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:


  1. What a beautiful description of your birding experience. I felt as if I was there watching the birds along with you! Your narrative makes it clear that there is much more to birding than just counting the number of species that one sees.

  2. I sometimes plan a walk in Woodbridge, where I work part-time, and recently I saw a hand lettered sign taped to the signpost for one of the town's walking trails, begging that some of the dead trees along that trail be left standing. As I walked I saw that many of the dead trees had been marked with big red blazes, and the process of removing them had begun. Apparently the signmaker was hoping to preserve some of the very habitat you have described. I haven't been back yet to see if his or her plea made a difference.

  3. Dead and dying trees support life... I should have mentioned in my essay the important role that dead trees play in providing nesting cavities for bluebirds, kestrels, owls, swallows, swifts, bats, woodpeckers, chickadees, and other birds. It's ironic that living trees are cut down to provide wood to make nest boxes for birds that would prefer to use naturally hollow trees...

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


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