Unexpected Winter Birds

Early in my career, I was initially surprised to see eastern bluebirds and spotted sandpipers in the flooded habitats along the Lower Mississippi River.  However, based on a number of boating expeditions conducted during the months of November through January, I have found these observations to be somewhat common.

            The bluebirds seem to prefer the open, leafless, black willow (Salix nigra) woods ranging in size from poles (i.e., approximately 6 to 10 inches dbh) to the older mature trees (i.e., approximately 14 to 20+ inches dbh).  Some of these habitats are relatively open and do not have much of an understory.

            So far this is no surprise.  The kicker, however, is that these woods are generally flooded with from one to several feet of water and there often is no exposed “dry” ground present for hundreds of yards in any direction.  Clearly the bluebirds are not eating bugs snapped up from a grassy sward as they do during the breeding season.  Unfortunately I have never discovered just what they eat in these areas, or how they obtain their food.

            If you haven’t attempted birding by ear as a way to discover the presence of a “new” bird in your vicinity, you should at least learn to recognize the bluebird’s call.  In these habitats, I more often hear them before I see them.  You might also be surprised at the number and location of these birds along the lower river.

            As for the spotted sandpiper, I generally see a single bird that creeps or scurries in a tail-bobbing fashion along some floating log or other drift material, apparently in search of yummy bugs and beasties to gobble up.   When they are satisfied that they have cleaned out the pantry on a given log, they launch into a low-over-the-water sweeping flight that ends with a fluttering glide and a landing on the next floating restaurant.          

            Clear, sunny, cloudless, crisply cool-to-cold winter days are indeed “bluebird” days in these flooded willow woods.  They are simply beautiful and are one of the things that make life worth the living.  Knowing that bluebirds are present in these habitats, and watching the erratic antics of spotted sandpipers on these days puts the frosting on the cake.

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