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February 7, 2013

Of Carolina wrens and crossbills

Cooperstown Crier

---- — We will remember this year for a number of reasons, among them first time visitors to our bird feeders. Aside from reporting data to Cornell every five days as part of the Project Feeder Watch program, I keep on close watch over all the avian activity up here on the hill. Most winters are routine, in that we can pretty much predict what species will stop by at the free food court we provide.

Despite the predictability, it is always a joy to watch whomever might be dining with us, be they the always fascinating and gregarious chickadees, the juncos that rarely go airborne to check out the feeders, preferring to rummage about through the rich store of droppings provided by messier eaters, or the hairy and downy woodpeckers that cling to the suet feeders pecking away at what must be to them a sumptuous mid-winter feast. Eating upside down has no appeal to me, but it gets the job done. I have often wondered at the gravitational and digestive ramifications of such unorthodox eating habits, but it seems to work nicely for woodpeckers. Nuthatches pick their way down the sides of trees ferreting out insects from the folds of bark furrows. Nature offers up an infinite store of fare that its creatures have attacked inventively over the long march of evolution. If variety is the spice of life, then nature is about as spicy as it gets.

The last time I saw, and listened to, a Carolina wren was while hiking through Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge on Maryland’s eastern shore at least 15 years ago. As we have experienced tamer winters in the Northeast, they have gradually moved northward, so it is not unexpected to catch a glimpse of these beautiful little wrens with striking white eye stripes from time to time. Certainly not at one’s feeder! The first few visits were furtive, but nibbling time has gradually lengthened and this particular male is not the least bit disturbed by the regulars that come and go without paying him any heed at all. In fact, what fascinated me is that if any aggressive behavior is shown at all it is always intra-species. For instance, this morning while a starling was pecking at a suet bit that had fallen to the ground, another hopped over, only to be shooed away rather forcefully. Seconds later a chickadee stopped by, watched, took a nibble or two, and flew up to one of the feeders above. The starling paid no attention whatsoever to the chickadee. I see this sort of thing regularly when squirrels come to feed.

Carolina wrens have a beautiful repertoire of songs. They shut down during the winter, so my hope is this little guy will stick around and perform for us come spring and summer. I have seen him dart in and out of a brush pile not far from the house, so perhaps he will set up camp there. Carolina wrens have been known to nest not only in brush piles, but also occasionally in mailboxes and other choice spots close to human abodes. One observer has reported seeing one nest in the folds of hanging wash!

As if having the wren winter with us were not enough, over the course of several days last week a pair of white-winged crossbills breakfasted with us. Not only have we never been visited by a crossbill, their appearance in this neck of the woods is incredibly rare. I checked the recently published Delaware-Otsego Audubon Society Christmas Bird Count for 2012, which also includes data from 1969 to 2012. Two white-winged crossbills! Who knows why they camped out here. I am just glad they did. Knowing full well such a claim might be met with skepticism in some quarters, I clicked off quite a few photographs, a short video, and sent a picture to a birder friend much respected in birder circles. The birder Gestapo has not arrived, but a man has to be sure of his claims! I am a lone birder — actually a lone everything. At any rate, crossbills are welcome here at any time. Ironically, I have often dried evergreen cones in hopes of coaxing out their seeds. My success rate is dismal. Now, if I were a crossbill, with my built in tool I could pry apart those scales with ease and easily pluck out the seeds. If one comes back perhaps we could agree to a mutually beneficial business arrangement.

One never knows what surprises nature has in store for us. We try to solve its mysteries, but the zingers just keep coming. The great nature writer Hal Borland referred to nature’s rhythms as an “enduring pattern,” a dance always the same and never the same at all. Nature’s productions eclipse anything Broadway could ever dream up.