The Hummingbird Journey

We’re eager for the arrival of our ruby-throated hummingbirds in New Hampshire and we are keeping a close eye on the hummingbird spring migration map online.  Each week citizen scientists log in to the site and record their sightings that are reflected with dates on the map each week in a different color. The little birds have a long way to go before they reach our home in New Hampshire. But we are ready. Our feeders are clean and ready to be hung outdoors. Nectar rich flowers will fill the gardens… plus a variety of insects (NO  pesticides in our gardens). Have you seen a hummingbird chase down and eat a mosquito? I have.

Hummingbird Journey North 2017

In New Hampshire we attract just 4-6 hummingbirds over the summer. I like that number. In Virginia, that number was much more impressive, so much so that it was more economical for me to buy sugar from Costco in 25-lb. bags. Was it a full-time job keeping feeders clean, making nectar and keeping them well-fed with 8 feeders?  Almost!  Would I do it again?  In a heartbeat! They are the most entertaining little visitors in the garden.

Here is a feeding frenzy of females and young males (yes…with white throats!) on our nectar the morning after a hurricane passed through our Virginia property. It took a hurricane to bring them all to the feeders at one time. It was the end of August and most of the adult males with their red throats had migrated.

We do not add red dye to the nectar. It is not needed. The base of feeders are red enough and, besides, why mix in a chemical additive that may affect the tiny birds?

We wash our feeders regularly and make sure nectar is fresh… especially when temperatures are very hot or a feeder may be in the sun. It’s a bit work but the perks of enjoying these birds in the garden outweigh the small amount of energy it takes to maintain the almost perfect hummingbird habitat.

Ruby-Throated Hummingbird

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Ice Storm

During the sleet and freezing rain this morning we could see the shadow of a bird hunkered down in the bird feeder that, like everything else outdoors, was decorated with glistening icicles. It couldn’t have been a pleasant morning for anyone but we were curious to know who seemed to find permanent refuge in the feeder.

ice on feederSoon, up popped a head. It was an American Goldfinch. He was hunkered down eating and staying dry in the shelter of the feeder.

finchWhen he saw me at the window with my camera, he hopped to the side. But he didn’t leave. Soon the lure of food and shelter outweighed the fear of me watching him and he returned to his safe harbor snug in the sunflower seeds.

goldfinchThe American Goldfinch can remain in New Hampshire for the winter if there is a food supply. Not to worry, little fella. You came to the right yard.

There’s just something about snow

There is something magic about the first snowfall of the season. It transforms the drab colors of fall into a pristine blanket of white. Somehow it transforms us, too. The stresses of daily life seem to fade, allowing our minds to slow down and simply enjoy the moment.

New Hampshire had the first REAL snowfall over the weekend, super timing for the weekend when most could thoroughly enjoy the experience. The snow fell softly through the night, covering bare branches and blanketing evergreen boughs, shrubs and the ground, allowing us to see nature in a fresh way. Mister gardener and I donned our boots, down coats, scarves and hats and enjoyed walking through the drifts to a neighborhood Christmas party where the excitement of the holiday season, enhanced by the falling snow, was contagious.

snow 12/14/1013In the stillness of early morning, we shoveled our way to the bird feeders to make sure our feathered friends were well taken care of and an ice dam had not frozen the food supply. And we sprinkled enough seed over the snow to assist the ground feeding birds.

Shoveling to the feedersWell-received by the birds is our new heated birdbath, not for bathing, but allowing a fresh drink of water in this frozen landscape.

heated birdbathAlas, the peacefulness of a snowy morning was eventually broken by the din of snowplows, jolting us back from the land of snow castles and daydreams and hot chocolate to the land of must-do’s and our endless lists of chores.

snow removalOh well. We’re back on the road again… but I’m thrilled that the weatherman announced that the accumulation of snow we received over the weekend guarantees us a blanket of snow for Christmas. Matter of fact, over half of the USA is covered in snow, said to be the most in 11 years on this date. It should be a white Christmas for many!

As The Crow Flies….

A couple of weeks ago on a chilly Virginia morning, my brother prepared to climb a ladder to install a security light near his trash receptacles. He’d been recently spooked by a couple of brazen raccoons on his nightly delivery of refuse and recycling and decided to throw a little light on the area.

