Warbling In The Clouds

It is eight o’clock in the morning and my day has peaked. It will not get any better than it is right now. How could it?

After staying up late chatting with a gray tree frog (Hyla versicolor) that wandered into my living room last night, I did not get up until seven this morning—later than I prefer this time of year when the days are lengthening. I donned pants and slippers and walked to the south porch to greet the morning. After pulling third shift without a break, the clouds were enjoying a well-earned rest, lying in the cool grass of the meadow before me. Clouds do that here. When they are tired, they settle down on top of the mountain until, recharged, they lift back up and go on their way. I am fortunate to live in such a place. This morning, I am particularly fortunate for, through the cloud, I hear a birdsong I do not recognize.

My life with birdsongs is like the card game Concentration. There are many familiar birdsong cards, but until I turn them over, I am rarely sure which bird is on the other side. The regulars I recognize. Even if I am unsure of their match, I hear a song, and know its card is in my deck. The song I hear this morning is not one I have been hearing on the farm of late. It is not in my deck, and I am excited. I step back into the house for camera, binoculars, and proper shoes for playing bird concentration.

Back outside, the voice sounds even closer than before, and soon I have it pinpointed near the crown of a holly—a tall tree with dense foliage. My monopod, with camera attached, leans against my shoulder as I direct binoculars towards the sound. All I see is a soup of bright, shiny, spiky green, but I know he is in there somewhere and I keep looking. I am south of the tree. To the north and west, the holly merges with pear trees that are both dark and dense. There is no good angle on that side. I have half the tree to work with and slip around to the east where I see something move. I re-position. Back and forth between binoculars, camera, and naked eye, moving right and left, I listen, and look, and listen, and look.

A flash of yellow, black, white confirms my suspicion that the song is from a warbler. The bird disappears for a moment, then hops towards the light. I raise binoculars, and he moves quickly out of sight. However fleeting, my visual contact was enough. Magnolia warbler. A handsome devil, he sports thin white eyeliner to match his thick white wing bar. A smart black neckerchief is set off by bold yellow throat and breast that is defined by broken black longitudinal stripes on either side. A gray cap completes his ensemble and proves he is a gentleman ready for the ball. I want a better look!

Cloudy morning in holly.jpg
A Handsome Warbler

Along with many warbler species, magnolias are merely passing through on their way from their wintering grounds in Central America to breeding grounds in Canada. Many seasoned birders have probably seen many magnolia warblers by this time in their migration. These are not rare or unusual birds, and I suspect they are rather routine for them—species to be checked off their lists, not worthy of dallying. The birders’ list is long, and the season is short. There are rare species, unexpected visitors to be tracked down, firsts of the year, the county, the state, life. These take precedent, I understand. What time is there to just stand and stare at a bird that has been checked off already when others await? Progress must go on, and so must they. On to the next species.

I am not a good birder, though. I recognize very few songs, and keep no life list, and have to keep field guide at hand if I am to identify what I see. This was a rare migratory bird for me, in that I was able to identify it without the book. (Though I looked it up later to confirm.) Without a list to fill, my goal is simple. Having found this bird, I want to be with it, to watch it, to listen, to soak in its sweet, sweet song, to marvel at its paint job, to observe its behavior for as long as I can. I kneel in the saturated grass, and adjust my support, tilting the camera in the direction of the warbler. It sings, and I see it through the leaves, head back, beak open, seeming to delight in the morning as much I delight in him. Too obscured for a photo, I just watch. Right now, I don’t need to capture him. I have him!

Smiling from my chest, I watch him hop about until he comes back into full view. The angle is not good, nor is the light, but I snap a couple photos I know will not be of high quality before he disappears again. This time, when he disappears, he does not return. I stay, circle the tree, listen, scan, but all is silent. All is still.

A bird flies over my shoulder displaying a flash of yellow. My handsome warbler? No, this bird is larger, his flight more labored—an eastern meadowlark. I follow, keeping my eyes on the slow, undulating flight until he lands in the top of a Leyland cypress at the edge of the property. I stop a hundred yards short and listen to his song as I scan for the best approach through the tall, wet grass. As I ponder, he turns, takes to wing, and is quickly out of sight.

Distant Meadowlark
Distant Meadowlark Sings In the Cloud

I wander back towards the holly, listening for the magnolia warbler song, or any other unfamiliar voice to explore, but I hear only the regulars—a game of concentration I might be able to win. I could easily spend my morning with the usual suspects, but I have work to do, so I head back to the house. As I walk through the thinning cloud, I float on the memory of a moment shared with a little yellow and black and white bird who I will not put on a list, and who has ensured my day cannot get any better!

Cranes on the Platte

A small red light flashed over my head, signaling one of our guides to tap me on the shoulder. “Time to put away the camera,” he said in a hushed voice. For a couple hours we had huddled quietly in a simple wooden structure roughly the size and shape of a school bus with open, square, paneless windows on three sides that let in a cold breeze. Greeting our ears through those windows, were the primordial bugles of tens of thousands of long-legged birds. The late conservationist Aldo Leopold described the sound of sandhill cranes as a combination of tinkling little bells, the baying of deep-throated hounds, and the far clear blasts of hunting horns, “a pandemonium of trumpets, rattles, croaks, and cries that almost shake the bog with its nearness,” but Leopold never saw this many cranes in the great marsh near his farm in Wisconsin. In the nineteen-forties Leopold estimated there to be fewer than 100 cranes in that whole state, while here on the Platte River near Kearney, Nebraska, innumerable birds spread out over hundreds of river miles.

Now, after decades of water diversion for agriculture has rendered the river overgrown with ash and cottonwood, it is no longer an inch deep, a mile wide, and perfect for roosting. Most of the river is no longer provides safe refuge for migrating cranes to spend their nights, but thanks to the Audubon Society’s management of a small section of the river prioritized for bird habitat, bird watchers enjoy the concentration of nearly a half-million cranes packed into fifty river miles. On either side of the river corridor, acres of corn and the occasional remnant of wet meadow provide food during the day within a short flight of safe roosting ground.

