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Early birds

By Donald Attwood


Pileated woodpeckers make large nest holes in tree trunks. Flickers, owls, bluebirds, wood ducks, and small mammals may nest in these cavities in subsequent years.

Previously I would get up about 5:30 a.m., feed the cat, eat breakfast, read the paper, and go birding. One day, I got up earlier, had a sip of cold tea, and went at dawn to the Clarke Sydenham Nature Reserve, in Hudson. It was a different world.

Light was coming in at a low angle. A breeze was thwarting the mosquitoes. Many birds were singing, and some were busy near the path. Knowing it was too early for unleashed dog walkers, the birds were bolder. Right away I saw a robin, two phoebes, a song sparrow, and a chickadee. Minutes later I saw a Chestnut-sided warbler, an attractive little bird with brownish stripes on its flanks and black whisker stripes on its face, singing on a twig above the path. I’d rarely seen one before and never so close.

After the warbler, I saw Monsieur et Madame Mallard walking up the path ahead. These two ducks are regular spring residents. We’ve seen them often, hanging around the neighborhood ditches. They don’t seem to mind the passing cars, and they’ve been coming back for many years. Of course, they may not be the same ducks, year after year, but who else, in the duck world, knows our ditches and (except for the dogs) our unaggressive habits?

They always seem to be paired off, which is a bit strange as male and female Mallards typically go their separate ways when the female starts nesting in late April. And we never see them with ducklings. They remind me of us: an old retired couple strolling about the neighbourhood. This was the first time I’d seen them walking in the nature reserve, which has no open water, and I wondered what brought them there.

Uphill from the ducks, I heard a catbird singing one of his intricate improvisations. In the upper field, I saw a tree swallow peering from its nest box and heard a house wren, a tiny bird with a bold musical voice. Beyond the field, I stepped into the woods, which were quieter, but I did hear the loud and persistent calling of a Pileated woodpecker, a big bird with a big voice. Eventually I spotted him and watched as he flew from tree to tree, jigging up and down the trunks. Like some people, he seemed to be doing nothing in particular while announcing it in a loud and persistent manner.

Eventually, when I had almost given up watching, he flew to a tall poplar tree with a neat oval hole in its flank. And behold, a smaller head with a long beak and red crest popped out and took food from its father! And behind him was another youngster. I had found this season’s nesting site belonging to the family that has visited our backyard feeders for years. Our house is not very far from that tree, and big birds require big territories, so I’m sure it’s the same family. (The senior pair lives here year-round, holding the same territory one year to the next.) With their parents, last year’s youngsters had visited our backyard and learned how to use the peanut feeder. This year, I found the new ones in their nest.

Thus was patience rewarded. In the last two winters, I saw the senior pair making other nesting holes in trees fairly close to the one just discovered. Excavating a deep hole in solid wood is arduous work, so I had watched for long periods and returned often to see if those holes were used for nesting. However, woodpeckers sometimes start nest holes they later decide not to use. I never saw the current nest under construction, but now, thanks to an accident of good timing, I saw it in use. Yet my luck was fleeting: the chicks soon left their nest. I hope to see them soon at the peanut feeder.

Many other birds have, of course, been nesting this season, including House wrens and Tree swallows in their boxes. A pair of Canada geese built a nest in a marsh; the female stayed there many days, incubating her eggs, but one day the nest was deserted and no goslings were seen. I also saw where a pair of catbirds was bringing food to their chicks, though the nest was well concealed. A flicker was feeding its young in a tree cavity, and a pair of Baltimore orioles was carrying food to their woven nest hanging in a treetop.