Sunday, July 14, 2013

Why is this bird following me?

When you're
working in
an ecosystem
day after day,
many animals
get kind of used to you.

They treat you
as they would a deer.

In other words,
they don't pay
much attention.

But Lisa Culp
found this yellowthroat
to be following her around.

Was it trying
to be friendly?

Lisa is a steward
to Somme's 
important population 
of the federal endangered
prairie white-fringed orchid.

You can see the orchid 
in bloom 
inside the cage here. 

(For more on our efforts 
to conserve this plant, 
check out our blog 
"Leave Nature Alone?" 
from September 2012.)

For weeks, 
the intrepid Lisa 
has spent long hours 
of slow, detailed work 
in many of Somme's 
yellowthroat territories, 
caging, pollinating, 
and monitoring 
this extremely rare plant. 

In all this time, 
no yellowthroat 
has talked to her, 
followed her, 
and stuck with her 
as did the little character 
shown in these photos. 
What's with this bird? 

The yellowthroat 
is a warbler that is 
seen and heard daily 
in all three 
of the Somme preserves. 

It's easiest to find 
by listening for its song "Witchity Witchity Witchity Witchity Witch!" 

It sings off and on 
all day long, 
most often in the early morning. 

When you hear that song, 
watch for movement 
in the vegetation 
and train your binoculars 
on the first thing that moves. 

Look for the 
bright yellow throat, 
of course, 
topped off by a black mask 
with a gray highlight above it. Note the thin, pointed bill.

It's busy and curious, 
though normally 
a bit nervous and shy. 

One rewarding angle 
of yellowthroat watching 
is that it forages 
among the rare prairie 
and savanna wildflowers 
that we have come 
to learn and love. 

As it hops and flits 
from plant to plant, 
once you've learned to 
recognize them at a glance, 
the bird puts its little spotlight 
on species after species. 

Here it's on 
a bud-covered stem 
of "gayfeather" 
or "marsh blazing star." 
In a couple of weeks 
this stalk will be a magic wand 
of brilliant pink-purple.

The yellowthroat treats it 
as just a landing pad 
and opportunity to find 
bugs to eat. 

Here's "the  bandit" 
(a pet name for the 
masked yellowthroat) 
in the middle of 
a wild quinine plant. 

Like the blazing star, 
wild quinine was absent 
from most of Somme 
before we started gathering 
and broadcasting 
its seed. 

One time we found a big and beautiful moth that hung out on this flower. We wondered 
if it was specially adapted to it. We never saw it again.

It is fun and a challenge 
to learn to recognize 
all these rare flowers and seeds, and their animals 
and to be good stewards of them - to restore their diversity 
and health. 

We are inspired 
to think about the discoveries we haven't made yet - 
to imagine we'll find 
that moth again some time, 
and photograph it, and study -  
and who knows what surprises we'll uncover? 

Here the bandit perches 
on a dried stalk 
of saw-toothed sunflower.
The dead stalk reminds us 
of last year.
Ripening seeds 
remind us of next year. 

Each element 
that the yellowthroat spotlights 
reminds us of another facet 
of the complexity that we find 
so compelling 
about this intimacy 
with our ecosystem.

In many of Lisa's photos, 
the bandit is balling her out. 
Does this guy follow Lisa 
because his babies are nearby? 
It's likely. 
Many birds chirp 
for all they're worth 
when a big mammal 
comes near nest or babies. 
This time of year, 
the chicks may be scattered 
over quite a distance.
But each one deserves 
to be protected. 
He is bold in defense
of his babies.

Here he balls out Lisa 
from the stalk 
of the rough blazing star. 
This species blooms much later 
than "gayfeather."

By then 
the un-masked 
and subtly-colored 
female yellowthroat 
and her masked male partner 
will likely be working 
on their second 
nest and family. 

feed the chicks 
for a longer time 
than most warblers. 
They'll likely 
still be feeding 
and protecting 
the next generation 
when they start 
to migrate toward 
the Caribbean islands 
or Central America in fall. 

Here's a clue.

When they ball you out 
with a bill full of food, 
they're definitely wanting 
to feed their babies.

"Get out of here," he chirps. 
"I want to feed the kids, 
but I sure don't want 
to show you where they are. 
Go! Scat!" he says, 
as best he can. 

When he comes this close, 
it feels like he's being friendly. But it may be 
the opposite.

In her note that accompanied these great photos, Lisa wrote, "I didn't follow him ... he followed me." I know the feeling. We enjoy their presence so much that it's hard to say good-bye, though both the bird and I are relieved when an encounter like this ends. 

Lisa's work 
moved her away, 
and the bandit 
stayed behind.

What a pleasure, 
to be able to share 
these sweet intimacies 
with the blogosphere. 

Thank you, 
computer geniuses.
Thank you, America.
Thank you, 
Forest Preserve District 
of Cook County. 
Thank you, Lisa, 
for capturing 
all this richness.

Thank you, little bandit.

And thanks 
to everyone who 
comments on this blog, 
or passes it along to others, 
or just appreciates it.

It's nice to share with you.


Heeyoung Kim Botanical Art said...

It is so beautiful! The bird is cute, the story is wonderful....
I read it with a big smile. Each of your stories and photos are so appreciated by me, Lisa and Steve! Thank you for sharing this and educating me about a lot of things. :)

Pamela Ryan said...

Thanks, Lisa, for sharing your photos! They're beautiful!

Eliezer said...

Stephen, this blog post was sublime! The writing was customarily entertaining and educational, but in this post the naming of your gratitudes generated a kind of 360-degree spirituality, connecting all with all.

Judy Mellin said...

The timing of this post couldn't be more perfect as the yellowthroat that has called our backyard home for the last two seasons was perched right outside the laundry room yesterday, singing his little heart out. I know that it seems to be a strange habitat for this little guy but something has brought him here- and kept him here- for two years. These photos and text are magnificent and, with permission, I'd like to post the link to IBET. I think it would be a big hit!

Stephen Packard said...


Yes, by all means, feel free to post on IBET. That would be a great group to read it. IBET participants might also be interested in "The Evil of Cowbirds," "Love Among the Nuthatches," and other "bird blogs" here.