Sparrow Quest

The meadow was filled with mostly purple and yellow wildflowers, and smaller numbers of white ones -- so pretty.
The meadow was filled with mostly purple and yellow wildflowers, and smaller numbers of white ones — so pretty.

Late one evening a few days ago, realizing that I had a completely open schedule the next day, I decided I’d head out in the morning to Orion Oaks County Park to try to find some sparrows. In addition to lots of wooded trails, this park has a huge open meadow that always has lots of sparrows singing in the tall grasses. I’ve been frustrated by sparrows in the past, having trouble telling them apart by sight or by sound. So you’d think I would have listened to some songs of the likely species before I got out in the meadow, right? Nope. It didn’t even enter my mind. So, as poorly prepared as I was, it’s not surprising that I got frustrated again.

Chipping Sparrow watching me watching him
Chipping Sparrow watching me watching him

Sure, I heard plenty of birds singing. But the only ones I could identify were the Chipping, Field, and Grasshopper Sparrows. I could have used my Audubon app to listen to some songs while I was out there, but it’s so hard to see the menus on the screen in the sunlight that I didn’t even try. I’m going to spend some time doing the song quizzes on Larkwire before my next outing, and hopefully I’ll start making some progress toward mastering the sparrows. If you’ve never tried to find sparrows (other than the abundant House Sparrows at the fast food drive through), you might not appreciate how hard they can be to see. They have this maddening habit of singing while they’re hidden in the tall meadow grasses, only popping up briefly and usually too far away to see well. And even when you do see them, they all look like, well, “little brown jobs” (birders even refer to them as LBJs). Until you begin to learn the differences in body shape and size, and habitats, and songs, that is. Only then can you start to make sense of them all in the field. It’s a challenge that I considered not even bothering with two years ago, but as I slowly learn more and more birds I find that it’s not as daunting to add some of the harder ones to my knowledge base. I’m still not ready to tackle gulls though…talk about difficult birds!

Despite my lack of sparrow success, I had a very nice afternoon with lots of other interesting sightings. There were butterflies:

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail
Eastern Tiger Swallowtail

And dragonflies:

The only dragonfly to sit still for me that day!
The only dragonfly to sit still for me that day!

And deer:

Young buck deer watching me watching him
Young buck deer watching me watching him

And this mama turkey with her six little poults (you can only see four of them here I think):

Wild Turkey and six poults (1024x683)

I just loved how the meadow looked with the vast expanse of purple and yellow. I tried to get some photos of a Mourning Dove on the grass with the flowers in the background, but the bird didn’t want to cooperate for that one.

Winter Vetch, aka Hairy Vetch
Winter Vetch, aka Hairy Vetch

And let’s not forget the curious Grasshopper Sparrow either. I really love the little bits of yellow above the eyes and on the leading edge of the wing (you can barely see that part in this photo).

Grasshopper Sparrow to edit v4
Grasshopper Sparrow

Massasauga rattlesnake sign (533x800)The other birds I saw that day included Tree Swallows, Cooper’s Hawk, Baltimore Orioles, Indigo Bunting, Eastern Bluebirds, Eastern Kingbird, and a few more. And even a little garter snake that scared the bejeebers out of me when he slithered across the path in front of me. I’m always a bit on edge in that park because of all the signs warning about the Massasauga Rattlesnakes that breed there, so my brain was on high alert. I’d love to see one of those rattlesnakes, but just not too close up. Heck, I feel brave just walking past the warning signs!

Nature Lovers Are Some of the Best People

Last night I joined some new friends for an evening of watching Bald Eagles and Osprey at Stony Creek park.  Both species have nests with one nestling each right now, and the nests can be seen from the same spot, making it easy to keep an eye on any action at either one.

I’m going to show you a few pics, but I have to say that I didn’t get many great ones, despite using my biggest lens and tripod (400mm with 1.4 extender). I have a lot of difficulty getting my manual focus right with the big lens, so I’m often disappointed with the results, even after sharpening in Photoshop. I guess the conditions were challenging though, with the nests being so far away (200 yards), so maybe I shouldn’t be so hard on my photographer self. The one below was by far my best photo of the evening, one of the adult osprey flying over us on the way back to the nest with some soft bedding material (at least that’s what we presume it would use the grasses for).

