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Slayton: Winter Birds

02/20/12 5:55PM By Tom Slayton
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(Host)  While watching the birds at his backyard feeder this year, commentator Tom Slayton has been thinking about the pleasures of birding in the wintertime.

(Slayton) A flock of about 40 robins just flew through my backyard and has congregated under a big white pine, where they're poking around in the exposed brown grass for whatever they can find to eat.

It seems a little odd to see them at this time of year, silhouetted against the white snow. But this mild winter has allowed these migratory birds to stick around, and people are seeing big flocks of them all over the state.

But that's not all. Just a few days ago, a huge flock of 450 waxwings - the familiar cedar waxwings and the more exotic Bohemian waxwings - scoured the streets of Montpelier, descending here and there into fruit trees to glean the berries, seeds, and crabapples hanging there.

And last week, I got a good look at a northern shrike - a predatory songbird that migrates south each winter from its far-northern breeding grounds near the open tundra, and spends the months of deep winter in Vermont and other parts of the northern U.S. and southern Canada. It was a handsome bird - a natty grey and white with a black mask and tail.

And as shrikes habitually do, it sat in the tip-top of a tree, scanning the fields below it for food. It was a thrill to see.

Still, I hope no shrike eats the brown creeper that came to my feeder a few mornings ago, along with the usual crowd of finches and woodpeckers. It was a lovely, shy little bird.

The fact is that while most common songbirds migrate south of Vermont for the winter, our part of the world is "south" for several birds of the far north. Snow buntings, common redpolls, Bohemian waxwings, and rough-legged hawks, among others, regularly move into our region in the winter months.

Consequently, winter can be a pretty exciting time to look for birds. You won't see as many different species as in spring, but you'll almost certainly see a few birds that are unusual - and some that are outright rarities.

For example, recent Vermont sightings have included a varied thrush in Waitsfield, a flock of red crossbills in Woodstock, a redhead duck in Windsor, and more than 3,400 other wild ducks - mainly goldeneyes, and greater and lesser scaup - in Lake Champlain. Earlier this winter, snowy owls were being seen regularly - they're a large, spectacularly white owl that looks as though it just escaped from the Adventures of Harry Potter. Where they've actually "escaped" from, like the shrikes and many other birds, is the far north - near the Arctic Circle.

What all these winter birds tell us is that the world of nature is connected - that we are not separate from either the Arctic north, or the taiga or the tundra where these birds live most of the year.

"The poetry of earth is never dead," wrote the poet John Keats almost 200 years ago. Watching the birds of winter, I know exactly what he meant.

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