CALIFORNIA'S PREMIER BIRD SITE!
It's snowing right now. It's snowed nearly every day for the past week. Never very much, and the snow never lasts through a full day. But the cold and the snow keep coming in from the east, swirling down off the North Sea. On Saturday there was a mild respite before the cold and clouds returned. The spring-hungry birds took full advantage.
The male Great Spotted Woodpecker began his day in our back garden pounding away on the barren limbs of our neighbor's tall plane tree. He found a wonderful concave elbow in one of the top branches, a natural bongo. His rapid paradiddle of eight to ten quick beats alerted any nearby woodpeckers that this was his tree and his property. The other birds in the tree seemed unconcerned with his racket, like city folks ignoring the construction site jack-hammer.
Atop the tree was a Carrion Crow, watching over the territory. Occasionally the Crow would lean forward, puff out his neck feathers, and let loose a short series of caws.
Then a second Crow joins the first, sitting close by in the frigid dawn air. Their black feathers making them look like a hole in the blue sky scrim that hangs behind them. The tree limbs are only a slightly lighter shade of black. Van Gogh claims Rembrandt had fifty shades of black on his palette when he painted. Here in my backyard nature can match that. There's no direct sunlight, just brightness leaking through clouds and icy mist in the east, where the next snow will come from. The limbs get darker as your eye follows the trunk toward the base. Black, blacker, blackest.
A Magpie shoots across the open space and lands in a spruce, half as tall as the plane tree. His black is another sort, purples and greens glisten in the dark of the Magpie's back. He gives a rattle call then shoots off down the block of gardens, returning less than two minutes later.
A pair of Starlings fly into the plain tree. Theirs is a black tinted with an oily green, speckled with bits of pale paint from nature's infinite palette. One wolf whistle and the Starlings are gone.
A Robin, then a busy little Blue Tit fly to our seed feeder. The Blue Tit barely lands, but each time he grabs a seed, then flies off to a dense bush covered with heavy green leaves to eat his little meal. His bright blue back reminds you of what the sky would look like if there was any direct sunshine.
A male Blackbird lands beneath the feeder, too heavy for the tiny perch next to the seed hole. His yellow beak sets off the lamp-black coloring of his plumage. Then a female Blackbird lands on the lawn of baby-tears near the male. She's a smoky brown with bits of coal dust on her chest. Her coloring seems a throwback to the industrial London of Dickens' time.
A solitary Great Tit appears in the next garden over, in a slender bare tree. He doesn't seem interested in our feeder. For a few seconds he perches curiously watching the Blackbirds on the ground. Nothing of interest to the tit, but his lemony belly shows off the high-gloss black of his keel stripe and pure midnight black of his face and head with its little triangle of snow.
Wood Pigeons hang about, fluttering between perches. They will occasionally land in our tiny garden, looking out-sized and having only just enough space for their take-off and landing. Today they seem well-fed, just hanging out, thinking whatever thoughts can be mustered in the pigeon's mind. Their gray is varied, flat, shading darkest at the base of the tail but never making it to black.
In the spruce I notice movement. It's too acrobatic, too fluttery for the Blue Tit. Finally through my binoculars I get enough of a view to confirm it's a Goldcrest, the northern most kinglet in Europe. They are partial to evergreens and the bugs they find there. A Winter Wren zips silently between two bushes although I hear them signing even on the coldest, snowy mornings at Nunhead Station.
A half-dozen Greenfinches land in the plane tree. There are a few of their buzzy calls. They scatter downward into nearby bushes, then back up into the plane tree, then down again and finally they head off to the east in a chaotic little knot. The males are a vivid grass green with a yellow band on the outside of the folded wing. The female a more easily camouflaged gray-green. They do sometimes come to the feeder and then each one will sit and gorge, with none of the caution shown by the Robin or the tits. The two crows go through some head bowing and a few more caws, then they fly off as well. As we leave the window, the Blackbirds and Blue Tit are still busy. The Wood Pigeon are still cogitating.
Up to Telegraph Hill I go with Bridget the Dog. A pair of Jays are mud-wrestling. Really attacking one another with short flights and feet extended. Then a Crow swoops down and drives them off, each Jay screaming its scold call that reminds me of the Steller's or American Blue Jay. I notice a Gray Heron landing in the schoolyard behind Waller School. There's no water there, in fact there's no open ground that I know of, just pavement. Perhaps there's a garbage pile? Rats?
Far off I hear a Song Thrush warming to his morning song. Later I will see his cousin Redwing and then a Mistle Thrush, but both will remain silent and try to hide in the bare branches. More Greenfinches. A Chaffinch. Then a Chaffinch song, like House Finch with that raspy slur at the end of a monotone trill. The first Winter Wren song of the season in the upper park. And the House Sparrows seem most elated with a mild morning. The flock is nearly invisible in the dense pyracantha and ivy tangle but they are loudly fussing, or gossiping or whatever sparrows do when they seem unable to shut up. All the usual suspects are about: Robin, Blackbird, Magpie, Wood Pigeon, Black-headed and Lesser Black-backed Gulls overhead, a couple Starlings.
Far off to the west I can see a sunlit Battersea Power Station with its circular smokestacks unused for the past decade. There is apparently a Peregrine's nest on one of them. In the open sky in front of this image there moves a familiar but unexpected shape. It's a Sparrowhawk, about the size of a Cooper's, heading toward Lone Tree Hill. Even the Crows ignore his passing as they walk about the park lawn looking for remainders from last night's doings.
The week has been real winter. Not the snow drifts of winters long past, but real cold and some occasional heavy snow flurries. None of them lasted long and there was never any accumulation on the ground, no drifts. On some cold mornings cars are frosted like sugar donuts, cold metal bridge rails are topped with down from imaginary swans, shallow puddles are frozen black ice. Many trees and bushes are coated with the white icing on their eastern sides. The cottony flakes make thin layers wherever the surface is cold, even on some insulated roofs. I scoop some up and test its pack ability - fine for snow balls, damp enough to stick, light enough to shatter on impact. These are not the snows of yesteryear. Not the whining windy blizzards of Minnesota where your nose freezes shut and the cold snow squeaks beneath your shoes and turns to ice after two days of being walked on. This is altogether softer, weaker stuff. Yet the weather is still daunting to most birds. On London's snowy mornings only Crows are visible, patrolling the neighborhood. The other bird sound comes from the Robins and Winter Wrens, hidden deep within the shrubbery. The Robin sound like tinkling glass bells and cold metal piano strings being hit with a piece of ice.
Only when I finally get to the Thames do I see other birds: gulls, cormorant, feral pigeons. And on this miserably cold, if windless, Monday morning I trudge off to Nunhead Station, and for the first time this year there's daylight before my 630 AM train arrives. Two Song Thrush, a dozen Robins, Crows galore, a Magpie up unusually early, Wood Pigeons cooing, three male Wrens competing along the station platform. Dozens of Wood Pigeons rise from their night roost in Nunhead Cemetery and fly north toward the Thames.
Then I notice whispery series of rapid notes from the far end of the platform. As I walk that direction I see a small dark slender bird move un into a short bare tree, the softly curved form of the bird and its thin, sharp beak backed by the morning's lightening sky. It's the silhouette of the singer, a male Dunnock. I don't care how cold it is, how much ice on the puddles, this guy only sings in the spring.
TOWHEE.NET: Harry Fuller, 243 Granite Street, Ashland, Oregon 97520