Watch your feeders:
Some people, the lucky ones, will wake up on Christmas and instead of getting the usual pair of argyle socks, will find a brand new bird feeder under the tree. Oh, sure, socks are important; but right now, with everyone stuck at home, the most exciting thing many of us can do to pass the time is stare out the window. Birds, at least, give us something to look at…especially when our neighbors pull their shades down. Cardinals and goldfinches help make even cloudy days a little brighter. Occasionally, a strange new bird will suddenly appear on the feeder. Sometimes these new birds are just new to us, but other times they are a true rarity. Such was the case last week when three rare birds were reported at three different feeders, in three different towns. After hearing the news, I decided I would try to see all three birds on my next day off. I don’t know why rare birds don’t time their arrivals around my schedule, but they never do.
The rarest of the three birds spotted last week was a Boreal Chickadee. Noticeably dingy, with a brown cap, it reminds me of a lounge singer version of our Black-capped Chickadee. Mostly a resident of Alaska and Canada, Boreal Chickadees are truly cold weather birds. If it’s five below, ten below or twenty below, it’s still not a problem for them. They spend the summer gathering food, hiding insects and seeds in the bark and crevices of trees. Then, when things get tough and snow covers much of the landscape, the little birds return to their secret stashes for their mid-winter meals. But some years the getting is not so good, so a few of these chickadees will journey south in search of better options. Such was the case last week when an observant Wellfleet homeowner spotted the rare bird eating from his suet feeder. He immediately put the word out, while also telling his neighbors that there might be more traffic on their quiet, dead-end road. He was right. On the first day, twenty birders showed up and the next day, that number swelled to fifty. Fifty! Am I the only one working anymore?
I arrived at the “stakeout” a few days later and parked a fair distance away, hoping to avoid any potential traffic issues. As I walked down the road, I began to feel a little silly. There were no cars, no birders, and no people anywhere. It was just me, and lots of birds. Woodpeckers, cardinals, nuthatches and wrens all lined up on the feeders. There were also crazy numbers of Black-capped Chickadees, which made finding the rare chickadee even more challenging, but I kept searching. It was at this point, Alan, the gracious owner, came out to chat and to let me know that the Boreal Chickadee hadn’t been seen since early the day before. I took the news in stride, confident that my presence would change things. It didn’t. I eventually threw in the towel, thanked Alan, and headed off to search for rare bird number two, a Western Tanager in Brewster.
As the name implies, the Western Tanager is truly a western bird. If you were to drive from Cape Cod to the very center of the country (Lebanon, Kansas), everything in front of you would be the Western Tanager’s breeding territory, while everything behind you wouldn’t. This is why seeing one in Brewster was big news. When I arrived, I was immediately impressed by the feeder setup in the yard, and it made me feel a little guilty. You would think the feeders in my yard would be super special, the best of the best. But such is not the case. I mostly have a hodgepodge of obsolete display models or stuff that arrived broken, but I was too cheap to throw away.
I spent the first ten minutes standing out in the street, staring at the feeders and hoping to quickly see the tanager before someone called the cops. Neither of those things happened, but Bob and Denise ultimately came out to invite me into their yard and even offered me a chair. They also said that I was welcomed to spend as much time as I wanted, which I did. Yet, I never saw the Western Tanager. So far, my quest to see three rare birds in one single day, wasn’t going as planned. I was 0-2. I moved on to South Orleans, in the hopes of seeing a Rufous Hummingbird.
Like Western Tanagers, Rufous Hummingbirds are found in the left half of the country, with some birds breeding as far north as Alaska. Most winter in Mexico, Central America or along our Gulf Coast. But occasionally, in the fall, one will pop up in our area. This is the reason I had left my own hummingbird feeder out until Thanksgiving (when my wife finally made me take it down). While I didn’t get a rare hummingbird, Nur did (yes, “Nur”) and she invited me to see it. I had already missed the other two birds, but I was confident I would see this last one. Nope. I stood in Nur’s driveway for quite a while, totally fixated on her feeder and didn’t see a single bird. I suspected a hawk must have cleared the area of birds and waiting even longer wouldn’t have improved my odds. I took the hint and headed home. Oh, well. I had tried for the rare bird trifecta and ended up with a goose egg, so to speak. That’s just how birding goes sometimes. However, I did meet some nice people and that’s not such a bad way to spend a day. It beats staring out the window.
Whether you have brand new bird feeders, or discontinued rejects like I do, it’s a good idea to pay attention to which birds are using them. You might even spot a rare species of your own one day. If that happens, you might be visited by hoards of birders…and maybe even me. I’ll be the one wearing argyle socks, and who will likely be arriving long after the rare bird is gone.