With fall migration winding down and winter on the way, this time of year can get pretty slow for bird photography. I just put my bird feeders out and have not set up any photo perches yet. Winter waterfowl are coming into the state, but with no ice yet, and lots of open water it's hard to get anywhere near close enough to photograph them. Many ducks are still molting into their breeding plumage and don't look their finest right now, anyway. So with the potential for a slow period, finding good photo opportunities in this transitional time is always a blessing. While driving through Old Lyme last week, I saw an odd looking bird (it looked like a flycatcher) on the side of the road and I quickly stopped to check it out. Naturally, it immediately flew into the roadside brush, never to be seen again. But as I was looking for it, I noticed a lot of birds flying back and forth to a lone standing bush well off the road. It was loaded with red berries, and birds were hopping all over it.
Grabbing my camera, I walked closer and saw that it was a Winterberry bush, and it was under attack. I set my camera up quickly and started shooting. The first birds I saw were American Robins, nearly a dozen at a time. They were feasting on the berries with little concern for my presence, reaching to grab a choice one, and gulping it down whole.
Soon I heard familiar high-pitched whistles, and a small flock of Cedar Waxwings descended on the bush, joining the robins at the all you can eat buffet.
A Red-bellied Woodpecker also joined in, hanging upside down while it fed.
Next to arrive were two pairs of Eastern Bluebirds, although the males kept to the other side of the bush.
Even a White-throated Sparrow sampled the berries, crushing them with it's beak to eat the inner parts.
I had to leave for the day, but came back a few days later to find the bush had a lot fewer berries. There were still lots of birds in the area, though this time they were more spread out. Walking down the street a way, I found a flock of Cedar Waxwings feeding on a crabapple tree nearby.
Finding a good food source is one of the best ways I've found to get close enough to birds to photograph them. In the late fall and into the winter, when insects become scarce, finding a good crop of berries like these can turn out to be a gold mine. It was puzzling that so many birds were eating Winterberry so early in the season. I've always thought that it's one of the last berries that birds eat, lasting late into the winter, but there doesn't seem to be any rhyme or reason to the birds' berry picking schedule.
In my yard there is a flowering dogwood that is a prolific berry producer. Every fall, a day arrives when birds decide that the berries are ready to eat. I try to watch it closely, hoping to photograph them, but there are years when I come home one day and the berries are gone, picked clean in a matter of hours. This usually occurs in November, and it's always the same birds, American Robins, European Starlings and the occasional Northern Flicker that eat the berries.
In 2012, the birds decided the berries were ready in early October, a month earlier than usual. The robins, starlings and flickers were all there, but because it was so early there were also some unexpected guests. These included Scarlet Tanagers, Swainson's Thrushes, Brown Thrashers and Gray Catbirds.
The truth is, I've photographed birds eating berries in all seasons. I also have a honeysuckle bush in my yard that draws the a crowd of birds, and for years I have photographed robins, catbirds and waxwings from my back deck as they swarm when the berries ripen in July.
Even though these are common bird species, the bright red berries make for attractive pictures, the kind that calendar and magazine editors always seemed to like. One of my backyard berry pictures was chosen for a magazine cover years ago.
So it's a good idea to keep track of the trees and bushes in your neighborhood that produce berries that birds eat, because for birds and photographers, berry picking season can be quite a bounty.
Elsewhere, I was able to see three new birds this month, including Cave Swallows at Hammonasset, a beautiful drake Eurasian Wigeon found by Hank Golet in Old Saybrook and a Long-billed Dowitcher at Rocky Neck bringing my total to 233 this year, still way short of my goal.
The dowitcher was first reported two weeks ago, and after checking for it several times with no luck I had given up hope of seeing it. More than a week later, it reappeared, in the company of some Greater Yellowlegs and stayed until November 20th. Now if I could have the same luck with the Short-eared Owls I keep missing and a few of the Snowy Owls showing up in neighboring states can make there way into Connecticut it could be an interesting winter.