Rx: Go Birding, You Fool

Well, it’s been a long, hard winter in northwest Ohio, but we’re finally able to see light at the end of the tunnel. Birds have started arriving from their winter homes in the south, some trees are beginning to bud out, and a few wildflowers are popping up here and there. The transition feels excruciatingly slow, but all of these things are soul-healing sights after we’ve endured months of brutally cold weather, lots of snow, and then barren landscapes of brown and gray in every direction.

Today I went to my nearest metropark to get some exercise and see if I could find any more bird species to add to my year list. So far this year I’ve recorded 95 species in my home county, and today I added two more, which I’ll tell you about below. I thought I’d just recap the walk as I experienced it, because it was full of interesting bird behavior. The weather was still chilly, with a temperature in the low 40s but made to feel colder by a light but persistent northern wind. The sun was shining though, so that made it tolerable.

I should mention that I purposely left my heavy birding camera in the car today, because I didn’t want to carry it and I thought I’d just enjoy the birds without worrying about trying to get good photos. So the photos in this post were not taken today, but I still want to give you a representation of what I saw on my walk.

Before I even left the parking lot I heard some woodpeckers raising quite the ruckus in a large tree. At first it seemed to be an interaction between two Red-bellied Woodpeckers, but I quickly saw that there were three of the smaller Downy Woodpeckers also hopping around them, as if they were spectators egging them on. And a lone Eastern Bluebird sat off to the side on the end of a branch, calmly observing this melee.

(For some reason the normal caption won’t work on this, so the Downy is on the left, and the Red-bellied is on the right)

I watched the woodpeckers for a couple minutes, until they eventually quieted down and flew across the adjacent mowed meadow and into the woods. I’m still not sure what they were bickering about, although the red-bellies were a male and female, so maybe it was part of courtship. And perhaps there was a nesting cavity in that tree that the downies were interested in as well, who knows?

Eastern Towhee male
Eastern Towhee male

Just 50 yards farther along I heard some birds rustling around in the leaf litter of the woods, so I stopped to scan the ground and found a beautiful male Eastern Towhee poking around near a fallen log. These are such pretty birds that I don’t see all that often, so I walked slowly around the edge of this section of woods to try for a better look. Towhees have a pretty song that sounds like “drink your tea!” and I was hoping to hear him sing that one. He didn’t, but he did toss out a few repeats of his “chew-ee!” call, which was good enough for me.

Field Sparrow at Oak Openings w sig Kim Smith
Field Sparrow

Moving along, I headed toward an area along the river where I’d had some rewarding bird experiences last year. And I was not disappointed. I followed a mowed path that eventually just ended in a field surrounded by a broken down fence. I’d never walked this particular path before, and wasn’t sure I was supposed to be there, but I could see across the field to the place that was my destination, so I just continued into the field. I startled a cute Field Sparrow, who popped up and watched me with his sweet baby face.

Brown Thrasher at Magee w sig
Brown Thrasher

Then, as I turned my head I saw a Brown Thrasher dive like a bullet into a thicket about 25 yards in front of me. I was really excited by this, as he was the first thrasher I’d found this year. I slowly approached the cluster of tangled shrubs (maybe forsythia, but not blooming yet so I can’t be sure), walked all around it, finally locating the thrasher hopping around inside on the ground. These are usually pretty shy birds, so I didn’t expect to get a good look at him. But then he began singing his seemingly unending series of twice-repeated notes that is so distinctive to this species. It was, literally, music to my ears.  Here’s a Brown Thrasher song recorded by David LaPuma at Cape May, New Jersey:  (Courtesy of Xeno-Canto Creative Commons license.)

There are a few bird songs that make me just stop in my tracks and smile, and the Brown Thrasher’s is one of those. It’s up there with the song of the Wood Thrush, Northern Mockingbird, and Gray Catbird, in my opinion. Just melt-your-heart, catch-your-breath stunningly beautiful, jubilant song.

