| I was up to my neck in blueberries the other day, doing my best to garner my share before the cedar waxwings, bears, turkeys and other assorted critters finished them off. It was a cool day, one of those low-humidity breaks between hot spells, and sunny. Never one to waste a nice day cooped up indoors (though I’ve had my share of seeing the world through blackened factory windows) I grabbed my bucket and headed out to spend an hour picking berries.
I was a little chagrined to be using up valuable wildlife observation time “working,” but I should have known that my wild neighbors wouldn’t let me down. Between feverish bouts of picking I’d take a break to gulp down a handful of blueberries while listening to the birds and animals around me. Even though I was in an open field near three houses, a busy road and three rural businesses I was amazed at what was going on under the forest canopy around me.
It was early in the day so the crows and ravens were busy inspecting their world, and several of each flapped over to see what trouble might be brewing down below. Both species are common here but they are usually seen on their way to or from some important scavenging or depredation. Ravens are the more sophisticated of the two, soaring and squawking, clucking and screeching as they go. It’s rare to see a raven doing anything as mundane as raiding a garden or harassing the neighbor’s cat. Apparently they are content to leave such juvenile pursuits to the crows, which seem to be ever in a rush to not only see what’s going on but to tell everyone about it.
Within the treetops I could hear squirrels barking in several directions. These are not always danger calls, but occasionally a squirrel will just sit and complain for no particular reason, or he will work on gathering nuts while chattering to himself like an angry old man who has to go back and close the gate the grandchildren left open. There is a squirrel call that always gets my attention, that sudden burst of chatter a squirrel utters when he’s spotted a nearby house cat, fox or hawk. It’s a quick, loud, alerting sort of call and invariably means something bad is close by. I’ve never heard the sound without seeing a predator of some kind passing through. Today it was a red-tailed hawk that thought it could slip in undetected. Not so easy when the woods are full of squirrels!
A flock of blue jays wandered through around mid-morning, not stopping at any of my feeders but just having a look around. The only birds bothering with sunflower seeds these days are the nuthatches, goldfinches and chickadees. If I remember to put seed on the ground away from the porch I’ll have turkeys and doves drop by a few times a day, and at night I will see raccoons, skunks and the resident gray fox. Between all these hungry visitors I go through 50 pounds of seed a month in summer triple that in winter.
Earlier in the morning there was a chorus of veery, thrush, thrasher and phoebe calls emanating from the underbrush. The notes of the former are often difficult to tell apart but a phoebe’s song is quite simple: “Fee-bee.” Not much mystery there!
One of my favorite birds of the low bushes is the catbird. Plain gray in color, the catbird sounds exactly like . . . a cat! It will flit from bush to bush uttering as perfect a rendition of a “meow” as any barnyard feline could offer. In fact, so precise is the call that one could reasonably expect a big, old coon cat to come out from under the woodpile.
Back in the woods, seemingly coming from all sides at once was the boom of a ruffed grouse. These birds don’t normally have much to say; perhaps a bit of a worried “putt-putt-putt” when surprised and about to flush, but when the male grouse steps up on his favorite log to announce his territorial rights few who can hear can ignore it. The drumming of a grouse has been likened to the sound of thunder, an approaching motorcycle or an off-beat bass drum, but in any case it’s unique and remarkable, considering that the bird makes the noise with his wings while standing upright on his perch.
One of the more common July sounds is the piping of busy chipmunks. Surrounded by stone walls, piles of old lumber and rocks the size of small cars, my field is full of these little rodents and I’m always glad to see and hear them. More tolerant of me than most of my wild neighbors, the chips keep track of things from the highest point in the wall and let me know with a quick chirp when I’ve come too close. Patiently waiting for me to go inside or leave the yard proper, they’ll sneak in and steal all the sunflower seeds they can stuff into their cheeks, most often putting them in an empty boot or box on the porch, which I then dump right back onto the pile in the yard.
It’s not often that I hear snakes in the yard but when the sun came around the corner of the house and hit the woodpile I heard a strange rustling sound that required an investigation. On the top of the pile was a split piece of oak that had a long, sharp splinter attached to it. To the splinter was attached the better part of a garter snake’s skin, perhaps two feet or more, which dangled in the breeze and made a soft noise whenever it hit the wood.
That was interesting enough to me but then I noticed four snakes sunning themselves on top of the pile. Harmless and actually useful, I didn’t bother them, but I did wonder which one left his hide behind.
All of this took place within 10 steps of my back door while I was fully engaged in picking blueberries, proof enough that one doesn’t need to walk five miles back in the woods for a little wildlife diversion!