Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010

Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010
Photo by R.E. Berg-Andersson

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Chickadee Winter

Winter morning, about 12 degrees F. As usual one of the first things I do in the morning is to refill feeders and put them back on the poles. I take the feeders off one of the pole at night because, until I got a new baffle, the deer would stand on the old one and knock at the longer feeder to get the seed to fall. (In the process, the deer knocked out several large holes, prompting the replacement.)

Black-capped chickadee (Margo D. Beller)
Now, refilled, I am outside hanging them on the pole. A black-capped chickadee is in the nearby dogwood tree and it flies to the top of the feeder pole over my head. We look at each other and it takes off for the tree again until I finish attaching the feeders and walk away. Then it comes to feed.

Had I been wearing a bowl of seed on my head it would've flown to it and taken one.

Another morning I put one of the feeders down on the lawn to go inside and get something. I came out and found a chickadee had flown down to grab a seed, taking advantage of my absence.

I have lots of chickadee stories.

My three favorite birds are the cardinal, the Carolina wren and the black-capped "dee." They are my favorites for different reasons. The cardinals are big, red and travel in pairs. When the male feeds the female a seed during mating season they look like they are kissing. You could call them the marriage birds.

Carolina wrens sing all year long and are not common visitors to my yard, making their appearance this year at the seed and suet feeders a sign of just how cold it is. I used to think the wrens sang only to defend territory but they also sing warning. They are a reliable alarm for the other birds.

Carolina wren (Margo D. Beller)
The dee, however, is a favorite because it is not put off by people. They have learned that when I come out on my enclosed porch and rap on the glass to disperse the horde of house sparrows and house finches from the house-shaped feeder, they can zip in and get seed before the horde returns. (The dee's cousin, the tufted titmouse, also does this).

They will eat from your hand if you stand there with arm outstretched long enough. They can be made tame that way, as I have seen at several parks where people put a seed in their hands and the birds readily come and feed. In fact, if you don't do that they will literally fly in your face and call, as if to say, "See me, feed me." This has happened to me many times.

They make all sorts of cute sounds from the gurgling and "dee-dee-dee" calls that give them their name to the song that starts at a very high note and then falls, sounding like "hey, sweetie." I was on a hawk watch once, my first one. It was a hard climb and, to my horror, there was no place to sit, not even a boulder. Hawks were specks in the sky and as counters called out "sharpy" or "broadwing," I couldn't keep up. However, at eye level, close to me, was that gurgling and a flock of about 15 chickadees were feeding right up on the mountain.

I have seen dees exploring an outdoor telephone booth back in the pre-cellphone days. They are the most reliable visitors to my brother-in-law's feeders in New Hampshire, where it is far colder than where I live. Like other birds dees find shelter wherever they can get out of the cold and wind and puff up to trap air under their downy feathers.

(Margo D. Beller)
I like them because they take a seed and fly off to crack it open, holding the seed in their feed and pecking at it. They don't sit there and block the feeders as those sparrows and finches do. A dee I saw this morning had a seed, flew to the pear tree in front of me (standing on the other side of the glass) and pecked at it. When the wind blew it turned its back. At one point it continued pecking hanging nearly upside down like an acrobat before righting itself and finishing its meal. Then it flew back for another seed.

I've seen them take mouthfuls of snow for moisture, too. Unfortunately, I've also seen them picked off by hungry sharp-shinned hawks, an unpleasant side effect of putting out feeders.

There are many different types of chickadees. The ones I've seen from southern New Jersey on south are Carolina chickadees. They look virtually the same except they are a little more pale, a tiny bit smaller and their calls are faster. Another one I would love to see is the boreal chickadee, which I could find if I go up into the higher elevations of northern New York State or New England.

According to Cornell University's Ornithology Lab, which runs the annual Great Backyard Birdcount every February in conjunction with the national Audubon Society, last year the black-capped chickadee was reported on 16 checklists in my home county of Morris, the 23rd most seen bird behind the robin, starling and Canada goose, among others.

There were years when I was lucky to see one dee in my backyard. This year I've discovered a family of them roosting in my yew hedge, which I don't trim at the top because the deer eat at it from the bottom. That thick part at the top hides a lot of birds.

I'm happy to have them there. And when this year's bird count takes place Feb. 13-16, I look forward to counting them.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Adapting to Winter

The female redbellied woodpecker flies to the house feeder, grabs a black-hulled sunflower seed, then flies the short distance to the pear tree. She climbs up the trunk with the seed in her long bill to the top of one section that has been sawed off flat. She puts the seed on it and pounds until she has broken off the hull and can then grab the seed with her long tongue.

