Birds of winter are returning

A male Purple Finch eyed the black oil sunflower feeder.

I’m sitting at my desk, looking out the window, enjoying my favorite pastime. Several winter birds have returned and are feeding on and under the feeders that I hang each fall.

In this case, it’s a flock of chattering pine siskins partaking of black oil sunflower and safflower seeds. I mix the two varieties in a tube feeder that dangles from the lowest red maple branch in our front yard.

That’s what the sociable pine siskins were devouring. They are a dainty bird with a pointy little beak. Unlike other species, the siskins don’t seem to be too competitive. They dine cooperatively. The pesky house finches could learn a lesson from their smaller cousins.

I consider the siskins a real treat, an honor to have them partaking of my offerings. They tend to move around a lot in the colder months. They can be here one day and gone the next. So, I enjoy them and the other birds while they are here. I do hope they stick around.

The purple finches have returned, too. Like the siskins, I never know how long they will stay. I just keep filling the feeders and appreciate their beauty. Birders ogle over having purple finches, and the glorious but unpredictable evening grosbeaks even more so.

The white-throated sparrows have also arrived for their six-month hiatus from the Canadian provinces and the northeastern forests. They are marvelous birds to both watch and hear. I never tire of their hop and kick approach to feeding on the ground.

The song of the white-throated is the delight of winter. Neva and I hear their distinctive, lyrical whistle when we walk in the morning. Their cheery call quickens our step on chilly mornings.

The dark-eyed juncos and white-crowned sparrows have just begun to arrive. More will likely appear as the weather grows colder.

I enjoy the year-round birds, too. Is there anything more beautiful than a bright red northern cardinal perched on an evergreen branch? If it happened to have snowed, it creates a Christmas card moment for sure.

I can always tell when the neighborhood Cooper’s hawk is on the prowl. Stealth as it is, the songbirds can’t always fly for safety. So, they freeze in place by staying still and low or press tightly against a tree trunk, hoping not to be spotted.

I don’t mind if the sly hawk captures one. It has to eat, too. However, my preference would be to snag a few of the noisy, hoggish European starlings. They devour the suet cakes like they are candy.

I enjoy the various antics and interactions of my feathered friends. The Carolina wren’s repertoire of songs alerts me to be on the lookout. Sure enough, it bounces around our front porch, checking nooks and crannies for any dead insects.

The wren also partakes of the seeds and suet. Birds need their protein, too. That explains why American robins peck beneath the suet feeder while the starlings sloppily gorge themselves. The robins gobble up the dropped suet pieces from the unruly gang overhead.

I always am pleased when the northern mockingbird makes an appearance at the suet, too. Even the starlings yield to this aggressor.

I marvel at the various woodpeckers that make infrequent stops. The downy is the most faithful, followed by the red-bellied and northern flickers. I’m still waiting on the pileated to make its initial appearance this year.

That’s half the enjoyment of being a birder. You never know what to expect next. You just have to keep watching and appreciate what arrives, starlings excepted.

This Pileated Woodpecker got the last of the peanut butter suet on March 24, 2020.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2020

Birds and trees signal inevitable change

ice storm, male cardinal
Icy red.

By Bruce Stambaugh

The annual migration of birds has been going on for some time now. Fall in the birding vernacular doesn’t equal calendar fall.

There is a logical reason for that. Different species of birds begin their migration at different times. Shorebirds and songbirds often lead the winged entourage to warmer climes. Others trail along alone or in giant flocks to the delight of avid birders. To account for these time travel variances in the birding world, fall is the most extended season, running from August through November.

backyard birds
At the suet feeder.

The same concept is valid for trees and deciduous plants. Some species begin their winter hibernation sooner than others. Their various changing colors can foretell this annual transition. Poison ivy leaves often turn bright red before September arrives, while the glossy leaves of shingle oaks fade from emerald to russet and hang on until early spring.

For me, I welcome these transitions, especially the birding varieties. As the leaves of the red maples in our yard began to fall, birds I had not seen before began to arrive.

Storms brought down many of the remaining leaves. They also blew in flocks of birds, some temporarily. Others seem here to stay.

Last fall, our first in the Shenandoah Valley, birds were scarce at the feeders. The numbers and variety of birds were well below my expectations. I longed for the many beautiful birds we had had in Ohio.

Optimist that I am, I hung the feeders again right after Labor Day and attracted a few regulars. I can always count on chatty house finches and boisterous blue jays. Once the weather cooled, the suet feeder went up in the backyard.

backyard birds
An inquisitive Carolina Wren.

I was contented with the usual suspects, happy that even the Carolina Wrens made regular appearances. But I could not have anticipated what happened next. About six weeks ago, I noticed some birds that resembled the numerous house finches that frequented our feeders. A closer inspection with the binoculars told me that we had a small flock of purple finches with a few pine siskins thrown in for good measure. I was ecstatic.

I had never had purple finches at the feeders and only had had passing pine siskins that took a break to refuel during migration. I hoped beyond hope that the birds would stay. So far they have.

These are gorgeous birds, each in their particular plumage. The reddish hues of the male purple finches appear iridescent, especially if the sun reflects off of their foreheads where the winter colors are the brightest. Though much duller and muted, the rich browns and creams of the females’ feathers are equally stunning.

backyard birds
A rare visitor, a Red-breasted Nuthatch.

The more demur pine siskins tend to feed with the purple finches and the American goldfinches. Their brown stripes and flash of yellow at the wing tips make them striking birds as well.

The departure of the leaves and arrival of the birds mimic life. We can’t do anything about the past and try as we might, we can’t predict the future. Dull leaves and the arrival of purple finches are proof positive.

To be most productive, I strive to be present in each moment regardless of what change occurs. The mystery of it all sparks a spirit of gratitude.

I’m thankful the birds and trees keep reminding me that change is inevitable. If we pay attention, we can enrich our lives by embracing each subtle transformation, seasonal or otherwise.

For good or for ill, change happens. It is the way life is.

Purple Finches, Pine Siskins, House Finches, American Goldfinches
Finches feeding.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2018