Posts Tagged ‘birds’

The vegetarian goldfinch

August 6, 2012

The goldfinch started tapping at my window on July 4. I work at a desk looking out at the swaying fingers of goatsbeard flowers, formerly white and fluffy but now brown with tiny seeds. The goldfinch liked to sit among the goatsbeard, occasionally plucking a seed. Several times a day, she flew over to the window, clung to the sill, and pecked at the glass.

I knew it was a female because the field guide showed a male with a black-capped head, unlike this one, which was also not so brilliantly yellow as the male. At first, I thought she was trying to get inside, but I didn’t think she’d like it indoors, so I steadfastly refused to open the window. Then I remembered Google. I tried the phrase “goldfinch tapping at window,” and it turns out lots of people are driven crazy by goldfinches tapping at their windows. I don’t mind—I liked getting to see her six inches away—I just wondered what she wanted.

She wanted a mate, according to the bird forum, or else she was guarding her territory. She saw her reflection in the glass and thought it was another bird. But we’re dealing with a special situation here. Practically all the other birds were done with finding mates and setting up their territories by the end of June. Goldfinches nest late, and it’s for a particular reason—they are vegetarians!

Most birds feed their young with worms and insects, solid protein for growing babies, so they nest in spring. Goldfinch babies get their protein from seeds, so their parents have to nest and mate in summer, when the seeds mature. That’s why there was a goldfinch tapping at my window in early July.

And here’s a related fact about cowbirds, those avian parasites that lay their eggs in the nests of other birds. When the babies hatch, the large, aggressive cowbird chicks grab more food than the resident nestlings, which may die. However, cowbirds are not vegetarians. The ones that end up in goldfinch nests die within three days because they can’t survive on a diet of seeds.

There’s some kind of deep lesson here—if only I could figure out how to apply it.

After a few days of nibbling at the goatsbeard, the goldfinch began to pluck entire strands of seeds from the bush. She’d yank one out, and then at least two more, holding them all in her beak. Sometimes she dropped one while grabbing another, but she always ended up with three. Once fully loaded, she’d fly away to the west and disappear among the leaves of a big oak down the road.

Often she’d come over and peck at the window before harvesting the strands of seeds, making sure that nasty, ghostly rival didn’t get any of her loot.

I suspect she was using the goatsbeard stems to build her nest, since she disappeared after about a week. I miss her. I hope she’s been sitting on her eggs and will eventually return with fledglings to feast outside my window.


Ducks and drakes celebrate spring

April 9, 2010

I don’t know about the bees, but the birds seem to think spring is here – at least the ducks are in an amorous mood.

Since my discovery of Coles Brook, I’ve taken to doing my laundry in River Edge, around a corner from the brook’s meander towards Hackensack. While the laundry is drying, I wander along the stream, taking note of the level of trash and the clarity – or not – of the water. As I was heading back to the laundromat last week, I heard a commotion coming from the stream, and a loud quacking overhead.

At the edge of the stream, two mallard drakes were fighting. They wrestled and flapped, on the bank and in the water, the female sticking close, almost touching them. Eventually, one of the males climbed onto the back of the other one and held him underwater. When he let go, the loser flew off upstream. The winner promptly followed him.

I looked around to see where the quacking was coming from. A crow, seated on top of a pole, was making strangely duck-like noises. It shut up soon after the drakes disappeared.

The female mallard swam around in the shallows, reared up and flapped her wings, climbed onto a wheeled board stranded in the water. When the victorious male returned, they swam together, the female in front. They did a little preening, a little bill dipping.

A great honking announced the arrival of a pair of Canada geese, which settled onto the water just around the bend. It’s hard to say whether the prospect of being interrupted pushed the male to pounce, but a few moments later, he darted at the female, climbed onto her back, grabbed the nape of her neck in his bill, and for half a minute or so, they wriggled. Then he slid off and released her neck.

They dipped their bills in the water, swam to the shallows and preened. The female put her head underwater, probably seeking a snack, while the male remained alert nearby. I suppose he was guarding his woman against his opponent’s return.

The geese swam idly past, paying little attention, but I was delighted to have witnessed wild duck love, right in River Edge.

Bald Eagles visit the Hackensack River

March 14, 2010

Two great dark wings stretch up above the water and then fold back down. The tide is running out, and swaths of mud flats are exposed along the shores of the river. As I approach, I see the big bird in the shallows near the opposite bank, struggling with something. I notice its white head and think of the large black-backed gulls that soar over the river. But when the wings go up again, I see that the whole underside of the bird is dark, so it can’t be a sea gull.

My presence distracts the feathered one from what is probably its dinner. It stares at me, then lifts off and traces two swooping arcs over the water, showing its white tail—it’s a bald eagle, right here on the Hackensack River!

A dark shape flops a few times in the shallows—presumably a fish, making its way back to the deep water. The eagle settles in a tree, and I see that another eagle is already sitting in the branches. I step closer, and my boots almost disappear in the sucking mud. One of the eagles flies to a tree slightly upstream, and I loop inland to a better vantage point. When I step out of the brush onto the bank, it takes off, circling again before it disappears downstream.

