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Monday, January 30, 2012

Birds of Different Feathers Flock Together…

Feathered feastThe cat crouches by the deck slider, trying to make himself invisible, not an easy thing to do when you’re black and white and weigh twenty pounds. His tail swishes herky-jerky, animated, as if it has a life of its own. On the other side of two panes, not four inches away from his stiletto canines, a little mocha-headed bird taunts, hopping back and forth nonchalantly foraging for the seed scattered there. This serene scenario reminds me of a comic strip I read some time ago. A couple are preparing for a two week vacation, and the wife has sent her husband to the store for supplies. He returns and she checks the inventory he has been sent to collect. “Where’s the cat food?”she complains, “you forgot the cat food!” “No, I didn’t,” the dutiful spouse replies as he hands his wife a ten pound bag of birdseed….winter hotel

Eight inches of new snow cover the deck, my payback for this season’s much repeated comment: “We’ve had a mild winter so far.” The power is out…the road and driveway unplowed…the snow’s too deep for the wheelbarrow…I have to haul wood to the house an armload at a time. Are we having fun yet? The answer, strangely enough is, “Yes”--thanks to the birds. The snow is too deep for them to forage in the garden, and they have flocked to the bird feeder. The feeder only has three bays and can serve about that number at a time. They’ve formed a food line on the branch above the feeder. Feathers puffed against the cold, they await their turn at the seed. The hungry are impatient and rush the feeder, bump and jostle their way for a foothold at the bays. More birds arrive, seem to burst from trees and shrubs. Others drop from the sky and vie for the seed that falls from the feeder. I scatter a couple handfuls of seed across the snowy deck and am no sooner in the house than the deck is a flurry of bird activity. The backyard comes alive. To accommodate more visitors, I hang another suet block on the feeding pole. Soon both blocks are festooned with small birds pecking away at the greasy seed. A jay bullies them away. Then a flicker commandeers the block and the jay retreats. I have a veritable bird circus going on right before my eyes.

There is something therapeutic about watching birds. Their antics produce a soothing effect in much the same way the aquarium in the dentist or doctor’s office does.Kyle's b-houseWatching the languid, quiet glide of fish, suspended in their narrow world of water, neutralizes—at least for the moment—that root canal or delicate examination you are about to endure. When the action lags or shifts to some other area of the yard, I cast another handful of seed across the deck and sit back for another episode of “birds.”

Most of the birds are juncos—generically known as “snowbirds”--perky little studies in brown with a saucy flash of white as they take flight. The male of the species has the chocolate-dipped head; the female’s a more subdued milk-chocolate. The snow has coaxed other species out of the landscape, though in lesser numbers. Flocking together with the juncos on the deck are a half dozen White-crowned sparrows of both sexes.Two blushing heads stand out from the rest: a pair of House finches have arrived for their share of the feast and bob for seed alongside the others.

A couple pair of Spotted towhees, a colorful bird smaller than a robin and with the fitful tail of a wren make regular forays from the hedge for spilled seed. Notorious hedge dwellers, towhees tiptoe along the top of a shrub, dive suddenly into it, only to pop out at the bottom somewhere; like a diving duck, you’re never quite sure where the bird will reappear. Towhees have the red breast of a robin but unlike Mr. Redbreast, the towhee sports a white apron and wings peppered with white spots. When the snow disappears, the towhees will scratch, like chickens, through the duff looking for a hearty meal.

Varied thrushes, stocky, starling-like birds wearing black and orange V-necked sweaters thread their way through the throng of juncos. This bird looks, excepting the black V at its throat, like a patchwork robin. The first Varied thrush I saw on our property I mistook for a Western Meadowlark until I remembered the meadowlark is an east of the Cascades native.rustic nestbox

Our two lowland species of chickadees, the black-capped and chestnut-backed, feast at the suet blocks, preferring the shorter wait time. They flit back and forth from tree to feeding post, extracting one seed at a time from the suet, return to the tree where they consume the kernel, tidily wipe their beaks on a twig, and return for seconds, thirds, fourths….

Among such a host, one bird always seems to stand out, distinguishes itself to the point it must be given a name. Last year it was a female junco whose head feathers were white chocolate instead of dark, an anomaly explained by my environmentally-sensitive friend Nancy L as “something went wrong in the egg.” Far into spring “Baldy” was a regular visitor at the backyard feeders. This winter’s standout, at least during this snow event, is another junco. This little female has an injured or deformed left leg and is easy to spot among the fifty or so of her fellows digging for seed. While the others hop about on two legs from one kernel to the next, she has to squat in the snow to eat. She seems to have compensated for her handicap quite well, however, and with the flit of a wing and a one-legged hop, little “Hop-a-Long” quickly finds another tidbit. And she will not be bullied, either, but aggressively defends her space. No lower rungs of the pecking ladder for this little gal.

