Birding along railroad tracks is one of my favorite places to walk. I love trains, train tracks, railroad ties, loose gravel and the long panoramic views in both directions. I appreciate the smell of creosote on the massive brown ties. Birds apparently like the tracks too. They flit in and out of the surrounding brush into the open area of the train tracks, eating whatever is growing along them. Doves and Pigeons will sit on the shiny and sun-warmed rails. American robins and their fledglings also seem to like the openness of the corridor as they practice flying to and from the larger trees that line each side.
I was standing watching several American goldfinches eating from the thistles that proliferate along the embankment when I heard the sound of a Downy woodpecker. This little bird was flying from plant to plant pecking at something unseen to me as it clung to the vertical stalk. I was surprised to see that the plant was a mullein and not the familiar bark of a tree trunk. Having never seen this behavior before from a Downy; I watched with great interest in my binoculars.
A biennial plant; first year mullein plants are low-growing rosettes that have bluish, gray-green leaves and a felt-like texture. As the plant ages, the hairs on the leaves are mechanically worn away, but not completely. Leaves range from 4-12 inches in length and 1-5 inches in width in the rosette stage. Mature flowering plants are produced the second year, and can grow from five to ten feet in height, including the conspicuous flowering stalk. Leaves alternate along the flowering stalk and are much larger towards the base of the plant. Mullein typically begins to flower in late June and peaks in early August. The flowers are yellowish and have five petals.
Seventy-five to 85% of the downy's diet is made up of insects, their larvae, or eggs. Because of their small size (7”) and their incredible agility, they can feed on insects on smaller branches and farther out on the tips than other larger and heavier woodpeckers. In addition, downy woodpeckers will also eat seeds, nuts, berries (even those of poison ivy), spiders, and snails, and even take sap from the holes of their cousins, the sapsuckers. It seems logical that this woodpecker was going after the seeds of the mullein, although the flower stalk could have been infested with insects. This Downy was either eating insects from between the flowers on the stalk, or a part of the stalk itself. I guess it will remain a minor mystery.
Catnip (Nepeta cataria) is a perennial herb of the mint family. Although originally native to Europe, it has been successfully imported to many countries of the world where it is often considered to be a weed. The plants can grow as high as 3 feet, have lots of branches and can be recognized by its clusters of small white purple-spotted flowers at the ends of its stems. They must have spent the better part of 1/2 an hour and filled two huge black garbage bags with the stuff; enough to make any feline positively catatonic.
Mulberry trees near the Menomonee river had ripening fruit in their branches. These trees were positively filled with immature and mature American robins, busily eating the plump red and purple compound berries. In appearance, each tiny swollen flower roughly resembles the individual drupe of a blackberry. Red mulberry trees rarely live more than 75 years, while black mulberries have been known to bear fruit for hundreds of years. The mulberry makes an attractive tree which will bear fruit while still small and young and is a wonderful addition to any "bird garden."
While I was still standing there a pleasant woman (named "Melissa" I later learned) and her three polite (but off leash) dogs walked by on their morning jaunt along the river bank. I always appreciate good doggie manners and not having my crotch indiscriminately sniffed by a marauding canine with no sense of personal space. Just then a stubby and awkwardly-shaped bird suddenly flew in and landed high in a bare, dead tree; a Green heron. This was my first for this area, and certainly the first time I had ever seen one in a tree above 5 feet off the ground. Melissa herded her snuffling group back in my direction and came over to ask what I was watching now. I handed her a pair of my binos and explained. She was amazed. She had not seen something like that before. A bird that sits so still, trying to look camouflaged; beak pointed straight up in the air. Truly a master of disguise. I ultimately logged sixteen species into the Audubon Birds app for my IPhone during my 1-1/2 hour bird-walk; including an immature Baltimore oriole. I took some nice pictures with a digital camera along the way too.
These short but incredibly sweet forays into nature always provide me with greater knowledge and even more questions each time I am fortunate to go wandering. It is a blessing.
|A robin impersonates an insulator|