In this winter of our Covid discontent, we have something exciting to look for at our feeders. According to the National Audubon website, this winter is “one of the biggest irruption years of boreal birds in recent memory.” As you have no doubt noticed, conifers have “mast” years when cones are plentiful, and other years when they produce very few cones. Conifers’ primary predators are squirrels, and it is thought that these irregular cycles of lean years keep the population of squirrels in control. When cone crops are meager in Canada, as they are this winter, many squirrels will not survive the winter. But birds that rely on conifer seeds for winter food can fly south in search of food.
Boreal (northern) birds that arrive here in irruption years are all seed eaters. Hard to miss if you are watching your feeders at the right time, are the Evening Grosbeaks. They are large, robust birds, eight inches from tip of beak to tail, about the size of a robin. Their bold colors of yellow and black or gray, with white wing patches, are striking and hard to miss. They have very large, strong beaks for cracking seeds. They tend to arrive in flocks, eat everything at a feeder, then move along to another location. These birds have been reported at some feeders in Westford. Another irruptive grosbeak that has been seen in Westford, Harvard and Boxborough is the Pine Grosbeak. Males are largely red, while females and juveniles have a tan head and gray body. All have two prominent white wing bars. Pine Grosbeaks are partial to spruce cones.
Another irruptive species takes some careful binocular use and a field guide to identify. These are the pine siskins. They are small, about the size of goldfinches, five inches long. They may arrive in flocks of goldfinches, or juncos and other sparrows. They have small, sharp-pointed beaks, and are brown-striped all over with flashes of yellow on their wings and tail. Their call is distinctive if you are lucky enough to hear it; a strongly ascending “zipp” ending with finch-like twitters. It sounds like someone zipping up a tent flap. These too, have been reported in Westford this winter.
A fourth irruptive species we may see is the Common Redpoll. This pretty bird is about the same size as the siskin, also with a sharp pointed bill. It is brown and black striped on its back and sides, but not on its breast. It has a black mask. It has a red patch on top of its head, and males have a pink breast. Its song is a high chip and trill.
An irruptive species that is quite different from the finches, is the red-breasted nuthatch. It is very similar to the more common white-breasted nuthatch, but is smaller and has a rusty red chest and belly. Its head is boldly black and white striped. Its call is more nasal and higher pitched than the white-breasted nuthatch, sounding like a repeated “toot”. We have seen the red-breasted nuthatch at our feeder this winter.
Whenever you are checking your feeders, take an extra look at all the little brown birds and the nuthatches. You may just find a rare irruptive species to put on your list. For more information about what rare winter birds are being seen in Middlesex County, go to Birdobserver.org.
Many thanks to all flora and fauna reporters for the month of January. Please send all reports by February 26, to appear in next month’s column.
Late December Reports:
Tim Spera, Concord Rd. December 23, “My wife Diane and I observed six eastern bluebirds on Coldspring Road….They were feeding on small fruit on some climbing vines, actually hovering and plucking the berries to avoid the thorns.”
Barbara Theriault, Tadmuck Lane. January 2, two or three gray squirrels chasing each other and scampering up and down trees every day, and visiting the bird feeder. At the feeder: mourning doves, woodpeckers, Carolina wrens, snowbirds [juncos-MH], chickadees, titmice and a pair of cardinals.
Marian/Bill Harman, Old Colony Drive. January has been very warm– in the 30’s most days, and very little snow. January 2, six blue jays, three juncos, one white-throated sparrow, three chickadees, four titmice, one white-breasted nuthatch, one cardinal, pair of downy woodpeckers, two goldfinches. January 12, raven flying overhead, red-bellied woodpecker, pileated woodpecker heard. January 16, three goldfinches, one junco, twelve mourning doves. January 19, two American tree sparrows. January 21, as I was walking back from the beaver dam on the trail, a few blue jays started calling their “Jay” call excitedly. I looked up to see if there was a hawk or an owl that they were upset about. Within a minute, some thirty or forty blue jays had gathered in the tops of the trees near the trail. I realized that they were looking down at me and it was me they were upset about. I was wearing a new gray hood which also came up over my lower face as a mask. I realized then that they didn’t recognize me. I took the mask down and looked up and spoke to them. They then seemed to recognize me, and all flew off together over the swamp. I was reminded that blue jays are very intelligent and observant birds!
Esther Donlon, Providence Rd. January 3, saw coyotes, grey fox and large buck on new trail camera [Esther sent nice clear photos-MH]
Diane Duane, Howard Rd. January 4, heard two great horned owls hooting at each other, 5 p.m. January 5, pileated woodpecker seen around noon. “What was surprising was to see it next to the road on a lovely white oak….Only got a few shots before he left. Such a treat to see as I have not see one around our house before.” [Diane sent some good photos-MH]
Diane Lauber, Tenney Road. January 11, “my husband Jim Doherty caught great footage of a bobcat on his phone from our living room….He put it up on youtube…. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YhElwlEMrOk.”
Tom Ennis, Almeria Drive. January 19, trail camera caught a lovely buck and two videos of a bobcat along our stone wall. January 20, “I think I’m becoming a cat person!” Tom sent photos and videos from his trail camera of three bobcats in the woods and walking along his stone wall. One or two of the bobcats appeared to be juveniles [Very cute–MH]
Marilyn Day, Graniteville Rd. January 23, “I’ve got a flock of something working the spruce tree out front….Tan head shaping into a gray body, two white wing bars. Any other report of Pine Grosbeaks in the area?” [This is a good description of female and juvenile Pine Grosbeak plumage. It would be exciting for us to have this rare irruptive species here!–MH]
Don Galya, Mark Vincent Drive. January 25, six bluebirds arrived.
Marian Harman is a member of the Westford Conservation Trust, a non-profit conservation organization whose purpose is the preservation of Westford’s open spaces and trails. The Trust welcomes new members and volunteers. Check out our website at westfordconservationtrust.org and visit us on Facebook.