Friday, March 31, 2006


They can be crockery, shoes I believe, even prisons—but today we are talking about, of course, birds! We occasionally are visited by large flocks of these noisy, colorful blackbirds. They fly in, land and devour any sunflower seeds they find, and take off again.

I should mention that we are at 6100 ft here, and a fair distance from a marsh or sizable wetland. High and dry.

I just found a reference that may explain how these successful little opportunists are managing. Writing in 1969, Paul Sears tells us:

“And the red-winged blackbird, previously known as a creature of swamp and marsh, has behaved in a most unorthodox fashion. Instead of politely vanishing as its customary home was done away with it is now nesting in soy bean fields and it has turned its attention from waving reaches of rush and reed to not dissimilar fields of ripening grain. Particularly given to tearing open the tender tips of green corn, the red-wing now ranks as a major pest. Usually we are indebted to foreign lands (as they are to us) for destructive imports. … But the versatility of the red-wing is proof that we can grow our own trouble-makers—always provided that we upset the old balance sufficiently.”

(from Lands Beyond the Forest, Paul B. Sears)

With all respect to Paul, one of America’s eminent ecologists, I don’t think I’m going to be able to consider red-wings as pests—but then, I have no fields of corn to defend. I am, rather, delighted to know that somebody can learn to profit from the messes we are making of our environment, and that some natives will survive in our highly modified world.

And I’m captivated by the concept that any small patch of wetness attracts cattails like a magnet. And that any small patch of cattails automatically generates red-wings. What would spring be without their trills?

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Many Happy Returns: Migrants come back

There is a short report this a.m. after all, as this is a good place to start recording who we see and when. (I keep putting records in notebooks then losing track of them!)

Yesterday, a white-crowned sparrow. He was here a few days ago too. Seems to be only the one so far, though we never see them in large quantities.

Have to dig out the hummingbird feeders this weekend. One year, a hummer showed up unexpectedly--in an April snowstorm, hovering exactly where a feeder had hung the year before. Better to be prepared.

And, one unhappy return, a dead hawk on a roadside yesterday. I'm pretty sure it was a Swainson's. What a shame to have such a sad first sighting.

I and the Bird, #20

The new issue of the bird-blog carnival, I and the Bird, has been posted by Nuthatch. Lots of good reading here, and Foothills Fancies is even featured on it.

My blog time this a.m. will be reading instead of writing. Check it out: I and the Bird!

Back tomorrow!

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Birds of Prey Foundation

Quick update, to let you know that the new west-side rehab person I encountered in the Scrub Jay story below is Carol Goldstein, of the Birds of Prey Foundation in Broomfield. This organization --and its very dedicated people--does great work! And, as most nonprofits, they always need donations. Besides the much appreciated dollars that help them do their work, they also have a wish list of items they need to help the many birds they care for each year. If you can help, please let them know.

Carol is new in the area, but fortunately for me--and the young scrub jay--she has great background in songbirds as well. She can be reached via

Migration's coming...

It really feels like spring out there this morning, and with that comes the realization that one morning I'll wake up to No Juncos! Birder buddy Carol tells me some of them do in fact stay around, but not in my yard. Perhaps they go west, to higher ground.

This morning things were pretty bare out there, so I went out to throw some seed around. Most of it goes on the ground these days. The juncos seem to prefer it, and the others apparently don't mind a bit.

Dozens of birds scattered. As soon as I came inside, a scrub jay was back within THREE seconds, a sparrow within 10. First junco hit the ground a full minute later, and now the hordes have descended.

We'll miss the juncos, but look forward to welcoming back old friends: black-headed grosbeaks, hummingbirds, and many more happy returns to chronicle in the weeks ahead.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Lining up for breakfast

Here are the scrub jays. Finally caught them in action, removing all the sunflower seeds from the mixed assortment offered this a.m.

It doesn't take them long to get all the best seeds, only leftovers for the others.
Scrub jays usually stash most of the sunflower seeds--and dog food when they can get it--for another day.

