An account of birds. And on account of birds.
For the past five years, Jeremy has kept a weekly log of bird visitors to the farm. We assemble his scratchy handwritten notes and tables into an excel file each winter and try to compile some sort of thoughtful insights and feathery reflections to share. Past years’ bird updates are available here 2019, here 2018, and here 2017. Yes, we are truant on 2020’s update. But you’re in luck: We present to you today a farm bird report for 2020 and 2021. A double header, in tandem, a two-fer, two birds, one… Ok, I’ll stop.
Compared with previous years’ records, in 2020 we had our lowest count of total bird species on the farm (86 compared to a high of 101 different species in 2018). In general, throughout the year, bird activity, diversity, and abundance around the farm felt subdued, less flittering, chirping, swooping, etc., than what we’ve noticed in previous years. This surprised us with all of the stories of increased observations and more active wildlife related to COVID shutdowns. Especially noticeable was that fall migration started later and was condensed, happening over just a few weeks rather than the more typical five- or six-week window of increased activity. This resulted in our most bird-diverse fall week and most species ever recorded in a single week (54 species seen on farm the week of September 10th, superseding the 53 we had seen in May of 2018). The joy of seeing all these birds is mighty, but also undergirded by an awareness of how precarious and challenging migration is.
We did have a number of quite unexpected new birds on the farm in 2020. A mid-October socked-in kind-of-cruddy-weather day brought a flock of snow geese circling low over the farm. And a mid-summer bout of forgetfulness left a section of drip tape running long enough to create a perfect spot for a Wilson’s Snipe to hunt for earthworms and other soil invertebrates. Other new birds of note include a Mourning Warbler, Barn Swallows, and a fleeting glimpse of a Mountain Bluebird. Familiar birds of note include two Great Horned Owls, a parent/offspring pair, who we discovered were feasting on chickens in the back pasture mid-August.
In 2021, there were a total of 95 species seen on the farm. A much higher number than 2020, but overall, the year felt about the same or less abundant than 2020. (Note: our records track presence of a species on the farm, but we are not recording abundance, or the number of each species seen. We do have work to do after all). A notable difference was that fall migration stretched back out to 6 weeks. There were a number of species we saw but not in the numbers that we have become accustomed to. For instance, we never saw more than two nighthawks over the farm, whereas we usually see groups of ten to twenty at least a few nights a week during the summer. The other insectivorous fliers, swifts and swallows, were also rare sightings this year. And this was the first year since we have been on the farm (2012) that Killdeer didn’t nest in our neighbor’s field, flying over the farm each morning and night on their way to the creek.
We’ve tried to tease out possible reasons for this year’s decrease in abundance. It was very dry for most of the spring and summer so maybe local weather influenced bird habits in a way that meant we saw less of them around the farm. Or perhaps the way in which we were observing birds had changed; it could be that, because we didn’t have lambs back in the orchard, we were spending less time in the furthest back/west part of the farm, and with converting the front/east field from annual to perennial crops, we didn’t do as much weeding or tending up there which usually has a very unique (to the farm) bird community. It could just be that all birdy attentions were directed towards the ducks this year and we missed everyone else in the periphery. Or it could be a combination of these factors compounded by bird populations in decline around the West.
Despite the lower abundance of birds, we did still see a few new species on the farm this year. A Ferruginous Hawk(!), a pair of Bobolinks(!!), and a Lazuli and Indigo Bunting hybrid(!!?!). Our favorite birding enthusiasts (pssst – G&MB!) were visiting and, with their super-tuned bird ears, helped us finally ID one of the tricky Empidonax flycatchers from its call. And lastly, and perhaps most uncertainly, in the middle of a rushed morning Jeremy came zipping down the driveway on his bike and flushed up what he is pretty certain was a Black-throated Blue Warbler. No real good look at it, but enough of a sighting to rule out everything else it could be. Still, it is a bit of a mystery.
If you would like to get into the data, dive in like a dipper, here is a link to our record sheet for 2021 and ebird (Hooray for citizen science!). If instead you would prefer a poem, here’s an especially good one, Wedding Poem by Ross Gay.
With wonder and warm wishes, Jeremy and Trish