Monday, February 18, 2013

Snow-covered Connecticut

The last week has been a difficult one at best for all of our birds that rely upon being able to see the ground or access low vegetation in order to feed. With three feet of snow and areas where drifts are three times that depth it can be a struggle to forage sufficiently. Take a look at the snow depth immediately following the storm on the NOAA map below.

If we ignore where it is inaccurate (Where is the band across Connecticut? Ugh!) it still shows us a lot of snow for the area compared to what it should be. Here is a map of the snow depth as of the current day.

There has been some improvement in depth, but this snowpack is here to stay for a while longer. One of the groups of birds we often think of quickly in such situations is sparrows. These birds are literally designed to feed on the ground with their drab shades of brown. Dark-eyed Juncos, White-throated Sparrows, American Tree Sparrows, and Song Sparrows are all common feeder birds that really had to work in the past week to find food or move quickly to more suitable habitat. Other more uncommon wintering sparrows that had similar problems include Savannah, Fox, Chipping, White-crowned, and Vesper. The first four are occasionally seen in yards while the rare last one has been recorded utilizing any available patch they could sometimes in sizable numbers (in relative terms) of several birds together.

Vesper Sparrows and many of the above species are often found using the edges of lawns, roadways, and fields that have been plowed along, exposing some of the earth. If you check roadsides (maybe not while actually driving) where you can see dirt you should keep in mind that it is likely a good spot to keep an eye on for something out of the ordinary. These exposed spots also bring in birds like the American Pipit, Snow Bunting, or Horned Lark. Stratford Point has had many Snow Buntings and Horned Larks ever since the storm because of the strong winds that contoured and displaced the snow on the exposed site. Between the gusts, subsequent warm days and bright sunshine on the coastal grasslands large areas of the ground are now free of snow. This Horned Lark was alone but cooperative as it fed along the driveway and nearby open lawn.

You can see the snow in the background of the image. This is also why it is important to leave some areas of what we would consider lawn or grass a little weedy and uncut heading into the fall season. If you have enough of these rough spots they may end up benefiting wildlife in dire circumstances. If Stratford Point was nothing but a mowed lawn we would little vegetation of any use to wintering birds. The property has enough open space that it can still serve Northern Harriers and mammal-hunting raptors as well. I have not seen a Short-eared Owl since the storm but I would imagine it is very inviting to one. I searched through the grasslands for more rare winter species like the Eastern Meadowlark but came up empty. I am sure there are a few surprises lurking in the area and in open patches of earth near you, too.

Scott Kruitbosch
Conservation Technician

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

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