Birds in a Blizzard: Backyard Visitors

The blizzard of 2017 arrived on March 14, bringing three feet of blowing snow, frigid temperatures and, eventually, a state of emergency that closed all roads. Not to be denied the opportunity to photograph, I shoveled snow away from the bird feeders every 2-3 hours, replenished the seed mixture and went back inside to observe the phenomenon. Up to 200 birds, half of them a mixed flock of blackbirds, converged on the sites and devoured everything but the spent hulls of sunflower seeds. This went on for three days.

I took many pictures of our common winter visitors during the event – cardinals, juncos, chickadees, doves, woodpeckers, etc.

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However, blackbirds were the featured attraction and satisfied my need to capture something extraordinary that conveyed the intensity of the snowstorm and madness at the feeders.

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There were a lot of red-winged blackbirds in the mixed flock. Migrating birds had arrived prior to the storm and most food sources and nesting habitats were now buried. They bullied their way on to the feeding sites and hogged most of the food; needless to say, I was happy to see them leave when the weather broke.

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Grackles, starlings and rusty blackbirds were also present. After hearing stories from other bird watchers, I learned that the numbers and proportions of species in the mixed flocks varied with location.

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Wait for it……

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Blackbirds in a blizzard!!!

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Photos by NB Hunter on March 14, 15 and 16, 2017. ©All Rights Reserved.

 

Starlings

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So, why feature a European species in consecutive posts, a species considered by many to be an invasive nuisance? I guess because I have the means, opportunity and motive. Even though they number in the millions (all originating from 100 birds released in New York City in the 1890s), this is the first time that I’ve seen starlings at the feeders for any length of time. And, to quote Cornell’s All About Birds fact sheet, “…they’re still dazzling birds when you get a good look”!

The aesthetic appeal of a starling lies in the striking contrast created by white-tipped, black feathers – the winter plumage.

 

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Most of the white spots will be gone by the summer breeding season, a phenomenon referred to as “wear molting”. The spotted feathers aren’t replaced, the white tips simply wear off.

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Starlings can be aggressive and sometimes compete with native birds for cavity nest sites. In this instance, they met their match: a Red-bellied Woodpecker fended off three starlings (one above, out of the frame) for feeding rights to a block of suet.

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Photos by NB Hunter. © All Rights Reserved.

 

 

The Color of Winter

We have four months of winter; I enjoy three of them. The earthy colors and vivid contrasts of uncluttered winter landscapes can be very appealing, even spectacular. Winter also affords us the opportunity to observe the behavior and coping mechanisms of resident birds and mammals as they struggle to find sufficient food and cover amidst dwindling resources. The “dormant” winter season is far from static; there’s a lot going on, and much to learn. I’ll share a few winter highlights from Central New York, captured in January, 2017.

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Northern cardinal foraging for grain near a backyard feeder

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Eastern wild turkeys searching for waste grain

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Round bales on a foggy winter morning

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Black-capped chickadee in a lake-effect snow storm

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Hilltop panoramic view of farms and woodlands

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American crow foraging on waste grain

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Morning sunlight on the Chenango River 

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Red-bellied woodpecker feasting on a commercial suet block

Photos by NB Hunter. © All Rights Reserved.

Grosbeaks!

The spring songbird migration coincides with with the explosion of floral and vegetative growth in deciduous trees and shrubs. It’s a thrilling dynamic and wonderful time of year to become immersed in the great outdoors!

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New foliage on a maple in early May

Change is rapid, every day a new palette, and “here today, gone tomorrow” describes my experience with many migrating songbirds. Two days ago there were vibrant colors and sweet songs everywhere. Rose-breasted Grosbeaks were low and at the feeders, Baltimore Orioles high above, foraging in the tree canopies.

Cornell, on its “All About Birds” website, describes the Rose-breasted Grosbeak as an “exclamation mark” at feeders. So true – for the brilliant male! However, females are easily overlooked or miss-identified, especially when the huge bill isn’t clearly visible.

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I was amused to see that a bird with a massive, seed- and fruit- crunching bill would be interested in the smallest of seeds at the openings of the goldfinch tube feeder.

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Some of these grosbeaks will remain while others will continue their northerly migration and search for summer nesting habitat. The low woody vegetation of young forests and forest edges is their target.

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Photos by NB Hunter. © All Rights Reserved.

 

Tufted Titmouse in Morning Sun

This morning was calm, clear and very cold, so I wasn’t surprised to see a few songbirds perching in the morning sun with their feathers fluffed up for added insulation.

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Tufted Titmouse coping with the cold on a winter morning

Photo by NB Hunter. © All Rights Reserved.

 

Shades of Red

I heard a Northern Cardinal singing this morning – a first for 2015. With another foot of snow and another week of subfreezing temperatures in the weather forecast, that was a most welcome sound! The early singing was a response to increasing daylight and perhaps our current heat wave – the temperature was all the way up to 24 degrees F at dawn. The songs, vivid colors, compatibility with humans and human habitats – there are many things to like about cardinals. The value added to a winter landscape is immeasurable.

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This is not a scene that would have been familiar to Native Americans and early settlers. One hundred years ago cardinals were recorded in just 2 of the 62 counties in New York state. Now, they are widespread throughout the state and eastern U.S.; they even range into southern Canada. Deep snow is limiting for these ground foragers, as are long cold spells where the average minimum temperature is 5 to 10 degrees F. Countering these limiting factors are human-altered landscapes and the cardinal-friendly habitat associated with them. Abandoned farmland, forest openings and edges, residential plantings of small trees and shrubs, and supplemental feeding (especially sunflower seeds and similar foods) have all contributed to the widespread success of cardinals. Their range expansion has paralleled that of humans.

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Photos by NB Hunter. © All Rights Reserved.