The most active and interesting days are often not the bright beautiful sunny days but the stormy days when birds are eager to eat as much as they can to keep energy levels high. Yesterday’s storm brought us just such a day with really interesting feathered visitors and activity, so I have pictures and stories to share with you.
Winter FINALLY arrived in Maryland (in mid-March!) with the huge nor’easter storm that hit the east coast yesterday. As often happens in our part of the state, we were unfortunate enough to be right on the snow/rain line. So instead of lots of snow, we got a little bit of snow capped with a LOT of ice. This is not weather that a bird is going to enjoy. The leaf litter and other areas where over-wintering bugs might be found were capped over with ice as was any stray seed that might be found on the ground.
As the sun came up, the birds found that the platform feeders, although filled with food, were also buried. So I suited up early, chiseled out the snow and ice and spread a good bit of seed over the surface of the snow on the ground as well – more seed than I would normally put out on a regular day and I did this repeatedly as the continuing flurries and drizzle covered it up again. Each of the nyjer tube feeders at the far end of the house also had a coating of ice down one side, cutting off access to about a third of the ports. This caused quite a bit of bickering among the American Goldfinches over there. Mobs of them instead went to eat sunflower hearts at other feeders until I got a table knife and scraped off the ice their feeders for them.
Snowy days always bring more birds in a larger variety to the yard. The most unusual and puzzling bird I saw under the feeders was a Hermit Thrush. I see one in the yard periodically, but usually he’ll be poking around on the yard edges and not right out under the feeders. Yesterday though, he was to be found under the Squirrel-Buster Plus feeders in the front and back. I fill these with sunflower hearts.
He didn’t look enthusiastic about what he was finding – unsurprising as they normally eat bugs and berries rather than seeds. He mostly stood there looking around, as if to say, “Is this the best you can do?” He did peck around a bit though, so they must eat seed when there isn’t something tastier on offer. He has been back quite a few times today, so I put a hand-full of dried meal worms and a few blueberries on the ground near the front feeder to see if either of these would entice him. So far, he hasn’t seemed interested and continues to eat bits of sunflower hearts dropped from the feeder above. Although he is unimpressed with my alternative offerings, there are other birds who will eat them, so it won’t be wasted. (I saw a Blue Jay eating the worms already and I saw an American Robin around a little while ago who might also like them.)
One type of bird that we usually don’t see in the yard but that almost always shows up when there is a big snow is an Eastern Towhee. Several years ago we had a very snowy winter where we had almost continuous snow on the ground. That brought two female towhees to eat seed regularly, one eating off the ground in the back yard under the picnic table and the other in the front, eating seed off the railings of the front porch. Last year we often saw a lone male when it snowed.
Yesterday’s storm also brought a male towhee. He seemed to be eating safflower and millet he found on the ground in the back yard. Although they are larger and are more dramatically marked, towhees are in the sparrow family and have some similar habits, including eating off the ground and doing the sparrow jump-back-scratch movement to expose interesting tidbits to eat. He seemed at home hopping around with the other sparrows.
We get Dark-Eyed Juncos and White-Throated Sparrows all winter in little flocks of six to sixteen. When a storm comes through, their numbers grow much bigger. I counted over fifty juncos and close to two dozen white-throats yesterday. These birds have gotten pretty used to me. When I went out the first time to put out the seed for them, several were within just a few feet of me, waiting for me to get busy.
Our yard doesn’t currently have a lot of thick bushes, so we don’t typically see many House Sparrows and none showed up yesterday. However, for the past week, we’ve been pleased to see a Fox Sparrow and a Song Sparrow among the flock of sparrows in the yard. Neither are rare birds in this area, but they don’t often appear in our yard either.
Yesterday actually brought a second Fox Sparrow, although every time the two got near each other, one would lash out at the other, so they mostly kept to separate feeding areas. I had so much seed spread out that this wasn’t a problem.
