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Stupid Bird (and Human) Tricks

Monday, October 15, 2007

One of the nice things about this fall is the preponderance, the sudden influx, the modest inundation, of red-breasted nuthatches that we are enjoying. Apparently, we're not alone. Much of the country is commenting on the larger than normal numbers of red-breasted nuthatches visiting yards and feeders. This is a species which breeds farther north, where evergreens predominate. Four or five at a time constitutes an inundation for us, and that's what we've got at the feeders, for the first time in 15 years. They're adorable and quite vocal, and nice to have around for awhile. Make that really adorable.

There's been a pack of RBNU's at the feeder for about ten days, busily stashing seeds in the gashes and wounds on my poor gray birch trees. At first, they found the homeboys a bit intimidating, and made big loops and sallies around the feeder before they could screw up the courage to alight. It's hard to watch these poor little boreal forest dudes trying to compete with all my obese home-grown, seed-fed cardinals and goldfinches. They're much more used to the rabble now, and slip in and out like watermelon seeds.

On any given autumn morning, it's a snap to call in red-breasted nuthatches. Listen to their high, nasal ank ank call, and try imitating it. You don't have to be very good to bring them right in.
I can't remember a RBNU that didn't respond. Maybe one or two. The others all just had to come in for a look at me, calling madly in response. This is a fabulous parlor trick when you're leading a bird walk.

It's best done away from houses and glass, however. I will never forget the time I was showing off for friends on their patio on Martha's Vineyard, where RBNU's breed in the thick pines. I heard a nuthatch calling, and said, "Watch this!" (often an idiot's last words.)
I anked, and it answered. I anked again, and it came to the border of the yard. Everyone got a great look. I anked again, and it flew just like an arrow right at my head, bonked itself on the patio window behind me, and died right there.

Duh. Doh Doh doh doh doh!

I was about 26. I'm older now, and wiser, and I don't torture nuthatches any more. I talk to them, and then quit while I'm ahead. I usually learn by doing something wrong first.

We had four or possibly five RBNU's whipping back and forth from the birches to the feeder all day yesterday for the Big Sit. The way we do it, it probably should be called the Big Stand, since we have to stand up to see over the retaining wall atop our birding tower. It might also be called the Big Stairmaster. Bill and I always forget how much work it is to hold a Big Sit. We haul about a ton of gear and food up (and the next morning, DOWN) three flights of stairs, the penultimate set narrow and the last set (think folding attic stairs) downright rickety. I haul Chet Baker up and down, slung over my shoulder like a bag of black beans, since he wants to be with Mether wherever she goes and moans if I leave him behind. The day started off cold, so he had to be swaddled in his monogrammed Chet Baker sweater made by Sue Robbins, plus some Polarfleece bankies. He is popping out of that sweater, all 24 pounds of him, having filled out considerably since puppehdays.

We stand around in the towertop until nature or food prep call, and then climb down to fetch this or that. Phewww. It's deceptively hard work.

Very fun, though. For me, the Sit is a social event as much as a birding event. The more Bill works to up the total past our best count of 65 species, the lazier I get. I grab a bar stool and sit there with Baker on my lap, staring off into the distance, eating or yakking with friends, while BOTB tirelessly scans the horizons until his eyes turn into barbecued potato chips. It's a great luxury not to care all that much what the final total is. Secretly, I hope some of my easy-going sloth will rub off on my husband, but so far it hasn't worked too well. I'll let Bill of the Birds give the official story on his blog.

Margaret thought she had a nice little doggie on her lap. Knowing Chet, she did harbor a suspicion that he might launch a sneak tonguebath attack at any moment. Correct.
For me, there were several highlights, but the one that raises the hair on the back of my neck was hearing a northern saw-whet owl (another species having a banner irruption year) holla from the row of Virginia pines along our oil well road. YeeeeeeEEEP? it yelled, again and again. We had played a saw-whet tape perhaps a half hour earlier after hearing what we thought was a saw-whet calling at some distance to the northwest. It took its sweet time flying over and winding up to call back, but when it did, it was unequivocal. Bill and I stared at each other in the pre-dawn darkness, all alone up in the tower with our auditory find. Then high- fived and laughed. That was sweet. Only the second saw-whet record for our sanctuary.

I also loved watching cars roll up and using our binoculars to figure out who each one held. Before the sun came up, we used our owling spotlight to reveal the solid form of Jim McCormac approaching through the dark yard. He responded by darting behind a telephone pole, then dashing to the forsythia bush like an escapee from the exercise yard. Late-arriving visitors were greeted by a shower of pretzel sticks, bits of goat cheese and pumpkin bread, and the occasional bottle, hurled from towertop. It gets a little Monty Python-esque up there by about 4 pm.

I like never knowing what might fly over at any moment. We don't get many Canada geese around here, so they were a nice surprise, as were the double-crested cormorants that arrowed by almost beyond the limit of conjecture. We couldn't get the wood ducks who've buzzed over the last couple of evenings and mornings to make a cameo though. Doh!
I also liked having the leisure to watch our regular yard birds go about their business. This little female bluebird is so glazed with winter frost on her plumage (the fresh feather ends making her look powdered) that she's barely blue--a mysterious, shimmering stonewashed blue.Speaking of blues, check out the distant hills. This one's for Trixie and the Fitzsimmons family.
We almost always notice the first dark-eyed junco of the winter on Big Sit day. Crummy photo, but you get the idea. It's a junco.
As night came on, the colors deepened and shimmered. Ahhh. What beauty. We ended up with 65 species, the same number as our best year ever. Poor Bill tried. This morning, we walked the kids out to the mailbox to catch the bus, and species #66 flew in a tight, chattering flock right overhead, headed for the tower: pine siskins. It is ever thus on the Day After. Bill of the Birds contemplates the unfairness of life and birding, encapsulated in a flock of pine siskins. Look at my saucy little shadow taking his disconsolate picture. I'm like Tinkerbelle. Who cares! Birds are cool, however darn many of them you see. That's my spotty, anecdotal, unconscientious Big Sit report. Notice that I do not go into much detail, nor can I be bothered to use the obligatory, trademarked Exclamation Point! after the Big Sit! Spank me until I can't sit down. I do, however, use the original name for the event, and as a one-time Nutmegger, I have the greatest admiration for the New Haven Bird Club members who hatched this wonderful idea, for a bunch of friends to hang out together in a 17-foot circle, eat a ridiculous array of strange foods, act stupid, laugh, gasp at the beauty of birds flying over, and stare at the sky and trees from the screech of dawn to the clonk of dark. I LOVE it.
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