Birds In Paradise

Please note: All of the photos in this post are the property of David Slaughter, one of our favorite guests. He has kindly shared them for your enjoyment. Please understand, however, they are his property and cannot be copied.

Earlier this summer I posted a blog about birds - specifically birds which call Elk Lake home, at least part of the time. Part of the photos used in that blog were from generous guests who are well-equipped and quite experienced in bird photography. At the end of that post, I promised to revisit the subject in a later blog. I am finally keeping that promise.

Black-Headed Grosbeak - The last couple of years a Black-Headed Grosbeak has visited our feeder in the early summer. This year he brought a mate. While I am not sure whether they nested in area, I did spot the pair up Narrows Creek a few weeks after they had ceased hanging around the resort.

Reading up on Grosbeaks I learned an interesting tidbit about the female. While in many bird species the male helps little (perhaps not at all) in raising the brood, the Grosbeak pair share in this responsibility. However, the female Grosbeak has a unique way of encouraging her mate to contribute more freely to nest duty - she mimics the male’s song thus making it appear an intruder has entered his territory. The male’s instinctive response is to return to the nest which the female leaves in his tender-loving-care while she takes a siesta or pursues a tasty morsel at her leisure. Pretty sly bird!

Chipping Sparrow - A common little bird seen and heard regularly around Elk Lake, unlike so many of the ‘little brown birds’ which frequent the area, the male Chipping Sparrow has a very identifying mark - his bright red cap.

While to modern eyes, even bird lover’s eyes, these little fellows appear ‘common’, those from years past were not as unwilling to laude their beauty. I love the almost poetic words written in 1929 by Edward Forbush. He described the Chipping Sparrow as “the little brown-capped pensioner of the dooryard and lawn, that comes about farmhouse doors to glean crumbs shaken from the tablecloth by thrifty housewives.”

Cliff Swallow - While I must admit I do everything in my power to keep these pretty birds from nesting on the cabins and lodge, it is not because I do not appreciate them. While their voice is obnoxious to my ear, their voracious appetite for insects makes them a welcome addition to Centennial Valley summers.

The primary reason I do not want these useful birds making their homes on our buildings is they nest in colonies - sometimes big colonies! In fact, I’ve read they have been known to have up to 3,700 nests in one spot! Can you image that mess!

One interesting tidbit I learned about Cliff Swallows is their uncanny ability to help each other find food - intentionally or otherwise. When food sources are poor, birds will often watch one another then follow a successful feeder to the food source. When one bird finds an exceptionally well-stocked table, he will often ‘call’ the other birds to join in his meal.

Dusky Flycatcher - Since I am not 100% certain this is the right name for this little fellow, I am willing to stand corrected. However, I believe Dave’s photo is of a Dusky Flycatcher. These flycatchers are busy little fellows in the spring and summer around Elk Lake. While I suspect many people take them for just another sparrow, these handy little birds are another welcome summer addition as their diet is made up strictly of insects.

Green-Winged Teal - This is one of the prettiest birds to grace our lake. While not as vocal as another colorful favorite, the Red-Necked Grebe, I have seen these pretty fellows numerous times over the years - and have enjoyed taking a closer look at their brilliantly feathered heads.

However, I have never really taken the time to obvserve them closely. Perhaps the reason is they are just that ‘little’. They are the smallest of our North American ducks. However, they are very adaptable - capable of wintering in the far north. Thus their range encompasses a large area and their numbers are strong.

House Wren - I must be one who prefers the ‘common’ guy. I thoroughly enjoy Tree Swallows which many who consider themselves ‘true birders’ dislike because they often confiscation bluebird houses. While I enjoy the Tree Swallow for their voracious bug appetite and their graceful flight, no bird provides me with more listening pleasure than the common House Wren.

These little birds are quick to vocalize and their singing rivals the finest soprano in the world (at least in my opinion). In addition, they are bold birds which seem to have an attitude similar to the smallest domestic dog. While I prefer big dogs, I am often forced to admire the sheer determination of the smallest who, if you watch, are only small on the outside!

The same holds true with the House Wren. They are not afraid to try and steal a Tree Swallow nest (and Tree Swallows can be quite territorial) or move in on a Sapsucker. Both birds make the little House Wren look like a midget.

I often enjoy these little birds’ songs as I walk between the cold room or the clothes line and the lodge. There are at least three which nest in that area, and since their songs have to do with their territory, it is no surprise they sing. However, I like to think they are singing to remind me to rejoice as well.

