As I write this, in late November, it is still over 75 degrees outside. It smells like autumn, and the fall colors (which are particularly spectacular and long-lasting this year) tell me that it’s autumn, even though it doesn’t feel like autumn and I don’t need a coat yet. A few weeks ago my birdbath froze, just barely, for one night, but right now it’s hard to believe it’s almost winter.
But my inner clock and the way I measure time and the seasons revolves now around the natural world and its non-human inhabitants. I know that fall and winter have arrived when I see new winter arrivals at my birdfeeders. Birds that spent the summer breeding far north of us have migrated south; some might have stopped here for a few days, just “passing through,” before they continued further south, and for others, this is where they will stop and spend their entire winter.
Most of our small winter visitors are seed-eaters. Obviously the insect-eaters must go to warmer climates than ours to find insects during the winter, so you won’t see those in your yard now. Natural food sources that were abundant during summer and early fall are severely reduced in the winter, so birds that rely on seeds and nuts frequent our birdfeeders more. You will see more finches, chickadees, sparrows, doves, corvids and others at your feeder now than you did during the summer. Once they find your feeder, they are likely to visit you all winter if you keep your feeders full. Here are some of the small seed-eaters you can expect to attract:
The Tufted Titmouse (left) and its cousin the Carolina Chickadee (top of page) are year-round residents here in southeast Virginia, and they will frequent your feeders year-round too. But I think they are much more conspicuous at our feeders during the winter months when their food sources away from your feeder are more limited. They love black oil sunflower seeds, and the Titmouse especially loves peanuts. Both these birds give the familiar dee-dee-dee call as well as their other unique calls, and since they are cousins in the same bird family, they often hang out together in the same feeding flocks.
One of my favorite bird families is the Nuthatches. Nuthatches are small birds that creep along tree limbs and trunks, prying under the bark for food. They’ll walk upside-down, sideways, and whatever way it takes to find what they want. Three kinds of nuthatches occur in the eastern United States and Virginia: the White-breasted Nuthatch, the Red-breasted Nuthatch and the Brown-headed Nuthatch. I have seen all three at my Chesapeake feeder; they too love sunflower seeds and peanuts.
The White-breasted Nuthatch (above) is the common nuthatch of deciduous eastern woods and forests, and the most widespread. It has a distinctive nasally “tin horn” call that is easy to learn, and will alert you to its presence when you hear it.
The Brown-headed Nuthatch is restricted to the southeastern United States and lives in pine woods, where its primary food source is pine seeds. Since it has a restricted range, it is a highly sought-after species for birders who do not live here. Where I live and work in Chesapeake, there are tall pines, and at both places I have heard these little guys chattering as they dance through the treetops looking for food and talking to each other. (Their chatter sounds like a squeaky rubber duck, very distinctive, and very joyful when a lot of them are talking at the same time!). Even though I heard them in my yard for years, it wasn’t until last year that they started coming down out of the treetops to my feeders, but now that they’ve discovered them, they are regular visitors.
The rarest nuthatch by far in southeastern Virginia is the Red-breasted. They breed at higher elevations, including the Virginia mountains, and in more northern and western regions. They migrate in the fall, but they do not occur in southeast Virginia every year. They are irregular fall and winter visitors here, and occasionally we have an “invasion” year when they arrive in larger numbers. Two or three years ago I hosted at least two of the beauties all winter long; their preferred food was the whole shelled peanuts in my peanut feeder. As you see from this photo (taken last week in my yard), they also love sunflower seeds.
Winter is Sparrow Season in Virginia! While we do have sparrow species that are residents here all year, they are supplemented in the winter by a variety of species that come here from the north. Many people find the sparrow family to be a confusing array of little brown birds that all look alike, but let me show you two distinctive, easy-to-identify sparrow species that you are likely to see at your feeders. In winter they are the most common sparrows in my own yard, the White-throated Sparrow and the Slate-colored Junco.
If you can get reasonably close to the White-throated Sparrow (below), you can’t help but notice its bright white throat, the stripes on its head, and the bright yellow lores (the area in front of its eyes).
The Slate-colored Junco (below) is one of several junco subspecies that occur in North America, and the only one we’re likely to see in Virginia. They breed in the mountains and in the north, and migrate to the lowlands in winter. This photo is of a bright adult male; the female has the same markings but she is more faded and less bold.
Sparrows are ground feeders and do not usually eat from the feeders we hang up, unless the feeder has a wide platform. I have a separate ground feeder that sits on my patio for them; they eat from that, and they eat seeds from the hanging feeders that have fallen to the ground.
I put out two special feeders just for finches. Finches will eat regular seed, but they also love Niger seed, also known as thistle seed. Thistle seed is relatively expensive, but since the seeds are so small, a little bit lasts a long time. I use both a tube feeder and a “sock” feeder for thistle seed.
There are many different kinds of finches; we have House Finches and American Goldfinches all year. They are comfortable in residential areas, and House Finches will build their nests right on your house. A pair has used the wreath outside my front door as a nesting spot for years, and even though they fly away in a panic every time I open the door, they return faithfully. Several people have told me that the finches build their nests in their hanging potted plants, or right on top of their front door casing, causing them to use their back doors for a few weeks so as not to disturb the process.
House Finches are pretty plain-looking brown streaky little birds; the males at least have a variable wash of red or reddish-orange coloring on their head, chest and rump. The females have no pizzazz at all, but the males love them anyway. (Male, left : Female, right)
In some years we get winter “invasions” of other kinds of finches here in Tidewater, although not nearly as many as regions further to the west. In three of the past eight winters I have seen Pine Siskins in my Chesapeake yard. At first glance, Pine Siskins look a lot like House Finches, but if you look closely you will see the varying degrees of yellow in their plumage, especially in the wings, and a much narrower and pointy bill when compared with the House Finch’s conical bill. Pine Siskins are very common in the west, but are a rare treat here.
Mixed group of Pine Siskins and American Goldfinches
I’ll continue with more about feeder birds in upcoming blog entries. If you’d like me to share some of your favorite photos or stories, please call me at 410-7141, or drop me an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. In the meantime, good birding, and keep your feeders – and birdbaths – full!