Planting for Birds

From our breakfast table, we have a good view of two serviceberry trees (Amelanchier x grandiflora) we planted two years ago. As with all shrubs and trees I have ever planted, they were chosen with birds in mind. Not only do these native trees provide us with early spring blooms, the blooms ripen to berries in June bringing us birds we wouldn’t see otherwise in our small yard…. like this cedar waxwing and his friends that are daily visitors. They have completely cleaned one tree of berries and are working hard on the second tree. As soon as a berry ripens, it disappears!

The trees feed a number of birds…cardinals, catbirds, grosbeaks, robins and more, as well as providing an early bloom for pollinators and a lovely spring sight covered in white blooms for us. I have sampled a few of the ripe berries… sweet and delicious… but I’m afraid I’ll not be baking a serviceberry pie this year. I’m leaving the berries for our fine feathered friends.

Growing up in Virginia, the species my mother grew was Amelinchier canadensis that we called ‘Shadbush,’ a name that signals the shad running in local rivers when the tree blooms. The species I grow is Amelanchier x grandiflora, ‘Autumn Brilliance,’ a name that describes the beautiful brilliant red leaves in the fall. In the winter, the tree has an interesting branch structure and smooth grey bark that will eventually become rough as it ages. We do prune the suckers at the base into one main tree trunk but the species is often left as a multi-stemmed shrub.

So…if you want a lovely small tree (or shrub) that attracts birds and provides you with 4-season ornamental interest, consider one of the native serviceberry trees.  All good…

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.

Nesting Material for Birds

Yes, it’s time. The birds we see around the yard are beginning courtship behavior, mating, and defending territories, so you might want to provide a little nesting material. Birds naturally use a wide variety of nesting material, from grasses and twigs to animal fur, mosses, mud, spider webs and a lot more from the great outdoors.

We add a few nontoxic materials over the summer but one on hand today is natural jute twine that we cut into small pieces. Today mister gardener and I unraveled the twine, then filled a container with the bits and pieces. Easy to do. Just twist strands the opposite way that they are twisted, then pull apart.

Nesting Material

We stuffed this little wire basket given to me as a gift but a suet basket works well, too.

Nesting Material

We hung it in a visible location on a tree branch and now wait for the discovery.

Nesting Material

Things to use:
dry untreated grasses
soft plant material like catkins from cottonwood, willows, poplars, and milkweed fluff.
twigs
horse hair
short yarn and short hair (longer pieces can entangle birds’ feet and be deadly)
small fabric scraps
cotton batting

Things NOT TO USE:
cellophane and plastic that can harm birds and the environment
nylon twine and fishing line that can be deadly if a bird becomes tangled.
dryer lint absorbs water and contains chemical residues
dog fur from an animal that has been treated with flea treatment

Finally, just for fun…. check out this amusing video of a tufted titmouse stealing nesting material from a sleeping dog.

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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“Just passing through….

….and thank you for the meal worms,” chirped a friendly pine warbler on his way through town.

pine warbler“And where are you heading, you handsome fellow?”

“I’m heading to the southeast to find others of my kind.”

“Farewell then. We’ll see you in April…”

pine warbler

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Dark-eyed Junco

It’s bird migration time and things are happening in our little spit of land. According to Chris Bosak, Birds of New England, Labor Day weekend was a good time to fill the feeders again for the fall and winter birds. So I filled the feeder with hulled black oil sunflower seeds and the welcome mat was officially rolled out for the migratory songbirds.

Due to an invasion of breeding house sparrows this summer, I fed only the insect eaters, the robins, bluebirds, phoebes, and chipping sparrows nibbling on what fell beneath the feeder… no seeds at all, just meal worms.  Those pesky house sparrows turned their noses up at the meal worms and have exited the neighborhood, probably living inside Home Depot or around McDonalds for the winter. We are ready for the next wave!

