Just Another Goose Post

I’m a bit of a schizophrenic birder when it comes to policing my patch on the Chesapeake Bay. In the front yard my feeders attract birds, (and squirrels) and supply nonstop entertainment through the window as I sit at the desk and write this. These are the typical passerines you all see, cardinals, jays, finches, chickadees, and titmice, with an occasional woodpecker or nuthatch thrown in to make it more interesting. On the waterside of the house however, it is very different. I’ve declared war on the dock, boat, and swimming pool desecrators, and those large birds that feed off my grass. We’re talking gulls, terns, and osprey, on the dock and those pesky Canada Geese fouling the pool and denuding the lawn.

Tufted Titmouse, Baeolophus atricristatus

A real birder and naturalist would welcome them all and put up with the guano and a mudflat for a lawn, as he or she observed our avian friends. They would tell me that I have invaded the their space and that I should be thankful that the birds even allow me a home on the bay. Not me. Recently my warfare has escalated and I believe that I have won, at least the latest battle.

Laughing Gull, Larus atricilla

It’s election season and time to exercise our democratic right to vote. It’s a time for patriotism and flag waving, or in my case, banner waving. For less than $20 you can purchase red, white, and blue, star-spangled windsocks. With perhaps a 10% split for patriotic fervor, and 90% for bird deterrence, I’ve hung them on poles up and down the dock and on the sailboat stays. It has helped somewhat, at least when the wind’s blowing. I still haven’t solved the flyover bombardment, though.

Carolina Chickadee, Poecile carolinensis

My greater victory has been against those nasty Canada Geese. James Michener in his classic novel “Chesapeake”, waxed poetic about these birds, mating for life, and traveling great distances from the arctic tundra to grace us with their temporary presence every fall and winter. That was before the geese learned that migration was not everything it was cracked up to be; why not just stay put on Steve’s lawn all year, get fat and happy, and raise a big family of sedentary resident goslings. The number of these non-migrators has skyrocketed and I hear grumbling even from my nature loving neighbors. After spending big bucks to reseed the lawn this fall I decided to try a new approach.

Canada Goose, Branta canadensis

On the way home from Blackwater Refuge in Dorchester County, a flat, rural land of large farms and fields, I noticed huge, perhaps 6 feet tall, Bald Eagles scattered throughout a field. From a distance they looked real, but obviously were not, at least to this discerning human. They were tall plywood birds, presumably erected to keep out the geese and save the crops. Why not give this a try at home?

A trip to Loew’s for 3 sheets of 2×4 foot plywood, a few cans of paint, and after the resurrection of some latent artistic skills (with a big assist from the spouse), I had three Bald Eagle decoys ready to go. My only blunder was the way too small feet and talons that can be corrected on later editions. These likenesses will not upstage Audubon, but everyone has to start somewhere.

Previously my typical day involved 3 or more mad dashes out the door, waving my arms to shoo away the 50-75 feeding geese, and even a few that were bold enough to lounge around the pool closer to the house. They would just honk a little, briefly fly away by making a wide circle, and return as soon as I went indoors. The recent addition of the migrating crowd to the resident geese made things even worse. But now, 3 weeks after the erection of the Bald Eagles I have not had a single Canada Goose land! They fly over, look, and keep going. Now the question is how long can I keep this deception going.

Bald Eagle, Haliaeetus leucocephalus

My first step has been to occasionally move the eagles to keep the geese off balance. Unfortunately my bluebirds are threatening to blow my cover. This week these beautiful passerines have been perching on the eagles’ heads and soiling my paint job. Zippity-doo-dah. I’m afraid the geese will notice the boldness of these little birds and finally realize that they’ve been duped. How is it that a little bluebird brain has figured this all out but the much larger goose brain has not. Size is not everything when it comes to birdbrains. I’m considering marketing these effective decoys, so don’t tell anyone about my invention. Maybe it will finance my retirement. If you check on-line you’ll see that people spend big bucks on devices to scare off geese.

Today we had another unexpected benefit from the decoys. A beautiful adult Bald Eagle landed near one of his plywood brothers to have a closer look. What was he thinking? Was he amazed at this amazon-sized relative, intimidated, or perhaps just being a critic of my paint job? I don’t think I’ve ever been closer to one of our national birds and grabbed this shot through the window.

Bald Eagle

It was all so patriotic with waving red, white, and blue banners, real and fake eagles on the lawn, election day fast approaching, and finally, beautiful green grass. I’ll permit the geese to also admire it all, but only from the neighbor’s yard.

Milestones of Birding

Sandhill Crane, Crus canadensis

It was meant to be a power walk, purely for exercise and Sunday morning fellowship with my spouse, but eventually my walk could not keep up with her power, and we separated, temporarily. Such a beautiful day it was, cool and crisp with just a hint of early fall color primarily in the sycamores and soybean fields. So there I was alone, in the midst of fall migration and great birding habitat, with no binoculars. It should not be a problem; this is what birders and observers of nature did for eons, pre-binocular. Just use your eyes, ears, and head, and pretend you are J. J. Audubon, absent the shotgun. And so I did.

