personal essay

To the Rescue…Actually, Don’t

My last post describes a rather appropriate situation in which one can actively attempt to help an injured bird. A couple days ago, I ran into a not-so-appropriate situation.

I work as a trail steward for the Hudson Highlands State Park and Fahnestock State Park, located Westchester, Putnam, and Dutchess Counties. On weekends, I float between two popular trail heads, where I help hikers choose which trails to take if they are unfamiliar with the area. I had just switched when my fellow stewards told me that someone had found a hurt bird around a mile up a trail. They kept it safe until I returned, knowing I was a birder. One of them held it in his cupped hands: a Tufted Titmouse fledgling, fully feathered.

I sighed. Considering that many people assume fledglings are lost and/or helpless, I immediately thought that this misguided hiker made the common decision to remove a perfectly healthy fledgling. I then noticed the titmouse’s right leg. So badly injured at the joint, it was barely held together by a few wiry ligaments.

Two out of three of my coworkers had to switch out upon my arrival. I took the fledgling in my own hands. It rowdily buzzed and ruffled its wings. It managed to hop out. It propelled itself toward the bushes with wings alone. I recaptured it with little effort.

You might be thinking, Just put it back anyway. It’s nature. I haven’t yet had much experience to observe nature’s not-so-nice aspects, though I am immune to dead birds, especially dead fledglings (no pity for the dead). I’m still quite sensitive and sympathetic to wildlife, especially if the wildlife is a little soft ball of feathers with a torn leg and willful beady eyes. I reasoned that since the fledgling had already been down here for hours, I may as well ring up a local animal rehabilitation center. Still, in the back of my mind, I wondered if the center would really care for it. An fatally injured bird, yes, but a widespread songbird, and a young one. Do these places really help to raise young birds such as titmice?

I called the local police for a number. This number wasn’t any help at all. Not only did the person on the other end said she couldn’t do anything, but she tried finding me numbers for other places in Putnam, Dutchess, and Westchester. She managed only one in Westchester, rather far from me. When I dialed that number, an answering machine prattled. I heard the word “acupuncture.” I called again to double check I heard correctly. During those five minutes, the titmouse struggled in my balled hand, buzzing with irritation. I wished I had a small box.

My coworker who had stayed behind with me gave me her tall ceramic coffee cup. I dropped the fledgling inside. It immediately stopped fussing. It looked a little cramped, but had enough room to preen. I delayed the inevitable action by contacting several friends in my Saw Mill River Audubon circle for advice. I learned that late Saturday afternoon is a terrible time to reach anybody. I did get through to my final contact. But at this point, I knew what I had to do. I just wanted an understanding ear and found one. She heard the fledgling’s incessant buzzing for attention and food throughout the call.

“Good luck,” she said. “Let me know what happens.”

“I don’t think I can,” I said. “Since it’s almost summer there’s a lot of snake activity. Some hikers have been telling us they spotted a good number of snakes along the trail.”

After I hung up, I informed my supervisor that I had to put the fledgling back. I expressed it would have been more helpful if the hiker were more specific about where she found it. A mile up the trail was frustratingly vague. Agreeing, he recommended a particular location, and off I went.

The fledgling buzzed intermittently as I hiked. The buzzing reminded me of the call notes that titmice make when they’re communicating while trying to find food, except it was rougher sounding. Hikers passing us minded their own business even as the fledgling made noise. Perhaps no one thought my coffee cup would contain a bird, not coffee.

When I reached the spot – a flat open area laden with honey locusts and grasses – I placed the coffee cup on the ground. The fledgling wouldn’t venture out. Once I tiled to the cup, it slid onto the ground.

The young bird stayed where it was. I didn’t want any more hikers discovering and bringing it back down, so I nudged it towards the grass off the trail. It protested again by buzzing and flapping, but it did move to the edge of the grass.

I couldn’t bring myself leave right away. I felt I had to watch over it for a couple minutes. I heard two hikers come up. It turned out I had to direct them to where the trail continued. They didn’t notice the fledgling.

The little titmouse stayed put, cocking its head to and fro, occasionally buzzing. Its entire body pulsed as it breathed. From all that calling, I hoped that its parents might hear it soon. I looked at the grass and thought about the snakes lurking around. The fledgling’s leg might have been damaged beyond hope, but its wings were still quite functional and strong. I thought of the fledgling successfully escaping snakes, even for a bit. Maybe in time for the parents to find it.

