We are all impatient.

The problem is (not that I’m complaining), it’s felt like March for most of this winter. Warmest and least snowy winter on record in the Albany area. When it’s 60F and sunny, how can we help expecting spring birds?

But I look out the window and see Dark-eyed Juncos and American Tree Sparrows. Red-breasted Nuthatches have only just abandoned my feeders for the Rensselaer hills, and the Spring Peeper chorus, while loud, hasn’t reached its ear-shattering peak yet.

Some things have certainly been earlier than in other years. The big Spotted Salamander migration (down a hill and across a road) happened two weeks ago. Usually it’s not until the end of March at the earliest. They’re responding to local conditions, though. The ground is soft, the rain is warm, and that’s all they need.

Birds migration is triggered by day length among other things, and as a wise man said today, they don’t know what the weather’s like 1500 miles to the north. They don’t outfly their food supply. If we keep having these mild winters, though, and bugs hatch out earlier before the birds are here for the feast, will they find enough food to reproduce and feed their young ones?

So we miss you, spring birds. But take your time. We’ll be waiting for you.

Categories: bird behavior, First of season, Why? | Tags: | 1 Comment

Passenger Pigeon


Martha, the last Passenger Pigeon, died September first, one hundred years ago. il_340x270.524207042_jzy7 She stares glassy eyed

(of course; they’re glass)

her rose throat faded

dust on her smoke-blue head

She’s been dead 100 years

lonely last of her kind

that deafened as they rose

to the morning sky

An endless feathered river

they broke branches,

whole trees in their roost,

died in tens of millions

until the great river ran

down to one lost drop IMG_0059 This statue set outside the Cornell Lab of Ornithology is part of Todd McGrain’s Lost Bird Project, memorializing five iconic species lost to extinction.

Categories: postcard poems, Rara avis, Why? | Tags: , , , | 4 Comments

Birding porn

Haha! Got your attention, didn’t I!

After a long day dropping our son off at college, I had time to sit down with the day’s emails. 

First, a big sale from Swarovski! Oh, do I want a really good spotting scope, but there’s no way to justify buying one that’s worth more than the car I cart it around in. So for now I’m just lusting.

Some interesting sightings lately. The last time this uncommon seabird was reported around here, last winter in Buffalo, all my bird list messages went straight into spam folders for weeks. And it’s happening again… Yes, Brown Boobies have been sighted at Lake Champlain!

Bird banders, for convenience while cataloguing vitals as quickly as possible, use four-letter abbreviations: OSPR for Osprey, BCCH for Black-capped Chickadee, EAPH for Eastern Phoebe, and so on. In Brooklyn today, observers found a small sparrowish bird, in markings like a miniature Eastern Meadowlark. The Dickcissel is named for its dry chirping song. And its four-letter code is, of course… DICK. That’s right. While wandering around in a salt marsh, several experienced birders  observed DICK.

Categories: Why? | Tags: , , , | 3 Comments

Happy Thanksbirding

On this day, as on all others, I’m thankful for all things avian.

Thanks to the bird who gave its all today. You were delicious.

Thanks to the bloggers and photographers, the philosophers and field-guide writers. You help me see — more, you help me observe and learn about birds and from them. You show me intimate details, grand spectacles and 10,000 birds outside my little world.

Thanks to my fellow birders who generously share their time and expertise. Rarae aves, the whole flock of you.

Thanks to the birds-of-my-yard who entertained me though the kitchen window while I chopped and sautéed. I hope you enjoyed your feast, too. 

And thank you all, all feathered life. May you fly and swim and hoot and sing and bring us generations of wonder and beauty, world without end.



Categories: Bird photos, Feeder birds, Why? | Tags: , , | 1 Comment

Birds, possessive.

We had some unpleasant weather last winter: snow, followed by sleet and freezing rain. We escaped the very worst, only getting 1/4″ of ice rather than the inch just 20 miles away, but it had an unexpected effect. I made sure to put out lots of high-energy food the next morning and the birds were out in good number, but their behavior seemed odd. Sluggish and labored. Then I saw these birds.

Another Titmouse had a large tuft of down pulled out on its shoulder, while Juncos hopped beneath the feeders dragging their tails in the snow. One Blue Jay’s crest was so full of ice pellets it flopped forward and sideways. I didn’t recognise the Carolina Wren for a moment — her jaunty tail was hanging straight down with the weight of ice. Were they caught while foraging for food, or were they trapped in their roosts, feathers frozen to branches?

Then a thaw and a day of icefall, chandelier prisms tinkling everywhere. The birds seemed to regain their composure and appetite. All the regular customers were back.

Except one.

I realized I hadn’t seen my Carolina Wren in two days, when she’d been a daily visitor almost all winter… Wait. My wren? How often I speak of my birds, my frogs, taking ownership of free creatures. Providing supplemental food, however thoughtfully purchased and prepared, doesn’t create a quid pro quo. They use the habitat we create, the plants we allow to overgrow in thickets, but they don’t need it specifically here in my yard. The chickadees and titmice certainly recognise me as a source of food (and nest material) (sometimes not even waiting for it to be offered).

