Sharon Stiteler joined MPR's Tom Crann to talk about what birders can expect as winter approaches. Stiteler is the blogger behind Birdchick.com, and a National Park Ranger at the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area.
TOM CRANN: Which birds have already left town and which ones are still getting ready for the big trip?
SHARON STITELER: Those summer birds — Baltimore orioles, common nighthawks, chimney swifts, swallows — they're already out of here. We still have a lot of birds moving through. There's still a few warblers, and sparrows are moving through like crazy right now. And ducks, ducks, ducks.
CRANN: When you use the term "moving through" they are coming from the north and flying southbound?
STITELER: There are quite a few species, especially the ducks. As things freeze up in Canada, they start heading down. They're following the Mississippi River — that's essentially I-35W — for duck migration. And then we have tundra swans from up in the Arctic. They're coming here as a halfway point in their marathon and they're loading up on food down on the Mississippi River bottoms down by Wabasha, and then they're going to head over to Chesaepeake Bay.
CRANN: Any birds especially interesting that we should be looking out for in the next few weeks?
STITELER: Tundra swans, absolutely. They're a beautiful bird. We have trumpeter swans that nest here but tundra swans are a little bit different. You hear them frequently migrating at night and they sound almost like a bunch of little small dogs.
CRANN: What about the birds that will stay here through the winter? What are they doing now to get ready for that?
STITELER: They're staking out all their favorite feeding spots. Right now is a great time to scatter some white millet on the ground for dark-eyed juncos. They're just arriving. They're various shades of gray and brown but they're very distinctive because they have a white stripe on either side of their tail.
We also have robins that will spend the winter here. These are Canadian robins — these aren't the robins that spent the summer with us. They love hackberry trees. If you have hackberries in your neighborhood, look up there, you'll see tons of robins feeding.
CRANN: What are the tips for feed if you want to attract birds?
STITELER: Keep your bird feeders clean. That's very important. Black oil sunflower seed is the absolute best seed. Don't be afraid to put out some suet. Just be careful with your flavor choices. I find birds like the plain chunks of suet that you can get from your butcher. Or they also like the peanut-flavored suets. Be careful of the ones that are seed- or hot-pepper-flavored. I don't think the birds enjoy that as much. But nut-flavored suet is like tiramisu for them.
CRANN: What kind of birds can we expect it to attract?
STITELER: With the animal fat (the suet), that's going to get woodpeckers, chickadees, nuthatches, tufted titmice, if you're lucky enough to get those guys. Sometimes you might see a very late warbler feeding on your suet. Black oil sunflower seed will get everybody else — any of those seed-eating birds that are still hanging out.
CRANN: What can backyard birders look forward to in the winter?
STITELER: You can look forward to lots of cardinals. What's fun about cardinals is that they flock up in a big flock. You don't just get a pair, sometimes you get 16 pairs. That's just beautiful on a snowy day. You'll get blue jays. Two kinds of nuthatches — both red- and white-breasted. Just about every kind of woodpecker imaginable — downy, hairy. If you're lucky enough with a lot of big dead trees around, you'll get the pileated. And a lot of hawks.
WINTER BIRDING ACTIVITIES:
• Project Feeder Watch at Cornell Lab of Ornithology
• Christmas Bird Count from the National Audubon Society
Stiteler's recommended smartphone apps that make birding better.
• Favorite: BirdsEye
• Beginner: iBird Lite and Pro
• Serious: Sibley eGuide to Birds