Jim Williams has been watching birds and writing about their antics since before "Gilligan's Island" went into reruns. Join him for his unique insights, his everyday adventures and an open conversation about the birds in your back yard and beyond.
Here we have the birder’s nemesis, the wood tick. A weekend in northwestern Wisconsin made me, once again, very aware of ticks. We birded along the dikes of an old cranberry marsh being converted to a wildlife sanctuary. Grass no more than six or eight inches high held lots and lots of ticks. I began to wonder just where they were. So, we began to closely examine grass stems as we walked. It didn’t take but a minute or two to find ticks clinging to the grass, waiting for us. Brush the grass, get ticked. Ticks, in case you wonder, are eight-legged creatures, arachnids, related to spiders. The first part of the wood tick’s scientific name is Ixodes, Greek for stickiness. Tick legs sense you coming down the trail. The tarsus of the legs has a sensory organ that detects odors (you) and changes in temperature. The tick bites you with a mouthful of teeth that curve backward, like a shark. Tick saliva contains an anesthesia to numb the bite area, and an anticoagulant to keep the blood flowing. Ticks by instinct climb upwards, seeking a perch from which to grab anything with blood. Grass, weeds, bushes, trees – ticks can be almost everywhere. I got my tick information from the web site of the Maine Center for Disease Control. These ticks might look like they're sleeping, legs tucked in, sort of like your dog. They're not asleep, but alert. It's their habit to tuck legs in while waiting for you.
This is a spring of excesses. Too much weather. Too much cold. Too much rain. Birds in unusual numbers. Harris's Sparrows seen eight at a time, more in one yard I visited than all my previous sightings together. Scarlet Tanagers in multiples. Buntings of all sorts reported from all parts of the state. Warblers feeding at obersvers' feet. Duluth birders report Park Point sightings unlike any other year. We have passed the mark of normal.
Attu was the site of the only World War II battles fought in North America. U.S. troops were stationed on the island. Japanese troops attacked. We saw many battle relics during our visit. On the beach in front of our quarters troops had abandoned construction vehicles and equipment. These were rusty monuments. Where the tide touched, barnacles covered everything. Kelp fronds were woven into wheel spokes (this was military equipment from the 1930s). Rusty chains crawled out of the sand. We saw fox holes dug into the tundra. We found a metal box that once held radio equipment. It was bullet scarred. Back in the mountains, a long hike if we wanted to take it, was the remains of a Japanese fight plane that had crashed. There was a monument. Visitors came from Japan to pay homage.
Mike and I skipped the hike. We did our assigned chores, then went birding. My job that day was to open cans of sugar that had been stored for those two years and pound chunks into sprinkle condition.
The only vehicles on the island belonged to the Coast Guard, trucks very off limits to us. Birders walked or used bicycles. Dozens of bikes were pulled from a storage room upon arrival. All looked to have garage-sale provenance. The Attu birding trips had a hierarchy. Veterans, birders returning for the umpteenth time, had preference. They got better rooms and certainly better bicycles. Some of the primo places to look for and find birds, however, were miles away. Any bike was good.
We birded in small groups, each with an experienced Attu birder as guide. We fanned out. The guides had the radios that were spitting static into the day room where the man played cards and those birders waited for their moment. The only paved surface on the island was the runway. We walked or biked on muddy, rocky paths. You had to watch for the streams that ran down the hillsides to the sea, melt water from ice and snow in the mountains above, water you could drink. The streams cut narrowly through the tundra, channels a foot wide and four feet deep. A misstep was ugly.
To be continued.
Killdeer often build their nests -- little more than a scrape -- in gravel or on open soil. This one chose to use wood shavings surrounding a tree trunk. Can you find the eggs? The camo is pretty good.
Feeding in our yard today was a White-throated Sparrow with a tuft of seriously misplaced feathers. They protrude from the bird's rigth flank, like a feather duster attached to the bird's hip. Behavior of the sparrow appeared ordinary. It moved on the ground and flew without apparent problem. Did the bird have a narrow escape from a predator, a claw tearing the feathers as the bird flew? Looks like a lot of feather for that part of the body doesn't it? And the dark color seems wrong. Doesn't make much sense. The sparrow's bill appears odd because the bird was manipulating a piece of cracked corn.
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