Three Months in Winter

Morning and evening, the pink-footed geese fly over the village, their haunting, yelping calls bracketing the day. They fly from the safety of the mudflats and shallow waters of the Wash, that great bay of the North Sea, out to the sugar beet fields, to feed on the shattered remnants of the harvested crop. On that twice-daily commute, they fly over saltmarsh and freshmarsh, woodland and fen, pasture, heath, rivers, hedgerows, village gardens.

I make the same journeys, much on foot, some on foot after driving. I can walk from the village to the sea; I can walk to fen and woodland, arable fields and hedgerows, pasture and fresh water. Open heath, saltmarsh, freshmarsh and larger rivers requires a car.  I am here for the birds and the walking, and the great open skies and long views, and the weather that is so much better than Ontario’s from January to March. Three months in winter. These are notes, thoughts, observations, organized more or less by habitat.

Arable, February 14th 2017

shernbourne-walk

Up the hill and along the field paths towards Ingoldisthorpe. Robins and wrens and dunnocks in the hedgerows, the dunnocks singing loudly, perched high. From up here, at the top of the greensand ridge that runs roughly north to south along this part of West Norfolk, I can see over the Wash to Lincolnshire. I’m nearly 5 km from the Wash, but I can see birds – gulls, mostly – moving over the water.  There are gulls much closer, too: I pass a sugar-beet field being ploughed: a horde of birds follow the plough, mostly black-headed gulls, but there are one or two common gulls in among them, picking up the exposed invertebrates.  Jackdaws strut and search further away from the machine.

The field path skirts Ingoldisthorpe, paralleling a lane and, across the field, the Ingol. The riverbank is treed, and above the trees two buzzards are circling, calling, probably a pair laying claim to their territory. On the ploughed and harrowed field, pied wagtails by the dozen bob and run, searching for food. There’s one grey wagtail amongst this flock, but I can’t find it today.

As I cross the Ingol – I’m on farm track now – blue tits and great tits are feeding on the trees at the edge of the river: the blues higher up, on thinner twigs, the greats lower, on thicker branches, neatly dividing the banquet. Blackbirds scratch among the leaf litter and snowdrops. I’m hot: it’s 10 C, the sun is out, I’m protected from the wind, and I have too many layers on.  I remove on layer, stuff the thin shirt in the pocket of my gilet, and keep walking.

Pheasant feeders line the lanes and hedgerows, attracting mostly wood-pigeons, it appears, until partridge explode from beside me. I get the binoculars up in time to see the white faces: red-legged partridge, introduced in the 17th century for sport. A pheasant calls, and another: there are hundreds here, bred and fed for the guns, they’re the most common road-kill, along with muntjac deer, that I see.

On a field on winter wheat four hares catch my attention. Two are sparring, suggesting they are male and female; the other two look on.  Hares boxing were long thought to be rival males, but research indicates it’s actually a female interacting with a male, possibly a judgement of the male’s strength and endurance.

I turn off the field paths and up the narrow lane into Shernbourne (which, by its width, delineated by old trees among the hedges, looks as if it was once a drove, the lanes used to move cattle and sheep to market or to grazing). Another covey of partridge break cover, but they’re not red-legged. The grey, or English, partridge, is the native bird of England: Norfolk, and west Norfolk at that, is one of their few strongholds, due mostly to a number of enlightened land-owners and farmers who actively encourage the birds, leaving weeds standing, farming at least part of their land without pesticides (grey partridge need insects as well as grain), and providing cover.  In the years we’ve been coming to Norfolk, they’ve gone from extremely rare to a common sight on almost every walk through arable land.

As I descend into Shernbourne, nestled in a fold of land where the Ingol originates, theshernbourne road-bank is covered in snowdrops. I walk carefully: this is a narrow lane in a deep-sided cutting, with no place to avoid an on-coming vehicle. I’m not worried about cars, particularly, but a big tractor and I could be at a stand-off! Robins sing as I walk through the hamlet, and collared doves coo from roofs.

