Lamenting the whereabouts of a real winter like just a few years ago with record snowfall reminds me that one should be careful what one wishes for. The quick but brutal pounding of a fast-moving and powerful Nor'easter quickly reminds me how powerful are the forces of the natural world. The northeast has been engulfed in some seriously cold weather with temperatures in the single digits and strong winds making for bitter conditions.
The vagaries of winter weather and the scant difference of a degree of temperature or two can make all the difference for survival in the natural world. It literally is a life or death situation for wildlife and the difference between rain and snow is all-important. A foot of snow, and food resources are out of reach. It's the same thing if it rains and then freezes, covering the food in a thick casement of ice. Should the temperature track a degree or two warmer it is just rain and all food remains accessible to wildlife that needs to reach it in order to survive.
Cold weather feeding
With the cold has come a survival test for those birds that opted to spend the winter in this part of the world. Increasingly scarce open fresh water and food supplies force many individuals to move in search of both unfrozen water to drink and food to eat. People with heated birdbaths and a steady supply of suet and seeds have been rewarded this past week with an onslaught of birds finding their offerings.
Activity at feeders has been frenetic and apparently almost everyone who goes to the trouble and work of providing a heated birdbath has been rewarded with eastern bluebirds becoming regular visitors. These hardy thrushes survive Vineyard winters quite nicely subsisting on various berries. What they really crave is fresh drinking water to help digest all those tough and frozen red cedar, holly, privet, greenbriers, multiflora rose and other desiccated fruits (a.k.a. seeds and berries) that comprise their diet when temperatures are below freezing.
With a little bit of snow cover and frozen ground, many birds that have been able to stay ensconced in thickets have also been forced to move. Road edges at dawn and dusk have been frequented by very visible sparrows, towhees and hermit thrushes as they partake in sand and gravel as digestive aids. Birds have no teeth and must use roughage in the form of small rocks (i.e. sand) to grind up food in their muscular crop or gizzard. Many of these get passed on during digestion and these must be constantly replenished. Hence the collection of small birds along sanded roads, driveways or beaches after a fresh snowfall.
There were sightings of bluebirds and hermit thrushes in yards all over the Island. A little snow cover makes all birds more visible and I think more observers spend longer staring out windows, seeing more things than usual when it is cold and snowy. Delighted would accurately describe anyone who has just seen a small flock of bluebirds or a hermit thrush eating berries off a tree or bush in their yard.
Paul and Mary Jackson of Edgartown have been inundated with birds since the cold has hit. They have large numbers of regular species such as white-throated and song sparrows, house finches and black-capped chickadees but also have many rare and unusual feeder birds. They feed not only the usual gamut of seeds and suet but provide homemade jams and jellies, blueberry pie and cheesecake. This one-of-a-kind feeding station brings in all kinds of birds.
They have a red-bellied woodpecker and a pair of Carolina wrens that are very tame and partake of the various delicacies that abound at their feeding station. Back in 1996, the Jacksons hosted the only Cape May warbler to ever over-winter north of Florida at their homemade jelly bowl. It survived the winter and flew north in the spring!
The Vineyard serves as a nocturnal roosting place for literally thousands of crows. They spend the night on the Vineyard and then at first light they fly across Vineyard Sound and fan out all over the western end of Cape Cod to feed then return to the Island to spend the night. They do this during the fall and winter months and a highlight of any ferry crossing, either early or late in the day, is to look for and count how many crows one can find engaged in their daily commute.
David Stanwood of West Tisbury noted just before and during the recent Nor'easter on Jan. 27 that his home and surrounding areas were invaded by thousands of crows. The birds apparently sensed the low pressure storm system approaching and wisely decided to not make what would have turned out to be a very hazardous trip. They are intelligent birds.
Until next week - keep your eyes to the sky!
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