They owe me nothing, of course. Whatever I do to make my yard hospitable is for my own benefit far more than theirs. The debt is all on my side for the joy their quick brilliant lives bring to me

I have an online friend who’s a falconer. He tells amazing stories about working with many different raptors and owls, the partnership between man and hawk and hound. The difference, he says, is the lack of the hierarchal pack relationship he shares with his dogs — his birds are, in effect, independent at-will workers, hunting for their own purpose, not under orders or out of love. You must never mistake the interaction for love: at best, it’s cooperation, at worst it’s ‘To hell with you,’, and the bird is gone.

I don’t know much about parrots — I suppose they might be different: intelligent, long-lived, and very social, perhaps they consider us pitiful flightless flock-mates.

Categories: bird behavior, Bird photos, Feeder birds, Why? | Tags: , , , , | 11 Comments

Stretch goal

Since I reached my year goal of 200 birds (thank you, Little Blue Heron!) with three months to go, I’ve decided to upgrade to a more ambitious attempt. The list includes 10 birds I only saw out of our Region 8* area, and several of those I’m not likely to see around here. So I’m going to try for 10 more birds on my local list before year’s end. Is this too ambitious? Well…

My fall migrant ID, despite cramming, is not strong. Also I have a genius for being where the birds were yesterday, or where they’ll be tomorrow. And I wish I felt more secure in the IDs I do make.

The local shorebird migration, such as it is, is pretty much done. Warblers don’t have too long to go, either. There’s a chance I could pick up maybe 3 warbler species, and Philadelphia Vireo has been seen lately though it keeps evading me.

If we have a good finch incursion year, I could pick up the Grosbeaks and Crossbills, and Loons and Scoters are pretty certain before year’s end. (How do I not have Common Loon?)

I’m going to see the Short-eared Owls this year if I have to camp out in Fort Edward to do it.

No matter how much I twist the map around, the south end of the Great Vly where we heard the King Rail stubbornly persists in being in Ulster County, not Greene, so not Region 8. Grrrr.

So, 10 by year end? Maybe, with luck and persistence. I hope to update soon!


* Albany, Columbia, Fulton, Greene,  Montgomery, Rensselaer, Saratoga, Schenectady, Schoharie, Warren, and Washington Counties.

Categories: NYS 2013, Species count, What am dat bird?, Why? | Tags: , , | 3 Comments


At some point, it’s going to sink in to this guy that what he has here is not a lawn but a wet meadow. Hopefully before his tractor sinks in first.

Here at Kestrel Hill we’ve taken on a long-term lawn reduction program. It’s simple, really — whatever sprouts up, mow around. In 20 years or so that cone planted by a squirrel will be a 15′ pine. Birds will merrily poop seeds everywhere. Before you know it, you’ve got a young jungle of honeysuckle, autumn olive, brambles, and multiflora rose. Oh, and poison ivy. Did you know it has delicious berries? As far as birds are concerned it does, and they’re happy to spread it all around. And when that happens —

I’ve been called a chainsaw gardener. That’s not quite accurate. I don’t own a chainsaw. But I do have a collection of clippers loppers and saws sized from snipping individual leaves, to ‘OK, sucker, you’re goin’ down!’ Everything gets hauled off to our brush row, currently over 4 feet tall and some 30 feet long, edging the squidgy border of the swamp. That’s where I saw a mink one spring day, catching  and cacheing frogs.

We leave enough and more for catbirds to build their untidy nests, for rabbits and woodchucks to hide in, for snakes and mice and stray cats. I harvest a handful of raspberries and leave the rest for the critters. I should probably cut away the vines helping to pull down the old shed, but then I’d be depriving the hummingbirds of their trumpet vines, and waxwings, robins, and turkeys of their wild grapes. Yes, I mow around milkweed. (Not thistles, though. Those suckers goin’ down).

Who needs a lawn, anyway? As long as it’s green and painless to walk across, that’s good enough for me.

This mild-mannered rant inspired by this post at 10000 Birds and my friends’ adoption of new lawnmowers.

Categories: Mammals too, scenery, Why? | Tags: , , , , | 5 Comments

Kestrel Hill

That’s not its real name, of course. The 1950s survey map marked it ‘Beacon Hill’, indicating it once had a navigation light long before the cell phone tower that now tops it. Or it might be Shaver’s Hill, for the family that’s owned the farmland for decades, whose name is on headstones in the town cemetery going back 150 years and whose cows browse our apple trees on occasion.

I drove down this road often before we started house-hunting. I noticed the house at the high point of the road when the For Sale sign went up — a modest ranch bordered by field and woodlot and pond, the hill rising behind it. Although it was empty the lawn remained meticulously mowed (something we’ve never managed). I admired the variety of habitat in such a small area — pine and deciduous woods, dead snags, pasture, pond, wetland and hilltop. So when we needed to find a home with space for children and dogs to run, out of town but not too far, within our means, the little house snugged under the hill spoke to us.

