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Wingin' It: Birdwatching in a time of pandemic

During the COVID-19 pandemic, people have spent more time at home observing their immediate environment and exploring conservation lands. In turn, this has led to an increased interest in birds.

This interest is reflected in the number of people who participated in Cornell’s Great Backyard Bird Count in late February. It was launched in 1998 by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and National Audubon Society. The bird count was the first online citizen science to collect data on wild birds and display results in near-real time. In 2013, it became a global project when Cornell began entering data into eBird, the world’s largest biodiversity-related instance of citizen science.

A Cooper’s hawk. (Photos by David Durrant)

This year globally there were 327,100 checklists with a total of 6,418 species recorded. In North America 1,484 species were recorded. We participated for less than an hour on the Saturday morning of the four-day count. We observed 20 species without leaving our house.

Our most numerous visitors

Juncos and goldfinches were our most numerous birds, along with several mourning doves and an army of blue jays. The bluebirds we feed daily are always around, along with the downy and red-bellied woodpeckers. The red-tailed hawk made his usual appearance, perched on a maple in the pasture, patiently waiting for a mouse, vole, or squirrel for lunch. A fly-by Cooper’s hawk sent all the birds into panic mode but did not yield a kill, although a couple of days later we found the remains of a blue jay, probably nailed by the hawk.

An unusual bird for this time of year was a turkey vulture, who floated over the fields for several minutes looking for a meal—maybe it had smelled the remains of a raccoon that had been killed in our woods, probably by the bobcat that has been seen in this area.

A Carolina wren.

American robins and cardinals are feasting on the berries that remain on the Korean mountain ash. The suet attracts the chickadees, nuthatches, and tufted titmice. Although we hang the suet cakes upside down to deter the English house sparrows, a few of them still manage the aerial feat of flying up under the suet.

A Carolina wren is also attracted to the suet. David considers this wren one of the most charismatic. A Carolina wren is a cute little bird, always poking around the house and usually nesting right on our back porch. This wren has a wonderful song that reminds us of birds we have heard in the tropics. In late winter and early spring, the Carolina wren, along with the cardinal, are usually the first to serenade us at dawn through our open bedroom window.

A gorgeous little white-throated sparrow has been with us all winter, making his daily foray to the base of the feeder to pick up dropped seeds. He is joined by a song sparrow who has also been here all year.

A few days after the count, a flock of red-winged blackbirds descended on our platform feeder, along with a few brown-headed cowbirds. Red wings are among the first to return from their winter migration, giving hope that spring is on the way. Shortly after, a noisy flock of European starlings made a visit, descending on the snowless patches in the pasture, hunting for food.

Now is the time of year when owls start nesting. On a walk on the Powell-Reed-Abbot land we heard a couple of barred owls serenading each other. One was in the pines on the corner of East Bare Hill and Brown roads, and the other across the road behind the Nevilles’ house, calling back and forth. We have yet to hear the great horned owls that are usually in our neighborhood. We sleep with the window open in the hope of hearing their calls.

An exciting time for birders

With the longer days, warm sun, and coming of spring, it is an exciting time for birders. We wait for ice-out on ponds to start looking for returning ducks. Last year ice was out March 7 on our pond but this year, with about 6 inches of ice still there and the kids from the neighborhood continuing to enjoy skating, it looks as though it may be another month. We will probably take a few trips to local ponds to see what ducks have returned, as they are some of our earliest arrivals. The Delaney ponds usually yield rafts of ring-necked ducks, a few mergansers, buffleheads, and a little later, wood ducks.

We will be on the lookout, although we usually hear them first, for woodcock. Last year we heard one calling from our wet meadow, the first time in 40 years we have heard them on the farm. This occurrence could be due to the fact that we are no longer raising sheep, and there is less disturbance in the fields. One can usually see or hear them from the roadside by the lower meadow of the Cutler property on Stow Road—dusk being the best time to view the aerial courtship ritual of the males.

Letting our pastures grow in, we are hoping that the killdeers will return and find our rocky pastures more attractive without disturbance from the sheep. They nested here, and in the adjacent farm, about 40 years ago, but I am afraid the sheep in our pastures and the major renovation of a nearby field deterred them from nesting.

One bright light for us in these COVID-19 times is being able to see George, our 3-year-old grandson, once a week. It is gratifying when he grabs his chair, sits by the slider, and watches birds. The first bird he identified a few months ago was the northern cardinal. He even knows the difference between male and female. He can identify black-capped chickadees, nuthatches, and tufted titmice, and can tell the difference between our “blue birds”—blue jays and bluebirds. On walks, George is always scanning the sky and usually sees raptors before we do. He is particularly attuned to hawks, as there is a red-tailed hawk that frequents his neighborhood in Acton.

It is wonderful to see him attuned to the natural world and able to identify birds and even some plants at his age. He delights in sharing with his mother, who is not a birder, what the species are around their house.

Pamela and David Durrant live and work at Micheldever Farm on East Bare Hill Road. Their 24-plus hens provide eggs for local customers, and the Durrants produce most of their vegetables and fruit from their gardens. Tetley, their 16-year-old rescue dog, can usually be found lying on the front porch ready to greet passersby.


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