Beautiful bird songs fill the air as songbirds are pairing up.
Winter resident ducks are seen in pairs, too.
Buffleheads, Ring-necked Ducks, and Scaups
Our young Black-crowned Night Heron has made it through the winter!
And a pair of American Pipits has been here all winter, too.
The Harbor Seal posse is seen nearly everyday. The highest count so far was 27!
A pair of sweet Snow Buntings has been here for several days, eating tiny seeds found on the ground.
Sunday afternoon while walking along Brace Cove I by chance met up with my friend Michelle. I was showing her where to look for the Lark Sparrow when Michelle spotted a beautiful male Snow Bunting, and then we spotted a second! They were pecking at the sand looking for seeds caught between the granules.
An interesting note about Snow Buntings – Male Snow Buntings look very different in their breeding and non-breeding plumage. Not due to molting, but because they rub their bellies and heads in the snow, wearing down brown feather tips to reveal pure white feathers beneath.
The melodious notes of the Song Sparrow are heard from sunup ’til sundown, spring, summer, and fall. Their beautiful song is most welcome, especially at this time of year when there are fewer songbirds on our shores and many that remain through the winter months don’t sing during the non-breeding season.
Song Sparrows have adapted to a wide variety of habitats. Despite the narrowness of the strip of land that separates freshwater Niles Pond from salty Brace Cove, Song Sparrows find plenty to forage on and excellent cover in the shrubby undergrowth found there.
Mostly when you see the pretty Snow Buntings at the beach, they are pecking at the sand, foraging for seeds caught between the granules. It was a joy to see one member in this small flock briefly alight on a stem of grass so I could catch a glimpse of its beautiful wing.
Snow Buntings are preparing to migrate to the Arctic. They have a circumpolar Arctic breeding range, which means they breed all around the globe within the range of the North Pole. Snow Buntings are the most northerly recorded passerine (songbird) in the world!
I don’t have a photo of what they look like in summer, when the male’s plumage is a striking black and white, and borrowed this batch from wiki commons media.
Their shadows in flight crisscrossing the light through my office window, I look up to see one feather-fluffed fellow sitting on a crabapple branch, gazing right back at me. I wonder, if I silently and cautiously open the window, will he fly in?
It is so very cold out doors. The flock seems more weary than in past years. One sits on the ground outside the window, barely moving aside when I walk down the garden path; another is half asleep in the holly limb overhead. There are fewer, too, perhaps only eight to ten when often we see several dozen. On this coldest of January days, it must be difficult to keep warm, especially as there are no little fish to catch along the frozen sea’s edge to warm their bellies.
The winter Robins arrive to our garden every year in January, nearly to the day (today, January 21st). Our garden is a postage stamp but we have planted it richly for the songbirds. The pair of ‘Dragon Lady’ holly trees hold their berries for the Robins, the crabapples have yet to be sampled, the winterberry is still ripe with fruit, and the tiny rosehips of the climbing white rose are beckoning.
We’re fortunate that on Cape Ann many American Robins nest and migrate along our shores. Some Robins live here all the year round; some arrive in springtime, having spent the winter further south in parts warmer; and some–the ones I like to call winter Robins–arrive in January, from parts further north. We are like their Bermuda, and they are here to feed on wild fruits and berries, as well as small fish fry and fingerlings, and mollusks.
Saturday my daughter Liv and I took a break from all things Christmas and visited Parker River National Wildlife Refuge and Sandy Point Reservation. Hiking around the refuge is one of our favorite things to do and I was thrilled that she got to see not one, but two owls, a Barred Owl, and a Snowy Owl. The Barred was very nearly completely obscured in a dense thicket, nonetheless exciting to see, and the Snowy was spectacular, causing quite a hullabaloo with the onlookers as he perched in a tree by the road leading into the refuge.
Standing perfectly still while filming during yesterday’s gloriously warm afternoon, a beautiful female Downy Woodpecker flew to a tree not five feet from where I was working. She was very much obscured by foliage as she tapped her way up and down the trunk, turning the tree into a pantry for her winter supply of nuts and seeds. For a quicksilver moment I caught a clear look and snapped a shot through the leaves.
