Posts Tagged ‘Birds’

Last month, I worried about the late arrival of the Chuck-wills-widow. Now they’re back, having trickled in. I heard one in the distant forest one night, none the following night, another the third night. Then a few more. A month later, they’re filling the nights with sound. They start calling at dusk and are most vocal in the early night hours, but I hear them in the middle of the night and early mornings before dawn.

They must have sensed my concern over their absence. As though to reassure me they’ve come home, a pair has taken to serenade me every evening in my yard. One perches in a tree north of the house and another in the south. They call back and forth, as if in conversation, and don’t seem to mind when I go out on the porch to listen, but if I venture any closer, they fly away.

Lately, the nights have been mild enough to sleep with a bedroom window open, the better to hear birds and peepers and other inhabitants of the night. At dawn, every bird in the neighborhood begins to sing. Who needs a clock radio when such music invites you into the day?

After it grows light, the concert is over and they go about their business. Still, the day is not silent. Wild Turkeys gobble. Cardinals, Wrens, and fowl I can’t identify keep the music going. I’m no bird watcher. In the woods, you can’t see the birds for the trees, but you can hear them.

Lately, I’ve heard a familiar “Cheeri-up? Cheerio!” The Robins migrated north months ago, but they passed through, leaving their songs. Our Mockingbirds mimic the Robin (as I wrote in Robin Song), but they prefer open spaces and my yard is mostly wooded, so I suspect it’s a Brown Thrasher, a close relative of the Mockingbird who prefers woods and thickets, like where I live. Here is a link to Brown Thrasher songs, but none of these recordings includes an imitation of a Robin song:


The Brown Thrasher’s repertoire is almost as varied as it’s cousin the Mockingbird’s.

Birds are not the only creatures making their presence known. The Carpenter Bees have invaded my potting shed. They came out in early March, then in the middle of the month we had a few 25 degree nights and they disappeared. (Maybe they went to Florida for the rest of the winter.) Now they’re back. They make nests in unpainted wood, like my potting shed.

When I approach, something like an oversized bumblebee flies at me, buzzing like he means business. This is a male trying to threaten me, but I know he has no stinger and can do no more than be annoying. His mate, who does have a stinger, is too busy to bother me, preparing a home for her babies. But even the females seldom sting. I hear them buzz their way into 2x4s, leaving a pile of sawdust behind.

This Carpenter Bee is all buzz. He can bite, but he can’t sting.

Once I sawed into a piece of scrap lumber which, unknown to me, contained a Carpenter Bee nest. Suddenly, a bee flew out. I don’t know who was more alarmed, me or the bee. The poor thing took off, never to be seen in the environs again. These Carpenter Bees are pesky, but as long as they don’t drill holes in my house, I leave them alone. Like most bees, they are important pollinators and this kind can pollinate flowers that are too difficult for others, including Honeybees, to service.

There are thousands of species of bees. I’ve become interested in native bees. Honeybees aren’t native. They’re immigrants from Europe. Many of our native bees resemble Honeybees and Bumblebees and others look like wasps or flies. Most don’t sting or make honey. Bumblebees make honey, but only in modest quantities, unlike Honeybees. While I love honey, the Honeybee is overrated as a pollinator. There are many flowers, including important food crops, that Honeybees lack the proper equipment to pollinate, but there is a native bee that has been designed just for that flower.

One of Carpenter Bees’ nature enemies is woodpeckers. Although I haven’t noticed any reduction in the number of bees, Pileated Woodpeckers have taken up residence at my place. They probably like it here because I leave dead trees standing, as long as they’re not close enough to fall on my house. I hear woodpeckers drumming on trees and occasionally their large wings flapping through the woods. Here is a recording of a Pileated Woodpecker:


Today I saw one on the pine tree just outside my living room window. He gave me time to get my camera, but when I stepped near the window to snap a picture, he took off with loud flapping wings.

