Monday, October 06, 2008

Asking Birds to Stick Around

I am hoping that our brown thrashers stick around for just one more week.

OK. Obsession confession time.

Like an out of control sports fan or a chocoholic, I, too, have something I focus way too hard on, spend way to much time and money on, and just can't get enough of: The Big Sit.

I am a Big Sit fanatic.

If you look at the Bird Watcher's Digest homepage, you'll see a countdown clock (in the orange bar just under the header) devoted to The Big Sit. Regular readers of this blog know all too well my love of this sedentary birding event, which is my favorite happening of the bird-watching year.

When September is beginning to flirt with October, I get all antsy. The Big Sit is coming soon!

The week before each Big Sit, I spend a lot of time getting ready—practicing my ID skills on passing fall migrants, trying to get a feel for what birds are around, schlepping the hundreds of bits of gear and clothing up to the birding tower in advance, and, most importantly of all, asking the summer birds to stay just a little longer.

Here are some of the birds seen or heard in our farmyard and surroundings this morning, all of which I asked to stay:
Brown thrasher, gray catbird, cedar waxwing, chimney swift, eastern phoebe, blackpoll warbler, Tennessee warbler, Cape May warbler, black-throated green warbler, red-eyed vireo, chipping sparrow, Lincoln's sparrow, field sparrow, eastern meadowlark.

There are others just arriving which are likely to be here (still I am friendly with them—one never knows): white-throated sparrow, yellow-bellied sapsucker, yellow-rumped warbler.

And the less-common birds among our residents, which I do not need to beg to stay, but which I DO ply with many enticements, nonetheless, including song sparrow, eastern towhee, our five regular woodpeckers, Carolina wren...

We always hope for a cold front right before the Sit, to bring in the fall and winter birds: migrant hawks, dark-eyed junco, fox sparrow, white-crowned sparrow, hermit thrush, migrant blackbirds, perhaps some passing waterfowl.

But we don't want it to be TOO cold in the weeks leading up to the Sit, lest the ruby-throated hummingbird, our blend of fall migrant warblers, the flycatchers, orioles, and tanagers, and other fair-weather feathered friends decide to split for the tropics too early.

This year's big wish bird for me? Sandhill crane. It would be a new bird for the property list and I just know there are cranes flying over our farm in the fall. Birders two hours north of our place saw more than 100 sandhills just yesterday!

Nothing would please me more than to add sandhill crane to the Indigo Hill bird list during the 2008 Big Sit.

I am counting down the days and hours...and hoping that the birds are hearing my pleas.

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Monday, September 08, 2008

Fall Migration's First Wave

In fall, male scarlet tanagers lose their bright scarlet color and look similar to females.

This morning I could tell that today was going to be one of those autumn days. I KNOW I should have stayed home to watch birds.

Glancing out the window on the way to take Liam to the school bus, I saw two magnolia warblers, a flicking tail of an American redstart, and I heard the whisper song of a solitary vireo. Scarlet tanagers and eastern kingbirds played tag on the powerlines over my neighbor's cow pasture. Flights of chimney swifts twittered along our ridge. A band of northern flickers flashed up out of the driveway. Young American robins in various stages of spottedness squealed at each other as they landed in the cherry tree.

Mid-September is the birdiest time of year at our farm. All the resident birds and their offspring are about. The sky is peppered with migrants and their flight and contact calls reach our ears from all directions.

I think today was the first big wave day of the fall—at least for southeastern Ohio. Every year I plead with the migrant warblers to hang around for just a few weeks more so I can count them on The Big Sit day (October 12, 2008). By the time the Big Sit rolls around, we're sorting through the tailings of migration.

Yep. This is the BEST time of year for birding here. Maybe I'll stay home tomorrow....

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Tuesday, September 02, 2008

The Onset of Autumn

The other morning I smelled autumn in the air.

The ambient odor changed from new-mown hay to the sweetish smell of dry leaves slowly decaying. Autumn's arrival can be a somber time, especially if you dwell on everything that is leaving (birds), ending (long summer days), or dying (insects, garden plants).

So I prefer to focus on what interesting sights, sounds, and experiences come our way during these autumnal changes. The hummingbird feeders are hosting their peak activity. The adult males will leave soon, but right now we've got a huge posse of nectar drinkers buzzing all around the super-sized feeders.

The red-eyed vireos are everywhere, singing, chasing, foraging. This is our most pugnacious fall migrant. Red-eyes spook more birds into view when they get the urge to chase another bird: tanagers, orioles, and especially warblers garner the vireos' ire. The ornithologists tell us it's a rush of hormones that makes the red-eyed vireo so rambunctious in the fall—a precursor to the rigorous migration ahead.
The milkweed I mowed over in the meadow in June is now perfect for the monarch caterpillars. They vastly prefer younger, more tender leaves of milkweed to the tough old milkweed trees that have been growing all summer. Julie and Phoebe discovered this a few summers ago, so now we try to manage our milkweed patches to please the monarchs. And who does not want to please the monarch?

Autumn is copperhead time on our farm. We watch where we place our hands and bare feet. We step carefully through the garage door, lest we surprise a snoozing viper. Julie has captured and relocated two large adults already in late August. All hail the inventor of the snake tongs!

Now that we're on the downhill side of Labor Day, there's no denying that the wheel of seasons is turning. Hope you can find small wonders in your part of the world this fall. Happy autumn everybody!

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