Companions in June

One of the rare pleasures of growing older is that experiences are layered with decades of memories. We have an eastern wood pewee singing in our woods these summer days: Pee-o-wee (pause) Pee-o! and when I hear that sweet, plaintive call, I also hear, in memory, the little bird that inhabited the mixed woods of Morrison County behind our family cabin in  the 1960s. His pee-o-wee was ceaseless during the magical days we were at the lake.

Eastern Wood Pewees do like mixed woods, those consisting of both conifers and deciduous trees. They aren’t fussy, either, over quality– even our ragged fringe of forest bordering Pioneer Lake seems acceptable. One of the last neotropical migrants to arrive in May, the modest, nondescript birds get down to the business at hand here in their summer North American homes: building nests, laying eggs and producing offspring. The small, gray birds are made noticeable by their voices. They sing nearly non-stop from dawn to dusk, their sweet companionable song filling the air as I type at my desk.

This week, I caught “our” bird’s opening chorus at 5 o’clock in the morning, as well. Although similar to the daily tune in tone quality, it was longer, a little varied and more embellished. It made me realize that, as with any bird, there’s a lot I don’t know about pewees.

T. S. Roberts’ The Birds of Minnesota records pewee nests with fresh eggs in both early June and late July, suggesting that despite their late start, Minnesota pewees double clutch. And long after other species have ceased their summer singing, the wood pewee continues its carols well into August, before leaving on its southern migration at the end of the month.

“Pee-o-wee” I hear it sing. “Pee-oh.” Summer flies by.

ImageThanks to wikipedia for the photo.

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Warbler Wave!

canadawarblerAmid the tiny green leaves emerging in Chisago County flit restless little birds, sporting bright colors and bold patterns. These are the wood warblers, Family Parulidae, New World birds. These diminuitive sprites spend the winter in southern climes– Central American, Mexico, northern South America and the West Indies. They tend to migrate in mixed flocks, at night, catching a strong south wind to save energy. Some, like the Golden-winged Warbler and Bay-breasted Warbler I saw this morning, have crossed the 500 mile Gulf of Mexico in one fell swoop. Others, like the Nashville Warbler, also seen today, have skirted the Gulf, flying over Mexico and into Texas. This spring is particularly good for warbler watching, because trees have been slow to leaf out. The tree-top dwellers are easier to spot.

Warbler waves occur in Minnesota in mid-May. I have documented waves on May 13, 1977, at the Roberts Bird Sanctuary in Mpls., on that same date in 1979 in Owatonna, Minnesota, and on May 10, 1995 in Pine County.

Warblers eat insects. When they leave their winter homes to travel 2000 miles to northern breeding grounds, there is no guarantee that bugs will be on the wing (or in the worm!) awaiting them. Climate disruption is skewing the odds in unpredictable ways. Land use changes north and south threaten them. Numbers are noticeably down from when I first fell in love with them at age 20.

Yet, I am delirious with joy each time a wave washes over Minnesota. The past week has been psychologically tough for me. Warblers in the treetops have brought a bit of cheer.

Here are three in the yard this morning. Thanks to wikipedia and the usfws for the pics.golden_winged_warbler_male2

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Time to Party!

Let’s hear it for Ring-billed Gulls!

Dozens have been raucous outside my study all day. For some time it has seemed like ice-out was imminent on Pioneer Lake. The gulls had been loitering on the increasingly unstable surface, waiting patiently, most likely, for what promised to be a sure bet– a winter-killed lake and lots of dead fish for the taking.

Under a stiff northwest wind, Pioneer became ice free this afternoon and the gulls wheeled and screamed with abandon. The wind carried away whatever rose to the surface. I saw no pale, bloated bodies at our shore; but the gulls have hung around, so there must have been something on the menu at the Pioneer Lake cafe.

Ringed-bills frequent garbage dumps, parking lots, landfills and fast food joints. If it looks like it might once have been crawling about, they’re willing to snack. They have not the dignity even of Herring Gulls, which are surely not at the top of the list of anyone’s favorite birds. And yet, where would we be if we didn’t have a Clean-up Crew, ready to consume the detritus of this world?

