NewburyportNews.com, Newburyport, MA

January 18, 2014

Finding food challenges winter birds

Words on Birds
Steve Grinley

---- — The January thaws that we have experienced in between those frigid weeks have sometimes slowed the activity at the bird feeders. Once the snow melted, many birds were busy finding the natural food that was available. The large flock of goldfinches that we had at our store feeders disappeared completely for two days. The Cooper’s hawk in the neighborhood might have had something to do with it, but they were more likely taking advantage of the thaw and sought the birch, ash and weed seeds that became available again.

As the weather is turning colder these past few days, the goldfinches have returned in full force. After all, it is still mid-January, not March yet, and there is sure to be more frigid cold and snow ahead. So do keep your feeders full, as the birds appreciate the supplemental food that we make available to them. Suet and seed with high fat content such as sunflower or peanuts help sustain the birds through the colder months.

That Bullock’s oriole that I mentioned a few weeks back is still coming to feeders in a Chelmsford neighborhood. We saw this beautiful bird feeding on suet, but the homeowner who originally reported the bird is now feeding it mealworms. Looks like this bird has a good chance to make it through to spring.

I have several customers who are feeding mealworms to bluebirds and to Carolina wrens. The live mealworms are a welcome, high protein food that many birds love, especially when insects are all but absent in the colder weather. The “Bluebird Nuggets,” little balls of peanut suet, are popular with many species as well.

Unlike many of passerines that eat seed and insects, the raptors in the area seem to be finding sufficient food, even in the colder weather. This is evidenced by the Cooper’s and sharp-shinned hawks that are frequenting backyards and feasting on those very birds that are feasting at our feeders! Many customers have told me about their neighborhood hawk that keeps dining on their birds.

As I mentioned, there was a Cooper’s hawk perched across the street from the store. From its diminutive size, I thought, at first, that it was a sharp-shinned hawk. Once I got a scope on it I was able to study more detail. Its head was more square and its eyes more forward than a sharp-shinned should be. It was perched back to me, so I couldn’t judge the size of the legs. Its tail didn’t appear rounded, but it was long. I concluded that it was a male Cooper’s hawk, which can be smaller than a female sharp-shinned.

Two birding friends called the store on Thursday to report a northern shrike near the North Pool Overlook on the Parker River Refuge on Plum Island. Though not a raptor, a shrike also dines on small birds. The birders had been to the nearby Maintenance area a few minutes earlier and found the remains of a snow bunting — most likely lunch for the shrike. (Doug Chickering had seen the shrike there earlier in the morning.)

Also, a customer told me that she walked the beach on the refuge that same morning and came across a snowy owl perched next to the dunes. She thought that the owl was preening, as white feathers were flying, but she discovered that it was eating a snow bunting! That is hardly even an appetizer for the owl! Lemmings, voles and other small mammals are their main diet, but snowy owls will also take ducks, and even herons!

Another customer told me about watching an eagle swoop down to take a duck. When you see a lot of ducks in the air at one time, look around for an eagle. They tend to put up every bird in sight in fear of attack. Luckily for the ducks, there is enough open water that the bald eagles can also find plenty of fish.

If you would like to see some bald eagles and snowy owls, you can join me for a free afternoon bird walk to search primarily for eagles and owls in and around the Newburyport area today. We will search for bald eagles along the Merrimack River as well as snowy and short-eared owls at Plum Island and/or Salisbury. Ducks, raptors and other wintering birds may also be seen. The trip will meet at Bird Watcher’s Supply & Gift at the Route 1 Traffic Circle in Newburyport at 1 p.m. to carpool. This trip is expected to last about 3 hours and preregistration is not necessary, just show up! Dress warmly, and bring binoculars, spotting scopes or field guides if you have them. Beginners and families are welcome. Hope to see you there!

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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.