Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Fall's feathered friends

As summer flowers fade away, nature compensates. The garden, along with trees and feeders, is atwitter with more birds than we've seen in months. Some had traveled north for the summer (a  tradition shared by many Minnesota humans). Many who stay find their own food sources in summer. And for a time an aggressive house sparrow was patrolling "his" territory, chasing away any bird that ventured in. More about him later.

Anyway, we looked out one September day and began to notice feathered friends we hadn't seen for a while, and we were happy to welcome them back.

Mourning dove in hiding
* Mourning doves--five or six of them--gather here every day. They roost in the big horse chestnut tree, scavenge under the main feeder, and occasionally perch--one or two at a time--on the feeder itself. They seem too large to fit comfortably, yet there they sit.

* Goldfinches are back in large number, mostly showing their winter olive drab. On sunny afternoons a few bustle among the seedheads of the coneflowers outside my office window, and each day our finch feeder is busy.

* Woodpeckers, both downy and hairy, have returned to the feeders and at least one is busy tapping on metal drainpipes. I wonder whether they ever shake loose a tasty insect.

Nuthatch being gymnastic
* Nuthatches have reappeared; when they're gone we miss the graceful arc of their heads as they peer from their upside-down perch.

* Black-capped chickadees are announcing their return, though they should never have left. Our nesting box was intended for them, and last spring a pair seemed about to move in. That's when a house sparrow, as they are wont to do, chased them off and began nest-building with his female partner. We watched for days as they brought grass, string, and bits of paper (he repeatedly brought one too-large piece and she repeatedly tossed it out). Our attention to this soap opera (The Young and the Nestless, of course) was interrupted by a weekend away, and when we returned, things were quiet. Too quiet. Then at mid-day a handful of crows visited, nosing around the nesting box and being loudly reprimanded by one mad sparrow. We think they had come before and had gotten the female sparrow just before she laid her eggs. When we opened the box later to check, there was a clean, empty nest. That's why during much of the summer we had one male sparrow and virtually no chickadees.   

Cardinal pair last winter
* Cardinals, in the neighborhood all summer, brought wonderful surprises. We have seen several sets of fledglings in our yard, sometimes accompanied by an adult who seemed to be teaching them to find food. One day we watched as an adult and fledgling came together for a moment, beak to beak. "Awww," I said, touched by this moment of seeming tenderness. I immediately told myself not to anthropomorphize them, but when I saw it happen weeks later, with a different parent and fledgling, I said "Awww" again. 

Last week I heard the characteristic "tsk" that tells me an adult cardinal is nearby with its young. When I looked up from my desk, a bright red male was on the fence looking directly toward me, repeating its "tsk" as if to warn me away--or invite me to watch? Moments later 10 or 12 small brownish birds were sitting all along the fence. I wondered whether they were some kind of sparrow.

Young house sparrows
I grabbed the nearest camera and shot--through the screen, into harsh light and shadow, the camera refusing to auto-focus on the tiny figures and the good camera out of reach. More than a good photo, I needed an image I could enlarge in order to identify these birds. Twice they returned in smaller numbers, and I got this better photo. When I published this two days ago, I was looking at their beaks and thinking they were baby cardinals.

Then I realized there is no trace of a crest, so I edited the post to say they were probably finches. But the observant Willow has pointed out in a comment that they are, in fact, house sparrows. Which is ironic, because it was a house sparrow--maybe their dad?--that chased away other birds this summer. We know they are typically aggressive, and they aren't the neighbors we hope for. But they were here at least twice in the presence of adult cardinals, so maybe we really did have multiple families on hand.

In any event, I hope nature is bringing you a few pleasant surprises.

P.S. The day I saw these guys drinking water that had cycled through the planter I drained it and put out a separate pan of fresh water.


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