Speaking of Nature: A well-stocked feeder attracts wanderers

  • This juvenile red-winged blackbird sits like a mother hen in an attempt to keep his legs warm. PHOTO BY BILL DANIELSON

  • The youngster took issue with his older friend who got a little too close and started poaching his seeds. PHOTO BY BILL DANIELSON

For The Recorder
Published: 1/16/2022 3:48:46 PM
Modified: 1/16/2022 3:47:43 PM

One of my favorite presents I received this past Christmas is a weather station that my mother and father gave to me. This now allows me to record not only the minimum and maximum temperatures for any given day, but also information on barometric pressure, rainfall and wind speed. One might think that this is all superfluous information, but it feeds the need for data that I apparently have. It all represents just a little more information that might allow me to make connections that I haven’t been able to make up until now.

Armed with this new suite of instrumentation I can now say (with a tad more authority than before) that Tuesday, Jan. 11, was the coldest day of the winter to date. My thermometer read –1 degree Fahrenheit as the low temperature and at some point during the night there was a wind gust of 23 mph, which resulted in a wind-chill value of –24 degrees. With values like that it came as no surprise that there was no school that day.

This gave me an unexpected chance to sit by the kitchen window and monitor the bird activity at my feeders to see how the birds responded to these extreme conditions. As one might expect the numbers of birds were way up. The various sparrows and finches that had previously been seen in twos and threes were now present in numbers approaching 10. Even more important was the constancy of there presence. Again and again I went out to offer more seed and again and again the food disappeared as so many hungry mouths sought to keep their energy levels up.

Especially during the winter, odd weather events can often bring odd visitors to the yard. I clearly remember that one morning when a northern shrike appeared in the lilac bush growing next to my deck. I also recall visits by northern harriers, adult sharp-shinned hawks and even a juvenile evening grosbeak, all of which appeared on cold, clear days in the winter. As a result, I was hopeful that someone interesting might appear on this particular cold, clear day. As it happens, I was not disappointed.

Due to the position of my feeders the best conditions for photography on sunny days occur in the afternoon. So, despite spending hours watching birds in the morning, I didn’t start taking photos until about 1 p.m. All of the regulars were in attendance, but I was especially excited to record the presence of the red-breasted nuthatches that have clearly decided to hang out with me this winter. My dreams of seeing baby nuthatches in the springtime are a little closer to coming true!

But the big surprise came at 2:14 p.m. when a pair of red-winged blackbirds arrived to take advantage of some free food. I thought this particularly strange because red-winged blackbirds tend to be gregarious birds that are found in large numbers during the winter. To see only two of these birds together gave me the impression that they were “lost” and sort of roaming the countryside in an effort to find others of their kind. Who knows if this is truly the case, but it is certainly the earliest arrival date that I currently have on record for the species and my records go back to 2009.

Both of the birds were male, but one was clearly approaching full adulthood while the other was probably seeing his first winter. Both birds were clearly cold, but the younger of the two made more of a production of it and it wasn’t until an hour and almost 700 photos later that I secured the photo that really put this birds attitude on full display. After landing on the deck the bird plunked down and sat in the sun with wings slightly drooped and feathers fluffed out. It gave this bird the appearance of a mother hen sitting on her eggs, but in fact it was a bird that was trying to keep his legs warm. He sat there and refused to move as he reached out for seeds that were all around him.

It wasn’t until the other blackbird wandered a bit too close that the youngster made any effort to move at all. He seemed to be irritated that his friend had come over to visit and was now starting to eat seeds that were within the little spot that he had claimed for himself; ruining his chances of eating and staying warm at the same time. So, the younger bird stood up, directed a sharp peck at his friend and then sat down to eat in peace for just a little while longer.

The coldest temperature that I have ever recorded at my house was –17 degrees Fahrenheit in February 2015. In the past 10 years we have only seen temperatures below –10 degrees four times so who can say what the future has in store for us. We are entering the coldest part of the year and the animals that visit our feeders for food are going to be very interested in anything we have to offer. So keep your feeders full and your eyes peeled. Well-stocked feeders attract a lot of attention and that can draw in all sorts of birds that you might not see otherwise. Be vigilant, be observant and you may be rewarded.

Bill Danielson has been a professional writer and nature photographer for 24 years. He has worked for the National Park Service, the US Forest Service, the Nature Conservancy and the Massachusetts State Parks and he currently teaches high school biology and physics. For more in formation visit his website at www.speakingofnature.com, or head over to Speaking of Nature on Facebook.


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