She goes back and forth five or six times to do this as I watch from my enclosed back porch, not too close to the window or I'd scare her. Each time she flies to the feeder she dislodges a young, male cardinal who has been eying the feeder but hanging back while other birds, including two other male cardinals, fly over to get food. She has no interest in the suet feeder nearby. Today, she wants seed.

Finally, the redbelly flies off and the young cardinal flies over and grabs a seed, only to be chased off by a posse of house sparrows.

Female redbellied woodpecker (Margo D. Beller)
At this point I take on my position of omnipotent ruler and tap on the window, scaring the sparrows off and allowing the black-capped chickadees to fly in, grab seeds and fly off. A couple of them go into the upper branches of this same pear tree to grab the seed with their feet and then peck to break the hull and eat.

I've been witnessing this behavior in my backyard for the past 20 or so years every winter. Same routine, different generations of titmice, house finches, jays and white-throated sparrows.

We had a heavy snow last night, and this morning I added to the number of seed feeders because I know it is not going to be easy for the birds to find food. But if I didn't put out a feeder - and I seem to be the only one around in this part of the area hanging feeders - the birds would still find ways of surviving. They're used to it.

They do better than I do. When the snow falls, especially the heavy, wet type we had, my first reaction is to groan. I know I am going to find shrubs bent under the weight and I might find fence posts down because the snow has weighed upon the deer netting. I don't have to worry about feeding myself but I do have to worry about getting groceries in ahead of time or getting the snow plow guy over to clear the driveway before the temperatures fall again in the evening.

Cardinal pair (Margo D. Beller)
I walk around repairing the damage as the birds check for microscopic insects in the branches of the black locust trees over my head.  I hear the sparrows calling from the hedge and the local Canada geese flying overhead. I hear the cardinal pairs calling to one another. A few weeks ago when we had a smaller snow storm but colder temperatures there were six male cardinals in my backyard at once. Today there were three and at least two females. The pecking order - which one eats first, second, etc. - was very much in evidence because only one of the three seed feeders will allow a cardinal to comfortably sit and eat a seed.

As I get older I find myself liking everything about snow less and less. I don't like the shoveling -- it tires me and makes my back sore. I don't like knocking snow off tall hedges and getting it all over me. I don't like depending on the plow guy when there is more than 5 inches of white on the driveway. I do not like the cold at all, and that dislikes gets worse with every falling degree.

It is easy for me to complain because I am bundled in a warm coat and will be going inside a warm house momentarily and can eat when I choose to eat. The birds have to depend on the kindness of strangers - me. I can provide them seed and suet, hedges for roosting at night and, every so often, aid and protection by chasing off cats or raptors. But that's it. They are on their own in the cold and have to depend on puffing themselves up and creating a layer of warm air under their feathers. They will "sleep" in their way to conserve energy to fly and feed the next day in order to survive.

There will still be winter fatalities, just as there are always stories of humans who lose a finger clearing out a snowblower or have heart attacks lifting heavy loads of snow with their shovels.

Today, I'm not one of them. You could say I've learned to adapt, too.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Winter Thoughts

This has been a good week for me, and that fact is unusual enough for me to put my feet up, put on some music and note it here.

We've had a week of below-average temperatures and about an inch of snow that has been slowly melting each time the sun is out for more than 10 minutes. This cold has made it uncomfortable for being out on errands or looking for birds. But in my sunny office right now, life is good.

Compared with last January, the sixth-snowiest January on record, according to the "year in weather" chart the New York Times publishes the first Sunday of the year, I'll take it. We're not even at February yet. Last February was the second snowiest thanks to eight inches of the white stuff. I don't want that again.

Today I looked at all the birds at the four feeders I have out and realized I saw six male cardinals at once. That is a record for the backyard. Two were on the ground with the squirrels, grabbing the seed dropped by the house finches and house sparrows. Two were in the bushes, their red feathers easily seen on the bare branches. One was atop one feeder pole, the last at the house feeder on the other pole.

My yard is the only one within eyeshot offering seed this year, and in this cold the birds are taking full advantage of it.

Also today, I went to the monthly winter farmers market at the Fosterfields county park and bought an assortment of root vegetables (turnip, potatoes), greens (spinach and collard), onions, garlic and artisanal baked goods. It's not cheap to buy at the farmers market - you can get many more things and cheaper at the local grocery store. But they have been shipped in from the other side of the world, the side now in summer.
Male cardinal, winter 2014

What I buy tastes better and lasts longer because they come from farms in New Jersey, which I'd like to think I'm helping to survive when I make my purchases. From the looks of the crowd that got there five minutes after the market officially opened (I got there early for a reason), there are a lot of local residents who want to do the same.

