Coyote Mercury

words, birds and whatever else by James Brush

Tag: backyard wildlife (page 1 of 6)

The wildlife that visits my backyard in Austin, TX.


silent nestbox
one chickadee didn’t fledge
I bury him in his nest

Mourning Doves Move In

Mourning Dove

Last night I noticed a mourning dove sitting in one of the planters hanging from the back porch. I could just see her head poking above the woven fabric of the basket, which has been empty since last summer’s drought killed the plants that were there. Now it’s just a small shelf of dirt and, it seems, a nice place for a dove to roost.

This morning, the dove was gone but I wanted to see if there was any kind of nest in it and so I got up on tiptoes, looked in and was surprised to see a single white egg. By the time I left for work, she was back, hunkered low, feathers fluffed against the early chill.

According to Birds of Texas, mourning doves lay two eggs that incubate for 12-14 days. The fledglings leave the nest 12-14 days after that. Assuming of course they make it. Since I haven’t been putting out seed, the squirrels, blue jays and grackles aren’t coming around as much so hopefully this dove will have a chance.

As soon as I saw the egg, I found myself thinking about how to protect it from nest predators, but then I remembered that dove knows what she’s doing better than I do. Still, I really hope we get to see some young doves fledge into the world rather than the redder side of nature.

When I got home, there was a second egg, and I got the above picture (click to see higher-res) of the male. I was amazed by his coloring (the blue patch on his crown marks him as the male). I had no idea they were so colorful. I’ve seen so many mourning doves that I guess over the years I’ve stopped really seeing them. Usually they’re farther away too and so while I’ve watched them, I realize that this is the first time I’ve gotten a really good look at one. Stunning. Once again, I’m reminded that the most astonishing things in the world are often the things we see every day and thus stop noticing.

“You just have to pay attention,” my wife says as she’s watching me type this.

The Backyard in Spring

Common grackle

The grackles returned as is their wont around the first of the month. They spread out this time of year thus I only have five or six come around so the mockingbirds and blue jays still get their shot at the suet feeders.

I haven’t been filling the platform feeder as regularly as in the past. Too many mammals coming around and with a little boy, I’m inclined to keep it that way for a while. So it’s just suet and finch feeders for the most part, which the mammals don’t go for. And, with fewer doves hogging the yard, I’m seeing more mockingbirds and cardinals come around.

There’s also a nest in the nest box by the porch. I saw a chickadee hanging around the other morning and the nest doesn’t look like a wren’s nest, which is what I usually find in the nest box, so I’m hoping we’ll see some chickadees unless I scared them away when I opened the box to check it unaware that there would actually be anything in it (it hasn’t been used since 2009).

I didn’t do Project FeederWatch this year, but the usual winter suspects came around: ruby-crowned kinglet, yellow-rumped warbler, chipping sparrow and orange-crowned warbler. No American goldfinches this year, but the lesser goldfinches are here as always.

So spring is springing and the birds are coming around singing and each day there seems to be something new to show my son as we stand out on the porch listening to birds, though his favorite activities are waving at the dogs and laughing at the wind chimes. Through him, I’m seeing new wonders everywhere. The world is chock full of them.

High Above the Heads of Greyhounds

Easter Morning

this backyard wildlife…
a congregation awake
discovering spring

a new mourning dove
on the fence by the feeder
studies the others

young squirrels—
so much thinner
than the adults

a new family
house sparrows chirping
the busy backyard

six house finches
learning the hummingbird feeder
sun-sparks in water

fledgling goldfinches
flap inexperienced wings
on Easter morning

This weekend, we were treated to families of lesser goldfinches, house finches, house sparrows, mourning doves and fox squirrels coming around the backyard so the adults could show their young where to find the food. The juveniles were clearly just out of their respective nests as they were following the adults around flapping their wings and chirping to be fed. It’s never long before the babies figure out how to find food on their own at which point they will be indistinguishable from the adults.

I’ve seen this in the backyard with black-crested titmice, common grackles, mockingbirds, cardinals, Carolina chickadees, and Bewick’s wrens, and it’s one of the joys of feeding birds (and squirrels) but I’ve never seen so many at once.  It was, quite simply, stunning and humbling. Songbirds don’t live long and most don’t even make it through their first year, but I like to think that at least some of these birds will be out there for a while, maybe waiting for me to count them one day down along the pond trail.

Publication announcement: My haibun “The Grackle Tree” from my Birds Nobody Loves series is in the latest issue of the ‘zine Nothing. No One. Nowhere. Thanks to the editors for publishing it along with so many other wonderful poets. It’s an honor to be included.

