Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Irruptive Grosbeaks or Crossbills?

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

I started the day at my office in Waterbury and by 9 headed out for a day of traveling. The temperature was in the thirties when I started and now, at almost 7:30 PM, it's still in that range. The entire day it felt like snow or freezing rain, that damp cold that kind of goes through you no matter what you're wearing. Every time I got out of the truck I was thinking I should have had my polar fleece vest to go with my light coat.

On the way home I stopped at the new property to check things out. With over an inch and a quarter of rain last night, I wanted to get an idea how the new gardens were draining even though in most places I knew they were frozen solid. There's a lot of water along Route 2 and it seems as if the roadbed forms a dam of sorts and the hydrological pressure from the mountain above forces water under the road in certain places. This is not my science but this is what I have observed in the year we have owned the land.

I slid on my muck boots and made a quick tour along the road and made some more mental notes. Good gardeners do this constantly. I could see boot tracks in the mud confirming that Gail had been here today. She said she wanted to update her inventory notes on the daylilies and write down the number of signs we'll need for next spring. Signs is a different subject but in today's world, marketing at all levels is important.

I headed for the mountain remembering that Gail would be gone, Karl the wonder dog would want a walk and the wood stove needed to be cleaned and started. As I pulled into the drive, the snow under a crab apple caught my attention. The ground was covered with small bits of crab apples which were less prevalent on the limbs than when I last noticed.

I collected the mail and as I started towards the house some robin sized birds flew into the tree. My mind was confused between identifying the birds, getting the camera and greeting Karl and his needs. First things first and although I thought the birds would fly away, they didn't. There were brightly colored males at first, three of them, and then a couple females and then a second small flock. Obviously they had been here earlier and something scared them away.

When I finally got the camera and got back outside I was surprised how tame these birds were. I identified them as Pine Grosbeaks at first glance but wanted to get a better look. My friend Eric, and international birder who really wants to be a full time Vermonter, suggested that crossbills might be passing through too and to pay attention.

Pine grosbeaks are one of several irruptive birds which do not winter here but pass through. Crossbills do the same and they enjoy some of the same foods but these were grosbeaks for sure. The males were especially colorful and the two white wing bars and beak made confirmation easy. They prefer conifer woods but the small fruits of crab apples like these Sargent crabs (malus 'sargentii') were like invitations to land and dine until finished.

As the birds about finished off every apple, the males began to drop to the snow covered ground for clean up duty. Later, and with more obvious caution, the females dropped down and surprisingly they came within 5 feet of me as they looked for choice apples that had fallen. Although Karl had already received one quick walk, he was more like Karl the irritation dog and he begged through the window to come out and chase the birds. It mattered not as the birds disappeared quickly when the last apple was eaten.

Good gardeners are often bird watchers. I recall that my Grandfather Ellingham, a retired constable on patrol from Rye, New York, used to love to come to Vermont and learn new birds. He was my teacher when I was very small and I have always appreciated what he taught me. As climates change, insect populations change and so do birds that prevail in the Green Mountains. When I was a kid if you saw a pileated woodpecker it was a strange sight that people talked about. Here on the mountain there's not a day that goes by that we don't see or hear one in the adjacent sugar maples. Birding is a good winter hobby and one you might consider. You may not see pine grosbeaks or pileated woodpeckers but I'll bet you see some birds that you find entertaining.

Writing from the mountain above Peacham Pond where Alex has helped bring in a large pile of fir balsam boughs for the 5 foot diameter wreath for the front of the house.

Late fall gardening wishes,

George Africa

No comments: