Thursday, February 12, 2009

Making the most of winter birding opportunities

Making the most of winter birding opportunities

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Arctic weather in the Midwest may keep other people inside, but it prompts many birders to put on another layer of clothing and get out to see what birds have blown in with it.

If you feed birds, you’ve probably noticed that some of your guests show up only during the colder months. Think of dark-eyed juncos, which many people know by the name “snowbirds.” Juncos are the sporty grey, black, and white sparrows that arrive in Illinois from their breeding range in the northern U.S. and Canada in mid September. During their winter vacation here, juncos scratch the ground for food in weedy places or take advantage of the seed that spills from backyard feeders.

In their distinctive plumage and adaptation to human settings, juncos may be the most visible of the northern birds that winter in Illinois, but they are just the tip of the iceberg.

This year birders throughout the state have enjoyed an unusual incursion of several species of winter finches, birds that feed heavily on the seed cones of trees such as spruce and hemlock. When cone crops in the north are sparse, these birds migrate as far as they must to find food.

[Internet discussion lists provide an excellent way of keeping up with such happenings. See Illinois Birders Exchanging Thoughts (IBET), "an e-mail list for the discussion of wild birds and birding issues relating to Illinois" and Birdnotes, "a discussion list for Birders in the Champaign County area . . . managed by the Champaign County Audubon Society."]

The most striking among this year’s irregular visitors are white-winged crossbills. The top half of a crossbill’s bill hooks over the bottom half at the tip, in a configuration that looks like a deformity until it is seen in action. The shape of the crossed bill enables this bird to pry open the scales of seed cones in order extract the seed from within using its tongue. [You can see how efficiently a white-winged crossbill extracts seeds from a cone in the video clip below, courtesy of Mike McDowell's birding blog.]

In addition to crossbills, pine siskins and common redpolls, both close relatives of goldfinches that may be absent from parts of the state for several years at a time, have been fairly abundant this winter.

Illinois birders have also been enjoying uncharacteristic opportunities to observe northern birds of prey in recent months. If you’ve seen a large hawk near the interstate and thought to yourself, “That’s not a red-tail” you may have seen a rough-legged hawk. Rough-legged hawks are about the same size as red-tails, but their coloration includes much more black, and it varies greatly among individual birds. [Photo: A rough-legged hawk atop a power pole along Staley road in Champaign.] Rough-legged hawks are also distinguished from red-tails in that they often hunt by hovering over a grassy area, rather than from a perch. This habit is attributable to the fact that they breed in the open country of far northern Canada and Alaska, where perches are few and far between.

Of course one of the surest bets for observing winter birds in the Prairie State is also one of the most spectacular, and that’s making time to see the bald eagles that congregate near our larger rivers. More bald eagles winter here than in any other state outside Alaska, and they may be spotted along the Mississippi River from the Quad Cities in the north to Union County in the south. On the Illinois River, Starved Rock State Park offers opportunities for seeing eagles from even shorter distances, with a visitor’s center nearby you can go to warm up.

To survive winter, birds have to be opportunists, and, likewise, to make the most of the season, birders do, too.