For the Birds Radio Program: Fun Morning in Sapsucker Woods
A week ago I went out on a field trip with a group of beginners from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Spring Field Ornithology class. We stuck to Sapsucker Woods, and ended up with 33 species while the more advanced groups had at least 45, but even though I’m working on my New York list, I didn’t mind at all. What we lacked in quantity we made up for in quality. Before we were even out of the shadow of the Lab building, we came upon a Red-tailed Hawk sitting in a tree right in front of us. This bird had been rehabbed last year and is used to people, so it didn’t surprise me that it sat so close that it completely filled my spotting scope’s field of view. What did surprise me was when it dropped to the ground even closer to us, pulled its wings down and forward in a posture called “mantling,” pulled up a clump of grasses, and flew back to its perch. It stuck its bill in the clump and pulled out a mouse, close enough that everyone got extremely good, and gross, looks at the hawk devouring its breakfast. It was one of those spring mornings all about renewal and rebirth. We had a decent assortment of birds as we headed down the Wilson trail. When we turned a corner, we came upon something curious high up in a big, dead tree—a big clump of fur that I recognized as a raccoon’s tail, sticking out from a huge cavity where the raccoon apparently was sleeping. Perched on the tail, pulling out hairs, was a Tufted Titmouse. According to the Birds of North America Tufted Titmouse entry, titmice frequently use animal hair in nest construction, and gather it from live animals. It was thrilling to see this firsthand! On the opposite side of the trail, a pair of chickadees was popping in and out of a little cavity in a snag, carrying out wood chips. Chickadees excavate their own nests—ones that take nest boxes almost always prefer boxes filled up with wood shavings so the birds can feel like they were the ones who excavated it. I’ve had the pleasure of watching chickadees excavate holes many times, but none of my group had ever seen this before. Meanwhile, the titmouse kept plucking raccoon hairs—two such cool things happening at once in opposite directions. But the woods promised even more adventures, and so even as both activities continued, our group walked on. We came upon a Canada Goose incubating on a tiny island very close to a boardwalk. We were close enough to see a mass of down nest lining protruding from her sides. Incubation looks so easy and relaxing, but is very draining, so we didn’t stay too long, but moved on to look for a pair of kestrels nesting on a barn. We never did find them, but did see a grackle fly into a nest box. She didn’t come out, so I scoped the entrance hole and saw that she was incubating, inside a nest box. Grackles are not supposed to do that, according to the books, but they’re functionally illiterate and apparently this one had not received the message. I love setting out on a spring morning to see a lot of birds. But I think even more, I love setting out on a spring morning to see what my local birds are up to. From plucking at raccoon tails to incubating, birds are busy with fascinating activities. To enjoy them, all I need to do is get out there and pay attention.