Tag Archives: bird feeding

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.

A Great May Week of Birding in Review, and Some Predictions for More Feathery Fun.

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Simply put, it has been a helluva week of birding in Maine!  Strong flights of migrants occurred on 5 of the last 7 nights, producing a whole lot of new arrivals throughout the region. And then there were rarities, but we’ll get to that shortly.

As for regularly-occurring migrants, birds are arriving right about on time now. By week’s end, some of the latest arriving warblers, like Blackpoll have begun to trickle in, while the early migrants like Yellow-rumped and Palm have thinned out considerably. Some locally-breeding Pine Warblers are rarely singing now, as breeding season for them is well underway.

Almost anywhere you went this week, 12 or more species of warblers was possible.  I enjoyed 15 species at Florida Lake on Monday and 17 species at Evergreen Cemetery on Thursday, for example. The third week of May is when the coveted 20-species morning total is most likely around here, so you know I will be gunning for that in the coming days.

I added Lincoln’s Sparrow, Lesser Yellowlegs, White-crowned Sparrow (#126, 127, and 128 respectively) to my Bradbury Mountain patch lists this week, and a Lincoln’s Sparrow was the first in our Pownal yard (#116) on Sunday. Meanwhile, a spiffy male Orchard Oriole was the 114th species at our store, a one-day wonder at our feeders on the 10th.  So it’s been a great week for patch listing as well!

And Scarborough Marsh was just awesome on Tuesday morning, when Katrina and I had unbelievable numbers (for spring) off of Eastern Road, including 1500+ Tree Swallows, 500+ Least Sandpipers, 400+ Barn Swallows, ~125 Greater and ~100 Lesser Yellowlegs, 75-100 Bank Swallows, 6++ Semipalmated and 2++ White-rumped Sandpipers (both FOY), 2 adult Dunlin, and the continuing Tricolored Heron. Nothing rare per se, but the biomass of birdage was impressive, and was definitely the highlight of the week.

Following the “Mega” rarity Northern Wheatear that was last seen last Saturday in Scarborough Marsh, rarity news has been decidedly southern in nature. Although small numbers of “overshooting” southern vagrants are typical in Maine every spring, the number of White-eyed Vireos (I caught up with one at Capisic Pond Park on Thursday with my friend Lois), Summer Tanagers (I saw one in Georgetown last week with Katrina; see above), and Blue-gray Gnatcatchers (they’re everywhere!) is most impressive. Then there was a Painted Bunting on Monhegan this week, a Swallow-tailed Kite at the Bradbury Mountain Hawkwatch on 5/7, and a Mississippi Kite also at The Brad as the grand finale on the 15th.  The widespread smattering of Orchard Orioles is a little more typical.

This pattern of southerly vagrants is not caused by birds being “blown” here in a simple sense, but instead we believe it is caused by southerly winds facilitating their arrival beyond their normal range – perhaps by causing a bird to travel much further (in relation to the ground) in each night’s flight thanks to a favorable tailwind. Perhaps others were entrained by strong winds off the South Atlantic Bight and were pushed northwards until they made landfall in the Northeast (I wonder if the Boston Fork-tailed Flycatcher arrived this way?).

Less fitting of any particular pattern is the remarkable adult Black-headed Grosbeak that was on Monhegan this week – at the SAME FEEDER as the Painted Bunting, 2 Summer Tanagers, a Lark Sparrow, and a Dickcissel. <expletive deleted> And, not to be overshadowed, a dapper male Ruff was found in Bangor.

With a deep southerly flow continuing, and some very unsettled weather coming for the weekend, I think things will be getting quite interesting in the coming days. (I don’t want to know how many “Island Birds” Kristen Lindquist will pick up over me on Monhegan this weekend!).  Check out this wind map from the 15th, showing a very strong southerly flow originating all of the way from Florida and the Caribbean.

wind map, 5-15-14

For those of us not on Monhegan this weekend, I sure hope you’ll be birding hard – not despite the weather, but because of the inclement weather. At the very least, keep an eye on those feeders. Both here at the store and at home, we’re stocked up with mealworms, jelly, oranges, insect suet, and nut blocks. Not only will the cool, wet weather limit natural food sources, but the slow progression of the season continues to put a lot of important food sources well behind the birds’ required schedules.

For example, apples and cherries are only now starting to bloom. Early-arriving nectavores and insectivores flock to these (and other early-season bloomers like Shadbush, azalea, and quince) for both nectar and the insects attracted to that nectar. The lack of a lot of flowers so far this season has pushed many orioles (including some Orchards in addition to the regular Baltimores), Gray Catbirds, and Scarlet (and some Summers) Tanagers to feeding stations in above-average numbers.  I expect that trend to continue through the middle of next week, as a stubborn upper-level low remains locked overhead producing unsettled weather.

