I’ve had the opportunity to spend time in northern New England a couple of times in recent weeks. I often feel drawn to the woodsy wildness of our northern states, even in winter. The big, girthy birches and huge hemlocks, the Christmas tree smell of Balsam fir, the crunch of snowshoes breaking the heavy, snowy silence of those north woods.
The chance to see Snowshoe Hare or moose tracks or, if you are very lucky, to catch a glimpse of a bobcat crossing a road. It’s a chance to really get away from it all. But I guess I didn’t realize the extent to which “it all” included our feathered friends, because, compared with the birdy and relatively mild archipelago we call home, winter birds are a scarce commodity up there.
A few days at a cabin in the southern White Mountains of New Hampshire last week, while fun and restorative, produced precisely four species. While this included a likely Northern Goshawk that got away without a definitive id, a fleeting flyby seen from a bathroom window, the others were the ever reliable and mysteriously hardy Black-capped Chickadee, one or two White-breasted Nuthatches, and a Golden-crowned Kinglet. That’s it, even with full bird feeders at our cabin. It’s easy to get two or three times that many species within the first minute or so when I get out of my car at Wellfleet Bay sanctuary, not including the seabirds and ducks waiting further along the trails.
Back in January we spent a few days in the more urban and suburban habitats of Burlington, Vermont. There on the shores of Lake Champlain, things were a little birdier than in the mountains, but not much. Three days in that area produced 16 species, including ducks and gulls on the lake, a total I can easily surpass in a few hours of feeder watching at my suburban house. Granted we spent more time birding from the windows of the many excellent local breweries than actually out looking for birds, but I did put in some effort.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not looking to disparage the birdiness of our northern neighbors – with a little research, a proper winter birding trip to the north woods can produce special birds we don’t see around here, like Canada Jay, Boreal Chickadee, and Spruce Grouse, as well as scarce winter wanderers like Pine Grosbeaks and Bohemian Waxwings. Plus, some of their dearth of birds this winter is attributable to poor crops of acorns and other seeds, forcing normally expected species like Blue Jays and Red-breasted Nuthatches to move south. And in breeding season, their rich forests fairly thrum with the songs of the warblers, tanagers, and flycatchers that mainly just pass through our area.
But in winter, it’s hard to beat the Cape and Islands, with our rich mix of ducks, seabirds, songbirds, and raptors. Just in the last week, Cape Cod birders have reported 118 species. Our ocean-moderated climate and rich coastal thickets means that a neighborhood stroll can produce birds you would almost never see up north in winter, like Eastern Towhee, Hermit Thrush, and Gray Catbird. We can also boast of an almost unmatched parade of rare birds, like this winter’s Sage Thrasher and Townsend’s Warbler, Tufted Duck and Eared Grebe, plus the crazy rare Varied Thrush that turned up on Nantucket last week. So when you look out on the relatively cold, bleak landscape and get those winter blues, think of the less fortunate birders further north and count your blessings. Just don’t get too crazy and cancel that winter getaway to Florida – they have way more birds than we do….