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Kateri Kosek
The white-throated sparrow, a common winter feeder bird.

IN THE FIELD: Birds of winter

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By Monday, Feb 5, 2018 Environment

When I moved to a new apartment a few months ago, I was delighted to discover that my neighbors had hung no fewer than five bird feeders at the front of the house. Right outside my kitchen window, dozens of winter birds partook of the offering, mostly a flurry of juncos and tree sparrows. The juncos are the common winter feeder birds–slate gray above and white below with white flashing down the sides of their tails–but the tree sparrows I’d never seen in such numbers. A couple dozen, perhaps, emitted scrappy but melodic notes and flitted between the feeders, consumed with their soft twittering.

It is refreshing to hear these noisier-than-usual sparrows chattering this time of year when it is otherwise so quiet. Not much is stirring on a walk in the woods in January. Today, I heard the high three-note whistle of two golden-crowned kinglets and, last week, the long rolling drum of a pileated woodpecker. I was surprised to hear a woodpecker drum in the winter, as the drum is its equivalent to a song. But then I read that the pileated stays on its territory all winter, so perhaps they are already thinking of spring.

Cape Cod Bay. Photo: Kateri Kosek

Earlier in the year, I went to Provincetown on Cape Cod in the middle of that stretch of single-digit temperatures. It was 10 degrees warmer by the ocean but, with the wind slamming off the water, it didn’t make much difference. Still, I went out and walked the beaches but not much was stirring there, either, besides a few gulls. Sometimes I would see an eider duck rolling along in the waves but the ocean was so choppy, it would sink back into the inky troughs and disappear. When a flashy black-and-white male flew by over the waves, I was impressed it could even fly straight in such a wind.

Despite the harsh conditions, it was nice to be there in the depth of the off-season. The last time I’d been there, one October, the birds were gathered in large flocks. On the bay-side beach, nearly 100 plump black-bellied plovers huddled, pale in their winter plumage. Hundreds of terns congregated en masse on the beach and on the oyster beds just offshore. They would lift off all at once, swirl through the sky, then return all at once to where they started, over and over again. The sky was thick with them and they were oblivious to the remnants of a hurricane that pummeled the Cape from out at sea.

A sanderling on Cape Cod. Photo: Kateri Kosek

This time, as I walked the road along the bay, it was pretty quiet. I watched some bluebirds cavorting on a wire and a single, rather tame song sparrow foraging in the bushes in front of a deserted beachfront hotel. I slipped onto the beach. It was so cold that the zone where the bay’s small waves lapped up had gotten rather sludgy and frozen. A light snow was falling but the sun kept brightening the sky from behind a thick layer of cloud, turning everything silvery.

I trained my binoculars on a sanderling, the common pale gray and white sandpiper known for running along the edges of waves. This one, however, was hopping along on one leg, the other one missing.

Up ahead I noticed a small goose hunkered down in the seaweed near the water’s edge. It was a juvenile brant with its all-black head and neck tucked into its wing, sleeping. I’d glimpsed a bunch of them on the mudflats while driving in, but this one was alone. It stirred a bit when I got closer. I made a wide arc around it so as not to disturb it, but it seemed pretty intent on sleeping and didn’t much care about my presence.

A black-capped chickadee. Photo: Kateri Kosek

What I’ll remember the most is how, on the morning I left, I stepped onto the sand at the edge of the bay, right in town, and a sanderling swooped in front of me, blown on the wind, and landed nearly at my feet. It must have been the same one I watched the day before, farther down, because here, just a few feet away, I could see clearly its one leg. It probed the wrack line for goodies no less heartily.

From this new place of mine, I can see a snowstorm coming from my kitchen window. When Mount Everett is whited out, I know it’ll be here soon. As another storm blows in, the sparrows and chickadees and cardinals are busy at the feeders. A flock of robins even descends into the crabapple. As someone mentioned recently to me, feeding the birds is a small gesture to make things right, considering all the ways humans have made things more difficult for birds to survive in the wild. I love staying in and watching them, hunkering down in the off-season to enjoy its starker gifts.

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