Over the past couple weeks, eBirders reported a male Rusty Blackbird hanging around the feeders near the entrance of the Lab of Ornithology. I missed it last week and wanted to try again today. I planned to watch the feeders for a bit, and then, if no luck, walk the trails and return to the feeders.
I arrived juts before 9. A light snow fell. I heard a crowd of Blue Jays as soon as I turned off the car. They bunched in a leafless tree near the sidewalk. Goldfinches were perched with them. I headed for the birders. When I was within twenty feet of the tree, the goldfinches fled en masse in a twittery mess, all two dozen.
I peeked through wooden blind – through tight grove of pine, spruce, and hemlock – and browsed the ground. No Rusty. Not one bird. Only snow and seed.
I could never have imagined blue jays being more incessantly noisy than at this moment. Utter pandemonium. In addition to the usual “jay!”-ing and bugling, they sounded a strange whistle I’d never heard before. On and on, from all directions. They zipped overhead, between tree to tree every few seconds. Just when I settled on a number, more came into view. Up and up went my count. Easily thirty. On top of that, more than a dozen each of House Finches and female Red-winged Blackbirds flew into the berry-laden trees by the boardwalk. I counted at least nine cardinals with them. The goldfinches twittered from a distance. A Pileated Woodpecker intermittently called from within the woods. White-throated Sparrows, American Tree Sparrows, and Dark-eyed Juncos flitted up from the ground to perch in the shrubs.
This sensory overload distraction was worse than a fallout of warblers. I awed at hearing a new blue jay sound. I scrambled to tick each species, let alone count how many of each. I turned this way and that to note what birds flew around and picked up. I wondered which bird species can sound like pickerel frogs (the blackbirds? or the jays again?). Don’t forget the two dozen Mourning Doves hunched in three different trees.
I thought I saw at least two Purple Finches with the house finches, all gobbling down berries. I excitedly tried to confirm the ID but lost track of them in the bustle. After spending some time on other birds, I noticed that the finches had perched close together in an adjacent tree (not moving, thankfully). As I went from male to male, I questioned my ability to differentiate House from Purple. I thought I long graduated from that stage. Perhaps, now, I was seeing only House and the Purples had flown away. Or, I solely saw overly bright and colorful Houses. I considered the early reports on northern songbirds not irrupting this year, including purple finches. I went with ticking only house.
During my finch deliberation, I heard in the background but didn’t register the jays “jay”-ing more often and louder. Even the fifty or so mallards in the pond quacked in protest. I’d been standing in the open, relatively close to the feeders, binoculars poised. I sat on the bench by the pond. The canopy over the bench seemed to help. While I processed my observations, all of the birds settled down. The goldfinches, jays, and others began visiting the feeders. The juncos and sparrows foraged around me in the leafless shrubs. I could hear the cars on Route 13 passing by. I figured I would sit for another half hour until the visitor’s center opened.
I saw a Hairy Woodpecker foraging. When I put my bins on it, the jays got loud again. I assumed I roused everyone from the peaceful feeder feast. I felt like a cat minding its own business, wandering without the instinct to kill on sight. I started walking the Wilson Trail. The jays followed me for a bit. Eventually, their noise died down. Now immersed in the forest, a quiet descended. All of the birds flocked by the feeders, leaving only a select solitary individuals, such as a chickadee and a red-bellied woodpecker, to forage in Sapsucker Woods.
The snowfall stopped. A high wind blew through the pine grove canopy. I passed a mole hole dug near the edge of the path. A gray squirrel huddled on a six-inch pine branch, tail on back. A young red squirrel scurried inside its hole in a snag. At the same time I passed right in front of the snag, the squirrel peaked through, saw me, and immediately rushed back inside.
My trek was quiet the entire time. I looped around the pond and the Lab, back to the feeders. The jays started. I looked for the Rusty again. And yet again, no Rusty. I kept under the entrance canopy, creating a final tally of my sightings. The jays quieted, and everyone else went back to placidly feeding.