The Bird Report

I was passing the front door when a flicker of movement caught my eye. Something was in the flower bed. Having just evicted a large chocolate lab a few minutes prior* I stopped to look, and discovered that the main flowerbed is full of goldfinches.

They perch on the vertical stems of echinacea and gayfeather, or inch down the narrow stems of the Brazilian verbena and cherry sage. I assume they’re hunting seeds, or perhaps tiny insects, for they peck at both stems and flowerheads, including unripe echinacea. The males are blinding lemon yellow and black, the females a dull gold and dark french grey. The males fight over who gets the best spot, clinging to the tallest gayfeather, and the loser is exiled to the other side of the yard, where he clings to the cedar trunk and tries to pretend he’s a nuthatch.

On the side yard, the brown thrashers have made a dust bath in one of my beds, near the blueberry. (Obviously I need to water that bed!) The thrasher pecks and scuffs at the crumbly dirt, then wallows belly down in it, feathers sticking up, tail spread, looking about as undignified as a bird can look without a beanie and a kazoo. There is apparently only one spot that’s really the good dustbath, though, so the other thrasher that hangs around with this one slinks in to try and get it. Battle is joined! They fight on the ground, hopping wildly over each other, kicking out with their talons, and generally look like they’re performing competitive can-can. One flips over completely in the air, which is apparently the signal that the battle is over. A heartbeat later, one of the thrashers is back at the dustwallow, and the loser is sulking in the hedge. I sort of wish I could tell them apart, so I’d know if the Matrix-style thrasher cartwheel is the killer finishing move or the signal for surrender.

*His name was “Buddy.” He had slipped his collar and jumped the fence, but fortunately one of the neighbors knew who he belonged to, and returned him. Like many chocolate labs, a big, friendly, enthusiastic dog with the approximate intelligence of an injured lentil.

Out of ink. Nearly out of paper. Need to do a Digger. Need to work on Nurk. Need to pack for Con.

Obviously this is therefore the best time–nay, the only possible time–to decide that I should try to figure out a whole new way to do comics in color gracefully. Yeah! So it looks like watercolor and ink! Yeah! Surely there’s a way to do that digitally! Yeah!

To distract myself from this madness, I took a walk down to the stream.

I had been there for maybe ten minutes, and spotted a coupla turtles lazily treading water, and had just about decided that nobody was out this afternoon, and I should head back, when I heard a ratchety, grating, rumbling frog call.

And then another one. And then another one.

Rather rapidly, I was sitting in the middle of a chorus of deep, gutteral calls that went on and on, for over a minute, frog after frog. Some seemed to be above me, leading me to suspect it was a treefrog (the call was similiar to the Gray Treefrog.) I didn’t see a single frog, but I was afraid to move, for fear they’d see ME, and stop calling. It was a lovely, if surreal kind of experience, made more so by the fact that I wrote a scene identical to this in Nurk’s story a week ago. (They were bullfrogs, not tree frogs. Of course, I’m not a shrew either, so who am I to complain?)

Probably because I was sitting so quietly, a mother duck coming around the bend decided it was safe to launch her brood in front of me, and so I sat and watched nine half-grown ducklings swim by in a tight bunch.

The frogs tapered off. I lifted my binoculars to watch the ducks swim out of sight, thinking “Surely nature cannot top THAT. I’ll head home now–” and saw movement.

The ducks had disturbed a heron. It had a gray-green back and rich maroon chest, and with that size and color, there’s only one possible suspect–the Little Green Heron. I’ve had a tentative maybe-a-sighting of this heron before, based on a blurry photo of one I took years ago–but here was the real, definite deal. I watched him through the binoculars for a minute, set them down, and thought “Wow! Well, it doesn’t get any better than–”

The heron took off, flying my way, passing maybe four feet in front of me, landed on a muddy shore fifteen feet upstream. Moving slowly… slowly… one…. foot… lifted… at… a… time the little heron stalked a shoal of tiny mosquito fish, and I gave up on that whole breathing foolishness. Then wham! the heron’s head shot out, and a little shiny thing flipped madly in its beak. It swallowed it down, and began strolling up the stream.

“Okay,” I said, “in order to top that, the osprey’s gonna have to crap on my head. Time to head home…”

Went for a quick walk down to the stream again. Nature is so cool. Today, in addition to the usual suspects of cardinal, towhee, bunny, finch, nuthatch and grackle, there was a great crested flycatcher, the first one I’ve ever seen. (Thank god, it’s the only flycatcher in the South–they’re notoriously hard to tell from other flycatchers.) Woo! Lifelist!

