Nature at your window.

January 19, 2013

Midwinter can be tough on house-bound humans. Time slows, days are short and nights are long and cold. While some residents eagerly await fresh snow for snowmobiling and skiing, others crave cold temperatures to thicken ice on lakes and ponds for ice fishing and pond hockey. Sadly, by month’s end, some folks already begin to anticipate spring.

My colleague, Jack Savage, wrote in December about a “season for bringing the outdoors inside.” In January, birdfeeders are an opportunity to bring the outdoors just close enough to watch in comfort from inside.

Those who feed birds are richly rewarded with seasonal news delivered by feathered ambassadors who brighten drab winter days with color and activity. My birdfeeders are busy this winter The usual suspects are all present along with some surprising northern visitors from afar.

A periodic poor seed crop in Canada drives nomadic northern finches south into New Hampshire in search of food. This winter is a so-called “irruptive” winter finch year. A scarcity of conifer seeds and birch catkin forces the northern species including white-winged crossbills, red crossbills and common redpolls south into New Hampshire. Wandering flocks of these northern species have been reported statewide.

Common redpolls first whirled in to forage in frozen grass beneath my front porch birdfeeders in December. These lively little finches travel in active, busy flocks which feed on birch seed catkins or willow and alder seed catkins in wetlands. They forage for weed seeds, transforming local fields into a faint approximation of their arctic tundra home north of the vast Canadian boreal forests of spruce, fir and tamarack. Redpolls are accurately described as busy acrobatic finches flitting, feeding and calling with a bouncy flight in rolling feeding flocks which bring constant exuberant activity to winter fields.

I watched redpolls scavenge bits of fallen black oil sunflower seeds left behind by other more common resident birds - “dumpster-diving” in suburbs so far south of their wilder northern wilderness home. Redpolls rarely overlap with human population centers unless during an irruption year. They completely ignored my presence. I imagined myself akin to a polar bear or wolverine amid these frenetic front lawn Canadians until they departed in a signature twittering, swirl in search of seeds.

The far-more-common winter birds at my feeders include chickadees, tufted titmice, nuthatches, goldfinches and individual hairy woodpeckers visiting the suet cages.

These species exhibit distinct and unique personalities. Chickadees are hardy, cheerful and nearly tame enough to land on my shoulder when I hang a newly-filled tube feeder. Titmice are dark-eyed, boisterous and scolding. Nuthatches are wary and startle easily. They’re also thrifty; shuttling seeds to hidden caches for later consumption. Larger flocks of goldfinches are an argumentative horde. They waste seed by simply tossing them aside and remain perched at feeders while eating, blocking other visitors. The more rarely-seen pine siskins are feisty. Siskins use aggressive wing postures and open beaks to bully the larger chickadees and goldfinches in order to compete successfully for prime sunflower seed real estate.

Only hardiest birds remain in New Hampshire January. I admire the tough winter birds. Adaptation allows them to remain here year-round. They use metabolic tricks such as controlled shivering to warm muscles and fluffing downy feathers to create air spaces in their plumage to better insulate them from extreme cold of our northern clime. A diet of weed seeds, tree seeds and gleaning insects eggs from crevices beneath tree bark spares them peril and energy expenditure of migrating south in autumn and allows them to nest earlier in spring using hollow tree cavities even before insects emerge. Winter birds are resourceful, frugal Yankees who tough-it-out out with us rather than leave for warmer climes.

During the recent January thaw, I heard the first chickadees sing their simple “high-low” two-note song. I heard a tufted titmice sing “Peter-peter” for the first time in months. These first song phrases are sung in innate response to lengthening days rather than temperature. These first tentative notes are the prelude to a symphony of birdsong which will gradually increase over the forthcoming final eight weeks of winter. Birdsong has already begun to swell towards its May crescendo when millions of tropical migrants return from winter vacation. Now that’s a reason for creeping optimism - even in the bitter cold of midwinter!