Scorned by most birders as rats with wings, European Starlings are stocky, abundant, colorful, aggressive, and raucous. This one is among a group of robins, bluebirds, waxwings and other starlings foraging on staghorn sumac. In fresh winter plumage the white spots on their feathertips will wear away as the year progresses, disappearing entirely by the spring breeding season. They’re a tremendously successful invasive species that covers most of the continent today with a population surpassing 200 million, having started from 100 birds released in Central Park at the end of the 19th century. They’re terrific mimics and are well-known for their beautiful murmurations, flocks of 100s or 1000s of birds forming clouds that stretch, overlap, bunch, and billow in endlessly changing shapes and patterns.
The biggest woodpecker in New England is the Pileated, an impressive bird with a bright red crest and, in the males, a similarly bright red mustache. They have an undulating or bouncing flight like other woodpeckers which helps separate them from the similar-sized American Crow. They relish carpenter ants and chisel rectangular holes in rotting tree trunks to find them. They are territorial year round birds needing tall mature hardwoods with standing dead trees and windfalls. Their call is a loud laugh which can transport you back to some Jurassic jungle. In harsh winters they’ve been known to occasionally visit suet-feeders.
Currently, Fox Sparrows come in 4 subspecies, but steam is gathering from DNA studies to split them up into their own separate species. This is the Eastern Red Fox Sparrow, which will likely have its own subspecies when the split is official (it’s complicated). The other Fox Sparrows vary by color and bill size but they’re all quite big as far as sparrows go. They breed in remote forests farther north and while more winter farther south, we do get some in the Northeast, they’re just not common. Look for them under bird feeders and shrubs, kicking up a storm.
Skunkhead is a nickname for the drake Surf Scoter, one of our common winter seaducks. They are stocky ducks with peculiarly bulbous and colorful bills. Females are browner and drabber with paler white patches behind the bill and eyes, and their bills not as swollen or colorful but a monochromatic dark gray. They breed on freshwater Arctic lakes and wetlands between Alaska and Labrador, and winter along the East, West, and Gulf coasts where they dive for mollusks and crustaceans.
Larks come in many species in the old world, but the Horned Lark is the only species that’s also found in North America. You’ll find them in open country—tundra, desert, grass, shrublands, and beaches foraging for seeds and insects on bare ground. In winter they’re often seen in small to huge flockls, often mixing with Longspurs or Snow Buntings. Sexes are similar except the black markings on the heads of males are bolder and more distinct.
Collective nouns for birds are fun—a “convocation” of eagles, a “college” of cardinals, and the proverbial “murder” of crows. Except in the Canadian population which migrates south, most American Crows are year-round birds that gather into large communal roosts for the night during the winter months, some with as many as a million birds. This one on Sagamore Creek in Portsmouth was just getting underway with new birds still arriving from all directions and by 3:30pm when I came across it, was already numbering more than 400. There’s quite a racket going on too, individuals stomping up and down the spartina grasses, some foraging, others holding forth on their opinions before settling into the trees for the night.
Green-winged Teal are North America’s smallest dabbling ducks, often seen in shallow tidal waters, bogs, swamps, ponds, and other sheltered wetlands, but not often on larger bodies of water. Their breeding range extends across northern North America from the Aleutian Islands to Labrador, but here in New England they can be found year round.