Spring Diary: Chapter 5

May 11th

I look back at my entry of April 26th, where I smugly talk about being able to pick out the strands of individual songs.  Now, in the thick of prime migration time, I realize that this is a load of self serving crap.  What was I thinking.  I am surrounded by whistles, trills, clucks, burrs, and other assorted songs that are all running hopelessly together.  Particularly vexing is the goldfinch, who has a varied song that is easily identifiable if it is sung in its entirely.  But often, I only hear snatches of it, which sound like new arrival and set me on a quest.  After circling a tree, and exposing myself to the scourge of ticks, I discover with great disappointment that it is only a goldfinch torturing me with a small snippet of his song.  At one point, I was sure that I was hearing a new warbler.  I carefully identified the tree, spotted the flitting bird, and lifted my binoculars only to find another goldfinch.  Well, that is okay, I thought, at least when he sings, I will register this variance as a goldfinch song.  And just as the song wafted down to me, through the binoculars I say the target goldfinch carefully stuff a wad of blossoms into his mouth.  I thought, “Well, here is a new method of torture, he is a ventroloquist, too!”  I was reminded of the old Ed Sullivan show where a ventriloquist would try to enhance the illusion by having his dummy talking while he was swallowing water.  I presume that there was another bird in the tree, but I was never able to find it.

New Birds Seen

  • White Crowned Sparrow
  • Blackburnian Warbler




May 12th

I have been frequently seeing red tailed hawks circling over the meadow, but they have been silent until now.  Today, the soaring hawk repetitively cried, an agonizing harsh cry which may me think of wild and untamed nature, with a hint of danger.  But I was a little disarmed when I realized that this auditory cue comes predominantly from television ads and programs, who insert the sound of a red tailed hawk whenever they want to create an image of something that is really out there.  Remember those ads for trucks that are improbably parked on top of a precipice?  Inevitably there will be the sound of a red tailed hawk in the background.

New Birds Seen

  • Golden winged Warbler

May 14th

This weekend I am on a quick trip to the Upper Peninsula Michigan to stay in our family’s cabin along the shores of Lake Superior.  This cabin has been in the family for several generations and has accumulated books and possession for probably 50 years.  I was looking through the musty bookshelves and stumbled across an original 1934 Peterson field guide to birds.  The book was very hopefully titled, “A Bird Book with a New Plan.”  Peterson’s “new plan” was to helpfully put a small arrow next to the key features of a bird.  Like any great idea, this plan seems pathetically obvious in retrospect, but Peterson’s field guide was the inspiration to generations of amateur naturalists.  In 1934 my mother was only 7 years old, so presumably this book belonged to my grandmother, or perhaps to the owners that preceded by grandparents.  My grandfather bought the cabin from an elderly, childless couple who both died one winter, and he took possession of the cabin and all its contents, including the unfinished knitting project on the nightstand and the hairbrush with embedded silver strands of hair and all the books.  As I flipped through the book, I hoped to find some markings, or stumble on someone else’s life list, but no such luck.  I did discover that many of the pictures of the birds were in black and white, which thankfully have been replaced in my 2000 edition, and the pictures were tiny and cramped on the page.  With a little additional searching in other bookshelves in the cabin I found a 1937 edition, a 1947 and a1960 edition, with each edition with progressively larger and more colored illustrations.  Here I was continuing on the cabin tradition of following birds.

May 15th

For the past several years there has been a bald eagle’s nest about a mile down the beach.  When the eagle nests in the spring, there is minimal foot traffic beneath him, but as vacationers swell during the summer months, there are many visitors to the beach.  Although it is easy to see the bald eagles in and around the nest in August, at this point, the eaglets have been fledged and the eagles seem oblivious to our presence.  As I approached the nest, I noticed that there was an eagle sitting on the nest.  I turned my head to watch two common mergansers in the cold waters of Lake Superior, and when I turned my head back, I realized that the eagle had left the nest, was joined by another and were headed directly toward me.  I had just finished reading the bird guide which described the eagles “enormous beak and sharp talons,” and my anxiety grew as the eagles swooped down low and passed directly overhead.  They then circled around and headed back again toward me.  As they passed overhead I could actually hear them calling, which sounded like scratchy radio static.  I quickly beat a hasty retreat. 

New Birds Seen:

  • Common Merganser
  • Hooded Merganser




May 16th

I stopped by the house of local residents Steve and Lorraine Ferguson.  They had set up a bird feeder in their back yard and a bird bath with running water.  As I was chatting, I noticed a bevy of sparrows enjoying the handouts and refreshments.  Steve mentioned that for the past four days a Harris sparrow had been at the feeder.  I had never heard of a Harris sparrow and when I consulted my bird guide, I realized that this sparrow is generally found farther west and was distinctly unusual here in the along the shores of Lake Superior.  As I looked at the sparrows fraternizing peacefully under the feeder, I had a rare opportunity to appreciate the relative sizes of these birds; in order of size, much like a group of siblings lined up by age, there was the diminutive chipping sparrow, the stout white throated sparrow, the sleek and confident white crowned sparrow, and if I may be permitted to read into the body language, the bewildered Harris sparrow, who was perhaps wondering what wild wind had landed him unexpectedly in this obscure corner of the north woods.

New Birds Seen

  • Harris Sparrow
  • Common Goldeneye

Pictures courtexy of Allen Siegle

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