Life in the Slow Lane: Bird by Bird

Thanks to Anne Lamott for this title. But, unlike her book, this post is actually about birds. That's because this morning at around 7:00 AM I had another National Geographic moment. (That's it. I'll try to restrain myself and avoid any other literary mentions in this post.)

I haven't seen Osprey here, although I know they're in the area. So I was startled when the Osprey flew out of my Cottonwood and across my field this morning as I watched from my desk near the windows. Actually, I was so startled that I ran for my Sibley Guide to Birds, just to be sure. Definitely an Osprey. And like many of the birds of prey I see around here, this one had a tail. As in four LBBs (Little Brown Birds) diving and swooping at a creature four times their size. Size of a Finch, heart of an Eagle, especially in nesting season. I love it when the starlings take on the ravens. Nasty ravens! They steal my eggs.

I've had other NatGeo moments. My favorite happened two summers ago while I was down by the creek. I happened to glance to the west. Coming in fast and low straight at me was a Bald Eagle. It was clear that he had his eye on the water, otherwise he would have noticed the Black-hawk hanging out on the dead branch over my head. Just as the eagle thrust his talons in the water and snatched a good sized trout, the hawk above me let out its usual "wheet-wheet-wheet" of complaint and swooped down at the eagle's back. But Black-hawks are slow and the eagle, fish caught tight, feinted toward me, coming within a wing's length. As the Black-hawk missed, a Red-tail exploded out of the trees across the creek. (She nests over there.) As she dove at the bigger bird, she gave that piercing, haunting "scree!" you always hear when you're watching a Western. The eagle gave a few lazy flaps of its wings. That's all it took to escape the Red-tail, although she continued to give chase until the eagle disappeared around the tip of the island.

Yep. I live in a birder's paradise.

Once again this year, the Cottonwood near my front barn has become a giant economy sized bird house. The starlings live in a hole in one of the dead branches. The doves nest all over the branches. For the fourth year Western Tanagers have rented a condo on the south side of the massive tree. I really like these birds. Not only are they beautiful, with a red head, black wings and yellow body, but their call sounds like a demented squeaky toy. Even better, the Cardinals that nest in the Magnolia near the back of my house hate them. There's nothing better than sitting on the back porch on a humid July evening and watching the ruby-red Cardinal chase the jewel-bright Tanager back onto its side of the field. You know those multi-colored birds with their weird calls. Who needs them in the neighborhood!

Also in the cottonwood are the tiny little woodpeckers. I see some with a patch of red on their heads and some without. According to Sibley's this means I could be seeing a Downy Woodpecker (which may or may not have the red patch) or a Hairy Woodpecker. Or both. But I think I hear the "kikikiki" call of the Downy. There are Flickers in there too. Big birds, obnoxious noise. And just last month I saw the bright yellow flash of a true Goldfinch among the spring green leaves. The Goldfinches were here last year, too. I also have their smaller cousins, the Lesser Goldfinches, but they nest along the ditch bank. I grow sunflowers just for them because I love the sweet way they talk to each other as they move around my garden, eating sunflower seeds, taking chunks of sunflower leaves for their nests and generally devouring my aphids.

Right now my mulberry is fruiting. This not only feeds the birds living in Cottonwood Condos but brings in other birds I don't usually see. I especially like the Phainopepla. It looks like a black Cardinal with a white stripe across its wings.

I had a cute little wren stuck in the fenced-in area under my porch the other day. Probably a House Wren. Definitely not the Canyon Wren that I see out in my raspberry patch. I figure it got a little too brash about the cats. I've watched as this wren has made itself at home on the porch, pecking at dog food on the floor, eating the cat food out of the feeder on the table, harvesting bugs and more from the rafters of the porch ceiling. Being a wren, it probably threw one challenge too many at a cat and got chased for its efforts, only to end up confused by the hardware cloth screening that encloses that area. I opened the gate for it. It went through the gaps between the boards instead. Tiny bird!

Other daring harvesters of porch bugs are the flycatchers that seem to stay here all year-round. I have two types. One is blackish, the other brown-and -goldish. I haven't been able to figure out what they are, or if they're the same species but just male and female. Whatever they are I love them, especially during gnat season. They are prodigious eaters of bugs. And great Cat TV.

Another potential cat toy is the persistent pair of House Finches that so want to nest on the I-Beam that supports the porch roof. When I first moved here, they'd already made that beam their home. It's actually a good place for a nest, since the rafters create a separate little room that's inaccessible to felines, no matter how hard they try. More than one cat has levered herself up onto the beam and tried to slither around that rafter only to end up hanging by her claws. Each year the little pair, she dressed all in brown, he wearing a bright red shirt and cap, check out their former home. They'll even start building, getting a few straws in place. But after a few days, the pressure of being watched by cats 24/7 is more than they can take, and they think the better of it.

There are birds in this area that I haven't seen since my childhood, like Robins and Nuthatches. Then there are the Disney birds, like the Western Bluebird and the tiny little Vireo--both of them have colored backs and differently colored bellies, and that pudgy shape that we all find so cute. Never mind that these creatures are the descendants of dinosaurs, and that they're omnivores, if not flat-out carnivores. Bugs are protein. For that matter, I consider my chickens to be Tyrannosaurus Plebs (as compared to Tyrannosaurus Rex). They'll eat anything, including dead animals and each others' eggs. Now, turkeys are definitely Diplodicus, but then I'm fond of turkeys as you might have guessed.

I've seen Hebert's Towhees--smooth brown back with a muted but pretty pink belly and a sweet bell-like call, and Peregrines, Prairie Falcons and that gorgeous Turquoise-backed Kingfisher. One of last year's hatchlings accidentally landed on the porch rail during his maiden flight, startling us both. Speaking of bird-watching from the porch, the eagle has more than once flown past me while I'm out there, not the least bit concerned that I could touch him if I just stretched out my arm.

But that's me. Just living my life, bird by bird.

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