Our first winter visitors arrived two mornings ago. The white-throated sparrow and their snowbird companions, the dark-eyed junco, are perhaps the best harbinger of winter. They arrived overnight and I spotted the newcomers at dawn cleaning up fallen seeds beneath the feeder.

junco (Junco hyemalis) female with sunflower kernel

Female junco with sunflower kernel

The junco is a fairly nondescript bird, gray above and a white belly. The female is generally paler with a mixture of brown in the plumage. Our flock should number 20 or more by the end of October.

Juncos are among my favorite little birds because they entertain me with their antics all winter. Their scientific name is hyemalis, Latin for ‘winter,’ an appropriate name for no snowstorm, blizzard, or arctic day can keep them away.  Their feisty interactions competing for seed under the feeder (and on the feeder) make me smile. They run, they hop, they flit, and they scratch as they battle each other for seed on the frozen ground or snow. Look for them to appear beneath your feeder around here very soon.

I don’t feed the birds anymore…

…with seeds in the summer, that is. What I mean is I don’t invest in expensive sunflower seeds all summer as I’ve done for 100 years. But I do provide food. It’s more natural food in the garden. We don’t have the variety of birds that we had keeping suet and seeds year round but we are royally entertained by those that frequent the landscape for berries, caterpillars and other insects, seeds on sunflowers, and we are generous with water. In an extreme drought like we are experiencing, all the neighborhood birds frequent the birdbath. Some simply sit and soak.

goldfinch on sunflower

Alas, I haven’t gone cold turkey with birdfood though. Maybe someday but for now  we are supplying mealworms to keep bluebirds (and us) happy. They are waiting when I take the feeder outside in the morning to have my coffee. And they are waiting when we supply mealworms at the dinner hour. We dine on the deck every evening and share space with 5 or 6 bluebirds of different ages…. parents and this year’s offspring.

Shortly after moving here, mister gardener made a bluebird box. It was doubtful we’d attract the birds in our small yard.  But, yes, if you build it, they will come. Last year was the first year. The couple had one nesting and now they have just completed their third nesting. That’s it for this year.

bluebird

This morning I sipped my coffee and watched as the last youngster looked eager to take flight. I waited with a second cup of coffee.  And then it did…. with the parents there to protect and guide it to the big viburnum where the other fledglings waited. The parents and older siblings slowly urged the newest fledglings to the old oak tree at edge of the forest as they always do. We can hear lots of excited calls welcoming the youngest to the family. There they keep them safe, feed them from a variety of sources, and when they are older, we’ll see them coming for mealworms twice a day with the others.

August 22 - Last Bluebird Fledgling

 

 

 

 

Great Backyard Bird Count 2015

Well, it’s that time of year again…. time for me to become a citizen scientist and count birds for a minimum of 15 minutes a day during this 4-day weekend, February 13 – 16. Then report my findings at birdcount.org. It’s easy, it’s free, and it helps avian researchers have a real-time picture of how birds are doing.

There are two days are left in the count… today and tomorrow. Just Do It!

Ice-encrusted mourning dove (Zenaida macroura) in Portsmouth NH

Near the feeder, it’s an easy task but in other locations, it can take a bit of concentration. Can you spot the lone chickadee among American goldfinches and a junco in the crab apple tree? Click to enlarge.

American finches and chickadee

 

For the birds…

It has been an extreme few weeks in New England that has brought us over 40″ of snow in our area of New Hampshire. Today the snow is coming down steady again… enough that the snowplows have cleared our drive 4 times! We always feed the birds but during severe weather we step up our support as natural food supplies are difficult to find. We have trenches and we shovel out to refill feeders twice a day. The snow is as light as ivory flakes so the shoveling isn’t strenuous. And, amazingly, it’s full of tunnels where the squirrels are searching for wayward birdseed. They pop up here and there like Whac-A-Mole game.

trenchThe familiar backyard avian crew frequents our feeders… just in greater numbers in this weather. The black-capped chickadees, the white-breasted nuthatches, tufted titmice, and tons of American goldfinch, pine siskins, and purple finches dine on the tube feeder and the covered bluebird feeder. The noisy finches that number in the twenties also monopolize the nyjer seed feeder.

finches on nyjer sock

American Goldfinches

Northern cardinals, mourning doves, a handful of blue jays, white-throated sparrows and a few other sparrows, a large number of dark-eyed juncos, a common redpoll or two, American finches and pine siskins hop around atop the snow for the seeds we scatter.

