Birds of Winter
December, 18, 2008
My grandparents’ home in Wareham , Mass., has two picture windows overlooking Buzzard’s Bay, and another in the kitchen facing the driveway. As a child, the kitchen window had the greater allure, not only for the condensation that would build up on the glass in cold weather that allowed our wet little fingers to trace fabulous patterns, but also because of the birds.
There was an old wooden basketball pole outside — lacking its backstop and anchored to one end of a massive clothesline — and it was positively festooned with bird feeders. I learned to identify birds at the breakfast table by gazing out the window, and then checking whatever was at the feeder against the two framed posters from Peterson’s bird guide hanging on the wall.
The winter birds came in layers. The ground belonged to juncos, mourning doves and the cardinal grosbeaks: the latter recent arrivals in our latitudes after a steady progression northward during my mother’s girlhood. The suet feeder was the domain of titmice, red- and white-breasted nuthatches and the downy and hairy woodpeckers. The sunflower feeders supported chickadees, blue jays, house and purple finches, house and chipping sparrows, with goldfinches drawn to the thistle seed. These same birds frequent the feeders outside my window in Connecticut, with the addition of red-bellied woodpeckers that have expanded their range northward since I was a child.
My grandparents kept their birdseed in aluminum trashcans that always seemed to have a mouse or two inside, despite all efforts at strapping down the lids. Gray squirrels were unwelcome at Gran’s feeder, and she used to set Have-a-Heart traps for them and then drive them 5 miles away over the Cape Cod Canal, on the theory that she had never seen any coming back over the bridge. It did not diminish the local squirrel population to any noticeable degree, and I am told that coyotes gained access to the cape over those same canal bridges.
Living in upstate New York , our winter birds at home sometimes included evening grosbeaks, especially one memorable Christmas when a flock of them descended on a sub-zero morning. I can remember in the mid-1980s my delight at seeing my first flock of wild turkeys, then considered a rare sight, having been reintroduced to the region in just the previous decade.
I love winter birding for the southern eruptions of boreal species that sometimes come in range. I have marveled at snowy owls in the marsh grass of Newburyport, and a dovekie blown in from the sea at Provincetown. When a hard nor’easter sets in, there is no more dramatic sight than tens of thousands of pelagic seabirds wheeling in the lee of First Encounter Beach on the Outer Cape — where 200 birds of the same species can pass the viewer every minute over half an hour’s time.
The one winter bird that lingers in my mind’s eye is one I never saw but whose impact I keenly felt. I was walking out on a snowy day, following rabbit tracks in the snow. I came to a place where the snow was churned and the tracks ceased. There was a bright spot of blood and two great wing prints on either side where the night hunting owl had landed from above. It was the most ordinary of things to an animal that still has command of all its senses, but only translated before my blinkered eyes by the Rosetta Stone of snow.
Tim Abbott is program director of Housatonic Valley Association’s Litchfield Hills Greenprint. His blog is at greensleeves.typepad.com. He and Fred Baumgarten write Nature’s Notebook on alternating weeks.
© Copyright 2008 by TCExtra.com
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