Pete Dunne on the gifts of winter observation

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winter birding

You know what it is like when couples get together for the first time. They ask all kinds of questions. What is your favorite book, film, color, season?

“Winter,” I said to my future wife, and not to contradict. I love winter and I’m not even a skier.

The winter is pure, the air is intoxicating. And the light is delicious. The deep sun that hugs the horizon leaves everything it touches behind. What about the birds? Fabulous. Only in winter do I find painted ponds in water birds. Seventeen species are roughly equivalent in Cape May, and that doesn’t include the Scotch, long-tailed duck, and the odd eider duck that perches in Delaware Bay.

Some avid bird watchers disapprove of waterfowl, claiming that all stubborn waterfowl have been attacked by the suggestion that they may be a “possible escape.” Me? I love ducks. I consider the wink of the speculum of a green-winged blue-green as a gift from the bird gods. And I consider American Wigeon’s weird two-note toot to be the official winter sound in Cape May.

Every morning I’m bold enough to rise with the sun. After a night of feeding, I am treated to a flood of American black ducks that head to Delaware Bay. The gunners who crouched in their Barnegat Sneakbox boats can only touch the birds with their longing because Black Ducks learned the upper limit of a shot load a long time ago and fly accordingly. I actually know gunners who monitor the spent grenades around their blinds so that the deceptive black ducks get a flair at the sight of a plastic cover. I don’t doubt it. The Black Duck hibernates further north than any other puddle duck, and this requires ingenuity and a sturdy constitution.

An iridescent green can be seen on the speculum of a male green-winged blue-green while standing on ice. The often hidden field mark gives the species its name. Photo by Paul Reeves Photography / Shutterstock

Out in the swamps, snow geese cover the cordgrass dwellings, their faces wrapped in the “blue mud” of Delaware Bay. Hooded mergansers cavort and dive in the tidal streams. When the tide comes in, it moves swarms of Dunlin to a higher level. The birds soar across the swamp, moving in tight flocks, making the air hiss as they rush by, gasping for air at the watchers.

I mentioned the transforming magic of winter light, but sounds also seem to be amplified by the winter air. Or maybe it’s just the silence, as if the world is holding its breath as winter walks towards spring. For Great Horned Owls and Bald Eagles, winter is spring. In New Jersey, these apex predators incubate eggs as early as February. I’ve seen adults incubated wrapped in snow. And while great horneds usually appropriate other raptors’ nests, they usually wait for the owners to leave. But two years ago I saw a pair of redtails build a nest to be grabbed by a pair of owls when it was completed. To keep the peace going, the redstart built another nest on the other side of the swamp.

Winter is not a time to sit at home and longingly dream of the spring migration.

Special delicacies from winter bird watching

Forests now sheared from their camouflage leaves offer their own special treats. Herds of mixed species move through forests like a hungry cloud. Listen to the lively jokes of the chickadees leading you to the pack because who knows which camp supporters may have teamed up with the locals? Certainly yellowish warbler, but maybe a kinglet or two or three or a creeper? Woodpeckers also join these feeding flocks, at least until temperatures are above freezing and the birds are motivated to drum. It is one of the earliest signs of spring: woodpeckers establishing territory.

Here’s a challenge: this winter, try to distinguish the woodpeckers near you by their drum. Downy is distinctive: fast, short bursts with a short pause between bursts. You will find the type-specific drum patterns described in your Sibley manual.

And then there is the thrill of the season. Snowy owls can magically appear on winter beaches where none had been the day before. Set up a spotting scope and enjoy the moment. Snow owls are pretty accommodating. Captivated by the gaze of these beautiful birds, you might wish that spring never came.

Every winter I look – so far in vain – for a Gyrfalcon. The nomadic arctic hunters spend most of the winter navigating the edge of the winter ice pack, but the strange bird sometimes migrates further south. A few years ago, Linda and I missed a minute. A bird watcher who was walking to Barnegat Spit when we returned to our car watched the bird come in from the sea and land. Well, maybe this year.

So stop reading and get out there. Winter won’t last forever. Who knows what gifts of the season are waiting for you.

Winter joys: 15 birds in the coldest months

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