Feeder Census and Fruit-Full Robins

Time moves differently when you are holding binoculars. Or maybe it’s when you are taking a bird census. All I know is that my total of 4 hours watching my feeder (broken up into 4 one-hour sessions) went quickly and amounted to a heartening experience of curiosity and delight.

How welcome and rare, in this day and age, to sit still and be entertained by something that doesn’t plug in or need charging! You can learn a lot by simply watching the birds in the yard, and be completely entertained, too. Some take turns, others take over. Some favor picking through the seeds that fall, others relish the suet cake or commit to a particular feeder hole. There are those who “dine in,” chowing down right on the perch, and those who “take out,” carting their seeds to an undisclosed location. Dimming sunlight looks especially lovely when reflected off of a mourning dove perched nearby.

I started to notice things like beak shape and gorgeous tail feather design and who likes to fly to what branch. Also, that you have to pay close attention to tell sparrows apart! The term “little brown job”  was invented for a reason!

Later on I flipped through the Sibley field guide Tom bought me, poring over details to make sure my identifications were on track. The whole exercise was a great reminder of how much there is to notice, how much there is going in nature that can just (literally) go right over our heads. Here’s a snapshot of my count from one of the sessions:

feederWatchSnip030616

This was the second year I committed to report my feeder eaters to Project FeederWatch, and I still have time to do a few more counts before the April 8 cutoff. I am hoping the next count will boast some robins. I swear I saw one fly by me on Route 154, but I’ve seen nary a one in the yard.

In fact, I felt a bit dumb when I had to admit that I had no idea where robins go during the winter. I mean, the consensus seems to be that they are a major sign of spring, but I was pretty sure that they didn’t fly south with the geese. Well, apparently I am not the only one who didn’t realize that robins often remain nearby when it gets cold, simply changing their habits. According to The Cornell Lab of Ornithology , in the fall and winter robins roost in trees and eat fruit, so we are much less like likely to see them. I would however notice if I saw a QUARTER MILLION birds in a roost! Apparently this kind of robinpalooza is a documented occurrence. Here’s some audio of a mere 1000 robins or so chattering in Arizona.

I don’t look at scrappy, scraggly trees tangled in the brush the same way anymore. I look for shriveled apples that have hung on, wondering if they will sustain a robin until he finds the ground soft enough for worms again.

Bird by Bird

Bird by Bird is the title of Anne Lamott’s revered book, subtitled Some Instructions on Writing and Life, so I couldn’t resist borrowing it for this mini-tale of amateur birding.

The origins of the title, as explained by Lamott, are sweet, and an encouragement for any pursuit, birding or otherwise:

 Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write. It was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, ‘Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.’

I was a bit overwhelmed myself when I sat down to do my part for Project Feederwatch recently. I was not overwhelmed by the task itself, but rather by the realization that it was truly quite difficult to commit to sit for at least an hour at a time, at least 2 days in a row. What does this say about me, and about my life? Well, part of it is a general tendency towards restlessness, but at least in equal measure it speaks to how much there is to do. This is a wakeup call to keep an eye on what is truly important—not just essential “to dos”—some of which are unavoidable–but what actually matters. I’ve decided that the birds matter greatly. Mary Oliver wrote something that resonates with me deeply in this regard, because the experience of attending to them did feel like an act of meaningful devotion:

Attention is the beginning of devotion.

And looking up “attend” in the Online Etymology Dictionary, I realize it means so much more than “show up:”

attend (v.)

c.1300, “to direct one’s mind or energies,” from Old French atendre (12c., Modern French attendre) “to expect, wait for, pay attention,” and directly from Latin attendere “give heed to,” literally “to stretch toward,” from ad- “to” (see ad-) + tendere “stretch” (see tenet). The notion is of “stretching” one’s mind toward something. Sense of “take care of, wait upon” is from early 14c. Meaning “to pay attention” is early 15c.; that of “to be in attendance” is mid-15c. Related: Attended; attending.

I like the idea that I was stretching my mind toward the birds at the feeder, taking care of them, waiting upon them… waiting for them to show me so many moments of joy, and also literally being their waitress (slinging bird hash by trudging through the deep snow to their dining room!) .

What a delight to realize that there are whole communities of birds that are visiting my yard daily, most starting their nests and families and some passing through. And how nice, also, to see fellow bird adorers like me pipe in on Facebook, where I took a poll to figure out if I had Dark-eyed Juncos eating my seeds.

