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.

 

 

Winter in Spring

In winter, eight inches of snow, freezing temperatures and numbing wind chills elicit a “Ho Hum”  from friends at the coffee shop. The same conditions two weeks into the Spring season evoke a full spectrum of responses, from grunts, groans and expletives to happy thoughts (not the majority).

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April snowstorms are unique because the flora and fauna are undergoing seasonal change and the transition to Spring is well under way. This storm crushed Glory of the Snow in full bloom and halted the opening of daffodil buds. Red Maple, aspen, hazelnut and other woody plants were in various stages of bloom and suffered some degree of frost damage. Blackbirds and robins, recent arrivals from southern wintering grounds, lost access to grain fields and worms, respectively. Hundreds of blackbirds appeared at bird feeders – mixed flocks of red-winged blackbirds, starlings, cowbirds and grackles.

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Robins foraged on any bare ground they could find, including spring seeps and plowed areas.

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Earthworms became active during the mild weather and thaw that preceded the storm and the new snow retained some of the warmth. My snow shoveling gave a robin access to a fresh, juicy meal — despite the 15 degree (F) wind chill earlier in the day!

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One of the few woody plants to retain fruit this far into the new year is Staghorn Sumac. It is now feeding several species of birds, especially robins.

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Photos by NB Hunter. April 3 & 4, 2016. © All Rights Reserved.