First, a belated "Thank You" to our readers who mailed Christmas cards to me. They encouraged me in this, the 51st year of "Nature Talks," to continue it as long as I am able.
My objective in writing "Nature Talks" has always been to encourage readers to really look at their outside world, appreciate its beauty, and enjoy nature's creations.
Each Christmas, for more years than I can recall, a longtime reader friend, Karen Metz, former resident of Windham, who now lives in Franktown, Colo., a woodland 6,600 feet above sea level, has written a special message describing her annual experiences with bluebird nesting and feeding. This Christmas Karen wrote, in part: "It's been another year and I've enjoyed the opportunities to read your column online. Several developments have taken place with regard to bluebirds this past year. I wrote an article for 'Bluebird,' the Journal of the North American Bluebird Society, about the Western Bluebirds here. To summarize that article: Very few bluebirds returned to our Franktown property in March, meaning that their wintering grounds had not been safe for them in terms of weather or food or predators. The male that we had called 'Junior' for the previous two years - that was lame but successfully raised a family - did not return. The few that did return nested early and one pair even attempted a third nest, although that nesting failed. The other 'pair' consisted of two males and one female. It's typical for one or even two additional males to assume a role of 'uncle' after a pair has raised its first brood, however two males were with one female from the start and they raised two broods together. I never saw the two males display competition or engage in physical disputes. All three seemed content with the arrangement.
"An abundant Miller moth population gave the birds good food and prospects. By July, however, the food crop seemed to have declined sharply after the lengthy and dangerous drought where we live. For some thirty years, I've offered mealworms to the bluebirds, and this year chickadees, both the black-capped and mountain species, often visited the mealworm feeder. The bluebirds learned cues from the chickadees and - for the first time ever - began visiting the caged feeders in which I hang peanut butter lard cakes.
"Two years ago I visited the Ash Canyon B&B in Southeast Arizona and had been surprised to see species like eastern bluebirds and chipping sparrows nibbling the cakes. I got Mary Jo Ballator's recipe and began making my own cakes. The nutritious treats from her recipe 'go like hot cakes.' Even juncos, chippies, towhees and the winter resident brown thrasher of last year joined the chickadees, grosbeaks, woodpeckers and nuthatches to balance on the small feeder cages that I hang from pine branches more than a dozen feet off the ground. The newly discovered food source was visited often by the two dozen bluebirds that nested and hatched here this summer - they chose the PB cakes as often as they went into the mealworm feeder.
"The severe drought here - in what I call 'Hummingbird Alley' - brought many more visits then usual by hummingbirds to my garden and feeders. Activity peaked by mid-July, with many young raised and many more migrants coming from the north. More than 40 hummingbirds were here daily before the migrating population began to dwindle before Labor day. Very few wildflowers bloomed and it was a challenge for the pollinators this summer.
"I'd mentioned the brown thrasher when I wrote a year ago. I didn't know if that visitor was male or female until early April when he began to sing - a song commonly heard where I live and I greatly enjoyed him. After a week though he ceased singing and apparently left to find a lady brown thrasher in a more typical location for them to live and breed.
"I've spent many days this year monitoring raptors and teaching groups about raptor education. Raptor species in this part of the continent are varied and fun to learn about and watch. I do love raptors - even though I admit to being less enthusiastic about the Accipiters - the Cooper's and sharp-shinned hawks. I've come to realize that the October departure date of the breeding western bluebirds here on my property is timed to the arrival of the first migrating sharp-shinned hawks. Cooper's Hawks breed here - in fact, the pair near here raised four young. The bluebirds are accustomed to Cooper's, but the sharpies trigger them to migrate away from here."
A Webster reader's card contained the following note: "In a recent column you mentioned hoary redpolls. On Dec. 6 we had five of them." Next week, more on this bird.
Stacey Cole's address is 529 W. Swanzey Road, Swanzey 03446.