Friday, April 17, 2009

The Winter of the Siskins

Winter days are days for bird watching from the comfort of a warm recliner. We have well over a dozen feeders up each year; thistle, black oil sunflower seeds, mixed grain and suet cakes attract a regular contingent of at least eighteen species each winter day.
I think this winter will be remembered as the time of the Pine Siskins (Carduelis pinus ).Many winters it is Goldfinches that mob the thistle feeders and we have just a few Pine Siskins although now and then a larger flock may come for a few days. But this winter our thistle feeders are usually filled with siskins - joined by only the occasional determined American Goldfinch.
A large flock of the siskins- several hundred birds - arrived in late fall and have remained in varying numbers all winter long. I’ve read that the Pine Siskin's winter visits to the United States occur mainly in years when the seed crop has failed in the boreal forests. They are acrobats, often hanging upside down, like titmice and chickadees, plucking seeds from hanging seedpods and cones.
The birds are so hungry and eat so rapidly there is a constant shower of thistle hulls falling to the ground. I expect we are going to find the soil under the feeders makes some unusually nice compost for our garden in a year or so. We have begun to wonder whether or not we will need to cut back on our groceries so that we can continue to supply our voracious visitors with Nyjer Thistle. Our siskins are eating their way through about twenty-five pounds of seed a week! Just like oil sunflower, the high oil content of Nyjer makes it an energy packed food that is highly desirable for any bird adapted to eating small seeds. Since it is shipped across the ocean from Ethiopia and India and has to be heat sterilized to kill out any weed seeds, it is rather expensive bird food but there is nothing else available that is as attractive to Pine Siskins and Goldfinches.
I understand that Nyjer is a native of Ethiopia and apparently it is not a thistle at all but is in fact a relative of the beautiful cosmos that we enjoy as a garden flower here in the United States. Our other winter residents have had to push their way through the crowds of siskins to receive their usual rations. We have moved a number of black oil sunflower seed feeders away from the thistle feeders so the other birds can have a chance at the food.

Siskin calls are amazing when one hears a large flock just outside the window. They have a short sweet call followed by a loud sharp buzzing zrreeeeet.

I had expected the siskins to head north as soon as the ground thawed and we had a few sunny days — although a few have gone - today our oak and maple trees are covered with pine siskins sitting among the deep red maple blossoms. Cornell Lab indicates that following a large irruptive winter fligh some individuals may stay near a dependable food source and breed far south of the normal breeding range. So, if the seed holds out, our siskins may be here for a while.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Today is the Day

This is it!!!
This is the day that Spring arrived in our corner of the world.

How can I tell it was today, not yesterday or the day before?

How do I know it isn’t arriving tomorrow?

There are certain signs of spring that are unmistakable.From my loft window I can see the deep winey orange-red of the first blossoms on the maple trees. A brilliant contrast against the deep blue of the sky and the dark colors of the evergreen trees.

Flats of seeds are sprouting under the grow lights in the basement. Lettuce, basil, parsley, sage, thyme, marjoram, tomatoes, peppers, delphinium, foxgloves, marigolds, coreopsis. Chipmunks have come out of their warm dry nests and are filling their cheek pouches to the bursting point, racing back and forth up and down the hill - considering the way they rush one would think they were having to prepare dinner for unexpected horde of guests.

When I saw that the maple buds had opened, I knew it was time to wander to the back side of the hill and search the club mosses for the buds or blooms of the Trailing arbutus. At first glance all I could see were shiny dark green leaves. But this search demands close inspection - nearly impossible as one ages to get down on hands and knees to search - luckily that wasn’t necessary today. A bright ray of sunlight picked out the blush of pink under the dark leaves. Ah, it must be spring.
Robins are scratching through the tiny new shoots of grass, searching for the worms that are waking and stretching in the first warm days.
Crocus decorate the walkway with a purple edging along the stairs into the lower woods.
One of the things I like best about crocus is that most of the critters leave them alone so they are beginning to naturalize in the garden.
Sixty degrees, bright blue sky and puffy clouds sailing past on gentle breezes add to the sense that spring has arrived. But the ultimate sign of spring is that Phoebes are calling from a dead branch of a large White Pine and perching on the power line just outside my kitchen window.