I really am something of a lazy birder in winter. Winter birding in Ontario, or indeed much of the northeast, tends to one of two approaches: (a) know the hotspots, the key locales, and make trips out to these places to look for birds, or (b) do your local stuff and just be content with whatever you happen to see. I very much fall into the latter category. Which means I tend not to see too much once the summer birds leave town, but that’s okay with me. I appreciate what I do see.
For instance. We (read: Dan, who’s got a wonderful get-r-done attitude when it comes to such projects around the house, a highly-desirable trait in a man, IMHO) put up our feeders last week. Within hours we had chickadees coming to them. Within days, we were up to six species. Just over a week later, my tally stands at 12 species, and the feeders are always busy. It’s amazing how quickly word spreads!
Curiously, while we’re still waiting on common species such as Downy Woodpecker (which actually isn’t all that common in our neck of the woods), we’ve had a few rather interesting (for me) birds drop by. The first one I was alerted to by the sound of some unhappy chickadees in the lilac bush beside the feeders. Can you see him?
Here’s a shot a little bit closer. It took me a moment to pick him out from amidst the tangle of twigs, but I was delighted with what I saw: a first-winter male Sharp-shinned Hawk. I knew he was male because of his size – Sharpies are small to begin with, but the males can be absolutely tiny. This guy wasn’t a whole lot larger than the Blue Jays that were also coming to the feeder. And I knew it was a first-winter because of the brown plumage, streaked breast and, especially, the yellow iris (adults would be gray-blue, red-barred and orange, for the three characteristics respectively).
As for Sharp-shinned Hawk over the nearly-identical Cooper’s Hawk… Well, the size was a giveaway, for one. But even besides that, I’ve always found Coopers to have heavy brow ridges and a thicker bill that give them a decidedly fierce look. This one lacked those features and looked dainty in comparison. He flew up to the maple after a bit, where we could get much better looks at him, but where he was unfortunately backlit for photos.
Many folks would dislike having a hawk hanging around the feeders and potentially preying on the smaller birds, but I don’t mind. The hawk is still going to eat small birds for dinner, whether he does it in our yard where we can see him, or out in the forest where he’s out of sight. He’s not going to eat more than he needs to survive (unlike cats, for instance, which hunt and kill out of instinct rather than hunger), so he won’t ravage our bird population. And him coming to our unnatural aggregation of small birds is no different than the small birds coming to our unnatural aggregation of seed.
The only time hawks become a “problem” around feeders is if they start hanging around so routinely that the small birds no longer come to the feeders (or, if you’re a bit squeamish and you find a larger hawk has started leaving its leftovers behind in the yard, I suppose, though I’d personally find that fascinating). The easiest way to encourage a “problem” hawk to leave is simply to stop putting seed out for a week or so. If there’s no seed, there will be no little birds; if there are no little birds, there will be no hawk. Once the hawk moves on to a new hunting ground you can start putting seed out again, and your little birds will return quickly.
Then there was this guy: a bright male Purple Finch. Although he’s not an especially rare or unusual species, per se, he was the first one to turn up at the feeders and I’ve always had a soft spot for them. He’s uncommon enough that we’re unlikely to have more than half a dozen individuals or so visit our feeders at any given time over the winter. Their numbers are declining in much of their range, and this includes Ontario. Back where I grew up in the Toronto area we might, in a good year, have a couple pairs come to the feeder in the winter. Our current house lies in one of the high-abundance regions of the province for this species, so we see a few more, though not a lot more.
And finally, what was probably the most exciting visitor so far this fall: a female Evening Grosbeak. She lingered at the feeder just long enough for me to decide to get my camera’s long lens out, but not long enough for me to actually get a photo. The first bag of seed we bought, thinking it was sunflower, turned out to be a millet-heavy mixed bag with very little sunflower. She wasn’t that taken by the mix and didn’t hang around long enough to see the sunflower we rushed out to get as soon as we spotted her.
The last time I had an Evening Grosbeak visiting the feeders of the house I was living in was about 15 years ago or so, while I was young enough to be still considered “growing up”, and well before I’d taken up birding as a hobby. I recall the birds being nearly annual when I was a child in the 80s (or that part of the 80s that I was old enough to remember), but numbers petered out into the 90s, and then they stopped coming altogether.
The decline is due to the forestry industry’s control of Spruce Budworm outbreaks, the timing of which corresponds nearly exactly. Evening Grosbeaks are budworm specialists in the summer, even becoming pseudo-nomadic to take advantage of the bounty afforded by outbreaks, and the suppression of these outbreaks has meant a corresponding decline in all of the bird species that depend on them (the grosbeaks aren’t the only ones – several species of warbler are also strongly tied to budworm outbreaks). When I was growing up, budworm outbreaks affected between 8 million and 18 million hectares (20-45 million acres) annually. Since 2000 the average area affected in a given year is only a fraction of that: 81k to 337k hectares (200k-830k acres).
On the other hand, Evening Grosbeaks aren’t originally native to eastern North America. They’re from the west, and moved east as human activity started to create more extensive tracts of the sort of habitat (and vegetative communities) that they prefer. The first breeding record of the species in Ontario wasn’t until 1920, up at the Manitoba border. Twelve years later they’d reached Algonquin Provincial Park. Survey data suggest that Ontario population peaked in the 80s. That said, they’re also on the decline in other parts of Canada, even where they’re historically native – most likely also due to Spruce Budworm control.
So. My first Evening Grosbeak feeder-visit in a decade and a half… you can imagine I was pretty stoked. Even though this is a pretty crummy photo, I had to have a record shot. She had, fortunately, not gone far when she left the feeder – she’d flown into one of the big maples in the yard and was eating maple keys, the few that hadn’t ever gotten around to falling off the tree. Dan had heard some flying overhead a few days before she showed up, and yesterday he noticed a male and a female at the top of the big maple. They didn’t come down to the feeder, but I’m hopeful that we’ll have a few grosbeaks visiting this winter. [I should probably have saved all that budworm info for a later post... but you know if I did, we won't end up seeing any.]