Walking with the ‘bird dog’
The big dog sat on the cot by the upstairs window, above the bird feeder, looking out as the little birds — goldfinches, nuthatches, sparrows — flew straight up from the feeder and circled next to the window before diving back down for sunflower seeds.
Were they showing off? Visiting? The big dog just watched them, her head bobbing up and down and side to side, following their flight patterns.
I like to think the dog is becoming something of a birdwatcher. Certainly we are observant during our morning rambles.
Last week, for instance, we heard some wild, maniacal bird laughter in the woods, and the dog looked up at me, quizzically I thought. “It’s a pileated woodpecker,” I told her, and she seemed satisfied. On our way home, we saw a pair of pileateds flying, one after the other, out of a half-dead red pine.
I don’t know about the dog, but I love seeing those big, prehistoric-looking birds, with their crested red heads and long beaks. I like hearing them pecking in the woods, sounding like jackhammers and leaving piles of wood chips under their excavations. I know they nest around us, although I’ve never seen the babies. But this year the adult pair is sticking close together, winging around the edges of the woods. Maybe they’re newlyweds.
Pileated woodpeckers are monogamous and territorial, so we’re likely seeing the same two birds wherever our morning ramble takes us. Unless their kids are still around.
The birds are hard to miss — they are bigger than crows, dark with a white stripe starting below their eyes and running down their necks, and that bright red cap. And even if you don’t see them, you’ll hear them laughing or hammering in the woods, or see the evidence of their feeding habits on standing dead trees. Their favorite food is carpenter ants and termites, and they carve big rectangular holes in trees while dining.
And the holes they leave make useful nests for other birds: smaller woodpeckers, wrens, owls, even bats will move in after the pileateds move off.
It’s been a good week for big bird spotting. During an evening dip in Lake Luzerne, some boys in an inflatable raft pointed out a bald eagle roosting in a tall white pine over the lake. “I think it’s mad at us,” one of the boys told me. “We’re backing off.”
The eagle didn’t look particularly mad to me, although I can’t claim to be an expert in eagle expressions. It sat in one place for the 45 minutes we were there, turning its head now and then, but otherwise unmoving.
The swimmers and onlookers watched, chatting about various eagle sightings. I’d never seen an eagle at Lake Luzerne before, I mentioned to one man, who said he’d seen one there once, about 26 years ago. Both of us had seen eagles near the Sacandaga, on the Hudson at Spier Falls and on the Mohawk.
The rafting boys pulled out their fishing poles, glancing nervously at the eagle. “If I catch a fish, do you think it will attack?” one boy asked me. I didn’t think so.
We see eagles fairly often, but it’s always a treat and my kids seem to recognize how lucky they are to live near them. “That is just so cool,” my son said, every time he popped up from demonstrating his newest skill: surface diving.
One of our favorite eagle sightings was last summer when we were standing in a lake and an eagle swooped down, slapped the water with its feet and grabbed a fish, not 50 feet from where we stood.
If the big birds are fascinating to watch, so are the smallest birds. The flower gardens are full of hummingbirds now that the tiger lilies have bloomed and watching them hover, still in one spot, as they drink nectar is fascinating.
Even smaller than the hummingbird is that bird mimicker, the hummingbird moth. Feeding on the bee balm, its long proboscis looking just like a hummingbird’s long beak, the moth looks and acts like a tiny hummingbird, beating its wings to hover in place. I called my son out of the house to watch a pair in the garden last week, and the dog came over to take a look too.
I’m pretty sure she is filing away all this information for her life bird list, and as soon as she learns to write she’ll jot it all down: goldfinch, junco, robin, pileated woodpecker, hummingbird moth. I’m not sure she can differentiate between real birds and look-alikes.
Earlier last week she got to hear an eagle, a sort of shrieky, short laugh we noticed on our walk. The dog looked up at me, quizzically. “It’s an eagle, a bald eagle,” I told her, looking at the immature, all-dark bird winging overhead.
The dog didn’t look up in time, being distracted by a red squirrel. But I’m sure she’ll see another soon enough. And add it to her life list.
Margaret Hartley is the Gazette’s Sunday and features editor. Greenpoint appears in the Gazette’s print edition Sundays on the Environment page.
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