Another regular at the suet block is a female Hairy woodpecker, not to be confused with the smaller “Downy,” and distinguished at least by the thicker, more business-like beak. Because of her smaller size she allows the flickers and jays to serve themselves first and patiently waits her turn on the feeding post, passing the time by pecking about on it, honing her beak. She clings to the bottom of the block and feeds upside down, chipping away at the suet, sending chunks to the ground where they’re pounced upon by the ground feeders. In a rare stroke of genius we named this little visitor “Harriet.” (“Harry” has yet to make his appearance.")

There is bird activity at the kitchen window, too, although you must be discreet and patient to observe the tiny blur at the syrup feeder. For nearly a month now we have been feeding a female Anna’s hummingbird. Unlike our migratory Rufous hummingbird, Anna’s winter in the Pacific Northwest; however, this is the first winter appearance of one of these little sprites on the place. She first appeared at an empty seed feeder, inspected it on all sides, moved on to the wind chimes, came away empty there, and flew away disappointed and hungry. I quickly mixed some syrup and retrieved the window feeder from storage. She discovered the feeder the next day and has been a regular ever since. Apparently the little lady had been scouring the neighborhood in search of a meal for some time. The neighbor noticed a hummingbird at her strand of Christmas lights flitting from one bulb to the next hoping to get lucky; she called me for the formula (FYI: one part sugar: four parts water) and has her feeder out, too. AnnieWhen she comes to the window, no sudden movements or she rockets away. You can literally see her little belly swell as she siphons down the syrup. Three or four sips and then she jets into the maple tree and perches on a nearby twig to insure a speedy return to the next drink. As she moves from side to side at the feeder, the iridescent triangle (gorget) at her throat flashes red, laser-like. Today she huddles on a snow clad twig, a tiny mite of a bird looking very uncomfortable and out of context; she should be flitting to and fro in the summer’s honeysuckle and crocosmia instead of shivering away on a snowdrifted twig. Nights, when the temperature drops to freezing, I bring the feeder inside to keep the syrup from freezing. As she already has a name, we have yet to come up with one of our own. Perhaps we should, though: “Anastasia?” “Annette?” Or how about just plain “Annie?” She’s certainly living a “hard knock life” these wintry days….wren nest

The snow persists.The house is still without power. But thanks to the woodstove the room is warm and comfortable. Boiling water gently rocks the teapot. In futility some time ago the cat gave up on the host of birds dancing just beyond his nose and, as is the knack of all cats, has found the most comfortable place in the house. This morning that spot is the easy chair beside the humming woodstove, and if you’ll excuse the expression, the cat has gone catatonic. But just a minute…a paw jerks…a lip lifts a whisker or two…an ear twitches…the cat is dreaming. And just what does a cat dream about after a morning spent watching birds? I wonder….

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  1. Terry - if you round the corner by the state hunting parking lot on tualco loop road (heading towards tualco road) on the right side (the slough side) their are approx 3 or 4 nests hanging from a cottonwood tree branch approx 15 feet up in the air and approx 10 feet away from the edge of the road. Pacific Northwest Anna Hummingbirds ? Matt

    1. Matt, I've seen the nests you referenced. They are the nests of some species of cavity nesting bird, not hummingbird nests. Orioles make that kind of nest, but orioles live east of the Mts. We do have a bird in the PNW, the Bush tit, that makes a sock-like nest. You would not be able to see a hummingbird's nest from the road. I have only seen three hummer nests in my life as they are extremely hard to find. They are a cup nest, the diameter of which is not much bigger than a silver dollar, if that large and are usually built in the crotch of a small branch. A hummer's nest is a work of art, well-camouflaged with moss and lichen. The egg floor is made of down, the fluff usually from a well-seasoned cattail. I've heard of birders supplying nesting material for their feeding hummers by placing a few of these cattail stalks in the vicinity of the feeding area.

      My friend Nancy L was doing volunteer work on the Iron Goat trail on Stevens Pass a few years ago and discovered a hummingbird nest in the salmon berry bushes. After the nesting season was over, she went back and retrieved it. I have a photo of the nest somewhere and will email it to you when I find it.

      Thanks for the comment and for reading The Ripple. Happy New Year to those Beebes. TMJ