Focus on Nature: Welcoming the elusive wild turkey

BARBARA STOUTENBURGH PHOTO | Turkeys have started a comeback here on the North Fork. For years people have called about seeing turkeys alongside the highway or in their backyards. We finally had our own turkey stop by and visit us for a few days.

I’m sitting here in front of the big picture window looking out at the bird feeders. I’m looking for an unusual visitor who has been stopping by for the last two days. Only once before in all the years we’ve lived here has a wild turkey shown up in our backyard. We keep our fingers crossed in hopes it will return and continue to visit us and not end up on someone’s Thanksgiving table.

We have had fun watching as it pecks at the ground in search of seeds, insects and small nuts. It is a very cautious feeder, always on the alert, checking all around every four or five steps with head up and eyes high, searching.
Turkeys have large feet that they use to scratch for food, much like our common chickens. The second day the turkey was here scratching when dusk took over at the end of the day. I know turkeys roost in trees for I found their roosting trees once on a Christmas bird count on Gardiners Island. There was one spot where droppings had created cones of white beneath where they had roosted for the night.

I watched our new visitor in the backyard that night moving about looking for a place to roost. It was getting hard to follow the bird in the fading light. Finally, it made a move and jumped onto a bent cherry tree and proceeded cautiously to walk up the tree to the high branches above. Once off the ground, it became silhouetted against the fading light. Binoculars were brought out as we watched the bird move about in the tree, now about 20 feet in the air. We had probably watched something few people will ever get to see. It was one of the highlights that add spice to our life.

Being a little crazy as we are, Barbara and I were up at dawn to see if our turkey had made it through the night. In that rare light of dawn we could see its large body moving about as it stretched its wings and then flew gracefully to the ground, landing some 40 feet away. Cautiously but deliberately, it started its daily routine of scratching and picking for food. It has been fun watching it feed beneath our bird feeders; at one point it came right up to our door. Now it has disappeared. Hopefully it found better feed elsewhere.

We stayed watching it disappear along the hedgerow of the pasture that morning as other birds started their day. The cardinals, chickadees, titmice and nuthatches were all at our feeding stations. Many woodpeckers have been enjoying the suet we have hanging in wire feeders — the downy, red-bellied, the flicker and the rarer yellow-bellied sapsucker, which we’ve seen a few times. It’s the one that puts the series of holes in the bark of trees and returns later to not only enjoy the sap but the insects that it attracts. We have even seen the chickadees taking advantage of these sap holes.

We saw a black-throated blue warbler, a yellow-throated warbler, a redstart and a hermit thrush when they stopped by on their winter migration to the south. The first winter bird we’ve seen around our feeders was a lone immature white-throated sparrow. These white throats will be with us throughout the winter.

We have already seen early morning frosts covering the back pasture. The fish we enjoyed all summer in our little garden pond below our picture window have been covered up. They will stay there in the ooze at the bottom for the winter until we open it up again in the warm weather of spring. For weeks we’ve had at least 14 squirrels feeding on the hickory nuts that abound around our house. Some are being eaten and some are being buried for later use. One has to watch that you are not hit by falling nuts as the squirrels feed in the trees.

Later in the day we walked along the causeway searching for winter ducks. Sure enough, a small flock of white-winged scoters and surf scoters could be seen off to the east. They’ll spend the winter here diving to the bottom where they search for food. What a remarkable feat these ducks go through every day as they dive, finding small mollusks and occasionally fish that they feed on, then pop up to the surface their bodies warm and dry inside their thick coat of fat and feathers.

We did see one lonely loon that will probably be in our bays all winter. It, too, was scavenging for food along the bottom. Overhead we saw groups of cormorants flying in big strings that day, heading south to warmer climes.

All about us are signs of the changing season. Fall, with its spectacular colors and falling leaves, tells us that colder days are ahead so look for these signs of fall. All you have to do is look and marvel.