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December: Backyard Birds

Even in the coldest of cold snaps, many birds find everything they need in our backyards.

cardinal

It's amazing what a suet cake and a few sunflower seeds can do. Whether you overlook a grassy lawn crowded with pine and spruce trees or just a humble wrought-iron balcony in Brooklyn, a well-placed and well-stocked birdfeeder can bring you scores of colorful winged visitors even in the gray depths of winter.

Probably the most important factor determining the presence or absence of a particular species around our feeders in winter is whether that bird is migratory. Swallows, warblers, and flycatchers head south each fall before their favorite food, airborne insects, vanishes with the first cold snap. Ground-feeding birds, like robins, towhees and thrashers, winter south of areas that tend to be covered by snow for long stretches. But winter's no sweat for birds that feed on insects that hibernate in trees or on seeds or berries, all of which are abundant in the Harbor Bight area. You'll see chickadees, woodpeckers, creepers and nuthatches -- birds that in summer work the treetrunks for insects -- foraging for seeds and fruit in coniferous trees, hedgerow shrubs and winter weeds, along with mockingbirds, sparrows, cardinals, juncos and the occasional grosbeak.

In other words, there's quite an array of wildlife flitting about right in our own backyards. If you're lucky enough to live where there's a little open space, your chances of good birding are best, since native trees and plants often offer forage for birds throughout the year. Crabapples, sumacs, holly, and dogwood produce fruit; oaks, beech and hickories provide nuts; and conifers offer seeds, as well as shelter from the storm and, for the smaller birds, cover from predators such as sharp-shinned hawks.

robinIf you're an apartment dweller looking to hang a feeder outside a window, black-oil sunflower seeds are a good bet for a wide range of birds, who appreciate this seed's high fat and meaty interior; a little suet in the mix will help attract insectivores like white-breasted nuthatches and downy woodpeckers. Feeder birds you'll most likely see, in addition to those mentioned above, include mourning doves, tufted titmouses, dark-eyed juncos, house finches, and perhaps even a Carolina wren or two.

Where to Find Them: If the birds don't seem to be showing up at your home, you can visit local nature centers, which almost always have feeders in plain view. A little further afield, coastal refuges and nature reserves in Sandy Hook, Island Beach, New Jersey's Avalon Dunes Morton Wildlife Refuge, Long Island's Fire Island, Robert Moses State Park, and Stone Harbor are great places to spot both landbirds -- which visit coastal dunes and forests to eat bayberries and other fruiting shrubs -- and herring, ring-billed and black-backed gulls. Pack binoculars or a spotting scope to catch a glimpse of scoters, oldsquaw, loons, and gannets over the ocean.

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A Year in the Harbor Bight Click on the months below, and see what's wild throughout the year.

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More Highlights Christmas Bird Counts: Birdwatchers who want to combine conservation research with fun over the holiday season can participate in what's called the "Christmas Bird Count." Ornithologist Frank Chapman founded the tradition on December 25th, 1900, as an alternative to the massive bird slaughters known as "side hunts" that were popular Christmas pastimes at the turn of the century.

The CBC now draws more than 40,000 participants a year and is held in every state and province in North America; it's the longest continuous survey of North America's winter bird population and provides valuable information to scientists about the status and distribution of bird populations. But its value to science aside, this annual ritual is a unique -- and fun -- way to celebrate the Harbor Bight's natural riches.

pintail on ice

Photos: Don Riepe/Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge

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