For The Birds
On the road…again!
Afghanistan to Zambia
Chronicles of a Footloose Forester
By Dick Pellek
For the Birds
Just when he thought he had seen everything at his bird feeders outside the rear bedroom window, the Footloose Forester yesterday got a treat that he would never have predicted. The previous morning as he gazed over the array of three bird feeders, he was amazed to see four cardinals arrive and begin to scrounge for the cracked corn and sunflower seed mix waiting for them there. He had seen three cardinals at one time, but mostly it was a single male that showed up. We called him Butchie because of the deep whistling song that he usually sang. Butchie had been coming to the feeders for at least three years; at least we thought it was him; one of the most prominently vocal singers in the neighborhood. Miss Jaelyn Alexis Hunt, even when she was in kindergarten, knew him by sound. Butchie was one of the first birds she learned to identify, so cardinals became our favorite birds, by mutual agreement.
Since we fed them year-round, there were always plenty of birds to see outside our windows. There were house sparrows, wrens, blue jays, mourning doves, English sparrows, Baltimore orioles, black-capped chickadees, catbirds, grackles, blackbirds, an occasional yellow-bellied sapsucker, a few Carolina jays, red-winged blackbirds, a common redstart (only once), starlings, and a few that we could not positively identify. We even had a mallard duck that paid us a visit from time to time, but usually he preferred to stay in the neighbor’s swimming pool next door.
Two years ago we had a turkey that visited us almost daily for a couple of weeks, but just as quickly as he appeared as a pleasant surprise, he disappeared… never to be seen again. And just a few days ago, we starting seeing one bird that we never thought would be comfortable sitting on the low branches of the apple tree. It is a sharp-shinned hawk, who was also content to eat grain from the narrow perches of the feeders. But yesterday was a special day.
For the first time in his life, the Footloose Forester saw six cardinals at the same time, and in the same place. The two bright red males were easy to see, whether they sat in the bare branches of the apple tree, or alit onto feeders or the ground. Their mates were a little more difficult to see clearly in diffuse light, but based on their size and color patterns, they were likely their mates. But the delight in seeing two more cardinals at the feeders made yesterday very special. Unless he imagines things for the sake of gratifying his senses, however, the Footloose Forester is more than willing to speculate that the smaller, darker cardinals are actually a sub-species that resulted from inter-breeding. Although they have the spiked tufts and the thick triangular beaks of cardinals, the color pattern of their wings is distinctly banded in light and darker brown. Only the pale red on their breasts suggests that they are cardinals; and the fact that they arrived in the company of four other cardinals.
Just when the Footloose Forester was putting the finishing touches on this chronicle, he looked out the window to see four male cardinals and three females. Seven cardinals at the same time is a new high. When we say that we know about birds, we should not be too self-satisfied with our limited experiences. What we don’t know is the main point. For instance, where do they come from before they arrive at our feeding stations? And where do they go afterward? We know that birds make nests but probably nobody can match a particular bird with its nest, except in very few cases. Why do some birds arrive in the company of other species, but not all species? Do they usually travel together, or prefer to fly alone or in small bands?
The delightful episode with seven cardinals has a sequel. A week or so later, a few blue jays stated to arrive on a daily basis. At first, it was two or three; then it became four or five. Was this going to be another case of “you ain’t seen nothin’yet?” Yes, it was! The Footloose Forester confesses that his heart starting beating faster the following morning when a veritable flock of blue jays showed up. Of course, they don’t stay in one place for more than a few seconds, so it was hard to make an accurate count. But that was part of the fun. In the apple tree, down to the ground, up to the feeder, then back to the branches of the apple tree, again. There were seven, then eight, then six, then a positive count of eight again. Finally, for the first and only time in his life, the Footloose Forester counted nine Northern Blue Jays in one place at the same time. And we think we know something about birds!
Of course, the sagas of the natural world are part of the continuum that we sometimes don’t appreciate. Since we moved to Virginia, Thu and the Footloose Forester have been gratified to see a new cast of characters performing outside their windows. Now there are the daily promenades of deer, an occasional grey fox, red squirrel, and a red fox, probably rabid.
Flights of Canada geese now attract our attention; and the seasonal arrival of Cedar Waxwings, bufflehead, and mallard ducks are welcomed additions to our viewing prospects. But the biggest thrill has been the occasional appearance of an American eagle. He sometimes perches on a dead snag of a loblolly pine tree that is visible from one of our windows. In all humility, the Footloose Forester must confess that he was privileged to see our American eagle alight from his pine tree perch and fly directly over our house. The sun shining on his white crown was a magnificent sight. This was one vision that is bound for the archives of eternal memory. Yet, as the seasons change, other species of birds come and go. Nowadays, a few kingfishers flit past our eyes on their way to the pond across the street. Just today, only the second day of autumn in the year 2012, our ears heard new songs from at least three recent visitors. It is too early to make a positive identification by we amateurs, but we are blessed to have them as visitors. The saga continues.
Yes, the saga continues into 2013. In late January when much of the NE is blanketed with snow, we were reminded that global warming expresses itself in ways we may not recognize. Yesterday a dozen robins spent about an hour on our front lawn. When he was growing up, the Footloose Forester often overheard the small talk about the arrival of spring. When you see the first robin, you can bet that spring is near. Except that the first robins were usually seen in late February or early March. Here, we are talking about dozens of robins in late January. Not to be dismissed as a fluke sighting, the following day the dozens of robins were back. Then, red-winged blackbirds began arriving in large numbers. At first it was a few...then they started dropping out of the sky like leaves falling in autumn. Within minutes there were several hundred red-winged blackbirds occupying the ground where, only minutes earlier, the robins had been. You bet it is a saga about the mysteries of nature!
About 250,000 snow geese congregate in a cut-over cornfield in February 2013
Saga of nature, indeed! On Thursday, the 7th day of February, The Tiger and The Bear saw their very first snow geese. Except it wasn't a few birds sitting there, not far from the road, in a cut-over corn field along Highway 12 just outside of Snow Hill, Maryland. The huge swath of white in the field that we observed as we got closer was a large colony of snow geese. We estimated more than 250,000 of them. Our estimate went like this: the roughly rectangular array of birds stretched more than 300 yards parallel to the road, as we passed slowly by. Birds occupied the field from near the road's edge to near the tree line, more than 100 yards away. Using rounded numbers, 900 feet X 300 feet = 270,000 square feet of ground coverage. They were packed together, perhaps one bird per square foot. So, the conservative estimate is 250,000 birds. If and when the Footloose Forester measures the dimensions of the place where they sat, he is confident that the estimated number will rise to over 300,000. Oh, yes. the forthcoming photo evidence should add some credibility to this little saga of nature.
About the author
I'm humbled to know that people can know what is on my mind and in the deepest recesses of my heart. Sharing with others is really primordial in many respects.
It is Dick. And not everyone comments which I am trying to build into our culture. But, it is fun whenever someone does which s what I try to do most often.
On 7 February 2013 we witnessed something that compelled me to add new details to "For the Birds"......a huge flock of snow geese sitting in a tight rectangular pattern in a cut-over corn field. By our estimate, there were more than 250,000 snow geese in the flock. Photo evidence to follow!