the added warmth destroys the subject right before your eyes! 

Photos by NB Hunter, 2013