Tag Archives: bird feeders

Why There are so Many Warblers at Feeders in Maine Right Now (5/3/19).

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On another damp and dreary morning at Florida Lake Park in Freeport on Thursday, I encountered 25-30 Yellow-rumped Warblers and 15 or so Palm Warblers. That was my best total of the season there so far, but in the last week of April through first week of May, I often see tallies of each into the triple digits.

On Friday it was drier, but still cool and raw at Morgan Meadow WMA. I finally hit 5 species of warblers on a morning with my first-of-year (finally) Black-and-white Warbler.  About 20-25 Yellow-rumped and about 15 Palm Warblers were present. For perspective, on 5/3 last year, I hit 10 species of warblers at Florida Lake.

These are two of my favorite mid-spring migration patches, and in most years, I am at Florida Lake Park nearly every day. But this “spring”, it has been lackluster at best; worthless at worst. There just aren’t many birds around.

But it is definitely the spring for warblers at feeders!  After our Facebook post on Wednesday garnered lots of attention and feedback, I thought I would expand a little, as clearly this is a very unusual – perhaps even unprecedented – event.

While Pine Warblers are regular at feeders, especially in early spring – and quite a few of us see some Yellow-rumped Warblers at feeders every year – we cannot recall a spring in which so many people are reporting so many of each at feeders throughout southern Maine.  In fact, many folks are reporting Yellow-rumped Warblers at their feeders for the “first time ever.”  Even more unusual, we’ve had reports of Palm Warblers at feeders, too – something that is almost never seen.
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Pine Warbler is our only regular, wide-spread “feeder warbler” in most seasons

At home in Pownal, we’re up to 20 Yellow-rumped (and our usual pair of Pines), with as many as 8 Yellow-rumps frequenting the feeders at the store this week. We see them annually on our feeders at home, especially on damp and cold mornings, but this year the flock has been slowly but steadily building and has been consistently present for almost 3 weeks. In both locales, a diversity of food is being consumed by this normally-insectivorous (at least in spring and summer) species. In rough order of popularity, they are eating: live mealworms, dried mealworms, insect suet, Nutsie and Mr. Bird nut blocks (especially the Bugs, Nuts,&Fruit block), peanut splits, Birdberry jelly, and even some seed. While a little hulled sunflower isn’t surprising, at home, we even have them gobbling up white proso millet from our tray feeder!
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In fact, until Thursday, I’ve had more Yellow-rumps at our feeders than on any morning at Florida Lake Park! And this is instructive.

Midges are not yet emerging from the pond there, and even through some Red Maples are finally blooming, insect activity has been minimal or even non-existent at this important early-flowering tree. The phenology (to put it simply, the timing of things in nature over the course of the year) is off –way off – this spring. Food resources are not keeping up with the calendar.
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The jet stream is stuck to our south, resulting in unseasonable cool and very unsettled weather, with a steady progression of storm systems and disturbances crossing our area. This pattern is impeding the progress of our spring, and of migrants arriving from the south (I have yet to even see a Black-and-white Warbler this year, for example!). But the cool and wet weather is resulting in natural food sources being well behind schedule, so the birds that are here – on time in many cases – are searching for alternative food sources. And therefore: warblers at feeders.
Jet stream, 4-30-19

This diagram of the jet stream from 4/30 shows the tight gradient and zonal flow that has been dominating our weather pattern and is preventing the arrival of warm temperatures and “spring.”

Or, as better explained by the National Weather Service office in Gray:

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Meanwhile, cherries, apples, crabapples, Serviceberry, and other important early-season flowering trees aren’t even close to blooming. Nectar, pollen, and even the petals and new buds are consumed, but more importantly for most of our migrants, those flowers attract insects that are then eaten by birds. The forecast is for some better conditions for migration in the coming days, and that will start to deliver us newly returning migrants, but those birds will also have fewer food sources than normal.

In seasons like this, the supplemental food from well-stocked feeding stations becomes more important than usual. Ruby-throated Hummingbirds are already being reported; what would those birds do without a nectar feeder (no red dye!!!!) right now? And of course, who knows what kind of condition all of these hungry Yellow-rumped Warblers would be in right now without feeders.
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Soon, other migrants such as orioles, tanagers, catbirds, and a wide array of warblers (or Neotropical migrants) will be arriving, and they need food after their long journeys. Especially until spring catches up (those long-distance migrants have no idea how delayed our season is up here), feeders will continue to be important for migrants – and unexpectedly productive birding hotspots.
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There are a lot of hungry birds out there right now, and without a doubt, many of us will get to enjoy species we don’t usually get to see, or at least no so closely. So put your jacket on, come by the store for some high-quality foodstuffs (our insect suet is flying off the shelves right now!) and keep that feeding station well-stocked.  Our migrants thank you.
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Are There “No Birds Out There?” – A Day on a Christmas Bird Count as a Case Study.