As I continued my walk along the river’s edge, I kept hearing the screech of a Red-tailed Hawk. I’d caught a couple glimpses of it soaring over the trees, but then I heard it once more and when I looked up I saw a mature Bald Eagle flying a lazy circle above the river.  And immediately I saw the hawk dive at him, and the eagle gave his squeaky chattery call as it tried to ignore him.

There’s an interesting bit of trivia about the call of a Bald Eagle that most non-birders don’t know, so I’m going to give you the scoop right here and now. Many times in tv or movies, for some reason the producers use the call of a Red-tailed Hawk when they show a Bald Eagle. If you’ve ever seen the opening sequence to The Colbert Report, you’ll see a Bald Eagle swoop across the screen as it screeches an ear-rending call. But the thing is, that’s the sound of a Red-tailed Hawk, not the eagle. I can only guess that it’s because people think a Bald Eagle needs to sound fierce.  Here’s what a Bald Eagle really sounds like:

(Courtesy of Paul Marvin on Xeno-canto.)

Golden-crowned Kinglet for blog widget
Golden-crowned Kinglet

Next I came upon an area on the river bank that was just hopping with birds — the first ones I noticed were Northern Cardinals and Song Sparrows, both belting out their lovely songs. There were Tufted Titmice and Black-capped Chickadees here too. But then I hit the jackpot. Ahead of me about 30 yards I could see a pair of titmice hopping around on the ground and thought I saw a Golden-crowned Kinglet near them. My plan was to slowly approach them and try for a confirmation of the kinglets, but suddenly I heard more of them very close to me, so I stopped in my tracks to listen.

As I waited for a kinglet to come into view, I saw another of my absolute favorite birds, the tiny little Brown Creeper. Creepers are aptly named, because their feeding behavior is one of creeping along the trunk of a tree in a spiral pattern, then dropping down to the bottom of an adjacent tree and repeating the spiral creeping pattern up that tree.  The creeper was several trees away from me, but I knew he would probably end up on the tree right beside me if I held very still. So I did, and he did. And it was awesome.

brown-creeper-at-stony-creek-w-sig-4-17-14
Brown Creeper

And just as the creeper moved past me, a Golden-crowned Kinglet landed in the tree beside me, just below my eye level.  The kinglet was my second FOY (first-of-year) bird today, after the thrasher I’d seen earlier. And this tiny creature paid me no attention as he searched the branches for insects to fuel his continuing migration journey. There were several more kinglets with him, and I stood on the boardwalk along the river bank for about 20 minutes watching them and another creeper who showed up. A two-creeper day is an excellent day for me. (Here’s where I wrote about a three-creeper day a couple years ago.)

My entire walk only lasted about 90 minutes, but as you can see, it was chock full of great bird sightings. And it went a long way toward lifting my spirits and helping me shake the winter blahs. Isn’t it amazing how nature can do that?

Here There Be Dragons!

Calico Pennant male at Wiregrass lake
Calico Pennant (Celithemis elisa)

It’s that time again–it’s early summer and the odonata are plentiful and active. You may have noticed that I’ve been dabbling in dragonflies for several years, and have written about them a few times:

Thrashers, Dashers, and Mayflies (July 2016)

Things That Float and Things That Fly (July 2015)

Herps and Odes, Dragons and Toads (July 2013)

This year as I take a break from birding, I’m stepping up my efforts to learn about and photograph odonata.  So yesterday I spent the afternoon dragon hunting with a friend who is much more knowledgeable about them than I am. And more skilled at finding them as well.  He took me to a place where he knew we could find clubtails, a type of dragonfly I’d never seen before. And sure enough, within a few minutes of arriving, we’d seen multiples of two different species, the Pronghorn Clubtail and the Dusky Clubtail. I didn’t get a good photo of the Dusky, but here’s one I like of the Pronghorn, even though his tail end is out of focus. I like his face.

Pronghorn Clubtail dragonfly
Pronghorn Clubtail (Gomphus graslinellus)

As we continued walking and chatting, he would casually point out another species over there, and then another one over here, even identifying them as they flew far out over the water. I was impressed with how easily he could name each species, and it was a little bit overwhelming. It reminded me of how I felt the first year I came to Ohio to see the warbler migration — people around me were pointing out one species after another and I could barely look at one before they pointed out another.