No tractors.  I climb up the other side of the valley on the rough verge: this road is busier, faster, and not a good place to be, especially on the hill. But where the land flattens again, there is a track between two hedges paralleling the road. I walk along this, seeing no birds at all, until it meets an unpaved track that will take me back towards Dersingham.

It’s quiet, very quiet. Time of day is a factor: it’s mid-afternoon, warm and sunny, so there is little need for birds to be actively foraging.  But this is also intensive agriculture, probably with high pesticide use. There are belts of planted conifers, for game-bird shelter and for windbreaks on this sandy soil, but I’m not seeing weed strips, or standing maize. A few wood-pigeon, a few jackdaws, the occasional dunnock and wren in the hedge.

I turn off the track and onto the lane that will take me back down, off the high ground, into Dersingham.  The lane is narrow, but the verges are wide, and in most places walkable, which is good, because it’s here I meet the big tractor.  We exchange waves. At a gap in the hedge I look over the field: there are pheasant and red-legged partridge, and the ubiquitous wood-pigeon.

Just before I begin my descent down Dodd’s Hill I hear them: the pink-footed geese, flying west to the Wash. It’s only three o’clock, early for a return to their night-time roost.  What has made them move so soon? Perhaps their feeding field is under the plough today; perhaps they were just satiated with sugar-beet.

I reach the bottom of Dodd’s Hill, cross the road, consider. I’m footsore and thirsty. The pub is right there…time for a cider and crisps, before the last few hundred meters home.

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Antarctica, part 1

 

At midnight on New Year’s Eve of 2005, in the half-light of an Antarctic midsummer’s night, we stood on the deck of a converted Russian research vessel with forty other international passengers and a dozen crew, watching an Antarctic tern flying along the ice cliffs and fjords of the Antarctic Peninsula. Last bird of 2005, first of 2006.

To be precise, we and the ship’s naturalist were watching the tern. No-one else was; they (like us not too many minutes before) were dancing and drinking and singing. We were the only birders on the trip, much to Nigel, the naturalist’s, pleasure: the previous two sailings had had no birders at all. On the previous trip he’d seen a King penguin floating on a piece of ice, hundreds of miles out of its range, and no-one had been interested. We were envious.

This was my husband’s 50th birthday trip, taken over the two weeks of a teacher’s Christmas holidays, the perfect time for an Antarctic trip. To get here, we’d flown from Toronto to Buenos Aires, then from Buenos Aires to Ushuia, on Tierra del Fuego, and boarded the small boat at the harbour there.

We had spent a night in Buenos Aires, with most of a day to kill until our next flight; luckily, Buenos Aires has a wonderful bird reserve downtown – but that’s a story for another time. We arrived in Ushuia with another day before the tour officially began, so we rented a car and drove out to Tierra del Fuego National Park, where, among other things, we hiked a few feet into Chile: the border was marked, but the trail continued, even though signs told hikers to honour the border. (Would I do that now? Probably not. Surveillance is so very different now.)

We were hiking in forest of Antarctic Beech (Nothofagus antarctica), populated by a large rabbit population and the silliest-looking woodpecker in the world, the Magellanic Woodpecker. Not dissimilar to the Pileated of North America, the Magellanic has a topknot that wobbles back and forth as it drums against a tree, making it look like the cartoon woodpecker Woody. But what we really noticed here, in this temperate southern forest, was that just about everything was almost-but-not-quite the same as things in the temperate northern forest. There were niche analogues – species that fit the same ecological niche but differ (usually) in both genus and species and sometimes family – for just about every temperate northern species we could think of. Charles Darwin walked these forests, in his years as the Beagle’s naturalist. Surely he saw what we saw; how much of his theory of evolution had its beginnings here?