The light in one hand, the drill in the other, he made his way to the top of the ladder concentrating on the impending task. Then without warning, a large bird attacked his back, flapping its wings, attempting to hang on, he believed with talons belonging to one of the several hawks that frequent the yard. He dropped the light and drill, fell to the ground and high-tailed it for his garden house….slamming the door. He peeked out of the windows up toward the trees. Nothing. Noticing movement on the driveway, his eyes widened at the sight of a large American Crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos) marching slowly toward the garden house. My brother cracked opened the door to shoo him away. He didn’t budge. When the crow came too close, my bro closed the door. The crow flew up to the Virginia flag by the door and waited. Poor brother was trapped.

Garden HouseEventually he saw the crow fly toward the bamboo. He didn’t waste a minute. He jerked opened the door and sprinted to the back of the house and the protection of his basement. Whew!  A bit later, he nervously finished installing the security light while my brave sister-in-law stood watch by the ladder.

That same day, they had a home visit with their insurance representative. They opened the door to welcome her, but she was calling for help as she hurried toward the house with crow on her back, flapping and trying to bite her earrings. My brother grabbed a crab net. Another neighbor who heard the disturbance came to help but the bird was gone again.

Later, he glanced out of the window and saw two ladies hurrying down the street with umbrellas on this sunny day. He opened the door and asked if they’d been attacked by a crow. “Yes!,” they replied with gory details of the assault. He joined them as another neighbor shared that she was a witness. Yet another neighbor said that it had been pecking on her kitchen window. Someone else would not get out of their car because of the bird on the windshield. Two terrified children had locked themselves in the home and sent a message to my brother to please kill it.

At that moment, something clicked with my brother. He had a light bulb moment, a sudden realization of just what may be motivating the crow’s bizarre actions. He asked one of the neighbors for a slice of bread. She hurried it to him. Without further ado, the crow landed on his arm and my brother began to feed him. This was a young hand-raised crow that was released or escaped. Sadly, he was imprinted only to humans and could not forage for food.

BaldwinHe took the crow home until he could decide what to do. Crow roosted in the garden house that first night, then moved to the basement. They fed him well and for a few days, they and the entire neighborhood, including the children, fell in love with him. The neighbors voted to name him Baldwin after their neighborhood. Baldwin was a lucky crow to land in this neighborhood with a brother like mine who probably saved his life.

Personality, brains, playfulness, mischievous, handsome, lovable, and charming were some of the descriptions I heard. He bathed in their creek, he played fetch and tug of war. He had quite a vocabulary and got excited when he heard my brother talking on the phone. He tried to communicate, too, with murmurs, low caws, and clucks.

If they could have kept Baldwin, they would have. But it is illegal to keep a crow as a pet and they worried whenever he flew out of sight. So many dangers. Early last week, they made the long drive to Rockfish Wildlife Rescue in Schuyler VA where they had arranged for Baldwin to be acclimated to the wild. But somehow I think that Baldwin will forever live there as their Good Will Ambassador. Of course, he will have his adventures… flying through the forests and soaring over Walton’s Mountain but I’m pretty sure he will always be home for dinner.

Click on any photo to enlarge and to learn more about crows, watch PBS’s A Murder of Crows online.

The Welcome Sign is Out

I occasionally saw this beauty during migration in Virginia but we now live where the Rose-breasted Grosbeak breeds. Although they are insect eaters and fruit eater, too, this male adores our sunflower seed and doesn’t care how close I get to him. He’s got to fill his tummy.

mister gardener laughed when I put up this window feeder over the breakfast table. We though we’d never see a bird there, but, lo and behold, it’s a favorite spot for dining and provides much entertainment (and dirty windows!) for us.

Rose-breasted Grosbeak maleIf I make too much noise or move too much, the grosbeak moves to the other feeder and patiently waits for me to settle down.

rose-breastedHe will dine at the other feeder but much prefers to sink his head into the larger quantity of seed in the window feeder.

GrosbeakClick photos twice for a closer look….

A Fine Balance

October can be an exciting month for birdwatching. We’ve watched wave after wave of migrating songbirds and shore/water birds pass through this area of southern New Hampshire. Many birdwatchers travel to migratory hot spots to watch the action but we believe we have a good seat right here on the 50-yard line to watch all the birding action we desire.

We’ve followed ducks, geese, vireos, sparrows, warblers, bluebirds, cedar waxwings, hawks and more, stop to rest and dine for a few days before taking off again. One new visitor I’ve especially enjoyed watching this week is the Northern Flicker, the Yellow-shafted Flicker (Colaptes auratus), a larger bird related to the woodpeckers and sapsuckers. Not an uncommon bird, but it’s fun to watch. It stands out on the horizon as it swoops and dips in flight, its large white rump visible only in the air. I admired his distinctive spotted plumage as it fed on ants and other insects on the ground beneath the white pines .

