For the Love of (Winter) Feeder Birds

| February 2, 2015 | 0 Comments

Charlie and Linus contemplate what irruptive finches might be coming this winter

As Winter Storm Linus brings a swath of heavy snow across the Northeast today, I can’t help but turn my eyes to my bird feeders from the comfort of my home and feel a sense of warmth, nostalgia, and excitement. For many birders myself included, heavy snowstorms and watching birds at the feeders go hand-in-hand.

Winter Storm Linus dumping snow across much of the Northeast on February 2, 2015

Winter Storm Linus dumping snow across much of the Northeast on February 2, 2015

Often inclement weather means school cancellations or an inability to get into one’s job safely and we become snowbound in our own homes. For some this is no excuse to stay home and there are the intrepid individuals that find it the perfect opportunity to ski (downhill or cross country), snowshoe, snowmobile, hike, trudge, crawl, and do whatever they can to be outdoors. Why let it go to waste just because it’s cold and snowy!?! For others, it is a prime opportunity to stay inside and relax by a fire with a hot beverage, catch up on bills, watch a movie, knit, cook, and read. While I don’t ski, I can see the appeal in both, and often during bad snow storms try my best to get a little bit of each in, being outside and enjoying shelter from the storm. What’s better than to be outside in the cold elements followed by getting back inside to warm up and relax?

However, the dichotomy of “to venture outside or not to venture” is as true for birders as it is with any other demographic. Look at any local online birding group or forum during the day of a snowstorm and certainly someone will post their day’s sightings with the subject line of “Storm Birds” or “Snow Birds” telling of their adventures as they braved the elements in search of whatever feathered finds they could stumble upon. Over the years I’ve seen plenty of “good” reports come from these adventures (finches, owls, field birds, waterfowl) and I’ve seen many reports of chickadees and cardinals (for some this IS good) that could have easily been viewed from one’s house. For the birders that wish not to brave the elements they might actually use the same subject lines mentioned above in the same forums but use them to refer to the birds that are braving the elements while the observer is snug as a bug in their heated home watching from a window with their favorite 8x42s.

I’ve had the fortune of doing both. Going to college in Syracuse, NY (America’s “Snowiest” City), I’ve seen plenty of the white stuff fall between the months of October and May and have spent many hours and miles afield driving and hiking along back roads in search of winter finches and raptors while dealing with less than ideal road conditions. Because that time of my birding career was so formative in where I am now as a birder, I often look back at those times with fondness. In fact, I’ve come to find that anytime there’s a snow storm I immediately long to be in a stand of conifers seeking out nomadic crossbills or siskins or on the shores of a windswept lake looking for rare waterfowl. There’s always the feeling that “if the snow’s flying, there’s a good bird just waiting to be found”.

However, no memories are so fondly looked upon in my memory bank around snow than the ones I gained during my childhood in Upstate New York. Like many children of the Northeast, a day of heavy snow often meant a day away from school. It’s not to say I didn’t like going to school, but I liked being home on a snowy day better. Often it meant shoveling out the sidewalk as part of my chores, but it was also filled with great things like seeing TV shows I never saw due to being at school (Price is Right), hot cocoa, soup, and best yet, BEING OUTSIDE and exploring the world around me in the snow DURING the storm! Often these explorations included fort building, playing with the family dog in the snow, pretending I was a great explorer in the North Country, and just being outside in the elements. This would last for hours until my father came home from work where I probably tried my best to ambush him with a line of preformed snowballs…I’m pretty sure I lost every time.

In snowstorms. just as in every other part of my life, birds have always played a centralized role. Even when I was outside building forts I would listen to the birds around me and try to identify the species as best I could or sit at an open window as my parent’s well-earned heat poured outside just so I could try and take pictures of the birds coming to our feeders. I was warmed by the silence of a world around me where the hum of cars on the local roads were minimized and the volume of birds around the yard were amplified. You see, often during bad weather the local flocks of finches, chickadees, titmice, nuthatches, and sparrows would swarm our yard because of the readily available food in the form of black oil sunflower, thistle, and suet. The presence of this readily available food during a time of hardship not only brought droves of common birds to our yards (Northern Cardinals literally by the dozens), but also many rare or irruptive species that might have been missed otherwise: Pine Siskins, Common and Hoary Redpolls, and Evening Grosbeaks. It was a great day for our family nearly two and a half decades ago when a flock of Evening Grosbeaks in all their gaudy glory cleaned out our feeders of seed in a matter of hours and were gone like a winter whisper on the wind . The Evening Grosbeaks are no longer a routine visitor over the last few years to my parts in Columbia County, NY, but their memory remains as does the enthusiasm for watching birds at my feeder they helped to create.

A female Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (an uncommon yard visitor) discovered in a snow storm on January 26, 2015.

A female Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (an uncommon yard visitor) discovered in a snow storm on January 26, 2015.

It’s also been a greatly warming feeling to hear my girlfriend tell me of the birds outside her bedroom window the last few weeks that have found and made use of a simple tube feeder and a suet cake that I hung on an improvised soft wire hanger and cage on one of my recent visits. Many times I would receive short videos from her of the birds feeding or quick photos of the nearby Black-capped Chickadees in mid-flight or a loitering Eastern Bluebird. The enthusiasm she holds for those moments is exactly the same as mine and it’s an incredible feeling to be able to share in that. It also showcases one of the primary elements of birding that I’ve come to love, and that is to be able to share with another person these moments and to bring a smile to their face and inspiration and joy into their life.


Filling up my girlfriend’s feeders!

The feeders have been found!

The feeders have been found. It didn’t take long before the small tube was emptied!

Crude, but effective!

Crude, but effective! Fortunately, a real suet cage was discovered inside the garage for next time.

Eastern Bluebird

Male Eastern Bluebird

Decades later, even though my level of a birder is vastly improved from my 8 year old self, I still find great opportunity for learning from the birds at my feeders through close observation. Everything from behavior to plumage details to learning the various calls of common species can all be gathered from these observations, along with countless other opportunities. One’s knowledge that can be gained from these moments is only limited to the amount of time they give the observations.

With that said, I would encourage all birders who have feeders to spend as much time as they can watching their feeders as time allows. Certainly, we all live busy and hectic lives, but watching a feeder, especially on a snowy day, can bring so much education, joy, and calmness to one’s self. It’s also a great opportunity to grab a cup of hot cocoa and be transported back to being a kid again, something we all could learn to do. Watching birds at your feeder is also a great way to contribute towards the science of the birds. If this is something you’re interested in and you’re looking to make your observations count towards a greater knowledge of bird populations and movements don’t forget to sign up and submit your observations at eBird or to participate in this year’s Great Backyard Bird Count sponsored by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society.

Today's snow brought record numbers of Northern Cardinals

Today’s snow brought record numbers of Northern Cardinals

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Chad Witko has been an avid birder and all-around naturalist since the age of 3. Graduating from SUNY-ESF in Syracuse, NY with his B.S. in Environmental and Forest Biology (2003), Chad has worked on avian conservation projects across the United States. Ranging from New England (Atlantic Puffin research in Maine and grassland bird work in Massachusetts) to the Mid-Atlantic (Semipalmated Sandpiper research on the Delaware Bay) to California (riparian and coastal scrub passerines), Chad has worked extensively throughout North America and across avian taxa. Chad is currently pursuing his M.S. degree as a graduate student at Antioch University New England in Keene, NH. Current research interests include the distribution of bird species across New Hampshire and North America. Residing in Wilton, NH with his wife, Lauryn, Chad continues to bring a holistic approach to birding while pursuing his interests of wildlife photography, nature tour guiding (eventually), and Chat Happens. For more information on Chad, please view his Bio page!

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