If you'd like to comment on my work, you can write me at steve(at sign)steve-hamlin.com. I welcome legitimate comments.

December 26, 2008

Backyard Birding

Filed under: Birding,General,Photography — Steve Hamlin @ 1:49 pm

Male painted bunting in our quince bushHow a shared passion began as a simple gift.

Years ago, I built a birdfeeder as a gift for Linda. I mounted it to the top of a discarded porch post that I found in the loft of our garage and planted it outside our kitchen window, next to the quince bush we had planted there.

At the time, I was mildly interested in birds, but only as a small part of the greater natural world. I considered them to be substitute representatives of that world for the mammalian denizens I found more intriguing. Growing up in Springfield, I had found few bird species to get excited about. This was mostly my own fault – it’s not that there were no interesting birds, it was more the fact that I didn’t know how or where to look for them.

I came to equate ‘city birds’ with pigeons, blue jays, sparrows and mourning doves. The exotic birds I saw in the pages of the Petersen’s Field Guides I thumbed through were lumped together in my mind with other remote and mysterious creatures – moose, grizzly bears, caribou, bison and the like. We shared a continent, but weren’t likely to meet.

The birdfeeder I built began as a kind of a joke. Linda had told me that she dreamed of a house with a white picket fence and shutters (I think she had a ‘Leave it To Beaver’ complex). The house we bought was a hip-roofed former mill-workers’ boarding house, close to the road and on a postage stamp-sized lot. It didn’t lend itself to fulfilling Linda’s dream.

As a tongue-in-cheek consolation gift, I painted the hopper feeder I built white, and painted a tiny window, complete with shutters, on each end. I aligned the mounted feeder so one of the ends was aimed at our kitchen window, giving us a view of the shuttered window. We also had an excellent vantage to see most visitors to the feeder.

The feeder was an immediate hit. Linda accepted my gesture in the spirit I had offered it in and the birds discovered it in short order. Linda was captivated by the variety of the birds and the antics of the squirrels and chipmunks that visited. She would (and still does) yell down to me as I worked in my basement shop to update me on the latest arrival or comical scene.

As time went on, Linda’s fascination with the goings-on at the feeder became contagious. The steady parade of chipping sparrows, chickadees, titmice and house finches was augmented by a cardinal family, which we’ve watched successive generations of. As I gained proficiency at distinguishing the subtle differences between species, recognizing that the ‘sparrows’ I saw might be white-throated or tree sparrow or possibly not a sparrow at all (like the dickcissel I misidentified as a sparrow until I compared my photos to my field guide), my interest grew.

We retired my original feeder several years ago. The asphalt roof had worn through at the peak from all the traffic and weather it had seen in its years of service. The paint had worn off and the perches were worn to splinters. I bought a larger cedar feeder with Plexiglas on all four sides from a local birding supply store and gave it to Linda for Christmas. Over the years, we’ve added various tube and suet feeders to cut down on territorial disputes and to add variety to our offerings to attract different species.

We’ve been rewarded with visits from a diverse variety of wildlife, winged and otherwise. One summer, we were treated to daily visits by a young black bear. It had been a difficult winter and the bear hadn’t been able to find enough forage to satisfy its hunger, so it began raiding our feeder.

At first, I didn’t know what was going on. I rose one morning to find the post at a rakish angle and one of the Plexiglas windows on the ground. I thought some particularly determined raccoon had managed to pry the plastic loose. I picked up the pieces and discovered that both the plastic and one of the wooden parts that it slid into were broken. Annoyed, I glued the broken rail and put the feeder back together again.

The next day, to my consternation, I found the Plexiglas on the ground again. I put it back together again.

It took us a couple of days to discover who the culprit was. Linda was sitting in the kitchen, chatting with a friend, when the young bear appeared. It ambled up to the feeder, stood on its hind feet and began licking at the seed tray. Having licked the tray clean, it took hold of the feeder with its left paw, hooked the claws of its right paw under the Plexiglas and popped it out onto the ground. It cleaned out the hopper and ambled off in the direction of the river.

Linda watched in amazed delight. The bear continued its daily visits for about a week before apparently finding another ready source of food. We enjoyed the visits and the feeder survived the daily mauling with a few tolerable scars. We haven’t had any bear visits since. Bears often wreak havoc on bird feeders in the hill towns, but it’s mostly those who live in remote parts of the area who have come to expect such raids. Living on a busy highway in the village as we do, we never thought we’d have a bear at our feeder.

