A Thanksgiving Feast – For the Birds

A woodpecker nibbles on suet from a caged bird feeder, while a female cardinal and several yellow finches eat black oil sunflower seeds from a hanging tray beneath it. It's a wintery day and snow is blowing sideways.

WILDER SIDE OF OAKLAND COUNTY

Wintery weather arrived early in Oakland County and with it came a flurry of bird feeding questions; among the top of the list were two questions. The first was actually more of a comment with a negative connotation, but I considered it an implied question: “Squirrels keep robbing seed from my feeders!” The second most common question contained various renditions of how to attract birds “that I want to see.” The answer to both is a three-part answer; it’s all about food, location and accessibility. If you are a veteran bird feeder, you’ve probably gained lots of insight into the foods “backyard birds” prefer and how to present them and most likely have accepted the fact that squirrels are one of nature’s most resourceful, and perhaps cunning creatures. One fact is clear. If your feeder offers food they want, squirrels will spend hours, perhaps days, first exploring and then exploiting ways to reach it. But if you’re just getting started in the immensely popular hobby of winter bird feeding, today’s pre-Thanksgiving Day blog may reduce frustration over initial attempts to attract winter birds to your feeders. It’s also good to know that sometimes after a new feeder goes up, it may take a while for birds to come in and feed. I often see cardinals perched in a nearby tree when I refill my feeder, but twenty or thirty minutes may pass before they fly down to feed. Continue reading

Season of the Spittlebugs

Spittlebug

Wilder Side of Oakland County

Strange frothy bubbles are appearing on the stems of meadow wildflowers and garden plantings. They shimmer in summer sunlight and appear in mass along the uncut edge zones of sun-soaked trails, including the big three trail favorites of Oakland County: Paint Creek, Polly Ann, and Clinton River. Walk the shoreline of any lake in Oakland County that has a wild weedy edge and they are nearly impossible to miss. Little kids are not shy about describing what those whitish bubbles look like, or feel like, when inquisitive young fingers explore and poke into the mysterious frothy mass.

Giggles follow the finger poke and some take delight in squealing loudly, “It looks like spit!” They are right, it does, but the details of where that froth really comes from is something I sometimes refrain from sharing with little ones on the trails. The answer would make their giggles totally uncontrollable and confused parents might cringe and say, “Really?” I’ll save the answer on the creation of the spittle for the end.

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Confessions of an Accidental Birder

Red-eyed Vireo

Wilder Side of Oakland County

I am not a bird-watcher or at least I did not think I was. Here is what I do know:

Hundreds of thousands of folks across our country, maybe even millions, are serious birders that create what the birding in-crowd knows as a ‘Life List.’ That cherished list is a record of every bird species they have ever seen and identified with absolute certainty. I would be ruled out from those prestigious Life List clubs almost instantly because of the words, ‘absolute certainty.’ To my untrained eye and short attention span, a warbler is a warbler, even though 54 different species of warblers are found in North America. I even struggle to find subtle identification marks on many of our common song birds of summer such as the Red-eyed Vireo.

One could say I am just too restless and easily distracted by furry and fanged creatures to focus on a list of birds; I don’t even make shopping lists. People that pursue their personal hobby of chasing after birds to put another name on a list, will think nothing of driving hundreds or even a thousand miles to view a rare species a few days drive away. “Hey Joe, Judy just saw a rare Blue-Beaked Bobolink in the Florida Keys, up for a road trip?” And they are off, driving day and night to add one more name to a list. That’s not for me.

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Great Crested Flycatchers: Often Heard – Seldom Seen

Great Crested Flycatcher

THE WILDER SIDE OF OAKLAND COUNTY

It’s never good to pick favorites, but when it comes to flycatchers, the Great Crested Flycatcher (Myiarchus Crinitus) is mine, hands down. These beautiful and boisterous flycatchers are more often heard than seen. Their favorite summer habitat is high up in the leafy canopy of tall forest trees where they nest within deep tree cavities across much of the eastern half of the United States.

I first became keenly aware of the flycatchers last summer when I became completely frustrated by them on South Manitou Island: island overlooking the often stormy Manitou Passage that is part of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. Whenever I heard their unmistakable territorial call echoing through the woodlands, I stared into the tops of the tall trees in hopes of discovering the source. I failed every time. The melody remained a mystery until the near completion of my 30-day stay on that wilderness island as the National Park Service lighthouse keeper. That’s when a backpacker noticed me craning my neck upwards as the song came from the tree tops. She casually commented that she was happy to discover Great Crested Flycatchers near her campsite overlooking a wooded bluff on the island’s south shore. It was that moment that brought “Bird ID Happiness,” a feeling best understood by birders. I now had a name for the bird that had been just a mysterious, yellowish-brown flash of wings that carried a beautiful song. But try as I might, I was never able to capture a single photo of those island-life loving flycatchers of South Manitou. They stayed in the tree tops and I stayed on the ground, except for when I climbed the 117 steps to reach the catwalk of the 1871 lighthouse. Continue reading

Season of the Sandhills

Sandhill Crane

WILDER SIDE OF OAKLAND COUNTY

Sandhill Cranes are dancing and singing their courtship songs all across Oakland County. Their leaping, wing-flapping dance moves are one of the finest and perhaps most astonishing shows of nature for those that are lucky enough to witness their exuberance for life. The spectacular performance takes one’s breath away. An early morning solo hike near the entrance of Rose Oaks County Park presented me with an opportunity to watch that ritual from a crouched position among dry cattails with Red-Winged Blackbirds as my companions.

Sandhill Crane

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