From Our Backyard, A monthly column written by Charles

From Our Backyard

Dusk was descending as I startled a Red-tail Hawk from his lofty perch. He glided off like a phantom towards the west. His belly feathers were bronzed by the lingering rays of sunlight. Down in the fen, a feisty flock of Pine Siskins noisily settled in for another gelid evening. Bird by bird, each species slowly retreat to places of safety and relative warmth. The leafless trees of autumn offer little in the way of protection from wind and cold for a bird. Cavity nesters like Bluebirds and Woodpeckers will seek bird houses and tree cavities to roost in overnight. Other birds will find refuge in dense shrubbery or evergreens. Within nest box or briar, birds will be warmer from the extra heat of having neighbors. This may be a case of when two or more birds in a bush is better than one in a tree. The ascending quicksilver moon reflects sunlight but it’s still going to get cold tonight. I can hear the noctivagous animals tromping through the blanket of freshly fallen leaves. Deer will gather under the crabapple tree for leftover fruits while the wily vulpines stalk the fields for rodents. Raccoons perform their mischievous banditry by raiding bird feeders. Dawn will bring a crackling frost to the fields and the matutinal chatter of birds.      

This fall was amazing for birding and it looks to continue throughout the winter. The October irruption of Pine Siskins was frantic, but the activity has since lessened. Goldfinches and House Finches are in abundance and occasional Purple Finch appears. At first light, we can find Mourning Doves mobbing the tray feeders or sunning themselves on nearby branches. Yesterday I was able to either hear or see every Woodpecker, except the Red-headed Woodpecker. Downy and Red-bellied Woodpeckers were the most common with Northern Flickers and Hairy Woodpeckers appearing singly. When temperatures drop, insects become difficult to find and woodpeckers tend to rely on suet and bark butter even more. The fat will help them get through the cold weather. In winter, Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers and Pileated’s might visit the plain suet feeder I affix to a tree. We’re seeing a lot more Titmouse, Chickadees, and White-breasted Nuthatches they quickly appear, snatch a seed or peanut, then leave. Occasionally we’ll see a Red-breasted Nuthatch. Juncos and White-throated Sparrows tend to eat what I scatter on the ground as opposed to landing on a feeder. Crack corn and millet are their favorite seeds. Brown Creepers, with their curved billed, can be spotted pecking on the sunny side of trees looking for insects. The beak of a bird is a tool. Bluebirds and Wrens don’t have the ability to crack sunflower seeds but prefer softer foods like berries, suet, sunflower chips, No-Mess blends or Bark Butter Bits. Cardinals with their triangular beak can crack just about any seed except small ones like millet. Blue Jays can use their large beak to pick up any seed or nut. They’ll then hold it between the claws and peck it open. Blue Jays also have the ability to swallow peanuts in their crop and bring them up later. Jays and Woodpeckers are also know to cache food. Our Red-bellied Woodpecker has taken to shoving peanuts under the roof’s edge. Jays will simply place a peanut upon the ground and cover it with a leaf. They’ll actually memorize the spot for later, unless the squirrels find them first.

Even with the return of silver birds to the sky, we humans are in for some dark days. Now more than ever we need the joy birds can bring. The meteorological wizards will try to prophesy the winter to come. They’ll measure caterpillars, pore over radar charts, and even find some farmers to ask. Truly none of us will know the outcome of this winter until March. As we each hope for a return to normalcy in our lives, let’s remind ourselves that our region should experience some semblance of winter. Yes, that means snow, ice, and frigid temperatures. Some may wish for balmy days in December, but it’s not normal. Several years ago I wrote a story to this effect, called Henry’s Christmas Wish. You can read it on our website Stay Safe and Happy Birding, Charles Shattuck

Happy Birding, Charles  Shattuck   

December 2020