Winter Birds of Bearsville

Winter Birds, Bearsville Center Nature Notebook, Dave Holden, February, 2023

In this time of wan winter light, in our quiet landscape of somber, muted colors, it is easy to forget the riotous ruckus that our seasonal birds once presented - seemingly so long ago. Yes, most have abandoned us for a time, following their own ancient, instinctual migratory trails southward as their way to deal with cold and dark.

To us right now this might seem like the easy path to winter survival, but it is also a very dangerous one, fraught with great perils - predators a-plenty, starvation along the way as well as a great (and increasing) number of human-imposed obstacles like giant wind-turbines and their power-lines, skyscrapers and millions of bright lights to disorient them - all planted along their primordial migration-routes.

Luckily for us, numerous other bird-species are very well adapted to our wintry landscape, ranging in size from Bald Eagles all the way down to the tiny Carolina Wrens - each with their own time- and weather-tested survival mechanisms for us to learn from (like the original down coats, for instance). The majestic eagles predominate and we are so fortunate that their population is burgeoning. Being largely fishing-birds, in warm weather they are found along our creeks, lakes and reservoirs. Now, many will be congregating on the Hudson, taking young-of the-year Striped Bass.

December is when they will tidy up their huge nests, mating in January and expecting young in the spring. They will unflinchingly stay on their egg(s), taking turns keeping them warm, even through the deepest snow. Our Great Horned Owls follow a similar seasonal cycle. Most Ospreys have gone south, but a few remain. Same with the hawks, their remaining winter population being primarily Red-tails and Red-shouldereds locally.

Also, while most Peregrine Falcons will migrate, some will remain, preying on other birds. All of these creatures are prime survivors and will eat whatever they have to to supplement their meager winter diets, even carrion. Having said that, the hawks and owls are designed to hunt small rodents, even through the snow. While snow does help to visually shield these tiny mammals, both owls and hawks are able to pinpoint their locations through their extraordinary hearing, then pounce down through the white to snatch the small critters from their warm (yes, snow is very insulating) haven.

The many local woodpeckers, dominated by the large Pileated Woodpecker (its call being the inspiration for Woody the Woodpecker), will thrive now as they successfully pierce the dried bark of (mostly) dead trees in search of wintering insects. I say “mostly” dead because I have observed Pileateds pick out insects from generally healthy trees that might have a small infestation. Kind of like a large, birdy acupuncturist. We may inadvertently flush Ruffed Grouse from the Mountain Laurel (I’d rather not startle any wild creature in this time because they might use important fat-reserves needed for their survival).

This applies to Mallard ducks we will see in the Sawkill in Winter, as well. Just as amazing - to my way of thinking - as the larger birds are the incredible Small Birds - Black-cap Chickadees, Bluebirds, Bluejays, Cardinals, Juncos, Sparrows, Titmice, Wrens and the like. Incredible. Indomitable. Unstoppable. I use these terms because they are true. No matter how bitter cold, how windy it is, how much snow or rain - they will be out there, puffed up with down (?) and jauntily searching for whatever they can find and where ever they can find it - bugs, seeds, literally whatever gets them through this harsh time.

The Chickadees I find particularly impressive - even scavenging scraps of meat to survive. They can memorize the locations of hundreds of seed-caches. Just as astounding is their ability to go into torpor, to lower their metabolism, conserving their body-fat during the long winter nights. Even though they’ve all been doing this for long before our presence, there is nothing wrong with us feeding the small birds in winter, while the bears are napping, as long as we do it correctly, using good, natural seeds and suet and let’s please keep our bird-feeders perfectly clean (they are susceptible to different diseases).

Bring feeders in temporarily if the weather warms - bears LOVE birdseed. They wake hungry and with their best-of-all-mammals nose will home in on the nearest bird feeder. It’s unendingly enjoyable to watch the small birds forage non-stop. It’s even inspiring to watch these little dauntless creatures make the most of their lives - as we should as well.

Thank you.