Foul-weathered friend
While Artemis was here, we didn't see many scrub jays at all. She still stops in briefly, to see what's going on, but apparently has moved on to other hunting grounds now that the snow is gone-- much to the relief of the feathered flocks.

A Scrub Jay in the Hand...

One morning a local fireman, responding to a call, called me a magnet for trouble. Long story I won’t go into here, but after feeling a bit put out at first, I’ve decided it’s a compliment. Critters (more rarely, people) in trouble do tend to show up on my doorstep perhaps more often than should be expected.

A couple weeks ago, when I went out to feed the chickens, I noticed this scrub jay sitting near the feed tray, somewhat distressed. Seemed to have something stuck in his beak. Okay, says I, if he doesn’t fly away, must be he needs help. Sure enough, he was completely passive, so I put him in a cage and started making phone calls.

The only rehabber I knew was far out on the other side of Denver, so I was delighted, after a single call, to be referred to a new one much closer. Off we went, on a slightly snowy morning, to meet her at Big O Tires. She took one look at the jay’s somewhat moribund state, and started fishing in her purse for something to substitute for proper equipment. Found the top piece of a classic Bic pen, and used that to see what was in the little guy’s mouth and sweep it out. In shock, he laid on his back in her hand while she retrieved one caterpillar more than an inch long (dead), some dirt clods, a chunk of corn, a milo seed, and assorted other gunk. I left, she rinsed his mouth a bit, and took him on home to recuperate. Neither of us was very optimistic.

By the time she got home, she told me later, he was jumping around in the box. She put him in a bigger cage, but he threw himself around so persuasively that she was concerned he’d hurt himself. By then, he’d had a little to eat and drink and seemed pretty well recovered, so she let him go in the garage, where he perched for a while. Finally he flew out the open door and sat in the top of a big pine tree for 45 minutes, preening and resting. Then, whoosh, off he went, flying into the storm, back down the hill—back toward home, she said.

We were both pretty excited I think, as not all rescue adventures end so happily. But for all those out there doing this work, so rarely rewarding and generally without compensation, please know how nice it is to find someone to turn to, someone who will help! A hearty thank-you from the rest of us, who lack the nerve and training and competence to even attempt such delicate work!

Monday, March 27, 2006

Best Botany Blog

One of the first blogs I discovered, back last fall, is still my all-time favorite.

The Botany Photo of the Day is published by the Botanical Gardens at the University of British Columbia. It's a great place to see wonderful images of everyday plants, as well as exotic species I will likely not get to see in real life. The site is managed by Daniel Mosquin, and I can't recommend it more highly.

By the way, if you're really interested in plants or ever have a question about them, see the Forums on the same site. Forum members can identify almost anything, virtually instantaneously.

Botany Sidebar: The spring blizzard of 2003 (previous post) did wonders for the variety and abundance of spring wildflowers and sustained most of our vegetation well into the summer. Or so it seemed. March is usually one of our snowiest months and provides a great deal of our moisture. So far this year, though, we are on the dry side. As spring progresses, we'll include local wildflowers here.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Anniversary Remarks

As weather is one of the truly fun things to observe here on the Front Range, I didn't want to let the anniversary of our big blizzard pass without comment. Three years ago last week we had the biggest snowfall since the blizzard of 1913. It was a once-in-90-years occurrence, March 18-20, 2003.

To commemorate it, here's a photo of the hubby taken while we were out shoveling. Five feet in total; Red Rocks in the background, as always.

And it could still happen again this year!

The Pied Junco: Nature and the Individual

I confess I'm little embarrassed about naming the hawk last week. Long conditioning suggests that “scientifically speaking,” it just ain’t right. (Thank goodness we’re not speaking scientifically!)

So I thought I’d share some random thoughts about the individual in nature.

Biologists like to think in terms of species, the members of which are pretty much indistinguishable cogs rollin’ along on the wheels of evolution. No, that’s not it. Biologists know that each and every individual (in sexually reproducing organisms at least) is genetically distinct, it’s just that they believe the important thing is the species, or the population, but never the individual. I always had trouble with this concept in school. I mean, if every individual grizzly bear or Pawnee montane skipper dies, that’s pretty much it for the species as well.

