Winters like the one last year are hard, not just on us, but on wildlife as well. So far, this winter's been mild, which is welcome relief to those of us who don't relish shoveling our roofs and easier on foraging wildlife than last year's deep snows.
This winter has brought some unusual visitors and has been mild enough that they have remained among us.
Last weekend I set out to visit with a couple of these visitors. One, a Cape May warbler, is a stunningly colorful, migrating song bird that typically moves through New England during the spring and fall migration periods. It feeds on caterpillars and other insects high in the treetops, and catching just a glimpse through binoculars is an unusual treat for the lucky few. By October it should have been wintering in the Caribbean, and by now it should be long gone from here.
So I decided to make the pilgrimage to see this little bird that prefers our sultry New England coast to the harsh Caribbean winters.
We were all alone when we arrived at the the bird's favorite spot along the trail. This bird had been in this location for a month already, so I had no doubt that it was there. But it was nowhere to be seen. Scanning the area, I could see why the bird liked this spot on the Atlantic's edge. It faced into the morning sun and was the first place to be warmed by sun's rays. It was also in a bend on the shoreline, sheltered from the wind. Abundant flies warmed by the morning sun swarmed over the heaps of seaweed thrown up on the beach. A daily feast for this little resident.
But where was the bird? I scanned the area searching for a speck of yellow among the bare branches and driftwood. No bird. I spotted an odd bump in a tree. Looking closer, I saw that it was a Coopers hawk hanging out right above the warbler's favorite spot. This was not a good sign. I maneuvered for an unobstructed look. The sharp-eyed hawk didn't sit still for this and decided to move on. Moments later there appeared a small yellow speck in the trees above the drift logs pushed up on the beach.
With no further delay, the Cape May was back on its favorite log picking flies out of the air. It was moving all the time, catching fly after fly. Its brilliant plummage glowed in the morning light. It showed no concern for our presence in its space. It was only interested in the flies.
It was a great little show watching this aerial acrobat snatching flies from the air up close. But this wasn't my only stop that day and it was time to move on.
On down the road I went, to a friend's home where another warbler had taken up winter residence. While the Cape May shouldn't be here at this time of year, the Townsend's warbler shouldn't be here at all. The Townsend's warbler is a west coast migrant that breeds in western Canada and winters in Central America. This one was thousands of miles east of its range. What was it doing here? Had it migrated east instead of south, stopping only when it reached the coast and couldn't go any farther?
The Townsend's warbler first appeared at my friend's backyard feeder around Christmas. Townsend's warblers are primarily insect eaters. While they will eat seeds in the winter, this one was probably hungry when it followed the backyard birds to the feeder.
This bird was especially lucky to have chosen this feeder. My friend is an avid birder. So when his wife asked what the sparrow with the yellow face was, he went to look. Of course the bird was gone, but he kept looking until he saw it. Someone else might not have identified this bird. Not only is it a summer bird that should not be coming to a feeder, but it's a western bird that's not even in a list of birds for New England. Once my friend realized what it was, he began supplying it mealworms and suet shavings to keep it fed.
A two warbler day in January in New England is an unexpected winter interlude.