But just as it did with warblers, this will just take some time and experience.  One of the tricks with learning birds, which I think will work the same with the dragons, is to get very familiar with the common species first. Then it becomes easier to know when you’ve found something different, and you can pay closer attention to it.

Twelve-spotted Skimmer dragonfly - Irwin Prairie
Twelve-spotted Skimmer (Libellula pulchella) with a mite on the back of its head

And, as with birds, you learn the particular habitats for each species, and the timing of their migrations and/or breeding cycles, and all of that information helps you to figure out what you might see at a given time in a given location.

Painted Skimmer dragonfly
Painted Skimmer (Libellula semifasciata)

Unlike birds, there are many species of odonata that can only be identified if you have them in your hand to examine the fine details of their complex bodies. That’s why some people use nets to catch them and see them better. But I don’t see myself doing that, at least at this point. (And you usually need a permit to do that in a park or nature preserve.) So I’ll have to accept the fact that, even if I get excellent photos, I won’t always be able to identify every species I come across. But that’s okay with me. This is something I’m doing for fun, for the simple pleasure of learning new things.

Bluets at Wiregrass Lake
Two different species of Bluets, a type of damselfly

Will I keep a species list? Maybe. Or maybe I’ll just enjoy being outdoors in the sunshine surrounded by these fascinating creatures. There’s something so refreshing about just being, without the need to record everything I see. Yeah, I think I could get used to this feeling.

By the way, go back up to the top picture of the Calico Pennant–did you notice that the red spots are heart-shaped? I didn’t either, until my friend Donna pointed it out to me. I think this one will now be nicknamed the Love Dragon. 🙂

Note: All of the odonata in this post were photographed on June 6, 2017 in northwest Ohio.

The Worst is Over…Not.

This whole business of divorce recovery and starting life over again in mid-life…it ain’t for sissies, as they say. For a while I’d thought I was through the worst of it, after going through the initial few months of sleepless nights and sheer panic about my future, then a period of calm reflection and settling down emotionally, and eventually starting to feel more optimistic about what lay ahead for me. When I got to that point I was sort of surprised: I thought it was supposed to take longer than that to heal from the trauma of divorce, but maybe I was one of the lucky ones, right? Wrong.

When I was offered a great job several months ago, I felt temporarily courageous and decided I was brave enough to move away from my friends and a place I loved. I convinced myself I was strong enough to start life all over, in a place that was geographically not all that far away but felt – psychologically – like it was thousands of miles away. Today I’m not so sure I’ve got enough strength.

Kim with titmouse in hand at Kensington Dec 2014
Hand-feeding a Tufted Titmouse at Kensington Metropark

But I’m not giving up. I’ve worked incredibly hard over the past 15 months to adjust to being on my own again. It’s taken every ounce of strength I could dredge up from the depths of my soul to get to this point. I’ve gone through all the stages of grief about my divorce–some of them more than once. I do wish the grieving process could be a linear one, so that once you’ve gone through each stage you could be done with it. But it’s not that way, and even though you think you’ve finished with the “anger” or “depression” stages, they can come back when you least expect them, which is even more unsettling than the first time.

I’ve been trying to figure out why I’m falling back into negativity and sadness lately.  I just spent a few minutes looking back through my Facebook timeline for December of last year, and I almost can’t believe how happy I looked back then. The photos in this post were all taken last December while I was living alone in my apartment, in limbo, not sure what I was going to do with my life. But look at me, I was happy! So why am I not happy now? I have a house and a job, so you’d think I’d feel better about my future, right?  But what I’ve realized is that I’m still missing so many of the people and places that I love, and more importantly, I don’t have the time or energy anymore to do the things that make me happiest.

Kim with two chickadees in hand at Kensington Dec 2014
Two chickadees feeding from my hands at Kensington Metropark

I can’t remember the last time I went out and just walked in nature. These days I come home exhausted, often crying as I walk into my dark and empty house, and spend the evening just sitting on the sofa in front of mindless television. And that is so not how I want to live my life! I want to be with friends who want to be with me, and I want to be able to smile without forcing it, and to see birds. In fact, I’m really missing the joy of seeing birds and just being able to spend time in nature. That’s been an important part of my healing process, and I can easily see the impact of less nature time in my life. Clearly, I need to make this a priority.