Sunset cranes 3

Standing three-and-a-half feet tall, dressed in drab gray feathers and wearing bright red crowns, sandhill cranes are nothing if not majestic, but in spite of our best efforts, they had evaded close photographing this evening. Even with the giant lens on my camera, they stayed far enough from our blind to allow for only large flock photos. Sunlight now faded, they are close, but my camera cannot gather enough light, and soon it will soon be time for us to go.

Before the light escaped, we witnessed flock after flock taking off from their feeding grounds on the horizon to form living black clouds against a thin strip of orange beneath a heavy gray sky. As they rose, each nebulous form undulated like a raucous, colorless aurora borealis, twisting and folding into itself across the sky until another cloud, lifting from another wet meadow or corn field, folded into it. These great clouds divide, string out along the river, and settle by the thousands onto sandbars and shallows. Shoulder to shoulder, they find safety from predators in their isolation from the shore. But on this evening, the shallows in front of our blind are some of the last to be inhabited, and now it is dark. Through binoculars, I see faded, ghostly images continuing the rich, dense chorus, and I chuckle at the contrast between our respectfully hushed whispers and their incessant, guttural squawking.

After warming my hands in my pockets for a few minutes, I put the cap back on my lens.

* * *

We are in the blind before sunrise on a piercingly cold morning. My gloves and scarf missed the flight west, and my face and hands skipped over cold, jumping quickly to numb.

Like the night before, a large majority of the birds were in the air while there was not yet enough light to make use of my camera, and as the sun finally crept onto the horizon over my right shoulder, I nervously checked the red light, hoping to get the go-ahead to shoot while there were still cranes in front of me. Until the light turned amber, my camera would remain off as thousands of cranes at a time lept into the air, flapped wings stretching six feet from tip to tip, and circled above the river. Some groups eased back down again, deciding that whatever threat had set them off—a far off eagle perhaps, or a coyote on the shore—was not sufficiently threatening to warrant relocation. Most disappeared, heading to their favorite dining spots where, over their brief stay on the Platte, they will increase their body weight by twenty percent to fuel their migration north to nesting grounds ranging from the Grand Tetons to the far reaches of Alaska and Siberia beyond.

Landing Crane 2

By the time I get the nod to begin shooting, I am unable to feel my shutter button, and my cheeks and mouth are too numb to speak, but I am undeterred, and focus my lens on a few hundred birds directly in front of my window. As the light grows, I am constantly monitoring ISO, shutter speed, and f-stop, adjusting to maintain the fastest shots possible. My goal is to stop birds in flight as they take off a couple at a time.

In a few weeks these birds will be ritually engaged in courtship dancing—jumping, flapping, spinning, and throwing sticks over their shoulders—but the season is still too early for that behavior, and I settle for cranes standing, taking off, flying, and landing.

Cranes in Flight 2-4

As the light grows I notice a few birds with splotchy iron-colored stains from last year’s breeding season. When it comes time for building this year’s nests, adult birds will cover as much of their plumage as they can reach with iron-rich mud, staining their feathers the reddish-tan color of an old baseball mitt. Leopold noted in his essay Marshland Elegy that early settlers called the cranes “red shitepokes” for this artificial coloring, but on this spring equinox, most of the birds are still a light milky-gray that does not catch the golden sunrise in quite the same way as they will after their wardrobe change.

Forty-five minutes prior to our scheduled departure, one of our guides whispers that if anyone wants to escape the cold, we can head back early. When fingers fail to respond to repeated requests to retrieve my lens cap from my pocket, the decision is made. As we made the quarter mile walk to hot cocoa, my face was frozen and numb, and I can’t be certain, but I think I was smiling.

Cranes in Flight 7-1

 

Super Flappin’ Tuesday

I was up early on March 1, 2016, and at the polling place just after the doors opened at 7:00. Super Tuesday was underway and I was proud to kick it off!

Those who know me well are aware that I have been particularly engaged and involved in this primary election – volunteering locally for Bernie Sanders, speaking at rallies and to the media, going door-to-door. So by the time I pulled the lever, I was ready to give the campaigning a bit of a rest for a while.

Later that morning, I stood in the kitchen watching a couple woodpeckers while I cut bacon strips from a pork belly. As the grits simmered, and the bacon and eggs fried, I continued watching whatever birds came to the feeding station. When I sat down at the kitchen table with laptop and breakfast, I logged-in to Facebook, and posted this:

9:42 My early exit polling suggests that among pine siskins and goldfinches, black oil sunflower is the hands-down favorite. The woodpeckers are split evenly between suet and sunflower, with the shorter-billed varieties leaning toward seeds while the longer bills are preferring the suet. Despite early polling that suggested bluebirds would be for the suet, they are currently trending heavily along with the more predictable flycatchers, for live insects. True to form, red-winged blackbirds are staying outside the polling place and shouting at other voters on their way in. The crow party has shown up several times to vote, but gotten jittery and left before casting a ballot. Turnout among the sparrows has been generally low. White-throats and songs are turning out in small numbers, but there is not enough data to suggest a trend. Once again, despite early talk, the warblers do not seem to be voting at all. It is still too early to say definitively, but I expect black oil sunflower to come out on top. When the sisken turn out is high, you can usually count on them carrying the day. Stay tuned.

Eastern Bluebird 1.jpg

A couple minutes later I posted a photo of a downy woodpecker taken that morning, and along with it the words, “Now back to our regularly scheduled programming.” My avian precinct reporting was done and I was ready to get on with the day.

As it turned out, however, the day was not in agreement with how it would be spent. A little red circle had appeared next to my original report with a number 23 in it. Apparently people were both enjoying and commenting on my post.

Just before 10:00, my friend and now corespondent Laurie from Kentucky expressed concerns that the bluejays might intimidate voters at the polling places with their raucous behavior.

