Snow birds, a term often used to describe northern people who travel south to spend the winter in relative comfort. Of course, birders and other naturalists use those words in a different way. They use the phrase to describe birds that come from the north and spend the winter in Vermont (and surrounding areas). Some snow birds are fairly common and some are considered irruptive species. These irruptive species are big news to birders! (And a great reason to be outside exploring all winter). This winter is turning into a good year for seeing lots of common and uncommon snow birds.
Many birds show up regularly at our feeders in spring and fall as part of their typical migratory pattern. Winter irruptive bird species are less predictable but are often a highlight of winter birding. The reasons for these avian irruptions can yield some debate; although a change in food quantities is often cited as the reason to move. In the winter, survival for birds is all about food. If there is a poor seed crop they need to move on. The fruiting of certain boreal trees: spruce, fir, tamarack, and birch, appears to be synchronized. So one year there will be abundance of seeds and the next almost none. Coniferous and hardwood tree seed crops were generally poor this past season across northeastern Ontario east through the Maritime Provinces, and in northern New York and New England States, causing many species to move south in search of food
Common Redpoll, Pine Sisken, Purple Finch, Evening Grosbeak, Pine Grosbeak, Red Crossbill, White-winged Crossbill, and Red-breasted Nuthatch are considered irruptive species. Here in Vermont a few of the aforementioned species are found year-round so they may not top the list as exciting winter birds but farther south they may. One species that often tops the excitement list is the Pine Grosbeak, a species that has been seen across Vermont this winter. Pine Grosbeaks are slightly larger than Evening Grosbeaks and the males look like they have been dipped in a rosy–colored paint. The females (which have been seen in greater abundance this year) are a grayish bird with dingy yellow on head and along the back and top of the tail, and prominent wing bars. Pine Grosbeaks are more often seen in large flocks on fruit bearing trees in busy urban areas, college campuses, or backyards.
The winter is a great time to see other birds that are usually only seen in the winter. These include American Tree Sparrows, Northern Shrikes, Bohemian Waxwings, Snow Buntings, Lapland Longspurs, and Horned Larks. Some years an abundance of Northern Owls are seen as their food sources dwindle in their northern territories. A lucky winter birder might catch a glimpse of a Great Gray Owl, a Snowy Owl or even a Northern Hawk Owl. Great Gray Owls were seen in late January in and around both Ottawa and Montreal. There is a chance they will move into northern Vermont before winter is over. The Great Gray is a large owl with a wingspan stretching to almost 4 ½ feet. For many, seeing a Great Gray owl is a once in a life-time event.
Dramatic irruptions are being tracked and studied in a variety of ways. Scientists can use data collected during Christmas Bird Counts, Project Feeder Watch, and the Great Backyard Bird Count to see when birds arrive and where they go. The Great Backyard Bird Count occurs from February 15-18 and is open to everyone! For more information about how to participate see http://www.birdsource.org/gbbc.
If you are near Huntington, Vermont on February 16 there will be a bird walk at the Green Mountain Nature Center from 8-10 AM (see vt.audubon.org for more details). The Birds of Vermont Museum will be open from 10 AM – 3 PM so visitors can view the bird feeding station, explore the museum exhibits, drink bird friendly coffee, and learn more about the Great Backyard Bird Count.
Winter is a great time to enjoy birds!
Post by Erin Talmage, Executive Director of the Birds of Vermont Museum. This article also appears in Vermont Great Outdoors Magazine, a digital publication.