Community Connection: wondering about winter birds

About the third week in February, when the hellebores, snowdrops, and crocuses are peeking out of the snow, I usually hear from my mom. It could be a text, a phone call, or in some years, a written letter: “Katie, I saw my first spring robin today. Spring is coming and warmer weather is just a few short weeks away.” She and I have had a competition for years and years, about who could spy the first spring robin.  

Recently, my mother and I have had discussions that we have been seeing more and more robins stay around all winter. I looked into this further and questioned Lee Minicuci, Lead Fire Ecology Technician at Silas Little Experimental Forest in the Pinelands, and a former field ecologist for the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection.

He explained: “Some populations of robins do migrate south, but most of them are year-round residents of the lower 48. However, their behavior does change in a way that would make it seem like they disappear for short spells during the winter. They’ll form nomadic flocks and head to the woods, mainly foraging on berries and seeds that persist on branches through the winter (holly, crab apple, juniper). When the conditions are good, like a mild winter, they’ll still use backyards and fields to forage for worms.”

Minicuci’s acute knowledge of ornithology may have changed this mother-daughter competition but our new knowledge makes my mother and me better birders.

Junco

This year, my mother told me she already had a sign on her deck that winter was coming: a dark-eyed junco was eating the fallen bird seed from her feeder. The dark-eyed junco is a smaller, gray and white bird that migrates from northern regions in the winter. The weather here in New Jersey is a benign winter habitat compared to the winter in the northern mountain regions of Canada where juncos spend summers.

Minicuci shared with me that, “[juncos] are one of the most widespread songbird species in North America with 15 different subspecies spread across the continent. Our eastern subspecies is even known to, very rarely, venture all the way to Europe as a vagrant.”

I was walking through the Pennington Presbyterian Cemetery the day after I spoke with my mother about the juncos and there they were, perched on gravestones and old dogwoods in the cemetery. I could not help thinking about the stones, some dating back to the mid-1700s and the yearly migration of the dark-eyed juncos. They have been migrating here and landing on these stones for hundreds of years.

The dark-eyed junco and the nomadic flocks of robins are just some winter birds to look out for in the Hopewell Valley during the winter months. I find hiking and birding in the Sourlands and on Friends of Hopewell Valley Open Space trails to be most enjoyable during the winter; the trails are not overgrown, ticks are not a threat, and the trees are bare, making for excellent bird watching. In the winter months, the woods are quieter because the spring and summer migratory birds have made their journey south.

In winter, resident birds that remain in the woods include the downy woodpecker, northern flicker, nuthatch, blue jays, cardinals, tufted titmouse, chickadees, finches, sparrows and the cedar-waxwing. You may be lucky enough to find a winter day when the snow is falling softly and the woods are quiet except for the echo of a hammering woodpecker searching for insects in the bark of a tree.

My mother and I might have to reconsider our spring robin competition. Maybe, with our new knowledge, we will have to compete to see the first dark-eyed junco. I will continue to share my sightings from the woods and she will share her birdwatching from her chair, looking out at winter birds on her feeder.

Try to look out for some of these winter birds this season and maybe share the simple joy of birding with a loved one.

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