Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Babes in the Woods, Part 2

Yesterday morning, I wrote, “The population of downy woodpeckers visiting our feeders just about tripled this week. Our backyard is alive with these lovely little black and white birds!” You may read that essay HERE with my description of the antics of a small swarm of fledgling downies at our feeders.

Today, I could write the same essay, substituting “hairy woodpeckers” for “downy woodpeckers” and referring to “lovely medium-sized” woodpeckers instead of “lovely little” woodpeckers. At least one, and perhaps two, families of young hairy woodpeckers arrived today, coming with their parents, who have been daily feeder visitors for the past three years or so.
I just love watching them explore their new world. One young bird clambered all over the deck rail and palings, trying everything to find out if it tasted good. It found a puddle of last night’s rain water and had a drink. Another scavenged spilled seed from underneath the seed feeder, while another two chased each other round and round the trunk of the tree where our suet feeders hang. The hairies, both young and adult, are naturally shyer and more wary than the downies, and they are easily startled.

It’s interesting to observe the territorial displays that various birds employ around the feeders. Each bird works hard to defend “its” feed from all other comers. All the woodpeckers which visit our feeders (five species in all) have conspicuous underwing patterns. When they want to act tough, they face their rival, raise their wings to reveal the pattern, and call loudly, lunging and flashing the wings. It usually works, though sometimes some caterwauling battles ensue. On two occasions, I have seen a hairy woodpecker seize its smaller downy cousin by the bill, shake it vigorously, and toss it into the air! The little one would catch itself in midair and fly off. (Read more on “Woodpecker Wars” HERE.)

Monday, June 15, 2009

Babes in the Woods, Part 1

The population of downy woodpeckers visiting our feeders just about tripled this week. Our backyard is alive with these lovely little black and white birds!

During the fall and winter, more “downies” than I can count visit our suet feeders every day. They move around constantly, making it challenging to get an accurate count. One day I was able to count at least eight individuals in the tree where we hang our suet feeders. While two worked at the suet, at least six more waited on nearby branches for a chance to get at the high-calorie suet. (And that wasn’t even counting even more downies that I could see and hear at the edges of the yard, plus the many other birds that visit our suet and other feeders regularly.)

In the spring, as the adult downies pair off and become more territorial, then get busy with mating and nest-building, they tend to visit less often and in smaller groups, coming to the feeders singly or in pairs. Even when we do not fill the suet feeders for several days (as happened recently, in our successful effort to get rid of a family of greedy starlings), the downies come to the suet tree every day. When there is no suet, they visit the seed feeders, peck at some orange halves, and even try the hummingbird feeder.

As May blossoms into June, the adult downies start looking ragged and haggard, a sure sign that they are exhausting themselves feeding nestlings. Their suet-pecking technique is different now than during the cold months. In the winter, they peck off small pieces and eat it on the spot. During breeding season, they do eat some while on the feeder, but more often they chisel off larger chunks and carry them back to the nest for the chicks.

When the nestlings fledge (leave the nest), the parents teach them how and where to forage for food, including at our suet feeders. The family moves around together in a little flock. Each pair will typically have 3-8 chicks; taking chick mortality and predation into account, it’s not unusual to see an adult pair with 4-6 young ones in tow. This week they all came to the suet together.

Unlike some other birds which are colored very differently than their parents, young downies have a black-and-white pattern similar to their parents' plumage, though the red markings on the males’ heads will not come in until later. Despite the similar markings, it’s easy to tell the young ones from the adults: the fledglings are pristine, with fresh plumage and crisp black and white feathers. Their poor parents, looking half-dead after weeks of hard work and self-deprivation, are thin and worn, and their ragged feathers are a little yellowish (probably stained by tree sap, as these birds nest in tree cavities, and even half-dead trees have a little life in them – see my essay on that topic HERE).

At first the young ones perch awkwardly on branches near the suet, while the parents break off bits to feed to them. Within a few days, though, the fledglings are at the suet, feeding independently. It’s fun to watch them explore the “suet tree,” seeming to be curious and excited over a little bump in the trunk, or flaking off a bit of bark in hopes of finding something yummy crawling underneath, or chasing each other round and round the trunk. Sometimes one will come onto the deck, pecking at a fallen crumb of suet, watching the squirrels, or drinking from the rain puddles on the deck rail.

