Thursday, December 31, 2009

What a bird party!

Our backyard has been very busy since it snowed on Sunday. I'm reminded of one of my favorite children's books, Go Dog Go. Paraphrased for the occasion: "Juncos, mourning doves, chickadees, titmice, nuthatches, sparrows, blue jays, woodpeckers, cardinals, house finches, wrens and goldfinches are all at a bird party. What a bird party!"

Above: L-R House finch, female cardinal, white-crowned sparrow

As the hostess of this bird party, I've taken care to make sure the refreshments are plentiful: white (or yellow) millet on the ground and the table for the juncos, finches and mourning doves; sunflower seed everywhere for everyone, thistle for the goldfinches. And don't forget the peanuts for the jays, cardinals, titmice, chickadees, nuthatches -- and for a couple of "bird impersonators" with bushy tails. We have suet for the woodpeckers, and they also like the peanut feeder.

Above: Tufted titmouse

I'm off work this week, and I've spent a lot of time standing at the kitchen window, or hanging out of it with the camera, enjoying the party from a distance. Sometimes the birds jostle each other for position, but everybody gets fed eventually. We have a little dish (actually a flower pot saucer) hanging under the eaves. When little birds get bumped aside by the big birds, they often take refuge at the tiny dish, where they can eat in peace.

It's been a fun party, even though I have to enjoy it from a distance for fear of frightening my guests!

"What a hat! I like it! I like that party hat!"

Monday, December 28, 2009

Midnight visitor

The canoe has been hung in the garage for the winter, snow is on the ground, and I'm thinking back to the warmer days of fall, when we had a mysterious visitor every night. Each morning we would find the birds' table feeder overturned, and sometimes see little footprints in the mud, if it had rained. We suspected raccoons, until one night, while letting our dog Ari back in after an "out," my mate4life spotted the culprint: a skunk.

At first we were alarmed: what if he sprayed our dog? But after awhile it became clear that Ari, who is elderly and has cataracts, was mostly unaware of the skunk, or at least uninterested. The skunk and Ari came face to face once or twice and neither seemed fazed by the encounter. We became somewhat attached to the skunk and Dan named him Flower, after the skunk in Bambi. We didn't worry about the raids on the birdseed.

But I was not satisfied. I wanted a picture. I waited for my chance, and one night, went out into the yard, walked right up to him and took his picture -- with a flash. I turned around -- and discovered my brave husband and son cowering behind the kitchen door! "I can't believe you did that!" was the reaction I got.

But you know, I was never really worried about being sprayed. Skunks don't spray if they can avoid it, and they give plenty of warning ahead of time, allowing the intruder time to back off. When they are preparing to spray, they raise their tail stiffly, arch their backs, and stomp their front feet. Flower's tail was down and he was very busy eating sunflower seeds, so I knew that I was not alarming him.

Flower has a very wide white stripe, but is not an albino. The width of the white stripe can vary quite a bit. Skunks are carriers of rabies, and so actual contact with them is not advisable. But they have a short, often brutal life. Few of them live beyond the age of 3, and humans (cars, guns, poison) cause about half of all skunk deaths.

We haven't seen Flower in awhile. Skunks are not true hibernators, but do go into a more or less dormant state, or state of torpor, during cold weather. They bundle up together inside a den, rarely eating in the winter.We hope he (or she) is bedded down safely somewhere, and will come back to visit us in the spring. In the meantime, I am thinking of Robert Lowell's "Skunk Hour."

"I stand on top
of our back steps and breathe the rich air--
a mother skunk with her column of kittens swills the garbage pail.
She jabs her wedge-head in a cup
of sour cream, drops her ostrich tail,
and will not scare."