There was also an immense green frog who yipped when it saw me and jumped in the water. I caught sight of it on the other side of the stream and got a good look–a bright green head, and a darker, mottled back. Looked a lot like the classic bullfrog, but I don’t know if they make that kicked-Chihuahua yip alarm call.

While I was studying Mr. Bullfrog, I heard a slithery, slippery noise, and turned to see one of Mother Terrapin’s minions come sliding down a muddy bank on his shell. “OHHH!” cried Ursula, who will not be in the running for the “quick on the uptake” awards any time soon. “That’s why they’re called ‘sliders!'” He was a much smaller specimen than the megalithic beast on my lawn–only about the size of my spread hand or so.

Finally, I saw another red-headed woodpecker, which I still get a kick outta seeing, and a mother mallard with a huge brood. And there was a belted kingfisher who went flailing by over head–I can identify them by flight now, no other bird I know does that kind of mad pinwheeling through the air, like somebody who’s lost their balance, and is running forward to keep from falling over.

All this in ten minutes. Probably I was just damn lucky, but maybe I should go in late afternoon more often.

Oh, dear lord.

I was out pouring the Hot Meats peppered sunflower seeds into a feeder, and ran afoul of them.

My hands were nowhere near my face, so I suspect a stray breeze caught one of the tiny bits of husk, carried it dancing on the wind, and then, with airy malice, whipped it directly into my right eye.

The pain was immediate, blinding, and absolute. Hot peppered suet up the nose that one time was pretty bad, but this was like an assault. I staggered towards the house moaning the mantra “ohfuckohfuckohfuckoh–” and blessed the architect who put the bathroom next to the back door.

Flushing it with water helped, after a few minutes, but sweet mother of bunnies. If the squirrels experience even half of that when they try to eat the stuff, then I am committing an abominable act of animal cruelty. I only hope they smell it and know better than to grab a mouthful.

Rodent Council

I look out the back today and see what looks like a council of rodents–baby bunny, squirrel, and cotton rat, all sitting within a foot of each other, not bothering each other, just sitting. (Ironically, the cotton rat, half the size of either of the others, is the only adult of the bunch–the bunny is maybe a third the size of his parent, and the squirrel has the rangy, scrawny, large-headed look of this year’s juveniles.) (I know, I know, lagomorphs. Recent taxonomy studies place them as having split from rodents, however, so I’m allowed. Besides, who’d put “Member, Council of Lagomorphs” on their business cards?)

The young are out in force today. I went outside to read for a few minutes, and drink coffee. I didn’t get much reading done, although I did get a few bugs in my coffee. The wildlife scattered as soon as I came out, but returned almost immediately, except for the bunny, who’s a nervous little thing.

In the course of maybe twenty minutes, I watched the cotton rat wander around stuffing his face with seed, soon to be joined by a pint-sized miniature version. A hairy woodpecker came down and drove his wicked beak into the suet, then flew off. Four white-breasted nuthatches showed up, divided into pairs, and shoved suet down throats in a kind of upside-down rota. A young thrasher hopped around the base of the suet tree and began begging for food from anyone in the vicinity, which happened to be the cotton rat. The rat eyed the gaping beak of the thrasher looking faintly embarassed, the way any of us do when randomly approached by somebody else’s kids asking for something, and I must assume smiled and nodded and backed away slowly. Towhees kicked and scuffled under the cherry laurel, looking for food or pirate treasure or whatever. The squirrel undulated by, gripping an enormous bulb in his teeth. “My dahlias…!” Oh, well, easy come, easy go.

The thrashers were replaced by two red-bellied woodpeckers, a female and one with the moth-eaten noggin of the young. Young red-bellied woodpeckers are unbelievably obnoxious in their begging, with an ear-splitting yawp that goes right to your inner ear and boogies down. You begin to pray for the sweet release of death. You get the impression the other animals are, too.

So he sat next to the suet and yawped. Generally at this point, the adult stuffs food down that beak, probably in hopes of choking the yawp off at its source.

This time, however, his mother had Had Enough. A few yawps, and that was it. She charged him, tail spread, the way they do when they’re chasing off interlopers. The yawp of entitlement was replaced by the yawp of panic. He lumbered down the tree, then flew off. If the universe was really structured like it is in my head, a round of applause would have come from all corners of the garden, the cotton rat would have stood on his hind legs and clapped wildly, the blue jays would have erupted into Bronx cheers. Sadly, it isn’t, so they didn’t, but I was happy anyway.