Another hiker, who seemed to have been roaming around the locust grove, was walking towards me, back to the trail. We greeted each other. The fledgling buzzed. He gazed down at it with curiosity. I explained to the hiker what was happening and took the opportunity to make a PSA about leaving fledglings alone, even when they’re hurt. He listened understandingly. The fledgling hopped onto my left shoe, and then onto my right, and then onto one of hiker’s shoes.

“Oh no, please don’t do that…” I said to it. I turned to the hiker. “This is making it harder for me to leave it be,” I said with a strained chuckle.

After he left, I felt my time pressing. I nudged the fledgling towards the grass. Instead of hopping away, it perched on my fingers. It wouldn’t get off when I shook my hand. “Really?” I asked. “You’re do this now?” I shook my hand again. It jumped off. When I got it close to the grass again, I took my final looks at it and hiked down the trail.

To the Rescue

One day in April, during my first spring as a birder, as I read on my front steps enjoying the sun’s light and warmth, I heard a muted thud.

I perked up. It sounded like a bird hit a window. Weeks before, I’d read how the frequency of birds flying into windows increases during migration, and what you can do for the bird – if still alive – when you are faced with the situation at your own home. So, I imagined what I would do to care for the bird when the moment arrived. This wouldn’t be like the time I tried to “save” a Black-capped Chickadee fledgling the summer before. Granted, I was not yet a birder and didn’t even know what a chickadee was, let alone understand that I should have left it.

I designed and replayed a scenario with the least amount of incidence. Create a safe space: grab a cardboard box, small towels, and, if applicable, some feeder seeds. Approach the possibly stunned and exhausted creature gingerly. Make it so your presence suggests, I’m not a predator. Ensure its comfort as it rests. Watch it with reassurance as it flies away from your hand with ease.

Ready but nervous to get at it, I slowly walked down the steps. On the driveway sat a motionless male American Redstart. (My first redstart! It’s smaller in real life…) I crept towards him with lowered arms and outstretched hands. It looked like he was staring into space. His head was cocked to the right, his eyes unblinking. When I was less a foot away, he turned to look up at me, squeaked in surprise, clumsily fluttered into my left armpit, and soared away out of sight.

After blankly gaping after him a bit, I went back to reading.

On Studying Warbler Songs

In January, I created a list of New Year’s resolutions, with learning and memorizing warbler songs as one resolution. Days later I signed up for an upcoming trip to Magee Marsh – located in Oak Harbor, Ohio, on the shore of Lake Eerie – during the first week of May with Saw Mill River Audubon. This would be my first trip to Magee Marsh. I couldn’t have hoped for a better reinforcement and place to fulfill another resolution to see more warblers.

I started studying in early April.  To begin, I looked up the eBird hotspot for the boardwalk and made my way to the bar charts to check which warblers are most likely to be observed there. I added a few more species because they are also common in Westchester. I ended up with thirty-six songs to study and review. Throughout these past few weeks, I’ve been taking two or three days of each week to concentrate on small batches of 3-5 warblers. I’m not quite finished. Just a couple days to go. Here is my progress:

warblerlist

As you can see, the Kirtland’s Warbler is listed…just in case.

 

I color-coded the days and numbered the warblers to help myself remember which species I studied when and at what point. (The colors are brought to you by my grapheme-color synesthesia.) Italics symbolize priority. These are the species I think I should attune my ears most to at Magee Marsh. About half of each batch includes species’ songs I don’t know – Blackburnian, Prothonotary – and the other half includes species with which I’m already familiar (Yellow, Prairie). This helps my brain avoid the feeling of being stuffed with cotton and have an easier time taking in new information.

I randomly select the species (“I’ll study this one today” – is pretty much how it goes). I have several resources on hand: Tom Stephenson and Scott Whittle’s The Warbler Guide, Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s All About Birds, National Audubon’s online guide, and various YouTube channels. I mostly skip plumage since I’m already familiar with ID’ing a lot of warblers based on sight. An optional first step. I did make a few exceptions for the more subtle species, such as Nashville, Tennessee, and Connecticut. I also find the captions under the Additional Photos sections helpful in regards to diagnostic marks and behavior. We are getting at the point in which foliage helps warblers hide from the world.