Now that the young are foraging on their own at least part of the time, the parents can take a bit of time to feed themselves and begin to recover somewhat from the stresses of the past few weeks. This morning, I spotted one of the parent birds clinging to our hummingbird feeder, taking a very long drink of sweet high-energy nectar. What a treat! It’s not unusual for woodpeckers to visit hummer feeders, and the downies can manage the hanging nectar feeder quite easily.

These lively little birds will continue to forage together for the rest of the summer. In the fall, they will generally disperse, but may form mixed flocks with chickadees, titmice, nuthatches, and other small winter birds. These little flocks of little birds are regular visitors at our feeders. And next March, it will start all over again.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Getting Carded

It seems just a few years ago that I was a freshman at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, the drinking age was 18, and “getting carded” meant that you appeared to be too young and had to prove that you were old enough.

Now, “getting carded” means just the opposite. I just received an application from AARP to apply for one of their cards: a membership card. Guess that means that I no longer appear too young (at least in AARP's database) and that I am definitely old enough.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

What Good is an Old Tree, Anyway?

I’m a different sort of birder than most who call themselves by that name. Unlike most birders, I don’t keep a “life list” in any manner except in my own accurate memory. With rare exception, I don’t travel to see rare birds, as many birders do, if I judge correctly from the very active and interesting online fora. (Well, in the winter of 2007 I drove two towns away to see Pine Grosbeaks, rare winter visitors to Connecticut.) But I think I love birds as passionately as the most obsessive lister – I just love them differently. While I am always thrilled to see a new bird for my mental life list, and while a sighting of a rare bird is always special, what I really enjoy is studying the habits and behavior of the birds that live all around me. One of the best ways to do this is to spend chunks of time at a few spots and watch just the birds that live in those areas.

One of my favorite spots is on the edge of a public park a few miles from my office; I stop there 3-4 times each week on the drive to work. It’s a fabulous mixed habitat area, with a river, stream, and lake in close proximity, separated by grassy fields of varying sizes, forest edges, shrubby hedgerows, mowed athletic fields, a marshy area, and plenty of open sky.

In the wooded fringe between a hayfield and a small lake, there stands a venerable old elm tree, clearly dying except for a few branches that have managed to put forth some smallish leaves. The large trunks have been ravaged by time and by woodpeckers, which have scaled off much of the grayish bark to reveal the buffy wood underneath. Above, the gracefully arching branches are silvery-gray, while at the very edges a few small green leaves add a delicate fringe. It's nice to see an old tree left standing; so many people are eager to cut down "ugly" old trees. What good could possibly be found in an old, dying tree?

This morning, I had set my sights on the hayfield over which this old tree stretched its branches. I had heard bobolinks there a few days ago, and I was hoping to spot these lovely grassland birds which have become increasingly rare as our farm fields get filled up with houses. The field was pretty busy, with Red-Winged Blackbirds and Purple Grackles filling the air with their sharp-clear calls, three species of swallows and many Chimney Swifts patrolling the air, and lots of smaller birds around the edges of the field.

But I found that my attention was continually drawn to the big old elm tree, which seemed to function as Grand Central Station for the area’s birds. I spent a good half hour just watching birds in this one tree, observing how the different birds were active at varying heights, some on or near the trunk, others at the tips of the branches. Many of the birds were familiar and common, but their behavior is fascinating and each one of them is lovely to look at. Here’s what I saw, starting from the top!

Because the upper branches of this tree are almost entirely bare, any birds which perch there are highly conspicuous. Purple Grackles, glossy black with iridescent highlights, used these top branches as their staging area, gathering and calling loudly before gliding down to the athletic fields to swagger around looking for their breakfast. The grackles seemed to have little patience for the pair of American Robins that also perched in the top branches briefly on their way to their nest on the little island in the lake. On the way to the island, they carried food; on the way back, they carried fecal sacs to deposit well away from the nest. (Sure sign of nestlings.) Other birds that stopped briefly in the upper part of the tree included American Crows, Brown-Headed Cowbirds, and a brilliant male Northern Oriole. A female Oriole, more softly colored, kept to the leafy trees nearby. (Nest in there?)

Many swallows of our three common species – Tree, Barn, and Northern Rough-Winged – circled the area continuously, snatching insects from the air. Occasionally one would alight on a dead branch of the elm tree, affording good opportunities for study of these pretty little birds which are always on the go. Chimney Swifts also flew about ceaselessly, though at a higher altitude than the swallows. Their cheery chatter is delightful.

