Wednesday, June 29, 2016

I don't often do this

But here is a favorite Farm Side from earlier this year: (You can read the Farm Side every week in the Amsterdam Recorder Weekender edition.)

A skeptical eyebrow of moon looks down on all the green at daybreak. Just weeks ago all was cold and quiet. Now riotous growth offers welcome to all manner of summer visitors.

One of our favorites, a Ruby-throated Hummingbird, arrived on the 14th of May, tattered and ever so tame. Every feather was ragged and she was clearly as empty as a just-rung bell. She sat on the string on the porch, hunched and humbled, barely able to fly.

Every few minutes she would flutter over to the feeder and drink and drink, clinging to the edge on nearly vestigial feet. Thanks to a friend who lives near the Schoharie, whose birds arrive just days before ours every year, we knew to expect her. The sugar water (plain with no red dye thank you, one part sugar to four parts water, and fresh every couple of days) was waiting.

The next night hard cold hit. We figured she would be done for. Such a tiny heartbeat, after such a long voyage. How could it not be stilled by bitter temperatures and vicious winds?

She and her bright emerald, ruby, and silver partner lived through the cold snap though. They visit every day to partake. However, somehow, after arriving with a full fan of tail feathers, albeit badly rumpled, she now has only two.

I often consider these tiny, tyrannical birds (they weigh about as much as a penny) and marvel at how they manage to return year after year to fly tame in human gardens and sip all day from feeders designed and maintained by us. They travel so very far, coming here from Central America, often across the Gulf of Mexico. They make the ocean trip, five-hundred miles or so, in non-stop flight. It takes them less than 24 hours as a rule, and they cannot, of course, land or rest over the open, wind-tossed water. No wonder ours looked tattered.

After that gigantic leap of flight, they head north to brighten summer days, about 20 miles at a time, feeding as they come.

Strangely, what with their barely-functional feet, they are scientifically related to swifts. We have those too now, Chimney Swifts, nesting in the unused chimney next to the kitchen. Even in the hours around dusk they can be heard gently twittering to each other in there. We like them quite a lot.

So much has changed since the cold evaporated. As the sun goes down, you can smell something blooming, faintly lemon against the freshening air. Goldfinches stay all winter, snuggled up in drab brown feathers. Now their bright yellows are only rivaled by the other yellow birds of summer, Yellow Warblers.

Yellow warblers are yellow. (Well, duh.) Not the screaming neon yellow of the finches, but rather a rich, buttery color, much enhanced by thin red stripes across the breasts of the males. They sing all day, bragging about how very fine they are, “Sweet, sweet, sweet, sweeter sweet.” We watched one, of an afternoon, sitting comfortable on an ash twig and darting out, just inches, into a swarm of bright-winged gnats, nipping up a couple every trip. It must have eaten fifty or so while we observed.

Let’s see now. At least a dozen pairs of YEWAs times fifty bugs in five minutes. Seems like good company to have in your back yard.

We had some mystery birds show up this spring too, although we soon found out that they had been spotted here before. An insistent call, kind of like snee, snee, snee, sneeze, came from several different box elder trees around the yard. I simply could not find anything that matched, so I made a short video with sound and posted it to a bird group.

American Redstart. Huh, we saw some last year, out in the old horse pasture, but they sure didn’t nest within a couple dozen feet of the house. Of course after the ID was made we spot them every day now. The drab females, kind of olive with yellow flashes at wing and tail, spend hours gathering spider webs and cottonwood fluff, evidently to line their nests.

How convenient that the cottonwoods are just beginning to shed the seeds that gave them their name. A few thousand of them clogging a screen or draping over the garden pond do look a bit like cotton don’t they?

It is perhaps not too surprising that this small farm offers a home or handy stopping place to so many species of birds. Grassland farming, such as is practiced in Upstate NY, is kind to birds, whether those of forest, fields, or edges. Habitat loss is perhaps the single biggest factor in the rapid decline of many once-common species. How many of us grew up to the monotonous all night song of the Whippoorwill? How many have you heard lately? For me it has been over thirty years since I have seen or heard one, despite the many nights they kept me awake when I was younger. It is a common trend.

At this date, not quite half way through the year, we have counted sixty-two different species of birds on our land. They range from House Sparrows and European Starlings, neither of which is particularly welcome, to a Cerulean Warbler, quite a rare little creature, spotted ironically on Global Big Day, when birders across the entire world were out counting birds. (Alan and I spotted 42 species that day.)

In 2015 we found 82 species on this little place. Whether we will meet or surpass that depends on many factors, but clearly the open land dotted with woods and water that makes up this region is welcoming to many birds.

Come late summer, when the hummingbirds begin their reverse journey and the winter sparrows head down from the tundra, I hope we will be sending out many more individuals than arrived here this spring. Some birds, particularly robins, are on their second broods already.

Conservation is an unsung aspect of grassland farming that happens every day.  

Soggy Tufted Titmice


Cathy said...

Beautiful. Beautiful.
Beginning with the "skeptical eyebrow moon"
and finishing with your query about the voice of the Whippoorwill . . .
So much that seems timeless and enduring . . . and that which is ephemeral and fleeting.
You took us along, again.
Thank you.

threecollie said...

Thanks, Cathy, I enjoy writing columns like this one, although most of them are ag issue oriented. Do you hear whippoorwills? I have another Ohio friend who has them,

Jan said...

I am thinking about birds in a while different way

threecollie said...

Jan, whenever I watch the hummingbirds coming into the feeders, so tiny and quick, I think about them flying non-stop across that massive gulf....they are truly astonishing.