I’m also sure that this recent sadness is also partly due to the fact that it’s THE HOLIDAYS and we’re supposed to be giddy with happiness all the time. Maybe that’s why few people are willing to really hear me when I try to share something about my sadness and my fears. Since my emotions are so raw, I cry easily. And I see the way they look at me when I mention my troubles–their eyes glaze over or they just pretend they didn’t hear me and quickly change the subject. I wonder if people are afraid to acknowledge my pain because it makes them feel guilty for their happiness. Does that make sense? Or maybe they think I expect them to make everything better for me?

Kim and Deb in Rochester with holiday lights Dec 2014
My sister Deb and me enjoying the light display in Rochester, Michigan (Dec. 2014)

But that’s just it, I don’t expect that of anyone. And thankfully, I found one friend recently who was willing to just listen to me. And I’ll be eternally grateful to her for really seeing me for who I am and for not thinking I’m weak. She didn’t try to solve my problems, and I didn’t expect her to. She just listened to me. And that was such an amazing gift.

Is there anyone in your life who could use someone to just listen to them this holiday season? Could you give them that precious and life-affirming gift? I know I’ll try to pay it forward now that someone has done me the immense honor of acknowledging my struggles. After all, isn’t that what we all want from life, to be really seen and heard?

Wishing you and yours a holiday season filled with love and healing.

 

Three Rivers

Rivers flow not past, but through us; tingling, vibrating, exciting every cell and fiber in our bodies, making them sing and glide.  – John Muir

Sandusky River
Sandusky River behind the dam, deeper water

On my drive to work each day I cross three rivers, and I feel…something…as I drive over each one. I feel happy. And I can actually feel my heart rate slow as I gaze down at the water flowing beneath me. I would imagine that most people just drive across bridges without much thought, but I can’t stop thinking about why I’m still having such a significant response to these rivers after three months of driving over them.

Kayaking on a small lake in Michigan
Kayaking on a small lake in Michigan

Like many people, I’ve always been drawn to water. The ocean and the beach don’t hold much attraction for me, though, for whatever reason. I generally gravitate to ponds and small lakes. When I lived in Michigan I spent a lot of time kayaking on some of the beautiful lakes in their state and county parks, watching birds and taking photos of dragonflies.

But somehow I’ve not spent much time on or around rivers during my life. So maybe the attraction is partly due to the novelty of it. But there’s something fascinating about the way a river winds its way through the landscape, always changing, always moving.

I guess I get a feeling of peace when I’m near a river. Something about the movement of the water maybe. It’s coming from somewhere. It’s going somewhere else. Sometimes slowly, other times more rapidly, but never motionless. Moving water is cleansing, so maybe it has the same effect on my soul, helping to purge negativity and stimulate optimism.

A shallower section of the Sandusky River
Shallower portion of the Sandusky River

The first river I cross on my drive is the Sandusky, which is only about a quarter of a mile from home “as the crow flies.” It’s very shallow here, with many areas of exposed rocky riverbed. I think that makes it very scenic. As I cross the small bridge, I look to my left and catch a glimpse of the Ballville Dam that will most likely be removed soon (based on our recent election result). I look to my right and often see a pair of Bald Eagles sitting side by side in a tree overlooking the river. The eagles are just icing on the cake though, because I fell in love with this river long before I ever saw those birds hanging out here. And I’m excited about the possibility that the eagles will be able to stay all winter long because they’ve found this spot near the dam where, I’m guessing, there will be an area of open water year round. I’m looking forward to trying to get some photos of them soon.

