Spring Diary: Chapter 2

April 10th

During the winter, I have also spent some time reading some of the bird watching literature.  Some of these books tell stories about amazing encounters in the woods, with compelling first hand accounts of a Goshhawk snatching a bird in mid air or the struggles of a nesting pair of owls, and it can become easy to assume that no walk is complete without witnessing some amazing visual act of nature.  But these stories represent the distillation of many hours in the field and the simple truth is the more time you spend outside the more things that you will see.  And like golfers or fisherman, even if you have the yips or you snag the trees, you most certainly have spent a nice day outside.   My husband is the coach of our senior women’s ice hockey team, and one of his all purpose bits of advice is “if you keep putting the puck on the net good things will happen.”  As I walk past the oak grove I again see the two Great Horned Owls, but this time I notice a nest in the crook of the tree.  And in it are one and maybe two owlets.  I just shot the puck on the net and a good thing happened.

New Birds Seen:

Eastern Bluebird


April 13th

The migrant warblers are beginning to arrive.  The first arrivals are the yellow rumped warbler and the palm warbler.  Let the party begin. 

My winter tutorials on bird songs are also paying off, since I recognize the sweet song of the Eastern Meadowlark in the open field.  The rolling churr of red bellied woodpeckers is also easily recognized.  The beginning birdwatcher will be intrigued by the name of this bird, since the bird’s most obvious characteristic is its flaming red head; bird field guides indicate only the faintest blush of red on its belly.  I presume that the nameless naming committee wanted to get the concept of “red” into the common name, but that the red-headed woodpecker had already dibs’ed that name, and so they went with the belly as a weak second choice

New Birds Seen

Eastern Meadowlark

Red Bellied Woodpecker

Yellow Rumped Warbler

Palm Warbler


April 15th

As I begin my walk, I now routinely quickly scan the oak trees for the owls  and probably see them about one half of the time, sometimes in the nest, and sometimes perched on a nearby branch.  The odd thing is that they are always staring straight at me.  When they are off the nest, you can appreciate their molting, as their baby down is slowly being  replaced by mature feathers.  While the new feathers ruffle in the wind, the down fluffs up in the wind, looking like a wad of soft brown lint.  I also pause to check for the meadowlark song in the field on the left.  Knowing the songs helps you triage the birds; once the birding gets hot and heavy in a few weeks, it will be impossible to try and identify every bird that sings, and the practiced ear will be able to pick out what is new or unusual.  I have also gotten very familiar with the bright song of the ruby crowned kinglet.  The song is long and varied, and on the bird tape you always hear it in toto.  But in the field you hear it in bits and snatches, and at this point, I can recognize the song from a couple of syllables.     

New Birds Seen

Blue Grey Gnatcatcher

Wood Duck


 April 18th

I had always assumed that the swallows darting about the water were tree swallows, and while it is probably true that 90% of the time 90% of the swallows are tree swallows, today I focused on the 10% of the 10%.  Trying to do a careful examination of swallows is somewhat dicey, since if you attempt to follow them circling and wheeling with your binoculars, you run the risk of vertigo and nausea.  Therefore, it almost better to observe with the naked eye, and  I suddenly realized that some of the swallows were smaller and some had forked tails.  The forked tails were easy – those are barn swallows, but the smaller brown ones are either bank swallows or rough winged swallows.  One stopped long enough to get the binoculars on it and to see the tell tale brown necklace of a bank swallow.

Bank Swallow

Barn Swallow

 April 22nd

The black and white warbler is like an old friend that I see every year, but despite having committed its song to memory – it sounds like a rusty wheel turning – I realize I have never heard it sing.  The rough legged hawk is a new species for me, and fortunately its markings are so distinct, I feel comfortable in the identification.  Hawks are generally only seen from below, and with different molts and morphs I sometimes give up on the project.

New Birds

Black and White Warbler

Rough Legged Hawk

Rough Winged Swallow


April 24nd

I have now come to a crossroads in my birding ventures. So far I have concentrated on the low hanging fruit of the birding world – warblers.  Their characteristic colors and songs make identification fairly straightforward, but now I must come to grips with the sparrows.  There are many of them and they all look alike, sometimes collectively referred to as “little brown jobs,” and somehow their songs are not that memorable.  While many of the warbler songs are turned into cheerful verbal representations (yellow warbler = sweet, sweet, little more sweet; chestnut sided warbler = pleased, pleased, pleased to meet ‘ya) with few exceptions there are not many mnemonics for the sparrows.  Plus they tend to be grassland birds, and can easily disappear between the stalks, limiting any type of close observation.  I feel comfortable with the basic sparrows, which include those commonly seen at your feeder – the house sparrow, white throated and chipping sparrow, but for the others I have tended to throw up my hands in despair.  Today on my walk I came across a sparrow that looked somehow different, it just had a different “Gizz.”.  This birding expression (although I have also heard mushroomers use it to separate edible, palatable and lethal fungi) is apparently derived from the military term G.I.S, standing for “general impression and shape.”  It describes some innate feel that the bird is somehow different.  Although a Gizz may be innate, it is certainly informed by the practiced eye.  And even though I have no experience when it comes to sparrows, I felt that this was something different, and since the sparrow was cooperating by walking down the path, I had a chance for thoughtful analysis.  However, I was stricken to realize that I had forgotten my bird book.  I tried to remember as many features as I could.

April 25th

Well, I think that it was a Fox Sparrow, based on its longer tail and reddish hue. But the question is whether I should add this unconfirmed sighting to my life list. The Fox Sparrow is certainly common, it is just that I have never seen one. There are many who keep competitive life lists, and there are even contests to see who can see the most number of birds in the continental Unites States in any one given year. Some of my winter reading focused on these contests – Kingbird Highway, The Big Year and Wild America, among others. In these contests the truly competitive birder will drop everything and hop on a plane and fly to see the stray migrant that shows up on our country’s margins. Kingbird Highway, by Kenn Kaufman, is the most entertaining, since this is the account of a teenager who dropped out of school and hitchhiked across the country and up to Alaska chasing stray birds. In the 1970s, his budget for the entire year was about $1,000! While I am certainly at the very casual end of birding, I still feel that I am bound by the honor system. I am reminded of playing solitaire card games as a child, and the overwhelming temptation to bend the rules just a little bit. I watched my younger brother Tim playing one day; he was playing the basic solitaire game where you have seven cards across and you are trying to play everything up on the aces. I overheard Tim say under his breath, “On Wednesdays, you can temporarily have an extra eighth space for a ten.” He then slid the ten over, the game opened up, and he triumphantly announced, “I won!”

Although I am conflicted, fox sparrow is now bird No. 213 on my list. And while I’m at it, I am pretty sure that other bird was a swamp sparrow. I stand on the edge of the slippery slope of the honor system.

New Birds Seen:

Fox Sparrow

Swamp Sparrow


Pictures courtesy of Allen Siegle

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