For the Birds: A tree full of birds

Photo by Chris Bosak A palm warbler perches in New England, October 2021.

A pair of ruby-crowned kinglets flitted among the brush, and a crow or two flew overhead. That was all the bird action on the early part of the walk.

Then I heard a commotion coming from a nearby tree. It was a huge, dead maple tree with no leaves on its branches, but various types of vines climbed up its trunk and spread out among the limbs. The vines still had their leaves, making the tree look like nature had splattered various shades of red, yellow, orange and green on the venerable old guard.

Something must have been lurking among the brush because the birds were on high alert. I’ve never seen a more varied collection of bird species in one tree before. I could hardly believe it as I counted out the species in my head.

For starters, there were three types of woodpeckers among the branches: northern flicker, downy and yellow-bellied sapsucker. It was the first sapsucker I had seen in a while. I’m not sure if the woodpeckers were joining in the commotion or just looking for food in the dead tree.

A lingering catbird, a small group of Carolina wrens and a large gathering of white-throated sparrows made the majority of the noise. Carolina wrens have such an impressive repertoire of songs and calls, but they stuck to their alarm calls on this occasion. Although they stayed hidden among the brush, cardinals added to the cacophony with their own high-pitched alarm calls.

A lone blue jay squawked out its namesake “jay, jay” call from time to time. In the spring, a lone blue jay might be enough to cause such a ruckus that the other birds would be protective of their eggs or babies, but I don’t think the blue jay caused this uproar.

I never did find the source of the alarm. I looked carefully for a hawk or owl but didn’t see anything. I easily could have missed a sharp-shinned or Cooper’s hawk in the brush, though. The nearby field sometimes attracts northern harriers, but not on this day. The field is also where I had seen a bobcat in the spring. I didn’t see a bobcat or house cat around, but that doesn’t mean one wasn’t lurking among the brush.

As I stood there watching, a robin joined the other birds in the tree. Then, a small mixed flock of blackbirds, mostly red-winged blackbirds, settled among the highest branches. A flock of 20 or so cedar waxwings flew overhead but kept on moving right past the old maple.

Eventually, I gave up on finding what had the birds on edge. By that time, most of the commotion had settled down anyway.

I continued the walk and saw a few palm warblers and yellow-rumped warblers. A few minutes later, about a dozen juncos scurried off the path and into the brush on both sides of the trail. It was like the changing of the guard. The warblers will soon be gone to points south, and the juncos are here to stay for the winter.

This fall has been full of surprises for me on my bird walks. Patience isn’t always a strength of mine, but it’s certainly paid off lately.

On an unrelated note, it is safe to feed the birds again. In case you were still holding off on filling your feeders because of the mysterious disease that was killing birds in the Mid-Atlantic and Midwestern states, it has been deemed safe to resume feeding. They still haven’t found out exactly what was causing the deaths, however. Remember to keep the feeders safe by cleaning them frequently.

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