Sandusky River seen from the Tindall Bridge
Sandusky River seen from the Tindall Bridge
Tindall Bridge with sunburst
Tindall Bridge with sunburst

About a mile from home in the opposite direction, where the Tindall Bridge crosses the river, there’s a sign marking it as an “Ohio Scenic River.” I’m drawn to the bridge as well as the water here, because it’s a one-lane metal bridge that makes a humming noise as you drive over it. One sunny day recently I walked down under the bridge and wandered around on the exposed rocks.  There was a guy in hip waders fishing out in the middle of the river, and a few lingering Killdeer calling out and chasing each other back and forth from one bank to the other. I still smile when I recall how I felt that day with the sun on my back and the cool air on my cheeks, and the sound of water trickling through dozens of small rock pools.

Tindall Bridge, 100 years old
Tindall Bridge, 100 years old
Below the Tindall Bridge, on the Sandusky River
Below the Tindall Bridge, on the Sandusky River
Portage River in Oak Harbor, Ohio
Portage River in Oak Harbor, Ohio (Image (c) Google Maps)

Next on my northward journey to work is the Portage River in downtown Oak Harbor. It flows into Lake Erie at Port Clinton.  I like how this one seems to be overflowing its banks, almost too much river to be contained within the channel.

Toussaint River, where the water is close to the road (Image (c) Google Maps
Toussaint River, where the water is close to the road (Image (c) Google Maps)

The last river I cross is the Toussaint, a 6-mile-long river that flows from west to east in Carroll Township, also emptying into Lake Erie. Crossing this one is the most exciting because the road is at the water level rather than far above it, so I feel like I’m literally driving across the water. Until most of them migrated south, I usually saw quite a few Great Egrets and Great Blue Herons here. There are still lots of gulls hanging out near this bridge, and often a Red-tailed Hawk on a nearby light pole, hoping for a hunting opportunity.

have never seen a river that I could not love. Moving water…has a fascinating vitality. It has power and grace and associations. It has a thousand colors and a thousand shapes, yet it follows laws so definite that the tiniest streamlet is an exact replica of a great river.  – Roderick Haig Brown

The other day I went to visit a friend in Brecksville (near Cleveland) and on my way home I had just a few minutes to stop by the local metropark for some ecotherapy. Even though I drive right past the Brecksville Reservation on the way to my friend’s house, I’d never taken the time to go in and see what it was like. From the entrance, I drove a few miles on a winding road through beautiful woods that were shrouded in a light mist from the rain that had been falling all day long.  Just around one of those bends I came upon Chippewa Creek, where I was thrilled to see a collection of stone cairns in the water near the road.

Stone cairns in the river at Brecksville Reservation, Ohio.
Stone cairns in the creek at Brecksville Reservation, Ohio.

Obviously I’m not the only person who enjoys walking in a shallow river. I often see rock cairns along hiking paths, but this is the first time I’ve seen them in the water. Notice the one on the right with five stones balanced on each other. Clearly that took some time and patience to find the right rocks and get them balanced properly. And although I know some people disapprove of the practice of building these cairns, I think these are very pretty and I hope to get a chance to visit that spot again. I’d like to take some time to just sit and look at these, listening to the sounds of the water flowing between the lovely wooded banks.

So in this month of Thanksgiving, I’m grateful for these three rivers that have been an unexpected bonus in the fabric of my new life. Although the vastness of Lake Erie is never far from anyone’s mind in northern Ohio, I’ve found a stronger connection to these winding ribbons of water that snake through the endless farm fields. I look forward to spending much more time exploring and contemplating each of them in the months to come. Who knows what kind of inspiration might be lurking in that moving water?

A river, though, has so many things to say that it is hard to know what it says to each of us.   — Norman Maclean, A River Runs Through It

Ah, Back in the Saddle Again

Well, I should say “Back in the Kayak Again.” I eagerly anticipate our maiden voyage each year, that day when we load our boats on top of the car and head out to one of our local lakes for some relaxation on the water. We took our first trip of 2014 last weekend and — surprisingly — managed to get out again this weekend. I was a bit disappointed last summer that we only got our kayaks wet two or three times, so we’re starting this year off with a renewed burst of enthusiasm.

Kayaking on Big Seven Lake
On Big Seven Lake

When we got our boats a few years ago I added a section in our “outdoor notebook” to record what we liked and didn’t like about each lake we visited. My entries go something like this:

Nice clean lake with interesting marshy coves to explore. No motorboats so very relaxing. Negatives: beach noise (in season) and few shady banks for breaks. Looks like it will be gorgeous in October too.