By Kim Smith
Cape Ann provides welcome habitat for a menagerie of creatures beautiful, from the tiniest winged wonder to our region’s top predator, the Eastern Coyote. Last year I posted a Cape Ann Wildlife Year in Pictures 2016 and I hope you will find the wildlife stories of 2017 equally as beautiful. Click on the image to find the name of each species.
Winter: Only partially frozen ponds allowed for dabblers and divers such as Mallards, Mergansers, and Buffleheads to forage at the freshwater. Mr. Swan had his usual entourage of quwackers and daily heads to the other side of the pond to get away for his morning stretches. Sightings of Red-tailed Hawks and other raptors abounded. Although photographed in Newburyport, the owl photos are included, well, just because I like them. An Eastern Screech Owl (red-morph) was seen daily perched above a playground and Barred Owl sightings too were reported throughout the winter. Raptors live on Cape Ann all year round but are much easier to see in winter when the trees are bare of foliage.
The beautiful green eyes of the juvenile Double-crested Cormorants were seen wintering at both Niles Pond and Rockport Harbor. And during a warm February day on a snowless marsh a turkey bromance shindig commenced.
In early spring, a male and female American Wigeon arrived on the scene making local ponds their home for several weeks. In the right light the male’s electric green feathers at the top of his head shine brightly and both the male and female have baby blue bills.
Meadow and marsh, dune and treetop were graced with the heralding harbingers of spring with photos of a Red-winged Blackbird, a pair of Cedar Waxwings, Northern Mockingbird, Brown Thrasher, Eastern Towhee, Eastern Kingbird, Tree Swallow, and Grackle included here.
The Great Swan Escape story made the news in Boston as Mr. Swan eluded captors for hours. He had re-injured his foot and someone took it upon themselves to call the animal rescuers, which would have surely meant death for our beloved 27-year old swan if he had been wrangled into captivity.
M is clearly for Migration through Massachusetts and the month-long arrivals and departures did not abate. Short-billed Dowitchers, winsome Willets, Yellow Legs, and Ruddy Turnstones are just some of the migrating shorebirds spied on Cape Ann beaches and marshes. The best news in May was the return of the Piping Plovers. Of the five or six that camped at Good Harbor Beach to investigate potential nesting sites, one pair bonded and built their nest mere yards from the nesting pair of last year. Could it be the same pair? The nesting Piping Plover story took up much of the spring and by early summer four little Piping Plover chicks hatched over Fiesta weekend. Hundreds of photos and hours of film footage are in the process of being organized with a children’s book and documentary in progress.
The survival of one Piping Plover chick was made possible by a wholesale community effort, with volunteers covering all hours of daylight, along with Mayor Sefatia and her team, Ken Whittaker from the conservation office, Chief McCarthy, and animal control officer Diane Corliss all lending a hand.
Sadly, several Northern Gannets came ashore to die on our Cape Ann beaches, struck by the same mysterious and deadly disease that is afflicting Northern Gannets in other regions. During the summer season they are typically at their North American breeding grounds, which are six well-established colonies, three in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, Quebec, and three in the North Atlantic, off the coast of Newfoundland.
By mid-July many of us were seeing Monarchs in much greater numbers than recent years. Nearly every region within the continental United States experienced a fantastic Painted Lady irruption and butterflies of every stripe and polka dot were seen flitting about our meadows, fields, and gardens.
The tadpoles and froglets of American Bullfrogs and Green Frogs made for good eating for several families of resident otters, who are making their homes in abandoned beaver lodges. Little Blue Herons too, find plentiful frogs at our local ponds.
In early August we see the Tree Swallows begin to mass for their return migration. They find an abundance of fruits and insects in the dunes, headlands, and beaches. The Cedar Waxwings and Ruddy Trunstones were back again observed foraging on their southward journey, along with myriad species of songbird, shorebird, diver, and dabbler.
Tree Swallows Massing
The Late Great Monarch migration continued into the fall as we were treated to a wonderfully warm autumn. Waves and waves of Monarchs came ashore and more butterflies arrived on the scene including new batches of Painted Ladies, Clouded Sulphurs and Common Buckeyes (nothing common about these beauties!).
A pair of Northern Pintails called Cape Ann ponds and coves home for nearly a month while we seem to be seeing more and more raptors such as Red-tailed Hawks, Osprey, Bald Eagles, and Peregrine Falcons. Juvenile herons of every species that breeds on Cape Ann lingered long into the fall—Black-crowned Night Herons, Yellow-crowned Herons, Great Blue Herons, Snowy Egrets, Great Egrets, and Green Herons.
