A Solitary Walker: At home among the backyard birds

Micki Colbeck. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Micki Colbeck. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

A female American redstart sits on her nest near the author's Strafford home.

A female American redstart sits on her nest near the author's Strafford home. Micki Colbeck photograph

By MICKI COLBECK

For the Valley News

Published: 06-14-2024 4:22 PM

Early on, I noticed that my legs were sturdy like my brother’s — Irish legs, short and strong, close to the ground, better perhaps for digging potatoes and clearing rocks, as my grandparents may have done. While my teenage friends seemed to dance through life with perfect legs under short skirts, I bounded along the woods and creek banks in jeans.

After decades of bounding, hiking, biking, and swimming, those Irish, potato-digging legs did not falter. I began to appreciate how they had carried me safely through life, even occasionally decorating them with swirly skirts when we danced. My appreciation grew as titanium and cobalt became part of the hips and knees of my generation. But, one day in April, while jogging down the road with the LBDs (my faithful little brown dogs), I felt a bump, like I had a rock in my boot. After hobbling around the house for a couple of weeks, I saw my doctor, Adam, who looked at me forlornly, saying, “You know, it would heal faster if you would stay off it for a month or two.” I looked at him even more forlornly, both of us knowing I was not capable of that, especially with the spring ephemerals blooming and the warblers singing and the mosses and ferns having sporophyte sex.

Instead of moping around feeling bad, something wonderful happened, as I listened to my muse, Mary Oliver, and slowed down to see what was right here. Mary asks us what we plan to do with this one wild and precious life, as she spends the day on the ground looking closely at a grasshopper.

So, as I sit in the yard with the LBDs, I start noticing how the volunteer red osier dogwood (Swida cerisea) has grown in stairstep tiers, adding a new umbrella of growth every year. The flowers and purple berries of this tall native shrub feed the warblers in the summer and the vireos in the fall. Now six years old, it has grown out of the burn pile that will never be burned because groundhog, snake and song sparrow live there. I notice the soundtrack around us, a mix of wren, phoebe, song sparrow, yellow warbler, common yellowthroat, cardinal, robin, catbird, oriole, dove, ovenbird, veery, goldfinch, the ubiquitous red eyed vireo, and the American redstart who let me photograph her sitting on her nest. How is a person to concentrate with so much music?

A pair of courting doves are cooing nearby, and I remember monitoring my first bird nests, filling out postcards 20 years ago, and mailing them to the Vermont Forest Bird Monitoring Program at VCE (then VINS). It was a dove nest in black cherry branches hanging over the river and a cedar waxwing nest high in the tamaracks.

The LBDs and I don’t need to wander far from our yard to see the world. Our brushy, barely mowed hillside sits on a fast, rocky river nestled between Granny Hand Hill and Molly Mountain (named by my son Gabe, after his beloved dog), both deep and wild forests, where deer winter over, bears climb beech trees, fox den up to have their kits and ovenbirds, winter wrens, yellow-bellied sapsuckers and wood thrush nest. The river that runs between is ever-changing, as everyone goes there for nourishment.

Mallards (Anas platyrynchos), who are the ancestors of almost all domestic duck breeds, nest along the banks. The females lay from one to 13 eggs and will sometimes dump extra eggs into other mallards’ nests. The mallard who swims by here has close to 30 chicks of various colors, from black to light brown, so I suspect her nest was visited. I hear the squawking and see fluffy balls paddling furiously, some chicks swimming behind her, some running along the banks barely keeping up. I lose my scientific head and find them adorable.

Birthing does often choose brushy places near the river, close to homes and yards with dogs, perhaps finding it safer than up in the forest where coyotes and other predators hunt. I watch a doe nurse her spotted fawn on the banks. She browses fresh leaves as the doe suckles. Then, not to leave a scent and not to waste anything, she eats the droppings from her fawn — a cycle of nutrition.

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I’ve thought of naming my little half-acre more or less (a Vermont land parcel description) Wrendom. Every nest box with a Vermont license plate roof, every old boot nailed up to the barn, every gourd my son has grown and painted has a female wren on eggs or a male out front declaring his and his nest’s wonderfulness.

It all began many years ago when I put up the first box in the yard and monitored it daily. That first season we had half a dozen little beaks peeking out of the box cheeping. When the parents seemed to have abandoned the nest, I called Chris Rimmer at Vermont Center for Ecostudies, asking what I should do. Chris reassured me that birds do this to get the young to fledge, and anyway, if the adults were gone, there wasn’t much I could do. He was right, and from that time on, my yard has been Wrendom, with last year’s parents and fledges coming back to nest. Wrens are territorial, and woe to any bluebirds or tree swallows who might check out the yard.

I am looking forward to long hikes in the mountains again, but until then, I am listening to a symphony of bird song and to Mary Oliver and working on being idle, on falling down in the grass, and on paying attention.

Micki Colbeck is a naturalist and a writer and chair of the Strafford Conservation Commission. Write to her at mjcolbeck@gmail.com.