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.