Just as Mr. Swan and the Young Swan appeared to be warming to each other, the Young Swan, who has yet to learn to fly, became trapped in the ice at Niles Pond. He was rescued by caretakers Lyn and Dan and is now spending the winter at a cozy sanctuary built by Lyn and friends.
Thank you to all our readers for your kind comments of appreciation throughout the year for the beautiful wild creatures with which we share this gorgeous peninsula called Cape Ann. If you’d like to read more about a particular animal, type the name of the animal in the search box and the original post should come up
With its expansive marshes and dunes, bodies of fresh clear water, saltwater coves and inlets, and geographic location within the Atlantic Flyway, 2017 has been a banner year for Cape Ann’s wild and wonderful creatures. I can’t wait to see what awaits in 2018!
We can hope our Little Chick is taking his time migrating southward. Perhaps he has traveled only as far as Cape May, New Jersey, or maybe he has already migrated as far as Cape Lookout, North Carolina. Migrating shorebirds often travel shortly after a low pressure system and hurricanes are a part of the environment to which wildlife like Piping Plovers have adapted. However, no wildlife has in the recorded history of the world had to cope with a storm the magnitude of Hurricane Irma.
Extraordinary weather events can push endangered species over the brink. High winds, storm surges, and wave action destroys coastal habitats and flooding decreases water salinity. Songbirds and shorebirds are blown far off course away from their home habitats, especially young birds. A great deal of energy is expended battling the winds and trying to return to course. Songbirds have it a little easier because their toes will automatically tighten around a perch but seabirds and shorebirds are the most exposed.
Numerous Piping Plovers winter over in the low-lying Joulter Cays, a group of sandy islands in the Bahamas, and one of the areas hardest hit by Hurricane Irma. Perhaps migrating PiPl sensed the pending hurricane and held off before crossing the Atlantic to reach the Bahamas and other Caribbean Islands. The flock of nine PiPl in the above photo were seen last year at the end of August in Gloucester (August 29, 2016.)
One famous shorebird, a Whimbrel named Machi, who was wearing a tracking device, became caught up in the eye of a powerful storm but made it through to the other side of the storm. Tragically, he was subsequently shot dead in Guadeloupe. Many migrating birds like Whimbrels know to avoid places like Guadeloupe where unbridled shorebird hunting is allowed, but Machi had no power over where he made landfall. Sea turtles too are severely affected by the loss of barrier beaches. Staggering loss of life has been recorded after recent powerful hurricanes–fish, dolphins, whales, manatees, baby crab and lobster estuaries, insects, small mammals, all manner of birds–the list is nearly as long as there are species, and nothing is spared.
If you see rare or an unusual bird after a storm or hurricane, please let us know and we can contact the appropriate wildlife official.
The first Gray Catbird to make an appearance in our garden arrived the day we planted blueberries. We don’t grow enough blueberries to provide all that we, and the Catbirds, would like to eat, so for the past several years I have been feeding the Catbirds handfuls at a time, the ones that come in the box that are smallish, and generally more sour tasting. If I forget to refill the bowl, the mom Catbird perches on a table just outside the kitchen window, calling and calling until the bowl is replenished. This summer she was joined by two fat little fledglings, also demanding of blueberries. The other day, both fledglings sat smack in the middle of the blueberry bowl and then proceeded to have a disagreement over the fruit!
Mature Gray Catbirds are mostly slate gray all over, with a little black cap, and when in flight, flash rufous red underneath. They belong to the same family of birds as do Northern Mockingbirds and Brown Thrashers, Mimidae, having that wonderful ability to copy the sounds of other songbirds and string them together to make their own music. During mating season, male Catbirds use their songs to establish their territory. The song may last up to ten minutes. This past spring, while walking along the wooded edge of a dune, I came upon a male singing his heart out. I didn’t have my tripod with me, but began recording him while singing. Boy, did my arms grow weary trying to capture the song in its entirety!
Note about the benefits of of planting blueberry bushes ~ Did you know that blueberries are native to North America? Fantastic for attracting songbirds to the garden, the foliage is also a caterpillar food plant for Spring and Summer Azure butterflies, and the blossoms provide nectar for myriad species of pollinating insects, including many species of native bees.
