Bird brained stories!

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Doing the Mango

Is there a birder alive who does not love hummingbirds? Heck, even non-birders love them, just take a look at any mail order catalog and see how many items are hummingbird-themed. Living in the eastern half of the United States, I enjoy Ruby-Throated Hummingbirds. Period. There have been vagrants coming into the area, but time and distance never allowed me to "chase" them. I'm not a bird-chaser by nature, anyway. Ninety-nine percent of the birds on my not-big life list have been seen right in my own three county birding territory. I like it that way. I might not see a huge variety, but I get to know the birds of my neighborhood well, and can visit throughout the season and watch as they move through their annual cycle of nesting, raising young and migrating, if they are so inclined. I've been greatly influenced by a comment made by Kenn Kaufman in The Kingbird Highway. Near the end of his year of birding the country, he caught himself in a reflective moment, realizing that he was racing to count the birds without taking the time to get to know them. Still......

Reports started coming in from the Wisconsin Birding Network of an immature Green Breasted Mango, endemic to Costa Rica, that was visiting feeders in a yard in Beloit. Even better, the homeowners were very willing to allow birders to come visit. Driving three hours, burning fossil fuels....these fly in the face of my personal birding ethics.'s an exotic hummingbird! One that has only been recorded 15 times above the border, most of those along the Texas border.

I wrestled with my birding ethics and decided that I'd go. Part of Wisconsin birding history and all that. Problem was, it didn't seem like any day was opportune. The first weekend after the report, we'd already made plans to go north to help my husband's parents with some fall chores. Granted, we enjoyed breathtaking fall colors while hiking several of the falls in search of geocaches. Ravens and Pileated Woodpeckers were giving long open looks. We even had great looks at two different Timber Wolves; one even howled for us. It was grand indeed, but that was two days with no chance for a trip to Beloit.

Each school day offered some new challenge to a personal day as well. Faculty meeting. New preschool student starting. Sure, I could have taken a day, but there are work ethics, too. Finally, Friday seemed to be a day I could take off. Lots of my students were on field trips, anyway, no duty, no meetings....I was off! Not knowing for sure if it was still being seen, I planned out some geocaches to do on the way there and back. It was still burning fossil fuels, but the rationalization said that along with seeing this rarity, I was getting DeLorme pages for a geocaching challenge. Saving gas instead of burning it to meet the challenge. As I said, rationalization.

I arrived at the home and noted not too many vehicles along the road. Heading up behind the hostess's home, I saw a cluster of people facing an orchard behind the homes. Lifting my binoculars, even at a distance, I could see it...a huge hummingbird with a curved bill, perched high on an apple tree!

I spent the next two hours in the company of birders who'd come from Chicago and St. Paul. One of the Chicago birders had just purchased a very nice scope, and generously offered us its use to get even closer views. When I arrived, the Mango had apparently just finished bathing, as its feathers were very ruffled and it spent time preening. It put itself into positions worthy of a contortionist as it smoothed and rearranged its jewel-like feathers. Every so often, it would fly up, then alight. Each time, it kept its back to us, though a few times, it turned enough to allow a view of the cinnamon wash on the sides of its breast. For one brief moment, it gave a full frontal view, allowing a quick look at that center stripe with hints of blue. Always, we had excellent views of those deep purple tailfeeathers.

Over the next couple hours, it followed a pattern that became predictable. From the orchard, it would head to a basswood tree in the yard, picking insects from the treetop. It flew from there to the feeder, long enough for folks to snap a few photos, never perching as it fed. From there, it would head into a maple tree near the feeders, perch momentarily as if to allow its snack to settle, then zoom off to the orchard again. At one point, it zoomed right through our little group on its way to the orchard, a miniature B-52 buzzing the crowd!

As I chatted with the ladies from Chicago, one made the comment that she, too, did not know for sure if the Mango was still here before she left to travel. She had told herself that if she saw it, that would be grand, but if it had gone, that would also be grand. I had thought the same exact thing. When these gems wander so far afield of their habitat, the prognosis for them is grim. Although this little celebrity bird has brought joy to folks coming here from Alaska, Georgia, Arizona and West Virginia, that joy is overshadowed by the thought that if it can't find its way back to Central America soon, the story will have a sad ending.

Yes, I'm glad I had a chance to share that joy with birders from all over, but I still can't help but wonder----all these reports of birds showing up in places they shouldn't be; what does this signal for our fragile planet? When we're out in remote areas hiking, I often find our way back out by listening for the birds I heard on the way in. My husband thinks I'm whacked, but it works every time. If he were out there alone, I'd never see him again! Certain birds will be found in certain places and I've learned to know where those places will be. Let's hope that like my own navigation system, this little bird suddenly realizes that he's not hearing the right birds, and should be in a certain place, far from Wisconsin. Still, many of us are thrilled that he chose to follow an old state tourism slogan to "escape to Wisconsin."

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Visits of the season....

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Nuthatches have always struck me as one of the cutest birds out there. Truth be told, pretty much any perching bird qualifies as "cute" in my mind, but Nuthatches are just so darn jaunty and perky. Any bird that can charge down a treetrunk head first over and over again has to be a top contender in the "cute" contest. For the past few weeks, I've been enjoying a double dose of cuteness in my yard.

White Breasted Nuthatches live in my yard year round. They, like many other birds, make themselves scarce during the nesting season but return once the kids are grown up and moved out. A couple weeks ago, I was in the house when I heard a call from the pine grove that could have doubled for the Little Nash Rambler of song. Could it be?

Sure enough, the Red Breasted Nuthatches have been making themselves at home for the time being, doing battle with the bigger White Breasted for the seed feeders. Both seem to prefer the sunflower seeds, grabbing one, flying off and then stashing it elsewhere. While hanging clothes on the line today, they were constantly darting to the nearby tree, then to the feeder and off to another tree, repeating this sequence over and over. At one point, I saw two Red Breasteds, and for all I know, there's a gang of them back in those pines. However many there may be, I'm glad they've stopped and stayed for awhile, giving me the chance to enjoy their absolute cuteness, right down to their toy car horn call.

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