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Titmouse

Tufted Titmouse

junco..

Dark-eyed Junco

Red-bellied woodpeckers, Hairy and Downy woodpeckers, white-breasted nuthatches, the chickadees and titmice go through the suet in no time.

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chickadee

Black-capped Chickadee

 

Female P. Finch

Female Purple Finches

 

Pine Siskin

 

The avian activity provides a lot of excitement and entertainment at our house. Breakfast, lunch, and dinnertime at our table are hives of activity at the window feeder. We enjoy watching the shy, the gregarious, the bullies, the bold, the eat-and-run birds, the noisy, and the birds that like to watch us watching them.

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At least it’s a leisurely hobby that you can enjoy from the comfort and warmth of your home… unlike some of our neighbors who must wait for the snowplow to clear enough snow so their animal friends can have a little recreation. Brrrr….
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Cindy and pup

Blizzard 2015 Visits New England

A week ago, I spoke a little too soon about needing some snow in New Hampshire. This week the January 2015 blizzard came to town. The snow started on Tuesday and never stopped. When all was said and done on Wednesday morning, we officially had 25+ inches on the ground in Exeter…. however, high winds whipped snow, swirled snow, and piled snow in every nook and cranny creating mountains you could get lost in. Beautiful to watch from the window with a crackling fire, a fine cup of java, and two good books to take me far away.

To give you an idea of the Great Dig Out, here is my grandson with his dog following along as his parents forged a path to their mailbox in Portsmouth, a city that received a whopping 31 inches of snow, according to local news.

Drew on Path

And this is how they found the mailbox, buried by the snowplows under several feet of snow. More dig out…

Mail Box in PortsmouthIn Exeter, mister gardener dug a series of deep trenches to the bird feeders trying to keep our feathered friends well-fed for the duration of the storm. All birdseed we scattered atop the snow was completely covered within minutes.

birdprintsBefore the storm hit, we built a small snowman with available snow on the deck railing.  The snows of ‘Juno’ began and we were certain it would be the end of Mister Snowman.Our small Snowman But he withstood the whipping winds of the blizzard. We found him standing upright in the morning although he’d lost an arm and had transformed into Mr. Conehead with a cape.snowman2Very slowly over the next three days, our little man began to lean more and more until he finally toppled and expired late today.

The cleanup continues in New Hampshire with two more winter snowstorm warnings on the horizon. We are ready for them, but not for another threat that emerged this morning. Icicles can possibly foreshadow the dreaded…. ICE DAMS …..identical to the one that caused a leak around our skylight last winter! Yikes! Give me a good snowstorm any day!

icicles

Look who came to breakfast!

Yesterday I attached a small bird feeder to the kitchen window. I used it for a while last year but the messy spillover on the basement bulkhead below resulted in removal of the feeder.

My daughter’s interesting birds at her kitchen window convinced me to turn a blind eye to the oily mess and just enjoy the birds. Immediately the bold little chickadees lifted out most of the nuts. Very early this morning before the sun was fully over the horizon, the American finches found the feeder filled with shelled sunflower seeds for those dainty beaks.

Heck with the mess. C’mon little tweetie birds!

The American Goldfinch is the only finch to molt twice a year. Their dull winter colors are a stark contrast to the bright yellow breeding colors of spring and summer.

In Virginia, I participated as a Cornell Lab of Ornithology citizen scientist in a data collection survey called House Finch Disease Survey for Mycoplasmal conjunctivitis. This terrible condition caused swollen, crusty eyes, and often blindness in a good number of my goldfinches, house finches and Northern cardinals. It was heartbreaking to watch a bird trying but unable to land on a feeder. Some diseased birds recover but many starve or are eaten by predators. Because of the contagious nature of the disease, feeders are the best place for transmission. I regularly removed all feeders, disinfected them, and waited a week or so before hanging clean feeders and clean food. Thankfully, I have not seen this condition in New Hampshire.

