Welcome to the first weekly column of Bear Sees Birds, where I’ll be informally sharing some thoughts about what’s going on in the world. In “Around the Feeder”, I’ll be writing primarily about my day to day as a birdwatcher.
This past month, since deciding to revive my blog and birding, I’ve made an effort to go out semi-regularly to sit in one of my neighborhood parks. I’m blessed to have two:
Wacouta Commons is a small park that’s been livened up in recent years by the St Paul Park Conservancy, a group of volunteers that work to restore or enhance city parks. They’ve planted several new trees and redone the playground. In the afternoon and evenings, it hosts yoga groups, cookouts, school concerts, and more. But at 6 or 7 AM, it’s quiet and dewy. Besides one or two chatty strangers and some dog walkers, I can go out early and watch the robins eat breakfast. They’re lovely birds, easily identifiable and fun to watch. The problem with Wacouta is that it’s very close to trees on private property, and to tall buildings with popular rooftops. Besides some pigeons that huddle in large numbers, I usually can’t tell what birds are flying overhead because they never stop in the park proper. So robins and sparrows are typically all I get. This just makes the cardinals and goldfinches all the more magical! I’m pretty sure I’ve heard starlings and a blue jay in the area, so maybe I’ll find one eventually.
Mears Park, a couple blocks further down Wacouta Street, is a larger and more bustling park. Around lunchtime it will often have live music playing as it neighbors lots of popular restaurants. When I went with my wife to drink tea and walk the path, I was disappointed to find it pretty tame and birdless in the morning. However, it was swamped with birds when I went around lunchtime on a day off from work. My theory is that the park is not very popular for nesting or feeding, perhaps because of too much competition, but it has something incredibly valuable for midday heat: water. A small man-made stream runs through part of the park, and when I went I saw all kinds of birds hanging around, bathing and preening. Sparrows sure, but also starlings and crows. I even saw one chickadee in a tree, which was my first chickadee sighting in over a year and put a huge smile on my face. Most notably, I spotted and immediately identified a Common Grackle. This was my first grackle, and my first time IDing a bird as soon as I saw it. Why?
Because Wacouta Commons had a mystery bird. I didn’t get many good looks at it, because of the aforementioned tall buildings, but I could tell it wasn’t a robin despite its comparable size. It was some kind of blackbird. I saw it twice and dug deep into my field guide in search of possible answers. It was probably a starling, but its plumage didn’t match any pictures I found online. One of the birds I kept considering was the Common Grackle, a bird that summers in Minnesota, but it was too big and had a distinct discolored head. Then, on that fateful day in Mears Park, I saw a wide range of starlings that were maturing into adulthood. My answer: the starling I saw must have been in a specific stage of adolescence, because here I saw a much more varied set of plumage than the starlings in my guide apps. As I was appreciating them, I saw the grackle and it was exactly like the picture in my book: a large black bird with a shining blue head and sparkling yellow eyes. Striking.
That makes for about 7 species that I’ve ID’d in my neighborhood. I would love to see more chickadees, and I’m hoping that come winter I can find blue jays, dark eyed juncos, and maybe some woodpeckers.
Parks are interesting places to birdwatch because you’re perceived by other people. When I was renting a house with my friends, I could look at my feeder in private as long as I wanted. In a park, you’re subject to the elements and to strangers. It’s been nice, since mornings tend to be cooler and less busy. One morning there were two men playing relaxing music off a speaker. Another morning, a man stopped me and asked if I was looking at birds. When I told him I was, he said he loved birds as well and had a cheap little feeder at home that sometimes got cardinals. He talked like he expected his experience to be nothing in comparison to me, the bird expert, but I told him that cardinals are gorgeous creatures and it's fantastic that he gets them at home. He smiled and agreed, and we went about our mornings.
Being high up on the fourth floor of my apartment building, I can’t really hang up a feeder and expect much activity. House finches might come by, but that’s it. So I’m grateful to have lovely parks in the area that I can use. When I can, I’m excited by the prospect of getting a new feeder and a birdbath. I also want to travel to more parks and see more local species. At some point, before the lakes freeze, I want to see some waterfowl. But for now, I’ll go down once or twice a week and watch the robins eat their worms.
That’s all for this week’s column. Next week I’ll do a bit of an environmental news recap. Thanks for reading and I hope you enjoyed!