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Our Birds: Walking the dog …
This is a mundane story. It’s about waking, making coffee and watching the sun rise.
Then taking the pup for her walk back into the marshes. It’s about how she woofs when I pull on socks. How she gets herself ready by running around looking for the stick that she’s been carrying around every day now for a month. Then out the back door, across the yard through the gate and down the street on a run to the old 3 Crabs pastures now filled with marsh, standing water, cattails, snags, old fences. A place where she loses herself doing what lab pups do: play! I hinted that this story might be boring to you, but to me I guess it's not because it’s also about what I do every morning: bird. So I thought I’d just share.
Stepping off the porch, I heard juvy golden-crowned sparrows practicing courtship songs. A white-crowned sparrow flitted across the yard. Robins, up in the silver poplar, were morning gossiping. Meadowlark! I stopped halfway to the gate. Meadowlark? Looking up toward Coffee’s cedar trees. At the top, the starling was there doing his full spectrum of imitations: meadowlark yellowlegs, waxwing, gulls.
I opened the gate and the pup ran through, out across the field scattering the gulls who were holding their early morning Wisdom Council. They do that, you know.
Gather in flocks on grassy fields; gossiping, telling lies, embellishing their latest escape from an eagle, and other natterings. I cut through Coffee’s backyard, hoping to see Gale. She wasn’t there. Hasn’t been for a long time now. Gale? She’s a black-crowned night heron. Been coming to this backyard every fall for years; staying all winter. Walking out the driveway, the pup took off across the street giving chase to Duncan — Carrie’s yellow cat. Duncan’s OK. He tolerates the pup’s dogness.
Red-breasted sapsucker. Up there in the cedars. Most mornings he’s up there doing his thunk, chip, chip, thunk against a tree. A flibbish of housers went flying out of the hedge row. House sparrows. The bane of spring time nest boxes. A rufous-sided towhee was singing in the top of the alder at the end of the street. House finches were chattering. From over in the apple tree, “Hey hey sweetie! Sweetie!” black-capped chickadee. And there, on a limb above it, a chestnut-backed chickadee.
Working winter dried apples. If you’ve ever heard a red-tailed hawk’s scream, you never forget it. I turned looking back into the bit of orchard where that scream came from. They do that well! Stellar’s jays, that is. Imitating a RTH’s scream with such alacrity you wonder why, after all these years, you haven’t learned the difference yet.
I scanned the snags along the fence row. She was there; right where she’s been off and on all winter. Martha’s an anatum peregrine falcon. For four years now she’s spent her winter months in this area. There are several other peregrines I see off and on but she’s the one I easily recognize. Bright. Beautiful. Juncos flitted past. Little waifs wearing Darth Vader helmets. Mallards, pintails, shovelers, green-winged teal and a couple wigeon take off from the flooded pasture. Maybe 30 total.
When bushtits fly, they fly in small packs and twitter all the while they’re trying to keep themselves aloft. These fluff balls of gray can’t weigh more that what a penny weighs; if that. If you don’t laugh when you watch them and their antics, then — in my humble opinion — something’s missing in your birding deportment.
OK. Now I can claim red tail. Frankie and Johnnie have been paired for at least five years. They’ve been courting lately. Johnnie doing his high flying, wings folded, looping dives. Frankie sitting on a branch in one of the snags screaming her approval. He lands close, she moves closer, and they allopreen. Too early for mating, maybe. A great blue heron squawks as it laboriously lifts off from cattails. When they squall their calls, it’s easy to drop them right back into their evolutionary abode of dino-years. Trumpeter swans. I can hear them talking. Trumpeting sounds.
Even though I can’t see them back there in Les Jones’ marsh, I can see them in my mind’s eye. Bobbing their heads up and down; first one, then another, then all of them. Then a foot-slapping flurry across the water, wings pounding air. Nine! Then two more fly over. Heading for Nash’s carrots over on the Clapp Farm. I hear one of the red tails scream a different scream. Turning, I see it’s Frankie going after a beagle. Beagle?
OK, Bald eagle. Easier to say, beagle. It’s a young bird. Just moving into its third year.
I stand listening to a marsh wren. This one’s no more than 20 feet from me. It is full-bore into its song. A long blast of notes tucked in with a trill. Then a repeat. Same, but different. I’ve read that some males have sheet music to over 60 songs. A female flits from a cattail head carrying a mouth full of fluff. Nest building. They’ll do two or three nestings before tiring of the job. Red-winged blackbirds come over en masse when I make loud kissy sounds on the back of my hand. Maybe 80. Most of them are females. There’s a few Brewer’s blackbirds mixed in.
The pup runs back to where I’m standing, stops, drops her stick at my feet. I reach down, pick it up. “Sit!” She sits. “You ready?” She cocks her head to the side and I toss it into the creek. As I do, I look up and a grin envelopes my being. There high over the marshes: Swallows. I lift binocs, counting. Maybe a dozen. No, more. Many more. I turn looking north. They’re everywhere. Fifty. Eighty! Over a hundred. Violet greens. Trees. Swallows are nothing short of aerial mirth. A song sparrow sings Beethoven’s three beginning notes to his ninth cattails sneaking through the grass calls out "waffle, waffle, waffle."
I hear screaming back to the west. Martha is being mobbed by a merlin. They’re both screaming. The merlin comes in fast, turning and flaring. The peregrine jutes down, but I can see her mouth open as she screams back at the smaller falcon.
Then it’s over.
A bravados show of swagger? Who knows what causes these spontaneous cross-species brouhahas. I watch the merlin fly on toward the river. The pup comes running past, stops, turns, and sits. Scratches herself. I look at her, ’Jackie, take your stick home!’
She stands, picks up the stick, and takes off on a run down the street. As I walk past Jasper and Johnathan’s dwelling, I can hear collared-doves talking. Cooo cooo cooo cooo. A sound of courtship. A sound here in Dungeness that will permeate the village for the next four months. Have you ever noticed that you never see a young collared symphony? A Virginia rail back in the doves; just adults who’ve exploded as a mainstay in the past few years.
I watch as the pup runs across the pasture, into the yard, drop her stick, sits and waits. I hang my binoculars on the fence. Now, she gets to chase a tennis ball.
Reach Denny AFMJ Van Horn at firstname.lastname@example.org.