I love birds. I became a bird watcher about the same time as I became a mother. I think I wanted my children to notice all the glories of nature…including birds. Much to my delight, my daughter now eagerly accompanies me on bird walks whenever we have time together to do so.
Earlier this past week, my daughter and husband were having breakfast when something amazing happened. Hundreds, maybe even thousands of grackles swooped through our back yard, settling on our hill and in our yard. There were dozens trying to squeeze into our bird bath (in which we keep a heater to keep the ice from forming). The “gang of grackles” stayed around for about ten minutes, then suddenly just took off. Apparently, winter flocks of grackles “may number in the hundreds of thousands.” (Smithsonian Handbooks: Birds of New England DK Publishing, NY. 2002)
This type of invasion happened once before several years ago in our yard with a “raft of robins” who blew in one snowy day. They huddled like Christmas ornaments on our shrubs and bare tree branches, then disappeared.
My daughter and I took our favorite local walk on Sunday, on a path alongside an inlet of the Long Island Sound. It is about a mile long, so it satisfies the need to exercise with the desire to see the birds du jour! It’s always a surprise…you never know what you will find.
Winter happens to be a favorite time for birding. I love how the beauty and delicacy of the birds stand out in stark contrast to the bleakness of winter, the drabness of the environment without leaves or blooms to soften it, and the absolute quiet of a cold, winter day.
Walking along the wetlands that lead to the path, we saw a large group of dark brown ducks, but were unable to identify them since they were too far away. But then….we got lucky! As we walked onto the path along the shore, we soon spotted a pair of mergansers bobbing on the waves, paddling parallel to us. They were hooded mergansers which have incredibly shaped heads that they love to show off.
We watched them through our binoculars for a few minutes, then continued on our way.
Shortly thereafter, my daughter spotted a sizeable group of black and white ducks bobbing at some distance from the shore. They were quite raucous and made quite an impression. A quick thumbing through our bird guide helped us to identify them as Old Squaws. Their markings are patterned like black and white Native American Indian blankets; they squabble like a bunch of “old squaws.” I’ll bet that’s how they got their name.
We walked back on the path past the empty osprey nests, which in about a month or so will begin to show signs of life. The egrets and herons, so abundant during the warmer months, were nowhere to be seen and are probably enjoying sunnier shores. As we drove home we were very excited that we had seen a type of bird not often seen in these parts and proud of ourselves for having made the effort on a cold winter day to come out to see them.
We returned home to find a resplendent cardinal at our bird feeder in our backyard. His feathers were brighter than most cardinals and he has visited us a few times lately. He might even become a regular.