Backyard Brief: Little White King

The other day, my husband spotted another striking, first-time visitor to our house, a male white-crowned sparrow. One day in rain, the next in sunshine, he stuck to the grass to forage for fallen seed.

According to my slightly outdated North American birds guide, we’re in His Majesty’s winter range. Perhaps he has been dethroned and is migrating northward to a new seat of power. I wonder if he is related to the White King in my Alice novel. Look closely: This fancy little monarch even wears white eyeliner on his lower lids.

He must be French, or maybe Quebecois.

Backyard Brief: What’s New?

This spring I’ve added a new bird feeder to the party, and there are some new arrivals not before seen, plus others not seen in a while. Some migratory, some residential. Most of the birds that visit seem to prefer the finch seed mix to the black oil sunflower seed, but they are two different brands, so I suppose quality could be a factor. I’ll have to mix the two in both feeders to spread the sights and delights. Happy Earth Day.

New this year
  • song sparrow – Smaller than the house sparrow, with a narrower beak, buff and brown streaking with a black chest spot and eye line stripes, he makes beautiful music all day. The song sparrow perches in our weeping cherry tree beneath the bedroom window, in the tops of the trees (hazelnut?) lining the street sidewalk, in the evergreen of the neighbor’s yard behind us, and hops in the grass below our large backyard feeder. I think there may be more than one. He just seems to be everywhere these days, and it’s a welcome addition.
  • brown-headed cowbird – brief glimpses in the vicinity, seen and heard (loud, bright, high-pitched chip) 4/21/17 on our gazebo structure. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to the camera in time. Shy fella.
New this season
  • chipping sparrow – Two males! Also petite like the song sparrow, with a ruddy skull cap and grayish cheeks with an eye stripe, he can easily hide even in the freshly mowed grass. I might have seen females without realizing they weren’t female house finches or house sparrows. Those all tend to blur together. Although I did see a male chipping sparrow last June, the one I thought I saw in May 2016 turned out to be a female red-winged blackbird. These guys appeared 4/21/17.
  • red-winged blackbird – Usually a transient visitor, this time with female in tow; several males spotted, three at once on one occasion this week.
Other less regular visitors seen lately
  • downy woodpecker – Sometimes upside down as necessary, feeding on the suet. Female downy confirmed and pictured below. The other possibility was female hairy (longer beak, larger bird, no black bars on outer tail feathers). 3/31/17
  • common grackle – He keeps trying to alight on the squirrel-buster feeder without success. I haven’t captured his image yet, though. 4/21/17
  • European starling – Usually in flocks, they tend to prefer the suet as well.
IMG_0487_starling-triptych

starling triptych

American goldfinches are in the process of molting for their brighter seasonal black and yellow. The rosy house finches and house sparrows are as ruthless competitors as ever, northern cardinals have come around now and then in mated pairs, and the docile mourning doves have made themselves at home in the bed below our pagoda dogwood. The American robins continue to dominate, as expected.

Original Poetry: Inspirator

As it gets colder in the northern hemisphere, though we are over the hump of winter solstice, I thought I’d share a little figurative fire to brighten your holiday. I first drafted this poem from field notes written as an exercise at the nature writers’ conference I attended at the Cuyahoga Valley National Park in October 2016. Here are some excerpts.

Happy New Year. And Happy 100th Birthday to the National Park Service.

Inspirator

by C. L. Tangenberg
Giddy beige feathers of tall, 
unnamed fronds perched at a tilt, 
sprout their crowns in fanned-out spikes,
forging two beings into one: fire 
and ashy aftermath.

Two heads' lengths above 
these frozen flames, 
the color starts.

Green, rounded leaves of 
chartreuse underbellies and grey-
green backs, or faces—I can't 
tell which—huddle in discarded 
half-arches, craft of the stone mason 
who made too many, just in case. 
A half-hearted bow only 
at their very tops, partly 
praising a fractional work. 