These are big woodpeckers.

Here’s something few people know. While birds eat seeds, they must have protein from insects in order to reproduce. Folks will put out all kinds of bird feeders to attract birds, then spray every bug they see. Pesticides are unhealthy for birds (and people) as well as insects. Learn to live with a few bugs in the yard. Let the birds eat them. Nature is not always convenient.

Earlier this spring, a house wren took up residence on my front porch and raised a brood. Every time I stepped onto the porch, she startled me—I swear they can fly faster than a speeding bullet! They nest in hanging plants, under eaves, and in my shed. One spring a wren nested on a window sill when I left an awning window open during a warm spell. When cool weather returned, I had to leave the window open so as not to disturb her nest. Fortunately, these birds don’t take long to raise a family. One morning, I heard the most joyous singing. The wren perched on the edge of her nest announcing motherhood. In no time at all, the babies grew up and flew away so I could close the window again.

House Wren singing.

As I said, nature is not always convenient, but it’s always wondrous.



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I had almost given up. I wasn’t worried that spring would never come, but that something had happened to the whippoorwills. Had they forsaken this troubled planet?

They’re not really whippoorwills, and they don’t even make the whip-poor-will sound, but that’s what we call them here in rural Florida. If I told a neighbor I heard a Chuck-wills-widow call last night, I’d get a blank stare that would last into next week. If I say I heard a whippoorwill, I’d have full understanding.

You can’t describe their call as a song. It sounds almost like they’re spitting out, “Chuck! Will’s widow,” or something like that. Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings described it as, “Chip hell out of the red oak.” You can find a recording here: https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Chuck-wills-widow/id. On summer nights, I can hear several in the woods around me, calling ceaselessly through the night, the same call over and over. Sometimes one comes close to the house, but if I go outside to try to locate it—immediate silence.

Chuck-wills-widow. (Photo courtesy of Dick Daniels)

I’ve never seen one clearly enough to recognize it. They are active mostly at night and are so well camouflaged they blend in with dead leaves and tree bark during the day. Sometimes, driving down the road at night, a bird will suddenly shoot up from the roadway and fly off. That’s a Chuck-wills-widow that has been picking up grit from the road. I suppose they sometimes get hit by cars. I read that their numbers are declining—the usual story— pesticides and loss of habitat. They must be too shy to stick around when their forests are taken over by housing developments. They don’t build nests, but lay eggs on the ground, which puts them at risk despite their camouflage. They’re vulnerable to pesticides because their diet is mostly insects, although they’ve been known to eat small birds and even bats.

I hear them only from March through July. They winter in the Caribbean and Central America, but I don’t know what they do in late summer and fall.

I wasn’t too surprised they were late this spring. We had another weird winter. Winters in Florida are typically weird, but these last two were worse. Not hard winters, but warm for the most part, and late. My dog fennel, loyal predictor of the first frost, has been dead wrong two years in a row. No frost in November, as predicted. Not until after Christmas.

Last spring I still had nearly a full cord of firewood left over. I usually stock up before my firewood man goes away for hunting season, but I didn’t run low until after the first frost. When I called him, he delivered right away and said I was lucky to catch him before he took one last trip to his hunt camp. After the second frost, it appeared my supply would last me again into the next fall.

Our tomato plants

A few weeks before Spring Break, I had the school kids start tomato plants and told them that after the break we should be past the threat of frost and could set the plants out in their gardens. Boy was I wrong! After the children returned to school, we were hit with the coldest spell of the winter. I woke to a half inch of ice in the bird bath.

(I can hear you northerners saying, “Now really, just get over it!” I know. You’re digging out from under three feet of snow. Spend a few winters here and see how soft you get!)

So, we held back on planting our spring gardens. Everyone I talked to said they hadn’t heard a whippoorwill yet, either. The next part of the conversation goes something like, “My mama/granny/grandpa always said we can have frost up ‘til Easter.” This year, Easter comes in the middle of April! Can Spring really be so late? The whippoorwills have never been this late. What’s wrong?