Trouble is, most of the time it can be pretty hard to tell one mule deer or crawfish from another. Partly because we’re not looking closely enough, and with wild animals it can be difficult to look closely. And partly because they can in fact look pretty uniform. An individual would have to be remarkable in some way—we have to be able to distinguish him or her from others of like kind. Ornithologists accomplish that by banding birds; herpetologists clip toes; mammalogists use tags or toe clips; cattle ranchers might use numbered ear tags. All to make the individual songbird, lizard, mouse, or cow unique and recognizable.

We concluded, based on repeated observations and a few markings, that we are seeing the same sharp-shinned hawk several times a week. Behavior is the most convincing reason—“she” uses the same perches, same hunting habits, whenever she visits. Could I recognize “Artemis” in a side by side comparison with another immature hawk of her species? Doubtful.

But the pied junco (left, with a normal individual of slightly different color pattern), yet unnamed and likely to remain so, is visibly unique. He or she, let’s say he this time, is a “dark-eyed” junco of the color pattern that used to be known as the pink-sided race of the Oregon junco. Except for his white-blotched head. That sets him apart from his peers. Every time he visits, we will know he’s here as soon as we spot him, but his companions will remain anonymous no matter how familiar they may be.

We'll continue this another time...

Thursday, March 23, 2006

What Denver doesn't know...

is that it's a gorgeous sunny day today. Denver is to the far right of the above photo, under the branch, hidden in fog at 6:45 this a.m.

Foto frustration this a.m. blogging. Thanks go to birdchick for posting pointers on pictures on her blog today!

Artemis checks out the thistle feeder...

She really can't figure out what the attraction is!

Artemis sleeps in...

Yesterday, she didn't show up until almost 9 a.m., giving the little guys a good chance at breakfast. And she didn't stay long, as I had to go out to feed the chickens and that spooked her. She took off, and the air was all a-twitter again!

We had a half-dozen lesser goldfinches, the usual complement of mixed juncos, several house finches, two chickadees, a towhee, and I did see a male starling at one point. The odd thing was that the scrub jays, usually daily visitors, had been scarce while Artemis stayed around, and were back in force yesterday. Several magpies also came by to see if I'd refilled the suet feeder (I hadn't!)...

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Lesser Gold

Another bird note: The Lesser Goldfinches returned last week, about Thursday I think. Little tiny things! Aldo Leopold once wrote, about winter survival of chickadees, that "It seems likely that weather is the only killer so devoid of humor and dimension as to kill a chickadee..."

Lesser Goldfinches ought to be safe, then-- they are even smaller than chickadees! Hard to believe Artemis would bother trying to catch one. We had six or eight on the thistle feeders over the weekend, but once the storm moved in, they disappeared for a couple days.

Under the snow: Before the storm, I went out checking. Oregon grape hollies were blooming, and just a few Easter daisies. Spring beauties were just visible, with buds unopened. More to come!

Images from yesterday

Here are the two photos I couldn't get up yesterday.

Artemis Alert: No Birds!

Where are the juncos?

Hiding in the bushes!

Maybe I will get the hang of this. At least figured out how to upload multiple images, I think.

Artemis is nowhere in sight this a.m., and I have to leave for work soon. The snow from Sunday-Monday is still on the ground, though it is melting some, and we are supposed to have warm weather later in the week. Back to looking for spring flowers!

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

More Morning Birdwatching

Artemis Update: This morning, my husband said that he didn’t think we’d see Artemis today, that she needs to change her schedule and pattern to avoid predictability and keep the little ones off guard. Sure enough, she’s starting the day on the fencepost under the apple tree, east side instead of west. Waiting again.

We know she’s around because the little birds disappear. When it’s still as death out there, the Huntress is in the area. Nobody peeps, nobody moves.

Normal morning

Normal snowy morning

I have the "after Artemis" photo, but can't get it to load. Maybe tomorrow.

