For the Birds Radio Program: Yard List, Part III
Some of the birds that were hard for Laura to find in her yard in the 80s and 90s are much more common now; others are disappearing.
The morning after my first Christmas Bird Count in Duluth, in 1981, when I was talking to Kim Eckert on the phone, a Red-bellied Woodpecker suddenly turned up at my feeder. I blurted out that it was there, and before I even finished the sentence Kim had hung up. He was at my house within ten minutes—he needed it for his St. Louis County list. But the bird was gone, never to return. I didn’t see another one until almost 21 years later, when one turned up in May of last year. She stuck around for several days, but left just before the annual Duluth Audubon Birdathon. This year another female Red-bellied Woodpecker, or possibly the same one, turned up again, this time in March. I saw her every single day in April and May, until the day of the Birdathon—she hasn’t been seen since.
Another bird that disappeared just before Kim Eckert could see it was the Varied Thrush that I had one autumn day. I caught a flash of color out of the corner of my eye as I was helping my little kids out of the car. This was a gorgeous male who stayed for several hours, but flew off, chased by a shrike, minutes before Kim Eckert arrived.
One bird in my yard was seen by Kim and a friend of his named Paul Egeland, but not by me—that was the Golden-winged Warbler they found during a picnic dinner I hosted on Hawk Ridge Weekend in 1982. Since then I’ve been searching but have never managed to see one.
Not all my yard birds have been so uncooperative for me or other birders. I had my very first Boreal Chickadee in the yard, coming to my peanut butter feeder, on November 17, 1981—that bird continued to visit the feeder much of the winter. A few years later, I had three in my yard throughout the winter. In early April, two of them paired off, and the third was extremely lonely for several days, even flying out to greet me whenever I went out to fill the feeder. I was very attached to that poor little one, who, I trust, managed to find a mate somewhere after he moved on. But during those winters, plenty of birders gathered at my fence to watch the feeders, and most of them went away with a smile and a lifer.
I’ve also had Hoary Redpolls at my feeders, and most of the time they were regular enough to be seen by many birders from all over. That was when redpolls were far more common than they are now. Both species are what are called “irruptive” species, with unpredictable numbers from year to year. But they were surprisingly regular along Lake Superior for many years, and now have declined mightily, so that some winters they’re virtually absent, and at best we have only a few days with appreciable numbers at any feeders.
The first birds to visit my feeders were a flock of Evening Grosbeaks within an hour or two of setting up the first feeder. And throughout the 80s, Evening Grosbeaks were common backyard birds, the sounds of their calls drifting in through the open windows in summer, and sometimes even managing to penetrate the thermal pane windows in winter. But now they’ve disappeared—the last one I saw in my yard was on May 15, 2001. Tree Swallows used to be common nesters in the neighborhood, but I haven’t seen them except migrating overhead since the late 80s.
Losing treasured birds is sad and disappointing. But meanwhile, at least a few birds have increased. I saw my first backyard cardinal on May 3, 2001. Since then they’ve become fairly regular—two autumns ago I had seven at once, and last spring I heard three singing simultaneously. This year I’m pretty sure there’s a pair nesting in the yard of one of the nearby houses, though I haven’t located the nest yet. Burgeoning numbers of Ring-billed Gulls and crows are nothing to celebrate, but this spring I was awfully happy to have 10 Mourning Doves in my yard simultaneously—an all-time record. Keeping track of these little things happening in my own backyard are fun and somehow manage to ground me and give me a better sense of time and place. And home.