Monday, December 31, 2012

New Year's Eve feeder watch

I thought I would end the year with a somewhat simplified play by play of several hours of watching the bird feeders in my yard on the final day of 2012. As many birders know this is one of the best times of the year to be watching your own backyard for unique and exciting avian surprises. I started out watching bird feeders and yard birds as a child. It is often the point of origin in a life of birding for people of any age, where we began to craft our identification skills and foster a genuine appreciation of the environment. After Saturday's snowstorm left an average of several inches of white fluffy stuff across Connecticut, from a few by the coast to a foot in other areas, the birds had to adapt quickly to their reduced foraging opportunities. This often takes the form of checking out someone's full feeders making it the right time as well as the right conditions to find some special birds.

I have been anxiously awaiting a visit from a Rusty Blackbird or two as they are one of the special species that always seems to find me at home after snowfalls in the heart of the winter season. They will pick at a few seeds but definitely seem to prefer any cracked corn. I did not see any today but I will remain hopefully for a New Year's Day tick of the tough to find species to start off 2013. However, I did find a bunch of wonderful birds, and I will recap the day while adding a few photos of the birds I saw today as well.

From about 9AM to 3PM I was able to observe 25 species of birds at or around the feeders. This was a decent count, though there were definitely some additional birds that could have been added to the list (which I will put at the conclusion of this summary). Yesterday a Carolina Wren was poking around by the house, possibly trying to pick at insects in the warmer and less snowy spots near the foundation. A couple Herring Gulls went over and dozens and dozens of Canada Geese went by, probably well into the hundreds throughout the day. All of the now frozen waters and snow-covered fields obviously pushed them as well as other ducks and geese to our south very quickly. Keep an eye out for increases in waterfowl in Long Island Sound and other coastal or unfrozen and uncovered areas. I saw none of these species today. I also missed others that could be seen at this time of year like Wild Turkey, Eastern Towhee, Northern Mockingbird, American or Fish Crows, European Starlings, Pine Siskin, and Purple Finch, with the last two species having pushed out of most of the state as quickly as they poured in.

Besides lacking Rusty Blackbirds I missed any of the blackbird species. Some of you may think this is not such a surprise, and most of that group of people would probably live in inland Connecticut. On the coast I am typically able to find Common Grackle, Red-winged Blackbird, and Brown-headed Cowbird year-round. This year they are all but absent from the state, hanging on in a few immediate coastal areas like Short Beach and nearby Stratford Point. There are definitely no warblers to be found in my neck of the woods this season either. One may sometimes find a Common Yellowthroat or a Pine Warbler hanging around, and more likely a Palm Warbler. Other times you'll come up with the expected Yellow-rumped Warbler or two, but the damage to the coast from two years of two powerful tropical systems combined with other storm damage has taken away much of the little foraging habitat that remained for them.

The day started off well at the feeders. Hairy and Downy Woodpeckers were at the suet cages right away, with two of each being seen quickly after 9. Not much time went by before a male Red-bellied Woodpecker joined in, and later a female as well. Dark-eyed Juncos and White-throated Sparrows have been around in lesser than usual numbers in my experience, both typically hitting double digits but rarely surpassing 20. There are some years that I struggle to count them all as 30, 40, or over 50 may be around at times. American Goldfinch numbers crept up throughout the day after starting at around a half dozen. Tufted Titmice and Black-capped Chickadee moved in and out, while a handful of Mourning Doves and Northern Cardinals sat around snacking.

In the 10 o'clock hour I was able to spot a female Northern Flicker coming in for a snack. The species is a less frequent but reliable visitor, taking several trips to the feeders during the day instead of dozens. A male also came by later to complete the expected woodpecker pairs for the day. I also saw two White-breasted Nuthatches finally stop in for a meal. More unexpected was spotting a few American Tree Sparrows, the first that had visited the feeders this season, and very likely due to the snowfall. It took only a few more minutes for me to also notice a Chipping Sparrow!

That is a tough bird to find in December or January, and it was skittish around all of the action. Things were a little difficult here with the addition of both a Cooper's Hawk and Sharp-shinned Hawk patrolling the neighborhood as well as flyovers of a Red-tailed Hawk and two Turkey Vultures during the day. When you pile in so many little birds into such a small area it attracts the attention of every bird that passes by to the point where they flit back and forth from cover to the feeders with atypical visitors like the Chipping Sparrow hiding more than eating. Thankfully I was able to spot another new for the season at the feeders bird, a Common Redpoll!

After another one of those dashes I described above I noticed a Fox Sparrow had returned with the mass of birds! That would be the fourth new to the feeders for the season bird of the morning, and one that is expected every couple of seasons here in the winter. Last year I do not believe I had one. I typically see migrants in the yard or occasionally taking a snack whether it is in November or March, but occasionally a bird will come in during December or January during inclement weather. I guess the word was officially out on this party, but some invitees were still not here.

By midday I was outside to refill the feeders and replenish what I had scattered on the ground. I was able to hear the Red-breasted Nuthatch that has been here for months while doing so. I have had the species in the yard since July (!), though one cannot be sure if this individual was present since then. At the very least it has been the same one since the migration peak ended a couple of months ago. This bird seems to enjoy taking a snack or two when it is quiet, but always keeps its distance during the busy commotion of a day like this one. After I went back inside and the birds went back to their meals I saw I now had two Common Redpolls here. Monk Parakeets would make the early afternoon worrisome, taking over all of the feeders and the suet, scaring off any other bird from feeding. They may be attractive but they are not a welcome guest with their voracious appetites and poor manners.

I counted up to seven Blue Jays today after an odd no-show from the species yesterday. Regardless of that anomaly from one of the most common birds in the state, they do seem to be reduced in number this season in my observations. Thankfully I only have a few House Sparrow here, and they seem to be dropping in number each year for me, too. However, there are sizable concentrations on the immediate coastline as we saw during Christmas Bird Counts. From here on out everything was essentially status quo with what came before it, and thankfully the Monk Parakeets left for the day. The raptors backed off their constant attacks, though we have to keep in mind they need food as well. While their prey may be the little friends we're trying to attract to our yard, survival of the fittest ensures that these attempts on their lives are going to make them only healthier and stronger as species in the long run.

My full list of the birds on the day:
Turkey Vulture 2
Red-tailed Hawk 1
Mourning Dove 16
Red-bellied Woodpecker 2
Downy Woodpecker 2
Hairy Woodpecker 2
Northern Flicker (Yellow-shafted) 2
Monk Parakeet 14
Blue Jay 7
Black-capped Chickadee 4
Tufted Titmouse 3
Red-breasted Nuthatch 1
White-breasted Nuthatch 2
American Robin 12
American Tree Sparrow 4
Chipping Sparrow 1
Fox Sparrow (Red) 1
Song Sparrow 1
White-throated Sparrow 13
Dark-eyed Junco (Slate-colored) 19
Northern Cardinal 7
House Finch 9
Common Redpoll 2
American Goldfinch 22
House Sparrow 3

I will be doing some feeder watching on New Year's Day to add to my 2013 list, but I will also be hitting the field and completing survey work elsewhere at places like Stratford Point. Good luck to you if you are participating in a Big January count. Happy New Year!

Scott Kruitbosch
Conservation Technician

Photos by Scott Kruitbosch © Connecticut Audubon Society and not to be reproduced without explicit CAS permission

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