We finished that day with magnificent views of Andean Condors soaring over the cliffs near the coast, our first look at that huge, awe-inspiring bird. The next day, we sailed to Antarctica.

The crossing was easy. The Drake Passage is the worst water in the world, where the Atlantic and Pacific meet, but we had a smooth sail over to the peninsula. Albatross glided alongside the boat; southern and northern Royal albatross, wandering, grey-headed, black-browed, light sooty-mantled, joined by petrels: the beautiful brown-and-white Cape petrel, southern and northern giants, blue petrels, white-chinned petrel. On the second day the first penguin swam by: a Magellanic, all alone. Next was a Chinstrap penguin, floating by on a chunk of ice. Wilson’s storm-petrels danced on the waves; tiny Antarctic prions flew by.

And then we were at the Antarctic Peninsula, going ashore for the first time, onto a rock-strewn beach, home to a colony of Gentoo penguins. Who cared not a whit that we were there; our job was to stay out of their way, as they waddled downhill, pink with guano and regurgitated fish, out into the ocean, to return in graceful undulations, clean and with gullets full, to feed their grey and fuzzy chicks.

penguin-trio

Blue-eyed shags nested on the rocks, too, evoking one of the best questions of the trip: “How do I tell a shag from a penguin?” Nigel’s answer: “If it flies, it’s a shag.” In among the gentoos were one lone and lonely Macaroni penguin, and one terribly cute but also lonely Adele penguin. How had they got to the wrong nesting beach?

There is far more to write about from the Antarctic trip than I can put in one blog entry. This was only the first few days of the trip, a trip that I could have never conceived I could have taken, to a place that had held a fascination since earliest childhood. I grew up knowing who Robert Falcon Scott was; one of my aunts used to read to his widow in her old age. Ernest Shackleton remains to this day one of my few heroes. And here I was, an at-the-time forty-seven year-old Canadian teacher, standing where they had stood. Unbelievable, and yet, there I was, almost at the ends of the earth, surrounded by penguins and bathed in the light of sun that would never quite set.

The Thing with Feathers

Juvenile American robins are everywhere at the Arboretum: I must have counted over two dozen in one six kilometre walk. But for some reason, every time I raised my binoculars to look at one, my brain said “Fieldfare”. ‘No,” I replied to my confused brain, “you’re in North America. Those are Turdus migratorius , not Turdus pilaris.” Didn’t help. Next juvenile robin, again my brain said “Fieldfare’.

robinfieldfare

If you look at the two illustrations – the juvenile American robin is on the left, the fieldfare on the right –  you can see why my brain just might confuse what I was looking at. But really, there was no excuse. I’ve been looking at juvenile robins (consciously) for about fifty-five years. I’ve only been looking at fieldfare for about twenty-five. I’m still trying to work out why I was so convinced I was not in North America: it was classic Ontario high summer, and everything should have said ‘home’ to me.

My first fieldfare were in an old orchard at Leighton Moss RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds) reserve, on Christmas Eve of 1991. We  were driving to Scotland to spend Christmas Day with my husband’s cousins; Leighton Moss is in Lancashire, more or less on the way. I remember the day as changeable, cloud giving way to brilliant low sunshine, the light winking in and out. We were walking from the visitor’s centre along the lane that borders the reserve, making our way to the footpath that runs out into the reedbeds. A rush of wings, and thrushes exploded into the old orchard: fieldfare, and their cousins the redwings. Both birds are similar to juvenile American robins (and a lot of other thrushes). But they were both new to us, and in the winter light and bare trees they were both sound and colour. I’ve seen both species many times since then, but I remember them best from that first sighting.

Later that day, walking back to the visitor’s centre, the reedbed glowing golden in a few moments of sunshine, an Eurasian bittern rose and flew, still a rarity then: the reserve was one of their few breeding sites in England. I can still watch that piece of ‘film’ in my mind, the bird flying low, its slow wingbeats and extended neck somehow almost as prehistoric as the flight of a heron, its colours and stripes blending with the reeds, all lit by the low sunlight of a northern English late December afternoon. It is one of my most cherished memories, for all the bitterns I’ve seen since.