Osprey carrying bedding material to nest
Osprey carrying bedding material to nest © Kim C. Smith

That’s pretty neat, isn’t it? At one point the Osprey flew over our heads from the nest, heading directly toward the Bald Eagle nest. We all held our breath as we watched, wondering if the adult eagles would come after him. I grabbed my camera off the tripod just in case there was going to be some drama, but nothing happened. The Osprey continued on to a nearby pond and came back a few minutes later with the grasses trailing from his talons. The Osprey nest is on a cell tower, a common place for large birds of prey to nest in urban areas. It’s always amazing to me that the birds use this particular nest location, because it’s directly adjacent to a busy shooting club with frequent gunshots ringing out. I get more annoyed by the gunshots than they do, apparently.

We were hoping to see the eaglet taking some practice flights, but she stayed firmly perched in the nest all evening, occasionally stretching her wings and giving us renewed hope for a practice flight. One of the parents was in the nest with her at the beginning of the evening, but later moved to a nearby tree to rest. The other parent was in another tree as well. Here’s an article about the eagle nest in a local paper if you’d like to read more about it.

Osprey on cell tower v2
Osprey on cell tower

Of course while we were all chatting during the evening, I was also keeping my eyes and ears open for other birds. We were beside a large pond and marsh, so naturally there were lots of Red-winged Blackbirds around. I was happy to hear the near-constant songs of Marsh Wrens too, although I never managed to see one of them. Here’s the list of species I reported to eBird last night:

15 species +2 other taxa
duck sp.  1
Turkey Vulture  2
Osprey  3
Bald Eagle  3
Sandhill Crane  2
Empidonax sp.  1
Eastern Phoebe  1
Great Crested Flycatcher  1
Marsh Wren  2     (heard them calling in response to each other)
American Robin  1
Gray Catbird  1
Common Yellowthroat  1
Yellow Warbler  4
Indigo Bunting  1
Red-winged Blackbird  X
Baltimore Oriole  1
American Goldfinch  3

It’s unusual for me to go on a nature outing with other people who aren’t birders, so this was a nice change. For once I got to be the person who identified the birds before everyone else! I got to show people Yellow Warblers and a Common Yellowthroat, but most of the other small birds I saw while other people were talking and I didn’t want to interrupt them. I had to keep telling myself that not everyone cares to know the identity of every single bird that flies by like I do. (I think I have OBD — obsessive birding disorder.)

Red-winged Blackbird harassing Sandhill Crane
Red-winged Blackbird harassing Sandhill Crane

One of the most interesting things was a Red-winged Blackbird harassing two Sandhill Cranes on the far side of the pond. At first we could barely see the cranes’ heads poking out of the vegetation, and could see the blackbirds dive-bombing them repeatedly. I imagine the cranes were too close to a nest. I’ve seen quite a few instances of Red-winged Blackbirds violently attacking other birds this spring; they’re extremely protective of their territories and won’t hesitate to buzz a curious human either.

Sandhill Crane with Blackbird on its butt (blurry, again)The cranes slowly worked their way down into the pond, emerging from the vegetation so we got beautiful full-body views of them in the evening sun. And as you can see in the picture here, one of the blackbirds wasn’t finished with guard duty. It was basically riding on the crane’s backside as he walked through the water. The blackbird would flutter up and come back down, and I couldn’t tell if it was actually pecking the crane. But then it just sat down and the crane didn’t seem to mind it hanging on like that. Such an odd behavior. It reminded me of birds that eat insects off of elephants or bison — a tiny bird on a larger animal.

Bald Eagle on bare branchAs the sun got closer to the horizon I started to get chilly, so left the remaining three people in our group and and headed back to my car. On the way back I looked back toward the eagle nest from another vantage point and spotted the other adult sitting on a branch out in the open. I think a Bald Eagle looks majestic no matter how blurry the photo….

I’m really glad I went on this outing despite not knowing anyone beforehand.  Everyone was so nice and it was very low-key, just a group of nature lovers sharing time together at the end of the day. The scenery was beautiful, everyone had something interesting to contribute to the conversation, and the birds were singing and flying all around.  We talked about bugs. We talked about wildflowers. We talked about photography. Now that’s my idea of a great night out!

Extreme Birding: One Tree Limit

I ran away today. The road commission was out on our dirt & gravel road doing their never-ending maintenance, assailing my morning with the loud and incessant sounds of backup beepers and grinding truck engines. So I packed up my laptop and some books for writing inspiration and headed to the park, hoping to find a quiet spot for an afternoon of writing. Here’s how it went:

View of the lake from my picnic table writing desk
View of the lake from my picnic table writing desk

It’s a cool, sunny day, about 70 degrees with a brisk breeze that results in me being bombarded with a hail of cotton puffs from the cottonwood trees. I settle myself at a picnic table a couple hundred yards uphill from the lake, and get busy typing. Of course I’m immediately distracted by the birds, but I remind myself that I will not be birding today. I’m here for writing. But I still have my binoculars (“bins” in birderspeak) and 300mm lens, just in case something incredible happens by.

Chipping Sparrow singing (click to enlarge)
Chipping Sparrow singing (click to enlarge)

Just to get warmed up, the first couple paragraphs I type are about the birds I’m hearing and seeing. In particular, a chipping sparrow is singing constantly from the inner branches of the tree right in front of me. He even dropped down to the ground a couple times to nibble on a caterpillar or other delicious tidbit.

I finally put down the bins and resume writing, chastising myself for my lack of focus. I make some good progress in the next hour, stopping periodically to look at the birds. Suddenly it dawns on me that I could write about the experience of birding in a single tree. That seemed an intriguing idea, so that’s what I’m doing. Pretty clever, huh? I’m writing, but I’m also birding. Two birds with one stone, so to speak.

Our tree for today's "Single Tree Birding" experiment, a pretty black locust
Our tree for today’s “Single Tree Birding” experiment, a pretty black locust

Before I tell you about the other birds, let me introduce our tree for the day. This is a 30-foot-tall black locust tree located on the edge of a parking lot. At least I think that’s what it is, after perusing two tree field guides. Other trees nearby include cottonwoods, various evergreens, oaks, elms, and many more I don’t know how to identify (yet). There’s a large lawn area too.

The little chipping sparrow appeared to “own” this tree, as he sang from it for the entire three hours I was there, entertaining me with his pretty little song.

Eastern Kingbird, scouting for flying insects
Eastern Kingbird, scouting for flying insects

At one point I think I see a kingbird fly into the back side of the tree, but can’t confirm it. But 15 minutes later he pops into view on a branch right in front of me, posing nicely for his photo. I later watch him launching flycatching forays from the highest branches of the tree, grabbing insects midair. The kingbird is a member of the flycatcher family, birds that grab insects on the wing, often coming back to land again and again on the same branch. I’m always delighted to see this feat of timing and speed, not to mention eyesight. I can’t even see the insects they’re grabbing.

I open a document of notes I took at a writing workshop recently. I read some of them. I look back up to try to see the chipping sparrow (because now that I know what I’m writing about, I realize that a photo of him would be a nice addition). As I look up, I see a bluebird fly out of the tree with a caterpillar in its mouth. He flies overhead and goes into a tree behind me, where I soon see his mate as well. No matter how many times I see a bluebird, it always makes me smile because I think of the “Bluebird of Happiness.”

Cottonwood seed puffs and some leaves from the locust tree
Cottonwood seed puffs and some leaves from the locust tree

Back to my notes. The writing workshop was led by Dr. J. Drew Lanham, a professor at Clemson University. This was my first time being taught by him, and I came out of that workshop with some notes that I know I’ll refer to many times in my future writing efforts. One of my favorites of his ideas was to pick up a leaf nearby when you see a special bird, and insert it into your field guide to remind you of how you felt and what you saw at that moment. So I stopped in my writing to bend down and gather up some of the cottonwood seedpuffs that were coating the grass.

Now the breeze slows down and the air feels warmer. A robin starts singing loudly behind me. I can hear a blue-gray gnatcatcher in another tree nearby, and now goldfinches have gathered in the interior of our locust tree, softly chattering among themselves. A flicker announces his presence with his boisterous calls. And still the chipping sparrow sings every five or ten seconds. Does he sing for the pleasure of it, or to get a mate, or to protect his territory? Possibly a bit of all those, I think.

Turkey Vulture flyover
Turkey Vulture flyover

I stand up to stretch and see a turkey vulture soaring over our tree.  As I sit down, some blue jays and crows are having an argument in the trees behind me. Two cowbirds land beneath the tree and walk around poking around in the grass.

