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.

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.

“Look up, see me, here I am, see me”

It’s the end of the third week of May, and songbird migration is pretty well over this year, a week earlier than most Mays. It’s been a month of little rain and clear nights, weather conditions that encourage the birds just to keep moving north. In the Arboretum, I’m finding only resident warblers now: American redstarts and yellow warblers, common yellowthroats and pine warblers. All of these are singing on territories, territories I’m beginning to recognize. I can walk the trails and say with some confidence there will be a redstart singing its buzzy one-two-three-FOUR here, and I’ll see a yellow warbler there.

This morning I stopped to watch a great crested flycatcher attempting to claim a bluebird box as a nesting site. It hovered and circled and clung to the rough wood of the box, repeatedly trying to get its head in the too-small hole. Until that moment, I’d never stopped to think about how or where great crested flycatchers nest; they were just noisy birds of high treetops, easily recognizable by their rasping call. But they are, indeed, cavity nesters, and will use nest boxes if they are provided, according to Cornell University’s All About Birds website.

At the edge of a woodland – even in this blog I’m not going to be precise about the location of a raptor nest – I found a Cooper’s hawk nest a couple of weeks ago. Today I could see no adult on the nest, but through the loose weave of sticks, I could see a small shape moving. A fledgling, or a nest-robbing red squirrel or weasel? The nest is too high to tell; I will just have to keep watching. I met the female on a path one day last week, she whipping down between parallel rows of cedars in pursuit of a robin, I walking the other way. She did not veer, but simply changed altitude and flew directly over my head. I did not see the outcome of the chase.

Red-eyed_vireo

Red-eyed Vireo

Four songs dominate: in the woodlands, the persistent ‘look up, see me, here I am, see me’ of the red-eyed vireo; from the taller, woods’ edge trees, the ringing song of the Baltimore oriole. In the scrubby grasslands, the explosive ‘zee-er’ of the eastern kingbird completes with the ‘pres-pres-pres-presbyterian’ of the song sparrow. There are many other birds singing – but they are usually the orchestra to these four soloists, although the catbirds demand time for their improvised show too. A week or two ago I heard the ‘quick-three-beers’ of the olive-sided flycatcher – but it wasn’t quite right, slurred and the wrong pitch. Following the call, I realized it had been mixed up with another three or four songs – and found the catbird in a tangle, living up to its classification in Family Mimidae, the mimic thrushes.

The long trilling call of the chipping sparrow, which was perhaps the most common song I heard earlier in the month, has nearly ceased. I still see them, busy searching for food in short grass, but they now are feeding young, and very possibly not their own. Chipping sparrow nests are favoured by the parasitic brown-headed cowbird, and there are a lot of cowbirds here. While I’ve seen a cowbird chick being fed by a cardinal, I’ve not seen a chipping sparrow taking on that role, yet. I’ll be watching the areas favoured by chipping sparrows, as well as the yellow warbler areas (another preferred host) for this, over the next weeks.

I’ve noticed a shift in my own attitude, or maybe my expectations. I’m no longer thinking ‘what new bird will I see?’; instead, I’m wondering what new behaviour I’ll see, what song variant I can learn, what new nest will I find? And what was that delicate, black-and-white-winged insect that flew across my vision this morning – and what niche does it fill?

 

Featured image:  By William H. Majoros (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Watching Warblers

I’m fighting the temptation to bird ‘off-patch’. Like many, maybe most, birders these days, I get regular electronic communication telling me what’s been seen in my area, and regardless of how many times and years I’ve seen the spring migrants, there is part of me that wants to rush off and look for that singing prairie warbler that’s only a few kilometres away from my patch.

So far, I’ve resisted, reminding myself that that’s not why or how I want to bird any longer. The new patch is already giving up a few of its more superficial secrets, the tree that held last year’s Baltimore oriole nest, visible in the bare branches, now hosting a singing male; the tall maples that divide the arboretum from the golf course revealing that they’re a good place to find warbling vireo at this time of year. I know now where to look for porcupine, and white-tailed deer, and the area where the broad-winged hawks might be nesting. Two mornings ago I watched a mink hunting along the logs and roots of the fallen trees in the maple swamp, strongly suggesting that my guess as it as the gosling-killer was correct. None of the paired and probably nesting waterfowl of the maple swamp have babies; I think the mink is very well fed.

Some of what I’ve ‘learned’ comes simply from experience: I can guess at the thickets that will hold catbirds, the white pine stands that pine warblers will trill from, the grassland perches that should (and did, today) provide a vantage point for eastern kingbirds; I understand just enough of the biology and ecological needs of these birds to see what areas of the arboretum should meet those needs. But I have to be careful not to assume, to overlook the factors I don’t see or understand, or I’ll end up missing not just birds, but missing a thread – or many threads – in the woven pattern of life on these four hundred acres.

At the eastern end of Wild Goose Woods an old fence line runs between two fields, one a research and propagation area, one an old-field community of dogwood and grassland for the first half, and then a managed, groomed area of arboretum plantings. A double line of bushes has grown over the old fence, providing good cover. The fence line ends at a small evergreen woodland, under-planted to rhododendrons, and separated from the managed area by a small stream. In that woodland, yesterday morning, a feeding flock of warblers was passing through: two Nashville, three yellow-rumped, and five bay-breasted.

Bay-breasted Warbler

Five bay-breasted! I watched them for a quarter of an hour, listening to their contact calls, following them along the branches and logs where they fed.

This morning I am asking the questions I should have asked yesterday – why didn’t I keep following the flock? Where did they go, once they moved through the rhododendron wood? Did they disperse, flying over the open ground studded with trees between this wood and Victoria Woods, 300 meters away? Did they follow the line of evergreens that screens the research area and then disperse? I lost a chance to understand better, still in the birding mode of too many years: tick the species, move on.

Next time – if there is another feeding flock – I will follow, if I can.

Bay Breasted Warbler photo: By Dan Pancamo (Flickr: Bay-breasted Warbler) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons