The first day of spring this year was pretty yucky, with a sort of misty rain/snow mix all day, yet surprisingly spring-like, in terms of the temperature being 37 degrees at midday. This year, my backyard birds have been scarcer than ever before, but I did have quite a few chickadees, a Downy Woodpecker, a robin, and several neighborhood crows—way less than my recommended daily birds. It’s been discouraging that I’m not seeing more than this—declining bird numbers are of course most noticeable for those of us who have spent decades paying attention.
The neighborhood crows have been very noticeable lately. Partly it’s because pairs are starting to nest, carrying sticks about, and partly it’s because a Great Horned Owl has been hanging around. Today when a group of crows started screaming bloody murder right next door, I ran out and started scanning the trees. But they weren’t at the top of one of the conifers where an owl would be roosting—they were in a big bare deciduous tree, and weren’t looking into any trees, but down on the ground.
And right there, in a big bare patch of lawn next door, was a red fox!
The fox was very alert, watching my every move, especially as I got closer to the fence to take its photo. According to my camera, I was 34.5 feet from it, but by nature, foxes are big believers in social distancing, so I only got a few pictures with the burst function before it ran off. But what a thrill! Of course, now I’m concerned about my favorite gray squirrel—one that comes running most of the time when I call it. I haven’t seen it in a few days, and a fox living right around here may explain why.
My dog Pip isn’t much bigger than a squirrel. She weighs between 8 and 9 pounds. When she goes into the backyard, some of my squirrels stare her down, and if she doesn’t retreat, a couple of them actually charge. So Pip wouldn’t be effective in either warding off or protecting herself from a fox. We’ll be going outside with her for the next few weeks to make sure she’s safe.
But even though foxes can present difficulties for squirrels and small dogs, they’re gorgeous animals. Despite how little time I had before it ran off and the fact that my camera was set to overexpose for those backlit crows, my pictures weren’t too bad. If I’m going to be stuck at home during this difficult time, I’m glad that wildlife is coming to me.
Back on March 4, I got an email from Tim Ciembronowicz in Oulu, Wisconsin, bringing me up to date about the Sharp-tailed Grouse he and his kids Nellie and Elijah had alerted me to last year.
They’re back! Tim wrote, “four males on display on stark white crusted snow bathed by the sunrise from the east.” I so wanted to jump in my car and head right over, but my uncle had just died and Russ and I had to leave for Chicago for the services. Tim let me know on March 10 that a male harrier had returned, too. I had too many appointments to get there last week, and now I’m stuck at home for the duration.
But I did see my first robin of the year on Monday, and after mentioning it on the air, I got an email from Robin Nelson of Proctor, who wrote, “Heard your program yesterday, and you talked about a robin, chirping away. Today, there's one in my apple tree. Yippeeeeeeee!”
I also got an email from Mary in Holyoke. She was concerned that my warnings about birding in groups and not entering closed parks might scare some people from going out at all, and made an important point. She wrote, "The healthcare recommendations urge people to go outside, just not in groups. Fresh air is great & cleaner than indoor air."
That’s important. Even in California, now on a statewide lockdown, people are allowed to get out for fresh air and exercise. Mary also contributed a lovely memory of a cool backyard wildlife encounter. She had a pet ferret that she kept in a rabbit hutch up in Toivola. She says, “I fed it cat food. When the gray jays found it, they would come in on silent wings to visit for treats - truly lovely birds.”
Living right in Duluth, the only time I’ve ever seen Canada Jays in my backyard was during the amazing invasion of 1986, when the species was abundant in northern Minnesota and some individuals wandered even further, at least one making it to Murphy-Hanrehan Park in Scott county. All that winter, two or three visited me daily. So Mary triggered some lovely memories.
I’m not sure what other critters my crows are going to call to my attention in the days and weeks ahead. I’m not going anywhere for the duration, but it’s fun to see what I can and to hear what others are seeing as well. Stay safe and well, dear reader.