Birds : Winter feeding
Winter reared her head this past weekend with plummeting temperatures and frozen precipitation, including snow. This heralds not only the onset of winter but a difficult time, especially for wintering land birds. Food resources dwindle, and for insectivores (insect eaters) they essentially vanish, and available food becomes frozen or snow covered. The winter at this latitude is a severe, harsh, survival test for the hardy birds that attempt to tough it out.
It is easy to suspect that many birds in our area are wishing they had kept going south instead of stopping here for the winter. The Gulf Coast does not look bad during the winter months compared to frozen New England. Of course the vast bulk of insectivores departed south in September and October, fleeing while the going was good, and escaping winter's icy grip before it arrived.
If you are feeding birds, enjoying the activity and vibrant colors they provide, then you know now that you have started you must not stop until the middle of April. Since they have already located the food - mixed seed, suet, sunflower, millet, peanut butter, meal worms, or whatever food you provide - they are depending on it being available to get enough energy to survive the winter. The food you provide is crucial to their survival.
It is hard to drag oneself from a warm bed in the dark, to dress and head outside to scrape, clean, chip ice away, etc. from bird feeders. It requires dedication and fortitude, but by heading out, however briefly, you are making it possible for the birds visiting your feeders to remain alive. Then after making sure all is well and the feeders are re-supplied, hurry back inside where it is warm, have some coffee and enjoy the action at the feeding stations.
There has been considerable discussion and theories that bird feeding has allowed many species to extend their ranges northward. With a guaranteed food supply, birds can over-winter farther north than they would otherwise be able to. Northern cardinals, tufted titmice, red-bellied woodpeckers, and even birds like Carolina wrens and northern mockingbirds - not true seed-eaters but able to eat suet, peanut butter, and the like - have been part of this discussion. This seems like a likely scenario yet plant and animal ranges are constantly in flux, changing for reasons that human observers and researchers have little chance of knowing with certainty.
Christmas Bird Count begins
The days at the end of the year, during the holiday rush of shopping, parties of all sorts, and family commitments limit opportunities to get afield and look for birds. Some 110 years ago, the first Christmas Bird Count (CBC) was started in New York City after like minded individuals with an interest in birds got together and spent a pleasant day during the holidays counting birds. Over the ensuing century-plus, the concept has flourished to the point where almost 2,500 of these one-day winter bird censuses are conducted all over North America and beyond.
Admittedly, early winter is not the best or easiest time to look for birds in the northern hemisphere. However, there are many more birds around, especially on the Vineyard, than one might presume. In fact, for many species, this area is the prime wintering grounds with higher concentrations of certain species than anywhere else on the continent. For these far northern nesting birds, the Vineyard and its surrounding waters is the southern terminus of the species range. Imagine these waters in winter being the tropics for eiders and scoters. What astonishing insulating and waterproofing properties their feathers have.
Years ago, the National Audubon Society, the coordinating agency for the CBC, standardized the official count period. A CBC must be conducted between December 14 and January 5, to be included in the official CBC totals. A CBC is an attempt to count every bird of every species in a circle with a 15-mile diameter in a 24-hour period.
There are quite a lot of CBCs conducted annually on the Cape and Islands. For an online listing check out Massbird.org and click on the Christmas Bird Count or the Cape Cod Bird Club sites. The Martha's Vineyard CBC will be conducted on Sunday, Jan. 3, 2010. If you are interested in participating, or for further information, call Rob Culbert at 508-693-4908.
Until next time - keep your eyes to the sky.