All that seed not surprisingly also brought in flocks of other birds as well. With the very warm weather we’ve been having up until now and spring being so close, we’ve been seeing spring flocks of Red-Winged Blackbirds, Common Grackles and European Starlings and they all showed up yesterday, attracted by the seed spread out over the hard snowy ground. While I don’t begrudge them food, these birds do tend to be more aggressive than some and often displace the regular birds from the feeders for long periods of time, so I usually go out every so often to get them to back off a bit and allow the other smaller birds a chance. Interestingly though, I’ve noticed that the female Red-Winged Blackbirds tend to be less aggressive than their male counterparts and seem to get along better with the smaller sparrows.
A flock of Brown-Headed Cowbirds also showed up at the feeders in the afternoon. I’m not a big fan of cowbirds as they are parasitic. Their habit of putting their eggs in other birds’ nests to be raised can result in less for the foster parent’s own nestlings and has been part of putting some other species at risk. I hope they won’t hang around long and will nest elsewhere this spring for the sake of our regular neighborhood birds and their families!
One of our neighborhood Northern Cardinals didn’t make it through the storm. I spent some time yesterday sitting, heavily bundled up, on the back step, watching the activity and photographing the birds. I noticed a male Northern Cardinal sitting in a protected spot on the ground in the wisteria tangle. It was late in the day and the wind was picking up and ice that had coated the trees earlier in the day was raining down in big pieces quite dramatically at random intervals. So at first I thought he was just hunkering down to stay out of the path of the frozen projectiles.
But then I watched him eat a couple bits of snow and then get up and walk to the picnic table area about six feet away to eat a few safflower seeds. He was walking okay but seemed to be holding his wings a bit awkwardly. My guess is that maybe the Cooper’s Hawk or one of the neighborhood cats might have attacked him earlier in the day and he got away, as he seemed not able to fly. Or it is possible that he was just sick and too weak to fly.
Suddenly, as he ate, another male cardinal rushed up to him from the side and barrel rolled him right over. The cardinals usually get along fairly well in the winter, although with the weather having warmed up recently, the males have just started to chase each other around over the past few days. But this is the first time I’ve ever seen one roll another one completely over. Normally he would have fought back or flown away, but this one picked himself up and quickly retreated to his sheltered spot.
I’m never sure about the right thing to do in these situations. Should I try to help or does that do more harm than good? I decided to meddle and went out to spread some seed further away on the other side of the picnic table and put just a little nearer to the sick bird. My thought was that this might draw the other birds to the larger offering of fresh seed, while letting this bird get a little to eat. But male cardinals aren’t as tolerant of people as wrens or sparrows or goldfinches and my being even that close spooked him and he quickly walked away further around the side of the wisteria tangle. Not wanting to spook him further I retreated but he didn’t return.
Later, I went out again to see if I could walk around the side of the wisteria keeping well back from the area to see where he was without getting close to him. I didn’t see him at first but then turned and saw him running quite energetically across the snow to the back fence, where he sheltered in the leaves that had blown up there. I don’t know why he moved there, whether it was my presence in the general area (although I wasn’t close to where he seemed to come from and was not heading toward that area either) or whether he was being chased away again by another cardinal. Worried that I would just cause him stress, I let him be and he seems to have died there later in the day. It’s part of nature, but it is still sad to see happen.
But other life in the yard continued on around him. Other regular birds, like Downy Woodpeckers, Mourning Doves, House Finches, Blue Jays and Carolina Wrens showed up in the storm too, as did the Cooper’s Hawk who had made at least one pass through the yard early in the day. This morning, as I put out the dried mealworms and blueberries in the front yard, the hawk swooped right past my right ankle and then on across the yard. I suppose I was interfering with her planned hunt there. I may have caused her to miss out on a juicy junco, although she seems to miss more often than she succeeds anyway.
The yard today is covered with a hard thick crunchy coat of frozen ice/snow littered with broken bits of sparkling ice and small twigs from the trees. It all glittered in the early morning sun. The yard will continue to be extra busy until the snow melts later in the week, although not as busy as it got during the storm. So I’ll keep watching and will see what I can see.