The No. 1 thing you can start doing right now to make your winter birding more interesting: notice flocks.
It’s an instinct you can develop. Be mindful that some very interesting birds travel around in gangs, especially in the winter. The instant you see a group of birds flying together, gathering in a tree or feeding on the ground, the lightbulb should come on. Your brain should shout: “Look, a flock!”
Sometimes, the flock will turn out to be mundane, such as a bunch of European starlings flying around the Bangor Mall. Or pigeons. Or house sparrows. But often, the flock will turn out to be unusual, maybe even exciting. That’s because not all birds flock, and some birds only flock in winter, and some of those winter-flockers come from somewhere far away. A flock is worthy of instant attention.
Here are some of the winter birds that flock: American goldfinch, pine siskin, common redpoll, pine grosbeak, evening grosbeak, cedar waxwing, bohemian waxwing, red crossbill, white-winged crossbill and snow bunting.
Goldfinches tend to form smaller flocks, and they’re common breeders around here, so they don’t elicit the excitement that some of the others do. Pine siskins nest deeper in the Maine woods. Their flocks can be larger and noisier, and they really start to travel around this time of year. Common redpolls nest way up in Canada. They don’t come down every winter, but when they do, their flocks can be huge and boisterous.
Pine grosbeaks nest in Canada. They rely on fruit in the winter, and they wander around until they find it, whereupon they descend on the tree and eat themselves silly. They are tame, allowing close approach by people.
A few evening grosbeaks still nest in Maine, but the majority of our winter birds are visitors from Canada. They were prolific decades ago, when the spruce budworm outbreak was at its peak. Nowadays, they are fewer, and flocks are smaller. But they’re still just as noisy.
Cedar waxwings nest in Maine, but then wander extensively. Winter flocks could come from anywhere. Bohemian waxwings breed in northern Canada, then roam in winter. Both form large flocks, often mixing. Like the pine grosbeak, waxwings subsist on berries and crab apples all winter, and can pick a tree clean in short order.
Red and white-winged crossbills are irruptive. They typically breed in Canada, coming and going via Maine as they please. When Maine has a good cone crop, they are apt to stay and nest here. While fruit-eaters relish the ornamental trees of suburbia, seed-eating crossbills are more likely to be seen out in the spruce forests.
Snow buntings nest in subarctic Canada. After breeding, they also wander. If you see a flock of birds on a hayfield or blueberry barren in winter, it’s likely to be these guys. A few horned larks and Lapland longspurs may be mixed in.
Obviously, other birds also flock. Crows, turkeys and geese are gregarious this time of year. Indeed, many critters flock. Think schools of fish, herds of bison and pods of dolphins. Flocking is a strategy that can only work if there is enough food for everyone. If there is, then each individual benefits when the group feeds cooperatively.
Up-to-date information about local food resources is one advantage of flocking. Birds may communicate food locations to each other intentionally, or the flock may just figure it out based on who comes back to the nightly roost well fed. Expect that well-nourished bird to be followed the next morning.
There’s also safety in numbers. Not only are there more eyes watching for a predator, there’s also a greater chance that a successful predator will snatch somebody else. On the downside, flocks attract predator attention. To a hawk, nothing says “feast” like a big gathering of potential dinners. Each bird has a smaller chance of being grabbed, but the hawk has a greater chance of grabbing someone, and what does he care which one? They all taste the same, a little like chicken.
Once you get used to noticing flocks, you may start to notice differences in how they fly. Finches are bouncy. They alternately flap and glide, resulting in an undulating flight. Finches also tend to bunch tightly. Waxwings do, too, but tend to have a few stragglers trying to catch up. Grosbeaks are noticeably bigger. Snow buntings stay near the ground.
For better birding, make flock-watching an automatic habit. You know, like not answering the home phone when you don’t recognize the caller ID.
Bob Duchesne serves as vice president of Maine Audubon’s Penobscot Valley Chapter. He developed the Maine Birding Trail, with information at mainebirdingtrail.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.