October is also great time to observe migrating hawks that land in the pines, perch on tree limbs, or circle the salt marsh looking for food. As in Virginia, a hawk we often see is the the Cooper’s Hawk (Accipiter cooperii.) that scans the horizon from its favorite perch in nearby trees. What is the Cooper’s Hawk looking for? Birds. And what did the last Cooper’s Hawk find? Yep, that’s right. Our Northern Flicker nourished the hunter so it could continue its journey south.

It’s always a bit unsettling for me when I discover a fluff of a bird that was. But understanding nature in its fullest is understanding the delicate cycle and balance of the natural world.

Windy weather in New Hampshire yesterday ushers in a cold front today, perfect weather for spurring on bird migration. We’ll have our binoculars (and warm coats) ready.

A Backyard Whodunit….

We have six hummingbirds at the feeder now. They eat a lot less than the dozens of hummers at my Virginia feeders so only one feeder is needed. All hummingbird feeders have small bee guards on the openings to prevent insects from crawling into the nectar. A few mornings ago I noticed two of the bee guards were missing. The next morning, another of the guards was gone. The birds were left with three gaping holes from which to feed and one bee guard. This is an obvious sabotage from some creature. But who or what could do this? Hmmm…..

The number one suspect is the squirrel. He’d been caught with his hands in the cookie jar many times.

So I moved the hummingbird feeder to the squirrel proof pole with the rest of the feeders. The hummingbirds didn’t seem to mind mingling with the larger birds and Mister Squirrel seems to be mystified by the baffle. In and out of the pole’s squirrel baffle he goes but has not yet found a way to the feeders. (He hasn’t given up so stay tuned for new tricks)

All was well for a day until I noticed the fourth bee guard missing. Jeepers! It wasn’t the squirrel after all! I quickly bought a second hummingbird feeder and organized a round-the-clock stakeout with camera in hand for the other. The hummers migrated to the new feeder and I watched the old feeder. It didn’t take long before the culprit appeared. Click…click…click….click.

A beautiful Baltimore Oriole (Icterus galbula) has claimed this nectar as his own. He’s the one who pulled off the bee guards, quite common I read, and he drains a feeder in a day and a half. We are delighted. Oranges and a new oriole feeder go up today. We believe Mister Oriole arrived on June 1, ahead of female orioles, to stake out the best territory for his lady. We are waiting and watching for her.

The Icterids are a group of birds, mostly black, often with splashes of yellow, orange or red. This group includes the bobalink, meadowlawks, and red-wing blackbirds that we see breeding and nesting across the meadow surrounding this property. Matter of fact, we have seen these two ‘cousins’ coming face to face atop the feeding station, each going to different feeders. Birdwatching sure is fun and full of surprises!

Baltimore Oriole and Red-Wing Blackbird

‘Wordy’ Wednesday

Only one common grackle comes to the feeder this spring. Better known as ground feeders, this fella somehow missed that memo. He makes himself light by flapping his wings and dines well at our squirrel-proof feeder every morning. I’ve become rather fond of him and his handsome iridescent feathers.

Wordless (almost) Wednesday

Hey! A new bird species? What’s going on here?

The American Goldfinch may look a little patchy at the feeder this spring, but this male is only going through his spring molt. He’ll lose all feathers but those on the wing and tail. When he’s finished, he’ll be the familiar breeding lemon yellow and black. Read more about these finches and their unique twice-a-year molt HERE.

It’s a Grey Fox… not a Red

I’m not venturing out to garden, weed, or prune in our new frozen tundra this winter. The only outdoor activity I’m fully engaged in so far is feeding the songbirds. We have no trees near this house so instead of hanging feeders from limbs as I did in Virginia, I discovered a great Advanced Pole System at Wild Birds Unlimited to bring the birds closer.

The pole with attached auger is simply twisted into the ground about 24″ and additional poles are snapped onto this pole. The top of the pole is where you can get fancy or stay simple. This is what you could do:

I chose to stay simple with one squirrel baffle tube feeder until I saw how many birds would be tempted to dine with us. The small chickadee was the first to discover the feeder, followed by the tufted titmouse, hairy woodpecker, goldfinches, nuthatches, and the ground feeders, the juncos and other sparrows.

I’ve had the system for one week and the food is disappearing fast. Now I’m waiting for those birds I rarely or never see in the south, like the redpolls, the grosbeaks, the crossbills. I’m gearing up the the Great Backyard Bird Count of 2012 on February 17-20. I’ll count the birds around the feeder and the birds I see in the distance or simply flying over. With an extensive salt marsh vista, hawks are numerous, busy scouting for food over the grasses, gulls soar from the nearby rivers, and noisy Canada geese fill the skies.

