Tuesday, January 20, 2015

January Pleasures: Indoor Birdwatching in the Adriondacks

            So what did we do on a three-day weekend in the middle of January in the Adirondack Mountains. We hiked some beautiful backwoods lanes around frozen lakes.We warmed the place up, apparently, by the simple fact of our warm-hearted arrival since the temperature went from minus18 on Saturday morning, while we were still in bed in comparatively balmy Eastern Massachusetts, to the high twenties by the time we called it a night at Gwen and Dave Eichorn's camp.
            We walked out onto the lake in twilight to search for brilliant stars, though by then clouds had begun to roll in, and stared at an amazingly fat, yellowish light lingering in the east, which I am unable to identify as either a spectacularly conspicuous planet with an expanding mid-winter waistline or a brazen alien spacecraft intent on abduction. Is anyone missing in Vermont?
            Still, despite all this outdoor winter warmth we also spent a lot of time indoors watching the snow-clad world. Especially the suet bird feeder hanging kissing-cousin close to the porch window (top photo.) While I'll readily admit, number one, it's mainly the birds that fascinate me; and, number two, the spectacular placement of the feeder so close to a window that we're barely a few away when we sit and stare at the avian feeding line cinches the deal; still, the essential third point in this happy conjunction is the suet. Apparently, birds love it.
            While I've known about it for decades, I've never actually seen birds zoom up steady numbers -- buzzing each other, wings aflutter, to hurry up and get out of there and give the next guy a chance -- peck-peck-pecking away at the stuff.
             So while I'm still all atwitter over seeing so many close-up birds in their mostly-natural state, I'm also intrigued by the bait. What is suet?
            Suet, sources say (my principal one is birding.about.com/od/Foods/a/Birds-That-Eat-Suet.htm), "is rendered fat, typically kidney fat from sheep and cattle, that is offered to birds as an alternative food source."  Apparently it's particularly important during in the fall and winter seasons when birds need extra helpings of both fat and total calories to survive the winter. Birds eat, sometimes it seems eat constantly, to keep up their body temperatures during cold weather. Bird species that stay with us in northern climes -- remember that minus-18 Adirondack mornings -- don't freeze their little avian tail feathers only because they can find enough calories and nutrition to keep their fires burnings. That's one of the reasons backyard birdfeeders have been a factor in keeping more birds to winter over rather than fly south.

            So I'm thinking thank goodness for suet, whatever it is. Suet, in fact, "is rendered fat, typically kidney fat from sheep and cattle." The preparations available int the stores "include seeds, nuts, insects or bits of fruit."
            The suet we saw hanging in a wire cage beside the porch window seemed to be seeds embedded in a grayish bar of some unfamiliar substance that must be what they say it is: rendered fat. As our source puts it, "Suet is most commonly found as basic cake shapes, but is also available as plugs, balls, shreds, nuggets or crumbles depending on the manufacturer or feeder type." Ah, the wonders of the free market.
            Now for the next question: who were these birds we were watching dance around the cage, take turns, sweep in, swoop out, hang and peck, hang and peck, or just peck-peck-peck -- the tipoff of a likely woodpecker. According to what we read, the candidates including starlings, downy woodpeckers and hairy woodpeckers, bluebirds, brown thrashers, black-capped chickadees, cardinals, and blue jays.
            Mostly we observed those chipper little visitors backyard feeders everywhere are likely to find among their lunch gang -- chickadees. I particularly enjoyed their feeding approach. They turn their head to the side and peck through the gaps in the wire at 90 degree or even deeper angles.
            We also saw woodpeckers, which we confidently identified as downy woodpeckers. Having since learned that the downy and hairy woodpecker are almost impossible to distinguish, I'll stick with downy because I like the name better.
            We saw some other birds too, but I'm not sure they fall within the list of candidates above. We settled on 'nuthatch,' but confirmation awaits further research.
            According to another source, " Energetic and excitable, the red-breasted nuthatch is often a favorite backyard bird... With its bold personality it can easily become tame enough to be hand-fed by patient birders."
            I don't expect tame, eating out of my hand relationships with feeder birds. But getting to watch them go at it up close and personal is a dining pleasure.