Tuesday, January 17, 2023

VERMONT'S BEAUTIFUL WINTER BIRDS - Part Two: Away from Your Feeders

Part One of Vermont's Beautiful Winter Birds was all about the winter beauties we Vermonters might see at our backyard bird feeders. But many other birds hang out in the state's agricultural fields and on our lakes and rivers.

Snow Bunting

Let's start with little birds. Snow Buntings, Horned Larks and the much less-common Lapland Longspurs frequent agricultural areas and the sides of dirt roads. 

Horned Lark - photo by Ken Copenhaver


Lapland Longspur - photo by Julie Filiberti

A folk name for Snow Buntings used to be "Snow Flakes" - and they can really look like a blizzard, swirling over a snowy field. Once they land, they seem to disappear entirely.

But sometimes these little birds are easy to see! Bernie and I once saw 250 or more Snow Buntings, along with a few each of the other two species, basking in a relatively warm mini-climate caused by sun on a pile of black tires. 

And now to much larger birds!

Red-tailed Hawks are often seen soaring high in the sky at mid-day, when the sun has warmed up the ground and there are nice thermals aloft. They’re also often seen on power poles and trees along major highways

Red-tailed Hawk attacking Great Horned Owl - photo by Sarah Rosedahl


Northern Harriers are rarely seen perched. They’re either floating over fields and marshes and grasslands, looking for prey – or they’re hunkered down on something they’ve just caught. This rich brown bird is a female. Males are much smaller and are colored gray, white and black. 

Northern Harrier - photo by Marc Beerman


Rough-legged Hawks are here in the northeast from November through March only. By late March or so, these handsome hawks have departed for their breeding grounds in the Arctic. In the winter, they’re most often seen in the Champlain Valley, hunting the fields in Addison County. 



Rough-legged Hawk - photo by Josh Lincoln


Vermont's three falcons can also be seen during the winter: American Kestrels; Merlins, which are a bit bigger and considerably darker: and Peregrine Falcons. A good place to look for Peregrine Falcons is atop barns or silos, where they might be on the lookout for pigeons or starlings.


American Kestrel - photo by Peter Swaine

Adult Bald Eagles are unmistakable, with their bright white heads and tails. Immatures are just as big, but they’re dark brown and streaky. Bald Eagles of any age often fly with almost perfectly flat wings. These huge birds sometimes congregate near ice fisherman, waiting for some bait to be tossed their way. 

Bald Eagles

In the winter, Vermont's lakes are often crowded with diving ducks, dabbling ducks, loons and grebes. 

Mallard drake

Dabblers are ducks that tip up to get food that's not far below the surface of the water. Mallards are the most common dabbling duck, often joined by a few American Black Ducks. 

female Mallard

Male and female Black Ducks look somewhat like female Mallards, but Mallards have much yellower bills.

American Black Duck

Lake Champlain has very large flocks - called "rafts" - of diving ducks from November through March. The most common are scaup - an odd word that derives from an old Scottish term for "mussel bed" because mussels and oysters are the favorite food of these ducks. Greater and Lesser Scaup look very similar. Birders need a lot of experience, and a lot of time with a good field guide, to be confident about identification.

Scaup - photo by John Sutton


Common Goldeneyes, on the other hand, are easy to ID. Males have rich black-and-white patterning on their sides, with heads that can appear black or glossy green. Females have brown heads with mottled gray wings and backs. Both sexes have the diagnostic golden eyes that gave the species its name.

Common Goldeneye female



Common Goldeneye male


Buffleheads are North America’s smallest diving duck. The size and shape of the white patch on the drake’s head changes depending on how excited or agitated or defiant or aggressive - or amorous - he’s feeling. Females are overall dark with much smaller white patches just below the eye.


Bufflehead - photo by Joe DeMarte

Mergansers used to be called “saw-bills” because they have serrated bills. They eat mostly fish - and fish are slippery. Two kinds of mergansers are often seen during Vermont winters: Common Mergansers and  the smaller Hooded Mergansers. The females of both species are mostly brown and gray, with messy brown hair-dos.



Common Merganser female


Common Merganser male

Hooded Mergansers - males and female


Winter-time bird-lovers might also see geese, both Canada Geese and Snow Geese. Canada Geese used to all head south in late autumn, but more and more are choosing to overwinter in the north country.



Snow Geese often don’t return north until March, but there might be a few around now.



Common Loons can also be seen in many Vermont bodies of water during the winter. I think everyone recognizes loons in summer plumage, resplendent in deep black and crisp white. But loons change their plumage in the winter, and their gray colors blend extremely well with the icy waters. 

Common Loon in winter plumage


And whenever you’re near the water, you’re almost sure to see some gulls! The most common winter gulls here in Vermont are Ring-billed Gulls – with yellow legs and, of course, with that neat ring on the bill.


