Backyard Birds, Buds and Blooms
I’ve grown even more appreciative of my own backyard these last few weeks. I’ve always taken the time to walk the property regularly, and I am constantly surprised by the diversity of life I find. I thought sharing with you some of my observations in my own personal park – my backyard – would encourage you to explore your own yard and neighborhood. You just might find the solace nature can provide very close to home.
My wife and I own 6.60 acres, with most of the property a 4.90-acre horse pasture of open field, wildflowers and mix of a few small trees and shrubs. The balance of 1.70 acres encompasses the house, two barns, front, side and backyards and a horse paddock of 450 square feet. Between the backyard and the pasture is a small field of 500 square feet. The pasture is surrounded by a stone wall lined with trees, most of which are sugar maple and shagbark hickory. There are also a few red and white oaks.
We don’t have woods, but there are plenty of trees along the property boundary as well as around the house where tall sugar maples dominate. Two centenarian “sister maples” and several of their progeny provide shade to the house and yard. One side of the small field also has a line of tall white pines.
I share the details of the land to provide a picture of the type of habitat for the many species of animals who live with and around us. For this column my focus is the 1.70 acres around the house – plenty of space for birds, buds, and blooms. The trees provide excellent habitat for many species of birds and the mostly open horse pasture is full of countless insects and rodents – the perfect larder for birds and some mammals.
My backyard exploration, I must admit, mostly entailed sitting with notepad and binoculars and recording the comings and goings of many birds.
I keep a large bird feeder in my backyard and on a sunny day spent about two hours sitting within 50 feet of it to record who was taking advantage of the free lunch of sunflower seed and suet. That morning I cleaned the bird bath and filled it with fresh water. The birds sure are back and the courtship season is upon us.
Our year-round bird residents were on the constant move to the feeder and then to any number of perch locations in the several trees and shrubs in the yard. The dynamic “Tres Amigos” of chickadee, tufted titmouse and nuthatch were making regular stops at the feeder. During the winter they spend the cold nights hunkered down in tree cavities or within the thick cover the line of white pines provides.
I was surprised to see several black-eyed juncos still hanging around. They are winter visitors from the north, and I had assumed they would have left for their breeding grounds by now. Perhaps they were tanking up with food fuel before departure. They are ground feeders and take advantage of the drops from the feeder.
We have a few breeding pairs of cardinals on our property, and the crimson males and stylish females all stopped at the feeder. The males tolerated each other at the feeder, though I did see some chasing and jostling for territory.
Several gold finches were coming in as well, usually in groups of three or four at a time. They are predominately seed eaters and breed later in the summer when blooms have gone to seed. The brilliant yellow color of the male is slightly more muted this time of year and will turn bright yellow during their summer nesting.
One of the more interesting visitors was a single male red-winged blackbird. The species prefers wetlands and marshy areas – the one habitat type we don’t have near our property. I heard the typical call of the male and was able to locate him near the top of one of the maples with binoculars. He perched in one spot for several minutes and only once made his distinctive territory gurgling trill kon-ka-ree, followed by repeated chek chek call. I observed him for several minutes until he finally dropped down under the feeder to join the juncos gleaning the drops.
It was unusual to have this visitor, and I don’t recall seeing one at our feeder in the past. Imagine my surprise when two days later 30 or more red-winged blackbirds, males and females, congregated under the feeder. Clearly, they were on the move and just passing through. I am glad they decided to stop by.
I have two hanging wire baskets for suet that are visited by resident woodpeckers. We have hairy, downy and red-bellied on our property and they take turns on the swinging basket as they gorge. We have breeding pairs of the red-bellied woodpeckers nesting in cavities in the old maples. The males are doing their territorial call from the trees, and I am glad to hear their chig-chig call in a series followed by harsh sounding chchchchchch. Love is in the air.
Beyond the backyard, the small field was also full of birds with about 20 or more robins working the ground for worms. I saw mostly males along with a few females joining in. They nest in the tall bushes, shrubs and small trees nearby. I have left a large pile of branches in the field for birds and rodents. It is about 15 feet in diameter by eight-feet tall, and I am happy to provide a rent-free rodent and insect condo. With binoculars I made out three female song sparrows within the tangle of twigs and two or three males roosting on the upper branches of the pile. I wasn’t sure if the females were hiding or searching for a tasty insect.
Other avian visitors that day included male and female house finches. The male’s distinctive splash of red on its breast and head makes him easy to spot. Under the feeder was a pair of mourning doves, and I hope they, too, nest somewhere on the property this year. A beautiful male bluebird has discovered the freshly drawn birdbath. I checked the two bluebird nesting boxes in the small field and was pleased to see a nest of wrapped pine needles and weaving of thin dry grasses. Mr. Bluebird has been busy bringing the nesting materials for the missus to use for her important job of building the nest.
My explorations around my yard concluded with searching for buds and blooms and signs of early spring life bursting from trees and shrubs. The red maples are starting to bloom. I have one in the side yard but our neighbor beyond our pasture has a large stand of them along a wetland area. Their distinctive red blooms stand out against a leafless landscape. They are one of the first trees to bloom, and signal that spring is here. The sugar maple flower buds are also starting to swell, but I think they are still a couple of weeks behind their red cousins.
My yard and fields will not burst with color for a few more weeks, with only the forsythia showing brilliant yellow blooms. But the signs it is coming are there. The grass is greening up quickly, and we still have a few crocuses. Their purple and white blossoms are a welcome sight. The daffodils in the front yard circular garden are up and yellow blossoms are swelling. A few are already open, but most wait another day or two.
While wandering about the yard, I am tempted to pull the rake from the barn and begin cleaning out the flower beds and edges along the wall, but that chore can wait another few weeks. I don’t want to disturb the beneficial insects that are still overwintering in the leaf litter. They have an important job ahead of them with pollinating the many blooms that will be here soon enough.
As the season progresses, I’ll report again on the goings on out and about in my special park, my own backyard. Feel free to share with me what’s happening in your neighborhood. We live in a beautiful place called The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor. I hope you’ll join me in taking time to find enjoyment and peace within our natural world.
Note: The description and spelling of bird song and calls in this column were taken from the Sibley Guide to Birds.
Bill Reid is the Chief Ranger of The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor and has lived in the region for 35 years. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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