With the noise at the feeder today, we attracted a new visitor.  What I thought was a Red Fox is really a Grey Fox. I’m sure his acute hearing alerted this visitor to see what all the ruckus was in his neighborhood. He stood very still on a sunny hillside where the snow has melted and just observed the bird activity at the feeder. After a moment, he turned tail and quietly disappeared over the hill into the white pines. There were no dining opportunities at our feeder on open ground.

Grey Fox

However…. should the fox be interested, there is a meal or two available if he is patient and quick. You see, not only the birds have found the feeder. We have one or two uninvited guest who are eating more than their fair share of my costly bird food. And, boy, are they FAT.

DIY Birdbath….

I belong to the most wonderful art group that meets about every two weeks for two of my favorite pastimes, a potluck breakfast followed by a creative art project. Our last project, a leaf basin, was so much fun yet simple to do that I thought I’d pass along the steps. Although this was new to us, all our leaf basins were stunning. This would make a fun gift for a gardener friend, a teacher or a gift for your own gardens… nestled on the ground among the ferns.

A finished leaf birdbath

Products needed:

Sawhorses

Tarp

plywood

Sandbox sand, slightly damp

Small bag of Quikrete

Water

Disposable gloves

Large leaves with good veins and ribs (banana, hosta, elephant ear, rhubarb)

Lay the plywood on the two sawhorses out of direct sun. Line with the plastic tarp. Mound up damp sand on the tarp in a dome.  Lay the leaves over the sand and smooth out wrinkles.

With gloves on, mix the Quikrete and water with your hands to the consistency of a brownie mix, making sure all lumps are out of the mixture. It may look too dry, but pat the mixture several times. If the surface begins to shimmer with moisture, the Quikrete is ready. If not, add a bit more water and so on.

Mold the mixture about an inch and a half thick over the leaf, starting at the top and not extending too much over the edge of the leaf. Smooth out the surface and allow to dry for 24 hours. We sanded and cleaned up rough areas. Our leaf creations were then colored with acrylics and sealed.

With the small amount of Quikrete mixture left over, we made other forms of garden art. Using pieces of pine cone for the ears, we fashioned a family of mice for our gardens.

Snake Attack!

No, no, not me but my newly hatched Carolina Wrens in the Williamsburg bird bottle. I was edging the borders near the garden shed when I heard the adult wrens raising a commotion. I just figured old Jack, our cat, must be sunning near the daylilies. I kept the shovel moving along the edge. But after a few minutes I turned and glanced over my shoulder, following the escalating noise. What I saw was a shocker. To my horror a 3′ snake was hanging from the shingles of the shed roof with his head at the nest entrance. The adult Carolina wrens were in turmoil with other birds joining in the pandemonium.

Dropping my shovel and running, I reached up and knocked the snake from the roof. It tried to scurry away but I stopped it. It turned direction and tried to escape over the grass but I stopped it again. It then curled into a vent of the shed, vibrating its tail in the dead leaves like a rattler to frighten me. I was not intimidated. You see…. I like snakes.

I was wearing garden gloves so I gently reached down and captured the snake behind the head and supporting its body, I picked it up.  I was holding an adolescent Eastern Rat Snake (Scotophis alleghaniensis) that was as terrified of me as the birds were of it.  As adults, these snakes are solid black with cream colored bellies but the young are hatched with a distinct black and gray pattern along the back. My snake’s pattern was still visible beneath the black.  Many people come across the juveniles with their clear markings and mistakenly believe they found a copperhead.

Rat snakes are plentiful in Virginia and their numbers seem to be growing due to our fragmented forests. Snakes prefer the edge of woods to be able to sun themselves. Their average adult size is about 6′ but they can grow one or two feet longer.  They are non-venomous and usually quite docile. Believe it or not, young ones like mine can make good pets (if you want to stash a supply of dead mice in the freezer or watch them constrict live mice or lizards). They will eat a wide variety of animals from rats (duh!), mice, lizards, moles, rabbits, squirrels and…. birds. One of their easiest prey is in the bird nest, either eggs or baby birds, for this is the snake well-known for climbing. If you ever see a dark snake in a tree or in a bird house, it’s probably the rat snake. Last summer, one scaled the smooth side of my neighbor’s garage refrigerator and dined on her baby birds in a nest. Unfortunately, that was its last meal.

