Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Trying to catch the moment spring arrives

You're going to think I am obsessed with changing seasons. Well, but you see, I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Region, a place that doesn't have change or seasons. It's always about the same temperature there, not very hot and not very cold. There isn't even weather there. It rains a bit in the winter, but there's almost never thunder and lightning, or huge winds, or, for that matter, even clouds, unless you count fog. I virtually never saw a season until, in my beginning twenties, I was in the army and went to Korea, which was dead and brown in winter when I arrived. And then spring came, wildfires running across the land, and suddenly hillsides pink with wild azaleas and rhododendrons. I was hooked on seasons ever since. Spring was so wonderful you almost didn't mind having to pay for it with winter.

But the idea of change was part of it. When we were first married we used to spend summer vacations at Cheryl's family home in Porthcawl, South Wales, on the Bristol Channel. We were only a block or two from the beach. Living there meant you always knew what stage the tide was at, and you can't believe what tides there were in that narrow channel! A forty-foot drop in elevation between high and low. You could walk on the beach at low tide, then deep-sea fish at the same spot at high tide.

Arkansas for all my complaints is really quite good. Autumn extends to late November. The cold part of winter usually doesn't hit until January, and by the end of February you can smell the freshening in the air. Perfect: You get all four seasons, but not very much winter. And the change from season to season is like watching the changes in the tides, and the very lowest low tide (with so many new things uncovered), or the highest high tide, are special pleasures, like spring.

Every year now as I watch the change towards spring, I try to see the MOMENT of spring's arrival, and every year I am looking away at just that time, and I've missed it again. I start way before spring by noting late winter occurrences. I've already mentioned the snow geese staging in huge numbers then flying off north, or the red-winged blackbirds leaving the massive winter roosts and setting up territories along the edges of the row-crop fields.  There was a new one this year: When we start our bird feeders in the fall of each year we discover there is a complex highway system of Woodland Vole tunnels beneath the surface of our yard. Where we throw out the most birdseed, the highways converge, and the voles are constantly darting out for a mouthful, then carrying it to their underground stockpiles.

So this year when the solid ice-sheet came, and stayed, they were kept underground, living off their preserves. When the ice of our mini ice age finally retreated, suddenly they were back.

That was one sign. Here's another, more complex end-of-winter sign: Our holly bushes are covered with berries in late summer, and berries are designed to be eaten by birds, which will then distribute the seeds around the neighborhood with their droppings. But I think the holly berries don't want to be planted until nearly spring, and so they remain inedible throughout the winter, but suddenly ripen in spring. That's my theory. Anyway, no one eats them during the winter. However each bush or collection of bushes is owned by a mockingbird. They guard them all winter long, so they will be sure to have a cache of berries to eat in the spring when they are preparing for nesting season. Here's one keeping a sharp eye out.

The problem is, all the berry-eating birds around are covertly watching the berries waiting to invade them en masse when they are ready. So that was another sign. Suddenly the robins came from all over to start gorging on berries.

The mockingbird went mad, sweeping in and bashing them violently off his berries and chasing them across the yard. But as he did so, another flock of robins came to the berries from the other side. He swept back and scattered them, but by then the first group of robins had returned to the berries. When he finally got them all off (his berries sadly diminished) he was exhausted. And that's when the cedar waxwings snuck in.

These are quiet soft-looking things, their feathers so silky they look like fine fur. But when a flock comes (there might be 10 or 100), they are unstoppable, and they clean out berries faster than anyone. Here is what the poor mockingbird was faced with.

Well, this is mean to the poor mockingbird, but it's good fun to watch. Now, those are end-of-winter signs. Here is a start-of-spring sign I especially enjoy: The red buckeyes budding and opening up and flowering. It seems to happen almost overnight. Suddenly there is a big swollen leaf bud, almost immediately the leaves break out, and instantly, it seems, there is a flower bud.

When those flower buds open into a bright red spray of flowers, with uncanny accuracy the first ruby-throated hummingbird of the year appears in our yard. Now that could be the actual moment of spring.

