March is considered a quiet time in the birding world, at least in our area. Yet, there are changes happening — beyond the early Daylight Saving leap forward. The birds at the feeders are changing.
The first groups of redwings and grackles have invaded feeders and, yet, wintering tree sparrows linger on. A resident downy woodpecker still visits, and the goldfinches — though showing a bit more yellow — are still frequenting thistle feeders. Early spring migrants may be making feeder stops, so you should watch your feeders carefully.
It was five years ago when Doug Chickering of Groveland shared with us some of his feeder birds and his discovery of a new spring visitor. It flew in to the base of the far feeder pole at late dusk. There was just enough light to see that it was smaller than the cardinal that fed there. We get several cardinals at dusk, sometimes as many as nine.
The small bird immediately started to forage at the base of the feeder and my first impression was of a song sparrow. There had been a song sparrow out there earlier. I have learned by hard experience not to let an open bird go half identified, so I brought my binoculars to bear. The bird was feeding with its back to me. The heavy streaking at the side seemed, at first, to confirm my original impression. Yet I wasn’t convinced. The bird seemed rather big, and my natural instinct was to turn it into something else, something more exotic.
This usually doesn’t work, still I waited for the bird to move, to give me a better look. In the dim light there was no discernible color, but as soon as the bird lifted its head, I recognized it to be a fox sparrow. We always get a fox sparrow in the spring; its arrival is one of our welcome heralds of the onset of spring.
But this wasn’t our first fox sparrow of the year. We had one at our feeders at twilight on Jan. 9. So I cannot know if this one tonight is the same one or a new arrival in the coming spring.
Our feeders have been quite active this year. House sparrows have been the most numerous. There have been as many as 50 at a time, pillaging our hanging feeder and loitering in the Euonymus bush. It’s also been a big year for goldfinches. We have seen up to 30 at a time. The rest of the visitors have been fairly standard: a handful of juncos, three downy woodpeckers, a hairy woodpecker, about a half-dozen white-throated sparrows and more cardinals than you can shake a stick at.
The chickadees — four in total — and titmice and house finches visit regularly, but we get white-breasted nuthatch only occasionally, about the same frequency as the Cooper’s Hawk.
There have also been some more exotic visitors this winter. redpolls, Pine Grosbeaks (maybe this year not so exotic), a goshawk and a single visit from a red-breasted nuthatch. Yet I think that the bird that comes to our feeders fairly regularly, that fills me with the greatest joy is the Carolina Wren. This brilliant, warm brown, little bird brightens up a snowy day and seems to carry with it a fire of enthusiasm to deny the cold dead hand of mid winter.
It calls and postures and boldly goes about its business and exudes a spirit that justly belongs in spring. There was a time, not so long ago, that there were virtually no Carolina Wrens in our part of the state. We get this one regularly and this is a change that is good.
Steve Grinley is the owner of Bird Watcher’s Supply and Gift in Newburyport and the Nature Shop at Joppa Flats.