Please join me Thursday evening, August 10th, at 7:00pm, at the Peabody Institute Library, South Branch. I will be giving my talk about how to create a garden to benefit a host of pollinators and screening several short films. I hope to see you there!
My husband Tom suggested that I write a year-end post about the wildlife that I had photographed around Cape Ann. Super idea I thought, that will be fun and easy. Not realizing how daunting and many hours later, the following is a collection of some favorite images from this past year, beginning with the male Snowy Owl photographed at Captain Joe’s dock last winter, to December’s Red-tailed Hawk huntress.
Living along the great Atlantic Flyway, we have been graced with a bevy of birds. Perhaps the most exciting arrival of all occurred when early summer brought several pairs of nesting Piping Plovers to Gloucester’s most beloved (and most highly trafficked) of beaches, Good Harbor Beach. Their story is being documented on film.
While photographing and filming Red-winged Blackbirds this past spring, there was a face-to-face encounter with a hungry coyote, as well as several River Otter sightings.
The summer’s drought brought Muskrats out from the reeds and into full view at a very dry Henry’s Pond, and a short film about a North American Beaver encounter at Langsford Pond. Numerous stories were heard from folks who have lived on Cape Ann far longer than I about the extraordinary number of egrets, both Snowy and Great, dwelling on our shores.
There were few Monarch sightings, but the ones seen thankfully deposited eggs in our garden. Thank you to my new friend Christine who shared her Cecropia Silkmoth eggs with me and thank you to the countless readers who have extended an invitation to come by and photograph an exciting creature in their yard.
Pristine beaches, bodies of fresh water, and great swathes of protected marsh and woodland make for ideal wildlife habitat, and Cape Ann has it all. With global climate change pushing species further away from the Equator, I imagine we’ll be seeing even more creatures along our shores. Butterfly and bee populations are overall in decline, not only because of climate change and the use of pesticides, but also because of loss of habitat. As Massachusetts has become less agrarian and more greatly forested, fields of wildflowers are becoming increasingly rare. And too fields often make the best house lots. Farmers and property owners developing an awareness of the insects’ life cycle and planting and maintaining fields and gardens accordingly will truly help the butterflies and bees.
Thank you to all our readers for your kind comments of appreciation throughout the year for the beautiful wild creatures with which we share this gorgeous peninsula called Cape Ann.
The images are not arranged in any particular order. If you’d like to read more about a particular animal, type the name of the animal in the search box and the original post should come up.
I wonder what 2017 will bring?
Have you ever wondered why sometimes you can see the brilliant red gorget (throat feathers) of the male Ruby-throated and Allen’s hummingbirds, and sometimes not at all? Or why iridescent feathers appear green, and then blue, or possibly purple, and then in the next moment look drab and dreary? I think about this when photographing birds such as grackles, buffleheads and hummingbirds. Most recently, the turkeys in our community are currently displaying their wildly varying iridescent feathers when in full courtship mode.
Iridescent red gorget in male Allen’s Hummingbird; same bird, different angles
There are two types of structural color, layering and scattering. Iridescence in bird feathers is created by layering. Bird feathers are made of a translucent protein called keratin, which is a very rugged substance. Not only are the feathers made of keratin, but keratin coats the bird’s claws, legs, and bill. Because of the structure of the feather, with its microscopic barbules, when light hits the feather it causes the wave lengths to bend, or refract. Keratin reflects short wave length colors like purples, blues, and violets. The other colors are absorbed by the underlying layer of melanin. The refraction works like a prism, splitting the light into an array of colors. As the viewing angle changes, because of the viewer’s movement or because the bird is moving, the refracted light displays a shimmering iridescence, or none at all. Beautiful color combinations are created when iridescent layers are combined with pigments present.
Keratin is interspersed with tiny pockets of air of within the structure of the feather filament (called barb). Scattering is created when light hits the pockets of air, which results in specific, non-iridescent color. The color blue in feathers is almost always created in this manner. Feathers of Blue Jays, Bluebirds, and Indigo Buntings are prime examples of scattering.
Here are two graphics found online from Cornell that I found very helpful in trying to visualize the difference between layering and scattering. The first shows how iridescence is produced and the second, how blue scattering is created.
In thinking about how colors are created in bird feathers, I wondered if it was similar to how color is formed in butterfly wings. I learned that yes, it is very similar, and that bird feather color has evolved in several ways, from pigmentation present or as a result of light refracting through the layered structure of the feather.
Pigments are colored material found in plants, animals, and nearly every physical substance in nature. Pigmentation in birds comes from three different sources: melanins, carotenoids, and porphyrines.
Melanins are tiny bits of color in the feathers of birds and in their skin. Melanins produce colors from palest yellow to rusty red browns to the richest black, depending on where the melanin is located and in what degree of concentration. Feathers with melanin are the strongest of all. A bird’s flight feathers are the most susceptible to wear and usually have the highest degree of melanin.
Carotenoids are produced by plants. Birds that eat specific plants, or eat something that has eaten the plant, acquire pigment from carotenoids. A carotenoid-rich diet is responsible for the beautiful vermillion feathers of the Northern Cardinal, as well as the electrifying cadmium yellow of the male American Goldfinch. Another example is the pink feathers of the flamingo, which also have a diet rich in carotenoids that come from the crustaceans that they eat, which ate algae. Melanins and carotenoids can interact to produce feathers such as olive green.
The third group of pigments are called porphyrins and they are the rarest, found only in a handful of bird families. Porphyrins are produced by modified amino acids and all share a common trait, which is to fluoresce bright red when exposed to ultraviolet light. Porphyrins are found in some pigeons, owls, and turacos.
The intensity of the red of the Northern Cardinal is an example of how feather color plays an important role in the survival of a species. Cardinal foods high in carotenoids include rose hips and dogwood berries. The brightest red birds usually have superior breeding territories, with the greatest abundance of their preferred foods. The reddest birds make the most successful parents because of their ability to bring an increased amount of food to the nestlings. When Cardinals are raised in captivity on a diet lacking in carotenoids, with each successive molt, the feathers become paler and paler.
Like butterflies, birds can see color in the ultraviolet spectrum (we humans cannot). Perhaps the way we see birds is entirely different from they way they see themselves!
Part Two Structural Color continued tomorrow.
I’ve been keeping my eye on this pair of Mourning Doves and early this morning I found their nest! They saw me filming and photographing them and flew away. I hope they don’t abandon the nest as it would be wonderful to film the babies (squabs).
Splashing, and then dashing to a nearby tree, splashing and dashing again, and then returning for yet a third bath, this little male Common Yellowthroat seemed to relish in the fresh water at our birdbath. His more subduedly colored mate stayed well hidden and close to the ground and I was thrilled to see them both. This sweet pair of warblers have been in our garden for several days now and perhaps they’ll build their nest here!
Common Yellowthroats were at one time common however, their numbers have been steadily decreasing since the 1960s. Throughout the yellowthroat’s range they are suffering from habitat degradation and loss. Because they live in wetlands and eat primarily insects they, like countless wild creatures, are adversely affected by pesticides and poor water quality.
Outside my office window is a pair of stately hollies, our “Dragon Ladies;” aptly named for their prickly foliage, and adjacent to the hollies is a sweet scented flowering crabapple. The autumn fruits of this particular crabapple are chunkier than most and, I simply assumed, must bear the worst tasting crabapples imaginable because year in and year out, the fruit is never, ever eaten by the birds. When flocks of robins arrive in our garden in late January, the winterberry and hollies are stripped bare of their fruits in a day, or two, at the most, after which the robins head to our neighbor’s sumac and then further down Plum Street to our other neighbor’s smaller and much better tasting crabapples.
Not this year! A pair of robins is setting up house along the garden path and they vigorously defend the crabapples from other robins. In late winter, robins typically switch over to worms, but with the ground still frozen solid, they are continuing to look for tree fruits. Unfortunately, much of it has been consumed.
Repeatedly, I noticed that our robin couple was struggling to eat the crabapples. They would snip off a stem and then drop it onto the brick path below and peck and peck and peck. A robin’s bill did not evolve to crack open grains and as it seems in this case, nor for penetrating our unusually hard crabapples. A great deal of energy was being spent to get a morsel of food, which is never a good thing because it can leave a creature weakened and at risk of freezing to death.
