Sunday, July 14, 2013

June 2013: Bothering the Birds on June 18

Every year enough baby birds hop and flutter by our house in the woods to keep us entertained but a couple times each June I like to go out looking for them, just a couple times because my walking around willy-nilly in the woods can disrupt ground nests and make the mother bird’s job of keeping track of her fledglings more difficult.

Indeed at my first stop where I sat on a rock facing the meadow and road on the edge of the woods, I was soon craning my camcorder every which way to try to find a blue jay filling the woods with its alarm call. Through out the year I get that greeting from blue jays when I walk through the woods, but in this case I was in the woods first. 

I had seen the blue jay fly across the field and road from the woods across the valley. Its call sounded different to me, more stressed and there was another blue jay calling. When I saw a blue jay it was looking everywhere in the woods except at me.

The blue jay flew off, after I focused on it for a second, and I heard a meeker noise, perhaps from a baby blue jay.

Then a towhee lit on a low branch just behind me. It repeated “towhee towhee” as well as its “wit wit a zeee zeee” call.

I got the impression that it was listening for a towhee fledgling. There was something feeble calling in the underbrush which didn’t quite sound like a baby towhee to me. Maybe that adult was just as confused, which sounds like a silly thing to say. But if adult birds do have precise understanding of what they hear, why do they look and often act so stressed? Maybe they also have difficulty deciphering all the noises coming from the under story in the woods.

Anyway, my hunch was right. I would not have a sleepy walk in the woods. Baby birds were out and about along with all the stress that entails. When I got to the top of the ridge where one of the bogs in a plateau shaded by hemlocks drains, a woodcock hen flew up from a patch of mud and darted to my left, and a woodcock fledgling fluttered up as best it could toward the lower branches of the hemlocks. 

I tried and failed to see where it landed, then went up to a dry open area a bit higher on the ridge and sat on a rock. I decided to hang my head so my ears would not be distracted by what I might think I was seeing in the woods. Once I heard some baby or mother’s call, then I would zero in on it with the binoculars.

Instead a bird flew directly over my head and, with the binoculars I searched the low branches where it might have landed. I was in luck, and saw a female rose breasted grosbeak which is brown and yellow. The male has the rose. I got the camcorder focused on it, but forgot to push the record button. That grosbeak didn't make a sound coming or going.

I walked along the open edge of the hemlock woods which was thick with junipers. I cleaved to what grassy areas there were under occasional maples and ash trees. I noticed that this wet spring has given us our best year of herb robert. Its delicate pink flowers reached high from vigorous fern like leaves themselves towering over rocks in shady areas.

Even small trees in the sun were dealing out a stunning hand of seeds.

I hardly ever notice the purple seeds of ash trees. But there were no birds in the clearings. Avian propagation craves dark shade. 

The songs of a wood thrush and a verio led me into the stand of hemlocks and just when I was zeroing in on a patch maples and oaks where they seemed to be singing, I heard birds sounding an alarm in the hemlock litter around where I was standing. A brown bird flew up and by me into a low branch and a loud “teacher teacher teacher” explained the scurrying on the ground. That oven bird flew back down on the ground and seemed to let me see it.

If it was trying to decoy me, it did a poor job, because I soon saw the fluffed up tailless fledgling on a low branch of a hemlock almost eye level with me.

It seemed oblivious to all the commotion around it.

Obviously my being there was not helping the oven birds, so I moved along to the inner valley of our land where there is the lush remains of a beaver pond, abandoned by a beaver family two years ago. Thanks to the frequent rains we’ve had this spring, there was a bit of water in the pond,

coated with duck weed and hosting both green and bull frogs whose calls seemed more sedate than the birds’ as if having their hatchlings confined to swimming in the water while they sun on logs and keep a nose out of the water was the only way to avoid the cares of raising ones young.

I found a spot to sit half way down the ridge, with a good view of some columbine blooms.

When I sat near the pond a month ago, I got a video of a song sparrow preening its feather and fluff after taking a bath in the remnants of the beaver pond. All the while a verio sang in a nearby tree. Today I first spotted a song sparrow hopping into the island grass in the pond and I hoped it would lead me to the sparrow’s nest. No such luck.

Then I was distracted as a small flock of cedar waxwings chased a blue jay away. When I used to watch beavers here in the early evening, I often saw cedar wax wings chasing flying insects over the pond. Now I strained to get a video of their attack on the blue jay, but the bigger bird kept dodging away from them by flying into the crowns of low trees.

The waxwings continued their snit, and I noticed three song sparrow hoping around the beaver lodge. They looked like young ones waiting to be fed. So just I got a video of a song sparrow accompanied by a verio’s song, now I got a video of song sparrow with the zee zee zee of the waxwings for the soundtrack.

The sparrows did look attentive to what was going on around them. They didn’t make a peep of their own short but elaborate song.

So I headed back to lunch puzzled. Obviously adult birds imprint their young with their song. But what do the young make of all the other songs they can’t help but hear. Is the whole scene, the whole symphony, being imprinted on them? What is the upshot of every species having their offspring at the same time? Alas, humans too often describe an area by charting out who gets eaten by who. Are the young birds learning harmonies?

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