Herring Gulls are the second most common. These much bigger gulls have pink legs and a dot of red on the bill. 



Gulls present unique identification challenges because they go through several different plumages as they age. So any group might have mostly white birds side by side with birds that are mottled tan and white.

And we can see big black birds during Vermont winters!

Common Raven

Sometimes it’s hard to be sure if you’re seeing a raven or a crow. Or, if it's a crow, whether it's an American Crow or a Fish Crow. If the bird makes a noise, there’s no question! American Crows really do say “caw caw”. Fish Crows are much less common, and they make a staccato “eh eh” as if they’re disagreeing with something. 

American Crow
Ravens have a wide variety of noises from deep noises that can be heard for more than a mile, to gurgling croaks, to harsh grating noises, to loud knocks, even to a sound like a typewriter spacebar – if anyone remembers that noise! If the bird isn’t making any noise, look for a raven’s long slightly pointed wings, a fairly long wedge-shaped tail, and – if you’re close enough – a shaggy-looking throat. 

We hope everyone enjoys the winter birds of backyards, towns, cities and neighborhoods - and the winter birds of fields, woods and water! 

text by Maeve, most of the photos by Bernie, others by generous members of the birding community


Sunday, January 8, 2023

VERMONT'S BEAUTIFUL WINTER BIRDS - Part One: At Your Feeder

Winter in Vermont can be dark, cold and even dreary. And lots of the birds we enjoyed spring, summer and fall have deserted us! Right now, they are basking in warm sunshine and gentle breezes in southern U.S. or South America or the Caribbean. But lots of birds don't leave the north country. 

Everybody knows Black-capped Chickadees! They’re incredibly cute birds, and they’re regulars at backyard feeders. 

Black-capped Chickadee with unsalted peanut

Chickadees need lots of nutritious food to keep them going through the long cold winter - so they take hundreds and hundreds of seeds and nuts and store them under bits of bark or in tree cavities. Amazingly, these little birds remember every single one of their many hiding places!

Both White-breasted and Red-breasted Nuthatches - the "upside down birds" - also happily come to get seeds or peanuts. 



White-breasted Nuthatch at peanut feeder

The red-breasted ones are smaller – petite, delicate little creatures.

Red-breasted Nuthatch enjoying peanut butter smeared on a log

This Tufted Titmouse visits our feeders regularly. You can recognize titmice by the gray backs, unusually big eyes, and the little crest, or tuft, of feathers on their heads.  

Blue Jays love seeds and nuts too – to eat today and to store for later.  We’ve watched a Blue Jay pick up as many as ten unshelled peanuts at one time.


Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers look almost identical, but Downies are smaller and their bills are noticeably smaller in comparison to their heads. The males of both species have a bit of red on their heads.

Pileated Woodpeckers are the biggest! From one wingtip to the other is almost thirty inches. Ants are the most favorite food of Pileated Woodpeckers. They find ants in rotting wood, so we often see big deep trenches in trees where the huge woodpeckers have been feasting.  

Vermont has many birds that don’t store food. These birds have to eat pretty much all day long, every single day, during our cold winters. 

 

This little American Tree Sparrow eats about a third of its weight in seeds every single day. That’s like an adult human chowing down on over 50 pounds of food in one day!  Tree Sparrows nest and raise young on the far northern Canadian tundra. They come down here to Vermont for winter the way some Vermont humans head south to Florida – Ahhhh! So nice and warm here!

We can see other kinds of sparrows in Vermont. White-throated Sparrows are well-named. 



Their white throats are always noticeable! There are two kinds: one with black and white stripes on the top of their heads – like this one - and one with brown and tan stripes – and you might see both at your feeders. 

Dark-eyed Juncos are really pleasing little birds, with their neat dark gray, crisp white, and little pink bills. Juncos are more often seen on the ground under feeders than on the feeders themselves.












Female juncos are more brown than gray.

Juncos as a species show an incredible amount of variation: black, brown, dark gray, lighter grays and browns, even splotchy or mottled. But if you see a junco in flight, you can identify it by the white outer tail feathers.


Northern Cardinals glow in the winter, without all that distracting summertime foliage – like this female …

and this male.


The soft colors of Mourning Doves look beautiful against a snow-covered landscape. Doves don’t store food like chickadees or nuthatches, so they have to eat large amounts of seeds every single day all winter long. 

We humans can help by leaving dead flower heads standing, instead of cutting them down, because those flower heads are full of tiny, healthy seeds.

American Goldfinches also chow down on flower seeds and grass seeds. In the summer, males are brilliant yellow, black and white. But by the time the first snow falls, both male and female goldfinches have much quieter colors. 