Minutes later, Tom from the Atlanta area who would become one of my star reporters, posted this:

10:03 We’ve had a couple counter statistical results here to you south, with siskins firmly on the side of thistle. There seems to an almost 50/50 split among Downy woodpeckers between suet and black sunflower, while Hairies seem to have forgotten what day it is. We’ve had a light scattering of Yellow Rumps and Pine Warblers at the suet. Also, the Siskin crowd has been lightened by the fair weather, but are holding lots of side meetings with the Gold Finches. I expect both groups to show up later in the day and thus causing a huge swing in the statistics at that time. Brown creepers are also supremely disinterested in the whole process, seeming satisfied just to hang around the edges of the polls and eating insects! More later.

Shouting Siskin.jpg

As more comments came in, I followed with these observations:

10:03 There is some data coming in from the chickadee and titmouse precincts suggesting that while they are voting with the sunflower party, they are not following the advice of the siskins and voting early and often, so I do not expect their vote to have a huge impact.

10:46 In a huge surprise, the siskins and goldfinches have completely abandoned the thistle party in NW Georgia. In the Atlanta area, however, reports are coming in that thistlemania is still on. The race between thistle and black oil sunflower is going to be a tight one in Georgia, folks! Stay tuned, it’s gonna be a barn burner! A big thanks goes out to our Atlanta area correspondent Tom for keeping us abreast of the situation down there.

A photo of a woodpecker on a dead stump sent by my friend Chris prompted this post:

10:54 This just in: Tennessee correspondent Chris reports that, as expected, pileated woodpeckers are throwing their support solidly behind beetle larvae. They just might give the adult insect party a run for their money. We’ll have to see if the fly catcher and bluebird turnout remains high and if the tree swallows and martins make it in time to vote. This is an exciting day to be sure!

And so avian election day coverage was born. I decided to encourage more input, suggesting that if folks had data from their bird precincts, I would love for them to be reported to me. Following are some of my posts, as well as comments from others. I’m sure I didn’t get them all, but there is enough to tell a good bit of the story. If there is no other name associated with a post, it is mine.

11:08 In an election day shocker, the grackles have uncommonly thrown the full force of their Top of the Sweet Gum Party against the Poplar Party of the bluejays. I did not expect this one, folks. First off, all indications up until last night were that the blue jays would back the Pear Trees, but no. And who expected the grackles to vote at all in this election! Holy cow, the geese just turned up to vote, too! Predictably, they are in lockstep behind the pond party. I have to say, this is getting more exciting by the hour!

11:26 This just in. In a bizarre twist of interspecies politcs, correspondent Julie has reported that at least one bluebird precinct abandoned the live adult insect party, jumping instead aboard the Bernie Sanders ship. While this is the first time I have heard of birds migrating to into such human political territory, there have been cases of humans voting for bird parties. The most famous of these was back in the mid nineteen-nineties when an entire community of young humans in Humbolt County, CA renounced their species in favor of the sunflower seed party, carrying the county and sweeping seeds, nuts and fruit into office by a landslide.

Bernie Bluebird.jpg

11:55 In an early lunch rush, towhees and song sparrows have lined up behind the tall grass party, and cardinals are en masse voting for sunflower seeds. No surprises there. Meanwhile, the red-winged blackbirds are still refusing to vote, but doing an awful lot of talking.

12:03 Bruce in KY: You can never count on those Pileated Woodpeckers! They just can’t make up their minds – you can tell by how often you see them banging their heads against trees.

12:12 This just in: Correspondent Sherry has reported that in her precinct, both cardinals and cowbirds are flocking to a party that was unknown to me until today. Apparently the Kitchen Window Party is now a front runner in at least one precinct. If that trend continues, we could see the cardinals split between the Kitchen Windows and the Sunflowers, opening a hole for the Atlanta Thistle Party to come from behind and surprise everyone but Tom who has been predicting a thistle win for some time now.

Male on Green.jpg

12:15 I know it sounds crazy, Bruce, but drum-beating is part of the pileated strategy. Nobody ever thought they would make it to Super Tuesday with all that nonsense racket they make. I for one thought they would be seen for the clowns they are, but not only are they still here, they are carrying the Larvae wing of the Insect Party and now it looks like they might triumph over the Adult Insect wing.

12:44 Our first report out of Kentucky from correspondent Janet has the “#%*@ starlings” backing the immigrant-friendly Eaves Party. I suspect the house sparrows will follow their lead. If they turn out in large numbers, they could end up having nearly as much impact as the pine siskins today. We’ll see.

12:49 John in CO: We want peanuts! (Note: I’m not sure if John was speaking on behalf of a particular species when he said this or if, perhaps, his computer was hijacked by flickers.)

12:51 John in CO: Nobody wants millet. (Note: Again, is this John speaking, or have the house finches rebelled, flown off with his i-phone, and begun a protest?)

12:52 In pre-election polls, mourning doves came out in favor of millet, but so far no precincts have reported any doves turning out to vote. I will keep you posted.

12:53 John in CO: I predict that they’ll abandon millet for some nice white safflower. (Note: See above notes…)

1:08 After virtually no turnout this morning, the first representative of the warbler precinct – the pine warbler – has shown up to vote and after careful consideration cast his lot with the Sunflower Party.

Pne Warbler Deck.jpg

1:19 Fawn in the D.C. Area: Black oil sunflower seed is the runaway winner! Suet comes in a close second.

1:31 Tom in GA: Well Jim, we’ve gotten off to a late start here in Central Georgia, but, after noticing increased activity at Niger Thistle poll, this reporter conducted an informal exit poll and came up with a rather disturbing story. Apparently, the Siskin and Goldfinch voters had ALL received information that the voting date had been changed to next week and that a large party with free thistle seed was being held about a mile away in the woods. The apparent source of the bad information, one Debbie cardinalis Schultz has so far failed to return our calls. But, the damage is done now, no investigations are expected, and as a result, Black Oil Sunflower seed has taken the day. This reporter is somewhat discouraged, but will continue to monitor results in other states. #FeeltheThistle!

