February 24, 2020
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Measuring success: a morning watching birds in the garden

Contributed | BDN
Contributed | BDN

The morning sky was gray, a fine mist visible against the dark spruce and pines that grow in Marjorie’s garden. We took our coffee to the porch swing to watch the garden’s birds.

We both heard a cardinal singing as a chickadee flew under the eaves to a feeder, grasping the perch with wire-thin talons. It began the work of selecting a single black oil seed. Many were measured by beak and found lacking, tossed aside. Finally satisfied, it sprang to a nearby oak branch, pecked open the seed, and ate the nut. Back and forth went this small black-capped bird.

A white-breasted nuthatch darted into the rafters and then dropped to a feeder perch. It took its seed to the trunk of an old wolf pine and stashed it beneath the bark. Back and forth.

A chipping sparrow flew into an elderberry beneath the porch and then dropped to the ground to join a white-throated sparrow scratching for millet seed. A female purple finch peeked from behind a pot on the porch rail before fluttering up to the feeder. Her rosy-breasted mate soon joined her along with a goldfinch.

At the edge of the garden, goldfinches darted from branch to branch in the top of a bird cherry, nipping at flower buds. I recalled the ruffed grouse we had seen two days earlier perched in the same tree, also pecking at the buds.

Two crows perched silently on the topmost branch of a yellow birch, lords of all they surveyed, while chickadees flitted among the slender branches. A solitary crow cawed from a spruce snag draped in long strands of old man’s beard. Mourning doves cooed to each other in the distance.

We watched a downy woodpecker hunt for grubs in an old birch snag. A pileated woodpecker recently had chiseled several large rectangular holes into the rotting wood of this snag as it hunted for wood-boring beetle larvae. We had not seen the pileated or its lifelong mate all winter, but these newly excavated holes reassured us that they were both still part of our garden.

Suddenly all went still and quiet as a merlin glided into the top of the garden’s tallest snag. The falcon sat motionless, watching the ground and trees for the slightest movement. For several minutes no creature stirred in Marjorie’s garden.

The silence was broken by the warbled chuckle of a red squirrel’s scolding as Reilly, our Brittany, turned the corner, nose to the ground, stubby tail twitching rapidly. Just ahead of Reilly’s nose, a mourning dove exploded from the ground, finding safety in the old pine, and the merlin took flight.

I turned to Marjorie. “I need something to write about for next week’s column. Any ideas?”

“You should write about the birds in our garden. Not about planting for them, just about them, about sitting here on a misty morning watching as they go about the work of staying alive.”

Suddenly a streak of red and black darted through the spruces and collided silently with the old birch snag. For a few minutes, we had an unobstructed profile of the pileated, of its bright red topknot and coal-black back. It went to work enlarging one of its holes, searching for breakfast, and we dared not say a word or lift a cup.

Then Reilly again, the great interrupter, suddenly on the porch, in our faces, telling us all about the chase, and the pileated left as quietly as it had arrived.

We measure our success as gardeners by the frequency of mornings like this.

Note: I am grateful to my good friend Lynne Hundhammer for her research on the ecology of pileated woodpeckers.

Send queries to Gardening Questions, P.O. Box 418, Ellsworth 04605, or to rmanley@shead.org. Include name, address and telephone number.

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