Feeder Tales, Part 3: Species

Our feeder has now been up for about a year, and while the sweet sound of finches never grows old, the feeder itself is now a more natural and unsurprising item in our home, much like our plants. Many more birds have discovered it by now, and they join the chickadees, juncos, and finches in a feeding frenzy that occurs soon after dawn, and continues through the morning hours when the days are cloudy.

A few California towhees visit the feeder from time to time. Often, they come in pairs, with a parent shepherding a younger bird. They make a faint, periodic “chip” sound  (an assurance of each others presence), as they hop about on the tarp. These are humble brown birds, with slightly orange nether parts, who prefer to forage for fallen seed, rather than perching on the feeder itself. Like the juncos, they are our waste control system; they ensure that the seed spilling out of the feeder is not wasted.

This is no easy task because, lately, we have had to contend with a pest who appears to take devilish pleasure in strewing un-eaten seed out of the feeder. I refer to the scrub jays who visit every morning, announcing their presence with a loud shriek, effectively terrorizing any other bird within jumping distance of the feeder. Heavy, blue and quite shameless about their mannerisms, the jays perch on the feeder, take large amounts of bird seed in their corvid beaks, and scatter it out of the feeder.

We would have loved it if the jays had been eating the seed, but this appears not to have been the case. Their beaks are not adapted for eating tiny seeds. Their primary interest appears to be in emptying out the feeder as quickly as possible, by throwing as much seed onto the ground as they can. The frequency with which we replenish the birdseed has increased to once a week now, but it is difficult to keep up with the profligate jays. Replacing the original seed – a combination of corn bits, sunflower seed, millets – with Nijer seed appears to have helped a little; the jays are either less interested or less capable of scattering the smaller, black seeds.

cropped-nuthatchheader.pngA few tiny birds came in during the winter, but they’ve been gone since spring and for much of the early summer. On December mornings, oak titmice and white-breasted nuthatches would share time with the finches and chickadees. They’re both good citizens, and don’t make too much of a mess. I like the nuthatches in particular, as they perch on the feeder in their trademark upside down way. They are very frisky, and even a finch is enough to scare them away. I hope that these little visitors come back in Fall, and that they figure out a way to get some food when the jays are not looking.

Also in winter, we were visited by groups of golden-crowned sparrows, who spent equal time on the feeder and on the tarp. When they first appeared in January, their crowns were brown, with minuscule flecks of gold, and you could be forgiven for confusing them for other large sparrows. They disappeared for a few weeks, and returned in spring, looking rather different – I even wondered if we were seeing a new species of visitors, but the field guide confirmed that these were golden crowns too. Only now, each one had a certifiable crown, a bright yellow band, bordered with jet black that distinguished them from drabber sparrows. Clearly, the mating season was on.

Now, in the middle of a dry, drought-prone summer, we have mostly finches and juncos who come to eat the seed, and jays who come to scatter them. The birds also spend time at a concrete bird bath that we put below the feeder. This is a constant source of embarrassment for me, because I broke a piece of the concrete while carrying the ridiculously heavy thing onto our balcony. P has been more diligent than I at keeping the bath filled with fresh water. The birds not only drink from it, but occasionally also flutter about in the water, enjoying some respite from the heat of the past few weeks.

Feeder Tales, Part 2: First visitors

We put up our feeder for the first time in July.  Close to the feeder, outside the apartment, were a tree that resembles a paper birch and a couple of redwoods, in which hummingbirds and chickadees take refuge. By checking the area underneath the feeder for seed husks and bird droppings, we guessed that no bird spent any significant amount of time at the feeder for the first two days. This appears to be natural, as the birds need some time to discover a new food source in their territory. It was from the paper birch, that our feeder got its first visitors.

