Susan Cavanaugh was very pleased to see a pair of rose-breasted grosbeaks at her home in Northfield earlier this month.

The male is striking, with a black head, a bright red inverted pyramid on its white breast and white bars on its black wings.

"They're the kind of bird that when you see them, you know you're seeing something else," Cavanaugh said.

Something special enough to make it one of three cover birds on the Peterson Field Guide to Eastern Birds (with the cardinal and evening grosbeak).

When the male left after a few days, before the female - which looks a bit like a big female house finch - she was concerned, until her husband, Ron, looked it up and found out the birds do not stay together. Besides, they're probably migrating north and not nesting in Northfield.

Cavanaugh considers herself "wickedly amateurish" when it comes to bird watching, but she has an above-average familiarity with area birds, especially the ones she feeds.

Chickadees, titmice and white-breasted nuthatches - and chipmunks - eat the safflower seeds.

"I don't care if the chipmunks are all over the place. It looks like a cartoon in the morning," she said, adding that an advantage of safflower seeds is that "squirrels don't touch it."

Thistle or niger seed brings in goldfinches, a favorite.

"They get dull in the winter, and then suddenly you look at them, and wow, they're all yellow again," she said.

Cardinals eat the black-oil sunflower seeds, and Carolina wrens hang around for the insects drawn to the seed.

"Last spring, we had robins nesting in the rhododendron 2 feet from the house, and a crow knocked the babies out," Cavanaugh said. She and Ron put them back in and got to watch them fledge and fly away later.

Cedar waxwings hit the holly berries nearby sometimes, and yellow-shafted flickers are rare now when they used to be common, she said.

"What I regret is, the stuff is there if you look at it, and I didn't learn that for several years," said Cavanaugh, now in her 50s. "I grew up in New England with wildlife all around, and I didn't pay attention."

Seeing birds and other wildlife turned out to be easy. A couple of field trips to the Cape May Bird Observatory got her skills up to speed.

"I saw a scarlet tanager with a group, and I never would have seen it on my own," she said.

What she really likes about nature is less the wow factor than its steadiness, the ability of animals "to know how to do so much with what they have."

"I feel like so many things in our world have changed and changed quickly - technology changes by the hour - and that drives me nuts because a lot is just change for change's sake," Cavanaugh said. "Wildlife, even though we've lost some species, is still out there and still works. Nature somehow still persists no matter what other kind of crazy stuff goes on."

That's why she really likes the red-breasted grosbeaks. They have shown up in May in about half of the 14 years she has lived there.

Still there for us, if we'll look.

Contact Kevin Post:

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