Monthly Archives: October 2012

Not What Meets the Eye

Like a wisp of gray fog, the Northern Shrike snagged itself onto a tree in the middle of Hunn Meadow East, silvery feathers ruffled slightly by the breeze. It surveyed the mowed grass, glancing up from time to time at the goldfinches that swirled in alarm over its head. I could hear it trilling to itself, like an opera star getting ready to perform.

Shrikes are robin-sized songbirds that nest in the empty lands of the Far North. They come to the Fill singly and rarely in spring and fall, but seldom stay for long. We don’t give them enough habitat to live on, I guess, and so after a few days, they move elsewhere.

Most songbirds chirp their way through life, feasting innocuously on seeds or insects. Not so shrikes. Shrikes are the opposite of innocuous. They prey on other birds and small animals, catching them on the fly and sticking them onto convenient twigs or brambles for future consumption. For this reason, shrikes are commonly called butcher birds. The equivalent of cows with fangs.

Beautiful but deadly — like nature itself.

One October Morning

Today was definitely a fall day, with gray skies (at last!) spreading pearly light over the rank weeds of autumn. The birch trees near the Lone Pine Tree are dripping with gold now, and fog blanketed out the sounds of the city so much I could hear the plop when a golden leaf snapped off and drifted down.

At the Lagoon, a Western Grebe was fast asleep, its neck folded back onto itself like a twisted telephone cord. It paid no attention when a male Wood Duck in stunning breeding plumage began splashing in a bathing frenzy. Why wake up when your belly is full of fish and life is easy?

Out on the pewter lake, a flotilla of ducks and geese clumped together, herded by the screams of the two Bald Eagles who have returned to their territory after a brief vacation. Among the dark shapes was one luminous white one: a SNOW GOOSE! It’s the first one I’ve seen at the Fill in almost two years. I ran over to Waterway 1 to get a closer look, but when I arrived, it had already disappeared, a ghost shimmering away into the mists.

Also on view today were two Ruby-crowned Kinglets back from Alaska and feeling feisty. Ruby-crowned Kinglets are drab little songbirds who spend the winter down here with us and then head north each spring to breed. Usually in fall they are peaceful creatures, intent on foraging for the miniscule insects that are their favorite food. Every now and then, though, they argue over who has laid first claim to a likely bush or branch. Then they fight. The way Ruby-crowned Kinglets fight is they part their olive-green head feathers and reveal a bright red set of plumes that make their heads look like they’re on fire. Then they shine their red crowns at each other. Two of them were mixing it up near the Turtle Logs, showing as much red as I’ve ever seen. A serious squabble.

Years ago, I was talking to a birder friend of mine about how Ruby-crowned Kinglets fight. “Wouldn’t it be nice if humans fought the same way, by shining our heads at each other?” I mused.

“I don’t know about that,” my friend replied. Then he took off his hat and showed me his head. It was completely bald. “Some of us wouldn’t have much ammunition!”

Dumb and Dumber

The Turkey Vultures from British Columbia are migrating south through the Fill right now. The other day, I saw six circling overhead, their wings outspread. They were all trying hard to find one thermal updraft after another that would carry them along without the bother of flapping.

Turkey Vultures are unlovely birds of prey who don’t quite fit the paradigm of fierce, wild, and free — characteristics that so pervasively embody our image of other raptors, such as eagles, falcons, and hawks. Vultures “prey” on carrion. They are featherless — quite bald — from head to neck, supposedly to facilitate hygiene. I guess when you dine by sticking your head as far as it can go into a carcass that has seen better days, you don’t want to mess up your hairdo. Better to have no do at all.

Most people feel uneasy around vultures. When they see a vulture, they will crack jokes about the need to stay upright and keep moving. But I have had a soft spot in my heart for vultures ever since I attended a raptor show at Woodland Park Zoo. The zookeepers have trained their raptors to perch on a wrist. When the keeper flings the bird up, it spreads out its magnificent wings and flies toward a piece of meat on a stick at the other end of the birds’ enclosure. It’s all very impressive.

One day, the keepers decided to bring out Modoc the vulture. Like all the other raptors, Modoc sat quietly on his keeper’s gloved wrist until the keeper flung him up. Modoc didn’t really want to go – vultures value their rest and relaxation. But what choice had he? Up he went, flapping his massive wings much harder than he liked, and off he disappeared into the distance. The crowd was silent. The keepers were silent. We all waited for Modoc to reappear, but he never did.

“Well,” hemmed his keeper, “Modoc’s a slow learner. We’re still trying to teach him to fly to the post over there. But he doesn’t always remember to do that.” Then she added in a hopeful but unsure tone, “He’ll return when he gets hungry.”

I was utterly charmed. Modoc’s combination of stupidity and independence appealed to me, I suppose because I also live dumb and free. The freedom to be dumb, after all, gives you the freedom to start over, to be the newbie, to learn something new without fear.

(Note: You can see Modoc in action if you Google “Modoc  vulture” and check out the YouTube entries from 2011. Modoc is still confounding his keepers. I love it!)