Junco - This little bird is perhaps the most hardy I’ve seen. Not only is it visible in the summer and fall, it is not uncommon to see several of them feeding in areas in front of the lodge where the snow succumbs to the sun’s warmth revealing small patches of soil.

Considering their small size and the fact that they nest on or near the ground, it is amazing they have thrived in what most birds obviously consider inhospitable climate. Not remarkable for their songs or their striking plumage, these birds are still a delight - especially in the dead of winter when it seems every other feathered friend has deserted us.

Spotted Sandpiper - A bird common to Canada and North America, Spotted Sandpipers are regularly seen on the shores of Elk Lake. During breeding season the adults are extremely persistent in seeking to catch our attention and divert us from their ground nest which, obviously, is not far away.

These shore dwellers are a bit unique. While the male Yellow-headed Blackbird, another bird who makes its summer home at Elk Lake, may mate with more than one female and rarely helps raise any of his young, the Spotted Sandpipers are just the opposite. The female of this species will often mate and lay the eggs in the nest, then leave the incubation, feeding and raising to the male while she runs off with another man and repeats her performance.

White Crowned Sparrow - These birds are another common visitor to Elk Lake. While they seem to appear later than many of our other birds, they always stay long after most of our small birds have headed for a warmer climate.

These birds are less flighty than many who frequent the willows and aspens around the lodge. Perhaps those which spend time in our neighborhood winter in a more populated area thus acclimatizing them to the presence of humans. Whatever the reason, their more relaxed behavior has allowed me to capture several nice pictures of them around the lodge.

One interesting piece of trivia: These birds are known for their natural alertness mechanism which allows them to stay awake for up to two weeks during migration. In fact, scientists have been studying these birds for clues which might help humans - particularly those who work the night shift.

Yellow Warbler - Sometimes I catch a flash of yellow flitting across the yard from one shrubby willow to another. Most often, if I can get close enough for further inspection (a feat I rarely accomplish), I find myself looking at a bright yellow bird.

Cowbirds are a natural ‘enemy’ to many of our song birds. In fact, while I enjoy a large variety of feathered neighbors, I have no use for cowbirds. Not only are they unwilling to share my feeders, they are disgustingly lazy - refusing to even rear their own young. Instead they find a song bird nest, kick out the eggs, then lay their own eggs in the nest.

Thus I was pleased to learn Yellow Warblers appear to be wise to their tactics. In appears these clever little song birds recognize a cowbird egg, and when found, abandon the nest and start a new clutch. Smart little birds!

Wilson’s Warbler - On occasion that flash of yellow turns out to be a Wilson’s Warbler. This pretty little bird, while not as brilliantly yellow as the Yellow Warbler is still a pretty, flashily colored bird. It takes its name from Alexander Wilson who first described it in 1811.

Yellow-Rumped Warbler (aka Audubon’s Warbler) - This is one of my favorite birds. In fact, one of my favorite Elk Lake memories (and one I've shared in an earlier blog) was a hiking trip to Goose Lake which found us literally surrounded at times by these colorful and curious birds.

Audubon's Warbler's color patterns and occasionally inquisitive nature make it a fun bird to watch. Furthermore, around our area it seems to be more comfortable in the open than the other two warblers - thus it is easier to observe and photograph. Perhaps another reason it seems more visible is, it is one of the first warblers to arrive and one of the last to leave.

Kingfisher - I am always amazed at Dave’s tenacity and patience - which, of course, is one of the reasons he has captured so many beautiful bird pictures. However, I have managed to at least get a somewhat blurry image of nearly all the birds whose images he has shared with us for this post. That does NOT hold true for the Kingfisher. If I had a camera in my eyeball - maybe. Otherwise, I have found these birds are extremely alert and quick to exit when I enter their ‘space’.

There are over 90 species of Kingfishers. They vary greatly in size from the smallest (4 inches) to the largest (18 inches). All have large heads and sharp beaks. Most are brightly colored with little difference seen between the males and females. Many species are seen only in tropical climates. However, I have identified what I believe to be at least two pairs like this one which typically spend their summers at Elk Lake.

While most of my feathered friends have headed for parts much warmer and more hospitable, looking at Dave’s photos and re-visiting memories of these birds brightening my day and adding brilliant color and beautiful sound to my life at Elk Lake has made me anxious to see them return next spring. Until then I’ll enjoy the photos and memories as we move into another glorious winter here at Elk Lake.

Lady of the Lake

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