A chickadee is singing his sad-sounding two-note call in a nearby tree. The breeze has brought a sweet smell now, from some plant I can’t see around me and can’t identify from the scent. But trust me, it’s lovely. I can’t inhale deeply enough. Maybe honeysuckle?

Down near the lake there are red-winged blackbirds calling occasionally. They seem to have already settled down from the noisy and aggressive early part of breeding season. A couple geese land in the lake as a red-bellied woodpecker makes a brief stop in our tree.

I keep writing. I make good progress, ending up with two draft articles for future use.

Taking a break from eating to sing again
Taking a break from eating to sing again

Then I hear a catbird softly mewing behind me. I play a catbird song on my Audubon bird app and he responds by singing back to me for twenty seconds or so. (I try to be judicious in my use of bird calls so as not to cause distress to the birds, but I thought in this situation it was ok to play it one time.)

Chipping Sparrow with leaf
Chipping Sparrow with green  caterpillar

So to summarize, I saw the following birds in this single locust tree during my three hour writing session: Chipping Sparrow, Eastern Kingbird, Eastern Bluebirds, American Goldfinches, and Red-bellied Woodpecker.  This unassuming tree managed to feed or shelter at least five species of birds this afternoon, not to mention all the work it did to capture carbon dioxide and exhale oxygen to make our planet healthier. A tree is a special thing. (And this “one-tree birding” idea is fun and I might just try it again soon.)

And, just because I’m compelled to record all the birds, here are the others who didn’t actually visit our tree: Northern Flicker, American Crow, Blue Jay, Red-winged Blackbirds, Canada Geese, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Turkey Vulture, American Robin, Gray Catbird, and Black-capped Chickadee.

The sparrow is finally quiet and I find that I feel lonely without his pretty serenade to inspire me. I hope he’s taking a well-deserved nap up there in the cool interior of that lovely tree. I’m heading home, rejuvenated and relaxed, happy that I can share this peaceful afternoon with all of you.

Maybe a change of scenery and some fresh air would do you good too. Why not try it and find out? And don’t forget to hug a tree while you’re out there. 🙂

People Who Need People

That title is a reference to the well-known song sung by Barbra Streisand in “Funny Girl.” The line from that song that has always resonated with me is this: “People who need people are the luckiest people in the world.” I’m a bit of a loner and an introvert, tending to spend most of my time alone or with just a couple other people. But even though I know there’s nothing inherently wrong with being this way, I still feel a bit of shame at my inability to be the outgoing, always-on-the-run, busy-busy-busy personality that is more socially acceptable in this country.

Crowded section of the Magee Marsh boardwalk
Crowded section of the Magee Marsh boardwalk

As an HSP, I have a strong aversion to crowds and noise. Some people are stimulated in a positive way by being around lots of other people, but I have the exact opposite experience. After spending time at a large social function, I usually feel very tired and emotionally drained. We HSPs take in so much more information in any given situation than most people that our brains just get overloaded with stimuli. Because of this, I’ve learned to orchestrate my life so that I have lots of quiet time for recuperation and reflection on my experiences. Knowing all of this, you might wonder why I would voluntarily go to a birding festival where the most popular birding spot is a narrow boardwalk that gets so crowded you sometimes have to push your way between people. (The photo to the left is only a medium-sized crowd — it gets much worse in spots where a really good bird is spotted!)

Birders spread out on the beach, scanning the shrub line for warblers. I much prefer this type of birding experience!
Birders spread out on the beach, scanning the shrub line for warblers. I much prefer this type of birding experience!

It’s funny though, that because of the beauty and general awesomeness of the birds, I don’t really get as tense as I would somewhere else with the same crowds. Like, for example, if the crowds were that thick at a street art festival, I’d only be able to spend short amounts of time there. But the birds make all the difference. Even though I’m surrounded by throngs of people, my mind is mostly focused on the little flying creatures in the trees.  If you saw me on the Magee boardwalk, you wouldn’t necessarily think that I was any different from anyone else. You’d probably even see me helping other people to see and identify birds; I really do love interacting with people when I can teach or show them something interesting.

This year at the Biggest Week I had a moment where I was struck by something ironic: I’ve always thought birding was a healthy and fun way to avoid people, but I found that my love of birds has begun to bring me closer to people.