Except I'm exaggerating, and probably the appearance isn't exact, or varies from year to year, as perhaps the flowering does too. And if you time the coming of spring to the birds' nesting seasons,  as I sometimes try to do, well, birds don't all nest at the same time. In our yard right now the wrens and mourning doves and cardinals and tufted titmice are already nesting, and probably so are killdeer on the railroad tracks across the road. Mockingbirds and thrashers and towhees are just beginning to sing, looking for mates, and some birds, like goldfinches, won't nest until much later in the year. And I have also tried linking the arrival of spring with when the leaves come out on the trees, but those arrival times are staggered among trees of different species, and even among trees of the same species, sitting side by side. It's complicated.

What I am leading up to is, this year I spotted the exact moment. Here's how it happened. One of my obsessions is to stand up first thing in the morning in our bedroom window (which faces east) and watch where the sun comes up. Let me explain. If I look out the bedroom window one way, here is what I see:

My study is in that outbuilding. If you look at the biggish tree on the right, behind that is where the sun comes up at the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, the sun as far south as it will go before it turns around and starts coming back. Now look at this view from the bedroom window from a slightly different angle:

I have swung around to the left so you can see farther to the north. At the summer solstice, when the sun has gone as far north as it is going to go, it comes up just to the left of that small red building. Now notice that you can see into the open garage door (it's always open because I am too lazy to close it). What you see is the window on the left-side wall. Now, the official beginning of spring is on the vernal equinox, which is exactly between the two solstices. If you look at these last two pictures together, you will note that the window is exactly midway between the two solstices. This year I wasn't looking away: I caught it just in time, the exact moment that spring began!

Friday, March 7, 2014

It's possible I spoke too soon

So okay we're back in the deep freeze with a solid plate of ice and snow on the ground, and we haven't left the house for days as we slowly run out of everything. Before this latest onslaught I was going to feature in my blog what at first looked to me like a giant goldfinch, but in fact was a goldfinch with all its feathers at right angles for thermal protection, sitting side by side with a goldfinch sleeked down for a normal spring day. I thought it was a perfect image of the changing season.

It turns out I was taking a picture of the season turning backwards. In fact I subsequently saw a White-throated Sparrow that was as close as possible to being perfectly round.

Plus some very chesty looking robins.

Our foul-weather friends the Rusty Blackbirds and Fox Sparrows quickly returned to us. Here are a couple of shots of a particularly rusty blackbird.

Among the Fox Sparrows was this partially albino one.

With most natural food buried under the ice, a few more species deigned to visit our feeders, including these two close relatives: a Brown Thrasher and a Mockingbird.

These two birds are in the family Mimidae, named for their great singing ability and, particularly in the case of the Mockingbird, their ability to perfectly mimic the songs of dozens of other birds. It should not be a surprise that molecular studies indicate they are related to the exotic old world Mynah Birds, those great mimics of human speech. Well, in the depth of the cold our feeders were visited by an actual old world bird, an even more direct relative of the Mynahs, and able in its own right to imitate any sound it wants to. Here is that exotic bird:

That's right, the European Starling. This is its winter plumage, resembling a night sky with millions of tiny stars, which is the source of the bird's name. As you recall, it and the House Sparrow were introduced into this country from England, and have done very well. They are actually very remarkable birds in many ways, but have become such pests that we are unable to appreciate them. Both are becoming scarce in England and, irony of ironies, we may one day need to reintroduce them  into England from our healthy populations.

Well, as it turns out, this first bird was the beginning of an invasion. You'll remember I said in a previous blog that there was a big blackbird roost within a couple of miles of our house. Blackbird is a generic term for a number of birds in the family Icteridae including, in the northeast Arkansas area, The Common Grackle, the Red-winged Blackbird, and the Brown-headed Cowbird, plus the unrelated European Starling, that is usually lumped in with them as all gather together in huge nighttime roosts in winter (later separating out and dividing into pairs for the nesting season).

My non-birdwatching friends are often surprised to hear that "blackbirds" comprise several species, so here is a very quick who's who. First and commonest, the Red-winged Blackbird.

Their name describes them pretty well. This bird is slightly subadult; adult males are all black, with, in flight, big red patches on their wings, that they flout in aggressive encounters with other males. Females and immatures are streaky brown sparrow-like birds that don't look anything like the adult males.

