Nature Notes: The Birdless Winter

The winter birds are scarce this December
A gull at Otter Pond in Sag Harbor, one of a flock observed feeding on menhaden as ice began to form about two weeks ago. Terry Sullivan

The yellow forsythia is still blooming here and there, but all but the lowest leaves are off the oaks and other hardwoods. We don’t know what the southern pine-boring beetles are doing, how many larvae survived to become adults, or what’s in store for next year’s native pines.

The winter birds are scarce this December. Was it a poor breeding year in the north, or did many not migrate south to our latitude? Or did some migrate farther south than usual? If it weren’t for the gulls, common crows, and turkeys, this winter might go down as a birdless one.

Strangely, the turkey vultures are still around. Vicki Bustamante encountered three over Riverhead the other day. A few days earlier she saw a raven in Water Mill. The annual Montauk Bird Count came up with a raven on Gardiner’s Island. Terry Sullivan watched as an immature bald eagle flew over Sag Harbor’s Otter Pond, one side to the other.

Earlier in the week, Terry happened to be making his “milk run,” camera in hand, when he came upon a strange situation at Otter Pond. On it were 40 or 50 gulls, not the usual one or two. They were feeding on a crop of young-of-the-year menhaden, which apparently had succumbed to an oxygen shortage after a thin layer of ice had formed. Menhaden travel in huge schools, using up a large amount of oxygen as they go. When the pond freezes over, even if only overnight, the ice becomes a barrier to oxygen from the air reaching the water, and the fish die as the oxygen in the water is rapidly depleted.

While the overwintering songbirds — the white-throated sparrows, juncos, goldfinches, et cctera— are in short supply, the larger birds, the ones that are obvious to the unaided eye, are more plentiful. One of them, the snowy owl, made an early appearance. We are not sure if the same ones come down from the north every year, but the same spots along the edges of the local salt marshes frequently have these owls sitting isolated on them, motionlessly facing the water.

Because there has been a dearth of acorns on the ground this year, especially those from the white oaks, which are the favorites, the squirrels have been having a hard time of it, and while trying to cross roads in quest for food many have bitten the dust. Cottontail rabbits also make up a goodly percentage of the roadkills, not because of a food shortage, but more due to a rise in their population, apparently coincident with a scarcity of foxes in recent years. On the other hand, raccoons and opossums are rather scarce as roadkills this year.

By the same token, blue jays, which are somewhat dependent on the acorn crop, aren’t around much this winter. Where they go during such times is still a mystery to me. The traveling flocks of chickadees, downy woodpeckers, tufted titmice, and the like are not as obvious as they usually are. When my wife and I came home from Christmas dinner on Monday, we heard strange noises coming from one of our house’s vertical drainpipes. I removed the pipe and two tufted titmice flew out, none the worse for wear. One hung around as if to thank us, then retreated into nearby pines.

The winter has been slow in coming — we’ve yet to have a solid week of freezing weather — but that may be about to change. As this column is being written in the dark of Monday evening, the outside temperature is sitting at 32 degrees Fahrenheit. At the same time, it seems to be getting progressively colder. Each day’s photoperiod is lengthening, about half a minute a day, more in the afternoon than in the morning.

The testosterone levels of us males, after reaching an annual low during the winter solstice on Dec. 21, should be slowly inching up. In this respect we are similar to most birds, three-spined sticklebacks, mammals that don’t hibernate, and a host of other vertebrate species. Some of us who get impatient often take testosterone boosters, but I still rely on the old-fashioned way: increasing day length.


Larry Penny can be reached via email at