Words On Birds by Steve Grinley

Spring birds warm a winter day
December 8, 2007
Steve Grinley

     On these cold, wintery nights, with holidays approaching, most folk have “visions of sugar plums dance in their heads.” That is, unless you are a birder. We birders dream of mild mornings in May at Plum Island or Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, with visions of warblers dancing all around us. Last Sunday, it was like one of those dreams.

     Margo and I decided to do some urban birding around Boston. There were reports of late orange-crowned warblers in the Boston Public Garden, so we headed there first. The weather was anything but mild. The temperature was in the low 20’s and there was a breeze producing a wind chill a few degrees lower. Still, it was better than the 20-30 mph winds of the previous day.

     As we walked through the gates of the Public Garden, we were greeted by a number of chickadees that were flitting about the trees and accompanied by a downy woodpecker. White-throated sparrows and juncos were scratching the leaves underneath shrubs. Blue jays screamed in the distance, a northern cardinal was chipping from a dense hedge and goldfinches twittered overhead. All very wintery enough.

     It didn’t take long before we found a purple beech tree hopping with activity more conducive of spring. Some of the lower branches had retained their leaves and birds were feeding in the clusters of leaves. The first bird we saw was rather gray, with pale striping – a pine warbler. Then, a flash of yellow from another bird, and further study revealed a Nashville warbler with its gray head and white eye-ring. Next, an olive-green colored ruby-crowned kinglet flitted by. Several other small birds turned out to be warblers. There were four orange-crowned warblers moving in and out of the leaves. Two of those were distinctly pale yellow and the other two more uniformly olive-gray.

     A second pine warbler dropped to the walkway below and started feeding on something (invisible to us) that was on the pavement. This pine warbler was also quite gray, without the bright yellow breast of spring birds that help us find them in the tall pines. Occasionally pedestrians would walk by and the warbler would move to the side of the path, but then it continue its search for food, undisturbed by the presence of people. A few minutes later, a hermit thrush joined the pine warbler near the side of the walkway and scratched at the dirt and leaves beside the path. 

     Back in the tree above, Margo spotted a warbler with brighter yellow in the head and black striping on the throat and sides. It was a black-throated green warbler! Our fourth warbler species for this early December day. 

     We were then distracted by loud blue jays, scolding in trees a few hundred feet away. A few of the birds we had been watching were distracted as well, and flew off in that direction. So we decided to follow. The blue jays were leading a chorus of complaints, joined by robins, chickadees and white-breasted nuthatches. Even the hermit thrush was high in a tree, inquisitive of the raucous. We thought for sure that the birds had found an owl. We searched the trees up and down, but saw nothing suspicious. 

     We checked every hole for a possible screech owl. Finally, Margo spotted a face in a hole looking back at her. At first excited, her voice turned to disappointment when a gray squirrel emerged, followed by another. No owl. The fervor quieted down and the birds dispersed. 

     We returned to the beech tree, and many of the birds were still there. With warblers, kinglets and hermit thrushes, it truly had the feeling of a May morning in Mount Auburn. But then a brown creeper lit on the trunk of the birch, a red-tailed hawk soared over the brownstones on Commonwealth Avenue, and the biting cold all reminded us that this was, indeed, December. Though this encounter had warmed our spirits, we left in search of hot chocolate to warm our bodies.

Steve Grinley
Bird Watcher’s Supply & Gift
Route 1 Traffic Circle
194 Route 1
Newburyport, MA 01950
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4 years of service to the birding community! 
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