The catbird sings….

I heard him early one morning last week before I saw him. The male gray catbird (Dumetella carolinensis), hidden in the tall white pines, sang a symphony of beautiful sounds. Related to the mockingbird, a bird that artfully mimics the sounds of other birds, the catbird’s vocal ability is even more melodic and varied, a gift that we enjoy from dawn to dusk.

catbirdKnown to prefer thickets and shrubs, our pair announce their arrival with their familiar cat-like ‘mews,’ hopping through vegetation and arriving at our back yard where the sunflower seed feeder is their destination.

The birds are gray overall with a splash of bright rufous feathers beneath the tail. They sport a black cap atop their heads. They often fluff their feathers, droop their wings and cock their tails high from the railing of the deck.

catbird. Although there is no difference in appearance, the more cautious catbird may be the female who waits patiently as her mate boldly claims the bird feeder.

.catbirdKnowing that they are mainly insect eaters, the sunflower seeds may be temporary nourishment until insects are plentiful. But I do hope they are nesting nearby and will continue to visit and shower us with mews and territorial melodies.

A Foxy Visitor

A plump Red Fox Sparrow (P. i. iliaca ) is visiting the ground beneath the bird feeder this week. It’s a bird that we rarely saw at our Tidewater Virginia home so I was pleased to welcome it to New Hampshire, providing a little sunflower seed as it refueled on its way to Alaska and Northern Canada’s breeding grounds.

Red Fox SparrowThere are 4 major groups of these large Fox Sparrows across the country with some interbreeding where groups meet but the Red is the one found in the east.

These rusty-colored sparrows are fun to watch. They generally choose to feed on the ground near cover. To watch them forage for food is to think of how a chicken forages. They jump forward, scratching and kicking up leaves behind them with both feet.

I’m sure this one will be off on his journey north in another day or so and I’m quite happy to be a refueling station.

Hooked on Tree Swallows

He’s handsome. He’s friendly. He’s brave. He’s funny. He’s an entertainer. He’s an acrobat. And he helps protect me from biting insects. It’s the tree swallow (Tachycineta bicolor or TRES), a swallow that breeds over most of North America… except the Southeast. Tidewater Virginia is in the ‘maybe’ zone and I’d never experienced this species of swallow.

Although their summer diet is insects, the male tree swallow, with his beautiful iridescent green-blue back, would land atop the bird feeder pole, looking left and right up and down at the seed-eating birds, never bothering them but looked simply curious.

From the break of day to the last rays of light at night, the pair of tree swallows that took up residence in one of our new bluebird houses commanded the skies in search of insects. Their aerial acrobatics and sweet warbles to each other made me think of the lyrics from Captain and Tennille’s “Muskrat Love”:

And they whirled and they twirled and they tangoed
Singin’ and jingin’ the jango
Floatin’ like the heavens above….
It looks like muskrat love

Dipping and dancing, twirling and soaring, these agile little fellas coursed over fields and water at speeds of 25 MPH consuming insects… up to 2,000 insects each and feeding 6,000 to their offspring in the 45-day nesting period according to Dick Tuttle of the Ohio Bluebird Society.

Our tree swallows have raised their one batch of young that have recently fledged. I can see the entire family flying back and forth across the small pond across the field catching insects in the air. Since they were finished with their house, I opened it yesterday and this is what I found.

Their nests are made with coarse grasses and lined with feathers that look much like water fowl feathers. The feathers, gathered by the male, are said to keep the young warm and deter mites.

In reading more about tree swallows, I should have opened the bird box regularly to check on the chicks and evict any house sparrows that may have taken up residence. The house sparrow is a European invasive and a threat to the welfare of the swallows. To learn more about the tree swallow, click here.

From Gardening to Birdwatching

My Virginia Garden

Gardening has been a way of life for me. My grandfather, my mother, both avid gardeners, bequeathed to me and my 6 siblings and to our children the joys of gardening, landscaping, and developing a harmonious relationship with Mother Nature. Since we are still renting a home and the gardens are not mine, the intimate relationship I had with the soil has metamorphosed from active gardening to becoming a custodian, a steward and a caretaker of this property. I’ve done all I can to restore the once tangled and overgrown small gardens in this rental. Now I have developed an insatiable interest and curiosity about the grassland that surrounds this property.

Durham, New Hampshire

The salt marsh and fields behind our home have provided a great education on the habitat of breeding and nesting birds. This amazing grassland, a tapestry of color in summer bloom, has engaged me. I am entertained daily by the bobolinks, the redwing blackbirds, the eastern meadowlarks that fly in and out of their sanctuary, very vocal and always ready to defend a territory. I’m drawn to their breeding rituals, territory claims, and their banding together for common attacks on crows and hawks.

