Winter Birds

IMG_2068Every afternoon I sit down at my table, binoculars in hand to breathe in the peace of the twilight hours and to commune with the birds who are gathering for their evening meal. The mourning doves have already sailed into the open feeders that hang from a pole under the protection of the field pine overhead, scratching seed onto the ground with abandon. I draw in my breath sharply if a female cardinal dressed in an olive coat flies down to peck the seed below because her visits to the feeders are sparse. A few blue – jays may still be about although the heaviest concentration of jays occurs when I first put food out in the morning. Their raucous screams “here she comes” alert the neighborhood that food is on the way. Juncos are around all day long, feeding on the ground. The goldfinches are morning visitors that retire by mid afternoon. Swarms of them flit back and forth like bees from one feeder to the next during the morning. Purple finches also gravitate to the open feeders on the pole and use any of the three that are vacant usually during most of the day. Chickadees and nuthatches are out and about from dawn to dusk, delicately picking out one seed, flying away, and returning for another in a few seconds. Every time I think the robins have left another one appears. Fortunately I still have a few small crabapples left on my trees for robins and the two grouse that come and go. Another bird that has surprised me this year is the white throated sparrow. A whole bevy left in late November and four appeared here in January morning and have been with me ever since. The first day they arrived they were on the ground searching for seed until nightfall.Occasionally I have a few other sparrows visit for a day or two. When I am home I try to keep track of who is coming or going during the day and note the distinct feeding patterns of different species. There is one small feeder hanging from an apple tree that I have to fill twice a day because it is the chickadees’ favorite, although these little birds are democratic in their leanings and visit all feeders at some point. Hairy and downy woodpeckers are early risers and are always announcing their presence with a loud staccato like chirp as they land on the suet, or the open feeder. They have a tendency to avoid crowds and usually retire around three in the afternoon. But most fascinating is the way they climb down the pines to snack in the protected area where I scatter a small amount of seed on the ground for the cardinals (Small is the operative word here because ground feeding brings in the squirrels within minutes). Sometimes the pileated woodpecker who resembles a prehistoric raptor makes an appearance around mid -day landing on a crabapple out front where I hang suet but he rarely stays. He also announces his presence with an otherworldly laugh. The two kinds of nuthatches also climb down the pines to feast on the ground if they find food there but they use the open feeders too.

Every year I have tufted titmice. This year I have two pairs but I have never had a titmouse sing during the winter like one of these little males does. He has three songs, one of which he begins to sing early in the morning; it is composed of three delicate whistles. He also has a shorter version of the same theme that he sometimes uses during the day. Another variation less frequently heard, perhaps my favorite, is his descending double whistle. I have started to call to him whenever I am outside and if he is around he answers me with the three whistles call. When I thank him for the concert he always responds with another song! Most birds are notoriously quiet during the winter months and so I was delighted and mystified by this little fellow’s proclivity for singing and was surprised to discover that titmice do apparently sing during winter thaws. So far this winter the mild temperatures might be the reason this little fellow is so vocal. More interesting is that there are at least eight distinct calls that have been identified as variations on three basic themes. According to the literature the musical whistle I hear most of the day and the one this little bird sings to me is considered to be a morning call. Not so here. This little fellow has been singing that particular song all day throughout the month of December and into January. With colder temperatures and snow on the way, I wonder if he will continue to serenade me? The soft gray blue coat, tufted cap and brilliant coal black eyes of this small bird is so appealing as he flits back and forth to the feeders, rustles through leaves in search of insects, or hangs upside down on twigs but it is his songs that so endear him to me. I rarely see him or his extended family after mid-afternoon.

The birds that draw me into late afternoon communion are the cardinals. Everyone I suppose has a favorite bird and the cardinal is mine. For a while last summer the Indigo Bunting captured my heart but the cardinals eventually won out. I have reached the conclusion that there is something about these birds that embodies the spirit of Nature as divine. They are my wild “Spirit Birds.” Somewhat reclusive by nature the cardinals are not birds that flit back and forth to feeders all day long. They come only at certain times and are very particular about where they eat. Although somewhat sociable with their own kind, they dislike hoards of other birds and avoid feeding with them. I rarely see them at the open feeders on the pole except at dawn. Cardinals are ground feeders that prefer the protection of trees; here they gather under the pines outside my kitchen window just before dusk during this darkest time of the year. I find myself scanning the pines for the first sight of my beloved “Red Bird” one male that has an ethereal bluish cast to his wings that is noticeable only when he is on the ground. The rest of the bird is fiery crimson. Once he makes his first appearance I feel palpable relief (A number of years ago I lost a male fledgling to a cat and a couple of adult male cardinals to unknown causes and apparently have never recovered from the losses). This is when I fall into a meditative state, hyper –alert but sinking into the comfort of my body as I move into another dimension. The shift is so subtle that I barely notice the transition until I realize that I have lost time, and now it is too dark to see the birds! In the interim I have been watching my Redbird and his ladies fly in to eat their favorite sunflower seeds, disappearing, and returning again and again until dark. Because this has been an unusually mild fall and winter so far I will be curious to see what happens… Soon the world will turn white again, and I am perched like one of my birds at the edge of this turning because although the sun is journeying northward, the coldest winter days are upon us…

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