1:47 Tom in GA: Well Jim, this Election Day has certainly been surprising. Two separate instance of illegal interference with the vote here in Forsyth County has led this observer to think that something less than kosher has been going on! First, in a huge embarrassment to poll watchers, NO SEED was available at the main Black Oil seed poll resulting in extremely low turn out at that location; and, second, and most important, a neighboring cat has been found assaulting voters at the Niger Thistle station! Of course, this has created quite a stir here in Forsyth County and the original poll watchers (as they jokingly refer to themselves) have all been replaced by a more alert crew that seems dedicated to preventing any further incidents of voter interference. There are suspicions circulating that government officials connected to the suet lobby may have been involved and an investigation is now under way. Suet party voters have denied any involvement even though they now have a heavy lead in contest. As word spreads, we expect both Black Oil and Niger voters to return for another try. Stay tuned!

Around 2:30 I had to break from reporting on the bird precincts for a while, but encouraged folks to keep reporting. A handful did.

2:49 Laurie in KY: I think the turn in the weather is going to affect the crowd, except perhaps the ducks, who are not put off by the rain. The ducks are still out voting for the pond.

4:47 Sharon in FL: I have the fish crows here saying nuh uh to everything. Nothing makes them happy.

7:03 Nannette in TN: Low turnout in my precinct; repaired the newest of the voting machines with duct tape. I think the voters are having a hard time feeling comfortable voting since the poll workers (squirrels) are a bit bullish, as they broke the machine to begin with. Using a new ballot as well, it looked fancier, but has not helped lure more voters. I am thinking that the voters have lost trust in the system.

7:15 Fawn in DC: Tufted Titmouses, longtime Independents, have recently joined with the Chickadees. Although small in numbers, these cousins are fiercely passionate about the black oil sunflower seed platform. Their chatter is distinctive and rings out like a clarion call for being true to one’s beliefs.

dining titmouse.jpg

Despite every intention to offer a complete wrap-up and analysis the next morning, I offered only this one last post:

11:11 It was a long, sometimes crazy, unpredictable day in the bird primaries yesterday. Reports from precincts all over the country continued to come in late into the day, right up until dark. Only one precinct reported after dark, that being the barred owl precinct which turned out heavily to vote. They were quite vocal in asking each other who would be cooking for them, but I never heard any of them speak to what was cooking, so where their votes fell is undetermined…

Several commenters said they were looking forward to following the next election on my FB page, others thanked my ad hoc news team for making the day a little more bearable, and there are still other comments occasionally trickling in a week later. I hope readers enjoy looking back at our Super Tuesday avian primary as much as we enjoyed experiencing it together. I regularly question why I still have a Facebook account, but special days like these are likely to keep me on board… at least a little while longer.

Note 1: Special thanks goes out to my friend Avery who is  encouraging my blogging, and was rather insistent that folks would enjoy reading this post, in particular. If you didn’t like it, comment below, and I will give you an address where you can send her hate mail.

Note 2: All photos are by me from my kitchen except for the bluebird on the Bernie sign that was sent to me by Chattanooga correspondent Julie.

The Left Wing of a Chickadee

There is much to love about the snow–tracks to follow across a clean landscape, the crisp cold that comes with the season, the romance of a day free from work to sip something hot and read a book… But it is the quiet that is most appealing to me. And there is no better time for quiet than early morning darkness. I miss these things when not on the farm but fortunately, this Saturday morning, I am on the farm!

I was thinking of these two things–quiet and darkness–at 6:00 this morning, as I awaited, ironically, first light that would not come for another hour. Some mornings I will set out before light, but not today. On this morning, I wanted light. After missing so much activity during the dark hours, I relish a fresh coat of snow to reveal the movements of deer, fox, possum, raccoon, and whomever else is making the rounds while I sleep.

When 7:00 came, and the light was just beginning to emerge, I turned on the radio to keep me company as I chose my layers for a chilly morning. Before long, I was back in bed, half dressed, and sitting up, listening. I should have known better than to trust NPR at that hour on a Saturday. The Living On Earth broadcast always finds a way to pique my interest, but this morning they seemed to be listening in on my very thoughts when they began a segment on darkness. And this as I watched the morning creep softly through the trees to the farm through my bedroom window.

Things were neither dark nor quiet when finally I set out around 8:00, first to the mailbox, then around the perimeter of the property. Overnight, a strong wind had swept in on the heels of the storm that blanketed us in snow, and frozen trees bowed and creaked under it’s force. Hands buried in the pockets of my down sweater, a cup of coffee and a pancake were sounding better and better, and I cut around the near side of the pond to shorten my route.

A handful of small birds fled to the shadows beneath the pussy willow where I had no chance of making their acquaintance. A less timid chickadee crossed my path, landing briefly in the maple tree, before moving on to the vineyard. As she took flight, another movement in the tree caught my eye. Clearly not a bird, but the size of a chickadee, something fluttered in the wind. My only thought was that a piece of plastic must have snagged on a twig as it made its way to the Pacific Ocean where, as I understand it, plastic bags choose to retire.

Exposing my hands to the cold, I lifted the camera to my eye for a closer look. I was right about three things: it was the size of a chickadee, it was snagged on a twig, and it was fluttering. It was not plastic. A chickadee had somehow managed to get a primary flight feather stuck between two small twigs and had bent the shaft nearly to the point of breaking. Wing outstretched, the little bird was struggling to free itself, and clearly nervous about the attention I was giving her.

DSC_0812

I snapped a couple of quick photos without taking the time to think about exposure or composition, then ran to the house for gloves and a ladder. With that, I should be able to reach a large limb below the chickadee, and from their, I should be able to free her. Not knowing the extend of damage to her wing, or whether or not she would be able to fly, I grabbed a second scarf to wrap her in, in case I needed to take her back to the house with me, then ran, ladder in hand, back to the maple.

