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BAckyard Birder

‘The Kids Are All Right’: Young birds everywhere

It’s been too long since I’ve visited the Fremont Field town conservation land here in Peterborough. So long that I feared the path wouldn’t be mowed, the beavers would have flooded and eroded the path yet again, and invasive plants would have taken over.

Only one turned out to be true.

The mystery path mower has been on the job, and the beavers have moved well upstream. Any overflow of their broad impoundment will flood field not trail.

The invasive shrubs are rampant. I lopped a lot, as usual, but tried to keep my focus on more relaxing observations.

The morning was still, with not a whisper of air — all the better to hear and to notice insect and bird movement without the distraction of leaf movement.

Close your eyes and you know it’s late summer: pulsing cricket song; not much birdsong; still air that’s hazy and heavy; earthy, mushroom smells. You know that goldenrod is in full bloom, buzzing with pollinators, and asters are on the way.

The usual sparrows stirred up from the front field and joined activity in the broad twin pines to the left of the trail. White pines that grow in open field luxuriate in that full sun, spreading their many branches wide to catch it all.

Most young pines growing in the open also get infested by white pine weevils that kill the terminal or lead shoot. The whorl of branches below the leader takes over, reaching high to form multiple lead branches. The trees grow very broad and very bushy instead of the tall straight pines that grow in a forest.

There’s no timber value in pasture pines, but they certainly provide cover and nesting habitat for birds — and climbing trees for grandchildren.

The twin pasture pines were filled with birds. Chipping sparrows, song sparrows, house wrens and one common yellowthroat warbler moved about in constant motion most likely caused by my presence.

Many were youngsters, their plumage murky compared with crisp adult plumage.

Lots of swallows filled the sky above the fields and beaver wetlands. An unexpected, pleasing sight. The “aerial insectivores,” birds that specialize in winged insects, are having a hard time, in decline.

Swallows coursing over water and field are a bygone sight, but not Monday at the Fremont. As further pleasure, they were barn swallows, the adults with clearly forked, elegant tails, and their young with hints of that elongation yet to come.

Thoughts of invasive shrubs vanished; the loppers dropped.

As many as 12 young barn swallows came and went on the bare branches of a willow partially killed by beavers. They were an agitated group, perched yet constantly on the move, preening, scratching, wing-twittering. I took a lot of photos while wondering which barn had fostered such a great population of barn swallows.

They were in the high-energy mode of migration preparation, feeding up for a long journey, soon to depart.

The eastern kingbird pair that patrols the beaver wetlands noisily during the breeding season were present, but quietly, shifting out of the aggressive territorial mode that led to their Latin name, Tyrannus tyrannus.

Kingbirds are reliable nesters at Fremont Field, although as an insectivore their numbers are declining. “The State of New Hampshire’s Birds” report by N.H. Audubon’s Pam Hunt divides aerial insectivores into “salliers” and “hawkers.” It’s a distinction I didn’t know.

Salliers like the eastern kingbird and other members of the flycatcher family fly out from a perch to grab insects, while hawkers like the swallows and chimney swifts keep at it, constantly airborne.

Young barn swallows, however, evidently need to rest up while the adults keep at it. During my morning visit they repeatedly returned to the willow snag.

Cedar waxwings joined the kingbird perched high in the tallest white birch tree that I circled long ago with chicken wire to protect it from the beavers. One waxwing showed the very muted plumage of a youngster.

Cedar waxwings are confirmed fruit-foragers and delay their nesting until late summer’s fruit bounty ripens. Most other local birds hatch their young when insects are most abundant.

Ripening fruit brings the subject around to the dreaded invasive trees/shrubs that are taking over Fremont: glossy buckthorn and autumn olive. I lopped down a lot with fruit not yet ripened.

A song sparrow — not a known fruit eater — landed in one buckthorn with juicy ripe berries and ate a few. Some seedeaters spit out pulp and keep the seed. The song sparrow appeared to eat both. As a seedeater, perhaps its system will fully consume the seed so it won’t be viable when evacuated.

I ate some fruit myself, a breakfast of blackberries. Blueberries were hard to find although I didn’t explore the bushes closer to the wetlands. Wetland soils often produce the sweetest blueberries.

Butterflies were noticeably absent — not one monarch despite the milkweed field maintained just for them — and bluebirds were among the missing.

I’ll return again, soon this time, with hopes of both.

The Backyard Birder runs on alternating Thursday’s in the Monadnock Ledger-Transcript.

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