I’ve always been a birdwatcher; ever since I knew what birds were, I think. As a schoolchild I made (or had an older sibling or adult help me make) bird feeders out of empty milk cartons and plastic jugs and hung them in the trees and shrubs near the house, where I could watch the birds and help them out during the snowy New Jersey winters. I had a bird book I read over and over, and I got books from the library about birds, including one from National Geographic that had a slim, floppy “record” you could play on a turntable. Here I heard the cries of a bald eagle for the first time – something I hear frequently now, but back then, when the species was still perilously endangered and I lived in an area they did not frequent, it was a thrill, even when my oldest brother said “it sounds like a canary” (I think we all expected something more raptor-ish, like the red-tailed hawk scream you heard on westerns on TV). Now when the eagles make their chittering cries, my old bird dog goes running to the window, or to the door to get outside, barking at the sky. Yesterday one was being dive-bombed by a hawk, and would turn on its back mid-flight to greet the diving hawk with talons raised in defense before flipping back to normal flight. Farley barked at them as I watched, marveling at this acrobatic display; no airshow could be more thrilling to me.
I got my first real field guide when I was 11 – a Christmas gift from that same brother. It was the gold standard for years, even when I moved to the West Coast. Now I have several – Peterson, National Geographic, and Audubon – and refer to each of them regularly. I try to update my life list but I would never call myself a birder. I am distracted by birds no matter where I am – on a city street, driving down the freeway, or sitting at my desk or table by the window. Mostly though, I’m just interested in MY birds, as a fellow blogger, new to birdwatching, put it so well. I am fiercely protective of “mine” – those who I am lucky to have visit and even set up house here. I’m torn when a Western Wood Peewee parks himself on a post near my beehive, flying out to snatch my girls out of the air on their way in or out of the hive and returning to the post. I’ve seen the peewees out in the pasture snatching flies and other insects out of the air and returning to their perch. But this day, when my girls (and other insects, I imagine) were pretty much grounded with the downpours, the peewee is coming in close – a thrill as I sat at my wee table and looked out the window at the beeyard (part of the reason I moved the bees up to where I have is just this view). Thankfully he only did this a few times before flying off.
I no longer feed the birds, due to the bear visit I had the first year I was here. I don’t mind that the bear visited so much, despite the damage to the fence and knocking over the chicken feed and bird feeder (nom nom!), but don’t want to habituate him or her (bears love bird seed/feeders), and thus endanger his life if he tries to do this at some other human’s house. So without the bird feeders I am reliant on really watching, versus just seeing them when they happen to cross my path, and more important, listening. And in this I suppose I am more like a birder now, learning what’s nearby from their voice (guessing the probable bird, and using my smart phone to play sounds (I am careful with this, and don’t use it to taunt the birds – just a quick match/doesn’t match to identify)), because I can rarely see them in the thick foliage. The robins and jays and Swainson’s and tanagers visiting the red huckleberry nearby – loaded with fruit, its bounty seemingly bottomless. The twee-ee-eee of the junco, the long whistle of the chickadee, the melodic song of the Black-headed grosbeak (a song as beautiful as the bird itself, though I rarely see them, high in the maple canopy), and on and on it goes. One wonders how these tiny creatures can create such big sound. After a long day of singing, I am exhausted for them.
And of course now is the nesting season, so babies – and the drama around them – abound. I’ve been keeping the cats inside during daylight hours, much as they hate this. Until recently, I let them out after full dark, and thankfully they’re of an age when staying out all night has less allure. After two or three mice on the doorstep (or, and I don’t know who’s doing this, the mouse “face” left–truly, the only thing left is the ears and face; just enough of an appendage, or a whisker, to pick up the gruesome artifact and toss it into the grass, a treasure for the chickens to fight over the next day) they are willing to come inside. Even sooner if it’s raining or otherwise crappy out.
But with Pal, the younger of the two setter boys and really more like a 47-pound cat, running like the wind around the property and stalking, stalking, stalking, I watch and worry. With the adult birds I don’t worry too much, but with the babies fledging now… A stramash early one Saturday morning left a juvenile Robin in the driveway, still alive (part of the stramash was me running out the door in my nightie, screaming NO! PAL NO!). The parent bird was chirping madly, though the youngster had stopped its screaming. Pal was running in wide circles around me (NO!) as I picked it up—it had enough juice left to peck at me aggressively, but I didn’t hold much hope—and put it in the pasture with the gate closed, bringing Pal into the house. I checked on it a few hours later and it was, unfortunately, right where I’d left it, rigor mortis set in. Damn. I apologized aloud.
One evening a couple of weeks ago I heard an unusual call, sounding like a baby bird call of sorts, and accompanied by a call from a robin. I went back towards the woods, watching Pal to see where it was coming from (and also to be sure he didn’t find it before I did!). He eventually honed in with a hard point, and began to creep forward toward something on the ground in the thick growth in the woods. PAL NO! I called, as I headed toward him (I do hate doing this, because his point is frippin’ gorgeous, and everything he’s doing is just perfect, not wrong, for a bird dog bred to hunt birds). I saw the little bit of grey and brown scuttle off and followed it, Pal running around me as I repeated NO! (this to Farley and Daisy too, joining in on the fun). I caught the wee bit of fluff and found it to be a baby robin, it seemed a little too young to be off the nest – maybe for just a couple more days of growing feathers. The tail feathers short and stubby and the flying skills not anywhere near ready, but the nest is also a target for predators and parasites. I looked for a nest (in case this was a precocious early fledger), as the parent birds chirped excitedly from branches high above. And I heard a call of another baby (sibling?) further into the woods on the other side of the fence. I tried putting the little guy up high on a branch or even one of the half rotted old growth stumps but it wanted nothing to do with being up high. It would flutter down to the ground and scuttle along into some underbrush, with me yelling (I’m sure the neighbors must wonder about me sometimes) at the dogs to LEAVE IT! It was somewhat of a free for all for a bit. Finally I caught the wee thing and held it. It seemed okay and was uninjured. What to do? I’ve raised baby birds but with attentive parents present it didn’t seem necessary (though how attentive – if the baby couldn’t get up to them, would they come down for it?). Dusk was coming on fast and I decided to feed the little guy (he seemed a little out of it – stress/shock? Or the warmth of being held in my hand causing him to nod off?) and find him a safe place for the night. I dug up a few worms and stuffed them in, then put him down in a safe spot near where I found him. He immediately scuttled off down the path and into the brush, then to the other side of the fence, thankfully.
I left him there – it was a good safe spot, but it was still seriously difficult to leave this little bit of innocence to the coming night. I checked on the spot the next day. He was gone, but there were a couple of healthy droppings left. I hope the parent birds collected him/her in the morning and they continued his rearing and education. A week later and the scene was repeated in nearly the exact same sequence and location. Another baby of about the same age/size as the one a week earlier, maybe even a little younger, me screaming at the dogs NO! (Pal left; though he’s the one who found it, of the three he’s the most responsive) – Farley was especially enamored of this one. Finally I grabbed Far by scruff of the neck (the setter boys don’t wear collars) and dragged him away. I checked the baby – it seemed uninjured and lively, and the two parent birds were coming down close to chirp wildly at us. I put the dogs inside and went back out to check. The little guy was gone from where I’d left him, and the parents were calling from the trees a little further into the woods. I have to assume the little tyke scuttled after them and they tucked him in for the night. The birds have the place to themselves all week long, except for a few hours each evening, so one hopes we’re avoiding most of this fledgling drama. I don’t know if I can take much more of it. But wait, there’s more… (to be continued)