Interventional Birding

Tree Swallow, Tachycineta bicolor

Tree Swallow, Tachycineta bicolor

My day job is a radiologist.  We sit in dark rooms all day and observe, sorting out normal anatomy from pathology, and create reports of our findings.  It’s something like a birder who observes and tabulates birds, and submits findings to eBird for all to see.  But some of my professional colleagues get tired of the passive observing and want to intervene–biopsy, drain, de-clot, expand, and reroute, thus becoming interventional radiologists.  Similarly I’ve caught myself becoming a interventional birder–let me explain.

Barn Swallow, Hirundo rustica

Barn Swallow, Hirundo rustica

One obvious example is the low level intervention of setting out bird feeders and houses.  I’m up to 6 or 8 houses and 4 feeders spread around the yard, positioned so one can easily observe the action from a window and a comfortable chair.  The birds don’t really need these, but it brings them closer for our viewing pleasure.  Normally I just let mother nature do its thing regarding squirrels, black snakes, and hawks which all occasionally disrupt the normal flow and utopia of yard-life, but this week I had to intervene.

Tree Swallows, Tachycineta bicolor

Tree Swallows, Tachycineta bicolor

One of my Bluebird houses is home to a family of Tree Swallows this year.  I can live with that.  They are interesting birds, great fliers, eat a lot of bugs, and at least they are not House Sparrows.  The eggs have recently hatched and we have observed an incessant parade of responsible parents bringing food to their young–I mean a visit every couple minutes–not those feedings every 4 or 5 hours that we lived through with our children.

American Crow, Corvus brachyrhynchos

American Crow, Corvus brachyrhynchos

But all the commotion caught the attention of 4 hungry Fish Crows who frequent the riverside trees near the bird house.  These crows are smart–some say our smartest birds.  As we were eating our dinner and watching, one crow would make a pass at the birdhouse and be chased off by the small, brave swallow, leaving the other parent to chase off crow #2.  But that left the house and contents vulnerable to crows #3 and #4 who landed on the roof and stuck their heads and beaks through the hole as far as possible, probing for the tasty chicks.  It was hard for me to take–clearly the swallows were losing this unfair fight, so I lept up from the table leaving a hot supper, put on my Superman’s cape and chased the crows away.  I think the underdog swallows were actually grateful, the crows stayed away, and I felt good.  That’s interventional birding.

Forster's Terns, Sterna forsteri, along with Laughing Gulls and Snowy Egrets on my dock

Forster’s Terns, Sterna forsteri, along with Laughing Gulls and Snowy Egrets on my dock

I have other examples where I’m not the quite the same hero.  My dock and boats are the most popular place in the neighborhood for birds to nest, eat, defecate, and just hang out. I have dismantled the starling’s nest in the boat-lift motor housing 5 times so far this year–they just don’t get the message.  At least the Barn Swallows nest under the dock.  The guano accumulation from all the gulls, terns, and Osprey had become unbearable.  I spend more time cleaning the boats then using them. My goal is to make the birds uncomfortable on my dock so they will move to the neighbors.  Let me enumerate my some of my failed interventional strategies.

Laughing Gull, Larus atricilla

Laughing Gull, Larus atricilla

Forget plastic owls–they don’t work.  Gulls mocked me by sitting on the owl’s head.  I’m going broke buying wind socks–they’re pretty and patriotic but don’t affect the birds.  A “Gull Sweep” is a wind-vane device that I’ve mounted on my motor boat console.  It rotates over a 6 foot diameter, and I must admit it keeps that small circle clean when the wind’s blowing. The rest of the boat is a mess.  A few years ago I engineered an elaborate system of hoses and sprinklers on timers, randomly coming on around the clock, successfully shooing the birds away and washing the dock, until I realized that the constant moisture was rotting the dock.  Last year I spent big bucks to have a custom cover made to protect the sailboat, stem to stern.  It works, but takes a long time to remove and apply, making me think twice before going for a sail.  I’ve bought a spike this year for the top of the mast, a favorite landing and toilet location for Osprey, but the jury is still out regarding its longevity.  Yesterday I noticed that it was bent.

Great Black-backed Gull, Larus marinus

Great Black-backed Gull, Larus marinus

So now I’m beginning to rethink my approach to all this.  How about making lemonade out of lemons (guano)?  It finally occurred to me that I have more terns, gulls, and Osprey to observe and photograph, up close and personal, then anyone else on my river.  I should just become the world’s expert on these birds.  I purchased the Peterson Reference Guide, “Gulls of the Americas”, by Steve Howell and Jon Dunn.  Talk about difficult.  There are 22 species of gulls that breed in North America, with only a few expected on my dock–seems easy enough.  But just try to understand their plumage.  Gulls undergo periods of molt that can last up to 6 months and are continuously in transition from one plumage to the next for much of their lives.  Add to this the breeding and non-breeding modifiers, and first, second, third, and fourth year cycles describing the maturing patterns, and you have ID work cut out for you.  Luckily the sexes appear alike.

Osprey, Pandion haliaetus

Osprey, Pandion haliaetus

The Osprey is much easier and only present here from March to September.  There are 3 nests visible from the dock and thus I enjoy constant diving for fish and flyovers making for great observing and photography.  Besides the mating pairs there are many others just hanging out and practicing nest building and stick selection.  These must be the juvenile first and second year birds getting ready for the upcoming responsibilities of parenthood–perhaps next year.  Have you noticed that you often see these birds flying over with a headless fish in their talons?  Why do they eat the head first?  This week I got to observe the decapitation process up close.  The Osprey landed on my light at the end of the dock with a struggling perch in its grasp.  Slowly, bite by bite it picked at the fish head until it stopped flopping, then slowly completed the meal and took the headless leftovers to the nest, leaving me the cleanup chores on the dock.

Osprey, Pandion haliaetus

Osprey, Pandion haliaetus, with headless fish

I think the birds have won.  So much for this intervention, and maybe that’s fitting.  They were here long before us and our docks, and will probably be here long after we are gone.

4 thoughts on “Interventional Birding

  1. Your story is like what i would have done. I would have saved those babies too. The gulls? I have seen those plastic owls with gulls sitting on them too. Makes me laugh, but not if I had to clean the boat like you. Nice job too. Lots of schooling for that I bet.

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  2. There’s a little guilt chasing these birds away, but enough is enough. I haven’t heard anyone getting good results from the owls–you wonder how the company stays in business. Thanks for your comments.

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  3. Tree swallows look so nice! It must be very interesting to have them so close to your house. Those gulls and terns are beautiful birds for one like me, who don’t live near a lake/sea/ocean but it seems they can make some troubles, too. I didn’t know this but reading your post helped me.

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    1. The swallows and tern are fun to watch. They are the aerial acrobats with the swallows catching bugs in mid-air and the terns diving head-first into the water from 50 feet to get their fish. Thanks for your comment and thanks for visiting my blog.

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