My festival name badge
My festival name badge

Like the moment when a complete stranger noticed my name badge and told me she’d read my blog and liked it. Wow, talk about having your mind blown….that was great. One of the most rewarding things someone can say to me is that they read my blog and enjoy it.

There was another moment where my blog started a conversation too. I was on the boardwalk in a very crowded section, trying to catch a glimpse of some warbler (I think it was a Golden-winged…). I exchanged pleasantries with a very well-known birder who began asking me about my HSP trait, telling me she’d read my blog and was curious about it. We had a quiet conversation right in the middle of a huge crowd of people, with people jostling for better vantage points to see the bird. I was so touched by this and made sure to thank her for talking to me about it.

It may sound egotistical, but I believe it’s a core human truth: We all like to know that we’re important, that we make a difference.  This is something I’ve struggled with in recent years because I don’t usually get this kind of feedback in my regular life. I question whether I’m doing anything useful with my life. These moments of connection meant SO much to me. I thought I was okay with my quiet, relatively isolated existence. It’s not that I’m not happy — I am. But my interactions with other bird lovers in the past month have added another dimension to my life, making it richer and more meaningful.

I’m still processing what this all means to me. For example, why have I never felt this type of connection to any other group of people before? What is it about bird people that makes me feel so good? I think it may be our shared concerns for the natural world, the tie that binds all human and animal life together.  Part of me doesn’t want to over-analyze the whole experience, but I know I’ll be thinking about it for a long time.

After all these years, is it possible I really could be one of the “People Who Need People”?

Migration Mania Series #2: “Butter Butt”

Yellow-rumped Warbler rear view - adjusted lighting
A poor photo, but it clearly shows his Butter Butt!

In my first post of this series I told you all about my favorite warbler, the Blackburnian. This next one isn’t as flashy, but it’s got the best nickname of all the warblers: Butter Butt. Yes,meet the Yellow-rumped Warbler (YRW), aka Setophaga coronata, one of the most widespread of all the wood warblers in North America. As you can see, there’s no mystery to how he got his name –look at that bright yellow patch on his backside.

Front view of Yellow-rumped Warbler in spring breeding plumage
Front view of Yellow-rumped Warbler in spring breeding plumage

The eastern and western subspecies of the YRW are called Myrtle and  Audubon’s, respectively. All the photos in this post are the eastern subspecies, the Myrtle warbler. The Audubon warbler looks pretty much the same except its throat is yellow instead of white.

Most warblers have to migrate in winter because their main food source is insects. Those that migrate usually go to Mexico and Central America where they can bask in the sunshine and indulge in the abundant insect food supply. But these guys are the only warblers able to digest bayberries, so they might stay around through the winter in northern places where there’s a good supply of that food. We have some of them stay through the winter here in my home area (Oakland County, Michigan), but they’ve just started to show up in larger numbers in the past couple of weeks. Eric and I just spent the weekend birding in Savannah, Georgia, and we saw Butter Butts EVERYWHERE down there, so they’re definitely on the move.

Like most songbirds, they migrate primarily at night. I read in Birds of North America that some data indicates they fly an average of 194 miles per day in spring migration and 55 miles per day in fall migration. Either way, that’s a lot of ground to cover for such a little creature, don’t you think? At that pace, it can take them at least two weeks to cover the continental US. And when you add in weather delays (yes, airlines aren’t the only ones that are grounded in bad weather) it can probably take them twice as long.

Singing Yellow-rumped Warbler, partially hidden among the leaves
Singing Yellow-rumped Warbler, partially hidden among the leaves – this is the typical view you get of warblers high up in the trees (click for larger view)

And I learned something else very interesting about the Butter Butts while researching them for this post. You may have heard about or seen a Killdeer pretending to have a broken wing to distract you away from her eggs or nestlings, right? Well I was very surprised to read that both parents of YRWs do a very similar thing! The parent holds both wings almost fully extended and shaking, then drags them along the ground to draw you away from her precious babies. Researchers even noted one female performing this distraction display for three and a half minutes while they were checking her nest.

Here’s a link to an audio recording of the song of the Yellow-rumps (scroll down on that page), and here’s the latest eBird map of where they are now. (Darker purple indicates more reports, lighter is fewer. If you zoom in on the maps you can get down to markers that show individual reports by birders all over the country. It’s really fun to do — try it!)