I picked a few berries and made a crabapple mash, placed it under the tree and, within hours, all the fruits were devoured! Now when feeding the pets and filling the bird feeders each morning I pluck a small handful of crabapples, mash, and place in the pie tin below the tree. I’ve experimented with adding blueberries and raspberries to the dish, but they prefer the crabapples.
If we move very slowly when walking down the path, they now allow us to come quite close—and what a treat to observe from this distance—beautiful, beautiful robins!
Please join me at the Essex County Greenbelt’s Cox Reservation headquarters on Thursday, March 5th, from 6:30 to 8:30. I will be presenting my pollinator garden program. The program is free. RSVP to firstname.lastname@example.org.
I look forward to seeing you!
From the ECGA website:
Our second session to our pollinator film/lecture series will feature local designer, writer, filmmaker and gardening expert Kim Smith. Kim specializes in creating pollinator gardens, as well as filming the butterflies that her plants attract. She will present a 90-minute slide show and lecture about how to create a welcoming haven for bees, birds, butterflies, and other wildlife. Native plants and examples of organic and architectural features will be discussed based on their value to particular vertebrates and invertebrates. Kim will also discuss specific ways to be sure your gardening practices are not harming pollinators. There will be time for questions from the audience about particular problems and quandaries they may have with pollinators and their gardens.
To learn more about Kim Smith’s work, visit her website here. This lecture will take place at our headquarters on the Cox Reservation in Essex, from 6:30 to 8:30 pm. Light refreshments will be served. Please RSVP to email@example.com.
For the past several years a pair of the sweetest Carolina Wrens have made our garden their home. The wrens are at the very edge of their northern range and because of that, they are much more at risk than many of the species of birds that we see at our feeders. Knowing this is one of the reasons why we are so vigilant in keeping the bird feeders well-stocked. The Carolina Wrens are easy to please; safflower seeds and suet are amongst their favorites. The following I wrote awhile back but because they are so vulnerable in this snowiest of winters, I think the information is worthwhile to repost.
Carolina Wren (Thryothorus ludovicianus)
Come-to-me, come-to-me, come-to-me, repeated from sun up to sundown. Mellow and sweet—though loud enough to attract my attention—what was this new-to-my-ears birdsong coming from the thicket of shrubs? Occasionally we would catch a quicksilver glimpse of a petite sparrow-sized songbird singing energetically atop the fence wall or rapidly pecking at the chinks of bark on our aged pear tree. But this was definitely not a sparrow. His is a rounded little body with tail held upward. He has pale orangey-buff underparts and rich russet plumage, with white and black barred accents on the wings, and long white eye-stripes. Because his coloring is so similar to, my husband took to calling it “that chipmunk bird.”
After much running to the window and out the back door at his first few notes I was able to identify our resident Carolina Wren. All summer long and through the fall we were treated to his beautiful and sundry melodies. Here it is late winter and he is again calling me to the window. We can have a longer look through bare trees and shrubs. Much to our joy there is not one wren, but a pair!
The Carolina Wren (Thryothorus ludovicianus) is common throughout the southeast; so populous it is the state bird of South Carolina. When found on Cape Ann it is at its most northern edge of its territory. Gradually, as the climate has warmed over the past century, its range has expanded. They are sensitive to cold and will perish during severe weather. The Carolina Wren is a highly adaptable creature, dwelling in swamps, forests, farms, and tree-filled urban and suburban communities. They hop around leaf litter and dense brush, using their elongated bills to forage for food close to the ground. A pair may bond any time of the year and will stay together for life. It is the ardent male who sings the loud song and he is apt to anytime and anywhere. Carolina Wrens work together to construct their nests and feed their young. Their nesting sites are varied, built in both man-made and natural nooks and crannies; tree holes and stumps, and just as frequently, windowsills, mailboxes, tin cans, garage shelves, and holes found in porches, fence posts, and barns.
During this snowiest of winters, we’ve been refilling the bird feeders several times a day. We usually only purchase safflower seeds because squirrels do not much care for the hard shell seeds. Recently though I thought that with all the snow cover, our little bird friends would benefit from some variety and decided to add black oil sunflower seeds to the mix. What a colossal error! This morning at the feeder a fight broke out over the sunflower seeds, with no less than five squirrels defending their new found cache. The sunflower seeds also drew two fat black rats to the feeders last night. We’re back to strictly safflower seeds!
