Cape May Snow Birds

snow birds
Photos by Pat and Clay Sutton

Posted February 2010
by Clay and Pat Sutton

The past few weeks at Cape May have given us a new appreciation of the term Snowbird.

For most of us, the frequent and heavy snow storms have placed birds and birding far down on our list of priorities. Power outages, downed trees, and the exigencies of daily (!) shoveling, just to reach the street and mailbox, have been foremost in the minds of Cape May residents, with birds only in the background as we lift yet another heavy shovel full of snow.

Yet life goes on in the bird world, and careful observations even yield a few reassuring signs that spring is on the way – however distant it may seem.

The term “Snowbird” (beyond that of describing those fortunate souls reading this from Florida) is often used for several species of birds that to the casual eye only seem to appear in the dead of winter.

Dark-eyed Junco is the bird most often called “snowbird” by locals, but we have heard it applied to Snow Buntings and Tree Sparrows as well – all winter visitors to the Cape. In reality these birds arrive in late October and November, but harsh winter conditions and snow cover can force them out to bare areas and to our bird feeders, where they are most often observed.

As many know, heavy snow concentrates birds, and well-stocked feeding stations always have some new “snowbird” visitors during storms.

In the past weeks our bird feeders have hosted Chipping Sparrows, Savannah Sparrows, Fox Sparrows, and an Eastern Towhee among the more “regular” birds. Friends’ feeders have hosted Tree Sparrows and even Eastern Meadowlarks during the recent snow storms.

This is the time of year when feeding stations can play a crucial role in the survival of birds. Besides the several hanging feeders, we clear the snow from under pines and cedars and spread millet and sunflower hearts there. Even our porch has become a “platform” feeder in the past week.

Our heated bird bath is a key feature too. At a time when most creeks, ponds, and puddles are frozen, a water source is equally as important as food for many birds.

As we worried, and rightfully so, over electricity, heat, frozen pipes, and our basic needs, many birds faced a battle for survival in the past few weeks. Those species that winter here that are at the northern limit of their winter range have the toughest time; Carolina Wren, Gray Catbird, Hermit Thrush, and American Woodcock are a few that are hit the hardest.

Woodcock may have the highest mortality of all when heavy snow covers the ground where they probe for worms. None-the-less, a few woodcock seem to be doing adequately feeding in under snow-free overhangs or dense trees where the sun has thawed the ground.

Other birds have different strategies. Many are “frequent flyers” in the winter, virtually commuting back and forth, north and south. Ducks and geese are the best examples of frequent flyers. Many winter as far north as they can, where they are best positioned in early spring to get a head start on the breeding season (first arrivals get the best territories, for example – think of it as getting in line early to get the best seats).

Many if not most ducks that were around Cape May in December and January are gone now – but this story has a happy ending. They simply head south to stay ahead of the weather (with its frozen marshes and ponds, and fields buried under snow) and to find ice-free areas where they can feed. They may journey to the Delmarva Peninsula or maybe the Carolinas. But amazingly, after a few days of thawing, these birds come right back north.

Snow Geese are famous for this, and we have seen winters where huge flocks head south one week, followed by vast skeins heading north just a week later.

Many waterfowl are commuters, as it were, and in winter may exhibit a true nomadic lifestyle. This winter we have noticed big flocks of Common Mergansers on lakes where none had been a week before, followed by none again a week later. And rather than a random occurrence, these birds know exactly what they are doing.

While many birds are stressed by the current harsh winter, others can take advantage of it. Raptors do just fine, preying on the weak. Our bustling bird feeders have been raided several times this past week by Sharp-shinned Hawks, and in the way of nature, the weakest and slowest birds are the ones that are taken.

On our first day out after the last snowstorm, we found an adult Bald Eagle perched on a piling on Bidwell’s Creek, eyeing a group of wary Bufflehead and Common Goldeneye in an unfrozen stretch of the creek. And while taking photos of our snowy yard, we heard the distinctive sound of crows mobbing a Great Horned Owl in the woods behind our back gate.

In the endless dance between predator and prey, winter – and particularly a brutal winter like this – can all come down to the quick and the dead. But the amazing lesson is that, in the bird world, life goes on, despite the weather.

The most amazing example of life going on has not been seen, but heard. At Cape May’s latitude, late February is early spring. After each of the recent snowstorms, as we first ventured out to refill bird feeders and begin again the endless task of shoveling out, we were greeted by bird song – not just chip notes or calls, but the full spring songs of many species.

Atop snow-covered trees, Red-winged Blackbirds proclaimed their springtime “Conk-ah-ree.” White-throated Sparrows constantly sang their distinctive “Old Sam Peabody, Peabody, Peabody” and we repeatedly heard the melodious song of Fox Sparrows. House Finches and American Robins sang loudly, and just once we heard the song of a snowbird – the Dark-eyed Junco. Mourning Doves cooed and Downy Woodpeckers drummed. Tufted Titmice and Northern Cardinals greeted the snow with their full song of spring.

As we labor under the heavy weight of the snowiest winter in Cape May history, take heart from our resilient and hardy birds. To our snowbirds, it is already spring.


Clay and Pat Sutton are noted Cape May birders and the authors of Birds and Birding at Cape May.

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