I am a swamp spirit. A fen fan. A Marsh maiden. And I like Bog birds.
Snipe have mostly been invisible ghostly sounds to me. I hear male Snipe doing their display flights all spring and summer, their aerial dance is accompanied by tail feather music called winnowing. You can see their fancy tail feathers here. I sometimes see them as tiny fast and irratic dots in the distant sky but today I heard them singing so I went down to the swamp to look and 2 pairs were racing in and out of the Cat Tails and flying at high speeds through the rain.
Snipe are not actually forest ghosts like they pretend to be. Really they are bog birds. They wade in shallow water (their legs are very short) and dip their very long beaks in the mud. Their beaks are very sensitive to pressure and taste and they can feel and smell food moving in the mud. They suck insects and snails up their beaks like a straw.
There has been some noise in the mornings this week. I’ve thought a few times that the train folks were using jackhammers again, but it was the Yellow Bellied Sap Sucker back from his winter vacation hammering on the chimney to let us know he is home.
The Yellow Bellied Sap Sucker is one of the Woodpeckers that nests on my land. They don’t actually suck sap, they don’t have lips, but they do drill holes in trees and let the sap flow out. I’ve read that they do it because insects inside the tree get swept away in the deluge of sap and the birds eat those insects, but now that I’ve tapped a few trees I think I see what’s happening. Insects are attracted to the sap because it’s sweet. My Birch bucket is filled with little bees squirming and swimming and stuck in a stupor. The Sap Suckers can just scoop them up. I think they make holes as traps. Every inch of our Apple Tree is perforated with Sap Sucker lip shaped holes.
I’ve read that humming birds who arrive too early in spring before the plants flower and produce nectar follow the Sap Suckers around to sip their sweet tree drips but I suspect they are less interested in the sap and actually eating the insects.
I spent 2 hours in torrential rain, my camera in a plastic bag, to get this shot of a Prothonotary Warbler’s tongue just for you. I may have to buy a new camera. My lens is now home to a tiny rain cloud that comes with me everywhere I go, like a genie in a lantern that softens the edges of all my bird pics.
I really wanted to see a Tern. This was my first one ever. He is diving for a snack on his way home to breed as seen through the cloud in my camera.
The bird at the top of my wishlist to see this spring was a bird that was probably impossible to find, but that I probably did see, I’m not sure. The second was this, not particularly uncommon bird, the Red Bellied Woodpecker who I probably had never seen before, but I wasn’t sure.
Now, the Red Headed Woodpecker is rarer, he’d never come to my house, and some might say he’s fancier (I admired a bunch of them this year for the first time and their red feathers shine as if they were made of metal.) Sometimes the Red Bellied bird does show his brilliant firetruck red feathers around where I live, like once last year:
I was sitting in the house with my camera on my lap staring out the window into space. Only it wasn’t space, I was staring at a Hairy Woodpecker, the one who is almost always on my feeder. Sometimes he even falls asleep there so I’m used to seeing him. Remember back in the day before social media when we were tired we’d just zone out and think about whatever and stare into space? That’s what I was doing. Then I noticed that the light shining through the Hairy Woodpecker’s red feathers was especially fiery today and I focused my eyes and IT WAS A RED BELLIED WOODPECKER! A bird I’d never seen before! One I had gone off chasing after other people’s reports around town. And he was on my feeder! My phone was in my hand and when I clued in I flinched and threw it into the air, it bounced of the desk onto the floor. I aimed my camera just as a Red Squirrel leaped across the deck, landed on the feeder and flushed the Woodpecker. I didn’t get a photo. I’d stared at this bird for several minutes and didn’t get a photo. I marked it as a lifer on my list but before the end of the day I’d questioned myself so much that I took it off the list. I mean, would a Red Bellied Woodpecker actually come to a feeder? He seemed far to fancy for that.
So, when I saw my next first RBWO on a feeder in the campsite this spring I stopped traffic to take a photo and I answered ‘Yes! Yes they would come to a feeder!’ and now I believe myself that I’ve seen a RBWO. Well, since this one I’ve seen lots of them. There were so many where I was birding this spring that I got to know their voices well and even found a tree where two parents were preparing a nest.
It rained for days. My tent kept the water out but my campsite was swamped. My kitchen was quicksand and (the best part) the ground under my tent was a soft squishy mud puddle.
