NewburyportNews.com, Newburyport, MA

March 9, 2013

Birds hint that spring is near

Words on Birds
Steve Grinley

---- — Despite the storms that we have had over the past few weeks, there have already been signs of spring out there according to the “bird barometer.” Red-winged blackbirds and grackles are returning, with calls and emails from many customers who are delighted to have them feeding in their yards. Of course, we will see how long the love affair with the grackles last!

Large mixed flocks of starlings, redwings, grackles and a few cowbirds have been congregating in the trees across Route 1 from our new store. There is a wet area there, and a small pond. It may be that these birds roost in the phragmites around the pond, or they may just stage here and continue on to the larger roost along Route 1 in Salisbury.

I’ll have to watch more closely late in the day. Bluebirds are beginning to check out nest boxes. Flocks of bluebirds, and robins, have been around all winter feeding on the ample crop of berries this year. Bluebirds do establish their territories early in the season and will even attempt to nest as early as late March. One Salisbury customer told me that “her” male bluebird was singing from the top of her bluebird box last week, hoping to attract his mate back to their old homestead. Her mealworm purchase was to help encourage them to stay. So now is a good time to clean out your bluebird nest boxes or put a new one up to attract these beautiful birds. Crushing up some suet or bluebird nuggets in a tray feeder helps to attract them along with mealworms.

Mealworms can be dried or, better still, live, and offered in a dish feeder or on a tray. Continuing to offer mealworms nearby when they are nesting will make it easier for them to stay near the nest site and to protect it from predators. An Amesbury resident called, describing a hermit thrush that was in her yard. Hermit thrushes occasionally winter over, feeding on berries like their cousins the robins and bluebirds. But the hermit thrushes are an early migrant, and it may be that this bird is just arriving. It was observed scratching in the ground, apparently looking for insects.

I heard a killdeer calling from the farm fields across the way last week. Killdeer are always a confirming sign of spring in our area. More should be arriving as snow melts and fields are exposed. Turkey vultures are re-emerging as the weather warms and the fields become exposed. I saw one teetering in the wind the other day along Scotland Road in Newbury. They nested just south of there in the Crane Wildlife Management Area just a couple of years and it looked like that is where the bird was headed. Others have reported more vultures in the past week or so.

Speaking of Scotland Road, the fields are very wet there and soon will attract some waterfowl and many Wilson’s snipe will soon be digging in the muddy areas as they arrive. There have already been many woodcock heard and seen in the area as well. The industrial park is a good place to check for them. As we were leaving Nelson’s Island along Stackyard Road in Rowley late last Sunday, a woodcock appeared, walking along the road in our headlights.

It is always a hoot to see these clumsy creatures walk. It soon flew ahead of us and we could hear it “peenting” off the side of the road a little further down. If you normally have phoebes nesting in your yard, it won’t be long before you hear them in the area. They usually nest on an eave, or under a deck, and, like most birds, they will come back to the same nest area year after year. They will even come to the same exact nest and just build a new nest right on top of the old. This can be repeated for several years if there is space enough for a new nest, several stories tall.

Just another reminder, that as the weather improves, this is not the time to stop feeding the birds. On the contrary, this is one of the more critical times of the year for bird survival. The natural seed supply has been depleted over the winter months, and, until more seeds are produced and insects become abundant, the natural food supply is often the lowest it will be all year. So do continue to keep your feeders full, not just for the resident birds, but also for the migrants that are arriving. Having a source of seeds at your feeders will help ease the burden of finding remaining food sources. Making suet available also gives them some quick energy back that they may have been expended in migration, or over the cold winter that we have all just been through.

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Steve Grinley is the owner of Bird Watcher’s Supply and Gift at the Route 1 traffic circle in Newburyport and the Nature Shop at Joppa Flats.