Scoresheet: Artemis, 5; Starlings, 0. I blew it yesterday, kept scanning her favorite trees after she disappeared, when she was apparently on the ground a good part of the afternoon. I went out to lock up the chickens and found the evidence. A drift of grayish feathers, blood spot on snow under the lilac bush, and two disembodied feet. Starling again. I saw few all day, except the ones I flushed from the chicken coop, but she found one! Usually she leaves the beak behind, a telltale sign, but I didn’t find it this time. Maybe she was still working on the carcass and took what was left with her.

Detached starling feathers, by the way, really don’t suggest starling at first. They’re quite gray, most aren’t shiny, and they have an edge of tan, which I guess provides the speckled look that gives them their association with stars. At last we’ve discovered what they’re good for: feeding Artemis!

One thing, on the internet at least, leads to many others. Here are some wonderful sites about birds for more snowy morning reading.

All for now—today I have to catch up on work!

Monday, March 20, 2006

Happy Equinox!

Welcome to Small Wonders: Life and Nature in the Colorado Foothills. This is a project I've had in mind for a long time, and a snowy spring equinox seems an auspicious moment to start, especially as our newest local predator has inspired me this morning (see "her" story below). This site is about the small wonders we can observe in our own backyards--if we take the time and have the patience to simply be with the beings around us. The wonders of the wild.

I plan to share observations daily, though I may resort occasionally to previously published pieces on whatever's going on here on the eastern slope of the Front Range. I hope you'll stop in again, and get in touch if the spirit moves.

The Preying Game: Adventures with Artemis

The preying game is largely a waiting game. This morning she’s waiting in the ash tree west of the house for someone, some small feathered friend, to make a fatal mistake. Now and then she makes a foray, off to the lilac bush or nearby Russian-olive. Every time she returns empty-taloned, the songbirds have to wait a little longer to eat. The little ones are not free to get their breakfast until she has hers. Sooner or later, someone will goof, unwittingly sacrificing himself for the good of the rest. My guess is the little birds are praying too—praying it will be someone else she catches.

This morning, a snowy spring equinox, she has a name. She has been here long enough to become familiar, a person in her own right, not just “the sharp-shinned hawk” but now labeled Artemis. (We considered Kali, the Hindu goddess of death, but settled on the Huntress, death on the wing.) We know it’s nothing more than convenience, a shorthand for talking about her and what she’s doing. She has no love for us (though we love watching her), only for our birdfeeders and the happy habitat they have created. Our long habit of putting out birdseed is paying off for this young hawk, as she learns her trade and practices her skills. Her habitual presence is bringing a dynamic new level of meaning to the phrase "birdfeeder."

Her first catch that we observed was a starling. Finally, an antidote for starlings! Nasty, dirty, and numerous, they descend en masse and consume bushels of birdseed and chicken feed. They’ve even taken to roosting in the coop on cold days. After she devoured one under the lilac, I didn’t see another in the yard for three days. They eventually returned; then she ate one on the front patio, leaving only feathers and blood on the snow. One day, scanning for her, I spotted her high in the elm tree—her first (to our knowledge) aerial meal.

Last week, returning home in the late afternoon, I saw her in the driveway with another starling, still struggling. I stopped, sat in the car watching, as she pounced with it, slamming it into the ground, pecking at it, trying to complete the kill. At last she settled down to eat. It’s labor intensive; takes a long time to eat a starling (assuming you have the stomach for it). For an hour she tore at it, tiny piece by piece, ripping and swallowing. It was cold. I finally decided I could go the last twenty yards home without making her give up her kill. I slowly crept forward, still in the car, until she bolted—taking the remains of her meal along.

So today there are no starlings to choose from: it will have to be a junco or sparrow, maybe even a towhee, who slips up, lets hunger overcome caution. After more than two hours, she’s losing patience. The forays are more frequent; she flies east to the apple tree, as a dozen juncos immediately fly west. She swoops low around the apple tree, hops on the fenceposts, trying to flush one into the open. The melodrama is not without humor, at least for the observer. The little birds are teasing her now; she’s going to walk into that bush to get them.

Suddenly she’s gone, I can’t spot her anywhere. Dozens of juncos and sparrows hit the birdfeeders. Somewhere, I suspect, breakfast is served.