As I approached, a chickadee took flight from a limb ten feet from the stuck bird. I wondered if this was a companion come back to check on her, but further investigation suggested that it might have been the stuck bird, herself, as there was no sign of bird or feather where she had been entrapped. Relieved, I returned the ladder and continued my walk.

DSC_0814The thermometer on the barn read 20 degrees, and snow was blowing in my face as I made my way along the creek. In the woods, cardinals stood out against a stark backdrop. A thrush flushed downstream and I tucked into the lee of a large poplar to wait for it to move again. My focus on the smaller bird, left me completely unaware of a much larger bird between us, and I startled when the red-shouldered hawk took off from the near bank of the creek and escaped past me by only a few feet. I tried to settle in and wait for the thrush to move, but the woods-bending wind swirling around the tree suggested I move on.

As I had been all along, I scanned the snow for tracks, but between the heavy wind and the lightness of the snow, whomever was about in the darkness had left no discernible evidence for me to follow, so I headed for the house and pancakes.

I suspect the snow will still be around tomorrow morning, and with any luck perhaps the wind will have moved on. If so, perhaps I will not turn on the radio, will get out a little earlier, and will enjoy some dark quiet Sunday morning. As for the rest of this morning, I plan on a cup of coffee, a pancake, and some feeder watching–keeping my eye out for a certain little chickadee with an odd left wing who will have no idea of my plan to save her.

Mysterious Southern Winter

Less than week ago, at 7:10 a.m. as the first light of the day was creeping onto the mountain, I laid on my back in the cold, wet stubble of a bush-hogged field on the north end of the property. Drawn there by a raspy, staccato voice from across the farm, I hurried, silently, crouching low from tree to tree until hidden behind the shiitake logs beneath the old apple tree. From there, the call was loud, and close. Meep, meep, meep… I waited.

When the hoarse, nasal call surrendered to a soft, ghostly fluttering, I ran to the cedar on the edge of the field and tucked myself in tight and listened. Wshha, wshha, wshha, wshha… Rising in broad circles from the earth, the gentle whisper was almost lost in the sky, before diving rapidly, finishing the dance in a faster, flutelike rhythm. Watching intently for a glimpse, I caught sight of him just as he landed. Again, I waited.
He turned, sending out his beckon in all directions. Meep, meep, meep, meep…
Wshha, wshha, wshha, wshha…

I sprinted fifty feet into the open and stopped, dropped to the ground and froze lying face up. The cold wet quickly wicked through cotton to skin, but I resisted shivering.

Wshha, wshha, wshha, wshha…

The woodcock landed 15 feet to my right and began again…

*    *     *

This morning is different. The ground crunches underfoot, and limbs, coated in a thin, shiny varnish creek sharply under the diminutive weight of titmice eager to be first at the feeders.

I walk out to the woodcock field expecting nothing, and my expectations are met. At the cedar, everything is still and I do not tarry long. I pause to photograph the heavy ice coating the naked blueberry canes, but the light is not yet sufficient without a tripod.
Circling east, I wander and listen. A yellow-bellied sap sucker is calling from the lower meadow, her single fluid almost hawk-like notes pierce a thin fog. At my approach, she flies to a maple tree and begins to rap.

A menagerie of birds scatter from the feeders as I turn back to the house where the grits are cooking.

*    *     *

This is what I love about winter in North Georgia. Last week I heard bullfrogs, earlier this week, woodcock. Now, a few days later, the trees are coated with ice. The season is a mystery as likely to produce mushrooms as snow.

By this afternoon, the ice will be gone and tomorrow it will rain. Then, this weekend, I will rise early once more and listen. Aldo Leopold waited until April to experience the predictable, seasonal sky dance in Wisconsin. Perhaps there is a greater reward in the wait, but I like the thrill of knowing that even in January I can walk out my door at daybreak, lie down in a soggy field, and know that maybe I will be graced with the company of a woodcock, or maybe I will just end up wet and cold. Either way, it will be time well spent. And, either way, I will have grits waiting for me in the kitchen. I doubt Leopold had that.

Taxation Without Representation

     I do not own the eleven acre tract I inhabit. The tax burden of the land falls on someone else. I mow, prune and garden, repair pipes when they freeze and tractors when they break down. I am fortunate to call this little plot my home in exchange for my meager services.

There are others who make a trade for residence as well. Some make exchange with the land, like the deer who dine on apples in the fall and maintain narrow roads along two borders, the red-shouldered hawk who hunts the edge of the woods and sometimes visits the persimmon tree by the house, the black racer who shares the barn with the eastern phoebe who is no doubt nervous about her roommate. In the winter, yellow-bellied sapsuckers, pileated woodpeckers and robins delight in the frost-softened fruit of the bradford pear trees along the driveway, while waxwings spar with a mockingbird for holly berries.

There are other residents who make their exchange with me. These, too, are mostly birds. For a few dollars a month, I provide a steady diet of sunflower and other seeds. For these snacks (which they would be just fine without), I receive the pleasure of their company. Titmice, chickadees, and a red-bellied woodpecker are regulars to the feeders, while juncos reliably dine below.  This morning a small flock of pine siskins fill the perches, a brown thrasher hops in and out of sight at the edge of the deck, white-throated and song sparrows are heard, and occasionally seen on the margins, and a pair of bluejays nervously hop about the canopy, eyeing the delights below.

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Pine siskins on the porch rail.

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Carolina wren investigating bird feeder.

    At night, a grey fox, a fat silvery possum, and two juvenile raccoons come around just as predictably as I toss venison bones and small food scraps from the deck.

None of these cohabitants hold deed to the land, and none of them seem interest in doing so. Not even the giant pileated whose rambunctious laughs would be inappropriate anywhere other than in one’s own home, or the family of crows who do not seem to possess an “inside voice” seem content squatting here and there.