On mild nights, I slept with a window open, hoping to hear one call. If the night was too cool, I’d step out on the porch every few hours to listen. March melted away, but no whippoorwill.

Finally, on March 30th, I heard the call! Far away, faint, and short lived, one called. My world was set right again. I heard the promise of Spring, and it was music to my ears.


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I see a flock of robins beside the road, pecking in the soil, and that reminds me.

One summer, when I visited my sister in southeastern Washington, I heard a mockingbird sing. I didn’t know mockingbirds lived that far north. In fact, I was sure they didn’t. “You don’t have mockingbirds here, do you?” I asked. No, of course not. Finally, I spotted the songster—a robin!

Every winter the robins come to Florida, a happy place to escape from cold and snow. I seldom notice when they arrive. They must meander though North Florida in small numbers, seeking the balmier south. Then come February, large flocks gather on the way back to their summer nesting grounds. That’s when I see them congregate on roadsides and fields, hopping about in search of dainties. The struggle for domination between winter and spring provides a balanced diet. As the sun warms the soil, worms and insects emerge among small green plants seeking a head start on summer growth. The robins feast. Then frost nips these hopes and drives the little creatures back into the ground. Undeterred, the robins dine on seeds left by last year’s weeds and wildflowers.

The birds also assemble in berry-laden trees and shrubs. They swallow the fruit whole, then fly over wooded areas, pooping out seeds which fall to fertile ground to complete the cycle of growth. That is why I have so many beauty-berry bushes in my woods. Unfortunately, robins also gobble up the fruit of camphor trees and pyracantha, both invasive species, and spread them far and wide, so be careful what you plant. No bird will appreciate these fancy foreigners when they crowd out our native plants.

As the robins pass through my neighborhood, the mockingbirds pick up their song and sing it through summer, long after the robins have abandoned us. That’s why I associate the “cheerily carol” with the mockingbird.

Last summer I visited my daughter in Virginia. Sitting on her front porch, enjoying the mountain air, I heard a familiar, “Cheery-up, cheery-o, cheery-up, cheery-o!” A mockingbird? I knew I was within their range this time, but no, again it was a robin.

What a happy place, I thought, to have the music of both mockingbirds and robins.

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If you are a novice at photography or kayaking, or both, you could use some advice. I’ve been taking pictures since LBJ was President, but being new to kayaking, I have discovered some pointers to pass on. The following instructions are for a point and shoot camera for two important reasons. First, it is beyond the scope of this essay to cover the vast variety of cameras in use. Second, this is the only kind of camera that I know how to use. Some important considerations:

1. Choose a waterproof camera. To discover at the end of the day that all your precious pictures have been ruined because your camera got wet would be heartbreaking. Your heart may get broken anyway, but at least you can eliminate this cause.

2. Secure your camera by its wrist strap or other means. You will not drop the camera in 18” of still water. It will dive in while you are clipping along at top speed, never to be seen again. While my top speed is modest at best, had I dropped my camera it would have been easier to grab hold of a fish. At least you can bait a fish.

3. Your camera should also be shockproof. While securely attached to your wrist, it will dangle just enough to bang against the rim of your kayak as you paddle. I reduced my anxiety by tying a cord to the wrist strap and securing it to the zipper of my life vest. When not using my camera, I tucked it inside the bosom of the life jacket.

Now we can move on to other considerations. Back in the 20th Century, when cameras still had film, all you had to do was press the shutter button and it would snap the picture. I’m sorry to say those days are gone forever. When I reluctantly joined the 21st Century by purchasing a digital camera, I found myself no longer in control but at the mercy of a gadget smarter than I am. My camera turns itself off to save battery power. That’s fine, but when I push the button to turn it back on, it will argue with me:

Camera: Are you sure you want me to turn back on?
Me (pressing the button for the second or third time): Yes! I want to take a picture!
Camera: Oh, all right.