Sometimes I’ll add notes about the bird species we’ve seen there. These notes come in handy when we’re trying to decide where to go and all the lakes seem to run together in our minds.

One of our favorite smaller lakes is Lake Sixteen in Orion Oaks County Park. It’s only 90 acres, so we can easily explore the entire perimeter in a slow-paced morning. I think we might approach a kayak outing differently than people who aren’t birders though. When I see other people heading out on the lake, it seems they generally head straight for open water. We, on the other hand, tend to stay on the edges so we can scan the trees and shrubs for bird activity. This edge-exploration pattern also makes it easy to take breaks under the shade of overhanging trees when the sun starts to feel too hot.

View of Lake Sixteen from boat launch
View of Lake Sixteen from boat launch

So on our morning on Lake Sixteen we had the lake virtually to ourselves; I think we saw two other kayakers and one guy fishing in a rowboat. There were two pairs of nesting Mute Swans that we made sure to give a wide berth as we headed back into a small hidden cove. A couple years ago I’d seen my first Marsh Wren nests there, and I hoped to see another one. My wish came true a dozen times over as we were surrounded by the songs of the little birds. Over here, over there, behind you, there’s another one!

They can be very hard to see and even harder to photograph because they move so quickly in and out of the vegetation. But being down low in a kayak is a bit of an advantage because you can slowly drift closer as you watch for movement down inside the grasses. I managed to get this short video (47 seconds) showing one of them gathering fluff from a cattail and taking it into the nest. The first part of the video is a wide shot showing the nest on the right side of the screen. Then I zoom in on the bird so you can see him/her singing and plucking fluff from the cattail. You’ll hear quite a few other species of birds singing in this video, but the Marsh Wren is the one that sounds like a little sewing machine…you’ll know it when you hear it:

Yesterday’s outing was on Big Seven Lake at the aptly-named Seven Lakes State Park in Holly, Michigan. This lake is 175 acres, so it’s almost twice the size of Lake Sixteen. There’s a beach on this one though and sometimes it can detract from our enjoyment of the lake. But despite it being a beautiful day, there were only a handful of people at the beach.  When we launched around 9:30 there was nobody else on the lake, the sun was shining, and a light breeze was blowing. As soon as we hit the water I heard the very distinctive song of a Veery from the woods to our right. Here’s a link so you can hear what a Veery sounds like and see some photos. What a special way to start the day!

Kim taking photos in kayak by Eric (800x600)
Eric’s shot of me taking bird photos

After enjoying the Veery’s beautiful song for a few minutes we moved on. Very quickly we found catbirds, kingbirds, and lots of other lovely birds. Eric and I don’t stay together once we get out on a lake, so he went off to do his thing and I spent some time sitting in a cove listening to the various singing birds and trying to see as many as I could. I was thrilled to find a Willow Flycatcher, a bird I’ve only recently learned to identify from its songs and calls. Soon after that I spied a pretty male Rose-breasted Grosbeak and several Blue-Gray Gnatcatchers buzzing around near the water.

After a while I went to the far side of the lake and watched a muskrat swimming around and lots of huge carp splashing as they spawned in the shallow water at the edges of the lake. Then I heard a Red-tailed Hawk calling and looked up to see him soaring in big circles over the woods, with a very persistent Red-winged Blackbird repeatedly dive-bombing him. These photos show the size difference in the two birds — those blackbirds have no fear though. (I should say that I think this is an immature Red-tailed Hawk, but I’d love to be corrected if you know I’ve got it wrong.)Red-winged blackbird attacking RTHA v3 (800x732)

Red-winged Blackbird attacking RTHA (800x699)
Red-winged blackbird attacking RTHA (2) (800x739) Red-winged BL attacking RTHA v4 (800x725)

My best photo opportunity of the day happened just as I was getting ready to put my camera away and paddle back to the boat launch. A Great Blue Heron suddenly appeared around a bend and flew at eye-level beside me. I grabbed the camera and started shooting as he passed and went behind me. Considering that I didn’t have time to check my camera settings, I’m pretty happy with this one. The photo might not be perfect, but the memory of that special moment is!

