Birds - Holiday season - winter tightens her grip

By E. Vernon Laux - December 20, 2007

For many birders, this season is one that is eagerly awaited. Fun, exciting Christmas Bird Counts (CBCs) are conducted all over North America (and increasingly elsewhere as well). These are sort of an organized excuse for birder and non-birder alike to get together, spend a day exploring afield and then get together afterwards and talk about birds, often in the form of an excellent party with lots of food. What's not to like?

There are a few sticks in the mud who claim that a CBC is serious stuff indeed and only for the experienced ornithologist. The only response to this narrow and dangerous way of thinking is "bah, humbug!" This is a chance for anyone with an interest in the outdoors to get together with like-minded individuals and spend a day out in the fresh air.

hooded mergansers
Extreme cold makes it easier to get good looks at waterfowl, which are forced into smaller areas of unfrozen water. Here, one of the best looking ducks in the world, hooded mergansers, mix in with greater scaup. Both species are dimorphic - meaning males and females look very different. Photo by E. Vernon Laux. Click photo for larger version.

One of my first birding experiences was going along as a participant on the Outer Cape Cod CBC. It was literally only my third time with a pair of binoculars in my hand. I was 12 years old and a real pain in the neck. I had a great day, saw lots of unfamiliar birds (all of them) and met some really nice people. There are not many places or activities where multi-generations spend time together in this day and age and have a great time, learning about and respecting the others' strong points and accepting the less than perfect.

One of the real strong points of the many CBCs is that it allows the opportunity for many birders to get out, on the same day, doing the same thing, in adjacent areas and explore areas and habitats that are not normally checked or birded at all. Invariably, the CBCs turn up and document many unusual birds. It adds some zest to counting the common birds by finding the occasional rarity.

On count day a few hard-core birding extremists -call them nutty, if you like - get up in the wee hours of the morning and attempt to locate nocturnal owl species by their calls. It is December or early January and one can generally count on bone-chilling conditions. It is called going owling. This is an altogether catch-as-catch-can endeavor as the vagaries of weather - wind speed, direction and sky conditions - all seem important to both owls and those trying to find (hear) them.

It is an imperfect science, detecting owls. Sometimes when conditions are perfect, windless and clear, owls are calling Island-wide. Other nights with the same conditions, despite visiting all the best areas, nothing is detected. However, like other aspects of birding (or fishing), if you don't go looking for owls, you will be much less likely to find them.

Extreme conditions for the birds

At this season, the hours of daylight are extremely short and every daytime minute counts to birds over-wintering in this area. Leisure time does not exist. In order to survive, a steady source of food, water to drink, and shelter are imperative. Throw in not getting eaten by predators during every 24-hour period, and staying alive and surviving the winter is no easy task.

The holidays are the beginning of a hard and dangerous period in a wild bird's life. Life in the wild is always dangerous and hard but even more so in the winter months at this latitude. From now until the lengthening days of spring when the sun's warming rays change the landscape into something much more forgiving and plentiful, survival requires skill and luck. Depending on the severity of the winter, a high percentage of over-wintering individuals will not survive the season.

Factors such as prolonged cold, accumulation of snow cover, ice storms, and the extent of frozen fresh and salt water all have a direct impact on an individual's chance for survival. The holidays are no picnic for our feathered friends. If you decide to feed birds, the duty and responsibility to keep feeders clear of ice and snow and full of food until spring is assumed.

As the winter has begun its "tightening" effect by freezing water and limiting food resources, birds have been moving around. Most important for landbirds is access to freshwater for drinking. As flying machines, birds have strict weight limits and regulate fluid intake to a milligram. Most must drink at least twice daily and lack of water will have immediate disastrous effects.

So running streams, seeps, springs, heated bird baths, etc. in winter become much like a drinking hole in the desert or on the African savannah in times of drought, critical to survival. Consequently, these places are good spots to find lots of individuals of various species. Ask anyone who has a heated bird bath about the action it provides and the views that are garnered of a wide array of normally hard-to-see birds to find out just how worthwhile it can be, to provide the birds with this necessary ingredient.

As the cold intensifies and the winter progresses, birds often must locate new sources of water and food should either one disappear on them. A covering of snow will force birds to find new food sources as the ones they were using are no longer accessible. This is when bird feeders take on a critical role. Instead of supplementing a wintering bird's food, when natural food becomes unavailable, due to harsh winter weather, the birds become totally reliant on this as a primary food source.

Should food become unavailable, birds are in dire straits. So if you choose to feed birds, make sure you are diligent about it during the winter months. The worse the weather outside, the more the birds need the food you began providing, to lure them to your yard. They need you to hold up your end.

Lastly, for last-minute shoppers, a new field guide is always welcomed by birders. There are always several new works published, often many more and these invaluable resources are referenced countless times for many years. They are truly a gift that keeps on giving.

Happy Holidays to one and all and a very Merry Christmas! In between all the holiday cheer - until next week - keep your eyes to the sky!

To contribute news about birding activities or sightings, call The Times Birdline, 508-693-6100, extension 33, or e-mail