Deep into the old-growth forest of Inwood Hill Park, the Black-capped Chickadee, Dark-eyed Junco, and Tufted Titmouse cling to the bare tree limbs of late winter. As the tree buds and athletic fields begin to show green, as befitting the work week ending with St. Patrick’s Day, these small active birds have yet to disperse to other grounds.
The birds, some in winter flocks, arrived last autumn. I noticed the first Black-capped Chickadee on October 10, 2022 along the Clove trail. A week or so later, a shy Tufted Titmouse appeared on the ground next to a hilly trail. By early November, the Dark-eyed Juncos arrived for the autumn foliage season. And by the end of December, I noticed a Brown Creeper and a few White-throated Sparrows. Of course, all these little birds were not the only birds in the park in the colder months.
Their arrival in the fall did mark the expected change of seasons, as precarious as seasonal change goes these days in an age of overall climate anxiety. With tweets, squeaks, and chirps, they announce their presence in the hush of winter. The chickadees, juncos, and titmice are often seen in one another’s company. White-breasted Nuthatches may often be near, too, exploring the tree trunks in vertical directions, often lifting their heads to calculate their next lateral move.
These birds can heighten awareness of the winter forest and hills around them. The bare trees reveal the complex glacial geology and topography of the landscape, a place often obscured by the dense tree canopies of late spring and summer. It’s easier in the winter months to observe where the hills rise, how the slopes are bedded with ancient rock such as Manhattan Schist and Inwood Marble, and how the deep roots of old trees dangle above the Clove and over the rivers.
If the winter landscape seems forlorn, Black-capped Chickadees are so sociable they will approach visitors out of sheer curiosity. They have many talents, including foraging and storing food for later. These eastern-range chickadees may be found along the Appalachian Trail region all the way to north Georgia. They thrive in the Adirondack region of New York State, and I like to think they spend their summers there, at places like Saranac Lake or Lake Placid.
The Vernal Equinox occurs in New York City on Monday, March 20, 2023 at 5:24 PM. See more on the page Birds of Winter.