Dark-eyed Junco in the snow

It seems that at least a few birds survived the cold snap and the snow that followed, as they’ve started coming to my feeder in numbers.

It took the first birds about 24 hours to turn up. In my case, this year, they were Dark-eyed Juncos in a full candy-box of their color combinations — if the candy box was filled entirely with liquorice and strawberry creams. That would be pretty grim in a candy box, but at a bird feeder it’s wonderful. I find the Dark-eyed Junco complex to be endlessly fascinating, with a stark simplicity that to me makes them among the most beautiful sparrows combined with a variability that keeps things interesting. I continue in my endless, fruitless quest to get a non-crappy photo of as many different-looking Juncos, from Slate-colored to Pink-sided, in one shot as I can.

It doesn’t surprise me that the Juncos made it first. While bird feeders are not common in my neighborhood, weedy unmown lawns are, full of seeds for a discerning ground-feeder. A handful were patronizing my lawn even before the feeder went up, and no doubt noticed it right away.

The more traditional scouts of the bird world, Black-capped Chickadees, arrived within hours after the Juncos. I had hoped that in the circumstances, a few Mountain Chickadees might turn up with them, but no such luck, though I know that the species occurs on Mount Sentinal less than a mile from here. Apparently the weather hasn’t been quite enough to force them into altitude-based migration yet. Nor were the Black-capped Chickadees accompanied by Red-breasted Nuthatches, as they have been in other years. Red-breasted Nuthatches are another feeder favorite, and always feel like a special treat even though they’re relatively common in Missoula. I hope they turn up soon.

Before the day was out, another sparrow had noticed that the Juncos were on to something good and staked the place out. It wasn’t quite as exciting as last year’s Harris’s Sparrow, but the Song Sparrow who I spotted in the late afternoon is a very handsome bird. I choose to believe that this is the bird that delighted me by singing under the Madison Street Bridge this summer, producing an echoing, amplified song that was all the more beautiful for its distortions. But who knows.

As usual, the Northern Flickers that arrived the next day were shy and stand-offish, bolting at the first hint that I was opening the door for a refill. I wish they were more confiding, as they’re the only birds big enough to hold off the fat, obnoxious squirrels who also showed their faces on the second day. In the absence of big avenging woodpeckers, I was forced to unleash the hound (who stands about as much chance of actually catching a squirrel as he does of flying, but he made my point.)

Still no Gray-crowned Rosy-finch, though.

Photo courtesy of USFWS. You didn’t think I took that, did you?

Written by Carrie
Carrie Laben, after years of writing and birding in New York, moved to Montana to pursue her two great passions more effectively. She recently graduated with an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from the University of Montana in Missoula. When she is not cranking out essays and speculative fiction stories, or wandering around on mountains failing to see the birds she is looking for, she is likely to be drinking one of the many fine local microbrews or attending a potluck with something from the local farmer’s market in hand. On Mondays from 3 to 3:30 Mountain Time you can find her answering questions about birds on live chat at DaysAtDunrovin.com.