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Evan Hazard: Birds, tridecs and how to get rid of uninvited guests

In a May 2012 column, I mentioned that I simplified my feeding station by discarding larger bird seeds and putting smaller “blackseed” in both feeders. I still saw a decent variety of birds. That column, incidentally, had trademark problems. Where it says “seed(s),” and seems ambiguous, try “blackseed(s)”. Since late July, fewer birds had been showing up. I took both feeders down and emptied them into a tray. Turns out driving rains had wet the seeds just inside the feeding holes, leaving moldy clumps of inaccessible seed. Replaced old seed with fresh, and decided to update you on my irregular observations of local critters. Again, house finches and chipping sparrows were common, and by mid-July, house finches were traveling in groups, probably of parents and young. Goldfinches, the major reason blackseed is a common commercial feeder seed, came often, and came mostly in pairs in June and July. But this year I noticed something I’d missed before. Male goldfinch caps vary, mostly on the small side of the caps depicted in field guides. I’ve seen at least three, maybe four distinct males, all at first with girlfriends. One I call “yarm,” because his cap is the relative size of the yarmulka commonly worn by Orthodox Jewish men. Another has only a black bar above his beak, between his eyes. A third has a cap that seems cut off straight across from behind his eyes. A fourth may have a similar cap, but with a tiny point at the back. I’ve seen him only once, but the other three have come back often, especially “yarm”. Female goldfinches seem to come unaccompanied of late, maybe because of nest-tending arrangements. Goldfinches nest later than most dickey birds. This may have to do with natural food availability, but it may also reduce cowbird parasitism. Cowbirds do most of their dirty work earlier in the summer. I’ve not seen many cowbirds this summer, but, since late July, common grackle flocks have been abundant. As autumn nears, mixed flocks of blackbirds, including grackles and cowbirds, are a regular occurrence. The most unusual sighting from my breakfast nook was Nov. 12, 2012, after we’d had frosts and light snow. A lone turkey vulture flew west over the lawn between my house and the berm, below the level of the berm’s treetops. It was a subadult, with a pasty grey head. Never saw it again, but within minutes saw the only Gray Jay (Canada Jay, “whiskey-jack”) I’ve seen at The Meadows. Last summer, a pair of harriers very likely nested nearby. There were two again this summer, but no indication of nesting. However, there are other suitable fields west and north of the hospital complex. Until maybe four years ago, the hospital regularly sold off hay from its local fields. There have been fresh pocket gopher mounds each summer, but I’ve wondered about 13-lined ground squirrels (tridecs). They may be less abundant, but I’ve seen individuals on the lawn side of the berm both in ‘12 and ‘13. If the fields remain unhayed, they will eventually be shrublands. I am no expert in invertebrate zoology, but have gained some practical knowledge. The third week of August, I attended an outdoor charity bash at a substantial lake home. It was billed as a “luau” and some men wore Hawaiian shirts. It was catered, with oodles of food: a varied appetizer buffet followed by a pig roast, partly prepared by this newspaper’s publisher. One thing about summer outdoor feasts is uninvited guests, among them yellowjackets. Fortunately, they were not abundant. One was interested in the smoked mahi-mahi on the buffet. So was I. Teachable moment, since several guests and at least one hostess sort were right there. Miss worker yellowjacket was burrowing her way into the fish. Wasps and such are not wary; you can slowly creep up on them. I simply pressed down on her with my fork, then dug her out and stepped on her. That done, since my fork had contaminated the fish, I dug that area out and put it on my plate. The hostess thanked me, and I think she meant it. Whether any spectators will thus deal with wasps in the future I don’t know. Note: don’t shoo the wasp away. She will just come back and you don’t want her to be angry. You can even prepare a juicy firm surface on your plate as a lure. Let them land and just squeeze down on them with your fork. Then do whatever is socially appropriate, depending on who are there and what their prejudices are. Once I even beheaded one with the edge of a fork (the business end was still twitching, so I was careful with that). Wasps are not flies; they are slow. Bon appetit. EVAN HAZARD, a retired BSU biology professor, also writes “Northland Stargazing” the fourth Friday of each month.