Early thaw, re-freeze-up
For birds, surviving a New England winter is a daily life-and-death struggle. Finding food and freshwater, seeking shelter from hungry predators engaged in their own survival missions, staying warm and safe at night - there are myriad challenges. One of the biggest is the weather. It seems reasonable that the challenges poised by a warm week, with all freshwater available, even the presence of a few flying insects, is a "walk in the park" compared to a prolonged Nor'easter with accompanying precipitation in the form of snow and ice-covered drinking water.
The vagaries of winter weather, the number and severity of storms, snow and snow cover, cold and its duration, ice cover and amount of natural food - red cedar berries, American holly fruits, winterberry fruits, greenbrier fruits, poison ivy seeds and bayberry - all play a factor in the wintering success of birds. Despite all the things that can go wrong, however, birds are superbly adapted and driven to survive. Frugivores, the species that eat the aforementioned plant berries and fruits, are in good supply this winter.
American robins, cedar waxwings, and eastern bluebirds are widespread in impressive numbers. There have been large flocks of over-wintering robins near the "Bend in the Road" along Beach Road in Edgartown, in Upper Makoniky in West Tisbury where they've been seen daily by Beebe Horowitz, as well as large mixed flocks along Tea Lane in Chilmark near North Road. On the Christmas Count on Jan. 5, bluebirds were recorded from all six Island towns, which indicates what a great spot the Island is for these birds during the winter. Judy Green of Oak Bluffs has been delighted by a group of five bluebirds - three males, two females - visiting her yard eating some unknown berries.
There have also been some rare birds visiting and associating with flocks of robins, cedar waxwings, and bluebirds. Bohemian waxwings, a slightly larger waxwing than the cedar waxwing, about the size of European starlings, have been detected in small numbers for the past month. This species ranges across the Boreal Forest belt all across the top of the planet in both Canadian/American Arctic and across the top of all of Russia, Finland, and Scandinavia. The two Island hotspots this winter have been the crabapple trees at the Polly Hill Arboretum and sometimes in the nearby West Tisbury Cemetery and mixed in with large flocks of other birds in the red cedars along the Beach Road near the Cow Bay entrance in Edgartown where four were found on the bird count.
The days are already noticeably longer than a couple of weeks ago and on warm days last week all sorts of springtime behavior was starting to be displayed. Mitch Gordon was on West Chop and was amazed to hear calling tree frogs, spring peepers, on Jan. 8 and 9. Generally during the winter on warm days these amazingly hardy small frogs will utter a few practice calls as their body temperature warms but not full-fledged calling. When it goes back below freezing they are forced to go dormant again, awaiting more spring-like conditions. With the really warm temperatures last week, it sure seems odd watching moths flying at night in January, yet this has become normal, so it makes sense that peepers got in on the action.
Feeders should become very active as temperatures plummet this week. As an avid football fan, I can't help but notice that predicted temperatures for the Patriots game against the Chargers at Foxboro are in the teens. This means that birds will be very hard-pressed for food and will be utilizing your feeders to the max. Keep them working, filled and clean as they will become the primary source of food and energy for birds that have been visiting perhaps sporadically all winter. They won't be sporadic visitors with those kinds of temperatures.
Lastly, the following are some reports that almost slipped through the cracks over the holidays. Matthew Dix of Chilmark had some nice birds at his feeders around Christmas, including an evening grosbeak and common redpolls. He also had to remove an American woodcock from his barn, the bird none the worse for wear.
One of the rarest birds of the year was seen by Debbie Carter of Edgartown on Dec. 30. She noticed a most unusual bird sitting on one her many feeders and knew it was something special. She grabbed a digital camera and managed some pictures of the bird as it ate from a sunflower feeder for some 10 minutes. The bird flew off, never to be seen again despite a concerted effort by birders to locate the bird the following weekend. She puzzled over the birds identity, but suspected that it was an immature black-headed grosbeak, a western species that is accidental in Massachusetts.
After a few days she e-mailed some pictures to me showing either an immature type black-headed or rose-breasted grosbeak. These sibling species are very hard to identify. I called her immediately and got word that the bird was only seen on Dec. 30 despite good efforts to see it again. I asked if there were other pictures as the two she sent were not enough to be certain of the identification. She had others and sent one along showing the buffy, faintly streaked breast, bi-colored mandibles, and dark ear coverts making the bird the western rarity - a black-headed grosbeak.
Sadly, the bird was a ten-minute wonder and every bird feeder in Katama was scrutinized on count day looking for this vagrant. Fortunately she managed identifiable photos right off the bat or this bird would never have been recorded.
Until next week - keep your eyes to the sky!
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