another day in the woods

So I had a photo to post from my outing yesterday, but wouldn’t you know it, my camera’s USB cord is MIA.  I’ve scoured the house to no avail.  So all I’ve got once again tonight is my stream of words.  Let’s see if I can hydrate this barren electronic soil with them enough to grow some trees.

The oppressive heat continues, and as I’d had a late night on Thursday, I left the house later yesterday morning than I would’ve liked.  By the time I spun my wheels down the final leg of my journey to Lake Roland, I was near soaked in sweat.  Locking up my bike to a No Parking sign, I listened to woods devoid of birdsong.  I didn’t really care, though.  What I needed first and foremost was a restorative walk in the woods, and if there were some birds around, even the better.  But if they were laying low, I certainly couldn’t blame them.  The day was still a ways off from reaching high noon, and yet the heavy air already steamed with the essence of warm bath water.  I knew once I stepped from pavement to soil, though, that the temperature would cease to register as a discomfort to me.

As I walked down the dead end road to the entrance to the park, I opened my ears and my eyes, and set the pace for the day.  Today was a day to practice slow birding, where I often stop for long periods of time, standing still, and wait for the birds to come to me.  Sometimes it works better than other times, but it’s always a worthwhile venture.  It reminds me of the reason I truly love birding; it’s not the feeling I get from ticking off a new lifer (although that’s always nice), but the wonder I experience when watching a bird close-up, by really observing its behavior.

Once in the park, I picked up on a few birds here and there.  I started out on the path down toward the lake, thinking I’d start there and then backtrack.  But as I reached the first crossroads in the trail, I heard the soft hooting of a Barred Owl.  I decided to backtrack and see if I could find it.  I’d found one before in the general area where the hooting was coming from.  I crossed over another trail and entered the shade of the pines, but had no luck in locating the owl.  As I moved in slow increments down the path, I did find some pockets of bird activity, though. There were many cardinals and catbirds present, and a few singing White-eyed Vireos.

I soon encountered what would be my slow birding highlight of the day: ten minutes or so of close proximity to an Eastern Wood-Pewee as it practiced its trade, swiftly and efficiently hawking insects from a tree branch.  Flying out in a swooping circle, it would snatch an insect and then return to the same branch to eat it, all in one fluid motion.  I hear pewees often, as they are one of the few persistent forest singers in the deep heat of mid to late summer when many birds have long since clammed up for the season, but rarely have I had a chance to be this close to one for so long.  As I peered at it through my bins, I could see its eyes darting back and forth as it followed the insect paths through the air.  This bird was a true master of its craft.

Eventually I left the pewee behind, and made my way down toward the feeder stream heading to the lake.  On my way, I found a Monarch butterfly and watched it feeding on nectar for a few minutes.  This monarch’s colors looked fresh, and I marveled at how nature could fashion such a beautiful creature.  The monarchs have begun their epic journey to Mexico, and this particular one may already have been en route.  Monarchs are the only butterflies to make such a long two-way migration.  The ones that emerge from the pupal stage in late summer and early fall know by instinct to head straight for their ancestral wintering grounds in Mexico.  Then in spring, they return north to reproduce and finish their life cycle.  So when you see monarchs in the fall, they are performing one of the more amazing feats in the natural world.  I find it surprising enough that such a small creature as a hummingbird can migrate such a great distance, crossing the entire Gulf of Mexico and beyond.  But to think that a butterfly, so seemingly fragile and ephemeral, can travel for thousands of miles, survive an entire winter in Mexico, and then travel thousands more miles to its breeding grounds…well, it just seems so unlikely, so absurd!  And yet it happens every year, whether we notice it or not.

Once at the stream, I disrupted some crows roosting in the muddy bottomlands alongside it, a favorite afternoon spot of theirs.  A couple of individuals scolded me vigorously for at least ten minutes, but I was too absorbed in some movement way up high in the treetops to pay them much mind.  I was about to give up on IDing whatever it was because it was so far up there and mostly obscured by leaves as it hunted insects.  But then it flew to another tree and I saw what it was:  an American Redstart, an immature male or a female, my first “fall warbler” of the year.

As I followed the stream I encountered many robins and catbirds, with a sprinkling of chickadees, titmice, and goldfinches.  On the other side of the stream I spotted a hummingbird feeding from some yellow trumpet-shaped flowers (haven’t been able to ID them yet).  I heard and briefly saw a Great Crested Flycatcher.  When I reached the lake, many Chimney Swifts suddenly flew out from the trees out over the water.  I walked down the wooden steps to the water and sat for a while, eating an apple.  I felt at peace, and I knew then that it was okay to leave.

romance in the woods

Love was in the air during my weekly Friday birding expedition. I followed a pair of Carolina Chickadees for a while; the female fluttered her wings as the male fed her treats gleaned from the surrounding branches. Not far from them, a pair of Northern Cardinals were engaged in the same courtship ritual. And all around, male birds were singing their hearts out, proclaiming “Mine, mine” on their individual territories. Eastern Towhees were particularly present and loud that morning. A Veery sang down by the water in the same spot where I found one a few weeks earlier. I love the Veery’s song! Wood Thrush, too. We are lucky to have some in the woods behind our house this summer. Overhead, crows harassed a juvenile hawk (Sharp-shinned or Cooper’s, I think, without good enough looks to confirm either way), chasing it from tree to tree for quite some time. Several deer crossed the road about 50 feet ahead, completely oblivious to my presence. Tiny Eastern American Toads hopped here and there all over the trails. I heard more birds than I saw. It’s getting harder to find the birds now, but I try to think of it as more of a challenge and work on my ear birding.

Last night, when I returned from a walk Em said the birds were raising a ruckus outside and she thought there might be an owl around. When we went out a few minutes later to run an errand, sure enough we saw a Barred Owl up in a tree behind the parking lot! It stared us down with its spooky black eyes for a few seconds before flying off. Owls are so awesome!


While making dinner in the kitchen last night, I heard a great commotion among the songbirds in the side yard. It’s probably that owl again, I thought. Sure enough, when I pulled back the curtain and peered out the window I saw a large barred owl perched in literally the same exact place on the same exact branch as last time. Likely to be the same owl, I figured. The tufted titmice were leading the mob, as usual, sounding the alarm for all the other birds in the area. There is something about these tiny birds banding together in the face of danger that really gets to me. They are so brave! Here is a giant predator many, many times larger than they are, and yet they boldly confront it with no sign of fear! If only all of us humans displayed such bravado. Perhaps then there wouldn’t be so many downtrodden among us. It’s staggering to think of a world in which everyone refused to be bullied, and instead stood proud and defiant in the face of abusive authority.

dinner guest

[photo by Denis-Carl Robidoux, used under Creative Commons]
As I sat down at the table for dinner last night, I looked out the window and there was a barred owl in a nearby tree staring right back at me with its depthless black eyes (think Brother Justin in Carnivale). The owl hung out there on the same branch for a good 45 minutes. At one point, a ragtag band of songbirds landed on some branches about six feet away from the owl and raised a noisy ruckus, trying to scare it away. But it remained impassively in place, occasionally swiveling its big head from left to right, or lifting a talon to scratch its fluffy body. Every once in a while something would catch its interest and it would zero in for a closer look. Clearly the owl’s presence had stirred up the local songbird population, as the air was resonant with nervous chatter and warning cries. A predator in our midst! Raise the shields! I found myself cheering on the brave cluster of titmice, chickadees, and cardinals that threw down their petty differences to unite against a common foe. It was quite a dinnertime show!
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