We had some extra time this morning before church, so I decided to make pancakes. We were enjoying those, visiting a little, and watching a beautiful sunrise as leaves rained down outside. Birds began to arrive at our feeders as it got lighter, and before long the yard was a busy place. The regular visitors were there, of course: downy and red-bellied woodpeckers, house finches, a few little goldfinches in their drab winter colors, cardinals, black-capped chickadees and white-breasted nuthatches. House sparrows have unfortunately reappeared after being scarce since mid summer.
I noted with some interest a couple of little chipping sparrows on the deck, making what was likely one of their last visits to my feeders this year. We’ve seen some white-throated sparrows passing through, but they usually don’t stay for long. Dark-eyed juncos reappeared more than a week ago and will be with us all winter. A couple of tiny red-breasted nuthatches began visiting our feeders recently, too. They really love peanuts! These tame little birds of the northern pine woods come south in varying numbers every year, but we don’t see them at our feeders that often. A flash of blue caught my eye as we were enjoying the fluttering breakfast crowd outside, and to my delight, there they were. “My bluebirds” were in the yard, visiting their house from last summer. I had seen them only a couple of times since August, when they fledged three young ones. They took turns sitting on the house and going inside to look around. They flew to their favorite perches on the nearby ash tree. There’s no way to prove that the same birds have made their home in our yard for the past four summers, but their obvious familiarity with the site and clear attachment to the house makes me think they are “my birds.” The male even took time to chase away a couple of sparrows!
I have noticed a changing of the guard in my travels around the countryside in the past couple of weeks, too. Red-winged blackbirds displayed their red shoulders prominently most of the summer as they perched along country roads. They’re in large flocks now, and their red shoulders are almost hidden. I noted a flock of similarly sized Brewer’s blackbirds last week that show only shiny purple iridescence and no red at all. Slightly smaller cowbirds have gathered into huge migration flocks, too, but the males still have their brown heads. The last few tree swallows are sweeping insects from the air above area wetlands as they head south. The last killdeers will likely be gone soon, too, if yesterday’s strong northwest winds and last night’s freezing temperatures didn’t chase them away. Red-tailed hawk numbers are increasing as migrant hawks arrive to winter along our highways. Road ditches are about the only place left with enough permanent grass to support their chief prey, field mice.
Our local giant Canada geese have gathered into larger flocks on ponds, where they’ll roost until persistent cold freezes them out. These are often in urban areas, where they’ve learned that they don’t get shot at. They become almost domestic while in town, but are just as wary as their wild northern cousins when feeding in harvested corn fields. Migrant Canada geese will soon join the local flocks. Migrating bald eagles are showing up with increasing regularity, too. Ducks have been few and far between in central Iowa since the early teal flocks passed through. They’re moving, but are attracted to flooded crop fields that are more common elsewhere in the state. Flooded corn is heaven for ducks and geese, offering food and cover at the same time. They may move to wetland refuges or larger open water areas as flood waters recede or when shallow water areas freeze.
Many folks look at their cell phones to check the time and date. A few of us still prefer to measure time as our ancient ancestors did for thousands of years, by watching the birds’ changing of the guard.
Steve Lekwa is a former director of Story County Conservation.