I did a Photoshoot in the rain with a sexy Prothonotory Warbler who had been posing in the forest swamp. Thousands of photos. I usually take a couple hundred photos a day and post any useful identification shots on iNaturalist and then post 5 or so nice images on IG. It’s been 14 years that I process my photos at the end of each day otherwise they would just pile up and never be looked at. Until this day.
From the swamp I walked down a forest path and came upon a little clearing. The same clearing where I’d watched some Sandhill Cranes fly over the day before.
Then, finally, the sun came out, and so did the insects and then so did everyone who eats insects and so on all the way up the food chain. Which meant that all sorts of nocturnal animals who hadn’t eaten all week came out to play like a hungry looking Coyote, a starving Great Grey Owl and this Little Red Bat.
I plopped down on my knees to steady myself and chased her with my camera lens taking thousands of high speed shots. It was a great workout (my lens weighs 6 lbs) and she was moving fast. She made hairpin turns after flies that I couldn’t see. After this it was much easier for me to shoot the Ruby Crowned Kinglet, who flits around and never stands still. The sun shone through the little bat’s wings showing off why she is called the Little Red Bat. She flew around in front of me, catching insects out of the air for 45 minutes before I had to walk away because it was too exciting.
So now there is a time capsule on my hard drive. Thousands of unprocessed photos of a little yellow bird admiring his reflection in the rainy swamp and an aerobatic bat feasting in the sun.
This young Redstart watched me have lunch outside during the 30 minutes that it didn’t rain today. Then I took my camera for an adventure. I spent 2 hours exploring a Birch forest that was filled with Warblers and Flycatchers and I remembered how good it feels when I’m in my rain coat and warm dry boots and my camera is wrapped in plastic bags and I think ‘Oh! I really do love birding in the rain!’ One of the things that makes it fun is that rain drops disturb leaves just the way skulking birds do. So my eye is constantly chasing invisible Goblins. I bird with peripheral vision because all the magic happens in the corners of our eyes. Like that scene in Labyrinth when Sarah is checking on her baby brother’s crib and keeps almost seeing the Goblins out of the corner of her eye but they disappear before she can get a good look at them.
I followed a creek to a bridge and watched a Male Redstart forage the banks. He climbed into crevices and caves and ducked under tree roots. He disappeared into a subterranean tunnel and I imagined him resting a moment out of the rain, looking out at the wet forest before he popped back out the other side, but I knew he wouldn’t really stand still, he was too busy collecting insect snacks and his feathers make him waterproof. I took lots of photos. It was a beautiful place just behind the garage where a mechanic was fixing my van. I managed to drag myself back just before the garage closed for the weekend with my keys inside but when I got there he was only just getting to my van. He apologized, but I was happy for the excuse to go back into the forest. The guys in the garage all laughed that I was having so much fun out in the pouring rain but they believed me that there were good birds out there because while I had been out walking an Oriole had flown into the garage and perched on their hoist.
My second dip into the forest was just as birdy as the first. This time I thought I’d try sitting on a fallen tree and waiting for the Warblers to come to me. While I waited I went through my photos and did a little editing and was pleased to find what I thought was my masterpiece. A shot of the male Redstart. He was jumping out of a cave in a gymnastic twist with all feathers fanned showing his shocking orange on black markings. There was a sparkle in his eye and the rain drops around him were frozen still. I thought ‘This is exactly why I shoot in ultra high speed!’ It was perfectly framed and in focus and was worth drawing later. I hadn’t even noticed taking it because I was looking through the viewfinder through a plastic bag. I do have good luck shooting through plastic bags but it felt as if it had been left there as a gift from someone else. I looked forward to looking at it properly at home, out of the rain and the plastic bag.
I photographed lots of nice birds on the way home including some mystery birds I’d use the photos to identify later, but I didn’t bother try to shoot another Redstart because I had that one perfected.
When I got home 200 photos were mysteriously missing from the camera. Presumably taken by forest Goblins. I wish I hadn’t sat on that log and looked at what I was about to loose because now that pirouetting Redstart is the-one-that-got-away. That legendary big fish or lost love. I know its just a game and I don’t really keep the photos I take in any special way anyway, but I’m surprisingly upset about it. Perhaps from now I should treasure my photos more and find a way to appease the Goblins. Tomorrow I’ll go back and shoot more Redstarts. I hope it rains.