IMG_1620

Nashville Warbler page in Tom Stephenson and Scott Whittle’s The Warbler Guide. © Stephenson and Whittle

Next, I turn to the sonograms page. I keep the book beside my laptop.

IMG_1619

American Redstart sonograms in The Warbler Guide. Not all of the warblers have seven different types of songs, thank goodness. © Stephenson and Whittle

I bring up the Lab of Ornithology’s warbler page via Browse Bird Profiles, play the audio clip, and read the sonogram as I listen. (You will find that there are vireos mixed in. They can be confused with warblers. Stephenson and Whittle handily acknowledge this in their guide.)

allaboutbirds

A screenshot of the warbler group main page on allaboutbirds.org. © Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Then I do the same with the Audubon guide. Unlike Cornell, Audubon provides multiple songs per species, thus also providing the various song types. Audubon’s guide sounds like a better companion to The Warbler Guide‘s sonograms, but I like referring to Cornell because it can have song types that Audubon doesn’t provide. Even if the clip were of the same song type, an individual bird usually sounds faintly different than another individual.

I try utilizing the rote memory method.I would listen to each clip several times, either looking at or not looking at the sonograms. Sometimes, if the variations are so different, I play two clips simultaneously so that it sounds like two birds dueling over territory boundaries.

(I stated in my resolutions post that I “must take advantage of…the Macaulay Library.” I simply forgot about that at the time I started studying. But I think using All About Bird’s and the Audubon online guide are enough for now, having just a few audio clips of the most basic types – and little variation – at hand.)

After that, I head over to YouTube to watch videos of the warblers singing (largely Lang Elliot, Wild Bird Video Productions, and Larry Bond in that order). By combining sight and hearing, the videos further help me associate the song with that particular species.

redstartvideo

Lastly, I add on to the Review list I created. Asterisks replace italics to indicate priority birds.

warblerlist2

I don’t review the songs in-between study days. I tried it. It mostly overwhelmed me and I still couldn’t play many of the songs in my head from memory afterward. The ones that did stick easily were Chestnut-sided and Mourning. I’m getting there with Hooded, Tennessee, and the waterthrushes. But, for most of them, if I do play an audio clip, the best I get to is “Yes, this is familiar.” (I know what the best method of learning bird songs is for me: to venture out in the field with an experienced listener, processing one or two songs at a time.)

Once I complete all thirty-six species, I have in mind to review any two songs at the most per day. Rote memory, rote memory, rote memory. Yes, I’m aware I’m running of out time. The Magee Marsh trip is less than a week away. But there are warblers elsewhere and farther in the future (as bleak the future seems).

The Timberdoodle’s Dusk Dance

The American Woodcock – nicknamed the timberdoodle, bog sucker, and Labrador twister – is a shorebird with a stocky body, a mottled black and brown back, and a long, thin beak to probe soft ground for food (earthworms, insects, snails, etc). Woodcocks spend their winters or live as year-round residents in southeast United States. They migrate to the Northeast to breed in young forests. Their movement peaks in March in Westchester County, using the Hudson River as a guide. Woodcocks prefer to forage on moist ground, rhythmically rocking back and forth as it steps forward, attempting to disturb the ground to find food. Their dance-like movements have caused some amusement on the Internet. Their large, beady eyes are near the back of their heads so they can watch out for predators as they forage.

Woodcocks charm birders with their extravagant and unique courtship. From March to June, their displays and courtships occur at dawn and dusk, held at open fields and forest clearings. Males peent repeatedly to attract females’ attention. They then shoot up to the sky, spiraling and spiraling. After reaching up to 300 feet, they descend in a zig-zag, chirping, wings whistling and twittering. Their landing is silent. (You might see the woodcock ascend and descend, but not where it lands.) And thus repeats until success.

When I learned about the woodcock’s existence, it was through this Lang Elliot video. During the one minute and ten seconds, the woodcock turns 360° as it occasionally puffs out a nerdy peent, its entire body bobbing up each time. I fell in love with the shorebird so suddenly I teared up. It’s both cute and hilarious.

Not long after I learned that Saw Mill River Audubon hosts a woodcock walk at Croton Point Park every mid-March. I was never so excited to observe a potential life bird. I had to hear the peents for myself. I couldn’t contain my anticipation. The day before, I made my coworkers watch the video at any free moment they had. I wanted to spread awareness of this unbelievably endearing shorebird.

