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Birding My Way Through the Pandemic, Part 2

Text & Photography by Tom Richardson
An immature Cooper's hawk scans the yard for prey.

Last May, I wrote about how the return of migratory birds was providing a sense of normalcy in the midst of Covid craziness. Now it’s winter, the fair-weather summer birds have departed, and the novel virus is still wreaking havoc.

I know we’ll tough it out. We’ll get through, just like the hardy New England birds that stick around through the cold, dull days—old Yankee friends that keep me company on my walks through the woods and fields of southeastern Massachusetts.

And at home. This year I have installed more than the usual number of feeders and suet stations around my yard, so that I can glance up from the kitchen sink or office computer and be comforted (or more often distracted) by their presence.

Ever-reliable visitors are the chickadees, nuthatches, and titmice, which are sometimes accompanied by the seldom-seen brown creeper. Slate-colored juncos hop about the ground, picking up stray seeds. Downy and hairy woodpeckers, as well as northern flickers, hammer away at the suet packs suspended from mesh bags and cages. And the splendid cardinals are ready to provide a much-needed splash of color in the otherwise drab landscape.

 

A downy woodpecker feeds on suet.

Adding drama, hawks lurk on the fringes of the yard: sharpshinned, Coopers, and the hulking red-tails. The warning cries of tattletale bluejays often give them away before they can make a strafing run. In the pine forest behind my house, great-horned owls await the dark to begin their hunt. Do our chickens know how lucky they are to be surrounded by fencing?

Further afield, I encounter white-throated and song sparrows along the fieldstone walls overgrown with bittersweet vines. Passing a holly tree, I sometimes catch a glimpse of a solitary wood thrush, its haunting song paused for now.

Down by the bay, waterfowl are active and numerous. Canada geese, brant, scaup, goldeneye, scoter and bufflehead mill about the frigid saltwater coves and tidal creeks, feasting on shellfish and aquatic vegetation. Omnipresent gulls—herring and black-backed—crack quahogs on the exposed rocks at low tide. If I’m especially lucky, I may spy a northern harrier hovering low over the marsh, hunting for voles. I hear rumors of snowy owls, although I have yet to see one.

Winters in the southern part of New England can be dull, even without a pandemic keeping you close to home. But an interest in birds makes the situation a bit more tolerable. The term “feathered friends” has never seemed so apt.

Blue jays keep a sharp lookout for predators.