I’m having a blast doing these Migration Mania posts but I’m starting to feel the pressure of time running out: The Biggest Week in American Birding starts in ONLY 17 DAYS! There’s so much I want to share with you…our weekend birding Savannah, Georgia,….the birds we’re seeing here in Michigan now…what I’m looking forward to seeing in Ohio next month….spring is crazy busy!!

Visitor Guide for 2013 Biggest Week in American Birding
Visitor Guide for 2013 Biggest Week in American Birding

So in case I forget something, here’s a direct link to the online version of the Visitor Guide for this year’s Biggest Week in American Birding (click the image to the left to go to the guide). You can page through and read all about it. There are tips for beginning birders, articles about some of this year’s speakers, and lots more. I’m not ashamed to brag about being featured in it either — check out page 33!

A Highly-Sensitive Person Goes Birding

Beaver with mouthful of seaweed v3 (640x414)
Beaver with a mouthful of aquatic plants for a mid-day snack. (Click to enlarge)

I want to tell you about a conversation I had with a stranger yesterday while I was out birding. To understand the significance of it, you need to know that one of the things I experience as an HSP is an above-average sensitivity to sudden and/or loud noises.  I know that most people will be startled by a sudden noise –like a car backfiring — but I have problems with things most other people don’t even seem to notice. Movie theaters are a good example: At a movie with my husband last week, I had to cover my ears for much of it because the sound was so loud I couldn’t concentrate on what the actors were saying. It felt like it vibrated to the core of my body, jangling every last nerve to the point that I felt like running away. And it wasn’t even an action movie. (You’d think I would have learned to take earplugs to the theater by now!)

This kind of response to noise is common among HSPs; we can be so overstimulated by the way the sound feels that we can’t focus on anything except getting away from the source of it. It’s one of those things that can be a minor or major problem, depending on the particular situation. Luckily, birding isn’t usually a noisy activity. Unless you’re watching a big flock of Canada Geese or Sandhill Cranes, that is. 🙂

Can you believe this pair nests here every year, right beside a shooting range?
Can you believe this Osprey pair nests here every year, right beside a shooting range?

But there’s a section of our favorite metropark that’s located next to a gun club, and when we go there to enjoy nature, we’re also bombarded by the sudden and loud sounds of frequent gunshots. Despite knowing that there’s a fence between us and the guns, and that they’re shooting at targets and not at us walking in the woods, I find myself tensing up at every shot.  Not a very pleasant place to bird. And that gun club is the reason we avoided this part of the park for years.Sign for trail closing due to eagle nest

But as I got more into birding and wanted to find more birds, I finally forced myself to “get over it” and go there occasionally. After all, there’s a way cool Osprey nest on the cell tower there, and now there’s also a Bald Eagle nest there too. (I wrote about the “secret” Bald Eagle nest a couple posts back, but since then the park has put up signs about it so it’s no longer secret. They’ve also blocked off parts of the trail to protect the birds.)

Anyway, here’s the conversation I had yesterday with a stranger I met on the trail right beside the gun club fence. We said hello and then this:

Him: I’m going out to see the eagles…there’s supposed to be a nest out here somewhere.

Me: Yes, there is.

Him: I’m out here all the time and I didn’t even know about it. I’m a club member next door (indicates the gun club on the adjacent property).

Me: Yeah, they’ve blocked the trail off to protect the eagles, but you can see the nest from across the pond. (Then I told him where to stand and which direction to look to see it.)

Him: Ok.

Then we exchanged a few more words about the Osprey nest nearby, then said goodbye. A few steps later I turned around and we had this further conversation:

Me: Excuse me…do you know if there’s any particular day or time when there’s no shooting going on at the club? I’d like to be able to come see the birds without the sound of gunshots.

Him: (Proceeds to tell me which days they have certain shooting events…which I didn’t care about, then he finally says that there’s no shooting on Tuesdays.)

Me: Oh, good! I wish I’d asked about that years ago…

Him: It’s not that much shooting, really. They’re just target shooting behind the fence…

Me: Oh I know, but it just bothers me. I find it sort of jarring and not conducive to enjoying nature.

Him (looking at me oddly, or is that in my imagination?): I guess I’m just used to it. [Pause] Well there’s less shooting now because nobody can find any ammo…. (He then tried to have a conversation with me about why they’re hoarding their ammo when they can find it, and how the government is trying to take their guns, etc. I extricated myself from that as politely and quickly as possible and went on my way. It was a beautiful day and I was there for birding, not politics.)

