Written by Michael Givant: firstname.lastname@example.org Friday, 08 June 2012 00:00
On a warm morning this spring I’m at Alley Pond Park hoping to see migrating songbirds. At a familiar cattail pond I’m taken aback because it is little more than half its usual size due to the lack of rain. On a stick in the shallow water there is a lone male red-winged blackbird negotiating it like a tightrope walker. At least one female mallard and two males are in the pond. The sides of the males’ heads’ have an iridescent purple hue. Some mourning doves stand at the water’s edge. I’ve not seen doves here before, and I wonder why?
On a stone bathroom there’s a male house sparrow with a rich chestnut-colored head. On its upper white breast is a cluster of black dots, which will become a solid mass and cover its throat during the breeding season. In its bill is what looks to be a discarded piece of clear cellophane that was once part of a snack wrapper. Is it to become part of a nest inside this small structure?
After a while there are no warblers, grosbeaks or orioles, which disappoints me. However, partly by accident, I find a sedate pond, which I’ve seen a number of times before but always with other birders. Its water too, appears diminished. Soon there’s a breeding yellow-rumped male warbler on a branch with a bright yellow rump patch as well as ones on its head and sides. OK, this is more like it. Just then three bright red male cardinals fly across the pond and disappear into the yellow green foliage of a tree. In the water are a male and female mallard ducks dabbling in the dark water. The male’s green head is easy to spot but the dull-colored female blends into the branches and I watch for motion to see her.
Carefully noting trail markings I go back to the main path taking detailed direction notes. Then I return to the pond a second time to make certain I can actually locate it. Finally I stop and visualize the whole thing. Why am I being so careful? Today has been a disappointment except for this spot. I want to come back here another day, stay a while and see what flies in.
A few days later, it is cool and breezy enough to wear a hood and gloves. As I walk a path, there is the gurgling sound of a red-bellied woodpecker. Soon a form shows itself flying to a thick-trunked tree with a pitted surface. There’s the full red cap identifying the bird as a male and the black and white back. It pecks briefly at the tree for insects and when it doesn’t find them, the bird dives straight down like a bullet.
A few minutes later comes a soft melodic call. The call is repeated a few times and soon another form appears but on a close branch. The bird has a black head; rust colored sides and a white breast. It’s a rufous-sided towhee. As the bill repeatedly opens the call softly escapes into the morning air.
I get off the beaten path and start finding my way back to the pond. Out of the corner of my eye I see a flicker of movement. Sticking straight up from a dead tree, which is leaning at a 45-degree angle, is a short broken limb. That’s where the movement is. It’s a hairy or downy woodpecker that is putting its head and body, almost to the base of the tail, repeatedly into a hole. The bird’s movement is the reverse of one on cuckoo clock. It goes in not out. Nifty.
After a while I find the long, secluded, oval-shaped pond. In the shallow dark water there are some small birds. Focusing binoculars on them I see a dull black bird and another, which is a drab two-toned brown. Each has a pale yellow eye. One pulls a leaf out of the water that is almost its size. They look familiar but I cannot identify them. There are three or more of the birds and they start to recede toward trees and vegetation, perhaps because of my presence. I walk away and study my battered field guide. Nada. I’m stymied.
Returning to the spot, I get a better look at the birds’ slightly down-curved bills and longish tails. The brown one, in clear light, has a burnished rust color on its back and sides. The black one pulls what looks like a piece of plastic out of the water that is bigger than its body. The rust-colored one walks through the stems of tan grasses, almost blending in. I’m looking at my field guide again. This time images of rusty blackbirds literally jump out at me. I’m excited, as I’ve never identified these birds before. I stay a while and see a male red-winged blackbird and a few grackles, both close cousins of the rustys. It’s a good exercise in comparative identification as each has different markings.
Driving home I realize that I’m not sure which is the male and which is the female. At home, after looking through several field guides, I’m still not sure because of their subtle seasonal color changes. However I’m more dismayed to read that since the 1960s the rusty blackbird has experienced a decline estimated to be 85 to 95 percent. I came across a bird classified as vulnerable. Once common, it is now listed as uncommon and may be rare. Is it to become an endangered species? The thought is chilling. One thing that I’m sure of is that the secluded pond paid off and I’ll be going back there again to see what other avian mysteries it may hold.