It was a record year for Evening Grosbeaks in our CBC territory.

On Sunday, December 30th, Erin Walter joined me for the Freeport-Brunswick Christmas Bird Count (CBC). My annual territory covers most of Freeport west of I-295, with a small bite of Yarmouth, a sliver of Pownal, and a corner of Durham. It’s suburban and ex-urban, almost exclusively residential, and public open space is limited to Hedgehog Mountain Park and adjacent playing fields, Florida Lake Park, and Hidden Pond Preserve.

Like all of the CBCs I do, we walk…a lot. And this year was no exception. While the rest of the team abandoned me (the car was full just the day before!), Erin stuck with the deathmarch to its chilly end, and Jeannette (and Bonxie) covered the Hedgehog Mountain Park area in the early morning for us. With just a team of two for the day, Erin and I spent most of our time split up, dividing the length of roads we cover by walking mile stretches and leap-frogging each other with a car. Using that strategy, we cover a majority of the sector’s roads, and we cover it thoroughly: woodlots, fields, feeders, yards, etc, are all checked.

In the end, we walked up to 12 miles each, with a total of 17.5 miles covered by the two of us, and another 2 covered by Jeannette.  About 18 miles were covered by car. In other words, we spent most of the day outside, working each and every mixed-species foraging flock we encountered.

I have covered this sector for 13 of the past 14 years, and each year I have done it the same way. It’s nothing if not thorough as less than 8 hours of useable daylight can offer. Therefore, the 13 years of data provide an interesting little dataset, one that can be compared and dissected. That’s why I like to do this relatively unproductive (by coastal Maine standards) territory. And, this is why I am writing this blog today: because I think the consistency and standardization provides a way to contrast seasons more than just anecdotally.

With a cold – but not brutally so, it was -16F when we started last year! – and calm day, weather wouldn’t be a factor in limiting detections, so our count should be a little snapshot of “what’s going on out there.”  It’s a good way for me to collect data for my preconceived notions, or find out that I need to refute them. So what IS going on out there?

Total species were just below average for us, while total individuals were a little above average. Let’s try and break it down a bit.

After a very cold start to the winter, it’s been mostly above normal, and we’re down to just a patchy layer of icy snow. Some running fresh water is open, but most small ponds are still frozen. But our section has limited water, so waterbird numbers are uninspiring no matter what. The Cousin’s River Marsh west of the interstate was mostly frozen, and the little stretch of open water in the river was completely devoid of ducks. It’s a Sunday, so the Brunswick Landfill is closed, so we didn’t have the evening commute of gulls returning to roost on the bay to tally.

However, I know for a fact we cover the landbirds as exhaustively as anyone, and this is where the data gets interesting. Oak, beech, and White Pine nuts and seeds are virtually non-existent this year, as we all have been noticing. There’s not much spruce cone in our area either and very little Eastern Hemlock. Paper Birch and especially Yellow Birch, however, are in decent shape, as is Speckled Alder.  Ash seeds are in good supply.

With so little natural food resources overall, it was an extraordinary fall for bird feeding, augmented by the early cold and snow. Since then, however, it has felt like birds have “disappeared,” and many folks coming into the store are reporting slow feeding stations. Are there birds out there and just not coming to feeders? Or did everything move on? Or, is our perception simply wrong?  Erin and I wanted to find out.

As always, the answer differed between species. We had a record low for Blue Jays, more than 1/3 of average. Clearly, with the lack of acorns to cache, most of our Blue Jays simply moved on – those caches of Black Oil Sunflower seeds and peanuts they hoarded in the fall can only go so far. And we set a new record low for Rock Pigeons (0!) as they were all apparently at our store’s feeders outside our territory all day. And on some days of birding, you just don’t see a lot of raptors.

Woodpeckers were interesting. We were above average in Red-bellied (continuing their increasing trend in Maine) and Downy, but Hairys had their second highest tally – almost double average. They were also drumming more widely than usual for the end of the year; did that simply increase detection or are there more around this year, perhaps following a very good breeding season?

33 European Starlings was a new record high count for the territory. American Crows, Brown Creepers, Eastern Bluebirds, Northern Cardinals, and House Finches were all above average. The measly 5 American Tree Sparrows were a new record low, however, perhaps due to that early snowfall. Then again, Dark-eyed Juncos were well above average, so who knows?

