red-bellied woodpecker

Red-bellied Woodpecker, © 2016 S. D. Stewart

Red-bellied Woodpecker

clever nuthatch

Awhile back I reported on the Red-bellied Woodpecker that pecked a small hole into a tree in order to crack seeds open to feed his young charge. Well, this morning I saw a White-breasted Nuthatch grab a seed from the feeder and fly over to that tree, drop the seed in the same hole, and hammer it open. I wonder if the nuthatch saw the woodpecker create this little hole and decided to use it himself? Or if he just discovered it at another time while creeping up and down the tree in his usual manner. Either way, this was a fine illustration of how different species utilize the previous enterprising work of other species.

field notes, annotated

1. Catbirds are taunting me from the underbrush.

Generally speaking, I go birding at the worst possible times, like the middle of the day. I set low expectations. I’m happy if I successfully id one new bird. Since I am pretty new to birding, this usually makes it easy for me to have a good day. I am easily excited by birds that most expert birders are probably too jaded to appreciate anymore. I have not even ever gone birding at the most appropriate times, like 6 AM. I have said to myself, when visiting particular spots, that I should come back to the same spot early some morning. But I haven’t ever even set my alarm that early for birding, never mind setting it and then just shutting it off and going back to sleep, which would be the likely result.

2. I settle in at my favorite spot. The only bird I saw on the walk in was a single male Northern Cardinal. After a few minutes, I hear approaching dogs, then a voice asks if I’ve seen anything good. I turn to see a friendly older couple standing behind where I am perched on a concrete structure of unknown purpose. “Just getting started,” I explain. If they are seasoned birders they likely thought me crazy. Just getting started at 2 PM. Right.

The thing is that I’m not obsessed with numbers. I’ve been dutifully marking birds off in my field guide as I identify them, but I’m not keeping a running tally anywhere. I figure I’ve got the rest of my life to watch birds, and I’ll just keep plugging away for the fun of it. Maybe that’s why I don’t get up at the crack of dawn to go birding. I would be way too overstimulated if I were to walk into the woods and see or hear 50+ birds in the course of an hour or two. I’m just getting started here, so I want to take it slow.

3. I spot a pair of promising orange-looking songbirds in a tree across the shallow lagoon in front of me. They are elusive, though, and I can’t make out much in the way of field marks. My best guess is they are immature Baltimore Orioles. As I flip through the field guide I hear some splashing noise, as if someone is walking through the water about 100 feet or so away from where I’m sitting. I look up and see a female deer walking away from me through the shallow water. I train my field glasses on her and just as I focus in, she pauses to squat and casually expel a steady stream of urine into the water. As she does her business, her head moves back and forth as if she’s checking to see if anyone is watching. At one point she turns around and looks directly at me. When she’s done, she saunters over to the shore of a small island in the marsh and nibbles on some plants before disappearing from view.

4. I continue glassing the area looking for the orange birds but they never reappear. I see a red-breasted woodpecker skulking on a tree trunk. Then a trio of male American Goldfinches begins to dominate my field of vision. At one point they all alight for a mutual drink on a muddy spit in the middle of the lagoon. I decide to move on to a different spot.

I think there are different kinds of birders. Some are obsessed with building their life list, and they will go anywhere and pay anything to do it. I can’t see ever becoming like that. I’m not that interested in taking birding trips. What I am interested in is the ecology of the place around me. I like to find out what lives nearby and what they do all day. At the moment, I happen to be focused on birds. Part of this is seeing who stops by on their migratory routes. That is where the big chance comes to see some really different birds. But I am content to study our resident population. After all, we are sharing the same space and the more I know about them, the better I can learn how to share.

5. I cross over to the typically more heavily used section of the park. However, the stone bridge leading into this section from the main entrance has been closed due to unstable conditions. The city and county are duking it out as to who will foot the bill to fix it. In the meantime, all the dogwalkers have to find another way into the park. I walk around, enjoying the subsequent light foot traffic, and spot some of the usual suspects: White-breasted Nuthatches, juvenile American Robins, Tree Swallows, more Red-bellied Woodpeckers. I watch one eat a large berry.

6. I walk over to the dam to see if there are any interesting birds fishing over there. All I see is a mockingbird, though. The sun is starting to dip in the sky a bit, and the skeeters are coming out. I decide to start walking back through the park toward my bike, which is miles away at this point.

I like serendipitous bird sightings. Like when I’m eating breakfast and an unexpected bird arrives at the feeder. Or when I’m out doing something else, taking a walk or whatever, and I see a cool bird. There is something about setting out to go birding that seems weird to me. If I think, I am going birding, then I know I will see at least some birds, and quite possibly something I haven’t seen before. So I am expecting it. But when it comes as a total surprise it is that much more enjoyable. I prefer to think, I am going to take a walk in the woods, and maybe I will see some cool birds.

7. I am feeling a bit dejected as I cross the light rail tracks and take the fork in the trail that more closely follows the shore of the lake. Suddenly, I look up and I’m at eye-level with a juvenile Yellow-crowned Night-Heron! Probably having just awoke from its afternoon roost, the bird is perched about 10 feet away on a tree trunk jutting out onto the lake. We stare each other down for a moment. I train the field glasses on the bird as it saunters farther up the tree, at one point opening its mouth wide and sticking its tongue out! Then it disappears into the tree’s foliage. I walk on a bit farther to a good spot to look out over the lake at one of the nearby islands. It’s here where I come upon a trio of evening fishers. I immediately spot an adult Night-Heron, but it ducks away before I’m able to tell if it’s a Yellow-crowned or Black-crowned. Next in my field of vision is a Belted Kingfisher on top of a dead tree, scouting out its terrain. Not far from the Kingfisher, a Great Blue Heron wades in the shallows.

I stop by my favorite spot one more time, but not much is going on there so I pick my way back up the trail to my bike and ride off into the fading light.

That was it for the day!

woodpecker family

This morning I looked out the bathroom window and discovered a red-bellied woodpecker family (father, mother & juvenile) hitching up a nearby tree. As I got ready for work and ate breakfast, the family stayed active in the side yard. The male would fly up to the feeder and start hammering away at sunflower seeds, and the female and juvenile would stay close by and wait for him in a tree. Then they would all fly off together into the treetops. This happened repeatedly as I sat at the table eating breakfast. The female and juvenile never came to the feeder, but always waited in the closest tree for Mr. Woodpecker to crack a few seeds. It was a pleasant domestic scene and a great way to start the day!

P.S. Later in the evening the male woodpecker was back with his young charge. The juvenile waited in the tree while the male went to the feeder. When the male returned to the tree, he pecked a tiny well in the trunk, dropped some seeds in, and cracked them open. Then he fed them to the juvenile and returned to the feeder. After he left, the juvenile poked around impatiently in the well looking for more seed.

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