Also in the mix are Brown-headed Cowbirds.

The male is a smallish black bird with a brown head. The plain gray female is notorious for laying her eggs in other birds' nests for them to raise.

You notice I don't mention Rusty Blackbirds. They are much higher class and more genteel, and no one objects to having them. I've already shown you the Starling. The last abundant bird in the roosts is the Common Grackle, much larger than the others, and a gorgeous bird with a long sweeping tail and bronze and greenish-blue iridescence on its feathers.

Anyway (after that digression), when the blackbirds wake up and leave the roost, many of them come streaming right over our house, and inevitably, one day some of them noticed the small songbirds gathered in our front yard gobbling up the lavish feast we had put out for them. A bunch of the blackbirds peeled off and dropped down to check things out, and suddenly they were coming by the dozens. Now, a few of these birds would be fine at the feeder, but they don't know the meaning of restraint. They are big burly birds and they come like a tsunami, and sweep everything before them, driving off the smaller birds and inhaling the food put out for them faster than I can replace it.

Our birds by this time are fairly tame and pretty much ignore us; the blackbirds are wary. At first all I have to do is tap the glass lightly and wave my hand through the window and they fly off with a rush, so our birds can return to the feeders. But then the blackbirds begin to think we are paper tigers, and ignore us, so I have to rush outside clapping my hands until my palms hurt, which drives them up into the trees. While they are up there, our birds rush in to gulp down a few seeds before the blackbirds come seething back. Here are our starving goldfinches rushing to their niger seed sock while they have time:

Things start getting desperate. I take a bite of lunch, then have to rush outside, a pan and a stick in my hands as a noise maker, and not just chase the blackbirds into the trees, but chase them into the next row of trees beyond our house, then into the trees across the road. I run back to the house and try to get another bite of my lunch, but they have come down behind me and are marching in a phalanx back to the feeders.

We decide to try another tactic.  I put down a smaller amount of food, and put it just under our windows, closer than the blackbirds will come. We keep chasing them persistently, we keep the food out of their reach. They are sitting watching us, but the hope is, they will begin to think it might be more profitable somewhere else. We come out next morning, and they are gone. But so in fact are a lot of our birds. What's happening is, the snow is beginning to wear thin along edges, bits of fields are uncovering, suddenly there are other places to find food.

We are promised temperatures in the 60s in a few days. This weekend, daylight-saving time begins. Perhaps spring really is coming this time. By this time next week maybe, surveying our empty yard, we'll even wish we had our blackbirds back.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Here comes the sun

It's still cold but the season has definitely turned a corner.

There are lots of signs. First of all, the moment the snow and ice disappeared, our American Tree Sparrow and all our Rusty Blackbirds and Fox Sparrows deserted us without a word of thanks. Another sign: Only a few short weeks ago in the bitter low temperatures the birds had all their feathers at right angles to their bodies to get the deepest thermal pile possible. Look, for example, at this Mourning Dove or this White-throated Sparrow.

Now it's not quite warm yet, but there is a bright sun and the doves are all sleeked down and this morning instead of wearing their feathers like overcoats, the White-throated Sparrows had their wings dropped to expose their backs to as much direct sun-heat as possible.

We were out driving last evening and saw thousands of blackbirds from every point of the compass being pulled like iron filings to a magnet towards an immense winter roost, but that same day when we were driving roads in western Craighead County past the still fallow fields, single male Red-winged Blackbirds were beginning to stake out territories every fifty or hundred feet along fence lines. That huge area along the western edge of the delta had been crowded with wintering Red-tailed Hawks, one of the densest concentrations in North America. They came from all over, Krider's Red-tails from the Great Plains, Harlan's Red-tails from western Canada, and most of the other western races. Here's a very handsome red-tail we saw in the last few days from some western race (as revealed by its dark throat; our eastern birds have white throats).

But it was the last one we've seen. Yesterday when we drove the roads we saw only eastern red-tails, and many were two by two, beginning to pair up for nesting.