On the day we moved in, the Kestrels that nested in the barn across the field soared by, welcoming us. Kestrel Hill it became.

It’s been 21 years. The yard is a lot shaggier and more overgrown than it once was. We look at old pictures and wonder, when did all those trees grow in? Surely we only planted a few raspberry canes there — how did it become a jungle? But we’re still here, and so are the descendants of the original kestrels from the barn. Just last week I saw one buzzed by dozens of swallows flying off with a swallow in his foot. Yesterday the same male zipped across the fields, hotly pursued by two swallows, a goldfinch, and one determined hummingbird.

It’s a good place for sunsets

and moonrise,



IMG_5675 2

and rainbows.


It’s powdered or pounded by snow

brushed by hoarfrost or encased in ice.

It’s golden in late winter


and a hundred greens in spring and summer.

We may be menaced by a Scotsman or zeppelin at times

but we’ve got a trebuchet to protect us!


Yes, the view from Kestrel Hill is always new.

Categories: scenery, Why? | Tags: , | 7 Comments

Life and death behind the U-Haul building (trigger warning: small animal death)

I stopped by Cohoes Flats this morning in search of the Little Gulls (more on that later). Dipped on the gulls, and as I was returning to my car I saw a Fish Crow with something white in its beak. It was hop-flying around a mowed lawn, pursued by a …rabbit? I couldn’t figure out why a rabbit would be dashing after a crow for a chunk of discarded sandwich — then I heard the squealing. The crow had a rabbit kit.

As long as the baby kept crying, the mother tried to scare the crow into releasing it. She charged at it spooking the bird into short flights and driving it off its prey more than once. Oddly, she didn’t then approach the crying kit to carry it back to the nest, allowing the crow to grab it again.  At last after several long minutes the kit was silent and stopped moving, and the crow landed and began pecking. It was immediately joined by two more Fish Crows, both squawking, gaping, and fluttering their wings. The first bird stuffed them for a while before abandoning the carcass to the young birds.

As soon as the baby rabbit stopped squealing, the mother ceased her aggressive behavior. She sat staring at the crows for a while, scrubbing her face with her front paws — displacement activity, maybe. She moved a few feet away and hunkered down on her form* again, until the crow dove at her, driving her away and snatching another kit. This one was also killed and fed to the hungry nestlings — a shorter process this time with fewer charges from the rabbit as though she was getting discouraged.

Once again, and the crow took a third kit. Perhaps this was the last of her young, because after a few perfunctory charges the rabbit retreated to a brushy hedge and I lost sight of her.

The crows took off too, and I crossed the field to find a circle of dry grass and rabbit fur. All the young ones were gone.

I didn’t take any photos while this was all happening. I was tempted to intervene, to run over flailing my arms and shouting, but why? Young rabbits die so young crows can thrive and be eaten in turn. That’s life, and death, and a rabbit’s life is no more valuable than a crow’s, and neither is mine.

There’s a rabbit in the yard right now, about half grown, busily nibbling a daylily leaf. Its eyes are half-closed against the sun but its nose and ears are in constant radar movement. A tap of my finger against the window, and it freezes. I relish its presence, its apparent pleasure in the day and abundant food. I’d feel much the same if a fox pounced on it to satisfy its own hunger. All as it should be. If only we big-brained masters of all creation found it so easy to figure out our place in the web, how to move through it without snapping threads and destroying the intricate connections we can’t even see.




*That’s the term for a rabbit nest. A squirrel nest is a drey. Now you know!

Categories: bird behavior, Mammals too, Why? | Tags: , , , , | 1 Comment

Feather tales

I’ve been a lawbreaker. You probably have too. Every little kid who ever picked up a gull feather at the beach, every hiker with a blue jay plume in his hat — criminals all. With very few exceptions, it’s against the law to possess wild bird feathers. I knew that strictly it’s illegal to keep feathers but I hadn’t realized how stringent the law really is. Technically even game bird feathers can’t be picked up. You can only have them if you get them from a hunter!

That law was running through my mind when I found these feathers at Vischer Ferry in the fall. There seemed to be the full set of primaries and secondaries from the left wing of a large bird, possibly a raptor. So instead of bringing them home I photographed them in place, then checked a reference when I got home.  The Feather Atlas is a comprehensive archive of North American bird plumage. After some searching I decided they belonged to a Barred Owl. But how did a whole wing-worth of feathers get pulled out?

There were only torn-out feathers on the ground, no sign of blood or body parts. I wonder if the owl dropped onto its prey, and in a moment of distraction was caught by the wing by a fox or coyote who pulled out a mouthful of feathers, then carried off the bird.

A tuft of downy body feathers under my feeders tells another story, one of feral barn cats and of the danger of accepting a handout. These look like Common Redpoll to me.

I’ve seen a few Redpolls with swollen eyes and puffed-out plumage. I hope it was one of those sick ones the cat got. I’m considering renting a yappy and energetic terrier to scare the cats back to the barn.

Categories: Bird photos, Feeder birds, Why? | Tags: , | 11 Comments

Blog at WordPress.com.