"For the Birds" Index

New!  Jim B has opened a message board dedicated to the sharing of information about wild birds and the hobby of bird watching. Birders of all levels of experience and any location are cheerfully invited to join in:

For The Birds (vol 7)


November 06, 2002 - For the Birds originally appeared as a series of posts on the Cape Ann Online message board. It was aimed at the audience who sees birds in their day to day life and is curious about them rather than the hardcore or even intermediate bird watcher.

Any word in blue can be clicked on for more info.

What’s Happening

November brings the shortening of daylight and the beginning of cold weather.

It also brings the first of the terrific winter birds to Cape Ann. Many folks have already seen the Bufflehead and Red-breasted Mergansers return to local waters. The Common and Red-throated Loons have been here for a while. The Eiders and Scoters are starting to amass in their usual haunts in the harbor and off the rocky shorelines. Red-necked Grebes and our local bird celebrity the Eared Grebe have returned and are reported off of Niles Beach. The almost surreal Harlequin Ducks are found along Atlantic Path and Emerson Rocks in Rockport. (You HAVE to see these birds).

Harlequin Duck

But the real stars of winter, the ones folks drive hundreds of miles to see, the ones that bring in the tourists, are the alcids. The Common Murre, Thick-billed Murre, Razorbill, Black Guillemot, and Atlantic Puffin were all seen off of Andrews Point by Rick Heil yesterday. The only alcid he missed was the Dovekie. These are hit or miss birds that appear off of Andrews and Halibut Point in Rockport and the Dogbar breakwater – often just before, just after, or during foul weather.

We’ll talk about foul weather birding in a bit under "Stuff". For now let’s look at two very common yardbirds that even the most urban watcher might see at anytime of year.

Black-capped Chickadee

The Black-capped Chickadee is the state bird of Massachusetts. It has one of the most familiar songs of all the local birds. It is also one of the most extensively studied.

In winter a pair of chickadees will expand their territory from the breeding size of five acres to around twenty-five acres. The couple will then be joined by around ten first winter chickadees unrelated to the breeding couple. These birds will form a flock that will stick together and defend their territory throughout the winter.

Feeding Black-capped chickadees has proven to increase the winter survival rate of the birds. Chickadees love sunflower seeds, peanuts and suet. When food is plentiful chickadees will cache or hide food for leaner times in the future. Different birds from the flock will come to your feeder at different times of the day so the chickadee you see in the morning is a different individual than the one you see in the afternoon.

The increase in food supply takes away the prime reason for defending territory and fewer acts of aggression are recorded in areas with a regular food supply than in areas without one. To a certain extent feeding chickadees breaks down their social structure and birds that are not members of the flock may be permitted to feed in a flock’s area.


House Finch

There are two "sparrows dipped in raspberry sauce, the House Finch and the Purple Finch. To tell the difference – the House Finch is slimmer with a short stubby bill that looks to be curved downward in a frown. The Purple Finch is plumper with a cone shaped bill. Lots of books will go on about how the red color is much more extensive on the Purple Finch and the House Finch has more brown on the top of the head but I find the bill to be the key I can use in the field. House Finches are common as dirt while Purple Finches are few and far between. While both can be seen in Gloucester in the fall the House Finch is here in good numbers year round.

House Finches were imported to New York from the western United States. It is believed the entire east coast population of House Finches descended from 80 individuals released on Long Island in 1941. Strangely, the east coast population developed the habit of migrating north-south with the season while the west coast population never does.

House Finches eat Niger (thistle) seed and absolutely love sunflower seeds. Feeding House Finches should be watched for mycoplasmal conjunctivitis, a bacterial disease that causes the swelling of the eyes and eventual death. This disease is prevalent enough to cut the population by 80%. There were so many of these birds before the onslaught of mycoplasmal conjunctivitis that they are still not in trouble but the disease may be spread to other species. If you see any bird at your feeders with swollen eyes, stop feeding immediately. Wash your feeder with a 10% bleach solution an either take it in or throw a plastic bag over it for a couple of weeks. While your feeder might not "carry" the bacteria, it provides a central meeting place for infected birds to spread the disease.


What do I wear?

Look, it is almost winter. We can stay inside and get depressed or we can go out and enjoy nature in spite of the cold. Some of the best bird watching in Massachusetts is found by standing on the rocks at Halibut Point (the state park not the pub) during a snow squall. But you have got to dress for it.

Clothing for standing around doing nothing or very little physical activity is much different than that used for skiing, climbing or other active sports. You should always dress as if you are going to break a leg and be stuck outside for hours.

The best bargain I ever got for winter clothing were coveralls from Wearguard

http://www.wearguard.com/style_order.html?cat=625&assort=wg_blizzard&style=325&bh1=&bl=1&visitid=110966597&uniq=38150440 . I have worn them in 20 degree weather with 20 mph wind and been comfortable watching birds for hours. The guys at the local amateur astronomy club told me about these and those guys stand around outside all night long.

For the hat and gloves go to any of the local stores selling to commercial fishermen and get glove liners ($2.00) and a wool watchcap ($6.00). If you get the black coveralls and the white glove liners you can brush up on your Mickey Mouse imitation. The glove liners are great in that they allow for fine motor functions like focusing the binos. If it is really cold double up on the liners.

Wool socks and boots round out the winter gear. If you are going to be out long bring water. People don’t think about it in the cold but as the TKF say, "Hydrate or die." If you are going from place to place by car don’t put your binoculars up near the heater. Toss then as far away from the heat as convenient. I throw my spotting scope in the unheated trunk. The difference in temperature between a warm optical aid and the air causes heat "swirls" inside your optics and degrades the view.


Since I climbed up on the old soapbox to rant about sharing the beach with breeding birds at the beginning of the season, I thought some might like to see how things went. This is from Mass Wildlife http://www.state.ma.us/dfwele/dfw/dfw_toc.htm] which has a great website not only for Massachusetts birds but all manner of local critters. Press release -


MassWildlife has compiled preliminary figures for nesting terns and piping plovers with data gathered through the cooperation of nearly seventy biologists and beach managers from state and federal agencies, private conservation groups and local municipalities. Common tern numbers were down 5% to 13,608 pairs with poor productivity at key sites due to mass starvation of chicks and predation on adults, chicks or eggs by great horned owls, black-crowned night herons and Canada geese. Roseate terns dropped 14% to 1,460 pairs, likely due to disruption and nest abandonment caused by great horned owls. Least terns decreased by 18% to 2,789 pairs. The largest colony, located at Kalmus Beach in Barnstable, was devastated by gull and fox predation with only 4 pairs of least terns nesting in contrast to 599 pairs there in 2001. 

A trace number of Arctic terns continue to nest in Massachusetts with 5 pairs documented.

Piping plovers fared somewhat better than terns, increasing by 7% over 2001 totals at an estimated 530 breeding pairs. Plovers nested at 106 beaches in the Commonwealth and produced an average of 1.1 chicks per pair, a rate considered too low to sustain the population. As with terns, predators took many plover eggs and chicks while additional nests were lost to storm-driven high tides in May and June. Beach management practices to safeguard beach-nesting birds from human related disturbance, mortality and habitat degradation caused by off-road vehicles remain effective conservation tools. Piping plovers are classified as "Threatened" on both the federal and state endangered species lists.


On bird feeding


On binoculars and spotting scopes


What’s happening, a daily compilation of observations by local birders


The local bird club


An on-line field guide


Jim B’s Online Bird Photos