So keep an eye out the window, get outside, and find some good birds!  And regardless of rarities, it’s just a great time to be birding!

Biddeford Pool Snowy Owl and Weather Discussion

This was the birding highlight of Tuesday morning’s visit with Katrina to Biddeford Pool.
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The first photo was taken shortly after our arrival to The Pool, while the second two -with much more pleasant skies – was taken as we departed around noon.  Although its plumage is much more faded and worn now, it is likely that this is the same Snowy that has spent the winter near the western end of mile stretch.  Today, it was hunting voles once again on the incoming tide from one of its favorite rooftop perches.

While this was my latest Snowy in Maine, it is far from unprecedented following a massive irruption year. But seeing a Snowy Owl a mere two days away from May is still special; it could be a lifetime before we see an irruption of this magnitude again.

A little further down the road, where the second of the Mile Stretch Snowies overwintered, we found a pile of pellets below one of that bird’s favorite perches. Most were full of small mammal fur and bones, and the skulls were all of voles. One pellet, however, was pure thick, downy feathers – probably from a duck.
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But with migration still at a virtual standstill, the rest of the day’s highlights were rather few and far between; very few migrants were around. A pair of Blue-gray Gnatcatchers around the beach parking lot was a nice, and I had my first House Wren of the year in the neighborhood, and my first Laughing Gull off of East Point. 1-3 Black-crowned Night-Herons were also my personal “FOY’s,” but they have probably been present here for at least a couple of weeks now.

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The seas and skies sure looked like winter today, and the raw winds and low temperatures – and Snowy Owl! – sure made it seem more like early March than late April!

But yeah, migration has been kinda slow.  Although, interestingly enough, the House Wren and Laughing Gull were right on time for me, most of the usual late April arrivals (Black-throated Green Warbler, Northern Waterthrush, Black-and-white Warbler, etc) are nowhere to be seen, and really, have I only heard one Blue-headed Vireo so far this season?

We all know spring has been running late this year, and I would say bird migration is now about 7-10 days behind schedule (catching up from the 2-3 weeks behind schedule of early April).  Recently, our onshore winds (not conducive to facilitating migration for birds heading north) in this stubborn blocking pattern (a pattern that has seemingly become more and more regular recently) have not helped matters.  Here, for example, is the wind map from Sunday, showing the low pressure system just south of Nova Scotia that was pumping in those onshore winds since late last week.
wind map, 4-27-14

But take a look at today’s wind forecast…
wind map, 4-30-14

Here we see the massive low pressure system marching across the Great Plains. But now, on the leading edge of it, we see a deep southerly flow, originating all of the way from the Gulf Coast.  This southerly flow is expected to last for at least the next 48 hours.

Although the weather will remain unsettled – and we’re about to get a pretty good soaking tonight and tomorrow – through at least the weekend, I would expect quite a few migrants to begin to trickle in over the next few days. Simply put, some birds are running low on time to wait!  And, as evidenced by the 73 and 110 raptors tallied passing The Brad over the last two days, respectively, despite easterly winds, it is clear that some birds simply have to make some progress, and will do so when conditions are at least somewhat favorable (or, at least not completely unfavorable).

Furthermore, these deep southerly flows at this time of year can facilitate the arrival of annual spring “overshoots” from the south (see Chapter 4 of my book, How to Be a Better Birder for a full explanation of this phenomenon). When I see weather patterns such as this, I begin to think about things such as Summer Tanagers, Blue Grosbeaks, and Hooded Warblers!

At least potential food sources (insects emerging from ponds; insects attracted to blooming trees) are getting a little chance to catch up before the bulk of migrant birds arrive.  This phenology, or timing, of the plant and insect cycle is critical for migrant birds that need to refuel and/or then fuel up for the next leg of their journey. “Weird” weather such as this doesn’t bother birds as much as it bothers us, but it becomes a real problem when the weather results in the lack of specific food sources.

I haven’t seen much in the way of nectar-producing flowers yet – but Ruby-throated Hummingbirds and Baltimore Orioles often begin to arrive in the first week of May. This is going to be one of those seasons where well-stocked feeding stations are critically important to migrants, especially those that need insects and nectar.  Our hummingbird and oriole feeders are out and ready for business, and our feeder is stocked with insect-laden suet blocks (check out our “Photos from Friends of the Store” gallery on our Facebook Page to see what one particular feeding station in Brunswick has been seeing eating insect suet) and live mealworms.  It lies in wait for the first hummers, orioles, or any other migrants in need of assistance…oh yeah, any vagrants from the south, too!

A HERMIT WARBLER in Harpswell – BELATED.

