Feathered Friends: Neat birds are everywhere

By Hans Kunze
Special to The Spectator
A Carolina wren at Janie Ferguson's bird feeder in Cameron Mills, Steuben County.

So many of you have had great birding experiences this winter. The surge of consistent cold weather and snow over the last six weeks has pushed more birds to the feeding station and has challenged several species of other birds.

I have had made some neat observations as well in the little bit of free time that I have had. I will share some of what I have been enjoying. Many opportunities are still present as March generally has plenty of winter in it – along with plenty of signs of spring!

The last week of February brought our feeding station snow buntings! These far northern ground birds of the open fields rarely come to a feeding station. However, with the heavy snow cover they can’t find many weed seeds in the fields. Our home is near some open fields, thus seeing them gleaning seeds around our open yard and feeding station is really not that surprising. The many other birds present also help draw them in. Snow buntings rarely perch in trees, but they were sitting on top of our spruce tree and on our house and chimney. These snow buntings are generally seen in huge flocks and when they fly are very white and silvery when they bank in unison over the field or the road. A farmer in Perry had recently spread a significant amount of waste corn silage that was loaded with corn over near Perry. The concentrated population of snow buntings and horned larks was impressive.

Speaking of horned larks, with the fields so covered with deep snow, many can now be seen along country roadsides searching for food and probably some grit. If you see birds ahead of you and if you drive real slow as you approach them, you can get a very good look at them - especially if you have some binoculars. They are pairing off and I believe are early nesters.

For the first time in several weeks, we finally had a flock of turkeys here on the farm searching for missed corn. Where they have been hiding all winter is a mystery to many. The huge acorn crop from 2020 hopefully has helped them, though the deer and squirrels are pretty good at eating or harvesting them. Turkeys can also eat wild grapes, berries, and sumac to get through the winter. I’m sure we will see many more turkeys in the coming weeks.

At the home farm we have this huge poison ivy vine that has totally inundated an old arborvitae tree for many years now. That vine is a prolific producer of white poison ivy berries. Over the winter I have often noticed a flicker in that general area and I began to realize that it may be eating those berries. Sure enough, with a little closer scrutiny, the flicker is making a daily meal in that tree. The flicker has also been enjoying the peanut feeder. Up close, it’s quite revealing how much bigger a flicker is than a red-bellied woodpecker. As you know, flickers get most of their spring and summer diet from feeding on the ground insects - especially ants.

We have discussed the irruption of northern finches this year. It seems like most have migrated further south for the winter. Hopefully we will see them as they gradually make their way back north over the coming months. The common redpolls have actually become much more popular over the last few weeks. These birds also like feeding in large open weedy fields, but often perch in trees along wood margins. You may have some at your feeding station. Look for the distinct black chin and red forehead. They are the size of a goldfinch and seem to prefer nyjer seed, but also eat sunflower and white millet.

A couple of weeks ago, Leslie and I took a walk at our South Warsaw property where we have a newly planted alfalfa field which had a healthy crop of late-season lambsquarters (weeds) come in. I was actually glad about that as I knew these weed seeds would be of great value for winter field birds. Sure enough, on our walk we enjoyed watching a flock of about 125 redpolls. When they flew up in a large tight flock it was an amazing sight with the sun shining on their raspberry markings and their black chins and red foreheads against their whitish bodies.

If you are feeding the birds you may have interesting irregulars visiting such as Carolina wren, sapsucker, flicker, towhee, white-crowned sparrow, song sparrow, and several others. Usually during mid to late February several of us see the first few red-winged blackbirds arrive at the feeding station. I have not seen much action lately, but we are on the brink! We did have two red-wings show up for two days on Feb. 1 and 2 which seemed awful early.

A downy woodpecker at Janie Ferguson's bird feeder in Cameron Mills, Steuben County.

So many signs of spring are here and will become more evident in March. Several birds are singing including the titmice, chickadees, nuthatches, cardinals, and house finches. Very soon you will hear the song sparrows sing their familiar songs. Longer daylight is a sign of spring, not only to us, but to the birds. Great horned owls are nesting and soon bald eagles will be as well. The many deer roadkills have helped many eagles survive the winter given the heavy ice cover over most bodies of water this winter.

Think spring because it is really close! Keep feeding the birds as there is little natural food out there! Enjoy the birds and pay attention to what’s at your feeding station and beyond!