So juvenile American robins, in the TARDIS of memory, took me back from late-July Ontario in 2016 to midwinter England in 1991.  Emily Dickinson described ‘hope as the thing with feathers that perches in the soul…’, but for me, ‘the thing with feathers’ is what brings memories.

High Summer

Blue jays are hated by most small songbirds, as they prey on nests, taking both eggs and nestlings. So it is not uncommon to see a blue jay being attacked (mobbed is the birding term) by a songbird, or a group of songbirds. Yesterday, I watched a blue jay being mobbed by an eastern phoebe: the phoebe flew at it, calling harshly, approaching the jay from above and below. The jay seemed unperturbed: one phoebe wasn’t enough, probably, to bother it.

Every so often the phoebe flew over to another tree—and here was where I observed behaviour I didn’t expect. Each time the phoebe landed, a red-eyed vireo attacked it, physically and fiercely. There was no clear reason for this: the phoebe is an insect-eater, no threat to the vireo except possibly as a competitor for food. When the phoebe flew down to the ground, the vireo didn’t follow it; it was only its presence in the tree that triggered the response. What I surmise was happening was transferred behaviour: the vireo, upset by the presence of the jay and the mobbing calls of the phoebe, did not differentiate between those two birds. It simply attacked anything that came near to it.

The Cooper’s hawk chick survived, and is now a juvenile, out of the nest and flying. I disturbed it on a path near the woods: it flew up to a tree-top, and sat there, calling. It’s tempting to anthropomorphize here: it was as if, scared by a human, it flew to a safe place, to call “Mommy….mommy…” If it was calling Mommy, she ignored it, at least as far as I could see.

Over on the grasslands the meadowlark brood is also flying, the juveniles easily distinguishable by their paler yellow breasts, for the most part lacking the black V. I’m pleased to see the successful breeding here – there are at least two pairs, each with three to five young. Eastern meadowlarks, like many grassland birds, are threatened, by changing agricultural practices and by climate change. Hayfields are harvested earlier, as grass varieties mature earlier, both from selective breeding of grasses for multiple hay crops and by earlier, warmer springs. But the grassland breeders need the long grass to remain until about July 1st, to allow their offspring to fledge and fly. Here at the arboretum, the grass fields remain untouched, allowing the meadowlarks to breed.

At the same time, the American goldfinches are just beginning to think about breeding,goldfinch males doing high display flights: they are our latest nesters, timing their breeding to coincide with the crops of thistle and milkweed seeds. The arboretum, especially but not only on the north side, has large stands of milkweed, which helps explain why there are so many goldfinches here. I check the milkweed patches on every walk, hoping for a monarch butterfly caterpillar: so far, no luck.

 

The first of the returning migrants will appear soon. Were there ponds here suitable for shorebirds, I would already be seeing the early ‘fall’ migrants, unsuccessful or very early breeders: they are being reported from other local birding sites. Southern movement of songbirds can and will begin any day now, birds that bred in the boreal forest heading for the rainforests of Central and South America. That a few grams of feather and muscle can make that flight once amazes me. That some of these birds do it for a dozen years has me completely awed, even after forty years of birding.

Cowbird

The ‘chipping sparrows feeding a cowbird chick’ phenomenon, which I hoped to see this year in the Arboretum, actually happened much closer to home: on our deck. I knew there was a chipping sparrow nest in the forsythia hedge, but I hadn’t realized the cowbirds had found it. And then one day there it was, a single cowbird chick, sitting on our deck rail, begging….and the tiny chipping sparrows flying back and forth to the feeder, bringing it seed.

