I’ve become more and more of a bird person since we moved into our house in 2010. The past week or so has been a bit of a bonanza for me. Without making an effort I have had some delightful bird experiences. I would say it was childlike wonder, but I never had that kind of childlike wonder about birds when I was actually a child.
First up: Owls
We’ve been sleeping with our windows open and the other day we were awakened by the sound of two owls hooting away at 4:00 am. I am fascinated by owls and recently saw a great documentary about them on PBS. I know we have other birds of prey in our neighborhood, but I didn’t think we had owls. So fun to know they are out there killing rodents and being awesome.
The backyard melange
We have the typical assortment of eastern U.S. suburban birds with quite a good population of cardinals which are always so bright and cheery to see. And it looks like our robin pair has decided to make a nest again this year on one of our light fixtures on the back of the house. Looking forward to the goldfinches to get to work on the our verbena seed heads later in the season. We also have more than usual blue jay activity this spring. I hear they can be bullies. Hopefully they don’t scare anything away.
My favorite bird sound
The other day I visited St. Elizabeths, the mental hospital that is being turned into the headquarters for the Department of Homeland Security. I’ve been working on that project on and off since 2005 and have seen it go from an idyllic, if overgrown and abandoned campus to a bustling construction site. Happily, about three years since the Coast Guard moved into their new 1.3 million square foot building, the landscape around the building is starting to heal. Thankfully the landscape designers have opted for a more naturalistic design than the old fashioned Victorian plantings that were typical on the site 100 years ago. When am I going to get to the part about the bird? Soon–I still have more set-up. Anyway, there is a large storm water retention pond that flanks the bottom of the Coast Guard building (that also functions as a security feature). That pond has proven to be a draw for red-winged blackbirds who I don’t remember ever seeing on campus prior to this project. The sound of those birds is so magical to me. It is so evocative of summer and peace and nature. I know that last bit sounds stupid, but it’s just not an urban sound even though I’ve heard it around the pond in Loring Park in downtown Minneapolis. Listen for yourself here.
An absolute first for me
I was on the St. E’s campus to do some field research at the Civil War-era graveyard that is on the slope overlooking the confluence of the Anacostia and Potomac and the monumental core beyond that. As I was squatting down to adjust the cemetery survey on my clipboard I looked up and saw an eastern bluebird about 15 feet away from me. I have seen many a picture of this beautiful bird, but I have never seen one in real life. I was convinced they didn’t really exist. Now if I could finally see a Baltimore oriole. I’ve been waiting about 40 years to see one of those.
My daily dose of Blue Herons and Double-Crested Cormorants
Each day I cross the Potomac at a very picturesque spot that is lined with rocks and teeming with rapids and I see majestic blue herons most days and lots and lots of double-crested cormorants. Sometimes a heron will fly in front of me over the bridge and the cormorants are always flying low overhead to and fro. One day last June I got up early on a Saturday morning and went down to the river to see the birds up close.
And to cap it off, the big guy
Almost immediately after being charmed by the cormorants flying right in front of my car, I turned right and drove along the canal next to the river, looked over to my right and saw a bald eagle soaring not too high overhead. Kind of a fitting way to end my week of serendipitous bird watching. I can’t resist sharing this video of the nesting bald eagles at the National Arboretum hunkering down over their eggs during our March snowstorm this year.
Grape jelly up high will bring orioles to you. It’s probably junk food for them. I put it in a hanging flat dish. Wild Birds Unlimited sells various good oriole feeders. They like treetops so that’s probably why they find it better when it’s placed high– doesn’t have to be as high as a tree, but higher than whatever is around it. I put it in a relatively open area about head-high.
You have a great assortment of birds. When we lived in Marshfield, MA, the orioles always came back when the old apple tree in our yard bloomed. We also had red-winged blackbirds, and I love their song, too. Bluebirds were a myth to me until about a decade ago. As you probably know, they declined years ago, pretty much disappearing, and an effort was made to provide nesting boxes to replace their lost habitat. My late father, a cabinetmaker, made boxes, one of which I still have. He would be delighted to know that the lovely little birds have returned.
Last summer we saw a Barred Owl in one of our trees in our front yard. It was really hard to spot. My daughter was climbing a tree when she saw it. After we knew it liked that spot, we saw it several times. To be honest, it was kind of creepy. It had such intense eyes and would watch us move around the yard. It didn’t seem upset or nervous at all. It seemed to have a level of awareness that I’ve never experienced with a bird.
A lovely post, Thomas. The reason I haven’t got a cat now is because I couldn’t bear it catching birds. We live in London but still see the occasional woodpeckers, and even a kingfisher once or twice, alongside the usual crew. We also get flocks parakeets in north London parks now, which may say something about global warming.
One day last autumn I came out of the front door and the rowan tree in the front was covered in waxwings feeding on the berries on a stop off to or from Scandinavia.
My favourites are the goldfinches, though. Their little red faces make me think they are a bit embarrassed about something.
We had sandhill cranes nearby when I lived in Tampa — there was actually a Crane Crossing sign on a busy road nearby. I once pulled into Krispy Kreme for donuts and saw two cranes cross in front of traffic, and they actually stopped and looked both ways first. I also saw crane families with the babies during the nesting season which was pretty cool.
And a few weeks ago I drove to Alsace, near Strasbourg, and I’m pretty sure I saw storks. I’d never seen one in real life, just cartoons, but they have stork souvenirs and images all over the place, they’re pretty common in the area. So cool.
The double crested cormorant photo is quite impressive for someone who claims to have been birdwatching “without making an effort”. Thanks for introducing me to the red winged blackbird.
Oh dear. I was a bad blogger and didn’t disclose that the heron was the only photo I actually took.
Oops. Sorry. I didn’t intend to “expose” your use of other people’s pictures. The pun I have just made was, however, very much intended (and probably needs an apology too!).
Love this post! Listening to the birds in the spring is one of my favorite things. As to the blue jays – beware, while beautiful, they are definitely bullies. We’ve had blue jays eat a Robin’s eggs. (Prior to then, I didn’t know that they would eat other birds’ eggs – we had been blaming the squirrels.) The only red-winged blackbirds I’ve ever seen were in Kentucky on a vacation about 7 years ago. And, yes, I confess, I made WAY too much of seeing them and making sure the kids were also seeing them at the time. Currently, we have baby Tufted Titmice down in the pole of our basketball goal. We also have purple martins in the backyard that come back every spring and stay through fall. They are a lot of fun to watch, and we love them because they are big mosquito eaters.
I’m not an “official” bird watcher, but I’m definitely a spring time appreciator. :)
I love this post on birds. I believe I saw the same documentary on owls. I used a clip in class to pair with a passage my students read.
In my backyard, we once had a dove’s nest in a hanging plant. The birds returned for several years. We have also had a cardinal’s nest. The mockingbird is the toughest visitor as they tend to be vigilant sentinels which makes the backyard less peaceful while the babies are young.
Thanks for the post.
I love this post, too. I live in a cottage surrounded by cherry trees and have bird feeders, houses, baths…you name it…I have it. My reward is the beautiful bird songs…my husband says The Yardbirds sing for their supper.
Thomas, I listened to the Readying Envy podcast last night and was so impressed. We never get to hear you speak at length on The Readers. I would love to hear your views about specific authors again.
Love this! I really enjoy birdwatching and it’s great to see someone else’s backyard birds. Love the heron, too. I do like a heron and we have loads on my running routes round here.