I sit on a concrete block, a remnant of some past shoreline structure, regretting that I chased the eagle away and wondering what the other one will do. A gull lands on a distant wedge of mud, near the eagle’s tree, and pecks at something repeatedly.

A common merganser flies past. It’s a female, her grey body low over the water, reddish-brown head stretched out, wings beating in that rapid rhythm characteristic of ducks. Three males follow her, flickers of black and bright white.

The eagle launches from the tree, causing the gull to take off hastily in the opposite direction. The eagle soars downriver, and the gull returns to its ministrations.

I wondered if the eagles were nesting in the area, so I checked in with Capt. Bill Sheehan of Hackensack Riverkeeper. He replied, “There are two known nest sites in the Hackensack Watershed. One is on United Water property in Haworth near the water treatment plant. The other is also on United Water property at Woodcliff Lake. The birds you saw are regular visitors to this part of the river this time of year. They come down from the Great White North and feed on carp and anything else they kill or find.”

I regret that my eagerness to get a good view chased the eagles away. I recommend carrying binoculars and remaining in the shelter of trees if you happen to spot our two visitors.

Whooping cranes still migrating

January 7, 2010

I am still fascinated by the whooping cranes and their slow migration behind the ultralight aircraft. They are flying today, expected to reach Georgia. It’s been a rough migration, with a lot of down days due to bad weather and winds, but their Florida destination is not far off now.

See or to watch live streaming video on flight mornings.

When these cranes fly on their own next year, the 1200-mile trip back from Florida to Wisconsin will take only a few weeks, now that they’ve learned the route and can fly at up to 5000 feet on the thermals. Up there, they soar for 10 to 12 hours a day, but the ultralights can’t go that high. At around 1000 feet, the birds get support from the vortex off the plane’s wing, but they still have to flap a lot, a more tiring flight, and the plane carries only three hours worth of gas. Therefore, they fly in legs of one to three hours per day, depending on whether there’s a helpful tailwind or crosscurrents they have to fight. So the assisted migration, which began in late October, is just now nearing its completion, almost 3 months later.

It’s a lot of work saving an endangered species.

All along the route, landowners with open fields have been contacted, and those that are willing prepare themselves for the arrival of 20 young whoopers, four ultralight “trikes”, several trailers to house support crew, and trucks to haul the pen that is set up in the field for the duration of the birds’ stay. The hosts often cook for the crew and open up their home for use of bathrooms. No one can tell them exactly when the whole gang will arrive or how long they will remain, since the weather is in charge. And if they hit a good tailwind, the pilots might decide, on a moment’s notice, to skip a stop, and all the hosts’ preparation will be for naught.

The pens must be set up out of sight of the house, since the protocol requires isolating the cranes from all human contact, except for non-speaking crew members in baggy white bird costumes.

But people who agree to host the cranes say they are glad to do it, just for the privilege of watching the flyovers and feeling they’ve been a part of the inspiring work of saving these ungainly yet beautiful birds from extinction.

Waterfowl: chinstraps, dabbling, and more

December 24, 2009

One of my favorite activities in fall and winter, when much of nature has gone into hiding, is watching waterfowl, which don’t seem to have a big problem with cold water. Feeding wild ducks and geese is frowned upon, but along the shores of public lakes, where visitors entertain their children with scatterings of stale bread, the water birds are available for close-up viewing, even to the breadless. I recently enjoyed a visit to Prospect Park Lake in Brooklyn, where mallards, Canada geese, swans, and seagulls are drawn magnetically to any human who approaches the water’s edge. As usual, I was surprised to observe details I had never noticed before.

What makes Canada geese so striking in appearance is the chinstrap—the white marking that goes under the throat and up the sides of the black head. Individual chinstraps vary in shape. Some are nearly triangular, some are flat-topped, some have a sort of knob at the top, and others have a notch below the knob. If one wanted to identify individual birds by appearance, the shape of the chinstrap would be a good place to start.

I must have seen the tails of male mallards before, but now I noticed two curved sets of feathers on the top side of the tail.

Some distance from shore, a flock of northern shovelers—small ducks of the type known, like mallards, as “dabblers”—swam in circles. The males were brown and white, with iridescent green heads and long dark bills. The females were a mottled brown. At moments, a pair—male and female—would swim together in a circle, head to tail, dipping their bills in the water. Generally there were about a dozen in a general scrum, most of them moving either clockwise or counter-clockwise, the rotation shifting as individuals changed direction. It looked like they were setting up a pattern of centrifugal movement in the water and then feeding on the result. The Internet informs us that the shoveler feeds by passing water through its bill, which contains comblike filtration structures along the sides.

A great blue heron flew low over the water and landed in the reeds at one end of the lake. It stood there for a long time, its gray plumage barely discernible against the reeds. Although the plants were tan, it was the same intensity of color as the bird, which, at a distance, faded into the background. What stood out for me was a horizontal white line, which turns out to be the bird’s chin—although the beak is yellow-orange, the lower part of the head is white, and it supports the long bill, extending partway along the bill’s narrow length.

These little details appear only after long contemplation, helping one settle into the calm of (mostly) unhurried nature. I like to seek out details when my mind resists rest.