Just before dusk, we walked the road at the base of the landfill, carefully treading on the side of the path. It was a bit too breezy than we wanted. (Woodcocks dislike wind, preferring calmer air when they want to forage or display. They also like warmer temperatures and will not be active when the temperature is below 40°.) Regardless, we were caught off guard: a woodcock in plain sight right at the corner of the woods. It stood completely still for us for about thirty seconds before it finally fled to the phragmites half, disturbed by our large group. When the dusk nearly passed, we heard a second woodock briefly peent-ing. That was all we had for the evening. But I had both seen and heard woodcocks. I couldn’t have been more thrilled. I struggled to suppress squeals of elation when I heard my first real life peent.

The walk I attended the following year had an excellent turn-up. We heard at least six different woodcocks calling, their tinny peents sounding from multiple directions. I almost teared up again. When there was very little light, and the sky and landfill were tinted dark blue, the woodcocks engaged in their courtship flights. We watched their silhouettes as they catapulted themselves upward and – after a pause – zig-zagged downward. We could hear their wings twitter.

This year, an ill-timed Nor-easter occurred on March 14th, during the woodcock’s peak migration period. SMRA’s walk was scheduled for the 19th, and Muscoot Farm’s for the 18th. Both, of course, were canceled. 16 inches fell in my area. People recorded as much as two to three feet around the surrounding counties. No way would woodcocks be able to forage and perform their ritual with all this snow.

Before dusk on the day after the storm, I was driving home and stopped at the three-way intersection across from the Blue Mountain Middle School – one of the busier intersections in my fragmented-forest-suburbia. In a span of two seconds, the following happened: Just as I made the sharp right turn, I saw a woodcock on the right side of the road; and when I was about to run it over, it took off. I couldn’t pull over, so I stared after it wide-eyed and open-mouthed as I continued to drive. That was not how I imagined I would get my First of Year. And I got my first real good look.

It’s understandable why the woodcock liked this risky spot. The intersection is by a lake, from which flows a stream, which passes under the intersection. The snow plow cleaned the road a little too much on one side and exposed a lot of fresh soil. The woodcock had found a little haven to have a breather.

Apparently, the March 14 snowstorm really threw off the woodcocks. When I returned home and read my email, I learned that my incident wasn’t isolated. Via the New York State Birds Listserv, birdwatchers in the New York City area reported a woodcock fallout (“oodles of doodles,” as someone put it on the New York Birders Facebook page). Through the 15th to 19th, birders sighted dozens of woodcocks in Central Park – as many as 40 on the 15th. They were easy to spot because of the omnipresent snow. They huddled wherever they could find open water and exposed ground. Local Red-tailed Hawks made effortless prey of them. News of the fallout made it to the New York Times, which reported that the Wild Bird Fund treated 55 woodcocks overall. People were finding them all over Manhattan, starved or injured from having flown into high-story buildings. Anders Peltomaa, who occasionally contributes to the NYS Birds Listserv, wrote up a report for the Linnaean Society of New York. (You’ve also got to take a look at the close-up photographs he uploaded.)

*      *       *

SMRA rescheduled their woodcock walk to this past Sunday, April 9, three weeks after the initial date. The weather seemed ideal: no more snow on the ground, no precipitation of any kind, no wind, and the temperature dropping no lower than 45°. As we waited for people to gather in the parking lot, starlings buzzed and gurgled, waiting for nighttime in their roosting trees. Attendance didn’t exceed 15 people. Daylight sluggishly faded away between 7:30 and 8:30. A near full moon out-shined many stars and alighted the ground. A female Sharp-shinned Hawk hunted at the base of the landfill, shortly disappearing after she realized we would be sticking around. Long after sunset, dozens of robins sang and whinnied and yeeped. They darted one by one from the landfill to the trees until darkness completely fell. Uncountable Spring Peepers called. As we walked along the edge of the path, we listened and watched all around us for any sound and for any movement from a woodcock: the edge of the woods, the field in front of the phragmites, the side of the landfill, the plateau of the landfill. Our guide tried three times to coax responses with playback, sounding off peents, then the twittering wings, then the male’s confrontational string of clicks. Only a few of us, including the guide, heard the virtually inaudible wing twitterings, perhaps from two woodcocks. After that, silence once again. We extended the walk a bit by double-backing and strolling around another part of the landfill. Only the spring peepers announced their presence.

