A Baltimore oriole is shown at Barr Lake State Park near Brighton, Colorado, in a 2020 file photo. Maine Audubon received multiple reports of Baltimore orioles at feeders after last weekend’s ice and snowstorm. AP Photo/David Zalubowski

What happens to migrating birds in snowstorms?

Last weekend’s storm was devastating in terms of the damage to property and challenges from power outages, and it also had some interesting effects on wildlife in Maine. We fielded a ton of questions in days following the snow and ice accumulation and thought readers would be interested in some of the interesting highlights.

First, remember when everyone was convinced that something was wrong with all the birds since there was no activity at their bird feeders last fall? Well, that certainly wasn’t the case in the days following the storm. There are so many blackbirds and sparrows in the state, and many of these are southern migrants that had been returning in the weeks leading up to the storm. They were happy to turn to readily available food at bird feeders. This is essentially the opposite of the dearth problem last fall, when mast year conditions made lots of naturally occurring food easy to find all across the landscape (and with no snow covering it) so that birds didn’t need to go to bird feeders.

One species especially well represented after the storm was the fox sparrow. This large and boldly marked sparrow winters just south of us, primarily in southeastern states, and nests across the spruce forests of Canada, with a few spending the summer on mountains in Maine. Their peak migration through Maine occurs in late March and early April, so the overlap with this storm caused many of them to show up in backyards, and we received lots of “What’s this bird?” emails in the past week.

In the same vein of fox sparrows being forced to bird feeders, it is also interesting to see how detections of rare birds also increase following these storms. Not only are more birds forced to feeders, but having more people trapped at home watching their feeders also helps. We received multiple reports of Baltimore orioles at feeders, which interested me because these would have been birds wintering locally rather than returning migrants. Baltimore orioles are just starting to leave their wintering grounds in Central America and making their trans-Gulf migrations, so these reports are of birds that have successfully survived a Maine winter, probably aided by feeders and fruit-bearing trees, but also the mildness of this winter.

One of my colleagues spotted a dickcissel, a small bird that looks like a cross between a cardinal and a sparrow, at his freshly filled feeders last Sunday. This is another bird that more likely overwintered rather than migrated back early, and would normally be found in grasslands of the Midwest. A final rarity came from the MAINE Birds Facebook group, with a post of a varied thrush in a York County backyard. This is a native of the Pacific Northwest and is a somewhat irruptive vagrant to the northeast.

Many inquiries came in about woodcocks. The early spring conditions this year saw an influx of these funny inland shorebirds over the last few weeks with reports from all over the state of people seeing them doing their aerial mating dances in the evenings. Let’s hope these woodcocks are able to find adequate alternative habitats until fields and forests open back up. In the days after the snow, lots of reports came in of woodcocks seen along small open streams, and even in freshly plowed walkways.

It is way too early to try to quantify any of the effects of this past storm on wildlife, and it’s a good reminder that readers should always contribute data. Backyard bird observations can go into databases like Cornell’s eBird and sightings of other wildlife can go into iNaturalist. It will be interesting to compare when my backyard groundhogs re-emerge. Or see how the frequency of fox sparrows change this spring: they are being reported on more than 11% of all checklists in Maine during the last week of March (since the storm), up from a historic average of 3.3% for the same time period.

Do you have a nature question for Doug? Email questions to ask@maineaudubon.org and visit www.maineaudubon.org to learn more about birding, native plants, and programs and events focusing on Maine wildlife and habitat. Doug and other naturalists lead free bird walks on Thursday mornings, 7 to 9 a.m., at the Gilsland Farm Audubon Sanctuary in Falmouth.

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