I’ve been accustomed to gazing upward to tree canopies to follow birds in Virginia. It’s a whole new experience in New Hampshire as I gaze down on meadow events, binoculars in hand, from our elevated deck east of the fields. The one bird that I especially enjoy is the colorful bobolink (Dolichonyx oryzivorus), a member of the blackbird family. This is a new bird on my life list. Their aerial displays are entertaining and their enchanting songs serenade us throughout the day.

The most noticeable thing about the bobolink is the stunning bright buff colored cap he wears. His breast is black and the bird’s back is white, almost as if he put his clothes on backwards. Males claim territories a week before the arrival of females and the bright colors are helpful when females search from above for males in the grasses.

Male Bobolink, Image courtesy of Andrea Westmoreland, Creative Commons

Arthur Cleveland Bent (1866-1954), author of Life Histories of North American Birds, wrote, “It is unique among bird songs, a bubbling delirium of ecstatic music that flows from the gifted throat of the bird like sparkling champagne.” To experience a little of what I see and hear every day, check out the youtube video below.

This grassland is owned and protected by the homeowners. Although it will be eventually harvested to feed farm animals, that process must be delayed until the bobolink nesting period has ended, something that happens much too early in many fields. In the fall, the male changes into drab plumage, the birds begin to flock and they migrate about 6,000 miles to spend the winter in the grasslands of Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay.

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

How I spent Mother’s Day

On Mother’s Day, it’s lovely that I have the liberty to do anything I please without any guilt or constraints. Household responsibilities are forgotten for a day. Phone calls, cards, gifts from children pour in and it’s fun to just bask in the glory of motherhood.

My first choice of activities was to play in the gardens of this rental house. For half the day, I did what I do best. I weeded, I trimmed, I pruned dead branches, I edged, transplanted and divided and I planted.

For the second half of the day, I spent time improving the bird habitat in the yard. I had seen bluebirds and heard bluebirds for weeks. The 3 bluebird houses that were in this yard were uninhabitable and installed too close together. Squirrels had enlarged the openings in the dilapidated old houses and added more large holes on sides and backs. So for Mother’s Day, Mister gardener bought a pole and new bird box and installed it for me along an old lichen-covered picket fence.

What happened next is surprising. Mister gardener picked up the tools, we headed inside. I proceeded upstairs to clean up after my day in the garden. A quick glance out the upstairs window at the new bird box made me do a double take. Less than 10 minutes had passed since we left the birdhouse and there was an interested male singing loudly. I took a few fuzzy telephoto photos through a window screen.

After seconds had passed, a female and future mother joined her mate to investigate the box inside and out.

She approved and they are actively building a nest today and defending the box against interested sparrows, swallows and other bluebirds. What a lovely gift for Mother’s Day!

Days ago, I added a hummingbird feeder to the garden. Shortly thereafter we saw our first visitor at the feeder, a male ruby-throated hummingbird.

Yesterday, a tiny female arrived at the feeder. I thought it was appropriate that another female bird is joining her mate in this yard on Mother’s Day. I was delighted.

Later that afternoon we ended our Mother’s Day celebration at the home of a daughter and husband who treated us to a spectacular repast under the stars. This was the best Mother’s Day adventure of the day as this daughter is enjoying her first Mother’s Day with their expected little arrival later in the summer. How divine!

Douglas Tallamy visits Richmond

“Plants and animals are the rivets that hold our ecosystem together,” says Douglas Tallamy, professor and chair of the Department of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Delaware. I had the opportunity to hear Dr. Tallamy speak to Garden Club of Virginia horticulture chairmen and state board members in Richmond today and his message was a challenge to gardeners and homeowners in the room to evaluate our own yards and plant more native plants to sustain wildlife and promote biodiversity.

Americans seem to love lawns, yet if they would simply replace the grass in 50% of their lawns with native plants, he added, we would create a 20 million-acre park that would go far in attracting birds and other wildlife back into our gardens.

As gardeners we often choose lovely plants that are both non-native and pest free, however insects are what we want and non-natives do nothing for them. Bring back the insects with native plants and trees and we will attract the birds, the frogs and toads, the skinks, etc. to this insect food source. Bird populations are on the decline, a fact linked directly to habitat.

It’s not the berries that the birds need, it’s the insects with high protein and fats. Over 90% of birds exist on a diet of insects while winter and migratory birds eat seeds.

Tallamy stressed that we all have an important role in making a difference to sustain wildlife and biodiversity. Share your space. Plant natives, folks!

For more information on this topic or to order his book, Bringing Nature Home, visit Dr. Tallamy’s website where he offers much guidance and advice. Lists of woody and herbaceous plants that support life and the number of insects it supports are included on the site. A surprise to me was the oak tree, # 1 on the list, that supports 534 different caterpillars!  Plant oak trees, folks!

Ann Hohenberger, The Garden Club of Gloucester