Over time, my affection for the tiniest of birds has grown. Tiny birds like hummingbirds, finches and chickadees are less skittish than larger birds and will sip water, and eat from the feeder while being watched by humans. The wilder the garden, the safer they feel.
The branches of the black sage are the favorite jungle gym for the California Towhee, Crowned Sparrows and the Chestnut-backed Chickadees. The shrub is now 6 feet tall and attracts pollinators too. At all times of the day, this shrub is harboring birds. We sit in a nearby bench and watch them play.
Along the fences and the crevices of the cedar tree, the Brown Creeper is busy cleaning up my spider population with that distinct down-curled beak. Hard to reach places? Ask a Brown Creeper. You might find one of their hammock-shaped nests behind peeling flakes of bark. You might not notice Brown Creeper with his excellent camouflage until you see him zig-zag up and down a tree looking for bugs. Not an easy one to photograph because of his speed.
If he’s too busy call on the Pygmy Nuthatch. By far my favorite of the tiny birds, Pygmy Nuthatches are about 3.5-4 inches with blue-gray plumage on the top side and a white underside. They make distinct squeaky toy sounds. Fearless acrobats, they cling to trees looking for insects upside down, darting all about. In winter, they huddle in groups, and in springtime help each other make nests. A group-cooperative species.
The tubular flowers in the garden have brought hummingbirds. Various salvia and my collection of cuphea are the biggest draw. This is the time of year that the Bat-faced Cuphea blooms. Her long tubular red blossoms ends with a purple bat face shape. The color combination is striking.
Although the hummingbird is difficult to photograph, the bramble of black sage and cuphea allows her to steady herself for a sip. She doesn’t need to hover if there is a perch at the food source. She openly feeds and defends her plants from othering visiting hummingbirds.
Some of the visually nondescript birds have some of the most spectacular songs. From a distance we can hear the reverberant call of the Swainson’s Thrush along Soquel Creek. In fact, this thrush has an extra voice box and can harmonize with himself. According to Cornell Lab, with his sophisticated vocals, he can sing quiet songs and give the illusion of being farther away than he actually is. Keep these fellows happy with natural habitats and they will clean up gnats and mosquitos for you. The longest recorded life of a Swainson’s Thrush is 12 years.
Last month, a cheerful flock of Bushtit raided a tall shrub in the garden. Their plumage is rather plain gray, but their attitude is flamboyant and celebratory. The flock came to glean the foliage for insects among the green and deadheads. When they were through, they exploded away as a group. Little architects, the Bushtit makes a hanging pouch-nest made of grass, spiderwebs and moss. They enjoy woodlands, but you can also find them in chaparral regions, parks and neighborhoods with tree-shrubs.
Not enough is said about sparrows. The Song Sparrow gives a free concert every day. One year, I cannot be certain, it seemed as if the same sparrow appeared on the deck and on the fence every morning. Tiny, brave, with mottled brown, white and gray plumage that might serve as camouflage, the sparrow will gladly sing, feed and bathe in open surroundings. The species of the Americas are referred to as New World sparrows. Although they share the name sparrow they are more closely related to Old World buntings.
The bird, bug and plant connection gives us plenty to think about. I wouldn’t call myself a birder, yet my garden has educated me over the years. A single tree or a shrub can support thousands over time. Thanks to bird identification books, the scientific community at iNaturalist, and a special mention of Calscape.org, there is plenty of information to identify wildlife and their plant habitats.
When I first moved to my current property, there was a sense of just occupying the land with an interesting foliage. Later, there was a more mindful revision of this plan. Science and personal observations has filled my head with visions of an earlier wilder version of this space, inspired by birds.
It is never too late to become a naturalist.