Lance Foster (hengruh) wrote,
Lance Foster

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Tracks and Birds

Moon waxing crescent, 23% full
33 degrees F
Feels like 24 F
Dew Point 19 F
Rel. Humidity 55%
Wind W 12 MPH
About 6 inches of snow on the ground from last weekend mostly.

So we did have a significant snow, about half a foot or more, and things were slippery and quiet last weekend.

As far as my naturalist studies are going, I have been focusing on tracks and birds

The new snow helped me see the deer that travel regularly through the lilac hedge, one deer walking calmly as the tracks show. Another deer, perhaps the same one on a different day, came from the direction of the alley, the tracks showing alarm in its bounding gate, but no tracks of pursuit. The deer comes through in one direction every night and does not return the same way. It is not a big deer, but it is alone.

There was also a set of tracks not interacting with the deer, but a dog scouting the lilac hedge, then a quick turn, by the sidewalk, perhaps walking with a human master. The rest of the snow in the yard was unmarked, except where clumps were blown off branches and the roof.

Of course tracks are only one kind of sign, others being things like droppings, grazed and bent plants, and so on.

In learning about birds, some focus on acquiring lists of species, but I am more interested in the common birds I see every day and how they live and what they can tell me about this place.

The most commonly seen birds in the yard are the English/house sparrows that live in the eaves of the house year round, and flit between there and the lilac hedge. Although because it has been so cold, they have mostly been hiding in the eaves under the overhang of snow. Throughout town, one sees magpies, crows, and pigeons, and not much else this winter so far. I did see a large bird soaring way up high yesterday, which could have been an eagle by the size and the shape of its wings.

Sometimes during winter in nearby neighborhoods closer to the hills one can see dark-eyed juncos or chickadees. Of course I already told you about the flock of waxwings that have been eating the juniper berries around lunchtime. One winter a couple of years ago, on a utility pole in the alley, I saw a hawk plucking its avian prey. During the spring, the robins return and the house finches can be heard. Up Dry Gulch, near the mountains, I have seen goldfinch, bluebirds, a nuthatch, and one of the small woodpeckers. But I am not interested in building a list really.

I am more interested in learning about bird language.

But you don't have to learn every bird in the field guide. I was overwhelmed for years just doing the best I could, which wasn't that good. If you are learning about the place where you live and how bird language, like tracks, can tell you about what's going on, you can start with just a few common birds.

Here's a passage from the Kamana folks free email course on bird language:

"People always ask me how on earth they are going to learn all the hundreds of birds in their area. Guess what? You don't have to! Not all bird species are the same when it comes to bird language. So here's a head start on the helpful birds to know. If you don't have these in your area, think of some birds that live in thickets, or nest or feed on the ground. ...Ready?

=American Robin (Turdus migratorius)
=Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia)
=Dark-eyed Junco (Junco hyemalis)
=A local wren (Bewick's, winter, Pacific, house...
check your backyard and field guide for your local
wren flavor)
=A local towhee (towhees are a kind of ground-dwelling

A look through any North American field guide is bound to turn up most of these species in your

What do they all have in common? They feed on the ground, they are vocal, and they are all passerines
(aka "perching birds"). Owls or ducks or gulls don't meet these guidelines, even though they can be helpful to you as well. But these five species tend to talk about what's happening on human/ground level, while a chickadee or warbler in a treetop might not care if a coyote or weasel is going past.

I'm guessing that you are interested in what's happening on the ground, so these are the birds who will tell you about it. ...Now your quest is to find one of these five birds in your neighborhood."

I know there are black-eyed juncos around here, but I don't see them very often, except down by the library. Robins aren't around this time of year, nor are wrens (we have house wrens in the neighborhood during the summer though). I am not sure I know what a towhee looks or sounds like, but I haven't noticed any other little birds around here. Except for the little house sparrows. No song sparrows to be seen. So for this winter, it's going to be learning about the house sparrowsof this old house and its lilac hedge.

These are the five basic categories of bird language:

1. Song. Actually territorial vocal performances to attract mates and keep out competitors.

2. Companion calling. The chitter chatter of two mated birds or a flock going about its business and keeping in touch. "Are you all right over there?" "Doing ok, finding some good seeds and bugs, how about you?" "Oh fine, just fine." Goose music as they travel in the night sky.

3. Juvenile begging. Rugrats and teens bugging mom and dad for food.

4. Male to male aggression. If the songs don't work to establish your turf, it's down to actual fighting.

5. Alarm. Something bad is in the neighborhood, whether it's a hawk, an owl, a cat, a dog, a human...
Tags: birds, helena, natural history, naturalist, tracking, weather, winter

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