Sunday Nature Walk – Visitors from the North

While most of New England consists of mixed deciduous and early successional forest, at the upper reaches of the region begins the grand boreal forest. The boreal forest is a vast wooded area stretching from Maine all the way to Alaska. This unique biome holds many wondrous species that calls this beautiful forest home. On certain cold winters, food shortage and extreme temperatures can lead to an irruption. This is when food up north is depleted by cold, predation, or by other factors to the point where a massive migration occurs. Birds of all shapes and sizes will move as far south as New Jersey, and in many instances, Connecticut is lucky enough to have harbored some amazing species.

The boreal forest consists of black spruce, tamarack, aspen and other northern tree species. – Tomas Koeck Photo

In terms of migration, this year was most known for its massive finch irruption. Thousands of finches were pushed down from the taiga and many find their way into New England. Many birders in and around Connecticut were lucky enough to spot crossbill species and grosbeaks. These large finches enjoy feeding on pine nuts and can be a very welcome surprise to a backyard bird feeder.

A pine grosbeak on a lichen-covered branch. – Tomas Koeck Photo

Pine grosbeaks (Pinicola enucleator) are much larger than their smaller house finch cousins, being between seven and ten inches in length. As with many different species of boreal birds, there are many cases where these finches are very tolerant of human presence and can be quite docile. Some scientists attribute this to the fact that these birds have little contact with humans in their boreal environment.

Finches are not the only birds that migrate south in times of food decline. Two of the largest owl species will move south during times of food related stress.

Wet summers and low food can lead to a very low rodent population; this causes northern owls to seek new habitats where food might be more plentiful. The snowy owl (Bubo scandiacus), a large arctic predator, inhabits fields and flat areas that may mimic the cold tundra. These are North America’s heaviest owls, coming in at over four pounds. These birds are very popular among photographers, and those who wish to take a photo of these majestic creatures should take care to do so at a responsible distance.

Another far more rare irruption occurrence is the great gray owl (Strix nebulosa). This is America’s largest owl (in terms of volume) and can be up to 33 inches tall. These owls hunt along meadows and fields, sleeping during the day in thick spruce stands but occasionally will hunt in low-lit conditions. Great gray owls are very rare birds and Connecticut has had very few occurrences of these gigantic owls, so seeing them within the state would be a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence. But as with anything in the natural world anything can be possible with the right conditions and a little luck!

Now more than ever, it is very important to remember to keep your distance with wildlife, especially sensitive species such as owls. Getting too close can cause unneeded stress on these amazing birds. Always make sure to observe these animals from afar with a handy pair of binoculars or a telephoto lens!

Easton has an abundant habitat that may harbor rare boreal species, Keep an eye out for these amazing creatures on your next winter walk out into the woods. For those who don’t know where to start, Easton and the region contain a wide variety of trails and natural areas. Explore some of the trails to find wildlife through the Aspetuck Land Trust, or explore trails throughout Connecticut at CT Woodlands.

For more nature photos, fun facts, and environmental entries, you might like to follow my nature photography Instagram, @tomaskoeck .

Tomas Koeck
Tomas Koeck

Koeck is a photographer and videographer. He is completing his bachelor’s degree in Communication Studies from the School of Communication, Media & the Arts at Sacred Heart University. He has worked on several stories with the non-profit Vision Project and is on the Easton Courier’s news team.  He has published in the Connecticut Audubon Society, TAMRON Optics, ESPN, and the Spectrum. He has also been featured on the prestigious Instagram wildlife photography platforms Elite Owls and Elite Raptors. He also runs a YouTube channel with over 20,000 subscribers.

He has conducted scientific research for Penn State University on invasive plant regeneration as well as field work with Dr. Kim Steiner of Penn State’s dendrology forest biology division. Koeck is also a recipient of the University of Connecticut’s Environmental Studies Award and has published species profiles for the Connecticut Audubon Society.