Annual winter vigil at crabapple tree

Out the window as I sit down to write, four bluebirds wait their turns at the dish of dried mealworms out on the platform birdfeeder.

It’s midday, but feeder activity is high. Birds sense barometric pressure, and I wonder if a storm is on the way.

In flies another notable, a red-bellied woodpecker. He gleans sunflower seeds dropped from feeders suspended above the platform. He hops over to take a quick look into the mealworm dish but resumes plucking hulled sunflower seeds.

Mealworms aren’t for him.

His Day-Glo orange crown is shockingly bright against November’s sober palette.

Red-bellied woodpeckers are increasing in numbers, but these newcomers from the south remain rare enough that they’re always a distraction. Whoever notices the woodpecker that doesn’t look like a woodpecker makes the announcement: “Red-bellied.”

The current distraction flies off, revealing a white rump patch shared with northern flickers, the other woodpecker that doesn’t look like a woodpecker. Flickers head south in the winter, however.

The bluebirds, two males and two females, resume feeding after the interloper departs. I am conflicted about continuing to offer mealworms with the thought that bluebirds should be heading south. However, it’s food more than cold that determines bird behavior including migration. Feathers are a brilliant adaptation to cold.

In late summer people often wonder if they should take their hummingbird feeders down, fearful they’ll cause hummingbirds to stay north too long.

Not to worry, I always say. Birds know when it’s time to go, and I have to assume that’s true for our November bluebirds.

As for seasonal migration, most bird species are predictable. When the time is right they head south, often following the same exact route each fall as well as the same timetable.

The exceptions are the “irruptives,” northern species that stay put most winters but not all. Each winter, in response to cyclical food shortages up north, a handful of species head this way. Some winters the numbers are impressive enough to be called an “invasion.”

Pictured here is an irruptive species that’s a favorite of many. It’s a pine grosbeak female that Lillian Stokes photographed a couple weeks ago in her Hancock backyard.

The photo captures a feeding m.o. that’s messy as fruit pulp is discarded to get to the seeds within. Definitely check out the on-line Stokes Birding Blog for more photos of as well as a video of a pine grosbeak feeding on prairie fire crabapples in the Stokes backyard. It’s a backyard that’s landscaped “for the birds.”

An Internet search for “Stokes birding blog” will deliver you to the site. Scroll down to Lillian’s November 16 entry to see the video.

I check the blog regularly, both for Lillian’s photos and her entries about birds. Check out the wild turkey in flight for the Thanksgiving entry — then imagine being at the right place at the right time with the right camera to take that photo.

Just about impossible.

Lillian is a pro, and many of her photos are in the highly regarded “Stokes Field Guide to the Birds of North America” authored by Don and Lillian Stokes — from just down the road a bit. Locals.

As for which northern species to expect each winter, Ron Pittaway’s annual forecast for the Ontario (Canada) Field Ornithologists is pretty accurate. The forecast comes out each September and is based on wild food supplies across Canada — abundance and shortages.

A shortage in mountain-ash berries has launched pine grosbeaks southward. Evidently berries are few and have low moisture content because of drought conditions during the growing season.

Our local wild berry crop may not be robust enough to attract many pine grosbeaks irrupting this way, although the Pittaway report says they’ll come to feeders that offer black-oil sunflower seeds.

They would be feeder visitors not soon forgotten — and ones I’ve never heard reported.

As Lillian wrote in her blog, these exotic Canadian northerners allow close human approach and therefore are considered very tame. That’s part of their appeal.

Many northern visitors are from home territories where humans are rare and therefore not perceived as a threat. Both Lillian and her two Corgis were allowed a close approach and photo ops for Lillian.

Hawkwatcher Henry came down off the mountain in mid-November as raptor numbers declined at Audubon’s hawkwatch site on Pack Monadnock, but his reports of snaggle-billed red crossbills and white-winged crossbills were almost daily. (Henry has taken up residence at New Hampshire Audubon’s Willard Pond Wildlife Sanctuary in Antrim as resident naturalist/steward, which is great news.)

The annual local Christmas Bird Count is Saturday, Dec. 15 this year. All are welcome as teams fan out to count what we hope will be lots of irruptives. Contact Dave Rowell at to join. Eager eyes and ears, not birding skills, are what’s needed.

Join the Peterborough group and you’ll make a stop at our birdfeeders with bluebirds the goal.

Backyard Birder by Francie Von Mertens appears every other week in the Monadnock Ledger-Transcript.

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