There’s Birding and Then There’s Birding

Photos shows a wreath-like circle of twigs forming a wren nest inside the back support of a satellite dish
A guy’s idea of a good nest site

The house wren is back. This insouciant little guy clicks and clatters a call that sounds more like a baseball card in bike spokes than a bird. For a couple of years he tried building a nest in my satellite dish (for internet before my small town finally got wired). His girlfriends never went for it and when I took down the dish, I could see why. He’d had to arrange the twigs almost vertically, like a wreath, in the small space behind the dish (see photo). But with the dish down, he complained. Loudly. So I made an impulse buy at a nursery and bought a very expensive bird house. It took a few weeks to get screws for it and some time to figure out a good spot, but it’s been up for a few weeks now. Too late for nesting this year though I’ve been gratified to hear Mr. Wren chortling about, and while I’ve seen him near the house, I haven’t noticed him inspecting it.

My hope is it’ll be used as a winter roost by chickadees or titmice. Then maybe next year, Mr. Wren will find it and Ms. Wren will approve. In case you’re wondering, the guys start several nests with twigs and the gals check them out and pick the prime spot, finishing it off with softer material.

All of this is to say that there’s birdwatching and then there’s birdwatching. The former is the ticking off a checklist, a life list. Running around, sometimes the world, in search of a glimpse of a bird and sticking around only long enough to tick that box. I’ve been on birding walks where a leader points out a bird high up in a tree, usually in early May and a very tall oak. By the time I get my binoculars on said bird, the group has moved on to the next “hot spot.” I wouldn’t have seen the bird but for the leader, who usually can identify the bird by its song so knows what to look for before even looking for it.

I’ve checked a lot of boxes this way. But I haven’t learned anything about the birds. So every year, I have to learn them all over again. Now, however, I live in a place where the birds come to me and all I have to do is be present. Some I’ll only get a glimpse of, like the hermit thrush who comes close to the house in early spring (maybe migrants passing through) where I can get a good look, but then vanishes except for that beautiful flutelike song every evening from the woods.

This year I lucked out finding a nest. Nearly stepped on the thing. Note to anyone living in bird habitat: if a bird flushes in front of you, stop walking and pay attention to where it came from. If you look carefully, you might see a small nest with eggs, as I did both for the hermit thrush and an ovenbird. The ovenbird was even harder to spot, but I knew when the mom flushed that I’d better look carefully. Once I found it, I stayed well away. The hermit thrush nest I marked with a branch and realized I could see into the nest from a distance with binos. Once I was pretty sure mom and kids would be gone, I checked again and sure enough the nest was empty.

Regulars each year are a chestnut-sided warbler (“pleased, pleased, pleased to meet you” or, long story, “Mitsubishi”), a common yellowthroat (“witchity, witchity, witchity”) though this year, he didn’t stick around maybe because I traumatized him with deer netting around a shrub and he was trapped for a time. He got out, but probably decided to find a friendlier neighborhood. Phoebes nest over the bedroom or living room window each year—the nests get reused and they decide which one to spruce up. They had two broods this year though I never saw the kids for the second one. I was so intent on giving them space, they fledged without ever being seen.

Robins nested outside the kitchen and were visible from a bathroom. As soon as a parent landed in the tree, the three babies popped their heads up like a jack-in-the-box, mouths open wide, eyes closed, scrawny fuzz of feathers poking out like Einstein’s hair.

Eastern towhees have nested every year and this year was particularly precarious because we also had a family of foxes. Towhees nest on the ground and I saw foxes go into the shrubs near where I suspected the  nest was. Eventually I saw one fledgling, so at least someone survived. He bounded after Dad, begging to be fed, and Dad complied. Bird dads are often very attentive. Mr. Yellowthroat was a doting dad the year they nested in the yard. Females of most species can be harder to spot because they are less colorful, all the better to hide when brooding.

Catbirds were a big deal this year. They’ve nested every year, but for some reason this year they were more visible than usual. They tended to be the last ones I’d see feeding before dark. And they nested in an azalea right under the phoebe nest. It was only luck that let me see a parent enter the shrub and leave. I was standing pretty far away. Once they abandoned the nest, I clipped at branches for a better look. The shrub is coming out anyway.

Luckily for both families, the stonework planned for the front of the house has been delayed and now the azaleas and old decking won’t be ripped out till later this month, after nesting season. I was terrified we’d lose the phoebes to the commotion, but then when the catbirds were in the shrub, it would have been a worse tragedy. Now I just hope the work gets done before winter since there’s a multi-ton pile of Goshen stone at the end of the driveway, right where the snow will get plowed. It was a fun playground for the young foxes one day.

Again, my point, since I feel like I’m wandering down digressive paths, is that while my life list hasn’t grown much since I moved to this plot of rural land, my relationship to the birds I do see and live with, whose land I’ve invaded, has deepened. Watching them feed and court and parent feels like a gift. They aren’t being generous, they could care less if I’m here. They’d prefer I not be, actually. So I try to treat them like reluctant hosts. I’m doing what I can to make their home better habitat for them while basically staying out of their way when they need the undisturbed time and space. Pulling out invasive buckthorn and editing out saplings to keep the field from becoming forest will wait a few more weeks.

Right now the goldfinches are deep into nesting, and the cedar waxwings are likely having another brood. Everyone else is busy finding food. A group of turkeys wander through most afternoons, chowing down on god knows what but maybe the raspberries that are now ripening. Three adult females herd ten or so poults and keep an eye out for laggers—who can count them when they are barely visible over the blueberries?

A broad-winged hawk watches from the pines as smaller birds send out alarm calls. Crows harass a red-shouldered hawk. I hope he finds plenty of voles. Baby bluebirds bathe in the birdbath.

I’ll stop now since I could go on and on about birds. Then there are the butterflies! And the bees and wasps! And the fawn…


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