On the Road Again

Between holidays, travel, winter, and computer snafus I have been unable to get blogging. But here we go again.

Just to get started I’ll do a little quick thing on a couple wintering bird species to see if the new MacBook Pro and WordPress get along.

Here in New England we see most of our avian friends depart (or pass through as they leave Canada, eh) our latitude in August, September and October. We look for lingering land birds through late October and November. By December we hope for the occasional western bird or summer bird or most anything that will increase a birder’s heart rate. This year we were swamped with warblers and vireos with a few tanagers as well, nearly into mid-December. Then it got cold, very cold. The local Christmas Bird Counts had few unexpected birds and the snow and cold has persisted for several weeks.

But there are a few bright spots in our nearly birdless landscape; Snowy Owls and Canadian Maritime robins. The owls are regular if not common. They can be found at Logan Airport and other tundra-like expanses. (Google “Norman Smith Snowy Owls” to get a sense of how Boston treats and counts its Snowy Owls. The wintering American Robins are not our breeding birds but they are those that breed north of the Canadian border. They are our winter robins. Our breeders are in Georgia or the Carolinas enjoying a milder winter.


The wintering robins are blacker in the head and usually darker on the back and a richer (deeper) red underneath when compared to our nesting birds. They will eat fruit all winter; privet and bittersweet if they have to, but they favor cedar and holly berries. On Cape Cod where the berries are most abundant the birds will gather in large roosts in the evening and spread out to forage in the day time.


This Snowy Owl was photographed just before sunrise on Duxbury Beach south of Boston about 25 miles.  The captures and releases by Norman Smith over the years have shown that our wintering birds are both young and old and that the whitest and darkest among them contain both old and young and male and female birds. We always surmised that the darker ones were young, but not necessarily so it turns out. Norman has put transmitters on many Snowy Owls over the past twenty years and has followed to Canadian n eating sites ands on a few occasions watched them move around after the nesting season.

I have a friend who is/was a fabric physicist and was instrumental in creating one of the extruded polymers that we use for insulation in winter clothing. When he started to research the properties needed to hold warmth he looked at the feathering of both Snowy Owls and Common Eider ducks. As it turned out (if I remember correctly) the best polymer-fluff that we use every day is about 80% as good as the feathering on these birds. We surmised that is was darn near impossible for a healthy Snowy Owl to get cold.

One of the things that Norman has determined is that these lemming-eaters do not depend on Microtis (voles, field mice) when they are down here in the winter. For sure they eat them but the major part of the diet fo these coastal birds is waterfowl. Duck and mergansers. one time at Logan Norman watched a SNOW take one Black Duck a day from a pool at the edge of the property. There started off being 21 Black Duck swimming around and then 20, and then 19, and then 18, and so on until it took that last one at the end of the third week. The owls that are on barrier beaches, or out on Cape Cod, will fly out over the ocean as the day darkens and pick off a Bufflehead (usually available and a good size) and return to shore to eat. This behavior was unknown until transmitters were placed on owls and the cost of receiving information dropped. Much of the technology is now transferred as telephone message are; in the old days it was satellites and lots of money that got your information down to earth.

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