This has been a great winter so far for snowbirds.
I don't mean the people who move south for a few months to escape the cold. I'm talking about the original use for the word "snowbird," the birds that arrive here in the snowy season. English speakers have called them that for more than three centuries.
The most common of these is now called the dark-eyed junco, but most people know them as slate-colored juncos. Ornithologists determined that the slate-colored and five other populations of juncos were the same species, so they combined them under the "dark-eyed" name.
Juncos, sparrow-sized birds, are readily distinguished by their gray backs, white bottoms and light-colored bills. A Canadian species, the U.S. is Florida to them.
The bird perhaps most worthy of the snowbird name is the snow bunting, a mostly white sparrow-sized bird with rusty color on top and black wing tips.
The uncommon snow bunting increases its numbers in southern New Jersey when it's very cold, foraging in flocks near beach areas such as Brigantine and Stone Harbor Point.
In this month's cold snap, a flock of 90 snow buntings - quite large for our area - has called Cape May Point State Park its temporary home.
Perhaps the most famous of the snowbirds is the snow goose, which breeds in the Canadian arctic and winters in the Mid-Atlantic region. These geese sometimes stop by the Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge in Galloway Township in the tens of thousands in the fall, on their way mainly to farmland inland.
Snow geese are white with black wing tips, a little smaller than Canada geese. Like other geese, they are voracious feeders on vegetation and will pull roots and all out of the ground to eat.
Snow geese are doing well in Canada, which means there are so many of them on U.S. farms in the winter that they are considered a destructive pest.
As such, the state Division of Fish and Wildlife took steps this week for the second year in a row to encourage hunters to shoot them. A special hunting season for them from Feb. 16 to April 10 will have no bag limits, and hunters may use electronic calls and shotguns loaded with as many as seven shells.
The extra hunting is authorized under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act when other management programs fail to prevent overabundance of a population.
The rarest snowbird this season, hands down, was the ivory gull that delighted birders and photographers in Cape May in December. If you said "snowbird" 150 years ago, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, you were referring to this nearly all white visitor from the high northern arctic.
We are still waiting for an appearance in southern New Jersey of another prized snowbird, the snowy owl. One has been spotted in Hudson County, but so far none has turned up in its favorite local places such as Forsythe and Stone Harbor Point.
As for those recent usurpers of the snowbird name, I hear their escape plan isn't working so well this year. The cold has followed them all the way to Florida.
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