Finally, camera ready, you aim at your subject, push the shutter button, and…nothing happens! A few seconds later, after either the kayak or the target has moved, it takes a photo. That’s a minor problem on solid ground if shooting a stationary object, but bouncing around in the water trying to photograph a bird in flight will result in many images of empty sky. Don’t give up. If you take enough pictures of the sky you are likely to find a bird in at least one of them. Here is one example of digital technology’s superiority to the old fashioned stuff. Can you imagine how expensive it would be to have all that film developed?

Motion can be an issue when you are a passenger in a moving vehicle, but it is even more so when you need both hands to paddle. You also need one or two hands to operate the camera. How many hands do you have? Read these instructions carefully before you attempt kayak photography:

1. You are happily paddling along, enjoying the sun and the wind and the water, when you spot something you want to photograph. For simplicity’s sake, let’s say it’s not a bird in flight but something sitting quietly on the bank minding its own business. Carefully set the paddle down across your lap so you won’t lose it (and find yourself up that proverbial crick).

2. In your excitement you fumble the camera and drop it into your lap, but since it’s shockproof and securely tied, it’s fine. So you pick it up again and have the usual conversation with it before it consents to turn itself on. You take aim, but by now one of two things (or maybe both) has happened – you have overshot your mark and/or the wind has blown you sideways. As you twist around in your seat you realize that, encumbered by a life vest, even a contortionist could not reach the angle necessary to take the proposed picture.

3. Tuck the camera back into your bosom, pick up the paddle, turn around, return to the place where you spotted your photo op, and try again. By now the camera has turned itself off. Repeat #s 1 and 2.

4. This time paddle further back so you will have time to turn on your camera, set it down, pick up the paddle, re-position the kayak, set down the paddle, and pick up the camera in time to snap the picture. If you are trying to photograph an inanimate object, you may be successful. But if it is a living creature, by now it has stopped wondering what that nut is up to and has decided to have nothing more to do with you. If you are fast enough, you may catch its hind quarters as it disappears into the brush. If not, you can file it in your memory bank of photos not taken.

If you are under the age of 40 you may elect to skip this next section. (You may want to read it anyway, as your day will come: your eyeballs will lose their flexibility, and you will have to hold things across the room to read them.) Mature photographers will need reading glasses to see to operate the camera. Otherwise the pictures may be sadly out of focus. (They may be out of focus anyway, but that’s not my fault.)

In addition to the paddle and the camera, you need to manage your reading glasses and it would be wise to secure them in some way. I just use a cheap pair from Wal-Mart which would be a small loss and tuck them into my bosom beside the camera. The procedure is the same as above with the addition of a few extra steps:

1. Same as above. When completed, take the reading glasses out of your bosom, put them on, and proceed to #2.

2. Same as above, except that you can’t see distance clearly through the reading glasses, so after you realize you are not ready to take the picture, take them off and put them back in your bosom.

3. Same as above with the additional task of putting on and taking off your reading glasses. Avoid taking the camera out of your bosom first as the reading glasses will come out with it and try to jump into the water. Then you have to grab for them, which wastes time and disrupts your concentration. You may need to repeat the previous steps a few times.

4. Same as above with the addition of the reading glasses. If your victim has not disappeared by now, you are all set, except – you have splashed water on your reading glasses and still can’t see clearly.

5. Try to find something dry to clean your glasses with and repeat #4.

6. Download your pictures at the end of the day. The memory card will be full of photos of empty skies and retreating wildlife, but there should be some good pictures as well But wait, as you download the images, you find that a number of them have a curious blur in the middle where water had splashed on the exterior of the lens and you were taking pictures through a bubble.

7. Take a deep breath. Clean the lens. Tomorrow is another day. Begin again with step #1.

This one didn’t get away.

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