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Sunday, December 4, 2011

City Slickers and Country Bumpkins

It’s a constantly changing force, this thing we call evolution. Living things have to continuously adapt to their surroundings lest they fall behind and, you know, die; in the immortal words of Michael Scott: adapt, react, readapt, apt. The most tumultuous change in recent history has been the spread of humans across what had been vast swaths of untouched land, and as such the bird life all around us has had to change in accordance.

So it should be no surprise to me that birds, those dinosaurs which through extreme adaptability were able to survive a mass extinction of most of Earth’s wildlife, permeate my urban environment. Earlier this week, I pulled up to my local grocery store to the sound of Cedar Waxwings. As 90% of my Cedar Waxwing sightings involve birds flying overhead, I immediately looked to the sky for a flock passing over. Then I realized the reedy whistles were much louder than I’m accustomed to, and seemed to be staying in one place. These waxwings were, in fact, a mere ten feet above my head feeding on the fruit of a decorative Bradford pear tree.

This one kept on preening instead of feeding - maybe he got his fill elsewhere?

No doubt the other patrons of the parking lot in question eyed me quizzically as I grabbed my camera and started photographing this noisy tree. But what can I say, I’m a sucker for Cedar Waxwings, they’re probably my favorite part of winter birding. I remember one incident as a kid when I walked across a pedestrian bridge between two buildings on Duke University’s medical campus. Tall bushes lined the sides of the breezeway, and waxwings were eating their fill of berries, but clearly something was wrong with these birds. One lay keeled over on its side, another sat swaying back and forth, and none of the birds would flush when you got near them. The berries had apparently fermented, and the birds were, for lack of a better term, drunk. It’s the only time I’ve ever seen this behavior from any birds, and it’s definitely stuck with me because of it.

I don't want to calculate a blood alcohol limit for Flying While Intoxicated,
but if I did, it'd be... infinitesimal.

I don’t necessarily find my apartment complex an especially birdy locale, but I’ve noticed an increase in activity of late. Every morning White-throated Sparrows flit through the shrubs lining the buildings, and Yellow-rumped Warblers chip and flycatch through yet more Bradford pears while House Finches flock above them. These are birds that have adapted well to an urban lifestyle, and as such seem incredibly common to us humans. One morning I awoke to dried leaves moving along the parking lot under their own volition. Turns out another common urban bird, a Carolina Wren, was foraging for small insects or other scraps of food among the leaf litter. He seemed pretty intent on feeding and didn't notice as I inched towards him. All the better for me, I suppose!

Apparently, photographing a moving target is difficult. Who knew!

Recently, I’ve also been hearing the staccato rattle of Ruby-crowned Kinglets around my apartment. I love kinglets, and not just because they’re small and occasionally colorful. It’s the way they feed that makes them special to me – moving quick like a warbler only to dash out and hover under a branch to glean a quick morsel. They act more like a hummingbird than a Passerine at times, and their activity seems totally out of place on a cold winter’s morning. Still, I was able to watch one at close range as it foraged along the hedgerow behind my place. If only it would flash it’s namesake ruby crown for me!

These female birds aren't nearly as bold as the males, but still bolder than most!

Later in the week, I decided to forgo my surroundings and head out to rural Orange County to visit some of the freshly plowed fields. I had a goal in mind, to find the large flocks of American Pipits that frequent the farmlands, but like combining lemon and lime to make Sprite, there’s more to it than that. If we ever get the rare Lapland Longspur in the Piedmont of North Carolina, they’ll be hanging around pipits, and that’s the bird I was after. Regrettably, after looking through a flock of almost 400 pipits, I couldn’t spot a single longspur, nor could I hear their distinctive double-call as the flock swirled across the field. While Eastern Meadowlarks sang from unseen perches, I noticed a bright spot sitting atop a dead tree overlooking one of the fields. My suspicions were confirmed as I put my binoculars on this American Kestrel surveying his fallowed environs.

This is the closest I could get to him... that's what I get for taking my time with scope views!

The falcon looked ridiculously small as he sat atop this massive tree, and for good reason – kestrels would probably fit in the palm of your hand if they ever gave you the opportunity to do so. I tried to sidle my way closer to this fantastic male individual, but the traffic grew heavier along the road, and one extremely loud truck later the bird bolted across the field. I would say it’s too bad, but just being in the presence of this amazing little bird is more than enough to make my whole week’s birding totally worth it!


  1. Awesome Kestrel. I saw my first this past week at Yates Mill. Lucky you had your camera for the Cedar Waxwings. I'm still hoping to see them this winter.

  2. Yeah, my camera just happened to be in the front seat at the time. Went back to the grocery store today and I could still hear them, so I guess they like that tree. If you're still looking for them, though, I always seem to find them at Mason Farm.