Pollinators Ahoy!

I stepped outside to look at the garden, as I do every few hours–whether waiting for something new to surprise me, or half suspecting that it will vanish when my back is turned, I’m not sure!–and I startled a hummingbird hanging in the air over the lilies.

He looked at me, a bit belligerently–this was his garden, his yard, his flowers, he’d found them, how dare I come hangin’ around? Wanna mess with me, primate, wanna, wanna? I’ll peck yer eyes out! Hummingbirds are belligerence wrapped up in a oil-slick rainbow. You have to love them.

When I did not reply appropriately by taking to the air and fighting for control of the garden, he decided I was just too unspeakably boring for words and zipped off to dip his beak in the pink cherry sage. (I love this stuff. I hadn’t seen it before–it’s a native of Texas, so I’m sort of cheating on the whole native thing, but at least it’s the correct continent. It’s gorgeous, hummingbirds love it, and it takes full sun and drought like a trooper.)

After the hummingbird had decided to go lay claim to another yard, I peered over my plants. Exciting discoveries lately have been up at the top of the yard, by the mailbox–it’s choked with oak seedlings and badly overgrown, but lurking under it all is pineapple sage, a great favorite of mine. And there’s a daylily exploding with buds that’s apparently too far up the driveway for the deer to browse that I’m eagerly awaiting.

I’ve also determined that the thing I thought was a black locust is actually a silktree. Well, crud. It’s an invasive non-native. Should really kill it. The pictures of the flowers are lovely. Hummingbirds like it. But…it’s an invasive non-native and should die. Argh! Who knew gardening came with so many moral dilemas!? I thought “Natives and well-behaved immigrants,” would be an easy philosophy to hold to. (Hmm, the forest service has a real hate on this tree. Maybe it better come out.)

On the other hand, I saw them selling bishopweed at the garden shop and wanted to find somebody on staff and give ’em a tongue lashing. Bishopweed! Dear god! What are you people thiiiiinking?!

But happily, as I stood looking at the rest of the garden, I see the pollinators come out at work. A fat bumblebee climbs over the brazilian verbena (non-native, I know, I know, I’m guilty, but the butterflies are supposed to love it! I’ll deadhead religiously, I promise.) and a sleeker, more dangerous looking bee crawls into each individual cup of the beardstongue (Native! Native!)

Despite the gardening guilt, barely assuaged by buying some Joe Pye Weed and native snakeroot when I went to pick up the manure, it’s nice to see the pollinators out in my garden.

Suet Battle

The woodpecker and the thrasher were fighting for the crown–
the woodpecker chased the thrasher all around the ground.
Some gave them suet and some gave them the stuff with the dehydrated bugs in it,
And then the squirrels showed up and drummed them out of town.

Okay, okay, I won’t quit my day job to become a poet. The red-bellied woodpecker is on the suet feeder. It is HIS feeder. The brown thrasher wants some suet–just a scrap, maybe? Surely there’s enough suet for all!–and hops awkwardly onto the trunk.

There’s a very specific zone of contention on the tree that the birds are aware of, and which I can almost make out watching them. As long as the thrasher is more than a foot away and below the suet, he is tolerated. Once he enters this zone, however, he is officially declaring himself After The Suet, and the woodpecker charges him, uttering a noise that I realize is nearly impossible to convey phonetically. It’s like incredibly whiny machine-gun fire, a short, staccato whining. Auto-gripe. I suppose it would technically be a “scold.” Scold is a good word for it.

The thrasher is not willing to fight the red-bellied for the suet. They’re almost the same size visually, but a lot of the thrasher is tail, and those crazy yellow serial-killer eyes are no match for a beak that doubles as a jackhammer. As soon as the woodpecker charges him, and gets anywhere close to melee range, he lets go of the trunk and drops to the ground, landing neatly without a flap. He’s good at landings, if not at perching on the vertical. The thrasher has left the zone of contention, and is now out of combat, so the woodpecker stabs at the suet again.

A few seconds later, the thrasher jumps up on the trunk again and the process begins all over again, until eventually the red-bellied is either full or too annoyed to eat and flies off. Then the thrasher can snarf suet, content in victory, until the squirrels show up.

The squirrels don’t like the millet in the suet, so they haven’t eaten it. Instead, they’ve been licking it, scraping the suet off the seeds with little squirrely tongues.

I wonder if they ever wonder why they’re getting all these dehydrated bugs in their teeth.

Went out to the Wild Bird Company store today–James spotted it a week or so ago in the shopping center where we buy groceries, and since I was out of sunflower seeds for my feathered masters, I headed out that way to check it out.

The array of bird feeders offered was incredibly vast (albeit a bit spendy.) My birthday being in ten days, I may splurge and get one. Or two. I have so much yard now that I could host a whole army of feeders. They also had video birdfeeder surveillance, which I confess, I lingered over–we have Southern flying squirrels here, and I would dearly love to see one, even on tape.

I did pick up “Hot Meats” a pepper-treated sunflower mix, which is expensive, but since the squirrels don’t eat it, lasts a lot longer in the feeder.

I was passing the suet rack when a phrase leapt out at me (as, I assume, it would leap out at anyone) CONTAINS DEHYDRATED INSECTS. I halted in my tracks. Dehydrated insects! Sure, the Beetlemania seed mix with the freeze-dried beetle larvae was something, but this! Contains dehydrated insects! Good lord! Where do I sign?

It was with regret that I passed the tubs of “Nuts ‘n Bugs!” bluebird feed–peanut suet blobs and mealworms, you tempt me sorely. Perhaps what I come back. Of course, I haven’t seen any bluebirds around here, despite the presence of a bluebird house nailed to the shed. The place in Cary, whatever it’s many faults, was a bluebird zone. This, not so much. We’re also shorter on warblers, or perhaps more likely, the warblers being small, I have a harder time spotting them, with the yard so far away.

On the other hand, while I typed this, a cottontail rabbit scampered by in front of the window, to sit grooming next to my baby butterfly bush. I have no regrets.

Nuts ‘n Bugs!

Midnight Mockingbird

So the other night, at around midnight, James is out back unwinding before bed, and calls me out because he hears a bird.

I was expecting a nightbird–a whippoorwill, maybe, which would be cool, because I’ve never heard one, or maybe if I was lucky a chuck-widow’s-will which I’ve also never heard. An owl, perhaps.

Instead, it was a mimid. I listened for a few minutes, unable to quite tell if it was a thrasher or a mockingbird, and anyway, what the hell? It’s midnight!

Last night, he called me out again. The bird was calling again, and this time I was able to tell, because it repeated the calls three or more times, that it was a Northern Mockingbird.

Calling at midnight. Dude. Weird.

But I went and looked on-line, and to my surprise, mockingbirds are in fact known to sing at night. Only the bachelor males sing at night, in an effort to pick up chicks, possibly thinking that if they can keep the female awake, she will eventually snap and scream some mockingbird equivalent of “FINE! I’ll mate with you tomorrow, now SHUT UP SO I CAN SLEEP!” (If I was a single female mockingbird, I can’t swear this tactic wouldn’t work on me–after a coupla sleepless nights, I’ll agree to a lot of things if it means I can get some shut-eye.) Once the male gets some nookie, he apparently stops singing at night.

So out back, there is one lonely male mockingbird, singing his heart out, lookin’ for love, while love attempts to roost someplace quiet and shoves her primaries in her ears.

I don’t mind the singing–I can’t hear it from inside–and it’s sort of nice to wander out in the dark and hear a bird singing off in the distance. But at the same time, I can’t help but root for the little guy to find his feathery princess, sweep her off her talons, and finally be able to stop his midnight serenade.

As if Nature is taking with one hand and giving with the other, while I slumped on the porch, contemplating the ruin of my lilies, a ruby-throated hummingbird zipped up and drained the pink salvia of nectar, then swooshed up to the tips of the cedar tree, and began making tiny, jerky motions that I suspect were him catching bugs attracted to the cedar. (And here I thought cedar was a bug repellant. Eh, go figure.)

A phalanx of chimney swifts, like teeny airfoils, went zipping by overhead. I glanced up. Yup, chimney swifts. Nothing terribly exciting. Seen ’em before….err…haven’t I? Of course I have.

Except that I have not actually ever noted them down as a bird, so that was a lifer, by virtue of correcting poor bookkeeping.

I spread blood meal around the lilies, one of the recommended deer repellants, and tonight, under cover of darkness, will demand James provide the scent of omnivore urine. (Hey, I’d do it myself, but he can pee a perimeter much more easily than I can.) We’ll see how committed to gardening James really is…