The following are eight common birds that we see at feeders at this time of year and these eight species are content with the safflower seeds provided.
The robins in our community have several different habits for surviving winter. There are year round resident robins that breed throughout Cape Ann during warmer months and also spend the winter here. A second group only breeds in our region, then migrates further south during the winter months. A third group, the robins that we see flocking to our shores beginning round about January 28th, are migrating from parts further north. They are very hungry and are looking for berries, fruit, and small fish.
In early spring, robins begin to disperse from flocks. The ground thaws and worms, insects, and snails once again become part of the robin’s diet. In early spring, too, is when we begin to hear the beautiful liquid notes of the male robin. He is singing to attract a mate. The robin’s song is one of the of most beloved and it is his music with which we associate the coming of spring.
With several edits and updates since I first wrote the following article, I think you’ll find the information helpful in knowing what to feed and to plant for the robins.
Food for the American Robin
During the winter months Cape Ann often becomes home to large flocks of robins, and we have had the joy of hosting numerous numbers in our garden. I can’t help but notice their arrival. Their shadows descend, crisscrossing the window light, followed by a wild rumpus in the ‘Dragon Lady’ hollies. This pair of hollies is planted on opposing sides of the garden path, alongside my home office. I have learned to stealthily sneak up to a window, as any sudden activity inside startles birds that are investigating our garden, and they quickly disperse. Dining not only on berries of the ‘Dragon Ladies’, but also the ‘Blue Princess’ Meserve holly and winterberry bushes, I find dozens of noisy, hungry robins.
These winter nomads flock to trees and shrubs that hold their fruit through January and February, feasting on red cedar, American holly, Meserve hollies, chokecherries, crabapples, sumac, and juniper. Robins traveling along the shores of Cape Ann also comb the shoreline for mollusks, and go belly-deep for fish fry. Depleting their food supply, they move onto the next location. Gardens rife with fruiting shrubs and trees make an ideal destination for our migrating friends.
Year round resident robins will call your garden home when provided with trays of chopped fruit and raisins, supplemented with meal worms.
What to Plant for Robins
The garden designed to attract nesting pairs of summer resident robins, as well as flocks of winter travelers, would be comprised of trees and shrubs for nest building, plants that bear fruit and berries that are edible during the summer and fall, and plants that bear fruits that persist through the winter months. Suburban gardens and agricultural areas provide the ideal habitat, with open fields and lawns for foraging insects as well as trees and hedgerows in which to build their nests.
The following plants, suggested with robins in mind, will also attract legions of songbirds and Lepidoptera. The list is comprised primarily of indigenous species with a few non-native, but not invasive, plants included.
Trees for nesting ~ American Holly (Ilex opaca), Eastern Red Cedar (Juniperus virginiana), Red Maple (Acer rubrum), Sugar Maple (Acer saccharum), Flowering Dogwood (Cornus florida).
Summer and autumn fruit bearing trees, shrubs and vines for robins ~ Black Cherry (Prunus serotina), Blackberry (Rubus spp.), Flowering Dogwood (Cornus florida), Gray Dogwood (C. racemosa), Red-osier Dogwood (C. sericea), Silky Dogwood (C. amomum), Elderberry (Sambucus canadensis), Apple (Malus pumila), Virginia Rose (Rosa virginiana), Highbush Blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum), Lowbush Blueberry (Vaccinium angustifolium), Wild Grape (Vitis spp.).
Trees and shrubs with fruits persisting through winter ~ Winterberry (Ilex verticillata), Mountain Ash (Sorbus americana), Crabapple (Malus spp.), Sargent’s Crabapple (Malus sargentii), American Holly (Ilex opaca), Meserve Hollies (Ilex x meserveae), Eastern Red Cedar (Juniperus virginiana), Common Juniper (Juniperus communis), Chokecherry (Prunus virginiana), Smooth Sumac (Rhus glabra), Staghorn Sumac (Rhus typhina).
Right on schedule, the robins have returned to our East Gloucester neighborhood! They were seen flocking to the holly berries, crabapples and sumac. This morning it was bleak and drizzly; I hope to see them back in our neighborhood on a sunnier day!
For more information about robins see previous posts here: