Sunday, October 11, 2009

Bird Watchers, Bird News, and a Bird Story

Lots of birds here this fall. Sometimes hundreds of them swoop down from the sky, chattering and milling about on the lawn. I've noticed how hard it is to photograph a flock of birds. By the time my camera is ready, they have already flown away. We bought a birdhouse this week at Bayberry Garden and hung it outside the Green Room. In no time, two chickadees and a wren were checking out possible winter quarters. The temperature has dropped and many other birds are flying south, an annual migration that attracts birdwatchers from all over the east coast. Some birds stop here for a bit of R&R, choosing Chatham’s Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge or the Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary, where humans admire the visitors for hours through binoculars, volunteers count sightings (call 781 259 8805 to hear the latest tallies), and Cape & Islands Radio even has a bird specialist who fields questions from listeners.

During one of his recent radio shows, E. Vernon Laux debated whether birds are intelligent. (That’s a no-brainer. As soon as we return from the Birdwatchers’ General Store in Orleans with an enormous bag of safflower seeds, Sven bangs the bird feeder to indicate it’s been filled, and our chickadees tell all friends and family before hightailing it to the cottage deck.) Bird News is broadcast Wednesday at 8:35 and Friday at 4:30. I heard Laux the other day, on the car radio, describing rare birds sighted in the area. He mentioned one poor fellow from South America, definitely lost, and a fork-tailed flycatcher whose photo you can find here.

Vernon Laux always signs off, “Keep your eyes to the sky!” Well, that’s precisely what Sven was doing in Orleans during our walk while waiting for the welder to fix our muffler. I had pointed out a flock of black birds in a large oak tree. Sven kept his eyes to the sky, put one foot in a rut, and down he went. (The moral to the story is “Keep your eyes to the sky” only works if you are NOT in motion on an old sidewalk.)

My husband has a special affinity for birds, which is perhaps why he feeds them with such dedication. His ornithological tendencies probably date from childhood, when he raised a baby starling named Hjalmar (pronounce that "Yal-mar").

Here’s Sven to tell all about it: “I fed Hjalmar sunflower seeds, letting it out of its cage to play. Hjalmar grew up fast. I watched its first attempts to fly with amusement that summer of 1949. Totally tame, Hjalmar never strayed far from the yard, following me when I went swimming, bicycling, or walking. The bird must have thought I was its mother.

In the fall, Hjalmar grew restless. Flocks of birds would pause in nearby birch trees. Hjalmar flew up to visit them. One cold day, he joined one of the flocks flying south. I waved goodbye, thinking I’d never see my pet bird again.

In June 1951, while mowing the lawn, I was approached by a big starling who wouldn’t budge. At first I found its behavior strange. Then I realized the bird was my old friend who had returned to say hello. I cradled Hjalmar in my hands. The bird jumped onto my shoulder. Then it flew to a nest where it spent the summer, raising its young.

From time to time, Hjalmar would come into the yard to visit. When fall came, the bird flew down to say goodbye. Hjalmar left and never returned, although its descendents probably still live in those Swedish woods.”