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BRUCE MACTAVISH: The state of the season

These evening grosbeaks stopped for a rest in Cappahayden this week. Will they be moving on or staying for the winter? BRUCE MACTAVISH PHOTO
These evening grosbeaks stopped for a rest in Cappahayden this week. Will they be moving on or staying for the winter? BRUCE MACTAVISH PHOTO - Bruce Mactavish

December has arrived, and officially it can be called a winter month.  

Living on the Avalon Peninsula, one’s definition of winter is not necessarily snow but can also be rain storms. The common saying among Avalon dwellers coming in out of a lashing rain storm is that “at least we don’t have to shovel it.” 

The pluses of a nice fluffy covering of snow are the beauty and cleanliness. The down side is that ground dwelling birds have to search harder for food.  

The sideways rain is unpleasant at the time but when it is over there are still insects flying around and worms on the sidewalks. I know all of Newfoundland and Labrador except for the Avalon is under a white blanket of snow.  

Cold and snow will eventually take over on the Avalon too but for now there is still a life here for lingering warblers that have no business being at this latitude in December. 

In the first few days of December, an amazing eight species of warbler are known to still be present. They are not just eking out an existence but appear to be thriving. They are so active and alive as if it was any day in the fall. They associate with feeding flocks of our resident chickadees and juncos.  

Unfortunately, the reality is that most of these very late warblers are living on borrowed time. All it will take is one snow storm to drastically change the outlook on life for these frail insect-eating summer time birds.  

There is still a chance some of them will migrate south to warm climates. But some are here because they drifted far off course sometime back in the warmer parts of the fall and then lost their desire or lack the know-how to correct their navigational error.  

Others like the pine warbler, yellow-throated warbler and orange-crowned warblers have the capability of altering their diet to include suet, peanut butter and fruit put out at bird feeders. There is no doubt the fate of these beautiful little warblers is a sad part of the change over from such a prolonged fall to actual winter weather.  

The Baltimore oriole is a little bigger than a warbler but similarly brightly coloured. They are orange on the breast and have two bold white bars in the wing. There are a number of these still around. They often turn to bird feeders when the weather gets cold. They will go after suet but also cut oranges and have a sweet tooth for grape jelly. They can survive a Newfoundland winter with a steady supply of good food. But, really, it is a life of desperation, as Baltimore orioles should be somewhere in Central America during the winter.  

December is not all about lingering birds. The birds that are supposed to be here in winter offer some interesting observations. Evening grosbeaks are currently putting in a strong appearance at bird feeders across the island of Newfoundland. This is a winter species that normally all but ignores the Avalon Peninsula. 

Unfortunately, the reality is that most of these very late warblers are living on borrowed time. All it will take is one snow storm to drastically change the outlook on life for these frail insect-eating summer time birds.  

However, they are widespread on the Avalon at the moment. They tend to be on the move in late fall and early winter so we cannot say if they will still be here when full on winter sets in. If you have some of the big gaudy black and golden yellow finches at your bird feeder, enjoy them now. They may be using your feeder as no more than a roadhouse stop on their route around the province looking for that perfect place to spend the winter, which is usually central Newfoundland.  

The much smaller American goldfinch is quite common in the woods right now. It they are not at your bird feeder now, they will invade later in the winter as the wild seed they are feeding on now becomes scarce.  

The dogberry trees are attracting robin and flickers. Even the juncos go after dogberries. Crows eat dogberries. Grouse eat dogberries. We are lucky in Newfoundland to have such excellent growing conditions for this tree. They provide so much excellent food for birds.  

Waxwings are scarce but there have been a few sightings of bohemian waxwings. Bohemian waxwings are a winter favourite but with erratic undependable movements all we can do is cross our fingers and hope they will come.  

On the sea side of things, there are signs of winter. The first small flocks of common eiders are arriving on the Avalon Peninsula. Long-tailed ducks are building up at traditional feeding coves and points around the island. Purple sandpipers are showing up on rocky headlands where they will spend the winter. Black guillemots are becoming a common sight around the coast like they are all winter. Great cormorants have replaced the summer time double-crested cormorants at coastal roosting sites.  

Winter has its bright spots. 

Bruce Mactavish is an environmental consultant and avid birdwatcher. He can be reached at wingingitone@yahoo.ca


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