On the third morning, a chestnut-backed chickadee perched on the Y-shaped wire from which the feeder hangs. This is a tiny bird that looks like most chickadees except for a generous coat of chestnut brown on its back and shoulders.  The bird perched down, picked up a seed and quickly shot back to the birch tree. It had a companion. No sooner had the first bird completed its errand, than the second bird came forth and did the same. This alternating feeding pattern appears to go on for some time, and one wonders whether it is just the natural gregariousness of chickadees, or a way to ensure that one bird always keeps watch while the other feeds. On occasion, there would be one chickadee performing acrobatics on the feeder wire, while the other quickly pecked at a seed or two, it was rare to see two or more chickadees feeding simultaneously. At any rate, chickadees are among the cleanest feeders (unlike finches), as they seem to eat very little and thus shed very tiny droppings. They make a pleasant to-do while feeding, enjoying their own acrobatics, and this appears to attract other songbirds to the feeder.

During the second week, one of the chickadees enlisted a new companion for his trips from the birch to the feeder and back – an Oregon Junco. The two birds repeated the alternate feeding ritual. From then on, juncos have been regular visitors to the feeder. We have developed a special fondness for juncos, as it was a junco that prompted us to install the feeder in the first place. They make a faint “chip, chip chip” sound as they hop about the gazebo, or on the tarp below. They’re bigger than the chickadees, more conservatively attired in black and reddish brown feathers, and not as flighty as the little busybodies. They’re also not as confrontational as jays and finches. In fact, when the feeder is occupied by chickadees or finches, the juncos seem to be perfectly content to hop about on the tarp below, picking up un-eaten seeds that have fallen down along with the husk.

The feeder’s most voracious and messy visitors – a group of house finches – discovered the feeder a few days after the chickadees. Most summer days, before driving to work, I would hear a couple of finches singing in the parking lot, and I hoped they would find the feeder soon. They generally come to the feeder in pairs, the male distinguished by his red head and chest feathers, and the female a drabber brown and beige. The first order of duty appears to be to shoo any and all smaller birds that may already be at the feeder. Then, they proceed to boss each other around, spending equal amounts of time devouring the seed and warning away other birds, including other finches. The males seem to be slightly more aggressive than the females, though this varies. One female in particular has a really weird pattern of eating. She enters the gazebo entirely — different from the others, who prefer to perch on the edge and peck at the seed that falls forth from a transparent plastic cylinder at its center — and spends a long time contemplatively chewing on the seed. I have often wondered whether this bird was ill, and unable to move, for she stayed in the feeder and remained so docile that even our non-confrontational juncos dared to approach the gazebo from the other side to sneak away a seed or two. The finches create quite a mess, both in terms of un-eaten seed that spills forth onto the tarp, and in the copious amounts of bird droppings. When I see the finches having their feeding frenzy, I feel grateful to the juncos that clean up below them on the tarp.

In the summer of 2014, the birds were quite voracious, and the cylinder of bird seed was emptied within a couple of weeks. We developed a routine of sorts; every couple of weeks, we replaced the birdseed and cleaned up the husks and droppings from the tarp below. This state of affairs, unfortunately, did not last very long, and the feeder had to be taken down and moved elsewhere, as it inconvenienced the neighbors in the apartment downstairs. This changed the patterns of avian activity at the feeder, and encouraged new species to pay us a visit, but that will have to wait for another post.

Feeder Tales, Part 1: For a Junco

It has been a very long time coming, but it is good to finally begin writing a blog post again. Surely, most readers of this blog have moved on after being starved of updates for months on end. If you, dear reader (old or new), find your way to Mirkwood, allow me at least to provide an original — and completely true — excuse.

Much has happened in the eight months since the last post was written. I said goodbye to my beloved Cambridge, and moved back to California. P flew to Cambridge to help me pack, and we crossed the country by train, marveling at the changing landscape. Soon after reaching San Francisco, we launched into the insanity of looking for — and moving into — a different apartment. And then, before we had begun to ease into domesticity, P and I both started new jobs in a hectic Bay Area summer. Visits from the parents followed, and work-related travel and a couple of tooth surgeries for me and a bicycle accident for P, so that there was little energy left to read or to blog. There are some captivating books waiting to be read at home, but this post is not about my reading. It is about our shared experience of installing and maintaining a bird feeder.

