Seasonal bird irruptions bring new visitors to the backyard.
Story and Photos by Marie Read, Freeville, New York
I admit it. Upstate New York's long winters make me grumpy. But last season, I found myself enjoying winter as I never had before. What made the difference? Birds, of course!
Flocks of feathered visitors from the far north-common redpolls, pine grosbeaks, evening grosbeaks and snow buntings—enticed me out of the house. Instead of snuggling by the woodstove with a good book, I headed outdoors and into the cold, determined to capture these winter beauties with my camera.
Last winter, nature blessed the northeastern United States with a boreal songbird irruption. What's an irruption, you might wonder? It sounds like a term you might use with a volcano instead of birds.
An irruption is the term scientists use to describe unusually large numbers of non-migratory northern birds that move out of their nesting range, typically in North America's boreal forest. The birds leave the vast, wild expanse of forest, tundra and wetlands that span the width of Canada and Alaska to spend the winter farther south than normal.
Scientists say that irruptions occur because the seeds, berries and cones that birds rely on in winter are in short supply in their normal range.
I first noticed the irruption in late December while I was outside filling my feeders. From high in the bare trees, I heard a chittering sound I hadn't heard for years. I immediately knew they were common redpolls!
More and more arrived every day. Soon, a flock of more than 100 was visiting my yard. I loved to watch them raining down on the feeders and then suddenly swirling en masse to the sky in a twittering cloud, only to return and do the same thing a few minutes later.
One day, a big snowstorm came into the area, and big, fluffy flakes began tumbling from the gloomy sky. I headed out into the snow to spend the morning in my backyard photo blind, when a redpoll suddenly landed on top of a nearby small spruce. Through my lens, I watched the snowflakes landing on its crimson crown. Click! I got my shot!
Pine grosbeaks seldom visit my area, but winter brought them south last year as well. Someone told me about a flock visiting a crabapple tree every day, so early one bitterly cold morning, I decided to find them for myself.
Leaving the warmth of my woodstove, I drove an hour from my home and headed into the woods to find the tree. I carefully picked my way through deep snow and thick brambles for the best angle. Luckily, pine grosbeaks with food on their minds can be quite tame, and I was soon getting close-ups of these gorgeous birds feasting on the fruits.
Another morning, I was crunching in a snow-covered field, trying to ignore the frigid wind. My shoulders ached from carrying my heavy equipment. I quickly forgot my burden, though, as soon as I saw a swirling white flock in the distance. Snow buntings!
My area gets snow buntings every year, but nevertheless, last winter there were many more than usual. In fact, a flock of several hundred foraged in the weedy fields near my home for weeks.
All good things come to an end, and as winter loosened its grip on the land, the flocks of northern visitors slowly dwindled.
Last year's feathered beauties helped me appreciate what winter has to offer. The season of snow and ice may never be the same again!