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Winter Visitors

Call me Crazy, but when the damp, drizzly November in my soul becomes a hard, frozen December, I account it high time to go birding as soon as I can, even if that means watching what comes to my feeders.

Not all migrants leave New Jersey when the days shorten and cool.

Believe it or not, New Jersey's cold and snowy winter climate suits some birds just fine, compared with their usual home in the far north at this time of year.

Just look what comes to your feeders -- or come to Scherman Hoffman and look what comes to its many feeders.

White-throat

One of the most common of the wintering birds in New Jersey is the White-throated Sparrow, such as the one I photographed here at Scherman Hoffman. Look at one and you can see where it gets its name. More often than not you will find them under your feeders, picking at the partial seeds dropped by other birds.

Another common visitor you'll see in or under your feeder is a cousin of the sparrow, the Dark-eyed Junco. In New Jersey you see the males, which are dark gray or, if a juvenile, a grayish brown. (The females, which are brown, winter farther south.)

Golden-crowned Kinglets, flitting around trees a mile a minute, gleaning infinitesimal insects, are another winter visitor I have seen while walking the Scherman Hoffman trails during the Saturday morning hikes. Larger, red Fox Sparrows are always a fine thing to see when they fly out of a bush to a branch and allow you a look. The same with the smaller American Tree Sparrow with its bi-colored bill. Both are regular visitors to New Jersey in winter.

There are also uncommon winter visitors. When a lot of these birds show up, you have what is known as an irruption. These birds include Red-breasted Nuthatch (smaller than the White-breasted Nuthatch more commonly seen), Purple Finches, Red and White-winged Crossbills and Pine Grosbeaks (which look like House Finches on steroids). I have seen Red-breasted Nuthatches in the Scherman pine trees and Purple Finches in the trees and on the feeders.

There is also the Pine Siskin, shown mobbing a Scherman Hoffman feeder below. It is a small bird with a needle-like bill that you could mistake for a winter-colored American Goldfinch except it is heavily striped. The male has a yellow wing bar. These birds will show up in large groups, eat and then disappear. I have seen them at Scherman Hoffman, in parks and at my feeders in winter. Also, there's the Bohemian Waxwing, larger than the more common Cedar Waxwing and with subtle differences in color. 

pine siskins at Scherman Hoffman edit

Several types of raptors also come south -- Rough-legged Hawks and Snowy Owls. Both hunt by day and both like the areas that remind them of the boreal tundra such as beaches, farm fields and airports. Once in a long while there is a sighting of the largest of the owls, a Great Gray Owl, another diurnal hunter that prefers tundra-like territory.

All these birds come south for the same reason -- food. If the Snowy Owl, for instance, can't find its usual meal of lemmings because that population has crashed, the owl has to fly farther afield.

For the Purple Finch or the crossbills the issue is whether it can find the seeds it needs to survive. That is why Purple Finches, along with Goldfinches and House Finches, will come to feeders such as Scherman Hoffman's. Every year a winter finch forecast is published, which I find helpful in knowing what might show up.

So when you put out your feeder you can find common and uncommon winter visitors. But you can also find the birds that come to your feeder every day. Somehow winter gives them a special glow. Perhaps it is the leaves being off the tree. I see a male Cardinal in a bush and he seems redder. I see a Tufted Titmouse on the feeder and the gray of his back and the reddish bits under his wings seem a richer color.

Even the noisy Blue Jay attacking the feeder and making it swing around seems to be a more vibrant shade of blue.

So when December turns gray and snowy, remember to get your birdseed -- Scherman Hoffman's store is a good source -- put out your feeders and keep your eyes open for common, uncommon and all-welcomed visitors.