By David Eastman
I awaken during early summer months to the soft "Cherlit" or "Cher-wit" call of a male Eastern bluebird, high in the sugar maples' crowns between my old New England farmhouse and the fields beyond. His mate is incubating in one of my log-front birdhouses, just a hundred feet out in former pasture. We mow it now only in late weeks of summer. I've learned some other things for managing plantlife for bluebirds and the songbirds that visit us in the summer, and then migrate out in the fall months.
The bluebirds here in New Hampshire usually only raise one brood, and two if we are lucky. However, we will enjoy their presence right up to the fall migration if the blueberry crop is abundant. They perch on top of the numerous birdhouses I have scattered across the old field, then lower themselves down to feast on the powdery-blue lowbush crop. The parent birds teach their youngsters this and wild strawberries along with other shrubs' bounty are for the taking — as are the insects in the tree crowns around the field.
I have come to appreciate all the "soft mast" producing trees and shrubs, and think they are very important to birdlife, as hard mast is for the mammals like deer and bear, such as beechnuts, acorns, and other seeds. The berry crop replaces the insect life for the birds' diet up here, following our infamous "bug season" in May and June, which birds use as protein for their fast-growing young. Songbirds which can shift their feeding to the cherries, brambles' fruits, and berries of the viburnums and dogwoods may stay around until mid-fall — if the production of wild fruits is plentiful, and not ruined by drought.
Along forest borders, I look for these edge-loving plants and release them from competition--using lopping shears, pruning saws, or gasoline-driven brush saws. These small engines are lighter and more dependable in past years due to improved electronic development. Numerous blades can be purchased to run efficiently on their long shafts for the task at hand. Usually, I use a sharp 70-tooth blade to cut down hardwood saplings and sprouts that are interfering with the bush in question. I give that wildlife forage shrub all the growing space, which means cutting back other plants that touch its branches. In this way, alternate-leaf dogwood, mapleleaf viburnum, the hawthorns, scarlet elder and American elder, the shadbushes, and others can be given adequate room for their vegetative growth. Their reproductive efforts will follow.
In the Southeast, our Eastern bluebirds do well with the flowering dogwood, American holly, and other fruit-bearing shrubs that are especially valuable when they retain their soft mast crop through the winter months.
What foresters call "succession" for any given open landscape means that some other plant species will definitely follow that which is initially there. If you want the berrying plants to sustain themselves, then you must assist their ongoing survival--since they are "pioneers." Otherwise, they will soon be shaded out by the trees outgrowing them. Our bird-feeding, sunloving, open space species will gradually die out, being replaced as time passes. Very few grow in the forest understory. You must "arrest" this succession to keep them present.
The ecological story on why shrubs feed the birds is seed dispersal. Within the pulp of the fruits that birds eat, tiny seeds pass through their bodies to be deposited elsewhere in their environment. Since most of the East is fairly moist as a habitat, the seeds (with a good dosage of fertilizer in the birds' droppings) are likely to germinate and colonize that ground they fall on. Research has already documented those fruiting plants that are most preferred. Wild grapes, elders, and blueberries feed nearly 100 bird species each.
Some avian friends like the black cherry trees, and choke cherries, which retain their fruit over a few weeks. While songbirds are chowing down on that ripening fruit, they are constantly dropping out the seeds of other species they also have been feeding on. You will find raspberries, elders, the American cranberry bush, and anything else they've brought coming up in the soil underneath. Look for these shrubs to create a wildlife food plot, and clip out the offending hardwoods that are also springing up with them.
In this manner, you will eventually eliminate a lot of the competing vegetation starting to prevent your bird feeding shrubs' full occupation of your land's edges and copses. More and more shrubbery will arise, because the birds are unconsciously doing planting while feeding on whatever you've got. I've managed a lot of properties in this way, and bordered any hiking trails I constructed with arrowwood, red-osier dogwood, mountain holly, high-bush blueberry, hobblebush, witherod, winterberry, beaked hazelnut, and black huckleberry shrubs — which I discover were already naturally occurring there.
By David Eastman
Tent caterpillars hatch from their eggs in the early spring months as leaves of their host trees are just unfolding, which you probably have noticed. The caterpillars establish their tent soon after. This fuzzy tent is constructed at a site that intercepts the early morning sun, and are mostly in black cherry trees. The position of this eyesore tent is critical because the caterpillars must bask in the sun to elevate their temperatures above the cool ambient temperatures that occur throughout early spring, says Wikipedia.
By David Eastman
May 24, 2013 was a fortunate boat trip event to the Isle of Shoals for some Audubon Society of New Hampshire birdwatchers. It was a warbler "fallout" of great proportions, after a frontal passage. Exhausted migrants land on these off shore islands, all the way up to Maine's Monhegan Island among other coastal places. Knowledgeable birders congregate on these islands in May, knowing that migrating warblers just might be present in considerable numbers, too tired to worry much about humans walking about and viewing them. Spring fallouts are weather related and typically occur with slow moving warm fronts in New England. Unfavorable winds block the birds moving north to their breeding grounds in Canada's boreal forests.