After letting mister gardener photograph the snake (he used zoom so he wouldn’t have to come too close), I walked it about a half mile down the road, released it and watched it slither away and find shelter beneath a downed tree. “Don’t come back,” I warned. “I know you must eat but my little wrens can’t be on your menu.”  Returning home, I watched the traumatized wrens fuss around the nest for over two hours, checking every shingle for a possible hidden predator. Eventually they resumed feeding their young and resumed singing 24 hours later.

Ann Hohenberger, The Garden Club of Gloucester

Brown-Headed Nuthatches have moved in….

Click to enlarge photo of nuthatch

I am overjoyed about the current residents of mister gardener’s newly constructed bluebird house. A few days before their arrival, I received a forwarded article from the Northern Neck Virginia Audubon Society on a study by Dr. Mark Stanback of Davidson College in Charlotte, NC.  The United States Golf Association Wildlife Links sponsored a two-year study of the importance of pine forests density and nesting competition between bluebirds and brown-headed nuthatches.

The study focused on golf courses where bluebird boxes were distributed. Dr. Stanback found that the density of pines had little to do with nest competition between both species yet his studies found that the small nuthatches are attracted to the bluebird boxes. Bluebirds would routinely evict resident nuthatches from boxes with the standard 1.5” bluebird openings. When the openings were reduced to 1.25”, too small for bluebirds, the nuthatches in North Carolina were regular bluebird box occupants.

I’ve had year-round brown-headed nuthatches (Sitta pusilla) for the past three years and they nested somewhere in the pine forests. But just as I read about Dr. Stanback’s study, here they are going in and out of the new bluebird chapel in the azalea border.  But what’s this?  In and out were the neighborhood bluebirds, too. We needed to take immediate action. Mister gardener quickly overlaid a 1.25” opening atop the 1.5” opening. Like magic, it worked.  Mr. and Mrs. brown-headed nuthatch are nesting. The bluebirds still sit on the steeple and leave their messy calling cards but they can no longer enter the nests. UPDATE: Dr. Stanback has notified me that he is now advising 1″ openings, rather than 1.25″, to discourage sparrows. We will make a new 1″ opening as the 1.25″ can also allow titmice, the only birds we see the nuthatches chase from the area.

Dr. Stanback’s study concluded with an encouragement to golf courses in the nuthatch distribution range to make a subset of course boxes with smaller entrance holes and that 1/3 of the current bluebird boxes be provided with small holes. The brown-headed nuthatch is in decline in the Southeast.  Always thought to be caused by the loss of old grown pine, this study offers a different hypothesis: competition with the burgeoning Eastern Bluebird population is causing the decline of the brown-headed nuthatch.  Well, well, well….

USGS Patuxuent Wildlife Research Center -Brown-Headed Nuthatch Range

The Virginia Bluebird Society offered the following supportive statement on their website:  “Considering the availability of inch hole spacers, the current health of the bluebird population and the plight of the nuthatch, it seems reasonable to ask bluebirders in appropriate habitat in eastern Virginia to dedicate a subset of their nest boxes to this dull colored but charismatic cooperative breeder.”

Our bluebirds in Ware Neck are plentiful and bluebird boxes dot the landscape on our property and across the county. I am thrilled to learn of this latest study. The proof that it works is right in our own backyard and I encourage others who have an empty bluebird house and the brown-headed nuthatch in their yard to give this a try.  It worked for us. Thank you, Dr. Stanback!

Ann Hohenberger, The Garden Club of Gloucester

Just Passing Through…

Cedar Waxwings dining on fosters holly

I heard their high pitched whistles before I saw them on Sunday morning. The sound was piercing enough to serve as my early morning wake up call.  I hopped out of bed and dashed to the window to search for these traveling gifts from nature.  In the pre-dawn light, I could only see the dark silhouettes dotting the limbs at the very top of the sycamore tree but there was no mistaking the unique calls of this bird. The whistling bzeeee bzeeee, a little like a high pitched dog whistle, was coming from cedar waxwings, about 80 of them, dark against the sky.  They’ve finally arrived. They never made a stop on their fall migration but this small ‘aristocracy’ or flock of waxwings was making its way to their northern breeding grounds.

Acrobatic waxwings often eat upended!

