Bringing It All Back Home

2 03 2010

Fox Sparrow - Luke Tiller

Just when I thought winter was likely to be over, Greenwich Connecticut (in fact perhaps only Riversville Rd Greenwich CT from what I could see when I finally got outside!) gets whacked with the toughest storm of the year: 10-12 inches of snow, power cuts, downed trees and loss of internet access (shock horror!) What to do what to do? Well if you are like me you move your office to the rear window and spend the day watching your bird feeders and going a little stir crazy. As much as I love seeing rare and exotic birds, fussing over the intricacies of gull identification (cough!) and getting out and about on tour there is much to be said for the simple pleasures of just watching the birds doing their thing in your yard.

Some birders I know object to the idea of feeding birds, or are at best ambivalent to it and suggest that feeder setups just encourage the spread of disease and encourage accidents associated with window strikes and such. Personally the world of feeders and feeder birds dragged me back into the world of birding and I think it is an entry point for many of us – just look how popular the Great Backyard Bird Count or Project FeederWatch are. It’s also a great way to interest kids as they can actually get to see the things up close and personal. I think as long as one maintains a level of cleanliness around your setup and remembers that feeders are for ones own entertainment and therefore a privilege then you are pretty much good to go.

Having moved to the States in January 2003 and being stuck in Connecticut without a work permit (bureaucracy is the same the world over I guess!) for the first few months I was here left me plenty of time to kill around the house. For some unknown reason I decided one day to drag a discovered pair of pocket bins out of a draw, pop down the hardware store for a bag of Black Oil Sunflower Seed and start creating bird feeders out of a surplus of empty plastic soda bottles. From here an obsession with birds was born anew.

There is much to enjoy about feeder birds as for my money it gives you as good a chance to study their behavior as you are likely to get anywhere else. Plus you start to really notice things that you have taken for granted or overlooked before: the beautiful flash of red in the underwing coverts of a female Northern Cardinal, the amazing vigour of a ‘double-scratching Fox Sparrow, and something new this weekend the amazing threat display of a White-breasted Nuthatch.

I have watched feisty nuthatches at feeders before, all raised tails and spread wings. Here however was something I had never seen before! Cornell refers to it as a nest distraction display (illustrated here) but here was the bird assuming this seemingly highly aggressive posture towards a couple of House Sparrows as the loafed around the feeders. Quite incredible. The bird raised itself up, and unlike the picture illustrated, was definitely directing its bill in the direction of the sparrows. As it assumed this position it swayed somewhat on the branch. With the wing covert pattern it almost appeared like it had two giant eyes, something akin to an owl or hawk bobbing or swaying its head (I assume that this is the impression it was trying to give but maybe it was just trying to make itself seem as big and intimidating as it could?). Incredible stuff to watch and something I had never seen before (of course annoyingly this happened just at the point that I had taken the battery out of the camera to recharge). It just goes to show what great stuff you can see watching common birds right there at ones feeders though.