Sunday, May 11, 2014

The last days of the bird feeder

When winter closed in last year, and there were fewer and fewer insects and spiders around, we gave in to the inevitable and set up bird feeders. We  hung up a tube feeder of sunflowers seeds, a white sock of niger seeds, hung up some suet cages and scattered finch seeds and sunflower seeds on the ground outside our dining room window, and down our second, largely unused, driveway outside the kitchen window.

Of course you argue that you are saving the birds from starving during the bleak cold winter, but the truth is in most winters the birds can shift for themselves as they did for the thousands of years before our arrival. No, the feeders are set up so you have the pleasure of drawing the birds to your yard so you can watch them from close up. And you especially hope the gabble of feeding birds will be a magnet for any rarities that happen to be in the neighborhood.

Well, we did have all those pleasures this winter, more so than usual. You see, I used to be a keen bird watcher, but over the last fifteen or so years I have become enamored of insects, and more recently of spiders, and what I like most of all is recording them on camera, especially their behavior. I'm not primarily a "photographer," which is to say, I am not interested in the technical aspects of my equipment, nor do I know much about it. The camera is just a means to an end. I have an SLR with a 100mm Macro lens which I usually use with extension tubes so I can take pictures from only a few inches away. Cheryl has a very small camera which she carries in her pocket, with which she can focus on objects from less than an inch away. I can get large reasonably sharp images of shyer creatures from a few inches back; she can get up tight on extremely small subjects, especially ones in awkward corners my bigger camera can't get into.

Anyway, it happened that all the guys decided it was better to photograph insects from a distance with a 300mm telephoto lens, usually mounted on a tripod for steadiness. This produced perfect pictures of, for instance, dragonflies. Well, I wanted to be one of the guys, so I got one of these big lenses, and while it produced some nice pictures of dragonflies, I found it cumbersome and not very useful for pictures of smaller, more active, insects. I stuck the lens in a drawer and tried to forget how much it had cost.

But this winter when the birds started coming to our feeder, one day I attached the big lens to my camera, idly pointed it out the window and snapped a picture of a bird. To my amazement, even hand-held and through double panes it produced a sharp picture, even showing those neat barbs in all the feathers that are the vogue with professional bird photographers these days.

I was quickly hooked, and spent a lot of otherwise boring insectless winter days taking pictures of birds. The long-lens more than paid for itself with the fun I had. At first I couldn't believe how good my pictures were. Then after about a month I looked back at them, and realized they weren't all that good, and the new ones I was taking were much better. I went through this cycle periodically over the winter, at first thinking I was taking prize-winners, then later realizing they weren't even keepers compared to the pictures I was THEN taking. What it meant was, I was learning a new skill.

The other part of the fun was, we were drawing in some special birds. Rusty Blackbirds, for instance are a species of concern, their numbers going down rapidly. We are asked to keep track of them here in the south where they spend the winter. Well, that was easy for us: in the coldest part of the winter a small flock moved in with us and stayed. They are a kind of blackbird, all black in their nesting territory on wetlands in the upper mid-west, but here in their winter plumage they are every possible pattern of rustiness.

And we got another nice bird, an American Tree Sparrow. This is a rather scarce pretty little sparrow that normally we would see once or twice during the winter, just a glimpse of it out in the country mixed in with a flock of commoner sparrows. But this bird appeared at our feeder and stayed all winter. We got to know it, something we had never been able to do with all our brief glimpses in the past.

But just as in summer the days rushed on to autumn, the days shortening and darkening, the insects reaching their maximum numbers, then quickly declining, so suddenly (now that we were having fun) just before we left on our trip to Arizona in April we noticed the big flock of American Goldfinches that spent the winter at our feeder were changing. Goldfinches often seem to disappear for the winter. They don't. They just put on their dull gray winter plumage and you no longer recognize them. But now our big gray flock was coming out in yellow spots.

By the time we got back from Arizona their transformation into summer plumage was virtually complete.

Here was hard irrefutable evidence that winter was over, and instead of cheering I felt a sense of regret.

But at just that moment, we had the highlight of the year, a real rarity. The White-winged Dove is a western bird that is beginning to invade Arkansas from the west, but many good Arkansas birders still have never seen one in the state. Here we are in the eastern side of the state, and one morning when we went outside, we were quite sure we could hear one calling in the woods across the road. Sure enough, the next morning there it was at our feeder. It looks rather like our common Mourning Dove, but has a big white patch in the wing that you can see even when the wing is closed.

He stayed around for a few days, eating our seeds, singing from our trees, cruising some of the female Mourning Doves till their husbands expressed disapproval. Then he moved on.

The time for the bird feeder was over. I was nearly out of birdseed and wasn't going to buy any more. What we suspected was a raccoon had come in the night and stolen our suet feeders. Most of the birds had deserted us and headed north anyway. And then a funny thing happened: Mammals began to take over.

I have already told you about the voles that came from underground to share the seeds with the birds, and the Gray Squirrels had been vacuuming up stuff we put out all winter. Now a Hispid Cotton Rat appeared (hispid refers to his rough shaggy fur) and began feeding on the leftovers.

Then, only slightly bigger, a tiny smooth baby rabbit appeared, using its nose to find buried seeds the birds had missed.

Then a big gangling cottontail that looked halfway to being a jack rabbit.

The final finisher came minutes before darkness (I took this picture at 3200 ISO), looking off into space while using his deft hands to scrape up hidden seeds under the mud, and using the puddle from a recent rain to wash them in.

So that's it.  Bring on the bugs and spiders!


  1. Those are sharp, lovely photos. But where are the predators (your specialty)?

  2. It's quite remarkable that not a single Sharp-shinned or Cooper's Hawk came to our feeder all winter. I would (shameful to admit) gladly have sacrificed a few of my sparrows or finches for a chance to photograph one, and I did watch. Maybe next year.