A couple of years earlier, P had purchased a lovely bird feeder, made of cedar wood and shaped like a gazebo. She had also bought some birdseed that was especially suited to songbirds. When I visited California, we would talk of hanging it up and attracting birds. However, when you visit each other only for short periods, and several months of yearning, planning and conversation has to be compressed into a weekend reunion, other things must take precedence over the installation of bird feeders. So, P’s feeder sat empty on her patio, gathering dust, raindrops and fall leaves, a forlorn reminder of the way we had lived for so long, three-thousand miles apart. When we finally moved in together, I guiltily moved the feeder from the old apartment to the new one and there, as a mute witness to our suddenly busy life together, it again sat unused beside our plants for a long time. It would take a little junco to change all that.

On one of our rare quiet weekends this year, we were standing inside the house, looking out together, when an Oregon junco flew onto the patio and started pecking it’s way around the plants. It went this way and that, until, after a few random-seeming darts, it found the dusty feeder and began to investigate. Owing either to the experience of past feeders, or to a mysterious avian instinct, the bird gave the gazebo a thorough once-over, pecking occasionally but, of course, finding no birdseed in answer. This melted P’s heart and a decision was made then and there: The feeder had to go up and fulfill its intended purpose. Plans were hatched; locations were scouted; the feeder was washed and dried; birdseed was poured, and a custom wire was cut and crimped in the span of a single afternoon. We settled on a spot in the patio that was close to trees, a deciduous tree that looks like a paper birch and two redwoods, which would provide songbirds with a hideout to which they could hastily return in order to stay safe from predators. We anticipated (rightly, as it turned out), that the birds would make a mess below the feeder, so a tarp was placed underneath to collect stray seed and bird droppings. Then we waited.

Nobody came on the first day. Or the second. On the third day, some chickadees on the birch tree discovered the hanging feeder, did some acrobatics on the wires and helped themselves to a few seeds. True to their gregarious nature, they bustled about making tiny, frequent calls, drawing the attention of house finches and juncos. Tentatively first, then with some regularity, until a week later, the birds were coming in droves. And in the midst of a  damp, cold, rainy season the like of which California has not seen in a long time, they still keep coming. Our casual observations of birds frolicking at a feeder provide instant amazement and present opportunities to learn about avian life. Over time, however, the two of us have come to realize that there is also something more: As the birds come and go with the seasons, they quietly remind us that we are, finally, experiencing a continuum in time. Together. It took us a while.

[I intend to write more about the feeder, alternating between posts about the species of birds that grace it, and posts about the complications that arise from having a feeder in an apartment dwelling. This may turn out to be interesting.]

The Dancing Bird

Grey crowned cranes that I photographed in a bird park in Brazil last year.

Cranes and herons are among my favorite birds. In my mind, it is impossible for these long-lived, long-necked, long-legged, and long-winged creatures to do anything less than gracefully. Yet, while many herons are abundant in the  wild and easily seen next to a pond or a lake in many parts of North America, cranes remain elusive for most urban dwellers. I’ve seen them only once in the wild: Sandhill cranes coming to a nightly roost on a bog in Georgia’s Okefenokee swamp. It was a sight bound to fill one with awe and admiration for these effortless flying apparitions. It is no surprise that the lore of so many cultures abounds with references to cranes – in some of these stories, cranes arrive at our deathbeds to take our souls to heaven.

Cranes returning to roost on Chesser Prairie. [Okefenokee Swamp, Georgia, December 2010.]

I have never seen cranes dancing in the wild. Whereas many birders look to add more species to their life list with each outing, I feel as if I would be completely content to never see a new species again were I afforded a view of cranes dancing for a few seconds. So, it was with great joy that I picked out from a bookshelf at Somerville Public Library a slender book after my own heart:

Cranes learned long ago of the need for social living in an indifferent or hostile world, of the value of prolonged and intense parental care, and of concern for the safety of the flock in the face of danger. They have seen mountain ranges rise and crumble, have watched entire civilizations rise and fall, and have observed great climatic changes that sometimes brought other animal groups to extinction. Yet, each year they dance with an exuberance that gives joy to anyone with the eyes to see it, or even the imagination to visualize it. They seasonally cross entire continents with a precision that makes our best instruments seem inadequate, and fly with a breathtaking beauty that must make every pilot more than a little envious.