Another bird whose calls I love is the Red-Winged Blackbird; these handsome birds seem to be very numerous this spring, or perhaps I’m just spending more time in their habitat. The males are very conspicuous, flying about from field to fence to tree to hedge, calling and displaying the scarlet epaulets which give them their name. The females are busy on their nests; their coloring is beautiful too, though more subtle, with brown, gold and chestnut streaks that provide good camouflage in the grassy areas they prefer.

A few minutes after I settled into my watching area, I was surprised and delighted to spot a Great Crested Flycatcher in the mid-to-upper tiers of the tree. It was very active, catching and eating insects and preening itself; I had great views as it moved among the leafless branches. These handsome chestnut-and-yellow birds are fairly common, but since they forage in the upper forest canopy during full leaf season, they are sometimes hard to see. A pair of Warbling Vireos also foraged together nearby, the male singing his wheezy song every few minutes.

About twenty feet below, a pair of Eastern Kingbirds, close cousins to the Great Crested Flycatcher, gathered nesting material from the grassy edge of the dirt road. One rarely sees flycatchers on the ground! These birds are dressed in natty black and white; they seem dressed for a black tie gala. And in the shrubby area around the base of the tree, a Willow Flycatcher went after flying insects closer to the ground, its zippy "Fitz-bew!" call ringing out every minute or so. A jaunty Yellow Warbler, which also has a taste for insects, looked for food on and under the leaves, stopping every few minutes to warble out its spring song.

Mourning Doves, our pretty native doves, were very active flying between the middle branches of the elm tree and the ground underneath, feeding and preening and generally chasing each other about. They seem to be in continuous courtship mode, so much so that I wonder when they have time to actually raise a family. A pair of Eastern Bluebirds, looking like little scraps of sky that got caught on the elm branches, was very busy gathering food, flying back and forth with their beaks bristling with various buggy wing and legs. As I followed the male bluebird with my binoculars, it alit on a dead branch just a few inches from a scarlet male Northern Cardinal; this made quite a picture!

A pair of Cedar Waxwings was building a nest in a leafy tree right next to the elm, but they used the elm as the base from which to “hawk” for insects. These little birds are one of the prettiest species in our area, with their silky crests and elegantly patterned plumage. Another attractive bird is the Grey Catbird, one of my favorites. I heard its quiet song coming from behind the elm, and then I caught a quick glimpse of it as it dropped out of sight on a low grassy area. A pair of American Goldfinches – he brilliant sunny yellow, she soft greeny-buff – fed on grass seeds just a few feet from where I was sitting. Each one would fly to the top of a tall grass stalk, which would bend down under their tiny weight. They were so close that I could hear the sounds of their little beaks on the seed heads.

A Song Sparrow lived up to its name, warbling its cheery melody repeatedly. It sang from three perches: a young maple tree, a large shrubby plant, and a certain branch in the elm tree. Its smaller cousin, the Chipping Sparrow, foraged on the sandy edges of the dirt road, occasionally flying up, up, up to a high perch in the elm tree, then dropping back down again. With its rusty cap, sharp black and white eye lines, and pearly gray breast, this is one handsome bird.

I heard several birds nearby that I never actually saw, including Belted Kingfisher, Hairy Woodpecker, Downy Woodpecker, Eastern Phoebe, Blue Jay, Chestnut-Sided Warbler, and Common Yellowthroat (a warbler). And yes, I heard the Bobolinks, too, their tinkly voices coming to me faintly from the field though I never saw them emerge from the tall grass. But certainly I enjoyed a rich collection of other birds in just a half hour at this lovely location.

So, what good is an old tree, anyway? Plenty good for these birds and for the other creatures that depend on it for food, housing, resting, and courtship. Next time you're thinking about felling a dead or dying tree, sit down and watch it for half an hour. You might be surprised at what you see.


Here's a sad follow-up to my story about this favorite old tree:

Antisocial Media

I am a member of the Association of Independent Information Professionals (AIIP), the professional trade organization for independent research professionals. The group maintains a very lively private online forum in which members discuss everything to do with running a research consultancy, from how to manage accounting issues, to devising a search strategy for a complex technical question, to marketing services to specific industries. It’s a fabulous resource, and I’m an active participant.