I wanted to tell you this story because at the point when I told him I found the sound of gunshots “jarring,” I found myself feeling like there was something wrong with me because I had to make a big deal about something that most people seem to accept without much fuss. And that self-criticism about being sensitive is something I really don’t like. It’s not like I’m choosing to feel the noise of the guns all the way to my bones — it’s just the way it is. I can’t change the way my nerves send signals to my brain, can I?

So why do I feel I have to apologize for trying to avoid things that make me uncomfortable like that? I think it’s because our American culture has such a strong prejudice toward extroverts that we’re all conditioned throughout our lives to think that our sensitivities are abnormal. I guess since HSPs only make up about 15-20% of the population, we are probably technically “abnormal.” But you know what I mean, right?

But we’re judged enough by the non-HSPs around us, and we need to not judge ourselves so harshly on top of that. There’s nothing wrong with arranging your life the way you like it, and that includes avoiding things that upset you and allowing time to recuperate after an event that overstimulates your nervous system. No matter what anyone else says or thinks about our sensitivities, we need to honor our own needs before we can be of any use to anyone else in our lives. Remember the emergency instructions the flight attendants give us before each flight? “Put the oxygen mask on yourself before assisting anyone else.”

As I write this I feel like I’m giving a speech — standing on my soapbox, so to speak. But it is what it is. I’m feeling braver about talking about HSP issues since so many of you have sent me comments and subscribed recently. (By the way, thanks for all the lovely comments on my “About Me” page last week.) But even so, I’ve edited this post over and over for days, not really sure what I wanted to admit publicly, and I keep hesitating when I’m almost ready to publish it. But you know what, I’m going to be brave right now and send my thoughts out to the blogosphere. If even one person is helped by my perspective, then I can tolerate the judgment of all the rest. (That feels really good to say!)

Now, where are those birds?

Zygodactyl Feet? Who Me?

And now for the woodpecker action I promised in an earlier post….

Hairy Woodpecker stashing nut in old Pileated hole
Hairy Woodpecker stashing nut in old Pileated hole
Hairy woodpecker
The red on the back of the head tells us this is a male Hairy Woodpecker.

The other day, I looked out the kitchen window and saw a Hairy Woodpecker stashing peanuts in some holes drilled in a sassafras tree by a Pileated Woodpecker a couple years ago.

Red-bellied Woodpecker (female) after she bumped the Hairy off her spot!
Red-bellied Woodpecker (female) after she bumped the Hairy off her spot!

And as if that wasn’t cute enough, a moment later he was bumped off his spot by a female Red-bellied Woodpecker, who proceeded to stash her own peanut in the same hole (or maybe she was taking his out). It happened so fast that if I’d blinked I would have thought the Hairy had magically turned into a Red-bellied. I’ve seen the Red-bellies do that same move before — back in January as I was watching my first ever Fox Sparrow on the ground below our feeders, suddenly a Red-belly landed practically on top of him. I think they’ve got a bit of an aggressive streak, or else they just don’t watch where they’re going very carefully!

Zygodactyl toe blog sidebarAs fun as it was to see the interaction of the Hairy and Red-belly, I got to see a much rarer interaction a few days later at the same tree.

A hard-working female Pileated Woodpecker
A hard-working female Pileated Woodpecker (a male would have a red moustache stripe rather than black)

As I walked out the driveway to get the mail one afternoon, I spotted a Pileated Woodpecker in the woods across the road. Excited at the possibility that it would come over to our yard, I ran inside to get my binoculars and camera. When I came back the bird was nowhere in sight. Disappointed, I went back inside, but stationed myself at the kitchen windows so I could keep an eye out in case he/she came back.

I couldn’t believe my luck when she did come into the yard less than 20 minutes later! And even more interesting, she went right to those same sassafras trees (we have five of them side by side in that part of the yard). She began chipping away at the bark in several different spots at first, then settled on one spot and really got busy. But the resident Red-bellied Woodpeckers apparently didn’t want her here, and they tried to chase her away. They were unsuccessful and gave up after a few minutes, leaving her to spend the next 45 minutes drilling a hole big enough to put her entire head inside the tree.

Red-bellied woodpecker and Pileated woodpecker -- look at the size difference!
Red-bellied woodpecker and Pileated woodpecker — look at the size difference!

