One attraction in coming to the woods to live was that I should have leisure and opportunity to see the spring come in.
~Henry David Thoreau
Perhaps he meant to say… one attraction in retiring was that I should have leisure and opportunity to see the spring come in. I have lived in the woods for many years and always marveled at the arrival of spring, but it has always flown by into the heat and dark greens of summer too quickly. It seems I have never had the time to really watch it, to see its daily, sometime hourly, subtle shifts. I am cherishing it this year. The early spring wildflowers have peaked here in the Piedmont, but now is the time for the birds. I spent a couple of hours Sunday morning with friends walking the trail at Mason Farm Biological Preserve in Chapel Hill where we totaled over 50 species, including some great warbler sightings (even a nesting Northern Parula).
Bird watching at the garden usually provides some results (click photos to enlarge)
So, I am now spending time at home, watching the tree tops, and checking the feeders and garden area frequently for new arrivals. If I am in the mood for some photography, I will pull the car out to the garden and sit, window down, bean bag on the door panel, and watch. I placed some dead snags around the fence for perches and just added a water feature. The diversity of plants, the cover provided by the grape vine growing along one fence, and the fact that this is an edge habitat, make the garden an attractive place for any passing bird to stop and check out.
Feeding station near garden
There is also a feeding station between the garden and a large plum tree (a favorite of the local birds due to its thick branching pattern and good cover). On most days, it is like a busy airport in this area with flights coming and going between the garden fence, the nearby woods, the plum tree, and the feeders. And this time of year you tend to get some international flights. Yesterday was a very good morning. The total for the day was 34 species, with 30 of those being seen in, or flying over, the garden in two hours in the morning. A complete list is at the end of this post. Over the next few days, I will post a few pictures of some of my favorite visitors.
The bird that started it all on Monday morning, a Rose-breasted Grosbeak.
It all started when I got distracted from some household chore by a flash of color at the feeder outside the living room window – a male Rose-breasted Grosbeak. Certainly one of our most striking birds, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks nest in our mountains and hardwood forest further north, but pass through much of the rest of the state in fall and spring migrations to and from their winter homes in the tropics. They have been regular visitors at my platform sunflower feeders for many years for a couple of weeks in late April and early May. They are deliberate in their behavior and will often stay at a feeding station for a considerable period of time before disappearing into the tree tops. Then, it may be a couple of hours before they reappear, so I keep one eye on the feeders this time of year and hope to catch a glimpse of one. They are definitely one of those birds that cause you to stop whatever you are doing and pay attention.
Rose-breasted Grosbeak at suet feeder
Their huge beak is well designed for crunching hard seeds (and bird banders’ fingers) so I was surprised to see one at my suet feeder near the garden. With the migration in full swing, I recently lashed a dead branch onto the feeder pole to provide a more natural perch for photography of any visitors. The grosbeaks took full advantage of it to chip away at the suet.
A second male landed at the feeding station
While I was observing the one at the suet cage, another male landed and started feeding on an adjacent tube feeder with suet nuggets. You can see some differences in the plumage between the two birds – you can supposedly distinguish individual males by subtle differences in the shape and extent of their rose-colored breast and shoulder patches. After looking at the images I think I may have three different males – compare the first image at the platform feeder with the one above and below and look at the rose shoulder patches (or lack thereof) and the heads.
Branch placed near suet for perch
The two males stayed with me for 20 minutes or so, feeding, and then both flew up into the trees. The grosbeaks did not reappear at this feeding station until much later in the day. But, I did hear their melodious song a few times from my woods off and on during the day. The song is somewhat like that of an American Robin, but richer in tone. Thoreau stated that the Rose-breasted Grosbeak is our richest singer, perhaps, after the Wood Thrush (which was also calling from these woods early and late in the day).
The breast patch outlines may be distinctive for individual male Rose-breasted Grosbeaks
There are many reports this week from birders that have Rose-breasted Grosbeaks at their feeders
At one point, one of the males landed on a snag along the garden fence. He perched there for a couple of minutes, surveying his world, and helping me appreciate the beauty of mine. Make some time for yourself these next few weeks and get outside and catch some of the surprises of the season – it will be well worth it.
Species list for 2 hours of garden watching on 4/28/14:
Northern Cardinal, Eastern Bluebird, Brown-headed Cowbird, Northern Mockingbird, Catbird, Brown Thrasher, Summer Tanager, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Downy Woodpecker, White-throated Sparrow, Chipping Sparrow, Field Sparrow, House Finch, Indigo Bunting, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, American Goldfinch, Tufted Titmouse, Carolina Chickadee, Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Eastern Kingbird, Eastern Phoebe, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Common Yellowthroat, Mourning Dove, Carolina Wren, White-breasted Nuthatch, Eastern Towhee
American Crow, Blue Jay, Turkey Vulture (these three species flew over the garden)
Scarlet Tanager, Black-and-white Warbler, Red-eyed Vireo, Wood Thrush (heard and/or seen in the woods near the garden)