*      *       *

Muscoot Farm also rescheduled their walk, to this weekend. I will be attending that one as well. Anything goes – I’m not expecting much activity, but with birdwatching, you learn to not expect, thus avoiding disappointment. Given the harsh impact March’s Nor’easter had on the woodcocks, it’s hard to say how badly they were affected until next year. If another Nor’easter doesn’t disrupt them again.

The Bird That Sounds Like a Rusty Hinge

In early March of my first year of birdwatching, I heard a mass of strangely robotic, raspy sounds from the row of white pines next to my house. Since my mind was constantly in bird-learning mode, I automatically thought they were birds. I stepped outside. It sounded like there were dozens calling from the canopy. They performed a non-stop chorus of screeches and squeaks. But they hid themselves well in the branches. I must have stood for minutes before a few eventually fluttered in and out of sight. They were large, their black plumage shining blue-green and purple, and their tails long.

I didn’t take long to flip through my Sibley’s and ID them as Common Grackles. A short memory surfaced of my walking down my street a couple years before, during springtime. A few of these blackbirds flew zoomed overheard. Having no idea what they were, I was amused by their weird squawks and questioned why they were in such a hurry.

For the next two years, the grackles timed themselves to appear in my neighborhood in early March. This year, however, the first arrived in late February. They amass by numbers of fifty at the least. Rarely are they seen individually. All day long, many smaller groups pass over, line-dotting the rich blue sky, softly uttering chitip. The more unhurried grackles like to perch at the tops of the tallest trees, watchful, thoughtful, in constant communication with one another. They glide or flap from tree to tree, squawking mid-light. They walk on branches. They walk on lawns. They swarm on lawns. They peck and peck as they stride, yellow eyes always wide. Their glossy feathers shine brilliantly and beautifully when hit by sunlight.

They are vigilant. If you are standing next to a window and move a little, they become spooked and flee to the trees all at once. Last spring, a mixed flock of mostly grackles and a few red-wings and cowbirds was perched in the tallest tree of the neighborhood. Their vocalizations rattled the air. An airplane flying at high altitude began to pass over them. The blackbirds abruptly silenced themselves. The airplane’s roar was all that sounded. Once the roar was out of hearing range, the blackbirds resumed vocalizing.

The Common Grackle (Quiscalus quiscula) is an Icterid, a part of the blackbird family, comprising numerous species such as Red-winged Blackbirds, meadowlarks, orioles, and other grackles (Boat-tailed Grackle, Great-tailed Grackle). They permanently live in the U.S.’s eastern half, including southeast New York (my personal observations reflect this eBird graph). Their breeding range extends as far northward as central and eastern Canada. Some migrate to winter in Texas. They reside and breed in many kinds of habitat: woods, fields, farmland, marshes and swamps, suburban areas, and urban parks. Like crows, they have a generalist’s diet: seeds, grains, fruits, insects, spiders, lizards, crustaceans, mice, eggs, and even small birds. According to Audubon, their songs and calls are described as a “high-pitched rising screech, like a rusty hinge.”

When the first grackles arrive during spring migration, a lot people who feed backyard birds might as well say out loud, “Oh, shit.” The blackbirds swarm at feeders, push the other birds away, and – in a matter of minutes – devour all of the seed and suet. Grackles are also known to consume so much commercial corn that millions of dollars have been lost. But it’s more personal for suburban homeowners.

I didn’t know grackles could be so voracious. Just a day or so after I learned of their existence, one descended upon a fresh suet block, which, to my shock, was gone in no time. Chunks of suet fell to the ground as the grackle pecked roughly at it. Not even fifteen minutes later, the suet cage was empty once again. I thought it was rude of the grackle. The other birds would show up for a couple minutes to eat and then leave, giving one another turns (as cordial as bird can be in the hierarchical order). Each block would typically last for at least week.

For the rest of that spring, I guarded the suet as much as I could (I had time on my hands because I was attending graduate school). No more than, say, five at once would visit my backyard, but they still caused me grief. They hung around all day long. As soon as a grackle or two landed on the tree’s branches, I’d bang on the door and they’d scatter. This solution was temporary; the grackles would annoyingly return within the quarter hour. Whenever a block was finished, I didn’t replenish the cage right away – the grackles would see and immediately come for the suet. Once, I became so exasperated that I stomped of the house, grabbed the cage, and took it inside. (I felt very bad for that trio of Brown Creepers that expected to the suet be on the tree just after I grabbed it. That was the first time I ever had three creepers in my backyard simultaneously and never did again.)

