For the Birds Radio Program: Chickadee Day 2022: The Worst of Times
The blog post, with photos, that corresponds to this program had to be revised quite a bit to break it into two podcast episodes. You can see it here. What follows is a more accurate transcript.
Every year I celebrate March 2 as Chickadee Day, because it’s the anniversary of the day I saw and identified my first Black-capped Chickadee. In the 47 years I’ve been birding now, I’ve never missed not just seeing chickadees but also hearing them singing away on Chickadee Day unless I’ve been traveling outside their range. That happens to be one of the loveliest bits of serendipity about my starting birding on March 2.
I babysit for my baby grandson five days a week, but Russ has been covering for me on Wednesday mornings so I can get out for a little birding. This year I was hungry to see a Spruce Grouse, so I got up while it was still dark planning to drive up to Two Harbors and then up Highway 2 and Highway 1 toward Ely before logging trucks would be an issue. Before I even had my coffee, I had to let my dog Pip outside. She’s little, weighing just 8 pounds, and there are plenty of predators in the neighborhood, so I take her out on the leash after dark. This time, she instantly ran to a dark spot in the snow and started sniffing a deep red bloody spot and one little tuft of cottontail fur on the ground by the feeder, at the corner of an area of the backyard that Russ keeps shoveled for Pip to get around easily. By the light of our porch light, I could also see a few pieces of the rabbit on the snowbank just above. I went in and got a flashlight to confirm what I was seeing.
I’m pretty certain the perpetrator was one of the neighborhood Great Horned Owls. No tracks led up the snowbank, so the predator had to have flown there from the kill site, and a Great Horned Owl is the most likely nocturnal predator that could fly any distance at all lugging an adult rabbit carcass.
Great Horned Owls often bite off and swallow a rabbit’s head, and if scared off or not very hungry, they leave the rest. In this case, the head was missing, but so was almost all the rest of the body, so I’m presuming this was one hungry owl or, more likely, a mated male who ate the head and lugged off much of the rest to give its mate on the nest. By now the female may be brooding, in which case dad was bringing food for both her and their chicks. I love owls and I’m glad someone got a good meal even as I devoutly wish it hadn’t been one of my bunnies.
Anyway, I got dressed and waited for it to get light enough outside to take photos of the gruesome crime scene. But even before sunrise, two of my crows showed up. I didn’t begrudge them the calories, but I ran out to take pictures before they could carry away what was left, while it was still too dark for good photography. My crows are skittish whenever anything is out of the ordinary, like this sudden bonanza of rabbit guts on the snow, so I photographed them from indoors through the window glass. My photos ended up pretty poor, but oh, well.
While I was packing up my camera gear, I spotted a male Pileated Woodpecker at the suet feeder, and after watching him through binoculars for at least a minute, he finally posed exactly right for me to see the band on his right leg—yep, it was my dear BB. In the last couple of weeks I haven’t seen him around most days, but this was the third day in a row that he showed up, which was a joy. But a minute or two later, he flew away in a weird, zig-zagging flight, pursued by someone I couldn’t get a clear look at. They completely moved out of sight, and I don’t know how that encounter ended up. In the past I’ve photographed a very determined Sharp-shinned Hawk repeatedly chasing a female Pileated and seen Merlins harassing raptors larger than Pileateds. We’ve had both sharpies and Merlins this year, so either is a possibility, along with such real menaces to Pileateds as Northern Goshawks, so I’ll be uneasy until I see BB again.
On balance, Chickadee Day was starting out pretty rough, but a lovely drive to see Spruce Grouse would certainly brighten things up, right?
People have been seeing them on Highway 1 just north of the Spruce Road, so that’s where I headed. Going through the eerie, burnt area by the Sand River made me sad—the Greenwood Fire last year destroyed so much habitat!—but the grouse have been seen here a few times this winter so I kept careful watch. The only two times a car came up behind me, I had plenty of room on the shoulder to pull over before they were inconvenienced, so I drove nice and slow, scrutinizing the road ahead and the trees along the road, but no luck. Two small flocks of redpolls flew up from the road ahead of me, but I’d seen them way better already that very morning in my own backyard, and the only other birds I saw up there, ravens, had also made an appearance on Peabody Street.
Driving home as I revisited Highway 61, I saw a few Bald Eagles—the only species I saw on that entire long drive that I hadn’t already seen at home. I didn’t have time to stop in Two Harbors or any of my favorite spots—I was already late getting to my daughter’s house for babysitting. My Chickadee Day adventure was a total bust—at least, so far. Tomorrow, I’ll explain how another gallinaceous bird redeemed the day.