Words On Birds by Steve Grinley
Winter Brings a Special Challenge
January 13, 2023
By Steve Grinley
This winter has not been particularly harsh, at least not yet. There have been a few bitter cold days spaced among moderate and seasonally cold ones. Those unpleasant days remind me of the column that Doug Chickering of Newbury wrote more than a dozen years ago about the winter birding experience. I share it with you here again:
“Deep winter brings a special challenge to the spirit. The withering cold, the treacherous roads, and the relentless blizzards that fall upon us with Old Testament fury can have corrosive effects. Yet the dark season has special and unique qualities and even within its discomfort there is a pleasure. There are birds out there in winter; birds that are not there at any other time.
“One of the things I like to do to experience winter birding is to go to Plum Island in the early morning. It’s not always possible nor is it always productive but it seems always to be worth the trip. One day this year comes to mind as being more or less typical of winter birding in Essex County. I arrived at Plum Island about fifteen minutes before dawn and headed down the island to the Wardens, starting my day there for two reasons. I wanted to walk the road south and listen for great Horned Owls calling in the early hours and I wanted to walk out behind the Wardens to view the marshes and the open area before the marshes. This would be the first place to be washed with the morning sun.
“I know that the Owls characteristically nest in this area and in the early morning this time of year male and female will often vocalize to one another. It was cold; only ten degrees when I abandoned my half full cup of coffee and stepped out into the merciless cold and started walking south. At least there was no wind. The sky was light and beyond the wall of pines the sun was just pushing over the horizon and sending the first streams of light across the snow covered marshes. The arctic air was brittle, sharp and purified by the cold; still and quiet.
“The quiet of a windless winter morning on Plum Island has its own pleasure. It is quiet, not silent. The ocean rolling onto the shore beyond the trees gave the steady muted rumble background and I was amazed to be able to hear the occasional low hoarse moan of the “MR” whistle buoy at the entrance to the Merrimac River, over a mile distant. The dry cold air carries the slightest sounds of the morning. This morning, however there was no calling of Great Horned Owl, just the occasional high pitch peeps of small winter birds, out of sight back in the trees; probably Tree Sparrows or Chickadees.
“I walked back down the road and out into the sunlight in back of the Wardens. Here I was hoping for what winter passerines that there might be. Snow Buntings or, if I was lucky, a Lapland Longspur. This has been a strange winter so far; devoid of the usual winter finches. No Redpolls, or Siskins or Crossbills, and only a few sightings of Red-breasted Nuthatch. This morning though the area at the edge of the marsh in back of the refuge maintenance buildings had no birds; not even Tree Sparrows.
“As I approach the two pine trees I did notice movement down low. A gray, moderately sized bird, pushed up towards the top. Probably a Mockingbird, I thought. I see mockers here a lot. The bird finally emerged and to my delighted surprise one look at the head revealed it to be a Northern Shrike. The fact that it had almost no mask, and I could barely make out a little scalloping on the breast showed it to be a juvenile bird. As ago I witnessed another Shrike chase down and kill a male Cardinal, right nearby. At the time I remember being astounded and appalled.
“I scanned the Plum Island sound and marsh lands in back of the Wardens and managed to see the distant forms of bufflehead and Goldeneye swimming and diving through the air distortion. Then my sweep came upon a familiar white form up on a staddle. The iconic winter figure of Plum Island. A Snowy Owl. It was an adult; nearly completely white. It sat puffed out against the cold; eyes half closed, its head swiveling slowly back and forth; the rest of its body motionless. It was an elegant sight. It sat there as if it owned the place; as opulent and menacing as an oriental potentate. The Owl was scanning the marshes, no doubt waiting for the rising tide to drive some luckless rodent from hiding.
“Later on in the morning I came across a dark-phase Rough-legged hawk, hovering over Cross Farm Hill. Also there was a pair of Bald eagles, adult and juvenile cavorting over Grape Island, and an Ipswich Sparrow at the side of the road. I only briefly visited the ocean platform for the on shore wind had come up which marked the boundaries of my endurance. I looked out at the tossing seas perfunctorily; saw a few dark forms and then hurried back to the shelter of my car.
“At the end of the day I was cold but completely happy. Despite the relentless, brutal temperature it turned out to be a slightly better than average winter birding day on Plum Island. I wasn’t going to see these birds in July or even May and although the chill had worked its way through my clothes and I felt slightly cold all over at least there had been no mosquitoes or Green-heads.”