House Finch males are streaky birds with some areas of red-orange. The females don’t have the brighter color. 

Purple Finch males look like “sparrows dipped in raspberry juice”. 


Females are similar to House Finch females except that they’re darker and have heavy whitish eyebrows. 


Every few years, Vermont feeders might get visited by Pine Siskins. Siskins look sort of like streaky goldfinches with sharp, pointed bills and short notched tails. They have a little bit of yellow edging on their wings and tail. 




In addition to all those beautiful winter birds, a few other kinds sometimes come down from Canada to join us during the winter.

This year is a great year for Evening Grosbeaks


These are big, chunky birds with thick necks and thick, powerful, conical bills. The males are yellow, white and black, with pale bills and distinctive yellow eyebrow stripes. Females are gray and black and pale gold.





Every two or three years, backyard feeders in Vermont can be overrun with hundreds of Common Redpolls

These chubby little cuties can survive temperatures down to 65 degrees below zero (Fahrenheit). 

During winter, they sometimes tunnel into the snow to stay warm at night. One early morning a few winters ago, I noticed the foot-deep snow on the barn roof was heaving and shaking. As I watched, eighteen little redpolls emerged, shook off the snow, and flew down to the feeders.

Both sexes have the little red spot on the top of their heads that gave them their name. Males also have pink “bibs” – like this. 

I found this little bird lying upside down on the frozen ground one morning, apparently dead. I brought him inside, put him in a box, and left him alone for an hour or so – and then heard fluttering inside the box. I took the box outside, held the little bird on my palm, and was delighted to see him make an energetic jump and fly off across the yard. My guess is that the redpoll had either flown against the house or been hit by a predator such as a hawk, had fallen to the ground, stunned, and had almost frozen to death. It just needed time in a warm place to recover.

Vermonters should also be on the lookout for Waxwings in winter. These beautiful and gregarious birds chow down on sumac berries, mountain ash, wild grapes and ornamental fruit trees. 

Cedar Waxwing

The two species look superficially alike, but Bohemian Waxwings are heftier – sort of like Cedar Waxwings on steroids. One excellent field mark for Bohemian Waxwings is the brick red color under the tail.

Bohemian Waxwing



And some years, Vermonters get to see good-sized flocks of Pine Grosbeaks. They are usually found where there are ornamental crab apple trees. By late winter, the small fruits are withered and soft – and apparently delicious to Pine Grosbeaks, like this handsome male! 


A feeding flock often stays near a single tree or a group of trees until all of the fruit is consumed and the trees are completely bare.

Many of the Pine Grosbeaks that visit Vermont in the winter aren’t that gorgeous pink. They’re either females - or immature males, like this one, birds that fledged the summer before. 



Backyard bird feeders sometimes attract big birds that eat small birds. The most common is the Sharp-shinned Hawk, like the intent and focused bird in this amazing photo from right here in Jericho. 

Sharp-shinned Hawk photo by Mandy Applin

Birds like this have to work hard for their meals. The smaller birds are always alert, and they let each other know when there's a predator in the area. 

Sharp-shinned Hawk at our feeder

Cooper’s Hawks look very similar to the Sharp-shinned Hawk. Both species used to be birds of the deep forest but they have discovered that backyard feeders are like smorgasbords for raptors – and they’re now seen small towns, suburbs and even cities. This big female caught three Mourning Doves at our feeders on three consecutive mornings.

Cooper's Hawk

(Northern Goshawks are the third member of that same family. They’re bigger and grayer than Cooper’s – and much rarer, but they do sometimes haunt backyards.) 

And, finally, our feeders sometimes attract another kind of big bird – one that excites and delights almost everyone!

Imagine that you’re a Barred Owl. You live by catching mice or voles or moles, or maybe a red squirrel from time to time. In winter, all these little creatures are running around in tunnels under the snow. But you have unbelievably good hearing, so good that you can hear where a mouse is, even under many inches of snow.

Barred Owl

BUT – Now imagine that the snow is covered with a layer of ice. You hear the mouse with your awesome owl hearing, you drop down with your sharp talons extended, but you can’t break through the ice quickly enough. And the mouse escapes. In winters where there’s a very deep snow cover or when there’s a layer of ice, owls can starve to death.


Barred Owls have figured out that small rodents, like mice, sometimes dig themselves out of their tunnels so they can pick up dropped seeds around backyard feeders. So the owls show up too, waiting in nearby trees.  


Near-starvation must have driven this beautiful Barred Owl to catch a rabbit, which is very big prey for a bird that usually swallows its meals whole. 





There are LOTS of feeder birds during Vermont winters! Stay tuned for the next post: all about Vermont's beautiful winter birds that are almost always found away from backyard feeders.

text by Maeve, most of the photos by Bernie