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BRUCE MACTAVISH: The entertaining birds of winter

The beautiful green-winged teal provides high entertainment value for those visiting Kelly’s Brook in St John’s.
The beautiful green-winged teal provides high entertainment value for those visiting Kelly’s Brook in St John’s.

The entertainment value of birds is being appreciated by a wider selection of people during this time of the pandemic, so says the media. Birdwatching has been deemed a healthy activity for the mind and soul by mental health experts. Many of the readers of this column already knew this.

What birds are entertaining us in this month of January?

Feeder watchers entice the birds to come to them by putting out bird food. The parade of visiting birds provides entertainment throughout the day.

It may be just your regular juncos and goldfinches, but the birds are individuals. You become familiar with your flock. You notice the changes through the winter.

When something new shows up it adds a little spice to your day. It could be a mid-winter influx of pine siskins or purple finches. Some waxwings might drop into the yard. If you are extra lucky you may have a rare bird at your feeder. There are at least five bird feeders on the island of Newfoundland that are currently hosting the crowning glory of feeder birds, the northern cardinal. None is happier than 13 year old Alexander Merrigan of Corner Brook who has a female cardinal at his feeder.

Sharon Basha of St. John’s is experimenting with feeding a yellow-breasted chat at her St. John’s bird feeder. Suet is the standard food to try to keep these exotic birds happy but it is also visiting the tray of leftovers put out for the crows.

A rare brown thrasher at a Pasadena bird feeder has been an early 2021 gift for a number of west coast birders.

The mild weather is having a minor effect on the number of birds visiting bird feeders. There is not much wild food to be found in the cones on the coniferous tree or berries on the dogberry trees this winter.

So the juncos and other birds are regular feeder attendees even with the bare ground in many parts of the island.

The entertainment from the world of birds is occasionally violent with a mixed blessing for the observer.

John Brattey in the east end of St. John’s witnessed a northern goshawk chasing a pigeon when they smacked into a house window and smashed it! The pigeon fell to the ground stone dead while the goshawk circled around and came to rest in a nearby tree.

After a couple of minutes, not showing any obvious sign of injury, the goshawk flew down to the ground, picking up its prize and flew to another backyard to eat its hard earned but tenderized lunch. That was a once in a life time kind of bird entertainment.

A northern mockingbird on Rennies Mill Road in St John’s has been teasing birders. It is living on the berries in holly bushes and other ornamental shrubbery in the lush gardens of the beautiful old properties of this section of town.

A master at remaining concealed in the dense vegetation, a birder’s patience is tested while waiting for it to come out. I hope the residents in the area realise the people strolling the sidewalks in their neighbourhood with binoculars around their necks are harmless and just looking for a glimpse of this rare grey and white bird.

Amazing Kelly’s Brook

Kelly’s Brook is hardly known to people outside of the birding community. It is a short piece of brook that comes out of a pipe at Carpasian Road and runs between St. Pat’s Ball Park and Empire Avenue before emptying into the Rennies River. It is a little oasis for insect eating birds and an entertainment centre for birdwatchers. The warm water coming from the underground drainage system creates a microclimate where active insects survive for weeks beyond normal best before dates into early winter.

Every year Kelly’s Brook attracts a few warblers that lingered beyond their normal fall departure dates. With the mild temperatures of early winter Kelly’s Brook is now hosting an exceptionally late Tennessee warbler, a yellow warbler and two black-and-white warblers.

They are able to find an abundance of insects low in the willow trees near the water. The creek is also a great place to watch green-winged teal at close range. This normally shy duck thrives on something in the mud that the other ducks don’t seem to capitalize on. They stamp their feet in the orange stained mud stirring up something edible if you are a teal.

Birds are available everywhere for the viewing. Focusing your attention on their presence and taking a second look can only be good. It costs you nothing and gives you a look into the life of another creature with similar needs to you.

We are in this world together. Birds have their own problems surviving day to day. Watching birds live gives us hope in our world. It’s not so bad.

Things will get better.

Bruce Mactavish is an environmental consultant and avid birdwatcher.

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