phoebes

i heard a report on the radio recently that populations of flycatchers are down in the northeast US. i was a little alarmed, but i felt good that we’ve had a very successful nesting pair of phoebes for several years here on the mountain.

one year they made a nest on an outcrop on the side of the house up near the eaves. last year, they made a nest of horse hair and moss atop the light fixture in our shed and raised at least two broods of four chicks each. i was content when they moved back in to the same nest this spring and set up shop to raise another couple of broods. i would sit quietly in the lull of chores, between feeding the horses and picking up their empty dishes, while the pair did their housekeeping. the female’s little wedge-shaped tail stuck out of the back of the nest and her mate would fill up with bugs and feed her as she sat determinedly on her eggs. i would put on a hooded sweatshirt before i headed out in the evening, then sit with my hood up, disguised from mistrustful phoebe eyes, and watch them with so much happiness. they were my companions and entertainment and i felt that having them here, so prolific, was helping the declining population of their species.

last week, i noticed that there was no square tail peeping out from the nest. there was still an adult swooping around and catching bugs, but it was wary. i stood out by the garden to wait for the horses instead of sitting in the shed and hoped that both parents were out catching bugs for a nest full of young. before i went inside, i ducked into the shed and saw that familiar gray tail above the light and felt comforted. the next morning, my mother heard some tiny peeping from the nest. when i went out to do chores that evening, the nest was silent. there were no phoebes swooping or chirping around the shed. with a sinking heart, i got out a ladder and climbed up to peer into the nest. i found four baby phoebes, cold and dead. i plucked their tiny bodies from the doomed nest, all translucent mauve skin and pin feathers and downy heads, their eyes closed tight against the cold hungriness of death. i brought them out to the woods and left them there, hoping that their tragedy could keep another wild parent’s chicks or pups or cubs or kits from the same sad fate.

i’ll never know if one of the phoebes was killed and the remaining parent saw the futility of trying to keep four chicks warm and fed and so abandoned the nest or if one was killed and then the other. we do have a small hawk in the neighborhood which glides through daily, looking for a meal. it, too, may have a nest to sustain. but i mourn the loss of my little flycatchers and miss them keenly every evening.

sprung

our early spring dragged on for months with brief intervals of winter. now it is mid-april and suddenly, real spring is upon us. the early robins, which were coming to the bird feeders and glumly eating seed from the ground (something i’ve never seen them do), have moved off to the meadows and forest to pick off some bugs and worms like robins are supposed to do. the migratory birds that came back far too soon have been joined in a glut by a rainbow of colleagues and the species that were here all winter have burgeoned in number. a handful of slate juncos has become a battalion. purple finches are trickling in and a male goldfinch stopped by today, a yellow jewel in a world that is still brown and grey. i counted seven male red-winged blackbirds and spotted my personal favorite sparrow: the white-throated, which is a grand little brown bird with tiny touches of bling around the eyes. no sign yet of my lovely rose-breasted grosbeak, but i know now that he’ll be back any minute now. i haven’t seen him, but i definitely heard the buzz of the male ruby-throated hummingbird. there is nectar cooling on the counter for him.

beyond the bird feeders are vast acres of grossness: dead grass, lumps of sod, dog bombs, rotting grey snow banks, mud, horse manure, and wind-downed branches. the crushed stone put down in the driveway last summer is splashed over lawns, stumps, and gardens, pushed inexorably by the voracious blade of the snow plow. there is so much to do and so little time to do it, things that must be tended to before the grass begins to green up and grow in earnest, burying the detritus from sight, but not from bare feet or a lawnmower blade.

the goats are shedding cashmere now. a quick snuggle leaves my pant legs with smears of gossamer goat-down. i let them out to have a good gallop while i forked and raked and shoveled their pen. they ran up the wood pile and over the picnic table, then bounced from one feed bin to the next in the shed.

there’s lots more to clean up, but some of it is still frozen down and my muscles are not used to this onslaught of work. i pick away a little at a time, knowing it will never all be done and taking no small satisfaction from that knowledge. we joke, in professional life, about tedious tasks being job security. in the garden, on the farm, there is hobby security. i’ve also learned, late in life, that i don’t have to spend a sunday cleaning the goat pen until i’m half dead, sunburned, and thoroughly tired of goats. i can clean the goats until i’m bored of it, then rake thatch until i get a blister, then spend some time washing windows, and so on. in between, i can stop for a glass of water in the shade and listen, blissfully, to the riotous quacking of wood frogs in the secret vernal pools and the sharp “check! check!” of a red-winged blackbird as he makes sure his mic is in working order.

the phoebes have been working to put last summer’s nest back in order over the light fixture in the shed. i meant to dismantle it some winter evening, but never got around to it. the phoebes are glad that there was a task that never quite got done and so am i.

the feeder report

the birds have been sparse this winter. not that there aren’t a metric tonne of chickadees at the feeders every day, but there isn’t a lot of variety out there. a half dozen blue jays, the occasional nuthatch (white bellied and red), two sizes of woodpecker (hairy and downy), a few too many mourning doves, and, of course, chickadees. every once in a while i see a tufted titmouse or a couple of juncos, but not often. usually just before a big storm or during an extended cold snap. last weekend there was a squeaking susurrus of cedar waxwings in the big pine tree out back. but there are no finches (either purple or gold), no crossbills or grosbeaks or cardinals or redpolls or anything different at all. normally we have all of these things (the cardinal was a new arrival last winter) with some regularity, but this year, it’s all chickadees, all the time.

we have a handful of squirrels, both red and gray. the squirrels here are country squirrels, cagey and frenetic. they run for the woods if you step out the door. the grays come in the early mornings, after the dogs have been out for their first pee of the day. the reds come later. well, i say “reds”, but we have a strange trio of red squirrels: one red, one gray, one black. i have mistaken the black squirrel for a weasel more than once, but it is, indeed, a squirrel. of all the squirrels, it is the most feral, the most nervous. i’ve yet to get a photo of the thing, because any movement from the house sends it dashing away. i suppose when you’re a midnight black animal in a world of white, that’s probably a good plan.

the deer, which were raiding the feeders a bit earlier in the winter, seem to have dried up. they move down into the valleys by midwinter and i think we’ve seen the last of them until spring.

the feeders attract rodents at night and a barred owl was hanging out in the maple tree, lurking for mice, but i haven’t seen her lately. perhaps she depopulated the rodent population enough that she put herself out of a feed source.

other than escaped horses, the only other thing to frequent the feeders is my min pin, who gulps down seed like she has never eaten anything before in her life. i haven’t been broadcasting seed for the ground feeding birds as a result: they can clean up what the jays and chickadees drop and that’s less black oil seed for my obese little doggie to gobble. she also enjoys a nice evening round of “eatta mouse!”, but that’s less fun since the owl did her damage. she still goes out and noses around the rocks and rose canes, but gives up sooner. it mustn’t smell as mouse-y down there as it once did.

i wonder if this relative quiet in the bird department is a harbinger of climate change or just a fluke. perhaps it’s a reprieve from the record diversity of spring and summer, which kept us hopping trying to keep the feeders full. i’m not asking for a pine grosbeak or a northern shrike, although we’ve had both in the past. i’m not even asking for the plagues of redpolls we had two winters ago. but please, perhaps, the occasional purple finch to break up the monotony of chickadees?