Just 2 hours on 2 snowy days (and, full disclosure, on the first day I was SUPPOSED to be working and not looking out the window every 5 minutes) yielded a great mix, the most exotic being my Kestrel (yes, mine: I feel some possessiveness about her), who was not at the feeder but on a nearby deck post. I was surprised by the 2 types of woodpeckers, who I rarely spot with casual glances around the neighborhood. And, by the way, has anyone noticed that the birds seem to congregate at the feeder when it is snowing? Of course, food is harder to find as it becomes covered up but maybe they also know how gorgeous they look among the snowflakes?. Here’s some more information on birds in cold weather.

One of the nicest moments was the iridescent appearance of our Mourning Doves as they flew down to the ground below the feeder. We see them often in our driveway and I hadn’t before appreciated their beauty in flight.

The Project FeederWatch system asked me to confirm the Kestrel—apparently an unlikely find for my area this time of year. But, yes, I’m pretty sure it was a female American Kestrel (Northern) after checking several Google images. It perched just a little way off from these species:

Mourning Dove

Red-bellied Woodpecker

Pileated Woodpecker

American Crow

Black-capped Chickadee

Tufted Titmouse

White-throated Sparrow

Dark-eyed Junco

Northern Cardinal

I think I need to apply Lamott’s advice to both writing and birding. One word at a time, one gift of a winged moment at a time. I’m looking forward to more Bird by Birding.

Cold, Refreshing Spring (and a Free Books Footnote)

GavinColdSpring_010115It’s hard to believe that it’s been nearly a whole month since we awoke to 2015, and that first chilly day of the year had us at our traditional New Year’s place: Cold Spring, New York, a village on the Hudson (most photos here courtesy of my husband Tom, except where noted).

Although I continue to work on becoming a hardier example of our species, this wasn’t a prime day for long strolls in the out of doors. The wind whipped off the river; the temperatures were in the teens, maybe even single digits with the wind chill. But even so, we were bundled up and enjoyed a brisk 25 minutes or so on the coast, where we picked through driftwood on the beach, watched long cargo trains pull by on the opposite shore, and marveled at the abundance of spiky, otherworldly-looking water chestnut seed pods, sometimes called devil’s heads, that had washed up onto the beach. (I learned from The Incidental Steward by Akiko Busch that water chestnuts, introduced in the late 1800s as exotic ornamentals, have become quite the invasive species, choking our rivers and spreading at alarming rates).

Water Chestnut Seed Pod From peppergrasss on Flickr

Water Chestnut Seed Pod
From peppergrasss on Flickr

After a warm and happy lunch at Le Bouchon we took a meandering drive along the river, happening upon a herd of deer grazing in an overgrown meadow.

DeerColdSpring010115

The day was refreshing and lively but indubitably COLD. We didn’t leave the car when we capped the day with our traditional drive through Hubbard Park on the way home, to see the Christmas lights display.

I’m not sure whether two sightings since that cold first day of 2015–and before the recent mega snowfall–should be taken as signs of the havoc that climate change is predicted to bring, but, regardless, they have made me more hopeful about spring coming. In the Wal-Mart parking lot, Tom and I were treated to the spectacle of two sparrows mating alongside the curb—cute, fascinating, and shocking all at the same time. I looked up house sparrows (although I can’t swear this was the variety we saw—didn’t want to create any sparrow scandals by snapping an incriminating photo), and sure enough, they sometimes begin mating as early as January. And then, on a drive along beautiful River Road from Essex to Deep River, I saw an osprey on an aerie. According to the CT DEEP page, they aren’t supposed to return from Southern hunting grounds until March. Then again, you get some early birds in every crowd. I may have to nudge the Essex OspreyCam operators so they can activate the live feed again.

It’s been good for me to learn this winter that life does go on outside even when my instinct tells me to stay where it’s warm and dig in deeper beneath the blankets. Did you know that when birds go South, it’s more about finding food than getting away from the cold? I want to keep them close–I trudged through nearly 2 feet of snow yesterday to get to the bird feeder and was rewarded by an audience (from afar) with several female cardinals. I wonder if they would have liked these berries that managed to display themselves so artfully in Cold Spring:

ColdSpringBLUEBerries_010115

(PS: For those who perked up at “free books” in the title, I am giving away some copies, while they last, of Get Satisfied: How Twenty People Like You Found the Satisfaction of Enough, in which I have a piece published; as well as Harriet’s Voice: A Writing Mother’s Journey. I’m afraid I can’t pay postage but happy to get copies to locals or work out some kind of prepaid mailing arrangement for those afar).