Friday, September 23, 2011

In the Neighborhood

There is symbolic as well as actual beauty in the migration of birds. There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature—the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after the winter.
                       –Rachel Carson


I’m supposed to be working, but I’m distracted almost continually by the activity in the yard. Fall migration is underway, and among the regular birds that I see from the two large windows, I also note the visitors, those birds that are just stopping to rest, to bathe in the stream, or to come the feeder for a quick meal.

Regulars and visitors? Can anyone really tell the difference? Yes, indeed.

To most people, birds are just birds. I don’t think that most people even differentiate between families of birds – sparrow, thrush, blackbird – they just see a bird and think "bird," if they notice them at all.

Birders, of course, are continuously engaged in identification: We must know exactly which species we are looking at, as well as gender. Real hard-core birders are also obsessed with subspecies and age of individual birds, both of which are usually discernible only by subtle variations in plumage.

Those of us who repeatedly bird in the same small areas (it’s called “patch birding” – read more about it here, and those of us who pay close attention to avian activities in our yards, soon know which species we can expect to see there on a regular basis. We have a list, mental or actual, of what we see regularly and what we are likely to see. (I’m not a lister, as I wrote about here:

But many “patch birders” are also able to distinguish and remember individual birds. I count myself among this number. Over weeks, months, or even years of birding the same spots, I have been able to learn the habits, plumage, and favorite perches of many individual birds.

Sometimes, a bird will have distinctive plumage, such as the grackle with one white tail feather that visits my feeder, or the female crow who has a funny-angled feather in her right wing (I call her "Wing-tip"). Or the Black-capped Chickadee who always chooses the same little branch on our "suet tree." Or the Red-bellied Woodpecker who has an exceptionally bright, thick scarlet crown and nape. Or the White-throated Sparrrow whose crown stripes were rather odd, creating a checkerboard pattern rather than the usual even stripes. You get the idea.

On a larger scale, birders are also acutely aware of which species we can expect to see in any given area on any given day of the year, and even at any given time of day. Birds follow very predictable patterns of movement and activities.

Combined, these factors make it possible for birders to actually identify individual migrants, those birds that are simply passing through our "patches" on their spring or fall migrations.

For example, we don’t normally have many warblers in our yard; we don’t have the sorts of trees and rich undergrowth that make good warbler habitat. But during migration, birds can’t always choose the time or place to stop to feed, so when I see warblers in my yard during migration periods, I know they’re visitors. This fall, just from my windows, I’ve seen Magnolia, Blackpoll, Chestnut-sided, Yellow, Black-throated Blue, Yellow-rumped, Palm, Canada, Tennessee, Parula, American Redstart, and Common Yellowthroat. Nice!

A few other pretty visitors have stopped by: Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Blue-Grey Gnatcatcher, Least Flycatcher, Towhee, and Veery.

A few days ago I wrote about having seen an individual local bird begin its fall migration:

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