I was so honored to welcome these well-dressed birds to dine at the foster hollies again. The three trees were full of red juicy berries waiting for their arrival. Cedar waxwings are frugivores, meaning they eat small fruit during the fall, winter and spring, but they are also invertivores, or insect eaters, during the summer months.  They are acrobatic in flight and are excellent insect catchers in mid air. I must alert my daughter in Maine that the birds are on their pilgrimage back to their nesting grounds near her. They breed around the lake near her home and entertain her as much as they do me. She once ‘saved’ a moth inside her home by tossing it from the back door… only to have a cedar waxwing snatch it in midair.

Click to enlarge photos

The fosters hollies are practically cleaned of berries today. They are nibbling on the seed balls of the sycamore and may linger for another day before they are off on their arduous northward journey. If you’d like to invite these well-dressed birds to dine with you, consider planting native fruit trees or maybe their favorite, fosters holly.

Ann Hohenberger, The Garden Club of Gloucester

Water in the Garden

Who doesn’t love a water feature in the garden?  Whether your garden is large or small, water can provide a finishing touch and a focal point in the landscape.  With our small pond, hearing water trickling from a fountain, watching the fish, frogs, insects, the fun of learning aqua-gardening, all combine to provide a touch of magic in the garden.

Bossy bluebird monopolizes birdbath. Click photos to enlarge.

But another very simple water feature can make a garden magic and more inviting to friends and to a variety of wildlife, especially birds. It’s the birdbath and every garden needs at least one.  They are a lovely water feature and guaranteed to bring entertainment from the wide variety of birds that visit.

Birdbaths are made from an assortment of materials from stone, metal, concrete, to copper and ceramic.  They can be small, large, have bubbly fountains or be quiet reflecting pools of water.  Our fine-feathered friends will be most attracted to stone with its textured surface for traction, but because of that texture, they are a little more difficult to clean.

Female summer tanager shares a cool bath with goldfinches

Four birdbaths are in our gardens. Mister gardener has a modern copper one in the center of his vegetable garden, and I have a glazed terracotta and a bronze birdbath, but by far the birds prefer my hypertufa birdbath, an artificial stone basin made by a friend and neighbor.  It is surrounded by low evergreen dwarf pittosporum and sits in filtered light beneath the bough of our sycamore tree.

Here are some tips to keep in mind for adding a birdbath:

  • Place your birdbath close enough to your vantage point to be able to enjoy it.
  • Make sure the water level is 3” or less or birds may drown.
  • Add rocks if the surface is slippery.
  • Hummingbirds will bathe if there is a fountain.
  • Elevate the birdbath out of the reach of predators, such as cats.
  • Keep the birdbath and water clean to prevent avian diseases.
  • Place in semi-shade, if possible.

A simple birdbath will add great interest and delight to the garden and will provide birds an oasis for drinking and bathing.  If you are making plans for adding to your garden this spring, consider a birdbath.  Below you’ll find an appealing YouTube of Red Crossbills enjoying the cool water on a summer day.  Notice the hummingbird defending his territory when the video begins. The yellow crossbills are the females; the small brown striped bird at the end is a juvenile crossbill.

Ann Hohenberger, The Garden Club of Gloucester

Great Backyard Bird Count: San Diego

Making my bird count this weekend from San Diego has been interesting.  I’ve enjoyed the hummingbirds most of all.  There are three varieties that make their way to the feeders: the Anna’s, the Costa’s and the Black Chinned hummingbirds. Many of the Anna’s little ones are beginning to come to feeders, their short beaks just long enough to sip the nectar.

Crows, ravens, sparrows, phoebes, jays, gulls, pelicans, and the black cormorant round out my bird list.  A favorite daily visitor has been the song sparrow with its beautiful melody morning, noon and twilight.

I hope everyone has had fun counting the birds in your gardens over the weekend.  Today is the last day and my count will be the birds in Gloucester Virginia. I can only hope that mister gardener has kept them well-fed.

Ann Hohenberger, The Garden Club of Gloucester

Time To Get Counting!

Here’s a little fact you may already know.  According to several sources, gardening is the fastest growing hobby in America. But here’s a little fact you may not know. Running a close second in fastest growing hobbies is birdwatching. And there is a exciting opportunity to do just that right around the corner.

Folks of all ages and abilities are invited to take part in the Great Backyard Bird Count. If you weren’t involved in the Christmas Bird Count, this is a great time to grab your binoculars, pencil and paper and get involved in the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the Audubon Society’s 13th Annual Great Backyard Bird Count.  This event gives scientists a record of bird declines or recovery, trends, migration ranges, effects of climate changes and/or disease on the total populations.

The GBBC takes place over four days, Feb. 12 – 15 and no backyard is really needed. You can count birds at a park, while you take a walk, or anywhere you happen to be.

