Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010

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

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Family Time

It is a pleasant day for early July, and I am on my patio with my binoculars. Behind me, I hear my neighbor walking around her yard with her two little girls. She will soon give birth to her third child.

Unlike humans, who can conceive and give birth any time of the year, the birds are limited to a short period after they have migrated north to their breeding grounds in the spring but before they must leave for their southern feeding areas in the fall.

Jay (Margo D. Beller)
So now, in early July, even though the house wren box is empty, the yard is full of calling birds again. This time, it is noisy families of titmice, house sparrows, fish crows and blue jays.

With all the feeding activity, whether it is an adult going back and forth to a nest or being followed by hungry, raucous young, there are plenty of opportunities for birders to get out there and find something again.

Even the wrens are not completely gone - coming back up the driveway after putting the garbage can at the curb the other day, I saw several little birds poking between the paving blocks by the front door. One flew past me to a nearby bush. It was a house wren. Its parents have already taught it to stop begging loudly because it is no longer protected in the box but out in the open.

Today the apple tree has been visited several times by squirrels, and I have had to clean up after them. It is a temptation to knock down more apples but I still have too many that must be used soon. So I sit in my folding chair and watch as a noisy flock of jays goes into the trees to peck the apples for a cool drink or pick bugs off the apples and leaves. These big birds don't have to worry about danger as much as the small wrens and, like their cousins the crows, they call loudly to each other and stay in a flock. For the most part, they feed themselves. But when one parent gives a juvenile some food, they all rush to the tree branch and beg before the parent flies off and they go back to the apple tree and then to the next yard.

In the past I have seen grackles and both kinds of crows - fish and American - hitting the tree for the same reason as the jays. The squirrels are a little leery of these bigger birds but, despite some hesitation, they go up and the apples come down, some so ripe they fall uneaten for me to collect. Were the wrens still in the box I'd be more concerned because big birds will eat baby birds.

(courtesy of Mike Anderson, director, Scherman Hoffman)
Catbirds are flying around, a cardinal is calling and a speckled young robin, its breast in the process of turning red, is poking the ground around the lilac. Downy woodpeckers, the young male's red head spot not completely filled in, are calling to each other as they explore the bark of the various trees. I watch one in a hemlock and see that, unfortunately, the wooly adelgid is doing its destructive work again for the first time in years. In hot, dry summers this fungus is kept down but after all the rains this season, it is back and will literally suck the life out of the hemlocks unless I spray them with oil, a messy and time-consuming process.

Hummingbirds are also coming to the yard. At the moment there are two females, one rather dusky and fidgety, the other with a shiny green back and clear white breast. Until I looked at her with my binoculars today, the lighting of her head made her look like a male with a dark, ruby-red chin. This hummer comes to the feeder and sits to eat. You don't realize how long a hummingbird's tongue is until you watch her with binoculars and see the light rippling of the liquid below from her tongue lapping at it.

Both she and the dusky one - who hovers over the feeder, her wings going a mile a minute as she feeds - have nests somewhere but not in the apple tree, although I've occasionally seen one fly there to rest and preen when the squirrels are taking a break from their raids.

I've seen a hummer nest only once, and that was only because I was standing on a bridge over a brook at the Great Swamp and the hummer led me to it. The nest of moss and lichen was at the end of a thin branch hanging over the brook, to keep it safe from predators. She flew in and sat on her eggs. It was a remarkable construction, strong enough to support them now and two or three growing hummers later.

Goldfinch pair (Margo D. Beller)
Finally, I hear a calling male goldfinch. Goldfinches do their nesting later than other birds because they feed their young exclusively with seeds, and it is in the midsummer that thistle and other seeds are ready. If I put out a feeder at all during the summer, it is a thistle sock for the goldfinches. At the moment I have no plans to buy seed but that could change. In the meantime, I'll just sit and listen.

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