By David Eastman
A bird I have yet to see in New Hampshire is the yellow-breasted chat, and probably won't. It is quite common in the Midwest and on the other side of the Appalachians, but declining in our New England region. Some are seen during fall migration in the Seacoast area. The American Bird Conservancy calls this species "the Buffoon of the Briar Patch" on its web site about this entertaining bird which is the size of a large sparrow. Described as an "aberrant warbler" by Roger Tory Peterson, the yellow-breasted chat is an odd example of a North American wood warbler – twice as large as most, with a stout, bulbous bill more like a vireo's. Debate continues about whether the portly chat is in fact a warbler or something else altogether; it is the only member of its genus. Its DNA shows it to be related to warblers, however.
Where it should be classified allows it to make a mockery of the thoughtful ornithological ranking system. It acts as a jester to all of that. Even offering up a ventriloquist's talents to some hopeful birder. It may stop its routine as a human approaches, only to continue its noise as the observer moves away.
It is found throughout North America, from the southern-plains of Canada to central Mexico during the summer. These birds mainly migrate to Mexico and Central America, although some of their number may overwinter in coastal areas. Today, its scrubby breeding habitat often consists of abandoned farmland and rural areas where overgrown vegetation proliferates. Swamp margins with willows are choice. Yellow-breasted chats are omnivorous birds, and forage in dense vegetation.
Mostly, this species feeds on insects and berries equally, including the blackberries and various wild grapes. Moderately sized insects including grasshoppers, bugs, beetles, weevils, bees, wasps, tent caterpillars, ants, moths and mayflies, are typical prey and will be gleaned from dense vegetation. Other invertebrates, including spiders, are occasionally eaten as well. Unique for a passerine of its size, the chat occasionally grips food with a foot before it eats. Its young are apparently only fed insects while in the nest.
The male yellow-breasted chat has a distinctive display flight, hovering above its brushy haunts with slow, deep-flapping wings and dangling feet, often while singing its uniquely complex song during this awkwardly flopping up and down. Other signature features of the yellow-breasted chat are its large white eye-rings like spectacles, and blackish legs. If fleetingly observed, this species is unlikely to be mistaken for any other bird. It has a brilliant lemon-yellow chest, but when turning away, it will blend into the surrounding foliage so well with its olive-drab upper plumage; you might think you hadn't seen it in the first place. Thus, the chat is more often heard than seen, as it tends to be a shy and skulking species inhabiting dense thickets alongside streams and canyons.
Whatever it may be as a classification, its song, sometimes heard at night, is as distinctive as the bird itself: a bizarre collection of cackles, clucks, whistles, and hoots. P.A. Taverner, a Canadian ornithologist, describes the bird's astonishing repertoire perfectly: "With his stealthy elusiveness, wild outpourings of song and fund of vituperation, the chat is a droll imp ... He is full of life and boiling over with animation. It bubbles out of his throat in all manner of indescribable sounds. He laughs dryly, gurgles derisively, whistles triumphantly, chatters provokingly, and chuckles complacently, all in one breath."
Unlike most warblers, this species has been known to mimic calls of other birds like kingfishers and even the calls of a crow. Thus, less experienced field birdwatchers sometimes overlook chats after mistaking their song for species such as gray catbirds and brown thrashers, which share similar habitat preferences and skulking habits — though are they generally more abundant. Chats act more like mockingbirds or thrashers than any warbler, even copying the bleat of a car horn! During the breeding season, chats are at their most conspicuous as they will usually sing from exposed locations and even fly out into the open while gurgling their songs.
The large nests of these birds are bulky cups made of grasses, dead leaves, tightly woven strips of vine bark, stems of weeds, and lined with finer grasses, wiry plant stems, pine needles and sometimes roots and hair. Well concealed nests are invariably placed in thick shrubs and often only about 2.5 m (8.2 feet) above the ground.
Since the yellow-breasted chat is a bird of successional habitats, it has declined in the East as farmlands and pastures disappear, revert to forests, or become developed for human use. Collisions with wind turbines and brood parasitism from brown-headed cowbirds are other threats to this species, although the chat pair is quite vigilant about their nest about this pest's intrusion.
By David Eastman
As summer approaches, I begin to think of wildlife forage shrubs blossoming and even planting certain tree seedlings for attracting the birds. I move into a natural sensitivity of stewardship that is the essence of my living. Aldo Leopold explored this aesthetic/spiritual connection early on in philosophical essays he wrote during the 1930s. Leopold was moving away from complete commercialization of farmland into a holistic appreciation of the ecological community, which we now celebrate today whenever approaching natural resource issues. Most of us have read "Sand County Almanac" at some time in the past, but have probably forgotten he chose those ruined, decrepit Wisconsin farm lands to own precisely because they had been devastated by the poor agricultural practices prevalent in those times. He was interested in how you could bring back soil fertility and cloak the land once again in its native vegetation.