I am lucky to not only have the money to buy these goods but to have parks such as Fosterfields - a working, teaching farm - a close drive from my house. These non-bakery purchases will allow me some variety from the usual frozen peas and dry pasta side dishes. Knowing this gives me the energy to consider what to make this week for supper.

It is such silly thoughts that keep me going in a life where it seems the harder you work the further behind you fall. I am enjoying this transient feeling of calm and semi-prosperity as the sun warms me and music plays as I write.

These are purely human concerns, of course.

I don't know if I'd want to be a bird fighting others to eat my sunflower seed or, if a woodpecker, the suet hanging upside down in the feeder. Then again, birds don't worry about things like paying bills, making the dinner menu more interesting or remaining employed for the paycheck as I do. Their needs are more basic at this time of year: finding food and avoiding predators such as the red-tailed hawk my husband saw in one of our trees this morning.
Backyard red-tail, 2013 (R.E. Berg-Andersson)
Since the birds don't wear name tags, I don't know how many of the ones now at the feeders are the same as the ones there a week ago. I do know today we've had a pair of goldfinches for the first time in a long time, plus a female hairy woodpecker. But those six male cardinals tell me that it's getting harder for these birds to find food.

I am very glad I do not have to depend only on the farmers market to keep me alive. As for the birds, I have a new, 40-pound bag of seed and four more suet cakes for when the current ones are done.

Because it's going to be a long winter.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

First Snow, 2015

As I write, the first snow is falling in this new year of 2015. It started as a few flakes as I went out for a walk and then quickly intensified as I made my way home using a shortcut I've seen people use, which brought me to my street.
Snow from another year (Margo D. Beller)

In a mere 20 minutes an inch has fallen, whitening everything. But this snow will not hang around long. The temperatures will be rising and it will become rain, heavy at times, removing the pretty white.

This is in marked contrast to the beginning of 2014 when we'd already been hit with several snowstorms. It would be a winter of a lot of snow, a lot of rain and a lot of ice on top of the snow, which made the deer, squirrels and birds desperate for food. The year ended with one snowstorm at Thanksgiving. That's been  it until now.

I get restless at this time of year and the cold and threat of snow don't help. It seems to take more effort to walk when it is biting cold - I need to wear warmer shoes and a long, bulky coat, a headscarf and a hat. I have to be especially careful in my early-morning walks on days when even the sun doesn't seem to help. I am not 20 anymore, and when I inhale too much cold air through my mouth the lungs burn and my heart seems to pound so hard I fear I'm about to expire.

Halfway through the 2014 snow season (Margo D. Beller)
(I do not understand those I see who wear shorts in winter or walk around without a hat or gloves. Do they drink anti-freeze? Do they keep their homes at 80 degrees, making a walk in 20-degree chill seem refreshing? Or am I just old and painfully creaky?)

Today it is not that cold, although it is raw. Despite the discomfort, I was driven by the need to get outside and look around before the snow so I could justify staying inside the rest of the day.

I remind myself that getting caught in a snowstorm isn't fun. I've been caught at the Great Swamp when a snow squall hit and only my familiarity with the roads kept me from panicking when I started driving unable to see far out my window. I don't want to worry MH, who has been obsessively watching every weather channel and radar.

Thanks to him I knew this storm was expected around noon. He wanted to stay home. So I kept today's walk short.

I do not like birding in rain and I find very little when birding in snow because most birds are smart enough to hunker down in bad weather, like MH. In my walk today I saw one flying turkey vulture and eight pairs of mallards swimming in the one part of the local pond that hadn't frozen after several days of below-normal temperatures. (That makes it hard to reconcile with the forecast of temperatures climbing to 60 degrees tomorrow and then dropping to the 20s a few days later, another sign of the wacky weather caused by global warming.)

(R.E. Berg-Andersson)
Winter cold, the end of the outdoor growing season and the longer nights make me gloomy and filled with depressing thoughts. So while I am outside I walk briskly to keep them at bay, listening for any bird calls or the sound of human activity in the "Deer Quality Management" area I skirt. (I now wear an orange hat. It is too easy to blend in with the woods otherwise.)

I pass the community garden and see frozen tomatoes on the shrunken vine and several stalks of brussel sprouts someone didn't bother to harvest. Why grow food when you're not going to use it or give it away? A garbage pail overflows. The pond is nearly frozen. The sky is gray and dreary. The snow is now coming down thick and I am not wearing boots. But I know where to go and if my neighbors don't assault me for cutting through the edges of their properties I can get safely home. This time.

I've been relatively lucky in my life but I know a time is coming when I might not be able to take these winter walks, or take care of my house or take care of MH and myself. I am hoping these brisk, restless walks keep that time at bay for as long as possible.