Many of the discussions center on how best to apply new and emerging technologies within our business operations. A recent exchange on the use of social media for networking and marketing generated a very interesting comment from one person who was using so many technologies to keep in touch with her online constituency that she had to hire an assistant to manage the processes. She said:

“Now I'm 'working smarter, not harder' by having someone help me with social media tasks that don't need that personal touch.”

Social media that doesn’t need a personal touch? Hmm… I thought that the whole point of social media technologies was to foster personal contacts and to provide…a personal touch! Hiring someone to maintain your online relationships sounds to me more like…antisocial media.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Writer’s Block

The other day one of the regular readers of this blog asked why I hadn’t posted here for several weeks; apparently she misses my essays! That is so gratifying, especially since I write Quodlibet primarily for my own enjoyment. Her inquiry, though, made me aware that I haven’t posted here for several weeks, mostly because I’ve been intensely engaged with other activities.

Since mid-May, I’ve been busy on several fronts, including performing, working at my research business Peregrine Information Consultants (http://www.peregrineinfo.com/), and (mostly) working pro bono on many projects for a nonprofit organization. (I serve on the board of directors for this organization, as well on several of its committees, and I’m engaged in some large individual projects on their behalf, as well.)

I’ve also been spending more time than usual on two favorite pastimes: reading and birding. I read every day, finding greatest pleasure in fiction, scholarly biography, and history. My books this week are The Pastor’s Wife and Elizabeth’s German Garden, both by Elizabeth von Arnim, and Maurice DuruflĂ©: The Man and His Music, a new biography by James E. Frazier. I spend about a half hour (or more) birding every day; I have to run an errand early each weekday morning, and I take a leisurely “scenic” route home that takes me through a variety of productive birding habitat. I delight in the beauty, behavior, and sheer variety of the birds around us.

Back to the matter at hand… I started this blog, Quodlibet, as an exercise to improve my writing. I hoped to improve the quality of the writing itself and, especially, to improve my ability to write polished prose more quickly. Those who are familiar with my writing, whether here at Quodlibet or in my program notes, essays, technical reports, e-mail missives, and other forms, know that in my case, brevity is not the soul of wit. I tend to write at length on topics that interest me or that, in my opinion, require deep exploration. (This essay was supposed to be just a brief exposition on “I’m not dead yet!” but you see how long it has become.)

When I started this blog, I set up a few simple rules and goals for myself. Now that I’ve posted more than 100 essays, perhaps it’s a good time to assess my progress toward those goals.

TimelinessTry to write daily, but aim for at least 4-5 essays per week – This is my biggest challenge, particularly when I’m busy with large-scale research projects, or when production week for a big concert rolls around, or when board meetings occur. The blog necessarily takes a lower priority.

SpeedTry to write a good, polished essay in an hour or less, preferably a half hour. Miserable failure, as described above: I don’t think my brain is wired to write anything short. Long essays take a long time.

ContentStick to topics on which I can write knowledgeably or persuasively. So far, so good; I’ve generally limited myself to music (especially choral music), birds, books, research and writing. I also decided early on that I would not write about the blogging process, such as posting a hastily-written snippet to tell you that I am too busy to write! (But here I am writing about why I have not written and trying to ignore the irony.) I also resist writing about housework, illnesses, car troubles, mean people in my life, and the like. I do not write about my family, and I try not to say anything mean or negative about individual people (well, I made an exception for Sarah Palin – I couldn’t resist! – you can read it HERE).

What’s next? New ideas come to me throughout the day; my desk is littered with PostIts® on which I’ve scrawled snippets of thoughts, phrases I like, notes about what I saw out the kitchen window (birds) or while running an errand (birds), or while walking (birds), or thoughts that came to me during a choral rehearsal (usually having to do with music history, musico-textual issues, or choral singing technique). I also have a list of ideas, and I’ve started drafts for nearly 50 essays!! Some of these are bare bones, of course, but others are closer to being ready for prime time.

Have you read this far? Let me know! I’ve been so pleased to have developed a smallish following among choral singers, readers, writers, and birders in the USA and England, in addition to friends and family members who I know are lurking. Some of you have made yourself known to me through your comments here, or by contacting me through other means. I would love to know who’s reading Quodlibet! You can send me a private note to say “hello” using the “comment” icon at the end of this post. All the comments are moderated, meaning that I see them and approve them individually before they are published. If you’d like your comment to remain unpublished, just say so in your message. Or send me a note by email, if you already know my email address.

Perhaps writing this essay will nudge me back to writing regularly.