Last Tuesday was a photographer’s magical dream morning. After photographing and filming December’s “Long Night’s Moon” descending over the Gloucester city skyline, I turned toward the east to see a peaceful daybreak scene over Rocky Neck. Perhaps the sun hadn’t fully risen I thought and hurried to Brace Cove. The sun had rose behind Brace Rock with just enough clouds that it was still pretty, not blasted out by too much light.
I then walked along the edge of Niles Pond, meeting up with Mr. Swan who was occupied with his morning swim, which often indicates he is readying to take flight. He did, and with movie camera in hand, he circled the Pond before landing at Brace Cove, near the breakwater.
Eerily, the coyotes were howling in the distance, actually howling, like wolves, and for quite a long while. I often hear their meet-and-greet yipping and socializing barks that they make shortly after sunset, and too the terrible sound they make when killing a creature, but I have never heard them howling in the morning. I wonder if it had something to do with the full moon? Do our readers hear coyotes howling regularly?
Further along the Pond walk there was a large flock of American Robins and they, along with a lively group of Blue Jays, Tufted Titmice, Song Sparrows, White-throated Sparrows, and Cardinals were hungrily eating every berry in sight, so much so that when I returned to the same spot a few days later, there wasn’t a berry or fruit to be seen. A magical morning at a magical place we’re fortunate to call home.
Outside my office window is a pair of stately hollies, our “Dragon Ladies;” aptly named for their prickly foliage, and adjacent to the hollies is a sweet scented flowering crabapple. The autumn fruits of this particular crabapple are chunkier than most and, I simply assumed, must bear the worst tasting crabapples imaginable because year in and year out, the fruit is never, ever eaten by the birds. When flocks of robins arrive in our garden in late January, the winterberry and hollies are stripped bare of their fruits in a day, or two, at the most, after which the robins head to our neighbor’s sumac and then further down Plum Street to our other neighbor’s smaller and much better tasting crabapples.
Not this year! A pair of robins is setting up house along the garden path and they vigorously defend the crabapples from other robins. In late winter, robins typically switch over to worms, but with the ground still frozen solid, they are continuing to look for tree fruits. Unfortunately, much of it has been consumed.
Repeatedly, I noticed that our robin couple was struggling to eat the crabapples. They would snip off a stem and then drop it onto the brick path below and peck and peck and peck. A robin’s bill did not evolve to crack open grains and as it seems in this case, nor for penetrating our unusually hard crabapples. A great deal of energy was being spent to get a morsel of food, which is never a good thing because it can leave a creature weakened and at risk of freezing to death.
Robin on the wing
I picked a few berries and made a crabapple mash, placed it under the tree and, within hours, all the fruits were devoured! Now when feeding the pets and filling the bird feeders each morning I pluck a small handful of crabapples, mash, and place in the pie tin below the tree. I’ve experimented with adding blueberries and raspberries to the dish, but they prefer the crabapples.
If we move very slowly when walking down the path, they now allow us to come quite close—and what a treat to observe from this distance—beautiful, beautiful robins!
Do you think we will be rewarded with a nearby nest? I hope so!
The male Eastern Bluebird shows a brilliant indigo blue on the head and back, with a rusty reddish brown breast. The female is more softly colored overall, with elegant gray wings, tinged in shades of blue, and paler breast. Joe Ciaramitaro photo
Eastern Bluebird (Sialia sialis)
Several days ago my friend Joe from Good Morning Gloucester blog captured (with camera) a pair of Eastern Bluebirds. Everyone who responded in the comment section spoke so fondly of this beautiful bird that I thought we’d all enjoy knowing a bit more about its current status in Massachusetts. And too, sightings at this time of year give reason to share a favorite Emily Dickinson poem—“Before you thought of spring, except as a surmise…”
Before you thought of spring,
Except as a surmise,
You see, God bless his suddenness,
A fellow in the skies
Of independent hues,
A little weather-worn,
Of indigo and brown.
With specimens of song,
As if for you to choose,
Discretion in the interval,
With gay delays he goes
To some superior tree
Without a single leaf,
And shouts for joy to nobody
But his seraphic self!
Bluebirds do indeed appear to sing with great joy from the treetops, and reading this poem always makes me smile, thinking about “a fellow in the skies” singing to nobody but his rapt self. As is so typical of her work, Emily Dickinson’s poem is an astute and honest observation of the natural world, but I also interpret her poem to mean that joy is an emotion that doesn’t need an audience; that it can be expressed for the sake of joy itself.
