Monday, May 22, 2017

Watching the Birds

By Beth Sullivan
What a great time of year this is! So many things to look at; So many directions to go in. Those of us who are naturalists by profession or passion can get easily distracted when out in the field at this time of year. There is just too much to pay attention to.
Almost everyone watches birds to some degree or another. I think I have been fascinated by them since my first pet parakeet back when I was a toddler. But there are varying degrees of watching birds, and then there are birders. Sometimes a bird watcher progresses to become a birder, sometimes the line is blurred.
Drinking, bathing, or just splashing, this Yellow-rump warbler was clearly enjoying itself. Photograph by Dennis Main.

I consider myself a watcher more than anything. I love watching the behavior of even the commonest little backyard Chickadee. I am quite content just keeping track of the birds that have become familiar to me in my area. However, when I have the opportunity to vacation in a spot I have never been before, I become a Birder-checking my lists, trying to study what I might encounter, and enjoying ticking off new species. I do not have a personal life list, or at least not one that is up-to-date and comprehensive. And with aging brain cells, I often forget what I may have encountered on a long ago vacation.
Common Mallards are easy to observe, and family groups are a joy to watch.

But watching, understanding, and deciphering birds is something you do not forget. It happens daily; it becomes part of everything I do-Just paying attention and keeping my eyes open.
The simplest behavior, such as lifting a head in song, can be so beautiful to watch.

Observations from this spring

Last spring, with many small Winter Moth caterpillars devouring my ornamental cherry tree and crab apples, I noted tons of birds in those trees. I had gorgeous Indigo Buntings glowing blue against the pink blossoms. There were Goldfinches, Baltimore Orioles, and Scarlet Tanagers all adding to the amazing color. They ate well, but there were few flowers due to the caterpillars. This year there were fewer caterpillars. The trees were beautiful, but there were far fewer birds for me to enjoy out the kitchen window. With caterpillars under control or absent, blossoms were pollinated, and the birds went elsewhere. But I also know that there will be more fruit on these trees for the birds of fall and winter to enjoy.
These Orioles landed by a garden pond and played together for almost an hour.

I admire the adaptability of birds. The Robins, Catbirds and Cardinals that seem to enjoy nesting close to the house. I watched a Robin frantically creating her nest outside a window, at eye level in an open Rhododendron bush. I enjoyed her technique for weaving grasses, and adding her mud. Then she tamped it all down with her feet and nestled her body into the cup to create a perfect fit, and there she sat. I was careful not to make sudden noises or to turn the light on at night. She was very tolerant. Then, one day, she was just gone. She left behind nothing; no eggs. I was so sad. Later that same day, I watched a Crow walk slowly along the gutter line of my roof, then peering down very deliberately into the bushes at the foundation below. I could easily understand how it could have walked right along, spying the mother Robin and dropping down to scare her off and destroy her eggs.
This Robin spent days perfecting her nest, only to be scared off by a Crow.

Now I watch as a Cardinal pair works to make a nest close to the same area, but they have chosen a very dense evergreen and are quite hidden from view. Their courting is lovely to watch as they sit together, sing to each other, and he frequently feeds her gently. I hope they succeed.
Hopefully the dense evergreen cover will protect this Cardinal from the eyes of the Crow.

The Crows, on the other hand, have been really noisy through the earlier part of spring. They declared territory and had gang wars with each other and Bluejays. However, now that they are guarding their nests and may have young, they are far quieter, and far more cautious about advertising their locations. Smart birds. I raised a Crow once; their intelligence and personalities are so amazing. I would have enjoyed watching that crow for years and been happy with nothing more exotic.
Crows are super smart and fun to interact with, but  are awful nest predators.

As the season progresses, take some time to just watch the birds around you. Get to know their habits and personalities. The experience will last longer than a quick spotting and a check on a list.

Photographs by Beth Sullivan unless otherwise indicated.

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