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.

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