March 3, 2014 01:05AM
By Andrew Ragali
The appearance of the American robin, with its high-pitched song and reddish-orange breast, is often associated with the blossoming of spring.
But the songbird, a member of the avian thrush family, is actually tolerant of cold weather and is one of the first species to return to the state after wintering as far south as the Carolinas, according to Jenny Dickson, supervising wildlife biologist with the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.
It’s not unusual for robins to return to the state in early February, Dickson said. And during a mild winter, “you might have them hanging around all year long,” she said.
It’s been an especially rough winter, and snow has covered the ground for an extended period of time. Robins spend much of their time on the ground feeding, but the snow cover only presents a minor setback. The songbirds will fly in search of exposed earth, Dickson said. This leads to the illusion that robins are more numerous now than in years past.
Robins are insulated with feathers covered in oil that keeps them dry, said Patrick Comins, director of bird conservation for Audubon Connecticut. Comins, of Meriden, works with the organization to protect birds and other wildlife.
“Birds are surprisingly hardy and pretty adaptable in terms of where they can find food,” Comins said.
Robins eat worms, slugs, snails and other small carnivorous prey in the warmer months, but supplement their diet with berries in the winter, when there’s less food to go around, Comins said.
“They’re grouping up in areas where they have bare ground,” Dickson said. Usually, Robins are more spread out, making them seem less numerous.
“With so much dense snow cover, it tends to cluster them in places where they can get to the ground, often times in urban areas because cities are sometimes a little warmer,” Dickson said.
Comins said he has seen large groups of robins in Meriden. Robins are always around, but more inconspicuous in the winter hiding in wooded areas.
“When you see them feeding on the ground at the side of the highway, that’s a true sign of spring,” Comins said.
The bluebird and cardinal are also resilient and often remain in the state through winter if there are good sources of food, Dickson said. The crow is also in this category, according to Dickson. Crows are independent in warmer months, but live together in large groups during the winter, she said.
During the winter months, birds from arctic climates migrate to Connecticut for relief from cold weather, Comins said. While people might not view winter as an opportune time for bird watching, there are several rare species from across the world that can only be viewed during the state’s coldest months.
For the snowy owl, “it’s been a phenomenal year,” Dickson said, citing a population eruption. The large owl’s natural habitat is the arctic tundra. In the winter, they shift to Connecticut, where it’s not rare to get a dozen sightings per season, Dickson said. But there were probably more than 50 snowy owls in the state at one point this winter, she said. The population explosion is likely due to a good breeding year. With more young owls, they must travel further south where there is less competition for food, she said.
Dickson and Comins said snowy owls are often sighted in large open spaces that mimic their natural habitat. Comins said three snowy owls were sighted at the Hartford landfill this winter. There have been sightings at Bradley International Airport, as well. Sightings are most likely to occur in coastal locations with grasslands where the owls can find small mammals, Dickson said.
Most snowy owls will be gone within the next two weeks, Dickson said, “so it’s a good time to look out for them.”
Smaller birds, such as the American tree sparrow, spend their summer months in Alaska and northern Canada, but make their way south in the winter, often to Connecticut, Comins said. But my late March, they are gone, he said. Similarly, white crowned sparrows and the dark-eyed junco, also a sparrow, make their way south to Connecticut.
“This is sort of their Florida,” Comins said.
It’s not unusual for birds who live the furthest north to travel the furthest south, Comins said. Avian migration is complicated and not completely understood. It’s thought that migration patterns are timed on daylight and the length of day, he said. But, for example, birds in the tropics traveling back to Connecticut can’t foresee that the state is still extremely cold. While this can endanger their well-being, males must push the envelope to mark the best territory in order to attract a mate, Comins said.
With so much open water frozen up north, there have been several sightings of rare water fowl in Connecticut seeking water bodies to feed, Comins said. The second reported sighting in Connecticut of a mew gull was recorded this winter, he said. The mew gull is native to Europe. Gulls from as far as Asia have also been sighted this year.
“They’re amazing travelers,” Comins said.
Locally, rare water fowl are most likely to be sighted at Bishop’s Pond in Meriden and North Farms and Mackenzie reservoirs in Wallingford, according to Comins.