Who’s your Mama?

Brown headed cowbirds (Molothrus ater) are called brood parasites, birds that lay eggs in other birds’ nests. It’s said that up to 150 different species in North America are parasitized by cowbirds and the host parents then raise the young. Needless to say, cowbirds are generally looked upon with loathing. Whenever I see this species near our bluebird house, I am out the door clapping and shooing the scourges away.

That is until a fledgling cowbird nearly landed in my lap a few days ago. It had been reared by a tiny chipping sparrow and now it seemed abandoned. I watched as it chased every chipping sparrow it saw, more than a dozen around the feeder at a given time. All flew away or scurried to hide when this big baby ran at them, mouth open, flapping wings, and warbling like a baby chipping sparrow.

After watching it beg for a day with no food, I broke down and fed it a few mealworms.

cowbird 1And now the fledgling flies to me several times a day! That makes me wonder how the heck it can learn to be a cowbird. It is still excited to see a chipping sparrow but absolutely thrilled when it sees me open the door. Hey, you are a cowbird, little guy!

cowbird 2

I’ve seen cowbirds walking in the grass nearby but our fella doesn’t seem at all interested. With a Google search, I found Matthew Louder, an ecologist, who states in Animal Behavior journal that the juvenile cowbirds leave the host’s territory at sunset, perhaps encountering adult cowbirds in wooded areas, returning to their hosts in the morning, thus fostering independence.

But it doesn’t explain how juveniles locate and recognize their own kind. Does our little fledgling fly to the woods when the sun sets to meet up with other cowbirds? We don’t know. But, each day it is standing at the door when we rise at 6 a.m.

cowbird 3

Fly away soon, little cowbird.  Fly far, far, far, far away and never come back to lay an egg in our bluebird box!

 

A Hanging Basket Mystery

I noticed the coir lining around my hanging basket beginning to thin in places so I became more attentive for several days to discover the cause.  Patience paid off and one day I saw the culprit. A bird. At first glance at the color of the tail, I wondered if this was a warbler. I waited for the bird to slowly work its way around the rim of the container.

oriole

What appeared was not a warbler at all, but a female orchard oriole (Icterus spurius). I sent photographs to serious birders in three states just to make sure and it was confirmed as a female orchard oriole. We watched her return several times to gather the coir fibers around this hanging basket.

Click to enlarge photos:

She must be building her nest close by. Female orioles build the bulk of their hanging nest of woven grasses and long plant fibers and twigs. She will finish it off with soft plant down and fine grasses as a lining. We have seen Mr. Oriole near the suet once but only fleetingly and he hasn’t been back. Maybe I’ll be lucky enough to spot their distinct nest on a walk through the neighborhood in the next weeks. Fingers crossed….

To watch a female orchard oriole build her nest, check out the short video below:

Our pair will finish raising their brood and could migrate south as early as mid to late July. For a little more information on this climate threatened oriole, click HERE.

Happy May Day

So happy that the last day for frost in New Hampshire has arrived! There is some bad news in the garden but lots of sweet discoveries of rebirth. We won’t be lighting fires or dancing around a maypole with ribbons, a popular event of my childhood, but will be celebrating the fertility and merrymaking in the garden.

The hummingbirds returned yesterday. The bees are back. All over the Seacoast, we see the cold hardy, early blooming PJM rhododendron hybrids with their bright lavender-pink flowers attracting bumblebees galore. I keep a small one just for those early blooms for insects.

PJM rhododendron and bumblebee

Tulips, daffodils, and grape hyacinths are providing the most booms in our garden at this early stage of spring but we also have the pansies struggling to set blooms. Good news is the New Hampshire drought is over on the Seacoast. Fingers crossed for good rainfall for the summer.

The cutest little bulb in the garden is the Fritillaria meleagris, the miniature checkerboard lily. I planted 15 bulbs but only 6 appeared both in white and in an adorable purple faint checkered pattern. Yes, I will plant more of these… and maybe have a fairy garden someday.

In the shade, the common bleeding heart (Dicentra) is unfurling its tiny cluster of heart-shaped flowers along stems and the Epimedium grandiflorum ‘Yubae’ is performing well in its second year.

Bleeding Heart

FullSizeRender

My favorite color in the garden is green and we have plenty of that. Leaves are unfurling on viburnum, hydrangea, hosta, serviceberry, aucuba. It is the true color of spring…. a reward of rebirth and growth. Green provides me with a sense of relaxation and well-being and if I am surrounded by green whether in my landscape or beneath a canopy of trees in a forest, I have my sanctuary.

hosta

 

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