March is considered a quiet time in the birding world, at least in our area.
The warm wave of weather brought some early migrants in, but that had slowed considerably this past week as cold raw, rainy weather set in this past week. As March comes to a close, April gives us the promise of more new birds arriving. Flocks of redwings and grackles are invading feeders and, yet, our wintering tree sparrows linger on. Our resident downy woodpecker still visits, and the goldfinches, though showing more breeding plumage yellow, are even more frequent at our thistle feeders as natural food becomes more scarce.
Early spring migrants are making feeder stops, so you should be sure that your feeders are full and watch your feeders carefully. Much of the natural food supply that was readily available most of the winter has been seriously depleted. Birds will be looking for alternative sources, especially on those days when the temperature drops again and when burning less energy while searching for food becomes more important. You never know what might show up in your backyard.
Doug Chickering of Groveland described some of his feeder birds during the month of March several years ago, including the appearance of one such new 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 up to 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 another one at our feeders in the twilight back in Jan. 9. So, I cannot know if this one tonight is the same one of winter or a new one of the coming spring.
"Our feeders have been quite active this year. House sparrows being the most numerous; there have been up to 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 up to 30 at a time. The rest has 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 — up to four — 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 midwinter. 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."
We had no redpolls or pine grosbeaks this year. Carolina wrens have become even more prevalent in our area in the past few years. We have only had fox sparrow here at the store feeders twice in the 17 years we have been here. Though fox sparrows have eluded me yet again so far this spring, I keep looking and hoping that one will show as April approaches.
• • •
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.