I have been watching my bird feeders for the “birds of winter!”
The first of these seasonal arrivals was on Saturday, October 29 (and looking back at my notebooks from previous years, this species always shows up in Apollo sometime in the last three days of October!). Scratching around in the fallen seed under my sunflower seed feeders were three slate-colored juncos. More, I am sure will come soon. Their departure in March or April will be one of our important “signs of spring.”
Slate-colored juncos are small, dark-colored sparrows with a long list of very descriptive common names including “snow bird,” and “winter finch.” It is our local version of the dark-eyed junco which is a very common bird at almost any winter bird feeder throughout the United States. The dark-eyed junco over-winters in almost all of the lower forty-eight states (and down into northern Mexico). It also has an equally broad summer/breeding range across Canada and Alaska, in the mountains of the western U.S., throughout New England, and down the Appalachian Mountains into northern Georgia. In Pennsylvania, in addition to winter populations of “bird feeder” slate-colored juncos, Deborah and I have observed large, summer populations of this species in the mixed hardwood forests of the Allegheny National Forest in the northwest section of the state.
Flocks of fifteen to twenty individuals form in the autumn and winter. These flocks may include several of the dark-eyed junco sub-species and also several other species of sparrows and maybe even bluebirds. These flocks gather together thirty minutes before sunrise and disperse forty-five minutes before sunset each day. Foraging success for each individual is significantly increased when they participate in one of the groups. An individual junco tends to stay in a single foraging flock for the entire winter.
The arrival of the juncos in Western Pennsylvania has both positive and negative implications: a handsome bird has returned to grace our lawns and fields, but the cold, snowy months of winter are almost upon us!
I am keeping my eyes open this year for pine siskins! One of my biology students is writing a species paper about them for our “Birds of Pennsylvania” blog site (which will go live sometime in mid-December!). Lynn Ramage over in Ford City spotted pine siskins for her count in the Great Backyard Bird count a couple of years ago, and I could use an extra species or two on my list. I have put out a thistle feeder in my front yard to try to draw them in. We’ll see if the winter is harsh enough to drive these northern birds down into our area!
Also on Saturday, October 29, a flock of about thirty cedar waxwings landed in the branches of the tall black locust tree at the back of my property. Western Pennsylvania is in the year round habitat zone for waxwings, but they may migrate south if temperatures get too cold or if food supplies (berries and fruit) run low. Some flocks may fly all the way to Costa Rica or Panama to find suitable winter habitats. Always found in large flocks of thirty to one hundred birds, waxwings may form migratory flocks numbering in the thousands. The flock that visited my
yard was probably after the crabapples that were still hanging on in the higher branches of crabapple trees (the deer had stretched up to eat all of the lower ones!). The birds hung around and fed for a couple of hours and then flew on. The waxwings are a wonderfully social bird with many described individual behaviors involving sharing food and other resources with the other birds of their flocks. Another of my students is writing a species page for our “Birds of Pennsylvania” blog on these gentle, gregarious birds! So watch for it in December!
Deborah and I went up to Harrison Hills Park on November 6 to check out our bluebird boxes and make sure that they were in good shape for the winter. Two bluebirds followed us around the High Meadow and kept a close eye on what we were doing. Both of the birds were males, although the intensity of their blue plumage was muted with the season. Three of our boxes (last checked in late September) now had empty house wren nests in them, and one box had an empty tree swallow nest. We cleaned out the old nesting materials and, hopefully, made the boxes acceptable to the overwintering bluebirds. Most bluebirds in our region migrate at least short distances to more moderate climate zones that have a richer supply of seeds and fruit for the winter. A small percentage of our bluebirds, though, if provided suitable shelter and adequate food supplies, will spend the winter here. They run the risk of death by starvation or freezing in a severe winter, but they can reap the benefit of energy savings from eschewing migration and having the first shot at selecting local breeding territories in the spring!
Last winter Deborah and I came across a large flock of robins in the shrubby woods around the pond in Harrison Hills. The bushes and vines of this woodlot were full of berries and represented a substantial winter larder for these fruit loving birds.
Deborah has seen several bluebirds this November on her walks through the cemetery here in Apollo. They must be nesting in the line of old trees along the ridge over the river on the back edge of the cemetery property. These trees are in a very natural, untended state and are full of broken limbs and standing dead trunks. All of these potential tree holes generate an outstanding natural nesting site for any cavity nesting bird species.
During the first week in November the white-throated sparrow started singing just before dawn. I haven’t heard these songs since early summer! The singing became a real chorus on November 7 with three or four males all joining in together! They sang to Izzy and I while we took our early morning walk. I have read that this species sings in the winter (unlike most birds who primarily sing during mate selection or territory marking in the spring), but I have not been able to figure out why!
And finally, in big bird news from Apollo, PA: we have bald eagles! Three times in the past two weeks Deborah and I have seen bald eagles flying over our hillside. One was coming up from the Kiski River, one was racing along our ridge top heading east, and one was flying north out over the surrounding hills. This species has made an incredible come back here in Pennsylvania during the 34 years I have lived here! There are almost 300 nesting pairs of bald eagles in Pennsylvania today (compared to just 3 pairs 30 years ago!). Internet-linked nest cameras generate a continuous record of their breeding successes (and, sadly, their tragedies, too), and increasingly we are able to get glimpses of their beauty and grace as they fly over our everyday spaces!
So, the birds are active even as the temperatures drop and the snow is starting to fall. Get out and enjoy them, or at least find a nice window in your warm, dry house where you can sit back and watch the show!