An Unusual Suspect

Yellow-rumped warbler

A month ago, I wrote that all of the usual suspects had made appearances in my 2010-2011 Project FeederWatch counts except the northern cardinal. Within days of that post, the cardinals seem to have remembered the fine seed in my yard and started coming back, thus all of the usual winter visitors have now made at least one appearance in my yard this season.

About two weeks ago, I started catching glimpses of something that wasn’t one of the regulars. I would see out-of-focus of underwing stripes on a bird among the chipping sparrows or a quick flash of yellow (and not enough for a lesser goldfinch) in a tree. I couldn’t make a positive ID, but I saw enough for me to think yellow-rumped warbler. I kept looking and getting short flashes that reinforced my hunch. Then one day, I guess he just decided not to hide and for the past two weeks this warbler has joined the backyard crew.

It’s not really surprising that there should be a yellow-rumped warbler visiting the yard. They’re quite common around the pond down the street this time of year, but I’ve never seen one in my yard until two weeks ago. Now, I get to watch him more closely and regularly than I do when they’re high in the trees around the pond. It’ll be interesting to see, too, when he leaves. One of the things I love about doing Project FeederWatch is the way it tunes me into migration by making it quite clear when different species come and go. For instance, according to my records, I’m unlikely to see much of the ruby-crowned kinglet after this week, and I’m very curious to see if he follows the same schedule he has the past few years.

Here’s what I’ve recorded so far this season. The numbers in parentheses are the highest numbers of the species seen at one time:

  1. White-winged dove (24)
  2. Mourning dove (1)
  3. Blue jay (3)
  4. Carolina chickadee (2)
  5. Black-crested titmouse (3)
  6. Carolina wren (2)
  7. Bewick’s wren (1)
  8. Ruby-crowned kinglet (2)
  9. Northern mockingbird (1)
  10. Orange-crowned warbler (1)
  11. Yellow-rumped warbler (1)
  12. Chipping sparrow (23)
  13. Northern cardinal (3)
  14. House finch (2)
  15. Lesser goldfinch (3)
  16. American goldfinch (2)
  17. House sparrow (12)

The Usual Suspects

Lesser goldfinch

Most all of the usual suspects have checked in for this year’s Project FeederWatch. The orange-crowned warbler and ruby-crowned kinglet came back to the suet feeders last weekend, and the goldfinches finally returned as well.

The lesser goldfinches are year-round residents, but they typically leave the feeders in October and return late in November or early December. This year it was late December before one came around. Especially exciting, though, was the fact that a few American goldfinches also came by. I saw them regularly during the 2008-2009 Feederwatch season, but last year I only saw one, and he came very late in the season. Hopefully, the ones I saw will tell their friends, and I’ll see them fairly regularly over the next few months.

The only species I haven’t seen yet are Bewick’s wren and northern cardinal. The Bewick’s wren is around. I see them several times a week, but I have yet to see one on Saturday or Sunday, which are my official count days. Perhaps they like to take the weekends off. I know I do. As for the cardinals, I’m not surprised that I haven’t seen any since summer. Some winters they’re around the feeders, and some winters they aren’t. If I don’t see any, I’m sure they’ll show up come spring. Down here, that means next month.

Here’s what I’ve counted. The numbers in parentheses are the highest single count for that species:

  1. White-winged Dove (24)
  2. Mourning Dove (1)
  3. Blue Jay (3)
  4. Carolina Chickadee (1)
  5. Black-crested Titmouse (3)
  6. Carolina Wren (2)
  7. Ruby-crowned Kinglet (1)
  8. Northern Mockingbird (1)
  9. Orange-crowned Warbler (1)
  10. Chipping Sparrow (23)
  11. House Finch (1)
  12. Lesser Goldfinch (1)
  13. American Goldfinch (2)
  14. House Sparrow (12)

I don’t think it’s too late to get involved with Project FeederWatch, which is good because citizen science projects rock.

Return of the Chipping Sparrows

The return of the chipping sparrows is the first real sign that autumn is coming to central Texas. We know it’s here, has been for a month, and the occasional flirtatious cold front suggests that winter might make an appearance, but the chipping sparrows come about the time the leaves begin to fall from the cedar elm out back.

They’ll be regulars at the feeder the next few months, poking for the small seeds the white-winged doves and house sparrows aren’t interested in. They’re less skittish than those two year-round species as well. When I open the back door, the house sparrows and doves fly off immediately, but the chippers stay put as if to say, “Dude, what’s the deal? That’s the ape that brings the food.”

