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Column: Backyard Birder Jan. 24, 2013

I write this chilly morning as waves of redpolls come and go at the feeders and scatter about on crusty snow out under the old pear tree. I don’t know what they find to glean there, but I suspect they’re eating snow.

Our morning visitors number over 100, easily. They swirl about in such constant motion that counting isn’t possible.

Their visits are longer and more frequent on these cold mornings. Frigid temperatures require more fuel to keep their little furnaces burning.

This is a redpoll winter. See a large flock of small birds and it’s sure to be common redpolls, irregular visitors, down from their northern home range.

Common redpolls are circumpolar, residents of all northern latitudes. In years of cyclical food scarcity up north, down they come.

I remember well the first invasion of redpolls when I started out as a birding late bloomer, eager to learn everything about birds as soon as I could. I’d been told to keep an eye out for flocks feeding on a redpoll’s favorite food: birch seeds.

Sure enough, in November that year, just such a flock showed up out back in a clump of birch and poplars at field edge.

Carl was the bird photographer back then. He used up a roll of film clicking away as we stepped closer and closer, not knowing when they would startle up and away.

They never did flee, and soon we were in their midst for unhurried camera clicks and good views of these close goldfinch relatives, slightly larger and much more streaked, with raspberry crowns and black chins. The males have a blush of red on their fronts.

The handful of northern species that irrupt south are from unpopulated subarctic regions and they don’t pay much attention to humans. That explained why we were able to approach so closely.

Flocks at feeders, however, are a skittish bunch, and it appears that the larger the flock the more skittish they are.

As I have so many times over the years, I call Meade Cadot for reasons why. Meade just retired from 37 years at the Harris Center for Conservation Education. Deservedly he’s been honored with just about every environmental award there is. Lucky for us, he’s still around as Naturalist Emeritus with office space at the Harris Center.

Meade says that flocks need to be wary as they’re easily observed and therefore an easy target for sharp-shinned hawks and a couple other raptors that prey on songbirds. He mentions large flocks of shorebirds rising as one for similar reasons. “Lots of eyes,” he says, and all it takes is a couple hyper-anxious birds responding to a perceived threat — albeit a false alarm — and off they swirl.

Single birds often freeze, motionless, when they sense a predator in the area. That’s not an option for 100 birds.

We have a white-breasted nuthatch regular at the feeders that freezes often. One day it clung upside-down to a storm window mullion by the delicate talon at the end of one toe. I feared it was a victim of a window crash, somehow impaled in the process.

Examining it close-up through the window, I saw it blink. Ten minutes or so later, off it flew.

When the redpolls finally rise up and away, in come the smaller goldfinch gang, 15 at the most. There’s one lone dark-eyed junco that somehow missed out when winter junco flocks were forming. It’s unusual to see a single junco.

And then there’s the bluebird fabulous five.

We’ve added another line item to our birdfeeding budget: dried meal worms. I’ve offered raisins, cut apples and shredded suet but all have been rejected for the more expensive alternative. Each morning I put out a cup of so of meal worms and they’re gone pretty quick.

I’ve heard many reports of bluebirds this winter, confirming a trend reported by New Hampshire Audubon: increasing numbers of overwintering bluebirds and robins.

Audubon’s annual backyard bird survey is Feb. 9 to 10. Redpolls by the thousands are likely to be reported. Participating in the count is great fun. Check the website at www.nhaudubon.org (click on “Birding”) to download a reporting form.

Over the years of keeping special watch on survey weekend, I’ve been rewarded by birds of note as well as the many other pleasures that come from careful observation.

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