Over Easy: Tending to his flock

  • Dan Mackie (Courtesy photograph)

For the Valley News
Published: 5/29/2020 9:11:03 PM
Modified: 5/29/2020 9:10:54 PM

Here at our nature preserve and family homestead in West Lebanon, spring has busted out all over. During the coronavirus crisis a small but dedicated group of volunteers has been monitoring events on our diminutive retreat, measuring one-third of an acre.

Compared with many Upper Valley parcels, it’s just a postage stamp, but it’s our postage stamp, the island upon which we are (more or less, depending on the hour) agreeably marooned.

Things started in earnest in February and March, when the virus hit the fan. We swung into action, stepping up feeding of underfed and peckish birds. Our Save the Chickadees effort had great success: The little black and white visitors flourished thanks to a generous supply of black oil sunflower seeds.

In my role as director of ornithological speculation, I have come to believe that once a bird’s basic needs are met — food, a cozy branch to hang your hat on, a mate who loves you for who you are — song patterns will become more elaborate. It is only a matter of time until the familiar “chick-a-dee-dee-dee” is followed by “chick-a-boom-boom-boom.” And so forth.

The finches are also doing splendidly, and the robins reliably practice social distancing. Just recently I saw a Baltimore oriole nearby. I was startled, since I associate them with the Maryland baseball team. I am thinking of opening a division of the nature preserve — a new wing, you might say — called the Baltimore Oriole Welcome Center. It will be for the birds, not the ballplayers, since we favor native sporting species like the Red Sox.

Closer to the ground, the Chipmunk Mediation Unit is at the ready, since a surfeit of chipmunks appears to be causing territorial disputes.

Because of favorable food supplies last year leading to a possible chipmunk boomlet, the population is up 100% to 300%.

One resident rodent resists change, and scolds newcomers with a nervous, repetitive “tsk, tsk, tsk” like a lunatic. Even hardened wildlife biologists would find this annoying. Sometimes I step outside and throw a “stick of attention” in his general direction. Eventually, they will have to settle things among themselves, but a stick in motion tends to put him in motion, and restore quiet.

Our Squirrel Sanctuary is particularly active, so we have been taking a census to confirm that the population has rebounded from the so-called “squirrelpocalypse” of a couple of summers ago. Staff have been hampered by the fact that squirrels look so much alike, and that a good portion of their caloric intake seemingly consists of caffeinated energy drinks that make them jumpy as hell. Nevertheless, our squirrel monitors remain calm and are doing the best they can.

The Lawn Corps is monitoring the attempts of rudbeckia — black-eyed Susans — to encroach on other sections of our greenway. We have to weigh taking a laissez-faire approach to lawn maintenance that suits the free-range rudbeckia versus intervention with the Craftsman mower that eliminates shabbiness that can unsettle other species, i.e., the neighbors.

The Entomology Department reports some hornet activity, though no murder hornets yet, only those of misdemeanor varieties. Notable are annoying hornets that get into the car and try to escape through the thick windshield glass over and over despite efforts to direct them to an open window.

This behavior reminds us of the unproductive life strategies of many humans.

In any case, our hornet policy is live and let live, and we hope their policy is the same.

The Cardinal Appreciation Program is in full swing, with my wife, Dede, addressing the handsome nesting pair as “Mr. and Mrs. Cardinal.” Unlike some birds, cardinals are reserved and formal, and slow to get on a first-name basis.

Overall, we find that extended time at the preserve has drawn our attention to the wonders close by: birdsong concerts at dawn, the many shades of green plants, the intensity of blue skies. Only close examination will reveal whether any of this is new, or if observers have been too consumed with other affairs (making a living, attending meetings, acquiring necessities such as food and lawn ornaments) to notice.

The research will go on. We will monitor bees, flies, lightning bugs and so much more. On unhurried days an afternoon cloud census will occupy our thoughts. If a tree, or even a branch, falls in our little forest we will surely hear it — and measure environmental effects. Data will be crunched. Theories will be floated.

So much to study and now, suddenly, so much time!

Dan Mackie lives in West Lebanon. He can be reached at dan.mackie@yahoo.com.




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