Backyard Birder

Searching for backyard Valentines

Last weekend was New Hampshire Audubon’s annual backyard winter bird survey, and I spent more time than usual outside in the backyard — as well looking out a lot of windows.

At some point, the search expanded to include signs of romance. Valentine’s Day is upon us. A granddaughter has been making glittery Valentine cards for weeks, and the day is more present in my mind than usual.

The first few steps outside Sunday morning were rewarded by the first sign of romance: far across the front field, the drumming of a woodpecker.

A few days prior, I gave the bird survey form to the Valentine’s Day granddaughter along with a few quick basics. For one, hearing a bird counts on the survey, including woodpecker drumming. If the tempo is too fast to count the beats, it’s a hairy woodpecker. If you think you can count the rat-a-tat-tats, it’s the smaller downy woodpecker.

A booming sound that resonates through the forest? It’s a pileated.

That’s what I heard: “boom-boom-boom. . .”

The granddaughter’s papa said that woodpeckers drum on their house a lot. He feared it was for the many ants that show up in spring, single file across counters and walls.

I said not to worry. Drumming is all about courtship, not food. Sometimes it’s copper roof flashing that a woodpecker drums on for its sound enhancement.

As I watched and listened for backyard birds, I walked field perimeters, lopping off bittersweet vines and sucker growth on glossy buckthorn trees. Waging battle against invasive plants is a good way both to get exercise and feel productive.

With satisfaction, I noted that some of the buckthorn trees had given up after a couple years of cutting and follow-up lopping of sucker growth. One buckthorn clump had been strangled by bittersweet vines. Good news/bad news.

I never heard a response to the pileated woodpecker’s courtship drumming. Unlike most bird species, woodpecker pair bonds last more than one season. Drumming between male and female in late winter strengthens their bond for the breeding season ahead.

Overeager for evidence of courtship, I misinterpreted the next wildlife signs.

Our yard becomes a white-tailed deer Grand Central Station in the night as evidenced by a criss-crossing of tracks in the snow.

As I explored the tracks, I came on numerous scrapes: small clearings in the snow. One had urine marking nearby.

Ahah. Deer communication, male to female and back again.

However, deer mate in November at our latitude. A conversation with Eric Aldrich in Hancock confirmed that the scrapes in the snow were signs of foraging. Having nipped our hydrangea shrubs months ago, deer are after field grass now.

Midway through gestation now, the does will give birth in lush, green May when food is plentiful.

The occasional “DEE-dee” of a male chickadee was another Valentine sign. Soon the winter flocks will pair off as males exchange territorial song. For now, one “DEE-dee” elicits no response. The dominant male remains leader of the pack.

On my survey form I marked down nine chickadees, the maximum number I saw at any one time.

Three tufted titmice chased around energetically, suggesting preliminary signs of pairing off. That was the maximum number of titmice observed.

Highlight of the survey came from my neighbor’s yard: the “churr” of a red-bellied woodpecker followed a few minutes later by drumming from high in a dead ash. Deadwood is the best sounding board — next to copper roof flashing.

This newcomer expanding its range from the south remains a sighting to celebrate.

One robin perched high in the roadside maples for a long time. He returned a few days later to feed on the sumac branches I “planted” in the snow with hopes their red berries would entice robins and bluebirds.

February is Valentine’s month for a lot of animal species, but I saw no backyard signs of the mammals that mate in February: coyote, red fox, bobcat, beaver, raccoon, and flying squirrel. Nor did I hear the raucous hoots of barred owl or the more sedate notes of great-horned owl.

Another highlight of the day’s observations was chickadee activity centered on a small icicle hanging from a sugar maple branch. Not just humans enjoy maple sap. Squirrels and birds make wounds in sugar maple bark to get the sap flowing.

I’ll close with a Valentine-relevant report from Dave Robinson on the Nubanusit Lake eagle pair. For 15 years Nellie and Dave Robinson have observed the eagle nest distant along the shoreline from their home on the lake.

Young eagles fledged from the nest tend to dismantle a good portion of the nest as part of their youthful calisthenics — developing talon dexterity, says Dave.

One fall, Dave described the young eagles as bombardiers flying out over the water to drop their stick loads.

Nest building helps reinforce the pair bond, and soon the Nubanusit pair will be tending eggs in their nest.

Here’s Dave’s description in a recent email:

“Everything is going right on time and target. For the past few days, they are both working together on the nest. There is more activity during the week than on weekends, when there are a number of ice fishermen but the nest is developing nicely. They each take turns getting the sticks and weaving them into the nest. As usual the early mornings seem to catch the most activity.”

For bird’s nest building is a very Valentine activity.

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