Birds of a Feather

My intention was to check the condition of several vernal pools as I tramped into the woods today. Only a few years ago I was taking photographs of wood frogs on this very date, but I knew that would not be today’s focus.

As I approached the first and saw that it was still snow covered, though the northeast side displayed the pastel bluish hue of slushy ice, I began to wonder what would draw my attention.

And then I looked down by my snowshoes and suspected I’d found the answer. That answer, however, brought other questions to mind. To whom did the feathers belong? What had happened? Were there others? How did they get there? And when?

Beside the pool and just below a hemlock, I found another. The hemlock’s needles provided perspective for they were only about a half inch in length.

As I moved onto the pool, my eyes cued in to a feather here and a feather there and occasionally a cluster in the mix.

While most were slate gray, I began to note some with tints of brown on the outer fringe.

There were even a few that I thought might be tail feathers, but really my bird knowledge needs to increase greatly. Again, however, with their orientation beside the beech leaf, it was obvious that the bird of choice was not big.

With so many feathers on display, as minute as they were, I wondered who had dined. Or rather, who had snacked for it hardly seemed like a full-fledged meal (pun alert) had been consumed. I found the tracks and then scat of one of the neighborhood deer and knew it was intent on the hemlocks beside the pool and small birds were not on its menu.

In the melted water by the scat were a a couple of feathers of lighter colors. And then it occurred to me. All had been plucked.

Finding no other evidence of tracks other than deer and turkeys, my mind began to gaze skyward for I considered a bird of prey as the predator. The pool is surrounded by a mixed forest of beech, maples, oaks, hemlocks and pines. Several would have been fine candidates for a feeding tree.

And so I began to wonder if there was more evidence somewhere near the pool. With that in mind, I climbed out of it, and still here and there tiny clumps or individual presentations caught my attention.

With that knowledge, I made a plan. I began on the northern edge looking south and then turned around and walked out, scanning the ground and trees, both at eye level and above, looking for evidence.

I’d walk out as far from the pool as I found evidence, also checking every tree well on the way. Do you see the bits of gray?

Any feathers were more scattered the further from the pool I went, but still they were present. And if you’ve noticed, all were atop any other ground debris. That was significant.

At the point where I saw the last of the feathers, I’d turn around and approach the pool again at an angle, thus zigzagging in and out as I circled it. The furthest away that I got was about 15 snowshoe lengths.

By the time I reached the southerly shore I realized that there were no feathers. That also proved to be significant.

While I was searching, or perhaps because, I found other things of interest like the jelly ear fungus, Auricularia auricula-judae.

It’s one of my favorites this time of year and I love its rubbery and gelatinous feel.

But I digress. And so back to my bird. I didn’t encounter feathers again until about half way back on the westerly side. That lead me to make some conclusions that may be totally wrong, but I’ll put myself out on limb (oh geesh, another one) with my findings: 1. The perpetrator had dined from high up in one of the trees on the north side and I suspected a pine or oak. 2. And if it had dined from above, then the predator was a larger bird 3. The meal was rather recent for all of the feathers were on top of the surface, rather than having sunk into the snow or appearing from under any other debris. 4. I suspected the victim was a Dark-eyed Junco. While the Juncos were everywhere in the fall, once the snow fell in early November, we didn’t see them for a couple of months. And then in mid-January a few found our feeders. This week, the flock has increased substantially as they migrate north and I counted twenty on the ground and in the trees by our home, which isn’t far from the pool.

I never did make it to the other vernal pools today, for so taken was I with trying to figure out the mystery of the feathers. Another thing about Juncos is that though many we see are slate gray, females may be a bit buffy on top of their head, back, and wings.

The other thing about Juncos is their countershadowing coloration.

Looking at the bird from the ground, it tends to blend in with the sky, especially on this gray day. And if you were to look down on the bird from above, it would blend in with the ground. That is, unless of course, you have snow on the ground as we have had for quite a while. It’s beginning to melt, especially in this afternoon’s rain and fog, but it does make the wee birds an easy target for the bigger ones.

Yesterday I saw a big one, but not in my backyard. Well, in a way I guess it was for I saw it near our camp. And I should have recognized it for I spent all last summer watching an immature and adult in the very location but it’s coloration threw me off.

When I first spied it, I thought it was an eagle or an owl. But the closer I got (mind you, I wasn’t as close as this may seem given that it’s a telephoto lens on a Canon Powershot), the more the white spots on those wings confused me. So, I settled for a hawk–either an immature Broad-winged, Red-shouldered or Red-tailed. But . . . . for once I did what I should always do–and reached out to those who know more than me.

Thank you to Alan and Linda Seamans and the Stanton Bird Club for they all agreed that it was a sub-adult Bald Eagle. Notice the mask. According to the Cornell allaboutbirds site, which I visited at least a hundred times yesterday: “Third year birds [Bald Eagles] have a mostly white belly, with some brown mottling, a brown chest, and a broad brown mask on the face.” Said my friend Alan, who is also a Maine Master Naturalist, “The huge schnozz is being noted by all, much too big in proportion for a red-tailed.”

Thank you also to the birds who continue to teach me about their life stories every day. I don’t always interpret what I see correctly and I admit I may be wrong about thinking the feathers belonged to a Junco, but I do enjoy the journey. Birds of a feather, they keep me wondering.

4 thoughts on “Birds of a Feather

Comments are closed.