Winter Birds: The Northeast is Actually South for Some Species
The Northeastern U.S. experiences large seasonal differences in temperature, and has among the most marked seasonality in the world. The four distinct seasons that we enjoy provide opportunities for a great diversity of bird life to thrive here. Some birds are residents and live in the northeast all year round. Common resident birds include chickadees, northern cardinals, blue jays and house sparrows.
However, most species that occur in the northeast are not residents and only spend a season or two locally. These birds are called migrants and live a good portion of the year somewhere else. For example, in late spring and summer there are a whole range of birds in the northeast that you will not see at other times of the year, such as hummingbirds, swallows, catbirds and warblers. During winter these birds are typically found in the southern U.S., and Central and South America.
There are many duck species that spend the warmer months breeding in northern Canada and beyond, which migrate south to be in the northeast during winter. Species like common goldeneye and ring-necked duck will only be found in the northeast in the colder months. During a winter walk along the coast you may see large ‘rafts’ of ducks bobbing and diving in the swell, including scoters, mergansers, eider and scaup.
For many duck species it is here in a northeast winter that pair bonding and mating occurs. Later, when waters in the far north of the continent begin to thaw, they fly north to lay their eggs and raise ducklings.
There are many other birds which spend the warmer months breeding in the tundra or boreal forests of the north, and are only seen locally when they come south in the colder months.
During the 2013-2014 winter, snowy owls irrupted spectacularly and could be readily seen during the day in many coastal areas of the northeast. The large numbers of this huge owl really captivated people.
Dark-eyed juncos, small boldly marked gray and white birds, are also called snowbirds by some, as their arrival at a bird feeder is one of the prominent signs that winter is on the way. Their reappearance is often announced with “Oh, no, the juncos are back”.
Winter also brings large numbers of gulls to parking lots and garbage dumps. These birds make a living finding food that is dropped or inappropriately disposed of. They have adapted to this new food source and have found a place to be during the colder months.
In late winter, early returning summer migrants like red-winged blackbirds reappear, bringing hope that the end of winter is near. Though there is often some waiting yet…