February 2019

Vol. 47, No. 1

Musings from the Blind Birder: Winter Birding

Martha Steele

The author handfeeding a Red-breasted Nuthatch. Photograph by Bob Stymeist.

I stood quietly with my hand extended on a frigid early February day at Moose Bog, near Island Pond, Vermont, waiting in anticipation. Several sunflower seeds were nestled in my bare palm. I waited until I felt a light, delicate touch of tiny feet clinging to my finger, a quick grab of a seed off my palm, a slight hesitation, and then the bird was gone. I asked Bob, who was watching from several feet away, "What was that?" "A Red-breasted Nuthatch." Then another bird landed, this one slightly heavier and gone quickly after grabbing a seed. "And that?" "Black-capped Chickadee." Yet another bird, this one much heavier with larger feet wrapping nearly entirely around my finger arrived and stood, getting several seeds. I ventured a guess: "Canada Jay?" Bob replied in the affirmative. For the next 10 minutes or so, I correctly identified each bird that landed on my outstretched hand. I was beaming, honing my skills at tactile bird identification.

Birding in winter in the Northeast Kingdom (NEK) of Vermont is quite challenging and you are lucky to get a day list of over 10 species. Although our morning started out well with the three species enjoying hand-held food as soon as we got out of the car, our subsequent walk along the mile-long Moose Bog trail netted only a few more individual birds and only two additional species. The day was unusually bright, as winters here tend to be quite gray with seemingly daily light snow flurries, but birds were definitely hard to come by.

As we continued our birding to other areas in the NEK that February day, I could not help but think of the stark difference between winter and spring birding: so quiet in winter, so bursting with song just two or three months later. Our winter birding strategy usually involves searching for active feeders and then regularly visiting those feeders. In addition, we find berry-filled trees, hoping for Bohemian Waxwings, Pine Grosbeaks, or other winter specialties. Dairy farms with plenty of spilled grain and manure can also be productive for Horned Larks or other birds. Freshwater lakes and ponds are long since frozen and only the hardiest of birds can survive the harsh winters.

We do not always have to stand shivering with numb fingers trying to adjust frozen binoculars to bird in winter. Feeder watching can be just as, if not more, enjoyable than venturing afield when wind chills dip below zero. In years with irruptions of northern boreal birds, our Vermont feeders can see Pine Grosbeaks, Evening Grosbeaks, Common Redpolls, and Pine Siskins all swooping in and out of view, along with our regular winter residents, such as Black-capped Chickadees, Hairy and Downy woodpeckers, Blue Jays, Mourning Doves, Purple Finches, American Goldfinches, and White-breasted and Red-breasted nuthatches.

Bob and I have had some of our most memorable birds in winter, including close and prolonged encounters with Northern Hawk Owls, Evening and Pine grosbeaks, Northern Shrike, Bohemian Waxwings, Snowy Owls, and, in one memorable winter in Montreal, Great Grey Owls. And who does not enjoy the large flocks of Snow Buntings as they swirl in tight but graceful formations across frozen fields? For several years, a well-stocked feeder by a roadside at the top edge of a gently sloping hill, with the Willoughby Gap of Lake Willoughby in the background, provided endless hours of pleasure viewing these beautiful birds from a warm car. The flock of 200-plus buntings landed at the feeders, voraciously and frenetically feeding, and then instantaneously took flight into a cloud barreling down the hill, across the fields, and back up to the feeders in a swarming mass. We could not get enough of the spectacle.

Even year-round residents can provide thrilling birding moments in the winter. An unforgettable encounter with a Barred Owl at our winter feeders in Vermont in late January 2004 is particularly etched in my memory. We arrived near dusk at our Vermont home, walked into the kitchen, looked out the window to the feeders, and were startled to see a Barred Owl calmly sitting in the open at eye level in a bare tamarack tree, only about 10 yards from the window. The feeders were busy with the usual chickadees, Blue Jays, nuthatches, and woodpeckers, but the owl, for the moment, seemed satisfied to settle in. The owl remained in this perch, occasionally departing for short periods, for the next two days. Then, as quickly as he appeared, he disappeared. Barred Owls are frequently heard in the NEK but not frequently seen. We seemed to mutually enjoy staring at each other, and I quietly tried to convey my welcome and appreciation in my anthropomorphic way.

Still, you can walk a snowmobile trail into the deep woods in the middle of February and hear little beyond the snow crunching under your feet with each step you take. The stillness and quiet of the wintry north woods has its own allure and beauty. If you are lucky, you may hear one of my personal favorites, the deep, throaty croaking of a Common Raven cruising overhead. But if you want to see birds, trekking into the woods in winter is not likely to be very fruitful.

Just as birders look forward to the coming spring, we can also look forward to our winter visitors in every corner of our region. For example, the sea duck show off the New England coast in midwinter can be quite spectacular, especially if we are graced with King Eider. Think about the Harlequin Ducks, as well as the handsome Common Eiders, Long-tailed Ducks, and scoters. For raptor lovers, winter can also be thrilling with notable congregations of raptors, such as Rough-legged Hawk, Red-shouldered Hawk, Bald Eagle, Snowy Owl, and Short-eared Owl, not to mention periodic irruptions of Northern Hawk, Boreal, and Great Grey owls.

As February progresses, however, signs of the coming spring are increasingly evident. We are still in winter's grip after all, "As the days begin to lengthen, the cold begins to strengthen," goes the old saying. But already some owl species, including the Great Horned Owl and the Saw-whet Owl, have been breeding, the Northern Cardinals start to ramp up their full song, and by the end of the month, we may start seeing the first American Woodcocks returning.

The ebb and flow of birds in our changing seasons is part of what makes birding so appealing. We seem to be constantly saying hello, good luck, see you later, welcome back, good-bye, or see you in Florida, Costa Rica, or Argentina. It is like a constant stream of old friends coming and going from all compass directions. Every once in a while, a special guest shows up, offering only its rare presence but receiving our full attention. It does not matter whether it is spring or winter. It may be rainy, windy, and raw, or with a sub-zero wind chill, or so hot and humid you can barely move. No matter the conditions, all year long, even on our challenging winter days, there are birds to see and savor across the varied New England landscape. Bundle up and venture out on those cold days, as your heart may well be warmed by a close encounter with one of our magnificent winter visitors.

Martha Steele, a former editor of Bird Observer, has been progressively losing vision due to retinitis pigmentosa and is legally blind. Thanks to a cochlear implant, she is now learning to identify birds from their songs and calls. Martha lives with her husband, Bob Stymeist, in Arlington. Martha can be reached at>

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