Eastern Bluebirds sing several types of songs; one is a liquid birdsong—sort of a turee song—and another is a soft melodious warble. When trying to attract a mate, unpaired males typically sing from a high perch, and sometimes even in flight. Both male and female sing in all seasons to keep in touch with each other and to signal to nestlings that food is on its way. Bluebirds are in the Thrush Family, as are American Robins, and Robins too sing a lovely liquid birdsong.
From the Mass Audubon State of Birds:
“The very widespread breeding distribution seen in the Eastern Bluebird in Massachusetts today is, in large part, the result of considerable support received by concerned citizens who, for more than half a century, erected large numbers of nest boxes across the state and helped save the species from near-extirpation.”
What does “extirpation” mean? Not that a species has become extinct from our planet, but that it is no longer found in a particular area. We are very fortunate that the Eastern Bluebird did not become extirpated from our region. Bluebirds are cavity nesters and use suitable bird boxes, tree cavities, and old woodpecker holes in trees and fence posts to build their nests. During the era when settlers cleared forests and planted fields and orchards, the Eastern Bluebird became quite common. In the 20th century their population decreased by nearly 90 percent for several reasons, two of which are because vast areas of New England have reverted to forest, and because the bluebird is competing for nesting sites with the alien European House Sparrow and European Starling. The return of the Eastern Bluebird during the spring and summer breeding period is due in large measure to citizens throughout the state building and placing nest boxes along “bluebird trails.”
Eastern Bluebird and Winterberry
If you are fortunate enough to have bluebirds visiting your backyard, you may want to provide them with supplemental food. Bluebirds are primarily insectivores. They do not visit bird feeders because their bills are not designed for cracking open seed and nut shells (but they will eat hulled sunflower seeds). They eat berries at this time of year because there aren’t any insects. The winterberries won’t last long on the bush with flocks of hungry birds descending to your garden. Mealworms (which aren’t really worms at all, but are the larval form of the darling beetle) are the most nutritious supplement you can provide bluebirds. For more information on feeding mealworms to bluebirds go to this fact sheet: North American Bluebird Society’s Mealworms Fact Sheet.
For a wonderful FREE downloadable 15 page education packet designed for grades 1-5, with coloring pages and puzzles follow this link: Education Packet
For more information on how to build, and where to site, bluebird nest boxes, along with plan drawings, follow this link: Getting Started with Bluebirds
To read more about the devastating effects of European House Sparrows and European Starlings follow this link: House Sparrow Control.
Just this past week, 15 Eastern Bluebirds were spotted at Allens Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Westport, Massachusetts. See Bluebird Nestbox Walk at Allens Neck post for information about an upcoming.
What’s that you say? A flock of robins, in winter?
Yes, yes! Sweetly singing liquid notes. A flock in my garden!
What does a hungry round robin find to eat in a winter garden?
Red, red winterberries and holly, rime-sweetend crabapples, and orchard fruits.
And how does a winter robin keep warm?
Why, blanketed together with air-puffed fluffed feathers.
How long will they stay, how long can they last in the frost?
Only as there are fruits on the bough and berries on the bush.
Round robin red breast, silhouette in bare limb,
Calling away winter, cheer, cheerio, and cheer-up!
Each year we are visited by a breathtakingly beautiful migrant flock of American Robins. This year they arrived on leap day, many weeks later than is typical. There wasn’t much to eat as the Mocking Birds and Catbirds have eaten nearly all the berries on the Dragon Lady hollies. Fortunately, the winterberry had held its fruit. Unfortunately, the aggressive and pesky European Starlings were competing for what little fruit remained.
The widely distributed and beloved American Robin (Turdus migratorius) hardly needs an introduction. The American Robin is the largest member of the thrush family—thrushes are known for their liquid birdsongs and the robin is no exception. Their unmistakable presence is made known when, by early spring, the flocks have dispersed and we see individual robins strutting about the landscape with fat worms dangling. Unmistakable, too, is the male’s beautiful birdsongs, signaling to competing males to establish their territory, as well as to entice prospective females.Read more about the American Robin including suggestions of native plants that provide nourishment for resident and nomad.