Considering birch and alder are the only good tree seed crops around, we were not surprised to find an above-average number of American Goldfinches. Common Redpolls aren’t here yet, and the good numbers of Purple Finches and Pine Siskins from the fall have clearly moved on. However, the best winter for Evening Grosbeaks in at least 20 years continues – we had a new record high for the territory, with 2 in a yard on Hunter Road and 1 loner on Merrill Road in Freeport, and an impressive group of 26 on Webster Road, which Erin was able to extensively photograph.

But of most interest to me are the core members (joined by the woodpeckers and to a lesser extent some of the finches) of the mixed-species foraging flocks that travel our woods and pass through our yards. The “feeder birds and allies” if you will. The insect-eating Brown Creepers were above average, but Golden-crowned Kinglets were extremely low. I don’t have an explanation here, so I’ll concentrate on the seed-eating members of the flock.

We were interested to find that Black-capped Chickadees were just about average; they seemed low of late, making me wonder if they too moved further south this winter. Yet surprisingly, we had a new record high count for Tufted Titmice, more than doubling our 13-year average. Good breeding season, or do these resident birds not clear out when food resources are slim?  Both nuthatches were above average, but I was really surprised to find Red-breasted Nuthatches so common. I thought they too had continued on, but there was 1-2 with almost every flock we encountered.

But where we saw these birds was definitely telling. In an hour at Hedghog Mountain, Jeannette has all of 3 Black-capped Chickadees, 2 White-breasted Nuthatches, and 1 Red-breasted Nuthatch. Erin and I had absolutely nothing at Florida Lake Park.  Other stretches of mostly wooded habitat was very quiet. But in neighborhoods with well-stocked bird feeders? Lots of birds!  Although we didn’t necessarily see as many birds at feeders themselves as in and around yards that have them, I t’s clear that the supplemental food resources offered by people increases the number of birds in the area in winter. And on a relatively mild and benign day, they were mostly out feeding elsewhere – but we know where they’ll go as the pressure starts to drop this afternoon with the approaching storm.  And in contrast, while we had some goldfinches at feeders, we had most of them in birches and alders, even weedy areas –all natural food which is readily available at the moment, as opposed to many of the other tree crops.

So what does this all mean? Well, good question! And I don’t really know!  But clearly it’s not quite as “slow” out there as many bird watchers are reporting. While Evening Grosbeaks were rightly the star of the show today, I learned a lot about the current status of our “feeder birds.”  More questions and answers, as always, but I enjoyed the exercise of analyzing and postulating (i.e. pretending I am still a scientist). This small section of the state, on only one day, covered by only 2 people, can only tell us so much, but after 13 years of doing this essentially the same way, the numbers are easy to compare and contrast. And perhaps, after a handful of more years, we might even have a little fun with some trend analysis.

Until then, here’s our annotated checklist for the day (and yes, the taxonomy of my spreadsheet is woefully outdated). Averages are in parentheses.

Begin: 7:17am. 19F, mostly cloudy, very light NW.
End: 3:55pm. 23F (high of 25F), clear, calm.

Miles by foot: 17.5 + 2
Miles by car: 18.0

Total species (31.6): 29
Total individuals (903.5): 1017

Red-tailed Hawk (1.3): 1
Wild Turkey (11.2): 5
Herring Gull (24): 1 *record low
Rock Pigeon (25): 0 *record low.
Mourning Dove (50): 40
Red-bellied Woodpecker (.75): 3
Downy Woodpecker (17): 19
Hairy Woodpecker (12): 23 *2nd highest
Pileated Woodpecker (1.9): 1
Blue Jay (76.1): 21 *record low
American Crow (76): 103
Common Raven (2.6): 2
Black-capped Chickadee (307): 317
Tufted Titmouse (33): 72 *New Record
Red-breasted Nuthatch (17): 23
White-breasted Nuthatch (27): 37
Brown Creeper (3): 5
Golden-crowned Kinglet (11): 3
Eastern Bluebird (1): 4
European Starling (14.5): 33 *record high
American Tree Sparrow (23.2): 5 *record low
Song Sparrow (1.1): 2
White-throated Sparrow (0.6): 1
Dark-eyed Junco (28): 69
Northern Cardinal (11): 18
House Finch (8.4): 23
American Goldfinch (83): 119
EVENING GROSBEAK (2.4): 29 *record high
House Sparrow (13.8): 1 (was a lone House Sparrow the rarest bird of the day?)

To compare, check out my blog from late fall of 2017, entitled: “Why there are no Birds at Your Feeders Right Now,” for a completely different reason.