Bog plants and bird feeder

there are things to wonder about everywhere!

Just after mid-May, the alders and cottonwoods were suddenly (so it seemed) in full leaf, the fresh, bright green a pleasant contrast with the dark conifers. Even the blueberries and other understory shrubs made a new layer of green above the mosses. Hermit thrushes added their welcome voices to the canopy and fox sparrows tuned up in the thickets.

Early in the fourth week of May, I poked around in some low-elevation bogs (muskegs). Several species were beginning to flower—bog blueberry with deep pink buds and young flowers, bog laurel with broad, pink petals, and bog rosemary with small, pink flowers. The white flowers of trailing raspberry (or five-leaf bramble) starred the mosses under the scattered trees. The distinctive few-flowered sedge was surprisingly colorful, with vibrant green leaves and a yellowish inflorescence. An unidentified sedge with pale green leaves was common but only a few were yet in flower. Labrador tea, lupines, and buckbean were budding. Round-leaf sundews were still just tiny rosettes, their sticky, insect-catching leaves glittering in the sun.

I found a single specimen of a weird little herb (Geocaulon lividum) sometimes called bastard toadflax , but also known as pumpkinberry or timberberry or other common names. Seldom common, it is nevertheless widely distributed across northern North America. It’s a hemiparasite—getting some of its nutrition from its green leaves and some by parasitizing the roots of other plants. It’s not fussy about its host plants; it parasitizes anything and everything from pine trees and blueberry bushes to asters and horsetails to sedges and grasses and even others of its own species.

Photo by David Bergeson

This plant makes only a few small inflorescences; each inflorescence typically has three flowers, usually one female flower in the middle, flanked by two male flowers that drop off eventually. The open flowers are dull yellowish-green with purple marks and I’m guessing they are pollinated by flies or beetles. The orange-red fruits are few, each one with a single seed. Very little seems to be known about seed germination and dispersal. But the seeds are sometimes harvested and cached by Arctic ground squirrels up north and presumably eaten, perhaps sometimes dispersed, by other rodents. It seems likely that birds would take the colorful, fleshy fruit and potentially disperse the seeds.

The fruit has plenty of sugar in it, especially when fully ripe at the end of the season (usually late summer). Estimates of sugar content found that each fruit has about thirty milligrams of sugar, which is more than blueberries or most other fruits in Southeast. Despite the sugar content, the fruit is reported to be just barely edible or tasteless to humans.

Here at home, there’s lots of action on the pond. As many as five male mallards gather, all good pals now that their lady friends are incubating eggs. That changes, though, when one late-nesting (or re-nesting) couple shows up, and the male of that pair harasses the peaceful gang, keeping them well away from his mate.

The bird feeders are busy places. Siskins, juncos, chickadees, and nuthatches visit the seed feeder that hangs over the pond. A jay slams into the side of that feeder, knocking cascades of seeds down for the ducks.

The peanut-butter feeders are the most fun. They’re just little blocks of wood with pits drilled into them, to hold a small gob of peanut butter. Chickadees and nuthatches went crazy over them, but now the juncos almost monopolize them. Juncos are not nearly as agile as the smaller birds, but they cling and stretch (and often fall off) to get a nice bite. Sometimes they perch on the deck railing and fly up to stab and grab out a bill-full.

The jay does the stab-and-grab method too, but he’s a bit rougher, hitting one of the smaller peanut-butter feeders hard enough to knock it off its hanger, so it fell to the deck and broke into four pieces. But that’s not the end of the jay’s mischief. It has started to come to the deck railing to scarf up leftover bits of cat food that I commonly leave out for a raven. One day that jay made off with a whole set of chicken ribs, a load that it could barely carry to a nearby tree. The raven was out of luck again.


Birds at my feeders

musings on chickadees, ducks, and mallards

A gang of four Steller’s Jays regularly attends my seed-feeding stations. As soon as I go out on the deck to replenish the seed supply, they are there. One of them lets out a loud, raucous call, and then the rest come piling in, scarfing up the biggest and best seeds. After they’ve picked out the peanuts and sunflower seeds, they may take some of the little, round millet seeds, but these are usually left for the juncos.

The jays have even figured out how to raid the cylindrical feeders that I hang over my pond on a pulley system. They aren’t very graceful about it and they have to flutter their wings a lot just to stay in position, but they get enough sunflower seeds to make the level in the feeder go down rather quickly. The chickadees and nuthatches have to work around the big jays. Nevertheless, the little birds seem to do very well; there is a constant flurry of at least six chickadees whisking between the feeders and the nearby spruce trees. Whatever they reject, as they sort through the sizes and shapes of the seeds, drops down into the pond, where a gathering of mallards squabbles over each fallen seed.

Although the raucous blue rascals rather hog the show at times, they can be useful as well. One day they all worked together to harass a sharp-shinned hawk that was looking for lunch, with its eyes on all the birds congregated at the feeders. The jays swooped at it, squawking and shrieking, so all the birds knew it was there and were very wary. Eventually the still-hungry hawk gave up and left.

Jays aren’t always the ‘top dog’, however. At my feeders, when the resident squirrel approaches, on its regular rounds, the birds all move to another feeder temporarily.

Some squirrels have to work harder: A friend has observed another squirrel regularly checking seed feeders on the deck. It hasn’t quite figured out how to extract the seeds from most of them. Nevertheless, it energetically chases away the jays and other birds that come there to feed, spending a considerable amount of energy without gaining any food.

In addition to their other tricks, jays are accomplished vocal mimics, and they use this ability cleverly. They can mimic crows, red-tailed hawks, eagles, and goshawks, for example, and do it well enough to fool expert bird-watchers. A jay giving one of the predator calls generally causes other nearby birds to scatter. That potentially leaves the deceitful jay with sole possession of a food source, such as a seed feeder. A sneaky way to compete for food!

Jays also mimic marmots. Why in the world would they do that?? Marmots are not competitors for food, to be startled into fleeing. Could it be that jays simply entertain themselves, giving that active brain something more to do?

On the morning after the first hard frost, my pond had a sturdy film of ice. So the ducks were out of luck, in terms of a refuge from shooters on the wetlands. And I thought that they would all stay away from the frozen pond. But one persistent male mallard thought otherwise: he skittered and skated over the ice, snapping up spilled sunflower seeds. He had the place all to himself. A few days later, a light snow had coated the ice, and duck footprints were concentrated under the hanging feeders. Then I noticed that a female mallard had trudged up from the creek and over the ice to gobble up sunflower seeds. Relations between male and female seemed to be amicable, but occasionally the male selfishly chased the female away from the best clump of seeds.

A few days later, I glanced out my window at deck railings covered with snow and spruce branches weighted down by great clumps of snow. The pond was now frozen, so the heron that stalked the shallows a few days before was gone, and so were the opportunistic mallards. All the smaller birds were still here, including the rowdy jays.

It was very cold, so that was a nice time to remember some of those all-too-rare sunny days of summer. In the accompanying photo, two jays are enjoying a salubrious sunbath. I wonder if jays use any brain space in remembering such things when the weather turns icky!