How hard the chippies worked! Cowbird was never satisfied, begging and begging, its yellow gape open and its wings quivering. And the chipping sparrows, genetically programmed to feed that gaping yellow beak, kept feeding it.

cowbird-chick-begging-4

Photo courtesy of  https://bybio.wordpress.com/tag/chipping-sparrow/ (a marvellous blog…check it out!)

Then it learned to fly, so instead of sitting on the deck rail, it sat on a feeder rung, the food an inch or less from its beak – and begged. And was fed. This went on for about a week…and then one day, it sat there, and begged, and no-one came. It sat, and waited….and watched as young red-winged blackbirds found food, and ill-kempt, blurry chickadee fledglings found food. Still it waited. Occasionally it hopped down to the ground; occasionally the chipping sparrows came by to feed themselves.

After a day it tried the feeder, clumsily and not terribly successfully, not appearing to work out how to balance and feed at the same time. And then the grackles came, with their begging fledglings, and after a day of disappearing food and noise and little birds chased away, we took the feeders down. (They’ll go back up in a while, after the grackles have moved on somewhere else.) But poor Cowbird! It sat, disconsolate, for much of the day. Other birds came, looked at where the feeder had been, left, knowing full well there are many other feeders in the neighbourhood. Cowbird, however, wasn’t bright enough (or programmed genetically) to follow them, at least not at first.

I wonder when cowbirds know they are cowbirds? They don’t imprint on their host parents: our cowbird doesn’t think its a chipping sparrow, or it would never leave, flock with other cowbirds, find a cowbird mate. But for its first weeks, it expects to be fed by chipping sparrows, begs from chipping sparrows, ‘relates to’ chipping sparrows. What happens in the cowbird brain to assert its true identity?

Cowbird has gone. Its foster parents are still hanging around our garden, finding wild food, roosting in our trees. (One tried to fly in my study window this morning.) They may well breed again, and might actually raise some chipping sparrow chicks this time. And if Cowbird was a female, she’ll lay her eggs, if she survives to adulthood to do so, in chipping sparrow nests, because in some tiny bit of her brain, she knows that’s who raised her.

Juvenilia

On this first full day of summer, a myriad of call notes rang across the Arboretum as I walked in the early morning sunshine, but regardless of pitch or intensity, all were demanding the same thing: feed me. A young tree swallow poked its head out of the nestbox, blinking in the sunlight, its yellow gape gleaming. The parent stuffed an insect in its mouth, flew away. The youngster remained in place. What about its siblings? I wondered….or is this the one that will be successfully raised, out-manoeuvring and out-competing its nest-mates?

On the dead branches of a fallen tree nearly a dozen young red-winged blackbirds congregated, calling, their newly-fledged feathers of browns and fawn crisp and shining – unlike the ragged adults that paid little attention to them. Feed yourselves, the adults seemed to be indicating: we’re tired. A short-tailed field sparrow juvenile followed its parent from branch to branch of another tree, cheeping; it received a bit more attention, but again – and I know I’m anthromorphizing – the adult seemed harried and irritated by its offspring.

The bluebird pair did not nest successfully; I last saw them carrying food about three weeks ago, but now both adults loaf around, not approaching the nest box, and there are no juveniles to be seen. The completion for the nest boxes is intense: the tree swallows have claimed most of them, but I’ve seen house wrens at a couple as well. House wrens do well here: at least four were singing today, perched high on trees and bushes.

A young male Baltimore oriole landed on the path ahead of me. Almost in full plumage, this wasn’t this year’s young, but a ‘yearling’ bird, immature, rather than juvenile. Was it raised in the tree fifty meters away from where it landed, where a nest from last year was visible before the foliage obscured it, or is it simply here coincidentally? A male sings from nearby: a pair has nested here again, although I can’t be sure it’s in the same tree. This is perfect habitat for them: open but scattered with tall deciduous trees, plus a small stream with lots of cover.

