This year because of the pandemic and stay home order I have not gone birding outside my neighbourhood so I am really happy to have more species of birds visiting my backyard. Including the birds I saw flying overhead I must have seen twenty-three species or more so far. I wonder whether it is a result of me becoming more in tune to the birds in my immediate environment and can identify more of them these days. Or, there are really more birds attracted to my backyard. I am trying to make my place more bird friendly by putting up more feeding stations and planting more native plants, I even put in a DIY bird bath. There is so much to learn in birding, I believe beside being delighted by our feathered friends, a better future for birds is ultimately beneficial to humans.
I like to share some of my birding experience in my own backyard in 2021 with you.
When winter had lost its bite but there was still snow on the ground I saw my first Dark Eye Junco in my backyard. It was scratching at the ground in an open patch of soil among the winter die-back of the perennials. I have never seen a Junco outside of the birding trips I had away from the city so I was overjoyed that it would hang around for a couple days. A few days later I saw a Mourning dove sitting on the same spot in the garden where I saw the junco earlier. There used to be Mourning doves in our neighbourhood and their mournful cooing could be heard in the early morning and the silhouette with the pointy tail often seen on the powerline. But then they disappeared from the neighbourhood and I hardly see or hear them anymore. It is human nature to take things or granted when they are deemed common. It is the same trait that make us take for granted the important people in our lives and full of regrets later. I wonder will we ever stop taking the Rock Doves aka pigeons for granted because they are everywhere even though they are quite pretty with many shades and plumage patterns. They even had a part in Darwin’s development of the theory of evolution . Some vegetables growers even consider them ” rats with wings “. Alas, I don’t think we will ever change.
When spring brings the American Robins and Northern Cardinals back to my backyard to start courting and eventually raising another generation the backyard is full of their calls and trilling songs. I have seen a robin digging for worms in the lawn before but not often seeing it actually got one. This year almost every time I saw a robin it had a worm hanging from its beak. I wonder is it an indication of the soil in my backyard is healthier than before. The robins have been raising families in my yard for years and I have seen the sky blue eggs nestled in nest hidden deep in the hedge and fledglings practicing their flights and occasionally fell to earth. Their plumage of orange and black are quite attractive and their songs melodic but still I often heard myself said to my friend when we were birding ” It’s just a robin “. I should really make an effort to look at a robin may be I will learn something new.
I think the female Cardinal is exceptionally pretty for a female bird when most female birds’ plumages are mostly brown and a shadow of the male birds’ more colourful patterns. It may not be as striking as the bright red male but its plumage of the more subtle colours of apricot and pink have it own charm. The Blue Jays rarely come to my backyard but I can hear them screaming in the neighbouring trees. One day I saw one flew down into my yard and perched on top of the shepherd hook, it was the closest I have come near a blue jay. It was such a handsome bird, its blue and white feathers with an accent of black looked dazzling but it did not stay long and soon took off.
The Chickadee’s signature Chicka-dee-dee call can be heard all over the yard but the birds themselves are more elusive. You are lucky to catch a glimpse of them when they land on the feeder, they will grab a sunflower seed and immediately take off to a tree to eat the seed in peace . I have seen a few of them dashing back and forth between the feeder and the trees along the fence that separates us from our neighbour. So different from the friendly chickadees that ate out of my hand at the ” Chickadee alley ” on previous birding trips. The White Breasted Nuthatch is another bird that is more often heard than seen. A lovely bird in white and greyish blue with a black crown but its call is a harsh yak, yak. The smaller and more colourful Red Breasted Nuthatch on the other hand has been seen at the feeder a few times. All these birds are adding colour and drama to the backyard, making sitting outside a more pleasant experience.
The woodpeckers soon found the suet cage. Before I set out the suet I only heard them drumming somewhere in trees nearby or if I am lucky to spot one sitting among the trees or walking along the tree trunk after tracking the sharp chip calls for awhile. The tiny Downy woodpecker would squeeze itself all the way into the cage and attack the suet up close while the much larger Hairy woodpecker only pecked at the suet block from outside the cage with their longer bill. They are beautiful birds with black and white colour pattern, especially the male with the added red spot on the nape. Their presence enlivens my yard and I don’t think I will get tired of watching them.
I have put up a few bird feeders in my yard and often see birds crowding around one or the other. The House sparrows are the most frequent visitors, there are more female ones than the male but the male bird is very aggressive and often kicks the other birds off that are there first. The smaller finches are coming to the feeders more often now. From a distance it is hard to tell a female finch from a female sparrow because both are small brown birds but up close you can see the female finch has streaks in its body and is slimmer. The male sparrow with the grey head and white throat, black bib and chocolate brown overall is quite good looking but can’t compare to the eye catching orangish-red of the male House finch and the strawberry-red of the male Purple finch. These strutting male birds are wall-flowers beside the male American Gold finch. The Gold finch with a bright yellow body, a black crown, black primary and an orange beak twittering sweetly on the treetop of the Cedar is like a Christmas tree ornament. It seems to have a calmer temperament often observed feeding together with other birds. Even the female Gold finch is pretty with its olive green- yellowish body. The happy couple can be seen feeding at the Nyjer seeds feeder with the much smaller slits before retiring to the nearby Lilac bush.