Other than me, only one resident of the farm carries on as if he own the place. And, though neither of us are on the county tax records, he surely has a  more legitimate claim. If the inside of the house is my claim, the outer perimeter is most certainly that of the Carolina wren. He knows every crevice and cubby hole, every perch, every spider web, every hiding place, and exactly which stages best project his voice to which corners of the theater.

In the morning, just to make sure I haven’t slept in, a hemlock branch projects his voice through my bedroom window. Wake-up-now, Wake-up-now, Wake-up-now, Wake-up-now! he chides.

Early afternoon he lingers near the back door, calling to me from atop the galvanized cans that house the birdseed. Aware of the siskins voracity, he instructs me: Feed-the-birds, Feed-the-birds, Feed-the-birds! If the weather is warm, and the door open, he will sometimes fly in, lighting on the back of the bow-armed chair in the living room. From there, he has no doubt about the effective delivery of his demand.

Mid to late afternoon, the front porch is his performance hall. This is where he calls in the ladies to show off all his potential nest beds. The old rusty lantern hanging in the corner is a favorite. I wrapped barbed wire around it to mimic a nest and provide a platform which he seems quite fond of. He lights in the steel nest, his potential future mate before him on the porch rail or one of the rocking chairs. He sings first to her: Looky-here, Looky-here, Looky-here! Then through the large window he shows off to me: Look-at-her, Look-at-her, Look-at-her, Look-at-her!

In the evening, he chooses one of several trees just north of the house and sings to all who would hear. No matter where I am on the property, I enjoy his final performance of the day. His call is more varied then, and less predictable, but usually he says something like, Heavenly, Heavenly, Heavenly, Heaven! or Hear-me-sing, Hear-me-sing, Hear-me! This is the time for celebration of all that is his place and life.

I envy the stout little bird in his handsome cinnamon coat, with the finely-checked tail and arching white eyestripe. His ownership of the farm, passed down for scores or perhaps hundreds of generations is challenged by none, and no tax burden accompanies his claim. His proclamations of ownership only serve to brighten the realm for all who would visit.

The wren and I are lucky to share this place–both blessed by ownership without deed, representation without taxation. I am made wealthier by his song, and perhaps in some small way, he is enriched by my audience.

Woodpecker Morning

    A pileated woodpecker called from the southwest, his voice punching through a cacophony of crows somewhere not too deep in the woods. It was midmorning and I was meandering around the farm. Camera in hand, I was not acting like a bird photographer. Listening, walking, stopping occasionally for some sparrow or another, but not stalking, not hiding, not waiting.
Pileated woodpeckers are residents at the farm, and I hear them daily. One of these days I will set my sights on getting a good photograph of one, but that takes work and I was not of a mind for work this morning.
Circling around the old vineyard, I paused to watch a couple cardinals.  A sparrow disappeared into the overgrown vines before I could get a good look, and I moved on.
By the time I reached the small pasture below the house, the voices of crows and woodpeckers were replaced by the smaller, raspy notes of tufted titmice and Carolina chickadees celebrating a mother lode of sunflower seeds in the feeders. Soon, there would be fifty pine siskins dominating the scene, but for now it was all theirs.
Breakfast was past due, and I turned toward a break in the fence that would allow entrance to the yard, but before I made it to the fencerow, another voice stopped me. At first, I thought it was the red-shouldered hawk I had seen earlier in the morning. Then it called again. No hawk. It was clearly a yellow-bellied woodpecker–another regular around the farm. Just as I spotted her in a small maple by the fence, she bid me her leave. I watched her swoop over the house and out of sight, and my mind went back to breakfast.
Having been in the sun, the shade of the porch chilled me slightly, and I decided to make a late pot of coffee. I set the camera on the piano and turned toward the kitchen, but in doing so, I saw something move in the old tree in the middle of the narrow pasture along the road. It was too far to see clearly, but the dark silhouette and jerky movement up the trunk suggested the yellow-belly.
Camera in hand I snuck out the back door, careful to hide myself in the shadow of the holly. Close enough for a long shot, I raised the camera in time to see the yellow-belly disappear around the trunk of the tree. I lowered the camera but continued to watch. Something moved on a large, low branch and I lifted the camera again. There he is, I thought. No, it can’t be. Unless the she had magically become a he, this was a different bird. I crept a little closer, keeping out of sight behind a small cedar.

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    I lifted the camera to my eye again. He was still there. And so was she. And so was he. And so was he! Four yellow-bellies were on the same limb! They were too far for a good shot, and in the shadows, but I fired off a few anyway and managed to get three of them in one shot before they flew to one of the pear trees along the driveway.
Perfectly hidden behind a clump of trees, I quickly moved in close, and soon I had all four of them within shooting distance. At times they shared limbs, at other times they played chase.
If you like birds, this is a great time of year for having bradford pear trees. Frost softens the hard, woody fruit, making it edible–and apparently delicious–for a variety of birds. The longer I sat in the shadows, the more birds came in. A flock of robins and several cardinals moved through the canopy, but I stayed focused on the yellow-bellies who kept me on my toes. Rarely staying in one place for long, they circled me, chasing, feeding, chasing some more.
A mockingbird fiercely defended one of the trees, never allowing the woodpeckers more than a brief light on his territory. Oddly, he didn’t mind sharing with robins, but there were to be no woodpeckers.
I heard a pileated call again and looked up to see a male crossing the field to the far end of the drive, no doubt in search of the same reward his smaller cousins enjoyed.
Eventually, the yellow-bellies moved a couple trees away putting too much canopy between us for a shot. Slowly, I crept around the trunk I had been leaning on, hoping to make it a little closer without spooking them. With my focus in the direction of my prey I had not seen the other bird fly in, and as soon as I stepped into the open, a female pileated laughed and took off from a tree not twenty feet away. Who knows how long she had been there…
I took a few more steps down the drive, spooking the male pileated from his tree. The yellow-bellies were nowhere to be seen, and I kicked myself. A little patience would have likely rewarded me.
Hungrier than ever, I walked back to the house and set down the camera for the second time. A familiar call turned my attention to the kitchen window. I looked out the window to see my resident male red-belly bracing with his tail to retrieve a sunflower seed from the feeder. For a moment, I looked at the camera, but I was too hungry. It was time for lunch.