On the grassy hill meadowlarks stand on posts, singing; or rather, one – the male – is singing, one has a dragonfly in her beak. I watch her as she disappears into the grasses, to the nest hidden somewhere on the ground under the swaying stems. The eastern meadowlark was the first bird I independently identified as a child. I was ten, or so, and I had seen the picture in my How and Why Wonder Book of Birds. I still remember seeing this bird, flying up from the grassy edges of the tomato field behind our house, with the black V standing out against its yellow breast, and thinking ‘that’s a meadowlark! I’ve seen a meadowlark!‘. They still remain, in a certain way, my bird, each sighting holding a faint echo of that initial thrill of discovery.

I walk along the path towards Victoria Woods. A family of American redstarts follow their mother along a branch, begging. In the dark, still woods I look up at the Cooper’s hawk nest. A couple of weeks ago, I watched a fluffy grey nestling walk along the rim of the nest, looking prehistoric: today the nest looks deserted, and off-kilter among its supporting branches, as if it has shifted. Flies hover and dart among the loose-woven branches. It’s just possible, I calculate, that the nestling has fledged and left the nest, but its disarray bothers me. Storm-wracked, or predated? Did a great horned owl find the nest, take the young? Or did the last thunderstorm with its high winds shift the nest? A raccoon sprawled over a branch nearby, sleeping in the morning’s warmth: not likely the culprit, given the size of the nestling, although it would have gladly eaten either the eggs or a smaller chick.

The last juveniles of my walk were the most common: young, spotted American robins, foraging in the leaf litter under the trees as I approached my bicycle, parked at the entrance to the Arboretum paths. I could hear a red-eyed vireo singing from Wild Goose Woods as I prepared to leave, adjusting my helmet; it too will have young it’s feeding, high in the trees, hidden by the foliage. I could go look, but I suspect I’d just end up with a case of ‘birder’s neck’ and a dozen mosquito bites for my trouble. I leave the woods to the birds, and bike home.

 

Eastern Meadowlark photograph by Dominic Sherony (originally posted to Flickr as Eastern Meadowlark) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Yellow, Orange, Red

Walking the Arboretum now, in mid-June, I see yellow everywhere; yellow, and to a lesser extent orange and red. Yellow in the flash of the flicker’s wings, on the tip of the waxwing’s tail, contrasting against black on the male American goldfinch. Fluttering yellow-and-black is a tiger swallowtail; fluttering yellow alone is a sulphur butterfly. Yellow in the flowers by the trailside: birdsfoot trefoil, bee clover, goatsbeard, leafy spurge. Yellow on the female American redstart; orange-red on her mate; yellow-orange on the female Baltimore oriole; bright orange on her partner. Purely red is the male cardinal; red-orange is the breast of the American robin and the Eastern bluebird, these colours not yet echoed in the plants.

There are other hints of red: the rich chestnut of the catbird’s undertail; the seldom-seen crown of the Eastern kingbird, the napes of male downy and hairy woodpeckers. Red dragonflies hover over the grass; red milkweed beetles crawl on the leaves of their host plant. The developing keys of hedge maple are edged with red; red glows in the inflorescence of pasture grasses, magnified by drops of last night’s rain; tiny red wild strawberries gleam.

Move to the other side of the colour wheel. Eastern bluebirds and chicory share sky blue with eastern tailed blue butterflies. Tree swallows claim a deeper blue; blue damselflies take a hue in-between, sharing it with the speculum on a mallard’s wing. Common vetch weaves purple among the grasses, echoed in the iridescence of grackle’s head.

Providing the background for all this is green, green in a thousand shades and hues and tints, leaves, grass, moss, needles. Green so dark it is nearly black; green so pale it is translucent. Green holding a memory of blue, a wash of pink, a streak of yellow, green that changes with sunlight, cloud, time, all of it giving us oxygen, food, life, transmuted by the biochemistry and genes into yellow, orange, red, blue; feathered, carapaced, petalled, scaled.