Friday, October 31, 2008

Changing of the Guard

Though I enjoy watching birds all year long, there is a particular excitement to be felt as autumn arrives in all its golden glory. Because my office is in my home, I am able to enjoy the birds at our backyard feeders every day. During the fall, it’s interesting to watch some of our summer resident birds prepare for (i.e., fatten up) and embark on their southern migration. Our summer resident Gray Catbirds, Rose-Breasted Grosbeaks, and American Robins are long gone, as are the Northern (Baltimore) Orioles that seem to become scarcer each year.

We keep our bird feeders up and filled almost all year round, and many birds come every day to feed and stay through the winter. Our resident Blue Jay flock — three families, I think — is a rowdy bunch. They’re like teenaged boys with hot rods; they come in to the feeders at top speed, slam on the brakes, and come to a screeching halt, scattering the smaller birds just as bullies in the school yard sometimes do. But I love them, with their bold coloring and brassy voices and the graceful upcurving of wingtips as they come in for a landing on the deck rail. They are smart and resourceful, and have figured out how to get seeds out of the feeder that is designed to exclude them. But they have a certain tenderness, too; during their spring courtship, nothing is sweeter than to see the male choose a seed for his mate and place it carefully in her beak. (OK, I’m anthropomorphizing.)

We had a good sized flock (30-40) of American Goldfinches at the thistle feeders during the winter of 2007-2008; occasionally a few Pine Siskins stopped in, as well. The goldfinches visited daily throughout the spring and early summer; they breed in late summer after the thistles have gone to seed. They line their nests with the silky white thistledown; isn’t that a nice thought? The goldfinches have been scarce these past several weeks as they’ve been busy with family duties, but one family came to the thistle feeders a few weeks ago – two parents and four young – as if the parents wanted to show the feeder to the young ones. They’ll be back in a few weeks, if not sooner.

Some birds stop at our feeders only during migration. We’ve had a small flock of Purple Grackles in the neighborhood for the past few weeks; today I noticed that the flock had grown to about three times its usual size, which may indicate that the birds are massing in preparation for departure. Red-Winged Blackbirds and Brown-Headed Cowbirds are regular fall visitors, too, stopping in for a snack on their way south. Lovely, glossy, blackbirds. In 2006 and 2007, a single Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker stopped at our suet feeder in October; I didn’t see one this fall.

But the most exciting part of the autumn is looking out for our first visitors from the north who come “deep south” to Connecticut for the winter. Just arrived at our feeder this week are the Dark-Eyed Juncos and the White-Throated Sparrows, little beauties that seem to bring winter with them; now that they are here, the days and nights somehow really feel colder. Now I’m waiting for the Red-Breasted Nuthatches, Purple Finches, and Brown Creepers; we had one pair of each last winter.

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