According to the GBBC website, it’s easy as 1-2-3

1. Plan to count birds for at least 15 minutes on one or more days of the count. You can count for longer than that if you wish! Count birds in as many places and on as many days as you like—one day, two days, or all four days. Submit a separate checklist for each new day. You can also submit more than one checklist per day if you count in other locations on that day.

2. Count the greatest number of individuals of each species that you see together at any one time. You may find it helpful to print out your regional bird checklist to get an idea of the kinds of birds you’re likely to see in your area in February. You could take note of the highest number of each species you see on this checklist.

3. When you’re finished, enter your results through our web page. You’ll see a button marked “Enter your checklist” on the website home page beginning on the first day of the count. It will remain active until the deadline for data submission on March 1st.

Ann Hohenberger, The Garden Club of Gloucester

When the Going Gets Tough…

Click to enlarge

… the tough definitely get going. Yesterday, as temperatures hovered around 19 or 20 degrees and winds gusts of 15 MPH lashed down narrow beaches, a light crew braved frostbite at dawn for the Christmas Bird Count.  The weather was harsh and inhospitable for man and beast, even dangerous, yet it was an amazing count of birds under these conditions.

Hundreds and hundreds of ducks and geese and swans were counted on the water. Angry white caps on the open water made it time consuming to identify water birds far from shore but the more experienced birders prevailed.  On the shoreline, ice flows like plate tectonics heaved to and fro in the first 50 feet of the rivers.

Inside our 15-mile diameter circle, we found most inland birds hunkered down in protection from the wind.  But eventually they must feed and during those times we counted amazing numbers and varieties of woodpeckers, cedar waxwings, vulture, sparrows, hawks, warblers, robins, cardinals,  bluebirds, blackbirds and so forth.

Although the waxwings have not visited our foster holly, we found them stripping clean Bradford Pears lining a driveway allée.  The homeowner said he would like to replace his many Bradfords that have split time and time again in storms, but the sight of birds feasting on the tiny fruit each winter holds him back.  Seeing the birds feed, I agree with him.  Eventually, he plans to replace the trees with Chanticleer ornamental pear trees that are less likely to split.

Most unusual bird spotted: a rooster.  We did not count him.  What we did not see: our eagles.  Bummer News: My camera froze after 15 photos. Best news: We managed to count all day without frostbite.

Ann Hohenberger, The Garden Club of Gloucester

A Holiday Tradition: The Christmas Bird Count

I have never met a gardener who didn’t like birds. Some are passionate bird lovers and other gardeners feed them or simply enjoy seeing them in the gardens. Birds bring color and life into your gardens and are interesting animals to study.  With bird habitat vanishing and weather patterns changing, it is vital that we collect data to track the health of bird populations and identify trends for conservation.  Time is drawing near for the largest and longest-running wildlife survey that exists, the Christmas Bird Count or CBC.

The Christmas season marks this exciting time for birders as they brave the winter elements for one full day as citizen scientists.  The CBC is a program of the National Audubon Society, where over 55,000 volunteers are up at the crack of dawn to count all the birds they can identify by sight or sound in a 15-mile diameter in one day.  The count that runs from December 14 through January 5, collects data on all birds seen in each circle and is compiled and used to track the health of bird populations.

Folks do not have to be die hard birders to take part in the count.  Less experienced counters are paired with experienced birders who head up each field team.  All that volunteers need is to bundle up with warm, waterproof clothes and boots, birding binoculars and/or a spotting scope, a good field guide, and a few snacks and water.

The Chesapeake Bay area is rich in bird life and several groups count in this area. Much of our group’s time is spent on the beachfront identifying and counting waterfowl and shorebirds on and over the water.  Starting out on the banks of the Ware River where estimates of waterfowl are recorded, we slowly work our way around the peninsula to the North River, then we move toward the interior of our circle through wooded areas, back yards and across fields.  At dusk, when all is finished, we gather to complete our data and raise a glass of cheer to another successful count.

Wintertime is a great time to watch birds.  The leaves are off the trees making the birds more visible to bird watchers. And, of course, there are some birds that are visitors only in the winter. More Yuletide volunteers are needed for the CBC.  To find out about the count in your area visit the National Audubon Society website. To see count data, visit Bird Source, a joint project of the National Audubon Society and the Cornell Labrotory of Ornithology.  Check it out!

