Article by Alicia Daniel
The soft, feathered roundness of his body against the flat, black asphalt made me stop short. A Golden-crowned Kinglet, the size and color of a little gray mouse, peered up at me with keen dark eyes. I wasn’t looking for songbirds in late October and certainly not one sitting in a parking lot. I picked the kinglet up, where it perched on my finger. I stroked the golden crown backwards revealing the brilliant blaze of orange hidden in the center. I walked over to a bush where we waited together until he regained his senses, hopped from my finger onto a branch and then flew off.
Bernd Heinrich’s book Winter World follows the life cycle of resident Golden-crowned kinglets through the winter. In Vermont, Golden-crowned Kinglets forage on the moth caterpillars that they find at the tips of conifer boughs. They stay warm at night by huddling together in to share heat. Some do migrate further south but the resident kinglets are rewarded by being the first on the scene to claim breeding sites and mates–if they survive. I hoped the little kinglet I found would find huddle buddies before it got too cold.
That small bird in the hand had me thinking. I carry binoculars year around when I hike, even when I am not actively seeking birds. Binoculars are great for staring into the canopy of winter trees to get a bird’s-eye view of the buds. I do go birding in other seasons. In the spring, I try to see every color of the rainbow as the brightly colored warblers wing their way through our City. And then I go out birding again in the fall, when broad winged hawks form giant spirals in the sky called kettles before flying south. This year, I decided to pay more attention to accidental, off-season bird encounters in the months leading up to and during winter. Winter birds, just like the birders pursuing sightings of them, are the hardiest of all.
After the kinglet incident, I had another exciting encounter with one of Burlington’s winter birds on a Friday in November. UVM Field Naturalists led me on a tour of Leddy Park and we heard a ruckus in a hedge row. A mixed flock of Tufted titmice, White-breasted Nuthatches and Black-capped Chickadees where mobbing something in a white cedar. We looked closely and discovered an Eastern Screech Owl hidden deeply in the foliage. The reddish bird had feathers sticking out of its head like ears, feathers flattened around its eyes in discs, and feathers puffed out all over its body. It looked like an owl hastily assembled by an eight year old as a last minute craft project. In short, it was adorable.
Screech owls forage at dusk and at night. They hunt mostly by watching from a perch and then swooping down to take prey from the ground. They mostly eat insects and small rodents, but their diet does include small birds. Which may explain the alarm calls the owl was generating in the flock of birds that found its daytime roost. Screech owls overwinter in Burlington and other parts of Vermont. I find their call, which is described as a whinny or soft trill, charming.
Then late in November, I was in Cambridge with a team of Vermont Master Naturalists scaling the sandy face of an ancient delta of the Brewster River, when I had another chance encounter with winter resident birds. A small cloud of birds wheeled out over the edge of the quarry. They swirled like snowflakes around our heads and then vanished across the landscape. This bird squall lasted just long enough for us to identify them as Snow Buntings. These sparrow-like birds breed in the high arctic in summer and come to Vermont in the winter to feed on grass seeds and insects. Their call is described as a husky rolling rattle or short snarl.
I have seen other birds in years past with snow in their names to describe their white coloration. It stands to reason that many of these birds are winter residents in Vermont. Snow Geese gather in great numbers at Dead Creek Wildlife Management Area in late fall just as the snow starts to fly. They feast on corn planted for them in fields along Dead Creek and they attract predators like Bald Eagles. Snow Geese move on when real winter sets in, but as long as Lake Champlain has any open water, the eagles will fish among the ice floes. Eagles are a stalwart resident when winter allows.
Now that I that have begun actively seeking winter birds, I set my sights on a Snowy Owl. Every four or five years, an abundance of lemmings in the arctic results in a corresponding abundance of healthy fledgling owls, experts say. As that generation of owls mature and compete for territory, their elders drive them away. The result: an “irruption” of snowies to points south — sometimes as far south as Texas and Florida. Reports of Snowy Owl sightings are being recorded all over the US this year, making this winter one of the biggest Snowy Owl irruption years in recent memory. So the winter of 2023 is a good winter to make seeing a Snow Owl a goal.
Last week, a friend called me to report an owl sitting in a tree in her hillside neighborhood in Burlington. We whispered excitedly together as we walked around the side of her house to find a Barred Owl sitting in her maple tree. Since the leaves were down, we got a great look at the owl’s white breast with brown stripes, brown eyes and bright yellow beak. Striped feathers wrapped around her neck like a scarf. True it wasn’t a Snowy owl, but it was an owl and a beautiful one, a bird uniquely suited to overwinter in Vermont. I am grateful each time I see birds who keep us company through the darkest months of the year. And I appreciate everyone who works to save and restore habitat for them. I will be out watching birds all winter long. I hope to see you out there, too.