Wherever in the stripped fields a cluster of bushes and scrappy saplings had managed to survive the fence-line-to-fence-line clearing, most often around small farmsteads, Loggerhead Shrikes were claiming territories. They are songbirds with the hooked beaks and raptorial habits of birds of prey. Here is one we stopped to admire. While we watched, the small predator flew down and seized an army worm, as if to demonstrate how useful he would be to the farmer who tolerated his presence. The species is declining everywhere in the country, but there are still healthy breeding populations in northeast Arkansas.

For the past two or three weeks we had been noticing flocks of Snow Geese flying high fast and north over our house, presumably on their way to their tundra nesting areas. And coming up highway 67 just a couple of days ago we saw several staging groups completely covering the ground, and whirling into the air like snow falling upward.

We couldn't stop on the busy divided highway, so I took some shots of them through our bug-splotched windshield while we sped by at 75 miles per hour, which is why they are so blurry, but they will give the sense of what we saw.

The very next day I thought we would drive through the fields and try to find one of the huge flocks along a quiet road where we could stop and I could take more careful pictures, but we drove all day and saw not a bird on the ground, and only the occasional small flock overhead. Does this mean they are gone for the year, all those tens of thousands?

During these long nearly insectless months, out of desperation for something to do to keep my spirits up, I started taking pictures of winter birds. Now I'm really enjoying it. I'm going to miss it.

Is winter already over?

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Another way to get through winter

I have to admit, in all these dark gloomy days when the temperatures never rise out of the 20's, and there is an inch-thick sheet of solid ice on the ground, that invertebrates seem (briefly) vanquished. And so I have no choice but to fall back on vertebrates.

What we have done is, we've poured enough sunflower seeds, niger seeds, finch seeds, suet cages, peanut cages, outside our dining room windows to plant a crop, and we have been sucking all the birds in the neighborhood into our front yard feeders. We have our usual woodpeckers and wrens and mourning doves and cardinals, and this year an especially big flock of goldfinches showing their aggressive side as they fight each other to get to the ports in their tube feeder.

But it is the sparrows I have especially been enjoying, yes, just brown and streaky, but so much subtlety in the shades and patterning. After the big flock of goldfinches, which are not sparrows but finches, the most numerous birds here are the White-throated Sparrows. They are beautiful birds but we have a big flock of them every year so they lose some of their specialness by being so abundant.

And we like our big showy Eastern Towhees, but we have a few of them every year.

But this is a special year with its harder-than-usual winter, so we are expecting some equally special birds. When we moved into this house nearly forty years ago the yard was mostly bare, but we have planted trees, and the trees have grown, and we are now part of the woods, and we no longer get the open-country birds to our feeder that we used to. However, it is a hard season, and we are beginning to lure them in. This year, for example, we have pulled a few Song Sparrows out from skulking in their weedy roadside ditches.

Another open country bird that doesn't often come to our overgrown yard, but is coming this year, is the White-crowned  Sparrow.

Other birds are more magical because, though we don't know where they come from, we know when they will come. For instance, whenever there is snow on the ground, the next day beautiful Fox Sparrows appear.

We don't live in a suburb, we live in the country. Our bird feeders are the only bird feeders, and so if anything special is in the neighborhood, we get first crack at it, and our hopes are always high. So far we have not seen any enormous rarities this year, but we did get a rather scarce bird that doubles the treat by being especially pretty. An American Tree Sparrow turned up and has been staying with us for about a week now. All by itself, as far as we are concerned, it has paid for the pounds and pounds of birdseed we have been putting out. Well, all the birds have paid for it. Just ask our cat, who has been sitting beside me at the window, chattering nonstop, till we think he is going to dislocate his jaw.

I was about to sign off, but decided to keep this overnight. The forecast was for snow overnight, and we predicted to each other that in the morning we would have Rusty Blackbirds. When Rusty Blackbirds are on their breeding grounds in the Upper Midwest they are plain black, but down here in their winter quarters, their plumage goes rusty in various patterns, making them often very handsome. We predicted they would come with the fresh snow because they had so many times in the past, but we were uncertain. They have become a species of special concern because their populations have been sinking catastrophically over the past few years, and we didn't know if they were still around to come to us.

Not to worry: We have fifteen in the yard as I write this, and though they are a little off my subject, not being sparrows, I'll include a few anyway.