WATCHING FOR WINTER BIRDS
The leaves have fallen from the maple and oak trees in our yard and from the walnut tree out by the barn. Acorns and walnuts have fallen and are scattered among the fallen leaves. When I look out my study window I look across a road, then a field where the grass is yellow, then at a woods, the trees as leafless as the maples and oaks in our yard.
Robins are gone from the trees of our yard and from the yard. No longer do they hop across the grass searching for worms. They’ve migrated as they do every fall, flown south, driven by instinct stimulated by the shorter days. Song sparrows and Baltimore orioles and rose-breasted grosbeaks, red-winged blackbirds and grackles, yellow warblers and common yellowthroats and warbling vireos and many other birds have all gone south.
Not all robins have gone south, nor all red-winged blackbirds. Occasionally I see a robin or a small flock of robins when I’m out and about, usually in a woods, and three male redwings are coming to my bird feeder daily. Last winter a song sparrow came to my feeder all winter.
We think of spring and fall as the times of bird migration. But spring migration often begins when lakes are still ice covered and there is snow on the ground. We watch eagerly for the first robin in spring and often see and hear one in February when the weather is still wintry, and it’s not one of those robins that didn’t go south, one that we’ve been seeing all winter.
The southward migration began last summer with some of the shorebirds that nested farther north going south as soon as they’d raised their broods. The shorebird migration is still going on. A birder called recently and said he had just seen a piping plover in northern Indiana, another birder reported seeing a solitary sandpiper. I’ve had reports recently of dowitchers and white-rumped sandpipers. I’ve seen killdeers recently but killdeers are late fall migrants, and early birds in spring.
Late fall migrants are interesting but I’m eager for winter birds, birds that nest farther north and actually spend the winter in northern Indiana. I’m not eager for winter but every day I look hopefully at the birds coming to my feeders hoping to see those winter birds, dark-eyed juncos and pine siskins, a red-breasted nuthatch. One winter day, many years ago, I was putting seed in a feeder and a red-breasted nuthatch landed on my shoulder.
When I’m driving or riding in the country I watch for a snowy owl or a short-eared owl or even a flock of short-eared owls. I’m always pleased to see one of those feathered visitors from the far north, the tundra. Last winter was a banner year for snowy owls for us in the United States. They were seen in many states. I even read of one in Florida. Will this winter be another winter for snowies?
I’ve seen flocks of short-eared owls in winter but not in many years. A few years ago, however, I saw a flock of long-eared owls. A friend called and told me about them. They were roosting in pine trees in his yard, he said. Frankly, I doubted it. I thought he was mistaking short-eared owls for long-eared. But he was not.
I watch for small birds when driving or riding in the country too, flocks of them, birds the size and shape of horned larks. Lapland longspurs and snow buntings are winter birds of the open. A northern shrike would also be in the open, perched on a fence wire or post.
Let the leaves blow, let the temperature fall but let birds of the north make the snow and ice more bearable.
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