Carolina Wren, Thryothorus ludovicianus

The Blue Jays, Carolina Wren, Cardinal, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Catbird, and Tufted Titmouse were all easy audible “sightings”. The Mockingbirds and soaring vultures were all clearly visible to the naked eye, but it took a little more discernment to separate the Turkey from the Black at that elevation. It’s the herkie-jerkie nervous flight of the slightly larger TV that makes this distinction for me. The flushed Northern Flickers were ID’ed by the white rump and undulating flight. It was satisfying to use GISS, just like the experts, (general impression, size, and shape).

Blue Jay, Cyanocitta cristata

But about the time my spouse rejoined me I was beginning to miss my binoculars. Several active small birds were feeding in the roadside shrubs, grayish with lighter bellies; perhaps gnatcatchers, kinglets, or vireos. I would never know. Audubon would have shot them and figured it out later when he mounted the corpse in a life-like posture and prepared his paints and easel. I, on the other hand, had to just walk away and rejoin the conjugal power walk. It all got me thinking about the early days of birding and the historical milestones that have made it so much easier, more efficient and enjoyable today.

Northern Flicker, Colaptes auratus

I cringe when I think of Audubon’s blasting birding and the sport of harvesting huge flocks of Passenger Pigeons and Carolina Parakeets in prior centuries, as if their numbers were infinite. At least Audubon only collected a few specimens and had their beauty and the advancement of science in mind. The other hunters were just out for a lark. Two things finally changed all that; binoculars and the Bird Treaty Act of 1918.

Turkey Vulture, Catharses aura

The optics of the early binoculars or “field glasses” were not ideal. Available as early as the 16th century they gave an inverted image with just a small field-of-view. One can only imagine trying to bird using this glass. The right-side-up prism design used today was invented by Ignatio Porro in 1854, and the clarity of the image took a leap forward with the superb glass manufactured by Carl Zeiss, starting in 1894. At last the subtle field marks of the flitting, living birds in the treetops were visible without bringing the specimen down with buckshot.

Black-necked Stilt, Himantopus mexicanus

The 1918 treaty between Canada, Great Britain, and the U.S. protecting birds was an interesting legal document. By using the international treaty format the federal government could override less stringent or contradictory state regulations. The law even disallows the collection of dead birds and their nests, feathers, and eggs, but does make numerous exceptions. Hunting game birds such as ducks, geese, and doves is understandably allowed, but surprisingly, other birds such as cranes, stilts, plovers, and sandpipers are not protected. Native Americans are given an exemption for religious reasons, but still, over 800 species are safer today due to this law.

Gray Catbird, Dumetella carolinensis

With most birds protected, at least on this continent, and with excellent glass available, the time was ripe for Roger Tory Peterson’s first modern “Field Guide to the Birds” published in 1934. It was a hit, quickly selling out the first edition and has remained popular for many years in 5 subsequent editions. His skillful illustrations of the birds and his technique of pointing out their most significant field marks, revolutionized birding and introduced many new generations of birders to the hobby, including me. There are now innumerable similar guides covering every county, state, and country. I know; I own many, too many.

Guides also come in flesh and blood. These human experts, at least in today’s numbers, are a relatively new milestone of birding, and easily contacted and engaged on the internet. They have enhanced my birding life immeasurably, both domestically and overseas. Stateside this includes guides at Cape May, the Rio Grande Valley, and on Monterey Bay, and during international birding in Argentina, Italy, India, Panama, England, Finland, and Norway. Every one of these guides made the excursions productive and memorable.

Red-breasted Nuthatch, Sitta canadensis

My list of milestones is much longer, but unfortunately, including them all would make this post too long and unwieldy, but might be perfect for a Part II someday. It would include eBird and phone apps, efforts to protect habitats, photo-birding, and the proliferation of bird feeders and back-yard birders. I’m sure you can think of more milestones.

Osprey, Pandion haliaetus

I lost a dear friend and neighbor today, not from the virus but rather succumbing to a far more sinister disease after a several year-long struggle to live. He was a fellow sailor and avid reader; a retired NASA engineer who used this same calm logic to cope with his illness, right to the end. He was not a birder per se but became a keen observer of the comings and goings of the Osprey to the platform he had constructed within easy view from his sunroom. My last conversation with him was in this sunroom. He expressed disappointment that the birds did not seem to breed successfully or raise a family this year. I reassured him that they were likely yearlings, practicing nest building and fishing, so next season, when they return, they could move up to the rigors of parenting. He seemed satisfied with that explanation and the testimony that life will go on. May he rest in peace.