Monday, February 21, 2011

Invasion of the Redpolls

I was about to take my dog out for a walk yesterday morning, when I decided to first check on the bird feeder on my deck -- and WHOA! Instead of the usual one or two chickadees and occasional white-breasted nuthatch,  a cloud of small birds competing for a perch was swirling around the tube feeder, and another flock was perched on the picnic table in the corner of the deck where I had spread out sunflower seeds. My first thought was Pine Siskins but then realized they were Common Redpolls with some Goldfinches mixed in.

I grabbed my camera and snuck out on the porch. I managed to get some photos through the window, but the camera setting was wrong and all shots came out dark and muddy. To do it properly I had to open the door to get a clear view. Of course when doing this the entire flock swirled up and up into the top of the oak tree nearby, and then gone altogether.  I expected them back though, couldn't imagine they would abandon such a rich food source. So I posted myself half hidden near the porch door with my camera on the ready, and sure enough the flock returned about five minutes later.


When the sun hits it just right the crown on these females turns a fiery orange red.

The red breast on this bird dignifies it's a male. Looking through my photos I realized most of the birds were probably females or immatures 

Some Redpolls, along with a couple of House Finches, were waiting their turn on the crab apple tree by the deck.

The House Finches kept a back seat on the tree until the Redpolls and Goldfinches had departed.  Above is a Redpoll, probably immature to judge by the absence of the black bib,  with a House Finch behind it. 

The flock of Redpolls was back and forth for about 30 min, intermittently taking off for no good reason that I could see, and finally left altogether. I didn't see any Hoary Redpolls.* Although Redpolls are the most common passerines in the northern tundra and boreal forest, there is little overlap with humans except during the winter. Over the past week I have seen numerous reports from all over New England of Redpolls turning up at the feeders. An irruption of Redpolls from northern Canada had been forecast in the fall:

Ron Pittaway's Winter Finch Forecast 2010-2011 published on :
 "Redpolls in winter are a birch seed specialist and movements are linked in part to the size of the birch crop. The white birch crop is poor across much of northern Canada. Another indicator of an upcoming irruption was a good redpoll breeding season in 2010 with double and possibly triple broods reported in Quebec. High breeding success also was reported in Yukon. Samuel Denault of McGill University has shown that redpoll movements at Tadoussac, Quebec, are more related to reproductive success than to tree seed crops in the boreal forest. Redpolls will be attracted to the good birch seed crops on native white birch and European white birch in southern Ontario and to weedy fields. They should be frequent this winter at feeders offering nyger and black oil sunflower seeds. Watch for the larger, darker and browner "Greater" Common Redpolls (rostrata subspecies) in the flocks. It is reliably identified by its larger size and proportionally longer thicker bill and longer tail in direct comparison with "Southern" Common Redpolls (nominate flammea subspecies)."

For the Great Backyard Bird Count currently taking place over four days I counted 7 species:
Hairy Woodpecker - 1
Black-capped Chickadee - 5
Tufted Titmouse - 2
Northern Cardinal - 1
House Finch - 4
Common Redpoll - 20
American Goldfinch - 12

Good Birding!

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* For a good discussion on the distinction between Common and Hoary Redpolls see David Sibley's  blog.


Sunday, February 13, 2011

Midwinter Waxwings and other birds

Another cold but bright day yesterday. I was walking around on the Putney School campus looking for the flock of Bohemian Waxwings that had been reported there earlier in the week. At one point I saw a flock of about 20 birds flying past and knew they were Bohemians, not just by their undulating flight but also by their contact sounds, a soft constant rippling trill. They briefly settled on a tall tree near me and then were gone again, not to be seen again. A student pointed me to an apple tree where they had been spotted before. I only found a lone Winter Robin picking away at a frozen apple.

In the same neighborhood near a feeder I spotted this little bright-eyed house sparrow all puffed up against the cold.

Eventually I gave up and drove home. I consoled myself with going over photos of Bohemians I had taken two years earlier during an irruptive year. Now having software with better noise removal, less intrusive sharpening and better color rendition, I set about to rework the originals. The results are posted below.

This was a large group of Bohemians, some basking in the warm winter sun, others foraging in the crab apple trees or on the ground underneath.

On another occasion, when the sun was not as bright and colors more muted,  I saw a smaller flock in a row of crab apple trees.

I don't give up easily. I went back on the campus today. Walking was more treacherous as many of the walkways were iced over despite having been sanded. I had to take a picture of the fantastic icicles hanging from the roof of a cabin. 

Still no Bohemians, but found a small flock of Cedar Waxwings foraging in an apple tree.

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Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Birds at Home in Ice and Snow

In my previous post I wrote about encountering Snow Buntings up close in what must be the best of all Snow Bunting winter worlds, i.e. being regularly fed cracked corn and sunflower seeds by kind humans. Much of the time their world however is very different. They have to find food in a universe where you'd think they couldn't possibly sustain themselves. Yet they do.

A flock of Snow Buntings and Horned Larks were feeding along a frozen tractor lane on a Vernon, VT farm.

Only in the winter do Snow Buntings travel in large flocks as they feed on wide-open fields far away from any protective cover. Being a member of a flock protects the individual birds from predators as it increases awareness and dilutes the risk. It also helps them find food more efficiently.

The birds allowed us up to come quite close but occasionally, out of the blue, the entire flock would rise, sweep up, circle and then return to almost the same spot. While flying they were giving off a constant soft chirping which helps the flock stay in close contact.

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Friday, February 4, 2011

Snow Buntings up close

I had given up on getting close-ups of Snow Buntings when I read about large numbers of Snow Buntings and Horned Larks congregating on the parking lot behind an Agway farm store in Walpole, NH within a short driving distance from where I lived. The birds were hungry. Because of the heavy snow fall the snow plows were no longer uncovering soil containing seeds along the roads and the seed heads of grasses had long been buried under the deep snow that had fallen over the past months.

When I arrived there yesterday around 9AM I saw a small mixed flock of Snow Buntings and Horned Larks near some shrubs by the side of the store, but not the kind of numbers I had expected. When I asked the employee working in the store he obliged me by grabbing a scoop, filling it with sun flower seeds and scattering them on the lot in back of the store. He also pointed to a big flock of birds in the distance resting on a large snow-covered field that I had missed driving in.

Soon enough the birds started coming in and, eagerly gorging themselves on the seeds, they allowed me to get close enough for some good shots.

When disturbed the birds would flutter up to the top of a tall snow wall at the edge of the parking lot, but quickly come back as soon as it was quiet again.

I had shot a couple of hundred photos. So unexpectedly suffering from an embarrassment of riches it was hard to decide which ones to keep and harder yet which ones to delete.

Here are my previous posts on Snow Buntings and Horned Larks:

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