Christmas Day was another record-breaking warm day, continuing what has already been a very mild month around New York Harbor. A daily record high for Christmas Day was tied just after midnight in Central Park with a temperature of 64 degrees. This has been the warmest Christmas Eve and Christmas Day combination on record.
The mild weather unfortunately ushered in more clouds and rain to dampen holiday spirits for many people to really enjoy the mild weather outdoors. Dense fog also rolled in early this morning along the coast and stuck around all Christmas Day to deliver a spooky rather than a festive scene.
But the mild temperatures and calm winds were not lost on wildlife. Among the rich wetlands and waterways at Conaskonk Point in Union Beach, located along Raritan Bay in New Jersey, the bird life were brisk and spry from the time I arrived around 10am to the time I departed at 2:30pm.
Northern cardinals, flickers (yellow-shafted form), downy woodpeckers, pine siskins, song sparrows and seaside sparrows immediately greeted me as I arrived in the gravel parking lot off Front Street. The small birds could be seen foraging for seeds on the ground and from the stems of dormant reeds and other seedy seaside plants.
Down by the water there were sanderlings and dunlins foraging for small invertebrates in mudflats. Black-backed and ring-billed gulls were feeding on washed up rock crabs. Somewhere in the thick fog I could hear the loud whimsical “ow-owooolee” call of Long-tailed ducks, a bird of cold water, foraging for mollusks and crustaceans in the bay.
My favorite sight on this Christmas Day, though, was a white-throated sparrow. Not just one either, there was twenty or more foraging on the ground for seeds of saltwater wetland weeds and grasses.
Although white-throated sparrows are fairly common winter visitors around New York Harbor, these small birds are still secretive enough that it’s a joy when one is spotted. The birds tend to blend in well with the undergrowth of forests and meadows in parks and suburbs with their dim reddish-brown feathers and dark bill. Even with their bright white throat and bright white “eyebrow,” the birds tend to blend in easily with other sparrows to the untrained eye.
The good news is that you don’t need to hunt far and wide to see one. White-throated sparrows can easily be seen at your bird feeder, or to be more precise at the ground below your feeder.
Sometimes people can get lucky spotting two winter birds for the price of one sight. Though they look nothing alike, white-throated sparrow and dark-eyed juncos tend to flock together during the wintertime. They must like each other so much that occasionally the birds mate together during the summer to produce hybrid offspring.
The white-throated sparrows we see around New York Harbor are usually migrants, arriving sometime in late fall or early winter from far away breeding areas in Canada (in northern Ontario and northern Quebec) or New England. They tend to make nests on the ground in either coniferous or deciduous forests, especially in areas of dense thickets after logging or fires, or around the edges of ponds, meadows, and bogs.
The bad news is that white-throated sparrows are apparently declining over much of the breeding range. There are fewer and fewer places for these birds to breed. The loss of young forest and shrub land habitat on which white-throated sparrows depend has caused this species to decline considerably as a breeder in New England and Canada.
According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, over-development and poor forest protection is leading to the loss of large blocks of forests with a variety of age classes and forest types including wetlands and bogs, which provide important breeding habitat. White-throated sparrows depend on numerous small forest openings with dense, low vegetation near water in order to make nests and raise young. If these habitat conditions don’t exist, the birds will not feel safe to breed.
Protecting this forest habitat will not be simple. Assorted northern states and countries will have to work together to protect thickets and dense low cover in prime forests for a small stout sparrow to exist. It’s never an easy task.
How long will we will see white-throated sparrows around New York Harbor during the winter is anyone’s guess. It’s why I look forward to seeing them every year, because it could be my last.