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Photos of yellow-bellied sapsuckers from top to bottom:

1. Male and female sharing a tree trunk.
2. Male in sunlight on small trunk.
3. Close-up of male.
4. Male perched, female in flight.
5. Two males, one female from a distance.
6. Silhouetted male.

Long-lasting Love Affairs

A bluejay squawked from the tree line, giving me pause before entering the barn. As I scanned the woods for flashes of blue and white, a pair of chickadees flitted past, landing in the vineyard. Further in the distance, a pileated woodpecker hammered away… I will pause almost any job to watch or listen to almost any bird, and I never regret the distractions or the lost work time.

Back on track, walked inside the barn where I opened and closed a toolbox drawer, startling a cat that had been hiding in the back room. We see each other around the farm frequently, and share a mutual dislike for one another. I do not know why the cat dislikes me. Perhaps he senses how I feel about him. It is not personal. I dislike all house cats. Inside, they trigger my allergies. Outside, they kill songbirds.

In fact, a recent Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute study found free-ranging domestic cats to be the killers of 1.3–4.0 billion birds annually, the majority of which are natives. And a National Geographic article last year called house cat “the greatest source of human-related bird mortality in the country.”

As the barn cat streaked past me and out the door I offered a toothless warning in the form of a hiss. As usual, he did not stop to converse.

The pruning shears I had been hunting in the barn remained AWOL, so during my afternoon farmers market run I stopped in the hardware store for new ones. On my way through the store I thought about the cat, and checked out the live traps. I have trapped cats before. It isn’t difficult. But once you have them, you have to do something with them. Neutering and releasing doesn’t solve the predation problem, and feral cats are not viable candidates for adoption. As I see it, that leaves two options: Let them live and continue their bird-killing ways… or not.

I left the traps, bought my shears, and headed home. The sun was setting and the western sky awash with bold pinkish orange when I topped the mountain. It was dusk when I stopped the truck in front of the house.

* * *

The truck door was still open and I was leaning back inside, reaching for the milk cooler, when a sound caught my attention. Leaving the task at hand, I turned around and looked to the sky. I hear a lot of calls on the farm, but this was not one of the usual suspects.

That single peent, heard from inside the truck, might not have been much to go on, but it was distinct. My immediate thought (be it a fleeting one) was common nighthawk, but never had I heard a nighthawk in Georgia while wearing a heavy wool coat.

A second call confirmed that this was something different, something on the ground… and close by. Best I could tell, it was coming from just beyond the apple trees across the driveway.

Meep… Meep… Meep…

Aldo Leopold would have noted the exact time, the interval, and the number of calls, but I was too excited to think about checking my watch or counting.

As the calls kept coming, my certainty grew. It Couldn’t it be anything else, I thought… But it’s February. And I’m in Georgia…

Meep… Meep… Meep…

I continued to listen, trying to convince myself that this was anything other than the obvious–a tiny raspy tenor calling out his single notes, one after another, turning his body to send out the message in all directions, to all possible mates.

A pause of perhaps a minute left me listening intently, but coming up empty. Then a new sound brought irrefutable confirmation. Softly whistling wings lifted a stout, nearly tailless body over the trees. There was no mistaking it. An American woodcock flew directly over my head, barely high enough to clear the house behind me followed by a lasting silence.

An American woodcock!

* * *

I have watched birds my entire life, and there is not a single species I do not enjoy. A few of them, I have fallen in love with. My first family of Harris’ hawks who I watched hunting together like a wolf pack in the Arizona desert stole my heart instantly. I met my first American dipper at the bottom of Grand Canyon and was mesmerized by this strange little songbird who bobbed about in the stream before diving like a loon after insects. A lone Lewis’ woodpecker in Central California who looked so unlike any woodpecker I had ever seen that the spot on the map where I met her is ingrained in my memory. The first sandhill crane I encountered was on the Snake River in Wyoming–two adults and a colt. I challenge anybody to spend a few minutes with such a family in the wild and not be smitten. Winter wrens in Redwood National Park, shrikes and burrowing owls in Arizona, northern harriers and loggerhead shrikes in Georgia, nighthawks and kinglets in Tennessee… So many love affairs, all of which have easily outlived the longest of my human romances…

But only one bird have I fallen in love with before ever laying eyes or ears on her.

I was in my late teens when I first read A Sand County Almanac and discovered Aldo Leopold’s American woodcock. The annual sky dance, predictable enough to set his watch by, captured my imagination such that when I finally saw the ritual for the first time ten years later, I was at first convinced that I had seen it before.

The courtship ritual of the male woodcock is quite the spectacle. These short-legged shorebirds of the forest call out their meeps (Leopold called them peents) spaced about every two seconds, then take off, spiraling into the sky, the twittering of the wings growing ever louder as the spirals tighten until the bird is out of sight. But his is not the end, as if shot out of the sky, the birds practically fall back to the same spot to begin the ritual once more.

According to Leopold, “The show begins on the first warm evening in April at exactly 6:50 p.m. The curtain goes up exactly one minute later each day until 1 June. This sliding scale is dictated by vanity, the dancer demanding a romantic light intensity of exactly 0.05 foot-candles. Do not be late, and sit quietly, lest he fly away in a huff.”

I have no idea of the foot-candles of light on the farm that evening, but I have a hard time not believing in the romantic motivations of the woodcock. And hearing that call so unexpectedly, seeing the usually elusive bird not only in these parts, but at my front door, caused my heart to beat little harder and a little faster, and a delighted smile to cross my face.

