There hasn’t been a lot of observable biological activity on recent walks, except for a kingfisher that landed briefly on a friend’s hat, as we stood on the Treadwell Ditch bridge over Lawson Creek. (What did that bird hope to find, way up there on Lawson? or on the hat!) But I’ve certainly enjoyed the activity to be seen from my front window.
All summer long, I had a bird feeder, filled with mixed seeds, hanging on a pulley system over my pond. This attracted some chickadees and juncos, and the spill from their visits dropped into the pond, where it was snapped up by mallards. Mother mallards brought their broods to the pond, and all of them loved the seed rain.
Sometime in early fall, I put up a peanut-butter feeder, which was an instant hit with chickadees. The feeder is just a block of wood with some pits drilled into it. Of course the chickadees had no trouble clinging on the block and reaching down for a nice bite of peanut butter. The juncos got surprisingly good at this too; even some hairy woodpeckers visited occasionally.
But the mixed-seed feeder and even the peanut-butter feeder dropped in popularity when, in November, I finally got around to installing a sunflower-seed feeder. Chickadees went crazy over those seeds — sorting them carefully, as usual, and dropping many of them. Then a pair of red-breasted nuthatches began to visit quite regularly, making quick trips to grab a seed (no sorting and rejecting!) and zoom off into the trees, where I think they quickly stashed the seed and came back for more. By now they must have a nice winter store of seeds. Of course, the chickadees were doing this too, but there were so many of them that it was impossible to keep track of visits by particular individuals.
A suet feeder has not been very popular, though several species visit it. Steller’s Jays take the biggest bites and are also responsible for spilling many seeds from the dangling mixed-seed feeder. Those big blue brutes crash-land on the rim of that feeder, and then push off again with a big flapping — and down go heaps of seeds. But it is wasted, these days; the ducks have all gone out to the wetlands and aren’t there to eat the spill. And the smaller birds are busy with sunflower seeds.
My cats have a wonderful time window shopping — peering out my front windows that look out on the deck, watching the activity at the feeders and on the deck. After a while, the chickadees and juncos don’t draw much of their interest, but when the resident red squirrel comes along to get some sunflower seeds, there is an eruption of feline excitement. Books, CDs, plants, TV remotes, specimen bones, notebooks, and their water dish are all at risk as the cats dash wildly from one window to another, keeping track of the squirrel. The squirrel, in contrast, is completely calm. He sits just outside the glass, munching on seeds or casually gathering some for storage. He clearly knows that the excited cats are stuck behind the glass.
Magpies and the occasional raven come to the deck railing to collect leftover cat food that I put there, and the cats are fascinated by them. But the reaction is very different from the response to the squirrel. The cats hunker down, tails twitching, ears flattened, and teeth lightly chattering. Maybe a little bit of fear mixed with curiosity or predatory tendencies?
This year, for the first time in several years, coho have come up from the Mendenhall River to my home pond. Not many of them—in fact, they look quite lonely, swimming around in circles by themselves. But the small numbers may be a good thing, because the stream that feeds the pond is pathetically shallow, most of the time, and there is little or no good habitat upstream (a relatively recent housing development sent down loads of sediment in the stream). With a torrential downpour, the water level comes up, but only very briefly. One day I saw an eagle standing on the far bank of the pond — a rare sight by this small pond. The eagle marched deliberately along the bank, hopped down into the stream where it enters the pond, and wriggled its way upstream through the dense alder tangles for several yards. Stranded on the sediment it found a prize — and picked the coho carcass clean. It’s hard to imagine that the feeble stream was attractive to a would-be spawner, but there was the evidence that it had tried, perhaps on one of those so-temporary spates. I think there is a little suitable spawning habitat below the pond, and most of the coho stay there.
• Mary F. Willson is a retired professor of ecology. Her essays can be found online at www.onthetrailsjuneau.wordpress.com.