Bird Watching on Red Willow River

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(Above: Male Bullocks Oriole sipping from hummingbird feeder)

Living on a river is a bird watcher’s paradise I  discovered when I moved here last February. At first it was the Sandhill cranes that awakened me in the morning, or the honking flocks of Canada geese that soared over the house. Mallards quacked as they took to the sky after floating on the river, and some days a Bald eagle or two perched in the cottonwoods. At night I heard the Great Horned owl call. Two kinds of towhees, the Canyon and Spotted version were among my first small avian visitors along with a few chickadees, white crowned sparrows, chipping sparrows, juniper titmice, two kinds of juncos and downy woodpeckers. One day a flock of cactus wrens took over the bare tree as they dropped from the sky chattering incessantly. I also had house finches and pine siskins, and a few robins. The collared doves came gradually followed by white winged doves and finally in March mourning doves appeared. The black and white magpies delighted me with their mimicking behavior. Red tailed hawks and many other raptors regularly patrol the tree and its neighbors but it is very hard for any hawk to penetrate the thick thorny branches of the olive or one of her close neighbors, so to my knowledge, none of the birds here have become dinner for these predators.

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(Above: Mourning Doves)

The Red Winged Blackbirds heralded the coming of spring arriving in a small flock in March, and thankfully some have stayed on. I have them in Maine where I live but Redwings love fast running streams and rivers and usually nest nearby a larger body of water than my brook.

I soon learned that living on the river meant that migrating birds might stay for a short time before leaving again to migrate further north, east or west. There was a poignancy attached to bird watching that I had never experienced before because in Maine we had two distinct seasons spring and fall when the birds either arrived or left. Here on Red Willow River the birds appeared and disappeared without warning. I began to pay close attention to my bird books especially Sibley’s Birds for migrating information.

When the Ruby Throated hummingbirds appeared in mid April so many came at once that I was shocked. In Maine the males appeared first, and the females about a week later but here males and females seemed to arrive together. It wasn’t long before I became accustomed to the buzzing sound of the males zooming around the house as I opened the door at dawn. I deliberately hung two feeders down by the now flooded acequia (ditches that irrigate the fields by the river) next to the Russian Olives so that the females would have plenty to eat while the males sought out the flashy feeder close to the house. One morning I glimpsed an iridescent deep violet throat and sure enough the Black Chinned hummingbirds had arrived to stay. A solitary Rufous hummingbird made a brief appearance before moving northwest to a warmer climate? Rufous hummingbirds are so aggressive that I am just as happy he moved on. Others will soon be with us and I am already using up a half gallon of sugar water every few days!

The Great Blue Heron must be nesting somewhere nearby on the river because I see one flying by the house almost every evening just before sunset.

On May 9th a flash of brilliant orange startled me as the bird landed on a branch of the budded Russian Olive. I hadn’t seen a Baltimore oriole for many years but there was no mistaking that color. With a few hops the bird was perched next to the hummingbird feeder. I watched with amazement as he deftly tipped the feeder in his direction and sucked down the sugar water. When he was joined by his olive and yellow – breasted mate, she started fluttering her wings in his direction. The female evidently captured his attention because they flew off together after he had a few more drinks!

I grabbed an orange and sliced it in two, ran out the door and impaled one half on a broken tree branch. In minutes the two were back and this time the male went straight to the orange spearing it with his bill. His flaming breast feathers made the orange look dull by comparison. Another couple arrived and although the male was just as brilliantly attired I noticed a different wing pattern, different head markings and what seemed to be a sharper beak. I was confused and took a picture of this bird while he too was sipping sugar water. Turning to my bird books I learned that the first pair were Baltimore orioles as I had thought, and the second two were Bullocks orioles. Adult male Baltimore orioles have brilliant orange undersides and shoulders with black heads and wings. In contrast, adult male Bullock orioles have deep orange breasts, with black caps, wings, back, white wing patches, and tail tips. The detail that was most helpful distinguishing the two species was that the Bullock orioles (both male and female) have black lines through each eye. Just after I figured this out another male oriole showed up and his blotchy black head and wing pattern varied from the others. Perplexed, I turned back to the books. According to Sibley’s (eastern) Baltimore and (western) Bullocks orioles frequently interbreed creating hybrids of the two. When the Western Tanager with his distinctive red head joined the crowd I was frankly astonished but at least I could identify him! Within a day or so I was just starting to sort out the differences between the female orioles when the Baltimore orioles suddenly disappeared!

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(Above: male and female Bullocks oriole)

This morning I looked out and saw a bird I haven’t seen for 50 years. Not just one Meadowlark but about a dozen were crowded around an open feeder. Tonight I saw my first Black – headed grosbeak of the season, another male bird whose markings somewhat resemble those of the spotted Towhee.

At dawn I wake up listening to the roar of Red Willow River as she winds her way to the sea wondering who might arrive today. I pay very close attention because I never know which birds might also be leaving…

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(Above: Two collared Doves)

I could easily spend the entire day sitting at the east window peering into the lovely Russian Olive trees that are such a silvery gray green that they provide a striking contrast to almost every bird that perches there. Bird watching on Red Willow River reminds me that change is the only constant and that it’s important to stay emotionally present to treasure each joyful moment.

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