20 November 2014. This was an unusually wintery day (and week) for mid November; but not without precedent I’m sure. It was very much more like January, with permanent-looking snow on the ground and a wickedly cold wind that blew a couple of Red-tailed Hawks around like old newspaper pages.
This wallop of cold came, as a river of frigidity, straight from the Arctic. It got started a couple of days ago and really picked up steam yesterday. Bitter winds swept the length of Lake Erie absorbing buckets of relatively warm moisture and then dropped it as snow on the hapless City of Buffalo; two metres of snow is a lot – even for winter-savvy Buffalo.
Bundled up in clothes that haven’t been out for nine months, I walked up through one of my favourite sheltered valleys. I had hoped for some unusual birds trying to make it through this hostility. Well, there were no strangers but our resident birds were happy to scavenge for handouts. This valley is part of semi-public lands (technically private, but open to the public as long as they stay on trails). It attracts many walkers and bird-feeders, particularly families on weekends. The resident Black-capped Chickadees and White-breasted Nuthatches have become quite tame and will feed from an outstretched hand. Red-bellied Woodpeckers, Blue Jays and Northern Cardinals are almost as bold; you can imagine how appealing this is to families with young children.
All of these birds were there, all of them hungry and engaging. But by far the most abundant were Black-capped Chickadees. Whenever I stopped to look around, they’d fly in and sometimes land on my hands for no apparent reason (other than the reasonable hope that I was offering food). I don’t have any idea how many Black-capped Chickadees live in this valley; it’s a lot, probably too many. Nor do I know how many of them are year-round residents or how many just come for the lean months.
Knowing, as we do, that birds migrate seasonally in pursuit of accessible food or breeding territory, it’s not hard to imagine that Black-capped Chickadees from miles around have always sought wintering spots like this valley for shelter and food. And this particular retreat with its superabundance of food well, it’s cute, but I think a touch unhealthy; too many birds of one species in one place.
Heading home, I stopped to scan the harbour waters, just in case. As I admired a group of snoozing Trumpeter Swans and a distant pair of Tundra Swans, a vigorous snow squall blew in drawing a grey curtain across the waters, coating my binoculars and sending me back to the warmth of my car and shortly thereafter, home. Nice for me, but no easier for wildlife.