It has sounded like a rocking good party going on over the water. I have a mind to wander down to the shoreline myself. I saw a male Hooded Merganser at the edge of the ice last night. Perhaps it’s still in the vicinity. Now there’s a bird with class.
Photo by Lynne Marsho courtesy National Audubon Society.12704-Ring-billed_Gull

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The Cusp of Change

Two male cardinals whistled their territorial calls at each other as I walked out to the road early this morning. In the gray light of dawn, despite the snow and the ice, it felt like spring.

We are on the cusp of change and this is my favorite time of year. It is a time of great potential, poised as we are on the brink of unspooling, the great roll-out of spring. So much energy contained, waiting to be tapped.

I once considered March the least lovely time of year, filled with sodden snowbanks, gritty remnants of ice and slush, mud and potholes. That was before I learned that messy, chaotic scenes can actually be fruitful. Confusion and ugliness often gives birth to a new order, a better way of living, a fresh viewpoint. Change brings upheaval. You have to look beyond the superficial to see the promise being held out to us.

I like this earliest time of spring because the process of becoming is more interesting, more poignant, more enlivening than the state of culmination. The cardinals seem to know this. They are on their way to nests and eggs. That’s why they sing.Image 

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Tuning Up

The great wheel of the seasons is turning and although the temperature is still below zero as I write, the birds know this. Downy Woodpeckers are now visiting my feeders in pairs– even sharing the suet block– and their larger counterparts, the Hairys, have also paired up.

But the most vivid sign of spring’s advance for me was the still, small voice I heard deep within our spruce tree last week. I passed the tree around noon and heard a soft, hesitant “birdie, birdie, birdie” eminating from the recesses. I paused to sort through my internal catalog of bird calls. It had been so long since I last heard that call. Who says “birdie, birdie, birdie?” So familiar. 

Ah. That’s a cardinal’s territorial song– frequently sung from high in the treetops. This timid utterance was a practice song– perhaps from a young male which had never tried it out on the ladies (or gents) before. Perhaps from an older male, experiencing the urge to sing for the first time in a long while.

Practice makes perfect. The very next day, under a stiff wind and icy temps, I heard a confident “Birdie, Birdie, Birdie!!” carol across the snowy yard. Spring is advancing.


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Act Two

The two starlings appeared at the feeder in below zero weather as usual. The severe cold had not, apparently, had an adverse effect on them. Starlings are not native and in some areas can clog feeding stations, discouraging our native birds. I don’t get large numbers at mine and am inclined to live and let live.

I went back to my writing, when I heard squawking, loud and continuous, outside my window. I looked up to see a small Sharp-shinned Hawk standing on our patio, a brown feathered form– yes, a starling– pinned beneath its talons. My first impulse, as always, was rescue, but it was quickly checked: let’s see here– a native bird is attempting to kill a non-native. My cat, who had joined me on the desk, and I watched intently as the hawk waited patiently. When the starling was silent, the sharpie flew away into the woods with the starling securely shinned hawk

I have not seen a Sharp-shinned Hawk in our neighborhood before. We have had residential Cooper’s Hawks and at first I thought that’s what it was, but I estimated the bird to be about 12 inches tall, quite small, and that puts it in the range of a male Sharpie. Also, the head was proportionately smaller than most hawks– exactly as described by my National Geographic Bird Guide.

Later, I found two brown, speckled wings by the driveway, held together with a thin tendon. Nothing was wasted, nothing was lost in this immense Oikos-sphere, the world we call home.

Thanks to the USFWS for the photo.

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A Flash of Red

We heard the unfamiliar bird cry as we arrived home from church this morning. Before I could cast about identifying the caller, I glimpsed a flash of red: a cardinal (A cardinal? That didn’t sound like a cardinal!) followed by a flapping black and white wing: a northern shrike. We watched in amazement as the two birds flipped and darted through the boughs of white pine and red osier.

Then, out in the open, the cardinal broke free from the tangle and winged across the yard. The shrike, regrouping, hovered on helicopter wings directly above our heads. The robin-sized predator, hardly bigger than the prey it sought, then darted after in laggardly pursuit. Like many events in nature, I can’t tell you the end of this story.

Later, I reflected on what I had heard. I was unfamiliar with northern shrike calls. However, I had never heard the shriek of a cardinal in distress, either. But why, I screamed to myself, am I always treated to a front row seat? The Cooper’s Hawk that takes out a Northern Flicker on Good Friday. The injured catbird that children hand to me as I am out for a run in the neighborhood. The Sharp-shinned Hawk nailing a pigeon on the West Bank at the university. I just keep my eyes open and things happen.

