Silence vs Sounds of Life
On March 31, we saw the first returning Black-headed Grosbeak, an adult male coming back to last year’s nest area. These birds’ songs are always magical; and as the season goes on, they grow and expand in melody and tempo. These birds have been prized guests for 14 years in our orchard, their food and watering place. We listen to their love songs, watch their youngsters begging and then learning to forage. We take their presence as our proof of spring.
March 31 seemed early. I swear each year I’ll record the first to arrive from the South, but I never do. We waited for his buddies. But then a severe snow storm struck. Our Grosbeak vanished. A week went by, and we didn’t see him once. Then there he was! We saw him twice. No females, no yearlings. No songs. It began to feel like a Silent Spring, and we wondered if the whole population was hit, or just our families.
Then, on April 10 – really late – a second male appeared. You can tell the difference in adult males because the pattern of black and orange on head and neck are slightly different in each individual. After 15 years, you get to know them. He came and went secretly, not as in years past, when these early arrivals seemed to have no fear. On April 12, we saw the two. But – no others. And no songs. The tallest pines around our orchard are traditional territory perches, and the songs pour out, call and response, lengthening syllables, subtle new melodies, interruptions – wonderful birdland high opera. The females usually arrive after the males have been singing for about four days. And then the musical contests really heat up.
This year, though, there are only the two males, one singing far away, the other down in the woods. Both sneaking up to the feeder for a morsel. No females. No yearlings. I’m wondering if the late cold drove them off or if we trimmed their apple tree too severely, and they miss the cover they expected or it looked different? Who knows? We are still hoping for more Grosbeaks, but it’s a sparse year for many birds. The Orioles have not piped up. The Robins are few. Varied Thrushes and Evening Grosbeaks, usually common visitors, are no-shows. Spring is missing its music.
But wait. We are listening differently, now, and discover that the woodpeckers are going rhythm mad! Pileateds thocking away down in the woods, as loud as a small boy with an ax. Northern Flickers calling and drumming. One male has discovered the metal plates on our electrical pole. What a staccato soundboard!
Finally down in the low part of the woods, a couple of Red-Breasted Nuthatches are exploring the dead branch where last year’s hole was. Part of that branch blew off in a wind storm, but they are making a new nest cavity in the stump that’s left. If you stand under the oak, and listen, you can hear them yanking softly at each other, as if discussing the layout, and excavating, little fitt-fitt-fitt sounds of tiny beaks hammering and carving. Little puffs of sawdust fly out of the hole.
So here are this year’s musicmakers. Not opera, but a small timpani sonata. We are grateful for what we get!
PS On April 18, the first female Grosbeak appeared!