Two silent eastern phoebes in Burcham Park

Where is your patch, the place you bird every day you can? Mine in East Lansing is Burcham Park. I nominated it for a hotspot and so it is on eBird, though so far only I have recorded birds there, 16 times since 12 May 2018. I have seen 45 species there on those visits, with a high of 32 on 14 May 2018 at 7:55 AM and a low of 5 species at 15:38 on 14 November 2018. Yesterday I saw 15 different species. But this is about only one of them.

On 16 March 2019 there was a new sheen of snow on the ground, more like little round balls than soft flakes. The trees were bare, revealing an abandoned bald-faced hornet nest high in a neighbor’s tree carefully collected by my son. I will return it with a little note on these wasps for the neighbor’s grandchildren.

I walked down Walnut Heights Drive from my parents’ house and turned right on Timberside, heading due south towards Burcham and my beloved park, one that was once bordered by a  swamp on the north. Today that swamp is gone and the main field is a large solar park. But second growth remains, enough for some birds as I circle the field through the trees, ending on Park Lake Road before returning along the wet area across Burcham favored by the red-winged blackbirds, who are also back.

I heard a red-bellied woodpecker. I saw several dark-eyed juncos, flying from field to trees, one in pursuit of another, white tail feathers flashing. I heard a downy woodpecker, and the two note song of the black-capped chickadee. And then I saw them. First one then the  other, mid height in the trees. Two eastern phoebes. One flew from one branch to another a few yards away. The other followed. There they perched. I looked hard through my binoculars, but these phoebes are unmistakable with their dark heads, gray backs and pale belly. Their stance on the branch is more upright also.

(photo by Manjithkaini on English Wikipedia  CC-BY-SA 3.0)

I stayed a moment to watch those phoebes, then moved on as my feet crunched through the ice into the soft loam underneath. An eastern phoebe is not a rare bird. It is one of the earliest migrants north, as both my observation and a quick check of eBird and Birds of North America indicated.

But for me this pair of eastern phoebes were special. They are my first of the year in my favorite East Lansing patch. Keeping track of the birds of your area and delighting in the common species as they change from day to day can be as rewarding as a wild trip across the country to see a bird out of its provenance and out of yours.

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About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
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