On ground farther back, 
a grander stage presents 
the proud, living burns of 
orange-tipped yellow dancers. 
Some like to sway more than others, 
some feel the fueling wind. 

A tree not yet bronzed 
stands apart, flushed with 
a green, pre-fire readiness, 
and here, at the edge of its 
leaf clusters, starts to catch.

Beside, with lifeless pallor, 
bored out, burnt out, by burning 
beetle fever, the fire of hunger—
too-soon wintered, emaciated, 
desolate—ash trees jealously 
watch their flaming neighbors.

And foraging over all heads,
some unseen spirit slurps up 
and bloats full with grey smoke
from all this combustion below, 
from above, with the yellow-
white smoke of sunlight. 

The wind roars like a terrible
conflagration, and the grey, 
not white, smoke is winning. 

Stone-piles at my feet see up 
to the short spray of grasses,
hints of feathers on higher fliers,
and my shadow. 

Blown quiet, I walk 
most unhurried, 
back, into no fire.

 

leaf-sky-black-white-crop-auto-contrast-less-bright

Image by C. L. Tangenberg, Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, autumn 2003

Backyard Brief: That’s No Bunny . . .

. . . It’s a space station.

My husband pointed out a “bunny” he saw in the neighbor’s yard as he left for his soccer game this morning. “Bunny” hardly fits this behemoth. He’s huge! Gorging on grass, leaping back and forth from his den among the ornamental grasses, he could not escape my camera’s sport continuous mode. Holding the door open, I snapped several shots from the threshold.

Especially in those frontal shots, he looks more like a jackalope to me. I should keep an eye on the new flowers, lest the muncher’s tractor beam engage.

Backyard Brief: Mystery Bird Unveiled

In my post last Monday about the wildlife in my backyard, I mentioned I was uncertain about the identity of one of the birds frequenting my feeders. As it turns out, it was neither a chipping sparrow nor a white-crowned sparrow, as I had conjectured. In fact, it wasn’t a sparrow at all–it was a female red-winged blackbird!

Using my bird guide books, I was able to sleuth it out and identify her. The books mentioned that female red-winged blackbirds are commonly mistaken for sparrows. Here’s what Mrs. Red-Winged Blackbird looks like in my backyard.

She’s the first of the 4 birds from top in the above group photo, followed by a mourning dove pair and a male house sparrow.

She was darker than I had remembered, with heavy brown streaking along breast and belly and a bright white eyebrow against that darkness. A buff or gray cheek and reddish shading on her throat also help to distinguish her. The beak is longer, narrower, and pointier than a sparrow’s, and the tail is longer and more fanned. There is also the distinctive tail bobbing behavior, and she is a larger bird.

Although of similar shape and behavior, her mate, in addition to being larger than his lady, looks rather different. . . .

Another male is hanging out with these two, but it is a duller black, almost brown, and without a prominent yellow wing stripe of maturity, so I think that’s a juvenile.

Mystery solved!

Five-Phrase Friday (13): Eerie Emily

On the 13th of the month! This week, I’m doubling back on the Emily Dickinson quotes and renewing a little Halloween spirit, if for no other reason than it’s far too soon to be stringing up Christmas lights (next-door neighbor! #LetTheTurkeyCool), and because it works. Dickinson had a knack for the morbid. See Five-Phrase Friday (2) for the first round featuring her unique turns of phrase.

1. "a tighter breathing and zero at the bone" 
               - from "A Narrow Fellow in the Grass"

2. "in horrid-hooting stanza"
               - from "I Like to See It Lap the Miles"

3. "a druidic difference"
               - from "Further in Summer Than the Birds"

4. "on whom I lay a yellow eye" 
               - from "My Life Had Stood a Loaded Gun"

5. "I heard a fly buzz when I died"
               - from "I Heard a Fly Buzz When I Died"

Note the personification of the train in the title of 2, the subsequent line being “and lick the valleys up.” Metaphors also abound in Dickinson’s work. One of the more interesting ones is her equating of life and a loaded gun.

Until next week, enjoy resisting the holiday season!