You, dear reader, come take the seat next to mine in this theaterNorthernCardinal2. Together we can decide when we should laugh and when we should cry.

And when we should scream in terror.

thanks to state for cardinal photo

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A Sure Path to Heartache

Maintaining a love affair with birds is a sure path to heartache. So much is out of one’s control and so often things happen without back story, without explanation.

One bitterly cold morning last week, I peered out the kitchen window into the gray light and thought I saw a leaf dangling from one of the feeders. Odd, right? a loose leaf in December? I grabbed the binoculars and then the awful sight came into focus. A goldfinch had frozen to the metal perch by one foot. When I rushed out to inspect, I saw that the unfortunate bird had tried desperately to detach the foot by pecking  with its beak, drawing blood. A thin, dark trickle stained the feeder.

How could a bird freeze at a feeder? Had snow melted and then frozen quickly under a sharp wind? Was my heated birdbath to blame? There was hardly any water in it. Plenty of space for a bird to drink and not get wet.

One could surely sink under such a well of sorrow. What kind of world is this? And what role had I played in the goldfinch’s quiet, lonely death? But there was no time for sinking in the below-zero morning. Dawn was at hand. The birds were arriving. Feeders needed filling.

Fools– and lovers– rush in where angels fear to tread. I restocked the thistle, the sunflower seeds, the peanuts. Invited everyone to the feast. This morning, I saw a very late migrating white-throated sparrow at the feeder. It found much-needed sustenance where just last week death scythed. Somehow, it all evens out.800px-Zonotrichia_albicollis_CT1


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Two’s Company, Three’s a…

Visitors to our feeders these days often come in recognizable groups. We have a trio of chickadees, also a trio of blue jays, two white-breasted nuthatches, and two red-breasted nuthatches.

I have often wondered how, if at all, members of the group are related. Are they   mates? mom, pop and the kids? siblings?

Chickadees, it seems, hang out in mated pairs, accompanied by non-breeding birds. Their offspring do not accompany them. Both sets of nuthatches, I assume, are also mated pairs, since each set has a male and a female. But what about the three cardinals (two males, one female) that I sometimes see? And the numerous goldfinches– are they young of the year, kids from the neighborhood?

Serious biologists claim that only by studying populations of birds, not individuals, can we hope to understand them. But I am pursuing something else with these musings. The older I get, the more interested I am in the daily life of individual animals– do they hang out with compatriots or do they go it alone? How extensively do the young rely on the smarts of the more experienced?

I suppose I am eavesdropping on my visitors’4780732-pair-of-black-capped-chickadees-poecile-atricapilla-on-a-log-with-a-peanut little feathered lives. I want to know how they live in the world. So different in form, in size, in survival than we are, they somehow manage to make it through the winter, find shelter, mate and produce offspring. I want to appreciate the many ways to thrive on this spinning blue planet that we share. There’s a certain truth in that that goes beyond science.

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Out in the world

As the days get colder, my feeder sees increased traffic. Today I had a visitor that scurried, rather than flew, in. It was a little white-footed mouse, an immature, its head disproportionately large for its body– just like a human child.

I was astonished to watch it scuffle in the fallen leaves under the feeder, no doubt sniffing for sunflower seeds. Obviously, it hadn’t yet learned that mice are in great danger in daylight.

The young mouse froze when a blue jay zoomed into the feeder and it held the pose for long minutes, until the jay flew away. Then it beat a hasty retreat– but not before the sharp-eyed jay suddenly returned and landed inches from the mouse.

That was when the Rescuer–I– rapped on the window, scared off the bird and gave the mouse time to escape into the woods.

I was taken aback to see that the blue jay would go after a mouse. Jays are opportunists and will savage nestlings and eggs, but that they would consider a sizable, mobile mammalblue_jay_glamour a meal is a fine bit of hubris.

I love jays and crows for their intelligence, their flexibility in adapting to their world, and for their cocky attitude displayed by caws and jeers and posturing. Yet, I was quick to cheer for the prey, the mouse, when it must be just as hard to be a jay.

My sympathies, though, were with the white-footed mouse, who after all, was very new to life. The young of any species are in peril in their naiveté and many don’t get the chance to wise up.

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