A birdy week: ospreys, owls, snow geese, woodpeckers

March 15, 2019

Three reds: holly berries, winterberries and robins. Then there was just one. The robins found the berries.

Then Cathy found an osprey, and Richard and Peggy found a Great Horned Owl.

It’s been a birdy kind of week.

All winter, the holly berries and winterberries brightened our yard with waxy red pointilism. Then the tipping point came. Winter finally beat the berries down. The freezing and the thawing steadily softened them, eventually turning their starchy insides to sugar, and then fermenting that sugar into little shots of alcohol. What had been hard and bitter and bright became tender and tantalizing and gone. No wonder the birds sang lustily.

In just two days, the red-breasted robins, ancient harbingers of spring, made short work of thousands of the little berries. Their songs must have been something about “It’s time for winter’s colors to be gone; spring is on its way.”

I’m good with that.

Cathy Tessien is good with ospreys returning - maybe. She’s the first to let me know she saw one back for 2019. She wrote last Saturday, March 9. “My husband and I just drove by the Little League field [in Lewes] and saw an osprey on a pole! Not sure if being early is a good thing or not.”

Given that the groundhog didn’t see his shadow this year, he predicted an early spring. Our ospreys usually return within seven days of St. Patrick’s Day, either side. Right on schedule for an early spring.

And then a happy tale from Richard and Peggy Martin on Lewes Beach. Richard usually does his wildlife watching underwater, during his free dives among the sharks and stripers that haunt the rocks of the outer wall in the mouth of Delaware Bay. Not on this particular day, though.

“Peggy and I, heading out Cedar Street yesterday on our way to lunch, spotted a bag of fluff alongside the road between East and West Canal streets. It began hopping around out into the street. I recognized it as a Great Horned Owl, and it was obviously injured to the point that it could not fly.

“I retrieved a towel from the car,” wrote Richard, “and was able to get the towel over the owl, pick it up and return home to place it in a safe container (an old wooden chicken cage.)

“Peggy and I contacted Tri-State Bird Rescue & Research located at Newark, Delaware. They sent a volunteer driver from Millsboro to transfer the bird to Newark for care. I should mention - the volunteer that stopped by to transfer the owl said that many birds of prey die from eating mice and other rodents that have consumed poison bait.

“My congratulations to Tri-State Bird Rescue for such a fine service for individuals that find an injured bird. The Great Horned Owl is a beautiful bird. I feel it will recover quickly under the care of Tri-State Bird Rescue. Their representatives will advise us when they plan to release the bird so we can watch the flight.”

Thanks to Cathy and Richard for sending along their bird stories.

Other bird observations

Driving across the peninsula toward Chestertown last Friday, I saw several flocks of swans in the center of flooded fields. They’re making their northward journey toward Canadian and Arctic nesting grounds.

Snow geese are on the move too. On Monday this week, bold flocks of our winter residents worked the field on Kings Highway outside Lewes near the Townsend barn across from Cape Henlopen High School. They must think the most tender grass is right along the edge of the highway.

They worked their way from the edge of the field across the drainage swale to the grass along the shoulder and merrily ate their lunch within just a few feet of a steady line of cars and their courteous drivers.

Birds and their activity sure do brighten our landscape and our lives - most of the time.

As I was writing this column I heard a hard tapping against the shingles of my house, next to my chimney. It took a moment to register, but then I remembered my friend John’s battle many years ago with a yellow-shafted flicker determined to single-handedly aerate an entire side of John’s shingled Red Mill Pond home.

It reminded me of one of Walt Disney’s Woody Woodpecker episodes. Woody’s machine-gun-like pecking first reduced a house to swiss cheese and then a crumbling pile of sawdust. The sight would have struck awe into termites and beavers alike.

With John’s tale of woe in mind, I walked out on my deck to see what I was up against. No bird. But then I heard the distinctive trill of a woodpecker up high. My eyes followed my ears.

There, making his way up the trunk of a large cherry tree, a big, bright red-headed woodpecker tested the scaly black bark for breakfast bugs.

Fortunately, I heard no more tapping on the shingles. And I don’t think he’ll hang around the cherry tree for long. The family of squirrels that lives in the tree’s condominium of holes won’t long put up with him disturbing their naps.

PS - Richard emailed me on Wednesday with a sad note from Tri-State Bird Rescue: “Despite your best efforts and ours, the Great Horned Owl you brought us did not survive. Unfortunately, some birds are too severely injured or debilitated and are beyond our best medical treatments and rehabilitation efforts.”

As I said, it’s been a birdy kind of week.

  • Dennis Forney has been a journalist on the Delmarva Peninsula since 1972 and has been writing his Barefootin’ column for The Whale and then the Cape Gazette for more than 30 years. Contact Dennis at