[… Several Chapters Later …]

I have indeed often wondered if the angels that were “heard on high” above Bethlehem were not really migrating Eurasian Cranes – at least that’s a pleasant thought to contemplate.

[Crane Music: Paul A. Johnsgard]

Condors of the Grand Canyon

[While we are still on the birding theme, this is an old post that I wrote (but never published) almost exactly 4 years ago. It is about the experience of seeing a live condor for the first time. The bird in the photograph – Condor #3 – was spotted not far from Lee’s Ferry Lodge at Vermillion Cliffs in Arizona. On purpose, the posting below has not been revised, so all numbers and ages pertain to 2008.]

One of the many attractions of the Grand Canyon is the California Condor. Indeed, having no conception of the grandeur of the canyon, the only question I had asked friends returning from the canyon was, “Did you see any condors?” – a question answered, with one rare exception in the quizzical negative. On my visit to the Canyon on Memorial Day Weekend, I saw at least 7 distinct condors and it was a wish fulfilled.

On the brink of extinction in the early 1980s, the last few remaining condors were captured for a rehabilitation program that is slowly but surely increasing their numbers. Condors are being bred in captivity at three centers in Arizona, California and Idaho. The goal is to have three separate populations of 150 birds each, two of these populations being wild, and the third being held in captivity to account for emergencies. At this time of writing, there are 63 wild condors in the Grand Canyon, and they can be seen gliding on the thermals at the South Rim near Tusayan, AZ.

A ranger at the South Rim showed us how to distinguish between a condor and a turkey vulture, and between a condor and a common raven. Confusing the latter pair is not as ridiculous as it sounds, because the Canyon plays havoc with one’s sense of scale. On the backdrop of huge boulders and multicolored cliff faces thousands of feet deep, the nine-and-a-half foot wingspan of the condor is dwarfed significantly, and if one’s estimate of distance is unsound, a raven close by might be confused with a condor far away.

At Vermilion Cliffs, a place one gets to by following the North rim eastward on route 89A toward Glen Canyon, an inn-keeper told us that condors are routinely seen from the Navajo Bridge, a steel arch bridge built across Marble Canyon at the point where the Colorado valley widens again into Glen Canyon. Sure enough, around 10 am on May 25, there were three condors near the bridge (1) #53, a four-year old condor who still hasn’t lost all the hair on his head and neck, (2)#3 who is eight years old and seems fully mature, (3) one condor whose head and numberplate I could not see.

It is a fascinating bird – its ugliness on the ground compensated when one beholds it in the air – graceful, strong, unhurried. In the gliding position, the condor’s wings are positioned in a much shallower V than that of the turkey vulture, a characteristic I found useful when I couldn’t see the underside of the birds’ wings. This happens many times in the canyon, for instance, when one is hiking near the cliff while the birds are gliding peacefully in the canyon below. It was surprising to know that the feet of a condor are webbed, and not very useful for tearing meat; that job is performed exclusively using their beaks. It is thus a bird that needs very large quantities of carrion to feed while being unable to hunt on its own. This seems to have been the cause of their small numbers – as human civilization progressed over the Americas, land was reclaimed for agriculture, housing, and industry with the result that condor habitat and the probability of finding carrion must have dwindled, almost sending the birds into extinction. In addition, lead poisoning from consumption of meat riddled with bullets has also been held responsible for the death of many wild condors. For more detailed information, visit the Condor Re-introduction Program website.

Name: California Condor

Latin Name: Gymnogyps californianus

Number of distinct birds sighted: 7

Places: Marble Canyon (3 birds), South Rim Bright Angle Lodge (3 birds), South Kaibab Trail (1 bird)

Dates: May 25-26, 2008