Monday, December 27, 2010

Blizzard of 2010

The Blizzard of 2010 started about halfway through the Stratford-Milford Christmas Bird Count on December 26. Technically, it was actually even earlier, as flurries from the storm began around 8AM while I was in the field with Frank Mantlik in his section of Stratford. However, significant snow held off until about 11AM. I will post a summary of our abbreviated day along with photos tomorrow. For now, I want to concentrate on the storm as it continued through this morning. Every state in the northeast is still feeling the extreme winds and bitter cold air left in its wake. Western areas were hit the hardest with snowfall totals reaching nearly 20 inches in some spots (and perhaps higher once all the totals are in!). Central and eastern Connecticut had more of a routine snowstorm, with many spots recording less than double-digit totals. The most notable part of the storm for many was the wind. Some weather stations in Connecticut recorded 50 or even 60MPH gusts! The combination of heavy snow and ferocious wind was remarkable and truly rare.

I knew some fascinating sightings would be had at bird feeders today, and there will likely be even more tomorrow. I had two interesting birds, the first being very likely the same Fox Sparrow that visited me last Thursday (photos of it tomorrow). The second was another species I recorded that day, a Rusty Blackbird!

They are a classic feeder species after a snowfall of more than about three inches. I believe this is because that depth hinders what they can do in terms of their style of foraging. Apart from picking at what is on the earth they shove their bill into the mud, water, leaves, snow or whatever else, opening it and exposing food. When the snowfall gets above a few inches accessing that food probably proves much more difficult to accomplish for their species in particular.

Inserting her bill into the snow in the manner described above

She arrived late this morning and was loosely associated with a group of Red-winged Blackbirds. She would stay on the ground if all the birds were flushed, and return faster if she was scared off momentarily, too. Apart from snow removal and other human activity a Sharp-shinned Hawk and Cooper's Hawk kept the birds on heightened alert. Rusty Blackbirds are usually bolder than other blackbirds in this way.

Compare her with the Common Grackle and Red-winged Blackbirds

She fed primarily on cracked corn, a typical food for the species at feeders. I find that some birds, often males more than females, eat bits of suet that fall while woodpeckers or other birds peck at cakes. This bird did not, keeping to the corn and digging into the snow when she had to for some of it.

A snowy bill

Chewing that corn

Another interesting Rusty Blackbird behavior is their tendency to flick their tails open and closed while they walk around and feed. You can see the tail open and in motion in this photo.

I am sure many people saw Rusty Blackbirds in their yard today, especially in Fairfield and Litchfield counties, the areas hardest hit by the storm. It is of vital importance to log these sightings into eBird including all of the details you can. They are one of the fastest declining species in North America. Your observations of their wintering population, from sex of the birds to habitat selection and foraging behavior can help scientists discover why their numbers are plummeting.

Photos © Scott Kruitbosch

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