These are mostly returning birds and I hope they will keep take up permanent residence in my backyard. I have been very lucky to see a few migrating warblers in my yard around the week of Mother’s Day and I was over the moon when a pair of Rose breasted Grosbeak came too and I am happy to share with you how I found these birds.
One morning when I came outside I heard this unfamiliar bird call and started tracking the sound. It seemed to come from the group of tall trees next to the Cedar. By following the sound I finally saw a small bird perching on a branch in the tall Elm singing loudly. It reminded me of the tiny Chestnut-Sided warbler I saw one time in the States singing loudly high up on a tree, my impression then was what a small bird with a strong pipe. I studied the feature of the bird carefully with my binoculars and realized it was a Nashville warbler. It was not moving around a lot so I had time to observe its bluish head with the white eye-ring and the yellow throat to confirm its identity. It was a Nashville warbler! Later I noticed some movement in the Choke Cherry tree and trained my binoculars there. There was definitely a bird in the tree but it was moving too fast, up and down and around, slipping through the branches. There were too many leaves in the way to get a good look. Finally when it moved to a more open spot in the tree and I saw a tiny bird with a blue and white pattern and a black throat. I suspected it to be a male Black throated Blue warbler but couldn’t believe my luck and looked very hard for the “window pane”, a little white patch on the wing. I had first seen the brownish female Black throated Blue warbler at Colonel Samuel Smith Park when another birder pointed out the defining wing patch for that species. It was exciting, this could just be the second time I saw a male Black throated Blue warbler in all the time I have been birding. I tried to keep the bird in view but it never stay still and finally lost it when it dropped to the lower shrub and disappeared among the vegetation by the fence. I could tell it was still there by the trembling of the leaves and twigs but could not see the bird itself. Luckily I saw it again a couple days later in the same area I spotted it the first time. The Nashville warbler was hanging around the following day and singing its song. As I was looking for it among the elm tree I did not see it immediately but spotted another warbler. At first glimpse I noticed yellow and some black streaks so I thought it may be a Magnolia warbler but in a closer look I saw the black throat so it couldn’t be. Quickly going through my head the warblers with a black throat I came to the conclusion of that of a Black-Throated Green warbler and later confirmed the identification using my field guide. Wow, three warblers in a row found in my backyard, it was almost like my own “Big Year” moment. I didn’t know there was more excitement instore.
A few sparrows were crowding at the sunflower seed feeder, they were messy eaters and dropped a lot of the seeds onto the ground and sometimes a bird or two would be scratching for seeds on the ground around the feeder. One afternoon I noticed one of the sparrows on the ground looked bigger and a bit different, I focused my binoculars on it. It turned out to be a White Crown sparrow. With that I now had seen four different species of sparrow in my backyard. The resident House sparrows are here all year round and can be seen and heard in the bushes and hedges all the time. The less common Chipping sparrows can be heard buzzing high up in the trees in summer but rarely seen. I only saw them when they started coming to the feeders last year and have learned to identify them by their smaller and finer silhouettes without seeing the field marks of the russet crown and black eyeline. I believe the White Crown sparrow and the Savannah sparrow I spotted among a group of sparrows on another day were just passing through. I have not seen these two species of sparrows in the nearby ravine when I have seen others species such as the Song sparrow and Field sparrow so I am really grateful they had stopped by my backyard and I could have missed them totally.
I first noticed the male grosbeak at the feeder when I was watering the vegetables in the morning and soon it was gone. I could not contain my excitement and rushed into the house to tell my husband but he never saw it. In the afternoon when I was reading outside I would scan the trees whenever I was aware of some movements in them. I thought I saw a very big female house sparrow perching on the Elm tree. It was not moving around and through my binoculars I could see the prominent white eyebrows and the streaked breast. At first I wonder would it be a female Purple finch that also has white eyebrow and a streaky body but it was too big, especially the bill looked too stocky more like that of a grosbeak . Then suddenly I remembered the male grosbeak I saw in the morning and knowing female Rose Breasted Grosbeak was nothing like the male and it had busy white eyebrows and streaks all over the body instead of just some near the flanks. I was quite sure it was a female Rose-Breasted Grosbeak when the male Grosbeak showed up with its resplendent rose-red triangle on a snow white breast and black head and tail with white wing bars. The male grosbeak went straight to the feeder and kicked all the other birds off but the female had a more cautious approach. It moved to the feeder in stages, it was sitting and watching from a higher branch of the tree then dropped down to a lower branch and sat there for awhile longer before flying to the feeder. They were hanging around for most of the afternoon then the male flew away and not seen again. The female flew back up to the Elm tree and disappeared into the foliage of the upper reach of the tree. I searched the elm tree carefully the next day and thought I saw her with a few baby grosbeaks. It might be just my imagination but a fantastic birding experience none the less!