I still tried to scare the grackles away as best as I could. I recruited my retired mother when I started working. Although she expresses zero interest in birding, she has become attached to the birds that visit our feeders. Whereas I feel ambiguously towards grackles, she simply dislikes them. This year, my mother bought a generalist feeder. Of course, the grackles began dominating that too. My mother loathes them for wasting the money I spent for the seed and suet to be eaten by these “greedy” birds. To her, they’ve grown to be pest-like, worse than blue jays. She likes the fact that scaring them away requires low effort: all one has to do is make a slight movement in the room for the grackles take off. They’re more jumpy than jays. Since I’m still unwillingly unemployed, we’ve been scaring them away together this spring.

It’s only a couple days away from April. I’m already weary of managing the suet. A few grackles remain to nest, but most are still migrating. I continue to wait for those grackles to finally move on. But perhaps at that point, the weather may be warm enough for the birds not to need rendered beef fat anymore.

For the past two years, a grackle pair has nested in the yew trees outside my bedroom. I watched two grackles carry dried grass to the yews several days ago. They will have one or two clutches. The nestlings’ will chatter harshly and hungrily, learning from their parents’ so quickly to be rambunctious.

Hateful Things About Birdwatching (Inspired by Sei Shonagon’s “Hateful Things”)

The moment you get your binoculars on a bird it flies away.

You birdwatch with a group. A good bird is spotted. When you get on the bird, someone moves to stand in front of you, blocking your view. Or, an overenthusiastic someone comes to stand beside you, jolting your arms away. The someone doesn’t realize what they did.

A warbler plays hide-and-seek behind thick foliage.

You are observing a raft of ducks and find a mystery duck. Just as you begin to study it for diagnostic markings, the duck takes off.

The accipiter sp. is silent.

The bird is between you and the sun. Back-lighting ruins your enjoyment of looking at the bird. You have no way of circumventing so that the sun is behind you. The dark splotch doesn’t care.

Your binoculars won’t stop fogging up.

You are observing a special bird. A raptor appears out of nowhere and catches the bird for a meal.

Someone in your group spots a bird. Initially, others struggle but eventually get on it. Everyone but you sees it.

You are on a bird. While trying to move to view it from a different angle, you trip.

You deceive yourself into thinking that any moving inanimate natural object is a bird. Falling leaves are especially irksome. Or, you spend minutes trying to identify a bird, and you finally discern it is actually a stump. Or, you are birdwatching by car, catch a glimpse of a large bird among a clump of trees, and turn around to get a better look – only to learn to that what you saw is a tattered paper sign billowing in the wind.

There are no birds.

You leisurely spend time observing a bird. Suddenly, a loose dog runs close by and the bird takes off. The dog’s owner is nowhere to be seen.

It is raining.

It is very windy. The birds have taken cover and refuse to come out. This is especially loathsome during a Christmas Bird Count.

A perched passerine faces away from you. You can only see its back. It won’t ever turn around, or budge. The bird is all back.

You chase a bird. You arrive, but you just missed it.

You chase a bird. The location is far from where you live. You spend hours trying to find it with no success. You leave. Sometime after, the bird is spotted again.

Of Dark-eyed Juncos

I have previously called the Dark-eyed Junco “my first love” in this blog. I mention in the “About” section that my first sighting of them just over three years ago jump-started my birdwatching hobby. At the time, I was in my second year of graduate school. I liked to write in the family room, which overlooked the backyard garden. A glance over my laptop granted me some time to take a mental break. On a gray mid-afternoon I watched my father clear away long dried grasses from a patch by the deck. Not long after he finished, close to dusk, I noticed little dark blobs moving on the patch he had cleaned. I took a closer look and saw that they were birds. A flock of a dozen juncos were foraging. They pecked at the dirt, and pecked and pecked, tossing aside curled leaves with their bills. They pecked until the daylight nearly faded away. For the next few days, the flock returned to the same patch on time – one hour before dusk. The number of seeds they foraged for seemed to be infinite.

One day, they didn’t come back. I raked away grasses and leaves from another garden patch. As soon as I was done and went inside the house, the juncos appeared. They continued pecking.

