Long Distance Traveler

I liked the name, snow goose, and I liked the sight of them.

~Mary Burns, In The Private Eye: Observing Snow Geese

Here is a brief update on my post about this year’s Christmas Bird Count on the Pungo Unit of Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge…as I mentioned yesterday, we spent some time observing a large flock of snow geese when they landed in one of the fields near the refuge entrance. I finally got out of the car, went around back, and stood out of the rain under the open hatch to scope the flock. I was looking for Ross’s geese, and for collared birds. As I scanned the far edge of the flock, I finally spotted a yellow neck collar on one snow goose. As is often the case, the bird was partially obscured by a layer of bobbing necks and heads of other birds, making it difficult to read the collar code. I managed to get T as the first letter, and then 08 as the last two digits. I finally had Melissa get out and take a look and she nailed it…TJ08. We recorded that to report when we got home. Yesterday morning, I submitted our observation online at the USGS Bird Banding Laboratory site for so-called auxiliary markers.

Collared Snow Goose 1

A collared snow goose from a previous winter shows how difficult it can be to read (click photos to enlarge)

Many researchers use markers that allow observers to identify an individual bird at a distance. The most common one for large waterfowl, like geese and swans, is a plastic neck collar. I have helped put this type of marker on tundra swans on many earlier visits to the Pungo Unit when the refuge was participating in migration studies of this species. That study was concluded many years ago, so it is now rare to find a collared swan, but I have observed and reported collared snow geese on several occasions over the past few years. I was surprised to receive an email last night with the certificate for our bird…

Snow goose TJ08 certificate

Certificate from the USGS Bird Banding Laboratory

This bird was banded by the same researcher that banded some of my previous records. The location is above the Arctic Circle in Canada, a distance of about 2600 miles from where TJ08 is spending this winter.

Snow goos TJ08 migration map 1

The migration distance of TJ08

Seeing this record of one bird’s remarkable journey reminds me of how much I have missed the huge flocks of snow geese the past couple of years. Their behavior has been less predictable, their numbers lower, but there are signs that this year may be a good one for observing snow geese at Pungo. There really is something magical about the huge flocks of noisy birds. Mary Burns puts it well in her book about snow geeseI was surprised, then stopped breathless for a moment, by the sudden rising of tens of thousands of snow geese at once, the airy tumult of the madly beating black-tipped wings, the high soprano bark of their calls. I described them to someone as poetic, the way they stretch out across the sky like the broken lines of verse. I thank TJ08 for helping make the winter wonderland of Pungo another memorable line of poetic verse.

Changing of the Guard

Migrations speak to us, not just as observers of nature but as integral parts of it. The world moves and, deep inside, we long to move with it.   Mike Bergin

Leaf out scene in Piedmont woods

Spring scene in the woods out my door

Spring is truly here. I look out the door and see the rapid changes, the appearance of so many new things. But I can also tell by what is missing…the smell of the smoke from my wood stove, the chill in the morning air, and the dominant feeder birds from the past few months. I was going to post something on this last week to encourage you to watch for their disappearance as the warm weather of the past week moved in. But, I was gone a few days and when I returned, they were all but gone, just like that, as if the pale spring green of leaf-out had sent them packing. It is much easier to document the first arrivals. The last departures do not resonate in my brain as well. One day the birds are here, and a week later I realize I haven’t seen them for awhile. But this changing of the guard is as sure a sign of spring as the growing palette of greens.

Are any of these birds still at your feeders?

Dark-eyed Junco

Dark-eyed Junco (click to enlarge)

Purple Finch

Purple Finch male (click to enlarge)

The Juncos, (many people call them Snow Birds) are our classic winter feeder bird although at my feeders they tend to stay mostly on the ground beneath the feeders. Peak abundance in the Piedmont is mid-October to mid-April. They move north or to higher elevations in our mountains to breed. I always enjoy finding their nests along the trails at Mt. Mitchell each summer.

Ruby-crowned Kinglet

Ruby-crowned Kinglet (click to enlarge)

Purple Finches are one of winter finches that tend to vary in abundance from year to year. Roger Tory Peterson described males of this species as a “sparrow dipped in raspberry juice.” Females are streaky brown with a distinct white eye stripe. Purple Finches are often confused with House Finches, a year-round resident in our area. Purple Finches are far more common out here in the woods.

One of my favorite visitors to the suet feeders is the energetic Ruby-crowned Kinglet. Unlike its cousin, the Golden-crowned Kinglet, this species does not breed in our high mountains but moves to the far northern U.S. and Canada to nest. Male Ruby-crown’s only occasionally show their reddish crown. These tiny birds are easily recognized by their habit of wing flicking.

Pine Siskin

Pine Siskin (click to enlarge)

The only one of these winter birds still at my feeder as of yesterday is the Pine Siskin (although I have not seen one this morning, so they, too, may be gone). They are one of the so-called irruptive species, whose numbers on the wintering grounds can fluctuate greatly from year to year depending on food resources and weather in their northern forest habitats. And this has been an amazing year for siskins – on my Great Backyard Bird Count this past February, I had 62 siskins at once at one feeder. I’m sure there were well over a hundred between all three feeders, but their squabbling and rapid comings and goings made them tough to count. Although they do gulp down the black oil sunflower seeds, siskins are especially fond of thistle seed. My bank account will appreciate the rest once they are gone.

And this week has also brought some members of the new guard – the return of a Brown Thrasher to my garden, the teach, teach, teach song of an Ovenbird down in the woods, and my first Ruby-throated Hummingbird this morning. It has begun…