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A male rose-breasted grosbeak perches on a feeder at Peavey Hill Feeds in Farmington, where a pair seems to be nesting in the wooded area next to the store. (Cheryl Kimball/Union Leader Correspondent)

Uncommonly common birds of our back yard


ALL OF A sudden everything is happening at once and fast. Two days after I thought I could detect painted trillium stems peeking up through the dried fallen leaves carpeting the edge of the woods trail, boom, there are the flowers in their white and purple striped glory. The grass is long enough to be mowed and the perimeter trail around our woods that I walk several times a week is closing in from each side, making it clear I need to start carrying loppers on a few loops around. Leaves seem to have unfurled over the course of a just couple days. Finally some rain is in the forecast, and just like that our world becomes lusher and softer, like an extra dimension has been added.

In the meantime, the birds have gotten more active and summer species have appeared. I have yet to hear the thunder of wings of my beloved chimney swifts echo into the dining room, but the prolific barn swallows are back. Not only are they twirling around the barn and swooping in the open back door, but they are in full nesting mode.

We have flushed a pair of wood ducks a couple of times in the swampy area behind the cemetery on our property that doesn’t stay paddle-able for ducks for very long. The wood ducks have been lured with nesting boxes for several years now, but despite having seen pairs of these gorgeous ducks around almost every year, none have ever chosen to nest in the boxes provided.

Various Facebook friends have posted first-of-the-season sightings. Just 10 miles from me a friend gets to enjoy the song of the whippoorwill, while I hear none. At least two FB friends have spotted the incredible indigo bunting in their yards. Although these sparrow-sized brilliant blue birds are, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, “common and widespread,” I have never seen one. Apparently I need to start spending time lurking around our weedy fields which the guidebooks say is favored habitat, as well as shrubby areas near trees. The indigo bunting’s territory, according to “The Sibley Guide to Birds,” stretches well up into Maine and even Canada, south to Florida, across the Midwest and into much of the Southwest. This bird (which is not to be confused with the apparently equally as striking but larger blue grosbeak whose territory does not extend to New England) has become high on my “most wanted sightings” list.

Other Facebook postings include resident bluebirds nesting in boxes. I hadn’t even seen one until late last week when a pair streaked away from the tree outside our barn and off toward the backyard. I put up a nesting box but I think I was too late, and I also think it is in a place that will get too hot.

Other occasionals I see here at our place is the killdeer, who nests out on open ground, squeals around on foot and flies low like a shorebird. A barred owl hung out at night on a low limb over the stonewall along our front yard the first year we were here — we continue to hear them regularly but I haven’t actually seen one since. And at least over the summer I usually catch a belted kingfisher hanging out at our pond for a day or two. His distinct chatter alerts me to his presence first and then I can easily spot him with his gray crested head and long bill on a low branch, looking to make a quick dive at the first sign of a potential meal in the water.

Of all the birds we get to see fairly regularly at feeders in the area, the one that I find to be perhaps the most spectacular of all when it comes to coloring is the rose-breasted grosbeak. It is almost impossible to stop watching this remarkable bird. The females are very distinguished with their streaky brown and white feathering. But the males are just extraordinary with a pitch-black head, black and white wings and a white chest with a bold upside-down large triangle of blood red under the chin.

My first encounter with the rose-breasted grosbeak was at our family birdfeeders growing up on the Seacoast. I could not get enough of them. I suspect the rose-breasted grosbeak helped me become as interested in birdwatching as I am today. How could you not be captivated by the flitting yellow and black-and-white and purplish-pink little birds when, bam, out of the sky drops this marvelously painted bird onto your feeder?

Rose-breasted grosbeaks do not seem particularly skittish. While they aren’t as inclined to feed out of your hand as the little chickadees, they also aren’t easily scared off, which makes it easy and rewarding to watch them. They are often in pairs and often more than one male seems to hang around at a time. I have wondered why I am not inclined to travel the world, or at least the country, on birdwatching-specific excursions. (If you are an avid bird watcher who has not seen the movie “The Big Year” about birding excursions, I highly recommend ordering it from Netflix right now. Very entertaining.) And I certainly am interested in the local birds when I do travel somewhere. However, for me, there is something intriguing about knowing about the birds that are living in our midst, that are part of my own natural landscape. And to know that a specimen like the uncommonly common indigo bunting is likely somewhere under my nose and I haven’t seen one means I still have a lot of birdwatching left to do in my own back yard!

Cheryl Kimball is a freelance writer who lives north of Rochester. You can email her at naturetalksck@gmail.com.


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