by Hari Balasubramanian
It's hard to spot new birds during Massachusetts winters (I don't own a house with a yard or a bird feeder, which makes it doubly hard). The hundreds of species that make their home or pass through here are more easily observed in spring, summer and early fall. But last Tuesday – a bone chillingly cold but sunny day in Amherst – I ran into four species all at once. I had come out for a walk in a quiet part of town, a dead end street where an unpaved hiking trail leads to a pond. The unusually high levels of noise in the trees suggested that a lot of birds were active. The repeated deep thuds I was hearing indicated that woodpeckers were around, hammering on tree trunks.
So here are the species that I spotted, from left to right (picture assembled from Wikipedia images): the eastern blue bird; the black capped chickadee; the female downy woodpecker (the male has slight red marks on the head); the misleadingly named red-bellied woodpecker because the prominent red or orange patch is actually on the bird's curved head. The chickadee is the smallest of the four, and the red-bellied woodpecker the largest. Overall, nothing really surprising here – these are all common winter birds. But as an amateur bird watcher, I felt a special joy stumbling upon them; it felt, at least in those few moments, as if some special secret of nature had been unexpectedly revealed.
Some other things I've noticed this winter: (1) starlings, dozens of them somersaulting gracefully in the air in unison, literally a dance to avoid death, an attempt to disorient hawks that are hunting them (something similar to what's happening in this video. On a different note, the 150 million starlings in North America today are descended from the 60 odd European starlings that were deliberately introduced to New York's Central Park in 1890 by “a small group of people with a passion to introduce all of the animals mentioned in the works of William Shakespeare” — talk about literature influencing ecology!); (2) young wild turkey, moving black specks from a distance, foraging in a snow covered meadow (here's a previous piece on wild turkey); and (3) a few weeks ago, at twilight, the mysterious, round faced barred owl, the only owl I've ever seen, well camouflaged against the bark of a tree, very similar to this picture.
That will be it – a short post this time. A very happy new year to all at 3QD! My ten essays from last year are all collected here.