Friday, 28 September 2012

When the Grackles descended

A few weekends ago I started to see Common Grackles in large numbers in a few spots in this corner of southeast Ohio. Around this time I also started to see Red-winged Blackbirds reliably. American Woodcocks have been doing their display flights since the beginning of February. With each passing day, the bird song becomes more melodic and beautiful, ushering in spring in such a magnificent way. And every few days, I come across a new sighting for the season - Eastern Phoebes and Wood Ducks are now seemingly everywhere, and I saw my first Field Sparrow of the season yesterday. Spring is on the wing!

Following is an account of one of my grackle encounters, which I posted to the Ohio-Birds listserv (one of several "virtual" online birding communities for Ohio birders). Enjoy!
Greetings, Ohio birders! This weekend has been a bit of a Grackle-fest for
me here in Athens County! It started when I was leaving work on Friday,
when a flock of approximately 50 birds landed in a couple of trees in a
residential neighborhood in Athens. I heard at least one Red-winged
Blackbird singing among the group, so I assume it was a mixed flock. That
was the first large gathering of Grackles that I had seen so far this year.

Turns out that was nothing compared to what I would experience yesterday and
today. A group of several hundred birds caught my attention yesterday
afternoon (Saturday) when I was out filling bird feeders at my home in rural
Athens County (Albany). I could hear a rustling noise off in the distance,
quite a ways across the road actually, and even though it was windy, I knew
there was no way it was leaves blowing in the breeze. After a few squeaky
gate sounds reached my ears, it dawned on me that there was a large pack of
Grackles in the neighborhood. They were too far away for me to get any good
views even with my binoculars, but I could make out movement well enough to
estimate that there were probably 100-200 birds in the flock.

This morning, a similar event happened on the hillside right next to our
property, and I was able to observe the birds much better. Again, it was
several hundred Grackles, probably about 300 of them, with at least a few
Red-winged Blackbirds mixed in, but I was never able to spot one of them - I
could only hear them. I'm guessing they were on the outer edges of the
group? I felt very lucky to have them so close and to be able observe them
so well. They spent a large amount of their time rooting through the leaf
litter, stirring up whatever insects they could find. The noise was quite
amazing: we all know what it sounds like when one person walks through the
woods in fall or spring, kicking up dried leaves as they go - well, imagine
that you and 50 friends are doing that all at the same time, and that's what
these Grackles sounded like. Every once in a while they would all take off
from the ground together, making a fantastic whooshing sound with their
collective wings, and then land mere feet away from where they had just
been, only to begin the whole rooting in the leaf litter process again.

They were, of course, calling and vocalizing to each other during all of
this, but it wasn't until they ascended into the trees that they became
really loud. They were on our property by this time, and as I looked
through the trees with my binoculars, I could see that many of them were
preening. So it seems they had a quick breakfast, and then were off to hit
the showers, so to speak, and making plans for the day. At least I imagine
that was what all the raucous conversation was about.

I uploaded a short video to YouTube that tries to communicate the din
surrounding me. Even though you can't see the birds (my iPod Touch doesn't
take great video), you can at least hear them pretty well.

Good birding!
Heather Aubke
Albany, OH


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