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Tips for finding birds after a snowstorm

Northern Pintail
Veit Irtenkauf
Northern Pintail

Well, we survived another storm, and this one left behind a genuine rarity for the Cape and Islands – persistent, deep snow. This week I’d like to talk about how snow affects birds and birding, as well as give an update on some storm blown birds and other patients in the local wildlife rehab.

On the rare occasions that we see a blanket of snow for more than a day or two on top of an extended period of freezing temperatures, there are some reliable strategies for finding birds. The obvious way to find ducks is to check open water patches, where they can be incredibly concentrated. Among the densely packed common species you should check for unusual species like Northern Pintail. Or like the Tufted Duck, a species from Europe, currently on Long Pond in Harwich – good luck finding it among the nearly 1000 lookalike scaup it hangs out with.

For many birds, open ground can be as important as open water is for ducks – look for any patch of bare ground, whether it’s along roads or some wind-scoured spot in a field. Every patch of grass or dirt is valuable to birds after a big snowfall, and you may find something interesting scratching around in unexpected places. Even parking lots with a coating of car-smashed acorns have been known to host rare birds.

When the bays and marshes freeze up in this weather, birds like rails, bitterns, and marsh sparrows may be displaced and easier to find in the upper marsh on high tides. Shorebirds get concentrated on certain beaches, especially south facing beaches that lack the Arctic-style ice floes that currently line the bay, or those where creeks or groundwater seeps keep a shoreline ice free.

You could also take the passive approach and just keep those feeders stocked and bird baths thawed. Deep snow is hard on birds who feed in leaf litter, like Carolina Wrens. Too much snow for too long can crash their population for several years. Look for them and many other species hitting feeders more often now. Feeders around the Cape are hosting several Western Tanagers and Painted Buntings right now, with one lucky Orleans resident hosting both a stunning male Painted Bunting and a glowingly bright Yellow-breasted Chat since the storm, a rare bird two-fer that just seems unfair.

I continue to occasionally host what is technically the rarest bird on Cape Cod of late - a seasonally rare Indigo Bunting still visits my feeders every few days, representing the latest record ever for the Cape and Islands, and the second latest for Massachusetts. She survived the storm but where she spends most of her time is a mystery – I see her at my feeder once a week at most. Birds are more resilient than we realize in the face of harsh weather.

The storm did bring a few seabirds by the usual storm-birding theater at First Encounter Beach in Eastham, where up to 3 Atlantic Puffins were reported passing by on Sunday, along with several Dovekies and Thick-billed Murres. Dovekies invariably get stranded by these storms, with no fewer than 17 being treated at Wild Care in Eastham right now. One of those landed in a yard in Eastham during the storm, where it scooched along for quite a way on its belly, moving itself forward by rowing its wings and leaving a beautiful and mysterious pattern in the snow along the way. Luckily it was scooped up by Mass Audubon Cape Cod director Melissa Lowe who brought it to Wild Care.

That gang of convalescing Dovekies is joined by a local celebrity Snowy Owl that crashed and burned into Provincetown Harbor last week — it had a bum wing following a dust up with some crows. That bird is reportedly doing well, and was probably better off getting herself indoors before the storm.

I suspect there are many storm displaced and hungry birds yet to be discovered out there, so double check those feeders, ponds, harbors, and bare ground patches. Report what you see to eBird, maybe even a Facebook group, or to me. I probably won’t be able to push away from my computer or abandon my young children long enough to see any of these birds, but I like to live vicariously through you guys.

Mark Faherty writes the Weekly Bird Report.