People often ask us how many years songbirds can live. Sometimes it is hard to know for sure…is the Northern Cardinal you see at your feeder this year the exact same bird as the one you saw last year? Unless there is something distinctive about the look or actions of the bird, it’s hard to tell. The bird banding we do on our property is beginning to give us some data about this question, however. Shortly after noon today Bill arrived in the sunporch with a bird in hand and he (Bill) was grinning from ear to ear. “You know what’s special about this Black-capped Chickadee?” he asked me. Although I thought most of the Black-caps had already traveled to their more northern breeding grounds, I could not spot anything out of the ordinary about this little guy. So I admitted I had no clue.
Bill grins at an old friend (c) Jan Runyan
Bill announced, “We banded him on the very first day we ever banded here—December 10, 2010!” So that little bird is at least 5 years old…more if he was born before 2010! Although our place will not be his (or her?) summer home, it felt great to know that he had survived so long and that our feeders were part of his migration path…again. UPDATE: Shortly after 3 on the same day, Bill again arrived in the sunporch with the same grin and a different bird. He was holding a Tufted Titmouse, all pecks and bites and tough-guy yelling (the bird, not Bill). We had also banded him on the first day we ever banded here, Dec. 10, 2010. This male is the first bird listed on the page of size 1B bands, so he might even have been the very first bird ever banded here! He is at least 5 years old, if not more. Titmice don’t migrate so he is one that we have been hearing year-round. And judging by the number of other Titmice we hear nearby, he is doing quite well at finding mates and providing new generations.
Jan with a Tufted Titmouse who shares their yard (c) Bill Beatty
We are in the midst of American Goldfinch heaven.
American Goldfinch in Redbud tree (c) Bill Beatty
Every year at this time we are quite busy banding the spring migrants that come through. Jan and I often refer to our property as “Goldfinch Ridge”. For about two weeks the goldfinches are by far the most common birds in our mist nets.
Jan removing an American Goldfinch from a mist net. (c) Bill Beatty
However we are delighted at the surprise birds we also catch like yesterday’s (April 25) Ruby-crowned Kinglets , the first we have caught since moving here in 2010.
Ruby-crowned Kinglet (c) Bill Beatty
Since bird banding is weather dependent, when we have high winds and/or rainy days we can’t put out the nets and the birds at our feeders don’t get banded. So far this spring the weather has cooperated. Last Thursday, April 23, we trapped and banded 121 new birds. Ninety-three were American Goldfinches. As of today we have banded 344 goldfinches. Our spring banding operations will end soon as we will be traveling to idyllic scenic areas in WV to lead bird walks and wilderness hikes, teach about wildflowers and speak at nature-related events. As I write this Jan is playing in the gardens planting future meals in the raised beds and sunflowers (future meals for birds) in various places on the property…and keeping a watchful eye on the two mist nets set up to catch the birds migrating through toward their northern breeding grounds.
Jan and I spent the weekend at the “Wild Edibles Festival” in Hillsboro, WV. We saw many wonderful plants and saw and heard a multitude of birds. However, the most exciting discovery was a colony of native Spotted Ladybugs (Coleomegilla maculate). In recent years the introduced Asian Ladybug (Harmonia axyridis) has displaced many of our native species making this find especially significant. Jan shot the video below. Hundreds of Spotted Ladybugs were flying from their hidden underground hibernation chamber to unknown locations to begin feeding on aphids and other insect pests. This was a rare find and everyone was taking photos and videos.
I went on a hike through the West Liberty University woodlands. It’s a great place for anyone who wants to gather their thoughts without people distractions so I knew I would be alone. As I hiked I began counting bird songs. There were many familiar voices and one new for me, at least for this year: a Louisiana waterthrush.
Louisiana Waterthrush (c) Bill Beatty
My physical work, while I counted bird songs, was to cut a new trail for two classes I’ll be teaching in the near future: a spring nature hike with my college students and a wildflowers and weeds class for the Master Naturalist series. As I progressed, an eastern garter snake caught my eye and refused to move far enough to avoid an imminent collision with my weed cutter. I caught the snake and gently tossed it a short safe distance away. Old friends greeted me as I continued: Virginia Spring Beauties, Bloodroot, Sharp-leaved Hepatica and others.
Virginia Spring Beauty (c) Bill Beatty
After my work was finished I sat on a fallen oak branch overlooking a stream. In a quiet pool there were water striders gliding and chasing across the surface guarding unmarked territories.
Common Water Strider (c) Bill Beatty
A thought suddenly caught me off guard and I was unexpectedly face-to-face with my mortality. The same giant, gnarled, dead, dry branch I sat on was the very same branch I had sat under 40+ years earlier. Then the tree had been very much alive and massive. Today the tree exists as fodder for bacteria, fungi and many kinds of invertebrates…and as a comfortable seat for a tired explorer. I sat back watching clouds, avoiding intellectual distractions and thinking things from my heart.