Words On Birds by Steve Grinley
Snowbirds Blanket Plum Island
November 04, 2022
By Steve Grinley
Yes, snowbirds. No, I’m not referring to those of us that spend the winter in the Florida only to return when warmer weather returns in the spring. A snowbird in the bird world is the affectionate name for a dark-eyed junco, a member of the sparrow family that, unlike the usual brown sparrows, is slate gray above with a white belly and white outer tail feathers. Their white belly looks like they sat in snow – thus their snowbird name.
Juncos nest up north in the higher elevations of New England and move south each winter to spend the cold months with us. Like other sparrows, they feed on grass seeds near the ground. They visit backyard feeders where they feed on millet and small seeds on the ground or in tray feeders. They will also eat Nyger in finch feeders.
Last Friday was an astonishing migration day on Plum Island highlighted by amazing numbers of dark-eyed juncos everywhere! There were also good numbers of golden-crowned kinglets and red-breasted nuthatches up and down the island as well. It was much like the rare “fallout” of warblers in May.
When Margo and I arrived in the afternoon, juncos were still lining the road near Lot 1. Kinglets were in the cedars and other shrubs along the road. We crept slowly down the island, seeing birds feeding at the roadside as we approached. We would stop constantly to look at them. Most were juncos, but occasionally a song sparrow or chipping sparrow was in the mix.
More often a car would speed past us and flush the birds, or a car would speed by from the opposite direction disturbing the small groups of birds feeding at the edge of the road. We would then stop our car, sit and wait until the birds emerged from their cover in the vegetation. It was a slow process, but we didn’t want to miss anything other birds mixed in. Other sparrows, such as white-crowned, lark, and clay-colored have been on the island in recent days.
As we approached the “S curves” south of lot 3 where trees and more shrubs lined the curvy road, we found more white-throated sparrows with the juncos. We also saw and heard more kinglets and a red-breasted nuthatch. But our count of juncos was mounting at every curve.
Then we arrived at the maintenance area, juncos were all over the parking lot and were even lined up along the split rail fence. As we slowly got out of the car and approached the gate to the maintenance area, we could see that the entire dirt area between the buildings was a blanket of slate-colored juncos! They were all feeding feverishly, moving every which way, and flashing their white tail feathers as they shifted, making them impossible to count! The late afternoon sun in our eyes didn’t help.
We didn’t dare enter the area and disturb the feast. They were obviously hungry – they had journeyed overnight and will likely move on again this next night. They had found this haven in the middle of the refuge where speeding cars didn’t constantly disturb their feeding. We weren’t going to disturb them either and we got back in our car and continued down to Hellcat lot 4, adding a few more juncos and sparrows along the way.
Our estimates of the numbers of birds were modest as it was late afternoon; we were only on the island for a few hours and covered only a short distance in that time. We estimated 400 juncos, but we knew that was low. Rick Heil of Peabody was on the island all day and he counted 400 juncos in the maintenance area alone. His daily total for this incredible Friday was 1450 juncos! He also tallied 178 golden-crowned kinglets and 67 red-breasted nuthatches!
Many of there birds moved on by the weekend, though there were still decent numbers of these birds remaining. Since last Friday, we have heard kinglets in our yard, red-breasted nuthatches investigating our feeders, and juncos (a.k.a. snowbirds) feeding with the white-throated sparrows on the millet that we spread on the ground. So look for these birds arriving in your yard!