It also made me a little bit lonely. Not because I longed for romance as I listened to his call for a mate, but because I wanted somebody–anybody–to see and be as delighted as I was. I wanted somebody else to experience such a magical moment. But when I called a friend later that evening, and then another, I could hear clearly in their voices that, as happy as they were for me, had either of those friends been there with me, they would have appreciated it, but their hearts would not have fluttered. This moment was mine, and in the end I was pleased to have been alone, and to have a quiet house to which I could return for a glass of scotch and a place to write.

Last night’s bird was not my first Georgia woodcock. I saw one last year on the next ridge over, but that was a silent bird, deep in the woods, huddled and camouflaged in leaf litter, far from any trail or open space.

I had previously experienced The sky dance and the accompanying meeps in several states north of Georgia from Maryland to Minnesota, and because the timing of those experiences fell pretty much in line with Leopold’s schedule, I had always assumed that there and then, and only there and then, is when the woodcock dances. After all, It is a mating thing, and that means spring, right?

So, when I moved from the Midwest to the South, I let yet another avian love affair become a long distance one. As with dippers, Lewis’ woodpeckers, and Harris’ Hawks, I would remember them fondly… and move on.

* * *

With the excitement of the woodcock over way too soon, I turned to the internet for some answers, and found a US Forest Service study stating that “Male American woodcocks begin displaying on wintering grounds sometimes as early as December when weather is warm, and continue displaying during spring migration and upon arrival on breeding grounds.”

I also found out that there are overlapping migrations and here, in Northwest Georgia, I am in the overlap where we can get them coming, going, or in some cases, hanging around year round.

But as is so often the case, this silver lining had a touch of gray. That USFS study also corroborated what I  learned from National Geographic: A major predator of woodcocks, whose populations are declining in much of their habitat, is house cats.

This morning, on my walk to the vineyard I was thinking about the numbers: 1.3–4.0 billion birds annually, when I ran across several tufts of bluejay feathers just outside the greenhouse. There was no proof, but the story was easy to guess.

This evening I sat on the porch from sunset until dark and listened, but my woodcock did not return.

Tomorrow I will do some more work in the vineyard and once again I will be ready shortly after sunset to listen from the porch.

Without proof, I have no way of guessing if my woodcock was simply passing through, if he has a peenting ground he prefers to mine, or if he met an untimely demise.

Of course my hope is that he is off peenting on another stage, to another audience, and that one of these evenings he might drop back in for a visit. In the mean time, I will do my part to make the theater in the orchard as safe as possible for his return, and a little safer for the bluejays, too.

You can see the woodcock dancing and peenting, then hear it’s whistling flight as it takes off in this youtube video by Lang Elliott.

 

The Hermit and The Thrush

He doesn’t show up in the yard all that often, but I have a soft spot for the little brown thrush with the spotted breast. He lights on a low limb outside the window, never for very long, then disappears. Brown thrashers, eastern towhees, and song sparrows all like the leaf litter I leave in the yard for them, but the little hermit thrush pays only a short visit, has his look about, then retreats back to the forest. A hermit, indeed.

A couple years ago, I sold a house in Chattanooga, moved short term to a friend’s farm, then on to a small rented cabin in the woods for a year, before returning to the edge of town. Upon leaving I announced my intention to begin a process of hermitification.

“That’s not a word,” certain friends would say.

“But you understand it’s meaning?”

Whether they believed it the best thing for me, or even understood my true intentions, most understood at least the meaning of the word on it’s face. I wished to get out and away. Maybe for a little while, maybe for a long while. I did not intend to disappear, rather to have a place where I could hide out when I didn’t care to be surrounded by people–something I find myself desiring more and more these days. Turns out, just under two years from my departure, I was back.

Now I sit in the flighty warmth of a drafty old house on the edge town and watch a solo bird come for a brief, silent visit, and return. And I envy him.

Birds have neither leases, nor mortgages, and no loitering or vagrancy laws prevent them from going where they will, when they will. They can be hermits like my little thrush, coming and going, peering in on the city dwellers, saying hello, even staying for a while with nothing preventing them from retreating to their hideout at a given moment.

I read that in some Scandinavian countries, laws permit free roaming for people. Hikers, travelers, even hermits who wish, cannot be prevented from crossing through any property regardless of ownership.

On the flip side, in Arizona even the waterways can be owned, and trespass forbidden.
Because those laws do not apply to birds, hermit thrushes live in parts of Arizona year round, while there have never been documented sighting in Scandinavian countries. Rare visits to the Celtic coast of the southwest tip of England are as close as they have come. Perhaps they did not find the leaf litter on the forest floors of Cornwall to their liking, and turned back.

It is not so much the ability to trespass or loiter without worry of conviction that piques my envy, though. Rather, I appreciate their having no need for the aforementioned leases and mortgages. They can stay where they will, for as long as they wish, for any reason or no reason at all, without binding contracts. And if they choose a new location, it matters not who the owner is or if they have interest in tenants. If the habitat suits, they can stay.
And wherever they go, there are plenty like myself who take pleasure in their presence.

Never have I heard anyone curse the hermit thrush for messing with the careful arrangement of his leaf litter, or straining the lower limbs of his redbud.

I don’t know why the hermit comes to my window. I have never seen him feeding on the holly berries with his cousin the robin. Neither have I spied him competing with waxwings for neighborhood mulberries. Perhaps he slips in low and unseen, slipping back out before the tenacious mockingbirds have a chance to scold and drive him away.

Maybe he just drops by to see how the moored folk spend their time, to remind him of his own freedom, the glories of his hermitification.

Or, perhaps he stops by to show me what I might have, were I willing to make the sacrifice.
If that is the case, through the old windows of this rented house, he might see me pour a glass of wine, turn up the thermostat, and sit down at the piano to make music nowhere near as beautiful as his own,. He might, then, begin to question the value of his freedom, but I doubt it.

I think the hermit thrush is likely just as happy in his place, as I am in mine. Hopefully, we can both continue to visit the other on occasion, even if we aren’t suited to stay. That is, if my music doesn’t drive him off for good.