by Robin Song
The activity at my feeders began well before the sun broke over the treeline in the south the morning of January third- the annual Christmas Winter Bird Count Day in our area. As usual, I made sure the feeders were full and ready, for the birds had survived another long, cold winter night and were in need of fuel right away. The Black-capped Chickadees could lose 10% of their body weight overnight just shivering to keep warm. They don’t have a crop to store food, like Redpolls and other birds do, so they have to burn body fat to keep warm. During cold snaps I bring in the suet and peanut butter feeders overnight and put them back out when the first birds arrive, so they can get at the food easily and so not have to burn precious calories prying at frozen food.
The three Nuthatches chattered as they worked at the suet nets. The male and female Hairy Woodpeckers preferred the suet cage out at the big feeder swinging from a wooden hanger at the edge of the forest, even though that suet was frozen. With their big, sturdy beaks, frozen suet presented no problems for them. The much smaller pair of Downy Woodpeckers came in to the thawed suet at the porch, however.
The flock of Pine Grosbeaks came to the two big platform feeders attached to the porch railings and their soft melodic calls added a sweet melody to the mixed gathering of birds. As the golden sun topped the trees, I stood out in the snow in front of the cabin, listening. I heard Redpolls high up in the tall spruce, then heard something else. I listened closely, and recognized the songs of White-winged Crossbills. I smiled. 2014 had been “the Year of the Crossbills”, it seemed. I had seen more of this species on many of my hikes over the summer and fall than in any previous years. Usually I only saw crossbills at the ranch in wintertime, but a small flock had stayed throughout the summer and fall. As I spotted the six birds atop the tall spruce next to the ranch’s drive, I was delighted to add them to my birding list.
The crown of my Bird Count was the trio of Dark-eyed Juncos who decided to winter-over. One male had wintered here last year, and now there were two males and a female. I wondered if one male was the one from last winter and had ‘told’ his buddies that if they’d stay, instead of migrating, they’d get fed here all winter. Well, you just never know! Of course I buy special seed mix for them and put it out everyday, to make sure they’re getting enough to eat. I want my rare visitors to be taken care of. I sprinkled the seed on the snow just off the porch as the juncos sat in the trees watching me.
Now the pair of Ravens arrived, calling to me to bring them their morning ration of dogfood kibbles, which I spread on top of the flat-roofed barn. That accomplished, I headed down my trail back to the cabin as the dogs frisked ahead of me. Fifteen Magpies came winging in from the forest west of the row of apple trees. I turned to watch them. I love to see these graceful birds execute tight turns in the air, their long iridescent tail feathers cutting through the winter-blue sky, the birds then dropping to land one by one on the barn roof. They cram as many kibbles into their beaks as they can fit, then fly off to cache them in their secret places, then return for more. Throughout the day the magpies are searching for each others’ caches, hoping to find the hidden food, dig it up and carry it off. At the end of the short winter day, the caches have been emptied, either by their rightful owners, or by thieves, and all the food eaten. Tomorrow the game will start all over again.
Back at the cabin I heard the Gray Jays calling from the forest and went in to get their treat. They come to the porch to get suet and peanut butter, but they also love bread. I put out pieces of wheat bread on top of the porch beams and often the three birds-two parents and an offspring- are coming to the beams to grab the bread before I’m down off the ladder. Typical corvids, they will also cache their bread pieces, stabbing them into cracks in tree bark, or in amongst spruce boughs. Then back they come to cram more pieces into their beaks-as many as they can fit. It’s only a few short minutes before all the bread is gone. But I know they will work on eating their treats throughout the day.
For some reason unknown to me, this is the first winter the territory around the two cabins has not been claimed by squirrels. There were three here through the summer, but they vanished in the fall. Possibly the marten I saw here the past two winters claimed them, or scared them off. Whatever happened, I must admit I’m enjoying not having squirrels robbing the bird feeders and eating the peanut butter. The squirrels were not tolerant of each other, and there were often lively chases and fights in the trees near the feeders. It’s a much more peaceful winter without the squirrel wars going on. The flying squirrels are still coming to my handouts every night, but they are not at all in competition with the birds.
Toward the last hour of daylight on Bird Count Day, I took a drive out to the end of Mastodon road. Within the first mile from the ranch’s drive I spotted a flock of birds flying above the road. I parked and watched the flock of Redpolls through the binoculars. The low sun lit the birds rose-gold, making the male’s rosy chests and undersides fairly glow. I estimated the flock at some sixty to seventy birds. They were landing in birches, no doubt filling up on seeds before going to roost for the night. I watched the restless flock swirling through the sky, then landing again, calling in their particular finch voices. I find these little birds to be energetic and charismatic, and I enjoy watching them all year-round.
Rolling the car slowly along the road, searching for other birds, I was happy to spot a Ruffed Grouse high up in the branches of a birch beside the road. It’s probably the same one I’ve seen on occasion in the trees beside the road since last fall. I first saw it alongside Birch Creek Road, working its way back along Mastodon nipping dormant buds off the ends of twigs as it went. The grouses’ toes are especially adapted to gripping the smooth, slender branches, with scales and tiny stiff feathers lining each toe. These plump birds turn into amazing acrobats as they stretch their necks out, twisting them under and around branches to reach buds, their toes wrapped around thin branches and holding on tight- short, stout wings flapping occasionally for balance. On the ground they can line out and run astoundingly fast, seeming to prefer running to flying. But flying, too, is an art form as they jump into to air and zip through the maze of tree branches with blinding speed.
It seems to be a down cycle for Spruce Grouse this winter, for I’ve not seen nearly as many as I usually do, and I did not see any on Count Day, or even during Count Week. This may account for not hearing any owls yet this winter, either. The snowshoe hares also seem to be down in number, for I’ve seen few tracks alongside the ranch’s drive, which is usually peppered with hare prints by now.
And so another Winter Bird Count Day ended for me as I returned to the cabin and found all the birds had gone to roost for the night. It had been a lovely, clear day, and though I spend nearly every day watching the birds, it took on a special meaning today. Every year Count Day is a little different. I compile my notes and add them to my birding journal, seeing what’s changed, year to year. I also keep a running journal on my calendar, writing in special notations, which often includes birding observations. The days are lengthening now, and though winter is only half-way through, I’m sure the birds are noticing the extra sunlight. May we all stay safe and warm, knowing spring is on the way, and enjoying the special beauty of winter.