We’re less than two weeks into the new year, and I’m already starting to have my doubts about it. The birds have been remarkably quiet. Here are a bunch of random observations about this winter so far, in no particular order.
I’ve saved a bundle on bird seed. There has been so much natural food in the woods, the birds just haven’t been visiting my feeders, or yours. Birds appreciate the feeder food when they need it, but they would rather not risk a visit when they have easy alternatives. Feeders are generally more exposed to predators than are the treetops. Moreover, when multiple birds flock to the feeder, the commotion can draw unwanted attention. Now that the ground is snow-covered, I expect the birds will return.
The snow layer stayed thin through the first week of the year. Squirrels have been pawing through the snow in my front yard to search for acorns. It was a big acorn year. As the squirrels churned up my lawn, the blue jays benefited. Two dozen blue jays have formed a gang, and they’re marauding through my neighborhood daily. They pay particular attention to where the squirrels have cleared the snow, because they know they may find a morsel on the newly-bare ground.
This year’s blue jay flock around my house seems abnormally large. It’s not uncommon for dozens of jays to gather, but it’s not typical either. They have been truly raucous this January. With so many gathered together, ready to spread an instant alarm, I don’t think a Cooper’s hawk has much chance to take one by surprise. These jays are clever.
Last week, I had a flock of 40 robins fly over. Robins in winter are not uncommon. They can subsist on fruit, and there is a colossal crop of berries and crabapples this year. Still, it’s unusual to see them at my rural home in January. They prefer the slightly warmer cities and coast. It’s evidence that the weather is mild and the fruit crop is ample everywhere in Maine right now.
So, if the fruit crop is so good, where are all the other fruit-eaters? Bohemian and cedar waxwings have been scarce. Pine grosbeaks are absent. The berry crop must be good beyond the borders of Maine, too, and it’s making for a dull winter here.
Likewise, there aren’t a lot of visiting finches. Evening grosbeaks are missing. Only a handful of common redpolls have come down from Canada. Pine siskins aren’t mobbing feeders. The winter has been mild enough that our locally-breeding American goldfinches have not felt the need to flee the state.
Results from this year’s Christmas Bird Counts around the state support the idea that it’s a dull winter. Overall numbers are down from previous years. The aforementioned fruit-eaters were missing from most counts.
There were some significant surprises, nonetheless. Aerial insect-eaters showed up on a number of southern Maine counts. Several eastern phoebes were tallied. Tree swallows were present on at least two counts. That’s astonishing, because these birds eat only flying insects, and they should have been long gone by Christmas.
A rare insect-eater popped up in at least three places in Portland. The yellow-breasted chat is a large warbler that forages in thick shrubbery, gleaning insects from under leaves. Its nesting range does not reach New England, and I’ve never seen one in Maine. A few do wander up this way in autumn, but rarely do they appear in winter. They spend the cold months in the tropics from Mexico to Panama. The fact that three of them wandered in, and then were in no rush to leave, is more evidence that this winter got off to a mild start.
Two seasonal species have arrived in above-average numbers. Northern shrikes are being reported in many places. They used to be an uncommon winter visitor, but shrike observations have been low over the past five years. They seem to have returned in force this month.
Dov ekies are tiny members of the puffin family, no bigger than a robin. They’re abundant throughout the North Atlantic. Over 30 million nest along the northwestern coast of Greenland. But in winter, they stay mainly out to sea, so we don’t see them often. However, bunches of them have turned up along the Maine coast over the last week. They’ve added a little spice to an otherwise dull winter.
How dull is this winter? Even this column is dull. I nodded off while proofreading it.
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.