Toad in the Hole

May 24, 2004

Absence of Blackbirds

It's unusual that Joe and I go out to the world and come back feeling no better than we started, but Friday came damned close. We went over to Briones Park to get in a little stroll before the weekend crowds.

Last year we'd seen an Alameda whipsnake there -- black and yellow ribbon-striped, elegant and lean, like a snake greyhound, gliding very fast with head up; in fact, they're sight-hunters. Gave us a good long look, too, and looked us in the eye before sliding off into the rough. It was right in the fenced picnic field by the archery range, where a horde of Boy Scouts had left not 15 minutes before.

This year, instead of the Boy Scouts, we got a tree crew with chainsaws and chipper. As happens, I'm an arborist myself, and bad cuts hurt me physically to look at. Honest. So the klutzy trail-edge clearing didn't help my mood, and neither did the racket, and neither did our chancing on the crew on the way back as they cut down a perfectly healthy -- though definitely leaning -- big madrone from over the trail. Frankly, the chances of its falling on anyone were vanishingly small, and we've been dusted by enough of the Boy Scouts' support vehicles -- clueless daddies in spotless SUVs, usually driving too damned fast on a dry dirt road with walkers on it -- to generally not wish the lot of them well. Of course, a tree across the road would block those vehicles and the rugged scions of suburbia might not get their Gatorade on time.

Do I sound grumpy? Well, I am. We've actually had these barely sentient uniformed lumps sneer at us loudly for having the nerve to watch birds. Evidently they have some mass rally there every year about the time the lazuli buntings show up. What was that Mark Twain line about the barrel with the bunghole?

But I digress. When the racket died down and the crew moved on from that same field, we did get to see the lazuli buntings we were hoping for, and the ash-throated flycatchers too. Every time I see those birds they surprise me; this time they were singing, sort of. Certainly musical for a flycatcher, sort of a gravelly whistled doodly tune of a few short notes. Last time, they were dustbathing and snatching bugs -- I guess -- from the side of the road. I'd never seen one on the ground before that.

A few violet-green swallows came through, and redtails, TVs, assorted finches, both local towhees, acorn woodpeckers, flickers, the usual suspects.But one thing was missing.

There's a swatch of green weeds -- hemlock, thistle, that sort of thing -- in a swale that comes down a hill across from that field. It stays green long after the grass browns off (and that's far advanced already, so early) and it's usually full of red-winged blackbirds, a couple dozen at least. They seem to be on territory, nesting there every year.

Not a one this year. The weeds were still green; everything else seemed as usual, but no blackbirds. I wonder what happened, where (to be optimistic) the flock went.

Posted at May 24, 2004 11:00 PM