The weekly report from the world’s birdwatching capital… by Seymore Thanu
It’s winter. NO IT’S NOT! I hear you screaming (in your mind). You’re thinking like a beachnik. You’re thinking like a calendarophile. You really ought to go outside and get a face full of reality, Bucko. The birds are saying: “It’s winter,” and when it comes to knowing seasons, my money is on the professionals.
Take Turdus migratorious for instance.
Turdus migratorious. Big, beefy, Turdidae with slate gray backs and rufous underparts. Oh, sorry, I didn’t realize I was speaking birderese. Robin. Saw one just the other day in fact.
I’m sure you did, too. There are about a million of them in Cape May County. In fact, there are more American Robins in Cape May in winter than there are during the summer. But if you did see one, chances are you didn’t see it strutting across a lawn. Chances are you saw one picking berries off a tree (like a holly tree).
Yep. Robins have switched over to a diet of fruit. Worms are what they do in spring and summer. Fruit is what robins eat in winter.
Just this morning I was standing on the front lawn staring at an overcast sky. Trying to find the wedge of white that was the source of the Snow Goose calls falling to earth. Then I noticed hordes of American Robins all heading north.
North! You mean they’re migrating again and already?
No. They were heading north to feed. Forage. The birds roost in the tidal marsh south of where I live in Cumberland County. They were leaving their roost and climbing into the sky. South leads out over the Delaware Bay (not a good place to find a holly tree). North leads to a forest just chock–filled with holly trees.
This will be the morning pattern all winter. Robins lifting off at dawn. Heading north to feed. Ergo, it’s winter. This morning was, by the Robin calendar, the first day of winter.
The Snow Geese were a resident, not a migrant, flock too. The birds were heading west, not south. And while most of the Snow Geese that winter in our coastal marshes haven’t arrived, these birds were already settled in their winter pattern.
If you go to places like Cape May Point State Park, Higbee Beach, the South Cape May Meadows, the sheets and sheets of songbirds that washed across the sky all fall are mostly gone. Gone with the season. Most winter species don’t travel great distances during the day.
American Robins are an exception. White-throated Sparrows, Hermit Thrushes, Yellow-rumped Warblers, etc. lead pretty sedentary lives, roosting close to where they forage during the day. Energy in winter is too precious to waste. Humans are just beginning to get what birds have been putting into practice all along.
Other signs of the season? No, not Christmas carols. How about bird song? There is little to none – compared to the incessant clamor on the radio, in the supermarket…
Yes, you are still hearing bird calls. They are different – single note utterances. In fact, about the only birds still singing are Carolina Wrens and possibly Northern Mockingbirds (which do maintain territories all year).
Mockingbirds may have already clammed up for the winter. In winter, aside from the occasional White-throated Sparrow and Fox Sparrow, birds are not given to song.
It’s a winter day as I write this and it’s a winter sky. Made all the more wintery by the winter patterns of birds.
Good thing I like winter. Going to see a lot of it in the weeks ahead.
If you want to enjoy some of nature’s bounty, stop over to the Cape May Bird Observatory and pick up a schedule of our winter walks. The CMBO is THE place for anything to do with nature. Located at 701 East Lake Drive overlooking Lake Lily in Cape May Point, the center is open 9:30am–4:30pm every day except Tuesdays, December through March. Our staff and volunteers are always glad to help with anything you need. Check out the schedule, pick up a free birding map and checklist and while you are there, don’t forget the newest books (including Pete Dunne’s Bayshore Summer – and Birds of Cape May – a beautiful array of photos just released by Kevin Karlson), and more. Pick up a bargain from the vintage books section, look at some of the wonderful Charley Harper merchandise, binoculars and spotting scopes. Have a nature enthusiast on your gift list? Pick up a gift card, redeemable at any of our New Jersey Audubon Centers throughout the state. And if you aren’t fortunate enough to be in the area, visit us online www.BirdCapeMay.org – where birding Cape May is only a click away.
Seymore Thanu is none other than New Jersey’s own Pete Dunne, Director of the Cape May Bird Observatory and Chief Communications Officer for New Jersey Audubon. He has written for virtually every birding publication and for The New York Times.