Tom Ross: Birders dish up ‘fast food’ to attract finches
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — If you find a bird feeder with your name on it under the Christmas tree, I wish you better luck than I’ve had in the past.
I’m the kind of wanna-be birder who can’t seem to attract any birds other than sparrows and chickadees. Ho-ho-hum.
I’m the Rodney Dangerfield of bird feeding; I get no respect from Bohemian waxwings.
But my luck could be about to change.
I recently spent a morning with Tresa Moulton and her crew heading out to take part in the annual December bird count along the perimeter — 15 miles in diameter — of Steamboat Springs.
Moulton’s husband, David, a whiz at bird photography (you should see him sneak up on a white-breasted nuthatch), came along as did their friends, Joella West and Larry Klingman. Other bands of birders fanned out around Routt County on the 15-mile circle from Lake Catamount to West Routt.
Tresa Moulton’s success with attracting songbirds to her feeders at their hillside home between downtown and Steamboat Resort made me turn as green as a mallard’s head with envy. She told me how the number of goldfinches feasting at her bird feeder was lagging until a recent change in the weather arrived.
“The Bohemian waxwings arrived right after that big Wednesday storm. It’s interesting how snow affects birds,” Moulton said. “I noticed it (again) last Thursday right after a big snow storm. The birds became frantic. My little flock of 25 goldfinches went to 75.”
The grand totals on the Dec. 14 Audubon Christmas bird count were still trickling in at deadline, but we can be sure that there was one unexpected guest on the list.
When we visited the feeders at the home of Joella West and Larry Klingman in one of the Fish Creek Falls Road neighborhoods, our little group was able to confirm reports that a lone blue jay — a species that typically stays east of the Rocky Mountains — was making fleeting appearances in Steamboat.
The white splashes on its wings, throat and breast differentiate it from the dark-cloaked native Steller’s jay.
It’s apparent the blue jay made a wrong turn during its fall migration. And it’s those unexpected appearances that keep birders in the field with binoculars and spotting scopes on cold winter mornings.
Say what? You talking trash to me bird lady?
Never mind that I would throw a party if I succeeded in attracting a dozen goldfinches to my bird feeder.
The males of the species give up their bright yellow summer plumage in winter, for a more conservative olive/yellow in the winter months. Still goldfinches are many times more entertaining at the bird feeder than endless chickadees.
When I pleaded with Moulton to give up the secret to her ability to attract 70 songbirds to her feeders, she outlined a simple strategy that amounted to the equivalent of “fast food” for birds. It requires throwing down some Benjamins, but if you’re a serious birder, it might be worth a try.
Moulton explained that she purchases bags of oil sunflower seeds with the black hulls already removed, leaving just the sweet, nutrition-packed seed the birds crave. When you think about it, it’s like humans going to the grocery and purchasing peeled shrimp.
“They don’t have to work to get the meat out of the kernel and then I don’t have black hulls in my garden,” Moulton said.
But seriously folks
I’ve been having some fun with birders in this column, but I’m a great admirer of the volunteers who head out on a cold December morning every year to take the bird census.
It’s that faithful effort over many years that adds to the scientific database and helps humans who care about wild animals and wild places conduct an annual health check-up on the exceptional natural environment we enjoy in the Yampa Valley.
If it’s in decline, the birds will be among the first to tell us about it.
The practice of keeping detailed records of natural events over time, whether it’s the arrival of migrating birds or the date when various wildflowers blossom each spring, is called phenology.
The ultimate practitioner may have been the great American naturalist Aldo Leopold, who, in addition, to championing the American wilderness movement, wrote the transformative book, “Sand County Almanac,” about his nature preserve along the Wisconsin River.
Leopold was making records of migrating bird songs in the 1940s when there were no sound recording devices that could be taken into the field. Instead, he made written phonetic records of bird songs and the date he heard them.
It was with that in mind I tried to impress Moulton with my miniscule knowledge of birdcalls.
“Name this bird,” I challenged her. “Cheeseburger, cheeseburger, CHEEP.”
Without hesitation, Moulton replied, “Oh, that’s the ruby-crowned kinglet.”
“So you hear the word cheeseburger in that bird song too?” I asked.
“No,” she replied, “I just recognized the cadence.”
Tom Ross retired from the Steamboat Pilot & Today in June after 36 years in the newspaper business. He continues to write a regular column for the paper.
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