We asked Gloria, our resident birdwatcher, to blog for this week’s Farmhouse Festival Fridays over at The Renegade Farmer. Click on over to their site to read more farming stories.
When I was a child, I loved to climb the willow tree in our backyard. At the time, it was not about getting a closer look at the birds, but rather to watch the folks walking on the sidewalk on the main street, just a short distance away. I was not a birdwatcher all those years ago, but I was well aware of the beautiful male Cardinal that considered our alley as part of his territory. I thought he sat up on the wire calling to me. Instead he was probably scolding me for getting too close. My father and I spent many evenings sitting on the back steps, first watching the birds, then looking at the stars. He taught me to appreciate nature, and to not be afraid of daddy long legs, toads and snakes. O.k. I will admit I’m still cautious of snakes.
For years my family traveled between eastern Nebraska and my father’s hometown, 200 miles to the west, along the Platte River. We passed through Buffalo County, alongside the Platte River, through mile after mile of corn fields, a birding hot spot in the Central Flyway. Back then, I was unaware that 500,000 Sandhill Cranes were stopping there to rest and refuel, before traveling to their winter or summer quarters. How did I miss that? Oh, yeah, I was curled in a little ball in the back seat, trying not to get carsick. Although the numbers are much smaller, Sandhill Cranes winter here in the Central Valley, and I sometimes see them flying overhead. Their call is so loud; I hear them long before I see them.
In the spring of 1999, my husband had just received his MBA (kudos), the offspring had both left home and become responsible adults (kudos x 2), so I put aside my anxiety over test-taking, and signed up for an ornithology class at Sierra College. My fellow students were not what I’d expected: ages 18 to 60. I wasn’t certain how we would watch the birds, since this was an evening class, and going into winter, I figured all the birds would be headed South. Silly me. Our Saturday field trips took us from Lake Tahoe to Point Reyes National Seashore. Who knew there were so many species of sparrows and shorebirds! I also discovered winter really is the best time to look for birds, since most of the trees are bare. Also, for many birds, this area is the winter feeding grounds.
During class, my teacher told us about Christmas Bird Count, a wonderful event that has been around since Christmas day, 1900. It is now the longest running Citizen Science survey in the world. Tens of thousands of volunteers count birds in their area, providing data to Audubon on changes in the bird populations. Not to mention, it is fun to go outside with our binoculars, bird guides and checklists and enjoy nature. This event has made me aware of the changes that have occurred in my area: Eurasian Collared Doves have moved into our area, Great-tailed Grackles are only about 2 miles away (yikes!), the numbers of Dark-eyed Juncos have dwindled, the turkeys no longer come to visit, and the numbers of American Goldfinches have doubled since last year.
We’ve lived on our property for over 20 years, a very busy time of raising children, sheep, chickens, rabbits and Border Collies. There was little time given to the birds around me. But in the spring of 2000, I put up bird feeders, and that’s when I really got to know my neighborhood birds. They came looking for me. I found out there is a program through Cornell University for counting the birds in my backyard: Project Feeder Watch. I’ve had some unexpected visitors at my feeders in the last 12 years. The Indigo Bunting was an accidental visitor, but what a stunning bird. It spent a few days here, and then went on its way.
One summer, a pair of Black-crowned Night Herons nested nearby, and their babies spent a day in the plum tree, testing their wings. Discovering that we have three varieties of Hummingbirds (Anna’s are full-time residents, and the Black-chinned and Rufous migrate through), has been such a joy. During the peak of the migration season, I’m filling 3 nectar feeders every other day.
I have to admit that even after 12 years, I still feel like a novice birder. I can’t begin to tell you how many LBB’s, (little, brown birds), I’ve encountered over the years. Although I often feel like the birds are eating me out of house and home, they really have been beneficial to the property. Twenty years ago, hundreds of oak web worms nestled in balls of tiny tendrils, or webs, feeding on the leaves of the oak trees. Once I started feeding the birds, the web worms disappeared.
Although my bird identification skills have increased over the years, there are still notations in my bird court list of LBB’s. A typical bird list during the winter includes goldfinches, White-crown and Gold-crown Sparrows, Spotted and California Towhees, Mockingbirds, Anna’s Hummingbirds, Western Bluebirds, White-breasted Nuthatch, Sapsuckers, and a variety of woodpeckers. Hawks, owls, kestrels and kites are drawn here by the songbirds, too. When the mulberries are ripe, the tree is in constant motion from Cedar Waxwings, Robins, Red-winged Blackbirds, Starlings, Western Kingbirds, and all the LBB’s.
Sometimes the property maintenance is at cross purposes with our attempt to make this a bird sanctuary. Tree branches cannot be cut during breeding season, and the giant Banksia rose cannot be cut back more than once every 5 years. That rose is where all the little birds scurry when the Sharp-shinned Hawk swoops down.
I’m happy to report that my 3 ½ year old granddaughter loves the birds. As she gets older, I know her interest will come and go, but perhaps someday in the future, she will be teaching her grandchild about the birds that came to visit the Lamm Farm.
The home office: Banksia Rose, hot tea, Chai Tea cake, binoculars, bird book and computer. What more could I ask for?