————

Dark-eyed Juncos are members of the sparrow and bunting family. They are dark gray with white bellies and pink bills. Their white outer tail feathers flash as they take flight – a warning flag for themselves and other birds. Juncos are faintly sexually dimorphic. The females are slightly less gray, having a tinge of brown.

(Note: The junco I write about is the Slate-colored subspecies. Altogether, there are up to fifteen subspecies. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, there are “six forms are easily recognizable in the field[…and…]two widespread forms of the Dark-eyed Junco: ‘slate-colored’ junco of the eastern United States and most of Canada, which is smooth gray…; and ‘Oregon’ junco, found across much of the western U.S., with a dark hood, warm brown back and rufous flanks. Other more restricted variations include the slate-colored-like ‘white-winged’ and Oregon-like ‘pink-sided’ juncos of the Rockies and western Great Plains; and the Yellow-eyed Junco-like ‘red-backed’ and ‘gray-headed’ juncos of the Southwest.”)

The Dark-eyed Junco’s song consists of a short, single phrase of trills. It can be difficult to distinguish from that of the Chipping Sparrow and the Pine Warbler. (Just this past April I almost turned a junco into a Pine Warbler – a bird I rarely see or hear – if I didn’t find the actual source of the singing.) When juncos want to express aggression and caution, they let out a series of twittery “kew” notes as they fly away.

Dark-eyed Juncos breed in the forests of Canada. They live all year long in the very north of the United States. Come winter, they spend the colder months in Northern Mexico and all over the U.S. They are one of Westchester County’s winter birds, arriving in October and departing in late April.

The Dark-eyed Junco is a perfect example of the sort of bird that once you take notice of it, you can’t stop seeing it. You can find them in suburban backyards, parks, forests, college campuses, and fields – any brush-filled habitat. Merriam-Webster dictionary states “junco” comes from the Spanish word junco – meaning “reed” – which is derived from the Latin word juncus of the same meaning.

If you have a feeder, juncos will show up. They even forage on roadsides; I sometimes flush them while driving. Like chickadees and titmice, they are common enough for birdwatchers quickly take note of and divert their attention elsewhere. Over the past three years of the Great Backyard Bird Count (as far as I’ve participated), the Dark-eyed Junco has appeared on the “Top 10 most frequently reported species” and the “Top 10 most numerous species” lists. In 2016, they appeared as #1 in the former Top 10 list (beating the Northern Cardinal, who had been #1 the previous two years). I observe hundreds of juncos every winter. During the last year’s Peekskill Christmas Bird Count, I counted up to 600 in Ossining, thus earning a look from the compiler. Sometimes I see them on Christmas cards, like cardinals and chickadees.

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2014-2015, my first winter of backyard birdwatching, was very snowy. Several inches of snow constantly coated the ground in January and February. Because I provided seeds and suet, the backyard birds visited daily from dawn to dusk, juncos included. Some would stay under the finch socks to eat nyjer seeds the goldfinches dropped. They occasionally got into tiffs with the white-throated sparrows, ensuing in confrontational jumping or three-second chases.

Some juncos would hop all around the deck, scavenging for scattered seeds half-sunken in the snow. I was amused at the number of tracks they left. The scene looked cheerful whether it was sunny or overcast. They even hopped right up to the backyard door. They never noticed my movement even when I was only inches away. I could see their eyes when they were that close. When they were farther away, they seemed eyeless because their beady black eyes blended with their dark gray plumage.

I had attached a suet cake to the tree next to the finch socks. A couple juncos attempted to stand atop the cage. It was impossible for them to reach the suet when they bent their necks. They also tried hovering in front of the cage for a few seconds. Their wings fluttered desperately, then they would to drop to the ground. The energy wasn’t worth it. Luckily, the nuthatches and red-bellied woodpeckers’ messy pecking often caused chucks to fly down. But the juncos couldn’t help but want attain the suet themselves.

When heavier snow fell, the juncos were one of the few species to visit. I had to go outside multiple times throughout the day to sprinkle handfuls of seeds on the railing. They couldn’t afford to search and only hope for food. I heard their twittering “kews” from the bushes around me. Once they heard the backdoor shut, they flew to the railing and perched like swallows on a wire. They looked like dark gray pom poms. They only moved to pick up seeds. They didn’t leave till darkness settled.