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A warbler arrived at a Cundy’s Harbor, Harpswell feeding station on November 18th.  Any non-Yellow-rumped Warbler is exciting in Maine by the end of November, but most turn out to be Pine Warblers – a rare but regular “half-hardy” that often winters outside of its usual winter range, and often takes advantage of feeders to do so.  This particular bird was identified as a Black-throated Green Warbler – an outstanding late-November record but not one without precedence.  Intriguingly, on the first day, it appeared with a second warbler that may have been a Black-throated Blue Warbler, but that bird was not seen again.  However, on December 11th, the homeowner brought in an iPhone snapshot of their visitor to the store to confirm the identification.  Distant and blurry through a window, the bright yellow face and black beady eye immediately stood out. “Um, can I come over?” I inquired.

I arrived at 6:55 the next morning, as the bird was regularly being seen just after 7.  And sure enough, it showed up at 7:02!  It remained for just a few minutes, eating hulled sunflower seeds at the feeders with a small band of Black-capped Chickadees. And as I surmised, this was definitely a Hermit Warbler – only the second-ever to be seen in Maine!

The light was low, and the feeders were still in the long, early-morning shadows, so my photos were pretty poor.  I asked to stay a little longer, and after a brief visit at 7:35, the bird returned and fed extensively between 7:55 and 8:03, in which time I was able to photograph the bird extensively.
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The bright yellow face was readily apparent, which sets off the seemingly-large dark, beady eye.  There’s a very limited amount of dusky green on the auriculars, and the greenish crown tapers to a “widow’s peak” on the forehead.  The back is greenish-gray and the gray wings are set off by two bold whitish wingbars and pale-fringed secondaries.  The throat was almost wholly yellow, except for a small white chin and a couple of dusky smudges.

I aged this bird as an immature female due to the overall relatively drab colors and lack of black almost anywhere in the plumage.  However, I was not familiar with this plumage in the field, and some photos online and in some books concerned me a bit, so I sent a couple of the photos to a friend in California for confirmation.  He forwarded them to Kimball Garrett, the Ornithological Collections Manager for the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, and the co-author of Warblers in the Peterson field guide series.

His response was straightforward, it was an immature female, born this past summer: “I certainly wouldn’t have called it anything other than a female Hermit Warbler.  The yellow across the uppermost throat is fine for female Hermits (shown to various degrees in all 3 of our skins of HY [hatch year] females).  I would worry about prominent streaks on the flanks and undertail coverts, but I really see almost nothing there (and what there is could be explained by darker feather shafts that sometimes lend the impression of streaks).”

This is truly a remarkable record.  The first state record, found by Scott Surner on MonheganIsland between September 29th and October 1st was seen by only a handful of birders – not including yours truly despite my presence on the island at the time, and eventually much effort, but that’s a long story for another day.  Breeding in the mountains of the Pacific Coast from the Olympic Peninsula of Washington south through the Sierra Nevada range to about south-central California, Hermit Warblers normally winter in southwestern Mexico through the mountains of Central America down to Nicaragua.

Therefore, for this bird to arrive in Maine it likely had to fly 90-degrees in the wrong direction.  While “180-degree misorientation” in which birds fly north when they “should” be flying south (for example) is a fairly well-established pattern that results in far-flung vagrancy, 90-degree misorientaton appears to be even rarer.  In other words, this bird was not “blown here,” (although it could certainly have been facilitated in its arrival by a strong storm or persistent westerly winds) but was somehow “miswired” to fly in a very wrong direction.  Although it is fun to ponder (at least for me!), how and why vagrants arrive in certain places, we obviously can’t know for sure what mechanism(s) delivered this bird to a feeder along the shore in Harpswell, Maine.

As I enjoyed this bird, and a wealth of other activity at the feeders, the homeowners and I discussed the significance of this sighting.  Of course, I broached the topic of “visitation,” as many birders would love the opportunity to see this bird as well.  I was exceptionally grateful for the chance to see this fantastic bird, and I knew other birders would be grateful as well.

Sometimes, rare birds at feeders are “easy” to share, such as when they are at a feeder visible from a road with ample parking nearby.  For a variety of reasons, some birds simply cannot be made public.  After much discussion, it was decided that this bird would not be publicized.  A small, private dead-end dirt road with virtually no parking, close neighbors, and no visibility from the road made this a challenge.  Simply put, you had to be in the kitchen…and with life schedules and all of the above considerations, it was, unfortunately, in the best interest of the homeowners to keep this bird under wraps even though everyone regretted this conclusion.

The bird was seen regularly through the 13th of December, but after the homeowners were out of town for the weekend, they came back on the 16th and have not seen the bird again.  A heated birdbath and live mealworms were deployed upon their return, but the bird is nowhere to be found.  Seeing that it has now moved on, I post this blog to document this “Mega” rarity for the permanent record, as per my agreement with the lucky homeowners who were graced by this special visitor from the “other” coast.