Through the winter I’ll usually see a dozen or so in the mornings and evenings, but come late March just before they fly north, I’ll see massive flocks in the backyard. Seventy or more birds poking around in the grass and to a colorblind guy like me who has trouble seeing brown birds in green grass, it seems the very lawn is writhing and wiggling awake after the winter. Then, one day, they will be gone and summer will be just around the corner.

I started my Project FeederWatch counts last weekend. Here’s who showed up for the first count. Mostly, the usual suspects:

  1. Chipping Sparrow: 4
  2. Black-crested Titmouse: 3
  3. Carolina Wren: 1
  4. Carolina Chickadee: 1
  5. House Sparrow: 8
  6. Blue Jay: 2
  7. White-winged Dove: 17

The only no-show was the Bewick’s wren, which I see pretty regularly, though I didn’t see one on my official count day.


Lesser Goldfinch

The lesser goldfinches haven’t been coming around the feeders the past few days. Unlike their American cousins, they’re permanent residents here and gold year round, but this time of year they abandon the feeders. I suppose it’s because the weeds are all going to seed and that wild food must taste pretty good to them. Better than what’s in my feeder anyway.

The goldfinch feeders are up on the porch so it seems especially quiet without them. That’s funny since they’re not noisy birds, but I get so used to them most of the year that when I come out on the porch now it seems odd—like a town that’s too quiet in a horror movie—when they don’t all flutter off at the site of the dogs and me coming through the back door. I miss that confusion of black and yellow that blows outward like a visible gust of wind toward the neighbor’s trees.

They’ll be back in a few weeks, though, but there will be fewer than there were last summer when they came with all their young in tow, and they’ll soon be joined by overwintering American goldfinches, though their gold will have fallen out allowing them to migrate incognito, disguised as plain drab birds, their gold just a memory, a vague dream of summer.

Mowing the Lawn

I’m one of the few people in my neighborhood who mows his own lawn. Most people seem to use lawn services or teenagers but a few of us do it ourselves.

No one else uses an unpowered mower, though, and sometimes people look at me like I must be nuts, but it doesn’t take me much longer or really any more effort to mow with such a contraption, but it does require a certain amount of presence since I can’t just roll over whatever’s in front of me. I have to pay attention to rocks and sticks and piles of dog doo.

It’s that paying attention that keeps me doing it myself. I’ve come to know our little suburban yard quite well over the years. I wonder sometimes what kind of a connection, if any, those who don’t mow their yards actually have with the flora and fauna all around. Granted my yard is not a wild place, though there is wildlife—and not just the birds that come to the feeders.

The live oaks and cedar elms are the highways of the non-winged and so they make for good observing. I see ants trailing in the bark’s grooves and places where squirrels or possibly late night rats have gnawed the wood. Sometimes there are faces in the knots of the trees depending on how the light cuts and moves across the yard. Usually there are birds in the branches: chickadees, doves, titmice.

I really appreciate those trees on our blazing summer mowing days for the shade they provide as well as how they ensure fluidity: I have to adjust my path as I approach the them, thus creating places where I miss a spot or two, where my lines are gently forced to curves. These adjustments that lead to minor imperfections really appeal to me. I love those rebellious clumps of grass for refusing to be mowed.

Getting away from the trees (but not too far—it’s a small yard) it’s not uncommon to catch sight of black-chinned hummingbirds hovering among the tiny red flowers in the tangled and overgrown flame acanthus, a plant unsure if it should be a bush or a tree, but fully invested in its effort to take over the flowerbed and tumble out over the grass.

There’s little connection with nature for most of us in our day-to-day lives, and lord knows, I know my yard isn’t some wild space, but the wild creeps in on six legs or eight or four or none (yes, sometimes snakes; fortunately none with rattles) and I love those times out cutting the grass when swallowtail butterflies flutter around the edges of the yard or when I stop to encourage a frog to be on his way or when a dragonfly seems to follow me along my spiraling path.

Mowing is a slow moving series of moments and actions, repetitive and known, and yet in that there is the awareness that there is wonder and mystery in this yard on this street where everything can seem so far removed from nature, that is until you slow down and really see. We live right on top of so much and so willingly blind ourselves to it. It’s an easy trap to fall into and sometimes a tricky one to escape.

Perhaps this is why, when I finish mowing I typically feel surprisingly refreshed.

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