Wings of Winter

With the advent of winter, many species of birds arrive on Amelia Island for warmer weather and available food, including Yellow-Rumped Warblers and Cedar Waxwings.

Not all winter visitors who fly here come by airplane. Each winter, countless numbers of birds and ducks fly themselves here and never have to worry about going through security or clearing customs.

Many people flock to visit our salty, sunny shores each winter. Many species of birds do the same thing; people visit to avoid the cold winters further north, and so do the birds. Snow and ice are an inconvenience to humans, but the same snow and ice can mean starvation to some birds. Frozen waterways and frozen vegetation can be deadly for many birds.

In order to survive, many birds fly south to Florida or beyond. Shorebirds, raptors, warblers, ducks, songbirds and others come here to enjoy the warm temperatures, open waterways, and much-needed food supplies. The ground here doesn’t freeze, so birds such as Eastern Phoebes and Palm and Yellow-Rumped Warblers, all of which eat worms and insects, are likely to find what they need here. In addition, keep an eye out for American Avocets on our ponds and waterways.

At this time of year, we host a gorgeous species of northern bird called the Cedar Waxwing. Cedar Waxwings are social birds which form large flocks as they roost and forage. You may have noticed one of these flocks as they move through your neighborhood, the downtown area, Fort Clinch State Park, or along A1A. If you are waiting to pick up a student at Emma Love Hardee Elementary School, you may also see them there.

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology notes that the Cedar Waxwing is a “silky, shiny collection of brown, gray, and lemon-yellow, accented with a subdued crest, rakish black mask, and brilliant-red wax droplets on the wing feathers. In fall and winter these birds gather by the hundreds to eat berries, filling the air with their high, thin, whistles. Look for them low in berry bushes and high in evergreens.” If you want to attract them to your yard or neighborhood, planting Loquat or Holly trees will do the trick.

If you have the pleasure of finding some Cedar Waxwings, you may also be treated to hearing and seeing the American Robin! These recognizable red-breasted birds are also quite vocal. In addition to seeing them in our trees, you are likely to see them foraging on the ground.

Among the warblers found here during the colder months is the Cape May Warbler. These tiny travelers visit us after leaving their Boreal forest breeding territories far from humans. They eat insects, but as Cornell Lab of Ornithology acknowledges, “wintering birds sip nectar at bottlebrush, agave, and many native and ornamental flowers; and sometimes from hummingbird feeders.”

Locally you may see them on Cape Honeysuckle. They are petite birds with an unusual bill that curves downward. If you plant Bottlebrush and Cape Honeysuckle, you are sure to attract these and other warblers.
Some species of raptors that breed in northern latitudes visit us as well because they follow their prey south. Northern Harriers spend their days here gliding low over marshes as they hunt for rodents and birds. They have a 42-inch wingspan, distinctive owl-like face, and a prominent white rump patch.

With a much smaller wingspan of only 22 inches, the Merlin is found here only in winter. Small falcons with pointy wings, Merlins are quite fast and quite fierce. They fly almost 2,000 miles to spend the winter in our area.
Observing birds has perhaps never been so popular an activity as it has been this year. It is an activity everyone can enjoy even during quarantine without any special equipment. As always, please observe birds from a respectful distance.