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Sunday, April 18, 2010

Four and Twenty Blackbirds…

Tualco V. March It is a chilly thirty-seven degrees in the Valley this morning and the raptors are on watch. A kestrel keeps vigil from the power lines, alert for any prospects in Broers’ berry fields. Perched atop the old maple tree opposite Swiss Hall is a juvenile Bald Eagle, still wearing its scruffy adolescence, a year or so away from the white crowning glory and tail that is its claim.

By the calf pens along Sargent Road I notice a little Subaru, hatchback up, and a man with a spotting scope trained back toward Swiss Hall. “Ah, more Valley news,” I think and turn up Sargent Road to get my scoop.

Mr. Marv Breece, birder, is a cheerful—I would say almost jaunty,—gentleman. He has dressed appropriately for a chilly morning,  wears a neat-looking padded vest donned over a sweatshirt, pocket-Dockers, and ball cap, all in understated color. Typical understated plumage for the avid birder; Marv is there to observe, not be observed. Marv Breece, BirderI judge it to be about 10:00 a.m. Birder Breece must have been up and on the road early to arrive here from the Fremont district of Seattle. After making a couple jokes about Fremont’s notable Summer Solstice Parade and the Fremont Troll, I ask him if he’s noticed the eagle in the maple tree, rather a flip question to ask an avid birder, who I’m sure has spotted many a lesser sized bird unnoticed by most passers-by. He’s seen it, of course, noted it was not a Golden Eagle, which Marv tells me can make a rare appearance here in Western Washington. I learn some interesting differences between these two regal birds: Bald Eagles are more carrion-eaters and less the hunters Golden Eagles are. Juveniles included, Golden Eagles all display a distinguishing golden scruff on the back of their necks. Bald Eagles have a more massive beak for the tearing of flesh. Golden Eagles are more akin to red-tailed hawks, I’m informed, and like them are hunters, preferring fresh kills to after the fact meals.  

But Marv has not come to the Valley to spy on the local eagles. He has his spotting scope trained on the calf pens where an abundance of black birds are feeding. Most are Brewer’s blackbirds but among them Marv has spotted a Rusty Blackbird (Euphagus carolinus). Rusty is truly a rarity in these parts, I learn. Marv has a digital camera with a special barrel attachment that fits over the spotting scope’s eyepiece and hopes to digitize this uncommon visitor. He tells me that among the Brewer’s, starlings, and the occasional crow, there are brown-headed cowbirds also. How anyone could spot a rare bird among the dozens of “black birds” feeding among the calves was amazing. Marv trained his scope on a cowbird so I could distinguish it from the others.

I tell Marv about the pair of Mourning doves, for the most part east of the Cascades natives, that frequent our backyard feeder. Marv has seen them at Crescent Lake on the south end of the Valley and is quick to add that a new avian visitor to the area is the Eurasian Collared-Dove (Streptopelia decaocto), an interesting invasion of a non-indigenous species.

It is a small world, a world of coincidences, and today’s  visit to the Valley confirms it. The Collared-Doves have made an appearance in my hometown of Brewster, Washington. I first noticed one on a telephone pole by my mother’s house on the Columbia River two summers ago. The bird soon was a visitor at her feeder. Now in the still of the morning you can hear their irritating calls, so unlike the soothing lament of the Mourning dove, pretty much all over town.

The coincidences keep on coming. When I tell Marv about the dove at my mother’s home, he asks the location. “Brewster,” I reply, but before I can add my usual follow-up: “ About twenty-three miles north-east of Lake Chelan, ten miles downstream of Chief Joseph Dam,” Marv says he knows the area well. “Central Ferry Canyon,” he says. “Lots of interesting birds there.” I tell him Central Ferry Canyon is one of my favorite butterfly collecting sites and that my father is buried in a pioneer cemetery  at the top of the canyon. “Packwood,”says Marv. “I’ve been there a few times.” He asks my name again and I’m sure the reason is to bolster his memory. The next time he visits the area, I think, Marv will be sure to look in on Dad.

Dad loved birds. It is a comfort to know he rests in such a beautiful setting in the presence, according to Marv, of all three of the state’s nuthatches, Western bluebirds, a rare goshawk, and where, during the bleak Eastern Washington winters, a bevy of snow buntings forage for seeds.

(Footnote: a further coincidence. Yesterday a pair of Collared-Doves visited our backyard. They returned this morning and appear particularly interested in the juniper trees on the property line. I hope they don’t bully the gentle Mourning doves off the place. I hope they decide to move along. And I hope the summer dawns are not filled with their monotonous cooing.)

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