Grace in motion!
Grace in motion!
Heading home after a day on the water
Heading home after a day on the water

A Bird in the Hand…

On Friday we finally–FINALLY–had temperatures above freezing, so I decided to take advantage of the heat wave and go try my hand at hand-feeding the birds at Kensington Metropark. This park is well-known around here for its brave feeder birds, but since it’s all the way on the other side of the metro area, 45 miles from me, I’ve never made the trek over there. But thanks to a bad case of cabin fever, my desperation drove me to jump in the car and head over. I texted my friend Janet and suggested she meet me there and I’m so glad she was able to come, because we spent a very enjoyable 90 minutes taking pictures of each other with birds on our heads and in our hands.

A Black-capped Chickadee eats seed from my hat!
A Black-capped Chickadee eats seed from my hat! (Photo by Janet Hug)

I’m still amazed at the thrill I got the moment the first chickadee landed on my bare hand. Its sharp little claws gripped the tips of my fingers, it looked up at my face as if to make sure it was safe, then grabbed a seed and flew to a nearby tree to crack it open. In the next 15 minutes dozens of birds came down and took seeds from my outstretched hand. At one point I had three birds on my hand at once, so I decided to put some more seed on my head so they could spread out a little bit. Immediately I felt them landing on top of my hat, their wings stirring the air beside my head as they landed and took off again with their bounty.

Taking pictures of each other with birds on our heads was such fun! (Photo copyright Janet M. Hug)
Taking pictures of each other with birds on our heads was such fun! (Photo by Janet Hug)
Janet feeding a Chickadee.
Janet feeding a chickadee.
Tufted Titmouse
Tufted Titmouse (Photo by Janet Hug)

I cannot believe I let so many years go by without having this magical experience! Often here at home our chickadees will chatter at me as I refill the feeders, sometimes even buzzing my head as they land on a feeder beside me as I’m filling the next one. I’ve tried many times to get them to eat from my hand, but always ended up frustrated when they were too timid. But the Kensington birds had no hesitation at all. I had Black-capped Chickadees, Tufted Titmice, White-breasted Nuthatches, and–get ready for this–a Downy Woodpecker, all eating from my hand and head. Here’s a video of the Downy Woodpecker on my hand:

And here’s a longer video of the titmice and chickadees:

I already knew that birds weighed very little, but if I hadn’t felt the claws of those chickadees on my fingers, I wouldn’t even have known they were there. It gives the phrase “light as a feather” a whole new meaning for me. What precious little creatures they are! A chickadee weighs less than a half ounce. That’s less than 14 paper clips, or a half of a slice of bread. Heck, you could afford to mail two chickadees for a first class postage stamp (not that I’m suggesting you do that, of course).

Hey Janet, what's that on your head?
Hey Janet, what’s that on your head?

Along with the birds eating from our hands, we were lucky enough to see a Field Sparrow that has been hanging around there, very unusual for this time of year. We also saw a Song Sparrow, lots of Blue Jays, Cardinals, and Red-bellied Woodpeckers, and even some Wild Turkeys trotting along the snowy path through the woods. And this is funny: Just before we got in our cars to leave, I’d mentioned my recent sightings of a Pileated Woodpecker in my yard, and said how I wished I could predict its visits so I could share it with our friend Dr. Bob, who is very eager to see one of those large woodpeckers. We said our goodbyes and I left as Janet was loading her camera gear into her car. If I’d only stayed a bit longer I would have seen the Pileated Woodpecker that flew right over her head in the parking lot, can you believe that?

Field Sparrow, an unusual winter visitor in our area
Field Sparrow, an unusual winter visitor in our area

I am so grateful to have had this amazing experience. It was exhilarating, but at the same time it also gave me such a sense of peace. And I really really really needed that. Now I’m feeling better about making it through this difficult winter. But I wouldn’t be surprised if I need another dose of ecotherapy at Kensington Metropark in the very near future.

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. 🙂