But I got a great photo with both woodpecker species in the same frame, showing the big size difference. Usually the Red-bellied Woodpeckers are one of the largest birds in our yard, but this one looks so tiny next to the Pileated, doesn’t he?

I was thrilled to be able to watch her for so long, and after she finished drilling that large hole she flew across the road and was gone. I was hoping maybe she was going to make a nest hole, but I think this was just a hunt for ants inside the tree. Since these big birds have territories from 150-200 acres in size, our property is just a small portion of their home base. I guess that’s why we’ve only seen two of them in the past several years here.

Pileated Woodpecker holes from previous years (533x800)
Older holes
Pileated Woodpecker holes in sassafras tree (533x800)
New holes

I went out to check out the holes after she left. These two shots show the holes dug in previous years compared to the new ones; see how the exposed inner bark is brown on the new ones?  

And here’s a video of her as she worked, accompanied by some light classical music that was playing on my tv.  (It’s a good thing woodpeckers have reinforced skulls or they’d need a steady supply of aspirin, wouldn’t they?)

Migration Mania Series #1: Blackburnian Warbler

Blackburnian Warbler at Magee Marsh during migration
Blackburnian Warbler at Magee Marsh during migration

I know my blog audience is made up of many types of people — birders & non-birders, HSPs, and general nature lovers — and I hope that I usually balance the topics enough for all of you to find something interesting here. Those of you who’ve been reading my blog for years will know that spring is extra special for me because of the excitement of migration. So I hope the non-birders will be patient in the coming weeks as there’s more bird talk than usual. In the next five weeks leading up to the Biggest Week in American Birding, I’ll be doing a mini-series of posts I’m calling “Migration Mania,” in which I plan to tell you  a little bit about some of our migrating birds and hopefully convey why they’re so much fun to watch. And be forewarned, I have a mission to get everyone excited about birds eventually. (I get a huge thrill when someone tells me they’ve started paying more attention to birds after reading my writing about them, something that has been happening more often recently.)

So to get us started, I offer you the first installment: The Blackburnian Warbler

Blackburnian Warbler in Tawas, MI
Blackburnian Warbler in Tawas, MI

Warblers are the stars of spring migration and one of the reasons I fell in love with birds; therefore I  have to start with my favorite of all the warblers, Setophaga fusca, the Blackburnian Warbler. This tiny little bird is the only warbler on our continent to have an orange throat, allowing him to stand out even among a family of birds with so many other brightly-colored members. (The predominant color among warblers seems to be yellow.)

Warblers are very small birds, usually around 4-5″ (10-12 cm) long and weighing less than a half ounce (14 grams). Most of them spend the winters in Central and South America and then migrate to their summer breeding grounds in the northern US and Canada (see range map below). So imagine this: you weigh less than one ounce, are 5″ long, and you have to fly a couple thousand miles. Twice a year. Solely powered by the energy your little body can generate. That fact alone should give you a much bigger appreciation for these amazing little birds.

Range Map of Blackburnian Warbler
Range Map of Blackburnian Warbler

Blackburnian Warblers breed in the eastern part of the northern US and southern Canada. On their breeding grounds, they spend their time way up at the tippy tops of the trees, but during migration they often come down nearer to ground level so we can see them in their beautiful breeding plumage. Honestly, I think they know how pretty they are, and that’s why they come down to the Magee Marsh boardwalk — to show off for us.

The Blackburnian Warbler spends its winters in the forests of the Andes, mostly from Venezuela to Peru.  In early April it migrates northward around the Gulf Coast. I checked eBird today to see where the Blackburnians are right now, and I see that most of the reports are from Costa Rica and Columbia. But interestingly, there was a report from Brevard, Florida a couple weeks ago, so they’re definitely heading north now. (Well, at least one of them is!) Here’s a link to the map if you’re curious. (And just as I was preparing this post, Greg Miller posted links to the eBird maps for all the warbler species on his blog, here.)

I can’t wait to get my first glimpse of a bright orange flash in the trees this year. The anticipation of that thrill is almost as good as the actual moment I first get my binoculars focused on one of these little feathered gems. It’s a challenge to  find them and then keep your eyes on them — they move quickly through the branches grabbing insects from the undersides of the new leaves — and I always have sore shoulders after a day of watching warblers. But it’s SO worth it.