Ann Hohenberger, The Garden Club of Gloucester

My White-throated Sparrows Blew in with Ida

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White-throated sparrow rests after long migration

They’re as common as… well, a sparrow, but I do love these little birds that return from their breeding grounds up north to spend the winter in our cotoneaster.  I like to think the same family returns year after year as they seem so familiar with their surroundings and almost seem happy to see us.  As soon as they arrive, I sprinkle sunflower chips over their same feeding station on the ground and they know the routine.

cotoneaster beneath the ginkgo tree

Just outside our bedroom retreat, we dug a small fish pond and surrounded it with a dense semi-circle of cotoneaster.  It has created a thick tangle of screening around the pond and bird feeders, providing a favorite haven of protection for our returning white-throated sparrows.  The cotoneaster shrub is a mounding and spreading evergreen thicket that birds love.  A member of the rose family, it is not a showy shrub but it is perfect for our needs.  It is drought tolerant and requires only an occasional pruning to keep it’s shape.  The inconspicuous white flowers in the spring are followed by showy red berries in the fall and attracts many of our fine feathered friends, especially our white-throated sparrow.

This sparrow is a medium-sized bird with a striped breast and a large white throat.  Its head is striped black and white with distinct yellow patches above the eyes.  It loves the thicket we have provided and will move in and out all winter, dining on spilled bird seed from the feeder or on what I supply over the ground.  Other birds move in and out of the cotoneaster during the day but for the white-throated sparrows, it is home.  They will gather in numbers to roost in the cotoneaster at night and at sunrise, they begin to provide us with their sweet “chips” and their lovely clear song, “sweet, sweet Canada, Canada, Canada,”  which is quite appropriate since Canada is a major area of their breeding grounds.

As our natural habitat shrinks from over development, think about how you can supply shrubs and thickets around your yard for bird habitat.

Ann Hohenberger, The Garden Club of Gloucester

Cedar Waxwings in the Garden

cedar waxwing in foster hollyThere is a quiet lull in the garden right now.  Fall maintenance chores are complete, tools have been cleaned and put away, hoses have been drained, and the first frost has arrived in Tidewater.  For me, this time of year signals a new excitement as I view the landscape from my windows, binoculars in hand, camera ready, and Sibley’s bird guide at my side for it’s all about birds and migration now.  Much of what I have chosen for garden flora has been for the birds, their nesting, their food, and their winter protection.

One bird that I am eagerly awaiting is the cedar waxwing. My daughter in Maine delights in the arrival of cedar waxwings each spring that remain and breed in Maine, dining voraciously on her blueberries and honeysuckle berries and insects all summer.  Before migration, she watches as they begin to flock in August over a fast running stream near her community, diving and swooping over the rapids chasing insects.  It is such a spectacle that she makes the pilgrimage back to the rapids to watch the incredible show each August.

Now she has alerted me that she no longer sees her resident waxwings. Have they left Maine? For me that can mean only one thing; they’re migrating my way.  And I am ready, checking the trees, listening for their high pitched calls, looking for movement around the cleaned and filled birdbaths.  They could be here any day from now till March but I know they will come for the waxwings and I both favor one variety of our trees: the foster holly.  I love it for its beauty and the food it brings my feathered friends. The waxwings love a variety of berries but this holly is their ‘caviar’ of berries on our property.

The slender, 20 – 30′ tall foster holly is a hybrid, the The arrival of cedar waxwingsoffpring of the female Dahoon Holly and the male American Holly.  I planted 3 of them massed together off the corner of the house as a vertical accent.  They produce tons of berries that are bright red against the glossy, dark leaves that are less spiny and softer than other holly leaves. These hollies are beautiful during the summer but they seem to save themselves for their brilliant berry display in the fall and winter.  I check the trees each day, looking for movement or the high pitched call of the cedar waxwings.  They could come today or they could come in January for they wander widely as they move south.

When the flock of birds do arrive, the scene is reminiscent of a piranha feed on the Amazon River.  The hollies are under attack for 24 hours until nary a berry is left. The gluttonous feeding habits of the bird are a far One waxwing with a red tail from consuming honeysuckle berries.cry from the image of the proper looking bird with its elegant silky feathers in shades of browns and yellow. The adults sport a distinctive black mask outlined in white that extends broadly over the face.  The adult wings end in secondary feathers with red waxy tips and the tails of most end in yellow tips.  However, since the 1960’s, there have been sightings of orange tipped tails due to eating the pigments of berry from a newly introduced variety of honeysuckle while the feathers are still growing.

After two days of feasting on foster hollies, cedars, cotoneasters, and wild cherries, my fascinating friends are off for a feeding frenzy at another location.

Ann Hohenberger, The Garden Club of Gloucester