Category Archives: Birds

The Pond in Winter

Wow, what a warm winter it’s been! Although today is predicted for a high of 37 (F), as those of you who live in this area know, the temperature has been in the 50s for weeks – very warm for December in New England. Christmas is nearly upon us, but the lack of seasonally-appropriate weather seems to have robbed almost everyone I know of a sense of “Christmas spirit”. (At least, amongst those who celebrate Christmas.)

On the up side, the warmer weather means I have gotten to go outdoors at lunchtime and take photographs! I am by no means a professional photographer, but I’ve been experimenting with a loaner camera.  Not surprisingly, wildlife photos are proving to be very difficult (the lag time causes me to “lose” the subject, and focus can be a challenge), but here are some early efforts.


Mallard 121315
Male Mallard 12/14/15
Canada Goose 201415
Canada Goose 12/14/15
Black Ducks 121615
American Black Ducks 12/14/15

We also had this unexpected visitor: a red-necked grebe in winter plumage. It is unusual to see this bird on such a small body of water. It was a bit shy and stayed in the middle of the pond.

121415 red-necked grebe Umass Amherst pond copy
Red-necked Grebe 12/14/15

Photos aside, this warmer weather does not signify anything good about the condition of our planet. Here’s to colder temperatures in the days to come!

Fall bird migration

By Martin (originally posted to Flickr as 041006) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
By Martin (originally posted to Flickr as 041006) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons
A couple of days ago I re-read Mary Oliver’s famous poem, Wild Geese, a lovely piece which got me thinking about bird migration. This semester I have been taking a fall birding class through the Hitchcock Center with Scott Surner, from the Hampshire Bird Club. We have been focusing on fall plumages; though I had previously considered myself to be a reasonably decent birder, I now realize that my skills are not nearly as good as I had thought!

The old Peterson’s Field Guide page entitled “Confusing Fall Warblers” is only  the tip of the iceberg; trying to identify the fall and winter plumages of not only warblers but shorebirds and many others is like starting all over again, without the benefit of song to help with the id. I have had to buy a new field guide as, alas, my old Peterson’s is not quite up to the task. Now I am on to National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of Eastern North America, which is serving me much better this season.

In an effort to improve my learning, I have also done a few pencil drawings of various birds; they are just copies of what’s in the book, but they are definitely improving my memory for the next time I see a flash of movement or color through the trees. Maybe I will post some of this work after my artistry improves.

If you are interested in fall migration and want to know what is coming through your area when, check out the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Regional Migration Forecast; this week’s post includes a terrific close-up of a loon with a beady red eye:

Owls in February

In recent days, we have been the ever-so-lucky recipients of an “arctic blast”, exceptionally cold air pulled down by the jetstream from more northern climes. The wind chill has been much worse than the actual temperature; it was supposed to be -31 a couple of nights ago. I personally did not confirm this, preferring to stay inside and watch another episode of “Bones”.

By William H. Majoros via Wikimedia Commons
By William H. Majoros via Wikimedia Commons

On the upside, in spite of the cold weather, nature presses on. Believe it or not, now is this time (in New England, anyway) when great horned owls should be nesting, skunks mating, and redpolls arriving from their southern homes. If the weather warms up tonight (which is predicted), I might go out walking through the snow, listening for great horned owls. This is what I will be listening for:

Of course, great horned owls aren’t the only owls you might hear at night. Cornell’s Ornithology Lab offers a download of a variety of owl calls that you might encounter.

And, for the real bird dorks among us (like me), here’s their livecam of a great horned owl’s nest in Savannah, Georgia. This is what we in New England have to look forward to in the upcoming months!

The nest, originally built by a pair of bald eagles, now contains the female and two baby owlets, hatched in early February. For video highlights dating back to mid-December, see here:

Happy owling!

To feed or not to feed?

In recent years, a controversy has sprung up around the time-honored and very popular tradition of backyard bird feeding. Once viewed as an unabashedly positive activity (“Look, I’m helping the birds!”), a couple of recent studies done in the U.K. have indicated that feeder-fed blue tits and great tits (relatives of the chickadee) laid fewer eggs, had lower hatching success, and ultimately fledged fewer chicks. (The question of “why?” was not answered.) It is important to note that these are only a few studies amongst many that have shown positive benefits. Other studies have shown the exact opposite impact: earlier laying dates, larger clutch size, and higher overall breeding success. A study of chickadees in Wisconsin showed a dramatically improved over-winter survival rate (69% for feeder-fed birds, vs. 37% for non-feeder-fed birds). (For more details, see here:

By Ano Lobb (Flickr: Black Capped Chickadee hovering at feeder) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
By Ano Lobb (Flickr: Black Capped Chickadee hovering at feeder) [CC BY 2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons
So, what’s a nature-lover to do? I tend to err on the “feed” rather than the “not-feed” side, given the preponderance of evidence – and, for better or for worse, the fact that I enjoy backyard birdwatching. I currently have only two feeders: a standard tube-type, which I fill with sunflower seeds, and a suet feeder. That’s not a lot of feeders, and the birds don’t come very often; only every few days, rather than all day, every day, as has been my prior experience. I suspect that a neighbor provides a better food supply, and the birds only come to my yard when that runs dry. Alas! If the ground wasn’t frozen, I might add some more feeders. In the interim, I am investigating a heated water supply, though this is probably unnecessary, as birds have long-since adapted to northern winter weather without such fancy, modern devices.

By Ted [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Photo by Ted [CC BY-SA 2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons
For a brief but thorough and non-commercial summary of bird feeding tips, see Minnesota DNR’s page, here:

Happy birding!