24 March 2006

Friday bird blog

Western woodpeckers color plate from A Field Guide to Western Birds by Roger Tory Peterson

Bird sightings reported to hotlines, cooperative extensions and nature centers tend to be exotics. The friendly birds who habituate my feeders might resent this just a tad, because they are faithful and reliable, just so long as the feeders aren’t overlooked too often. A lapse or two in dispensing our special house blend is forgiven pretty quickly. Cats minding the store are another matter altogether. Even friends have limits.

This week – maybe I should start these columns, “It’s been a slow week in …”. All the men are definitely not good-looking, however. Nix that idea. But this week, the snowy owls still are around the southern lower peninsula, Ross’ geese appear here and there on Lake Michigan, there’s a varied thrush in a very improbable spot in Muskegon County, and this week’s feature bird is the Black-backed woodpecker, a/k/a the artic three-toed woodpecker, here from the northwestern US or Canada.

I’m assuming it’s a male present in Dickinson County, which is in the UP, site of Iron Mountain and many mining towns of the late 19th Century. The black-backed woodpecker – I guess that’s his official name now – is a resident of evergreens in the high mountains of Canada and west in the US to Montana and Wyoming. Iron Mountain is a piddly hill compared to the Sierras, but when one is w-a-y off base, so to speak, one must compensate like mad.
Black-backed woodpecker, male
Dickinson County, Michigan was a minor “fever” spot in the late 1870s when iron ore was discovered. One of the town patricians of Niles, Michigan, where my father grew up, was Henry Austin Chapin, a dry goods store proprietor until his 40 acres in Dickinson County yielded a lot of lucrative mineral deposits. (“Then one day he was shootin’ at some food, And up through the ground came a bubblin’ crude.”)

The family had built a mansion which was near where my father’s family resided, though not nearly so splendidly. In 1933, the depth of the Great Depression, the Chapin family sold the house to the city of Niles for $300. at auction. Today it houses City Hall.

21 March 2006

A true Victorian lady

This day was my grandmother’s birthday. She was the matriarch of the entire family and still is, actually, even though she died in 1956. Everyone loved her, even the in-laws. Her children and their spouses didn’t analyze their parents as much as we do in my generation, but she would have stood up, regardless. My parents’ generation is all gone now, too, and my generation does not get on too well, but we all have Grandma as a lodestar.

She was of solid Yankee Protestant stock, particularly influenced by the values of the Congregational Church, like one founded by her ancestor, William Kelsey, in 1650s Connecticut. He and others of the Braintree Company removed from New Towne (later Cambridge, Massachusetts) to a spot (later Hartford) on the Connecticut River in 1635, as part of an advance team for their leader, Thomas Hooker. It is thought that the term “Yankee” was coined by the Dutch already present when William’s little band arrived on the scene from the Dutch word for “squatter” or “thief”, so he might have been among the original “Yankees”. (Demystifies it all a bit, eh?) It sounds so smug, but if ever there was an example of stalwart Yankee virtue, it was my grandmother.

Grandma probably never knew all the genealogy that I’ve dug up, although her name appears in the 4 volume Kelsey genealogy begun in the 19th Century, under the guidance of Edward Claypool, who was a prominent genealogist. Many of the stories I’d heard about names and places have turned out to be accurate, and those stories undoubtedly came from her. A Victorian through and through, she never would have called attention to herself, though. When my sister received a pretty sweater for Christmas and commented that she’d be the best dressed girl in school, Grandma remonstrated with her, because that was boastful and common. One showed one’s breeding by what one didn’t say, I suppose.

To this day, I cannot slouch in a chair. That is part of her legacy. Lazy posture was akin to moral turpitude.  Likewise, whining, rudeness, cutting corners - - all verboten. 

She was influential because she was selfless, stoic, loyal and kind. We tend to aggrandize the dear departed, but character was significant. Doing the right thing, being of service, doing a job the best one could even though no one else might ever know. All these things were expected, de rigueur, standard.

Growing up with benchmarks like those has its pitfalls. The rest of the world doesn’t operate according to Grandma’s strictures. She was a product of pioneer Protestants and Progressives, though, not swindlers and conmen, and she behaved like an aristocrat, even though she was far removed from their company.

Her name was Beatrice Hortense, a very fashionable name for 1889, the year she was born. Her mother, Marjorie Copper Kelsey, ceased naming her children after grandparents and great grandparents, choosing Albert and Blanche, as well, instead of Sarah, William or the Old Testament names adopted by their Puritan ancestors, like Moses, Zachariah and Rachel, all names in my ancestry. She must have been quite modern, possibly a consequence of life on the pioneer trail to Nebraska.

Grandma would be agog at the world today, disapproving of our lack of discipline and capitulation to materialism. Her world was hardly perfect, though, and she suffered many hardships and disappointments, but she wished for her children and grandchildren to have a better life, not necessarily one of wealth or fame, but one to make a difference even in small ways. Isn’t that what family values are all about?

17 March 2006

Friday Bird Blog

©National Geographic Society
female long-tailed duck with 7 eggs
photographed on St. Mary Islands, Quebec

Despite snow and ice, there is abundant sun here. Earlier this week, Monday and Tuesday, I believe it was, the sun was brilliant all day long. After days of gloom and fog, it feels like life is returning. Today we’ll have fairyland for a while – the trees and bushes look like they’re sugar-coated – but after a few hours of sunshine, it’ll be gone. Time for spring!

Dawn now features noisy chattering from the feathered crowd. On Sunday and Monday it was in the mid-60’s, and the robin was in full voice, notifying us of the coming rain. Rain it did.

The Michigan statewide bird report dutifully recorded each Thursday night, this week features 3900+ long-tailed ducks, formerly called oldsquaw, along Lake Michigan in Allegan County, site of many a bird walk in my days of youth. The duck’s official name was changed to conform to British nomenclature. As well, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Alaska petitioned the American Ornithologist’s Union to change the name, potentially offensive, because the bird’s declining numbers in Alaska would require cooperation from Native Americans to sustain the population.

The sand hill cranes ought to be making an appearance soon. They were like old friends on the little lake where we lived when I was very young. My mother taught me how to identify cranes and herons in flight when I was maybe three years old. I was a font of wisdom, knew the black-billed cuckoo from the yellow-billed, the cedar waxwing from the Bohemian. When you grow up with this stuff it doesn’t seem difficult at all, and, of course, a child’s impressions are so strong and clear, not muddled and over-wrought.

We have a serious robin invasion, lots of squabbles over territory. Time to put out pieces of string and hair, although robins will use just about anything to construct a domicile. Maybe I should have a contest for the most original nest.

03 March 2006

Friday bird blog

White winged crossbill
Illustration by Louis Agassiz Fuertes

Despite endless turmoil and uncertainty in the homosapien world, the birds appear unaffected. Two days ago I spied my first robin hopping about, plotting a settlement for the coming three-nester. This morning Mr. Mourning Dove was pursuing Mrs. (or Miss – can never be quite sure) Dove, puffing himself up and trying to jump her, to put an accurate spin on the scene. Crude, but nature never appropriated Victorian sensibilities.

The juncos are faithful, as are the downy woodpeckers, an occasional red-headed woodpecker, the titmice, which I love – cousin to the chickadee - how could they not be adorable – red-breasted and white-breasted nuthatches, the cardinal and blue jays, and ever-watchful crows, awaiting leftover popcorn. I made my own birdseed mix this winter, because I had lots of stale peanuts I’d bought in bulk on sale really cheap last year to make something or other and never got around to it. The can is empty, though. ‘Must restock.

It’s cold now here in Michigan. We have had little snow, though, in two months, and the tulips and narcissus are peeking through the ground. I went out the other day and cut through the landscape cloth I put down last fall, because I forgot to move a patch of daffodils. The ultimate effect will be more natural, which is what I always strive for, anyway.

The Michigan statewide bird report for yesterday mentions lots of owls again, a Bullock’s Oriole in Livingston County, which is in the southeastern quadrant of the lower peninsula, and a white-winged crossbill in Kent County, which is where Grand Rapids is located, home of Gerald Ford and where closed on Sunday has been a tradition ever since I can remember. Get the picture?

The Bullock ’s oriole is a western species and in any event is a summer bird in these parts, rarity though he may be at all times. What in the world is he doing at a feeder in Michigan in early March? Crazy weather patterns would be my guess.

The crossbill dips down from his winter range when food is scarce or the supply is running out or in extremely cold winters, which this has not been. According to the report he is chowing on the seeds in a mixed spruce and pine stand. Usually they travel in flocks, so next week we may hear of more.