Besides the bear, other notable visitors have included a merlin that knocked an unidentified bird from the air, then landed on the roof of the feeder, and a young, inexperienced Cooper’s hawk that spent days perched in our quince bush watching the birds come and go, but never, to our knowledge, succeeding in capturing one.

The visitor that was most surprising was a male painted bunting that appeared two years ago on the day after Thanksgiving. There had been a coastal storm on Thanksgiving that had brought wind and rain and relatively mild temperatures. As I walked into the kitchen to refill my coffee cup on Friday morning, I glanced at the feeder as I often do. To my surprise, I saw a small bird with a brilliant blue head.

I called to Linda to come quickly, in case the bird flew away never to be seen again. Neither of us had ever seen a bird that looked like the one that we were looking at, but we were both sure it was a painted bunting – a bird we had looked for on our trips to the south – but I grabbed my Sibley’s to confirm it. We were astounded. According to the field guides it shouldn’t have been there, but there it was.

We watched and photographed it as it methodically ate from the feeder tray, ignoring other visitors to the feeder except the blue jays, which it eyed warily. When it flew off, we expected that we’d never see it again. We talked excitedly about our good fortune and the irony of the fact that we had never seen the species when we were in its normal range, yet one had come to us.

We were delighted when it returned while I was eating my lunch. Again, we watched and photographed it until it left. We were less surprised when it returned a couple of hours later, then every couple of hours for the rest of the day.

I looked for ‘our bird’ the next morning and, sure enough, he arrived for breakfast shortly after I did. We continued to watch him through the weekend, knowing that any visit might be his last. When Monday came and he was still feeding on his now familiar schedule, we decided that we should call the rare bird hotline for our area.

I looked up the number and Linda made the call. As she tells the story, Linda told the woman who answered the phone that we had a male painted bunting at our feeder. The woman responded as if we were reporting little green men until Linda told her that we had photos. Having apparently lent credibility to our sighting, the woman set up a visit to confirm it the following morning.

She and a colleague arrived at the appointed hour and we gave them the lay of the land. In order to avoid preventing the bird from sticking to its schedule, one of them circled wide through the backyard, around our feeder to our neighbors’ driveway. He hadn’t been there long, when he signaled that the painted bunting had flown into the quince.

The two ‘professional’ birders confirmed that it was indeed a male painted bunting and that we weren’t delusional. The phone woman, Jan, had looked back at the record books and found that ours was only the third confirmed sighting of a painted bunting in the previous forty-plus years, and the first either in western Massachusetts or that late in the year.

For the rest of that week, to the amusement of our neighbors that knew what was going on, and the curiosity of those who didn’t, we had a steady parade of birders who made the pilgrimage to view ‘our bird’, setting up their spotting scopes on the front sidewalk.

The Sunday night of the second weekend of our bird’s visit brought with it a cold front, snapping the streak of warm days we’d been enjoying. On Monday morning, the bunting didn’t appear at the feeder. A group of birders came that morning, but they were the last. They waited for about two hours before deciding that the bird wasn’t going to make an appearance.

We found no signs that anything disastrous happened to our wayward visitor, so we assume that he flew south as the cold front moved in.

Recently, we’ve watched in amusement as our regular winter visitors have returned. The white-breasted nuthatches fly in and pick a single seed in their frenetic way, then fly off with it as if they’re getting away with something. The dominant house sparrow chases off perceived rivals. The chickadees and titmice chide me as I approach to refill the feeder. The cardinals arrive, often in pairs, and feed or observe the activity from their perches in the quince. The blue jays noisily quarrel as they sweep seeds from the feeding tray onto the ground with their bills.

A pair of hairy woodpeckers has begun to vie for the suet cake with the downies that we’ve watched for several years. We’ve just hung a second cake from the quince to accommodate the growing interest from them.

The feeder that began as little more than a gag gift has provided us with countless hours of entertainment over the years, broadening our interests and educating us in the fascinating habits and diversity of the creatures of the world around us. While we’ve gained immensely from sharing our backyard with the birds and other wildlife, we’ve tried to pay for our education and entertainment with a steady supply of feed.

All text and images © Steve Hamlin
Powered by WordPress