Did you participate in the Big Day 2020? Across the nation, birders counted species and number of birds in their area. COVID-19 kept many counts to their neighborhood, but some ventured beyond the back yard. I got out three times on Saturday – twice in our back yard and one time on a walk through a county park. The two settings could not have been more different! Each experience taught me a lesson.
Lesson #1 – Backyard birding is a comfort zone.
In our back yard, we have 12-15 resident species in the winter and about 25 during the summer. I can identify most of them and sometimes can tell individuals by their call or a unique feature they possess. There is the Blue Jay with the call that is more of a shrill whistle than a caw and the cardinal family in the evergreens that pip at me when I fill the feeders in the morning. My favorite nuthatches keep me entertained and this one looks like it is having a great laugh.
We have some newcomers to the neighborhood as well. The white-crowned sparrow sings his Oh Canada! at daybreak and again at dusk. We also seem to have more wrens than last year. It is my goal for 2020 to pay more attention to these less colorful but melodious arrivals, and be able to identify them by sight and sound.
This week has been a colorful reunion with our migratory orioles and grosbeaks. I have learned that there are two types of orioles (Orchard with bibs and Baltimore who are larger and generally brighter) who usually do not nest with us, but today’s picture of a female with nesting material makes us hopeful. We have been taking a grove of orange slices and gallons of grape jelly to the oriole feeder this week and loving it.
I have a new appreciation of female grosbeaks this year. They were the first to arrive and they are the more fierce of the sexes. One particular female stands guard of the platform feeder against all comers – and gives no special attention to the brighter colored males.
Our hummingbirds have slowly made their way north, thin and tired from their long journey. They take long droughts from the feeder that Mrs. Prairie Melody patiently placed for them almost two weeks ago. Again, it was the females who came first with a few males joining. They seem more intent on restoring their weight and trim, rather than the dogfighting that will be their pastime during the summer season.
Our back yard is a place of comfort and friends. This is why we bring birds into our space and make sure they have the best food to keep them healthy and returning day after day, and hopefully for several years over the bird generations. At Prairie Melody™ we are proud to supply each back yard with the best pesticide free bird food so you can know your friends are cared for.
Lesson #2 – A multi-habitat county park teaches birding humility and a wonder of diversity.
Saturday morning, I went to River Bend Forest Preserve and learned that I recognize very few species outside my back yard. I started on the trailhead with my binoculars and my field guide, my farm boots, and my jacket (it was 29 degrees). About 50 yards into my hike it was clear that I had the wrong optics, the wrong footwear and eventually decided the jacket was too much on such a beautiful day. It was also clear that I had only a novice level of knowledge of the diversity of species in this habitat.
River Bend Forest Preserve brings a wide range of habitat in a relatively small area. It is a reclaimed gravel mine with two lakes, marshy areas, prairie, mature and new growth forest, with the Sangamon River running through. As I walked in, two flutters of sparrow and a flight of swallows exploded out of the trees in the prairie which was disorienting as I tried to train my binoculars on them for an ID. Not a chance as they were gone down the path in an instant.
I walked on a couple of hundred yards before deciding to return home to borrow Mrs. Prairie Melody’s camera and change into hikers. I kept the jacket (it was 29 degrees). As I walked back on the trailhead, my objective for the hike changed from cataloging to just experiencing this new habitat and discovering what was there.
I switched on my ears as well as my eyes and found another layer of birds in and under the bushes. A systematic rustle of leaves caught my attention to a catbird. Gray Catbirds are common but solitary birds usually searching for insects in leaf litter. It took me several minutes to photograph this beauty. Can you see him in the leaves?
The Eastern Towhee has always intrigued me, mostly because of its name, and I was hoping to see one this year as I learn about sparrows and wrens. The towhee is classified as a New World sparrow by those who know such things. A flash of orange from the bush up ahead caught my eye and my hopes rose! Sure enough, after some stealth I was able to capture this male Eastern Towhee with head back singing away.
River Bend has marshy bogs that are great places for migratory insect eaters to find breakfast. This morning I was fortunate to get up close with a Palm Warbler and a couple of water birds that I need help identifying.
Lastly, I went through the tall prairie on my way back to the parking lot. Swallows have always delighted me with their aerobatics and fearless flying. If reincarnation is real, this is where the best pilots go (if they have lived a good life). Growing up on a central Illinois farm, I know about Barn Swallows and Purple Martins in our barns and grassy lots. My favorite memories are of our barn swallows tormenting the cats just for the sheer joy of flying. When I learned how many mosquitoes they eat each day, their place of honor was assured. I had never observed a Tree Swallow up close and they are every bit the fliers as their cousins. The Forest Preserve have erected many swallow houses in the prairie. Each one was filled and from the sounds inside, most were celebrating Mother’s Day weekend with full nests.
To wrap up this week’s blog post, I want to share a few thoughts from The Big Day 2020 and Mother’s Day. First, Mother’s Day is special no matter the species and it is no accident it is in the spring. Bird mothers look just as harried as human moms, but most wouldn’t change it for the world. Mrs. Prairie Melody heard from both of our fledglings this weekend which made our nest a happy place.
I am glad that Prairie Melody™ can play a small roll in protecting our birds and the pollinators around us. It reminded me why our pesticide free pledge is important. It is important to protect and support the diversity of Nature – including birds, pollinators, and insects. We are thankful for your support of the mission of Prairie Melody™. Every back yard (and Forest Preserve and sunflower field) makes a difference.