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My Column: The Changing of the Guard

Jill Weiss White Crowned Sparrow (1) The white-crowned sparrow looks sharp -- and it's easy to identify.

My "Bird Watcher" column for The Record today is about the arrival of winter feeder birds, with a photo by Jill Weiss. (Thanks, Jill!)

You can read it here:

By Jim Wright

Special to The Record

  In case you missed it, we’ve seen an avian changing of the guard in our backyards and beyond of late.

    Most egrets, herons and shorebirds have split. Yellow-rumps and confusing fall warblers have moved through as well.

   The major raptor migration will continue well into November, but the vast majority – thousands of broad-winged hawks – are well on their way to Mexico and beyond.

   Filling the vacuum are winter’s weensy wonders, from juncos to purple finches.

   The bad news is that there are fewer birds to watch, and many of them are so small that you need binoculars to get a good look at them. The good news is that birds are becoming easier to see as more and more trees shed their leaves.

     I saw my first dark-eyed junco of the season in mid-October. They are the perfect feathered embodiment of our colder months, lacking in color but quieter than the others. If juncos make any sound at all, it’s a tinkle reminiscent of distant sleigh bells.

   Joining the juncos rummaging around the base of feeders are the ubiquitous white-throated sparrows. I like their “Peabody, Peabody'' call. Otherwise, I’m not sure how much they bring to the table. If you have a reason why you enjoy them, please let me know.

   White-crowned sparrows, with their distinctive white-striped heads, may turn up as well. They are more handsome than most of their cousins, and fairly easy to identify. 

   Cornell’s “All About Birds” website nails the description: “The smart black-and-white head, pale beak and crisp gray breast combine for a dashing look – and make it one of the surest sparrow identifications in North America.”

  Similarly, the recently arrived red-breasted nuthatches are a treat, but I wish there were more of them.  The purple finches are a species to count if you keep score, but unless you really know your bird identifications, they often look so much like house finches that you may think of them in legal terms – a distinction without a difference.

   Then again, maybe our winter birds aren’t the cause of this curmudgeonly grumble. Maybe it’s because November is fast approaching and I won’t be going on any long leisurely jaunts in search of birds anytime soon.

   Perhaps I’m better off with the glass half-full. Perhaps the large bodies of water to our north will freeze this winter. Maybe we’ll get a strong influx of bald eagles, and a few snowy owls will grace us with their presence. 

   Surely, the canvasbacks and other ducks will return to DeKorte Park in Lyndhurst. And maybe, just maybe, a red-breasted nuthatch will find my suet feeder and decide to stick around. 

  As I sit here reading a book by the fire with the two family cats, Jasper and Jack, I’m beginning to think the winter might not be so bad after all.

The Bird Watcher column appears every other Thursday. Email Jim at [email protected].