Popeye has a habit of standing at the top of the hill behind the house, just over the property line so that he’s technically all four feet firmly on the neighbour’s property. Next door to us, there is a fairly large farm, and the edges of the fields – as you might imagine – get somewhat overgrown with tall grasses, wildflowers and weeds.
Popper likes to stick his head through the grass that’s grown up along the edge of the property and perform surveillance: looking left, then straight ahead, then right; back to the middle, back to the left; back to the middle, back to the right….you get the idea. Well, maybe you don’t – but this picture should give you a pretty good idea of what I’m talking about.
Spouse and I headed out today with Popeye in tow for a walk in the winter woods. There are a lot of pretty well-known birding areas not far from the borders of Juniorvania, perfect destinations for wintry perambulations. The F.W.R. Dickson Wilderness Area is a beautiful little plot of land that is the site of some ongoing ornithological research:
Just nearby is Wrigley Corners Outdoor Education Centre. As part of their education and research programs, they have been banding the chickadees that come to the feeders here in the park. They use a combination of bands, both silver aluminum and coloured plastic ones, to create a unique colour combination that can be easily visually identified at a distance. This allows you to follow individual birds to learn more about their behaviour patterns and movements. No two birds in a study are ever given the same band combination, unless it’s known the previous owner of a combination is deceased. Band colours are read from top to bottom, with the bird’s left leg first, then the right.
Spouse read about the area in a little book Santa brought her for Christmas. We were intrigued by the write-up, which indicated that the chickadees in this area were known to feed from visitors’ outstretched hands. That little incentive was enough for us to gather together a bag of seed, the snowshoes (just in case) and a pile of photographic equipment and set out for an enjoyable afternoon.
It was a terrific afternoon; the snow was falling softly (giant round flakes), the place was virtually deserted (though we did see one other group, a man with his two young children) and the birds were very co-operative indeed.
We saw plenty of friendly little chickadees, both rose and white breasted nuthatches, a couple of downey woodpeckers, a pair of cardinals, a cedar waxwing and even a couple of robins that looked like basketballs with wings.
Snowshoes weren’t necessary, so they stayed in the trunk. I could have used some kind of a field bag, preferably of the waterproof/resistant variety in which to stow the camera and lenses. Without this key piece of gear, I was forced to carry the camera in my hands. I was worried about snow accumulating on the body of the camera and then melting, as it is my view that water and consumer electronics do not mix. I was convinced I was going to lose a lens cap. There was also a concern – not insubstantial, and based upon solid historical data – that I might lose my footing while striding along the path and go tumbling to the ground, with the attendant consequences for the camera. I ended up cradling the thing like a football and tucking it under an armpit, even shifting it from side to side depending upon the type of terrain I was traversing and the consequent likelihood of a port or starboard side tumble, all of which felt like some kind of weird naturalist tribute to Super Bowl Sunday.
The birds are so tame, they really are prepared to come right up to you if you display any kind of intention to feed them, and sometimes even when you don’t. I got the first chickadee of the day in my hand while crossing a boardwalk-type bridge; Spouse and Popper had gone up ahead a bit (Poppy doesn’t like seeing through the things he’s walking on, things like grates or decks, so he had to be urged along by Spouse). Spouse had the bag of seed, so I had nothing to offer anyone, but I noticed a little flock of chickadees gathering in the bushes at the side of the boardwalk. I held out an outstretched palm and – in less than thirty seconds – one brave little fellow figured I looked trustworthy enough to serve as a temporary perch.
Later, when we reached another boardwalk-type area, there didn’t seem to be many birds around. Nonetheless, we stood there for a moment, palms outstretched and filled with little piles of seed. Within a minute or two, there was a cluster of birds that had gathered, flitting from tree to tree, that began to swoop in and feed. After a few minutes of feeling the unmistakable thrill of feeling the tiny creatures alight on our hands, select a yummy seed and then dart back to a nearby branch, we moved on a few dozen yards. We noticed that the flock of birds was essentially following us, the little birds hopscotching from branch to branch along the path, staying roughly a constant distance behind us. Of course we rewarded them with some more seed.
Again, after a few minutes we moved along – and the birds again followed us, so we fed them more. That cycle repeated itself maybe three or four more times as we headed out of the woods and back towards our car.
I really couldn’t believe how fearless the little birds became. I noticed that while Spouse was standing with palm outstretched feeding a group of birds that were perching in a small bush in front of her, there were at least a half-dozen birds in another bush right behind her – no more than eight or ten inches from her back – that were curiously looking on and waiting for an opportunity to join in the fun. On another occasion, I had stopped on the path and attached my long lens in an effort to photograph the basketball-sized robins. I had the camera raised to look through the viewfinder and was adjusting the focus on the barrel of the lens with my other hand when one little chickadee swooped in and landed first on my lens-adjusting hand, then on the lens, then hopped back to my hand. All the while, I continued adjusting focus and I was even calling out to Spouse to get her attention; the little bird stayed put even while I clicked off a couple of shots of his woodland friends.
Spouse and I thoroughly enjoyed ourselves, and resolved to return with family members in tow. For sure, we thought, our nieces would get a kick out of hand-feeding the birds. Even more likely to enjoy this, we think, are our parents. But the happiest of all about today’s walk in the woods? This guy: