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White-breasted Nuthatch (Courtesy of Sanford Sorkin)

By SANFORD SORKIN
For Montclair Local

It is hard to imagine anyone being enthusiastic about sheltering in place, but there has been a positive side for me – I have spent more time in my backyard this year than in my previous 42 years in Montclair. 

With retirement, my wife and I crafted a regular travel schedule taking us away from Montclair for extended periods. But with no desire whatsoever to visit airports in the near future, I stay home and literally get to watch the garden grow and see what it attracts. 

I have always known that birds stopped by, but had no idea how many butterflies sampled the flowers all day, every day, or how many birds see butterflies as hors d’oeuvres. Sometimes it is a little difficult to fully appreciate, or reconcile, nature’s balances. 

With dropping temperatures, slowing migrations and even some snow, the yard’s landscape and birds are changing dramatically. Pine siskins, juncos, purple finches and white-throated sparrows have returned. The regular warblers have left, and fewer raptors are seen overhead.

With so much more time in the yard, I get to see the Montclair birds I missed with frequent travel throughout the United States. I record my bird observations on Cornell University’s eBird database. It adds to their research and gives me a picture over time. 

As of late December, 45 bird species have appeared in the yard or flown over. They were seen either through the kitchen window or while seated comfortably on the patio. Bald eagles, merlins, hawks, Canada geese and vultures are the exciting flyover regulars, frequently providing unexpected acrobatic sky entertainment. 

They don’t land in the yard often, but some do alight periodically on rainy days to dry off or to bring prey to eat in the shelter of the cedar tree at the back of the yard. The bushy, protected areas around the garden edges provide shelter for the smaller birds and some safety from predators. 

The sparrows, dark-eyed juncos and woodpeckers are the regular birds that enjoy a suet or seed meal and a quick visit to the birdbath. We also seem to have a community of small birds that live under the boxwood.

If you haven’t visited the eBird site, now is a good time to get started. You will see data on bird sightings in almost any geographic area, as reported by thousands of birders. For example, you can see records for New Jersey, Essex County or the Montclair Hawkwatch.

In many ways, winter is better for bird observations. The birds mill about the yard and make multiple trips from secluded branches to the feeder. Since one of my interests is photography, I’ve placed a very photogenic tall stick with a couple of horizontal arms near the feeder. Birds fly in, land on an arm, and pose for me to take a picture. 

The late December snowstorm brought at least two dozen dark-eyed juncos, nine mourning doves and a few white-throated sparrows to the patio edge, affording numerous photographic opportunities. They peck for seed and then race to hide under the boxwood. I suspect that many of them have decided it is an exceptional hideaway for their own sheltering in place.

Going into winter, the local bird population shifts dramatically. The most common yard birds are white-throated sparrows and dark-eyed juncos. The juncos are mostly of the slate-colored kind, quite common in our area. One or two dozen show up daily, accompanied by as many as eight mourning doves, blue jays, northern cardinals, tufted titmice, mockingbirds and even an occasional American robin or two. 

Less frequently, we see the white-breasted nuthatch, Carolina wren and a few American goldfinches. This year was also exceptional with pine siskins for the first time. I had a few, but my friends reported hundreds in their yards.

Not that long ago, it was unusual for American robins to overwinter, but they are gradually finding it advantageous to stay the winter. Their diet changes in winter to include berries, and there may be some competition with cedar waxwings, sparrows, northern mockingbirds and other birds attracted to the same food.

Red-bellied woodpecker and yellow-bellied sapsucker (Courtesy of Sanford Sorkin)

This is also the time of year that I set up a suet feeder. It only takes a few days before the woodpeckers find it and visit to feed multiple times a day. The first ones arrive at sunrise, and the others seem to be on a more leisurely schedule. 

The woodpecker list includes the most common species in our area: red-bellied, downy and hairy woodpeckers. They hang onto the feeder and continually scan the sky for threats between pecks at the suet.

A surprise woodpecker this year was a yellow-bellied sapsucker. They spend their time drilling small sap wells in uniform circles around the circumference of a tree. In our yard, it is the magnolia tree that has their attention. Close inspection of the tree shows that there has been yellow-bellied activity for at least a few years. Sapsuckers may visit a suet feeder, but I haven’t seen them there yet. 

The numerous small sap wells attract a variety of other birds that are looking for nourishment. Normally, I only see warblers and hummingbirds attracted to the sap, but this year a red-bellied woodpecker waited impatiently for the sapsucker to move away. When it took too long, he simply scared the sapsucker and treated himself to the sap.

Now is the time to wonder what will arrive in the yard in late January and February. There is always something unexpected, and if you are watching, you will probably be pleasantly surprised.


SANFORD SORKIN

In “What’s in Your Backyard,” Sanford Sorkin and David Wasmuth will alternate writing about the birds and beasts you may see around your house.

Sanford Sorkin has been a Montclair resident since 1978 and is currently the president of the Montclair Bird Club. He has been a bird watcher and nature photographer for the last 12 years.