This is one of many warbler species that people flock to Point Pelee to see this week. They are migratory birds. They are made of tooth picks and cotton balls and tiny yellow feathers because yellow is the the lightest color. They are so small I could probably fit 3 of them in my mouth with only their tiny heads peaking out to sing. Most Warblers winter much farther south than here and summer much farther north than here so the only time I ever see one is if I am lucky enough to be looking right where one lands momentarily to catch their breath while they make their long journey. They pass through for a few days each spring on their way to breed. Spring is the most fun time to see them because they are wearing their party plumage and singing all the way.
My first day at Point Pelee I walked down to the point, stepped out onto the beach and looked out at Lake Eerie. Its called the Angry Lake and is so big that it feels like a sea. It might even have tidal behavior. The wind and waves on the beach were so powerful they pushed me off balance. And I chocked on my breath from admiration that these tiny yellow birds of toothpicks and cotton balls sail between the heavy sky and the Angry Lake to touch down just where I am looking.
Killdeer are little wading birds cute enough to eat. If a Killdeer is nesting and she sees a predator coming (like me for example) she does something special. Something that would make your mouth water. Something that’s so utterly hypnotic to any one with K9 teeth that it becomes physically impossible to look away even though there is a little voice in your head begging you to look for the baby Killdeer near by that she is distracting you from.
Baby Killdeer are probably dangerously cute. They are probably stripy cotton balls balanced on q-tip stilts. They probably have slapstick walks and probably wrestle like kittens. But nobody’s ever seen one because it’s impossible to look away from Mum’s hypnosis.
I tried once. I turned away from her and walked in the opposite direction from where she was leading me. She ran right up in front of me crying and stood at my feet. All of her 6 inches tall. She went quiet and she stared me in the eyes. So I did what she asked, I apologized and I walked away.
What a spikey beard. And such respectable spots. And stylish stripes. I love a black rainbow. Starlings are mimics. They don’t have their own song, but I recognize their voice because when I was 17 I raised one as a…. What do you call a Starling fledgling? A Starlingling? She had fallen out of her nest. (Perhaps she was kicked out by a parasitic Cowbird) She didn’t even have feathers yet! The local wild bird care center wouldn’t take her but instructed me on how to take care of her. Wow. It’s trippy being a bird mom! I fed her scrambled eggs constantly which involved pushing food into her crop with my baby finger. She looked at me like she expected me to teach her to be a bird. Starlings copy the songs they hear so Star and I would sing together and she would repeat the rhythms I’d make.
I wonder how I knew she was a Starlingling when I was 17. Before there was anything on the Internet. Bald babies are pretty hard to identify.
Now that I’m a naturalist I know that Starlings are an ‘invasive species’. They were introduced to Central Park because it would be cool if Central Park had all the birds mentioned in Shakespearian plays. The Starlings did very well and have spread all over the continent. It turns out that wild bird care centers are not allowed to care for them! Even if they are fatherless babies who have fallen out of a nest, hungry and looking for someone to teach them to be a bird!
I think they are beautiful. Look that those spots! Those Stripes! Those Rainbows! Have you ever seen a murmuration? When a large flock of birds fly in a formation that makes a twisted undulating shape of emergent motion? They were probably Starlings.
Whatever you are reading put it down and read this.
Nature’s Best Hope is a book of DIY conservation. It explains why and how we should plant trees on our lawns and which trees to choose for maximum benefit to wildlife. It explains the mechanics of ecology in ways that are crystal clear, easy to understand and very motivating.
The book presents a history of our relationship to wildness and nature and talks about how and why the aesthetic of our landscaping of private land is the way it is. Tallamy suggests that the current aesthetic of suburban front yards is a status symbol that says “I have the money and time to manicure and weed my lawn” and is a symbol of community solidarity and a message that we care about our property and look after it. The problem is that the aesthetic is outdated and actually does an enormous amount of damage to the land and to wildlife we are trying to signal that we care about. He suggests ways to update that culture so our aesthetic supports our values.
His ideas of how to make forests instead of lawns would save, money, time, and fuel and provide productive biomass, habitat and take carbon from the atmosphere… Really his ideas would solve a lot of our problems. If you own land you must read this book. It will guide you to make a deeper more loving relationship to your land and your neighborhood. If you are feeling nervous about climate change, or loss of biodiversity, read this book. It will give you hope and ideas about how you can be a positive influence in the world.