The survey has ended, however, one can report a disease sighting through Project Feeder Watch until April 3.

Angry Birds?

It was frigid yesterday and we always take extra care of the birds in severe weather. Fresh suet, heated bird bath, filled feeders, and sunflower seed scattered to attract the ground feeding birds. Who came to dinner? Our neighborhood rafter of turkeys!

I don’t dare intrude when our 18-20 hungry turkeys arrive. The gobblers can be a trifle aggressive and I sure don’t want to ruffle their feathers so I videoed a few of them from the window. The dominant Toms had slim pickings as they kept watch on the fringes allowing the rest access to the sunflower seeds that I scattered for much smaller birds on this icy morning.

I’m becoming rather attached…

Christmas for the Birds

As a special treat to her feathered friends, my daughter added a handful of shelled pecans to the sunflower seeds on her window feeder. She wondered whether the birds would even like the nuts, but lesson learned. It took 15 minutes before all the pecans were gone. Click to enlarge photos.

First the chickadee eyed them.

chickadeeIt was the titmouse’s turn next….

IMG_7500…followed by the white breasted nuthatch.

IMG_7497All the regulars, the nut lovers, arrived to share a gourmet Christmas treat. Joy.

On the move

Fall migration is in full swing in New England and I’ve seen some spectacular birding sights along this coastal region of New Hampshire. Many of these migratory birds I see when I’m out and about but if I was not a gardener, I’d miss some of my favorite little friends right in my own back yard.

Yesterday, while adding a new border and path beneath the crab apple tree, I heard a familiar jit-jit-jit-jit and knew I was being visited by the tiniest of birds, the kinglet. A Ruby-crowned Kinglet (Regulus calendula) was flitting from branch to branch totally ignoring the fact that I was working just feet away. This bold little friend foraged beneath the bark nonstop for insects making it almost impossible for this gardener to drop all and photograph it.

KingletI’ve always enjoyed watching the kinglet, both the Ruby-crowned and the tiny Golden-crowned as they migrate in the spring and fall. This one is on its way from breeding grounds of northern New England, Canada, and Alaska to southern United States and Mexico and beyond.

A bit blurry but this shows the distinct eye ring and bold wing bars that help identify a Ruby-crowned Kinglet from the Golden-crowned. The scarlet crown patch was not visible so either it was concealed by feathers, as it often is, or this 4″ bird is a female that does not have the patch of red.

kinglet 2kinglet3One last flit of the tail and it was off to warmer climes.

Grackle Problem Solved

In Virginia, the migrating flocks of mixed blackbirds (grackles, red-wing blackbirds, starlings and cowbirds) would descend on our bird feeders during spring and fall migration. One moment we could have finches and cardinals eating at the feeder and the next minute, the yard would be filled with hundreds of blackbirds clamoring for bird seed. Migration lasted for about 2 – 3 weeks and the birds were gone.

We think we know where they were all going in the spring… to New Hampshire where we now live. Experts say that as food becomes more plentiful in the warmer months, feeders account for less than 25% of most songbird’s diet. But it must be 90% of the grackles’ diet. We took the seed feeders down early but continue to feed our hummingbirds and the woodpeckers with suet feeders pictured below….that is, until the flocks of grackles found the suet.  In numbers, they could tear apart a suet cake in two hours.

woodpecker on suetMy daughter showed us her grackle-proof suet feeder that worked for them so mister gardener got to work to build one for us. He crafted the new feeder to fit the suet cage, which he fixed horizontally beneath the structure, pictured below:

suet feederThe suet is caged just inside the structure to allow clinging birds to hang on to the bars of the cage. The grackles (and squirrels!) try their hardest but so far have been unsuccessful in hanging upside down. The birds we enjoy have no problem hanging on to the horizontal cage. The noisy chickadee families, the nuthatches, several kinds of woodpeckers and the titmice visit our new feeder and entertain us…. all dining upside down.

suet cage

Love is in the air

Spring is upon us and suddenly the woods are alive with avian romance. White-throated sparrows and dark-eyed juncos that have kept us company throughout the winter have have migrated north and we welcome back songbirds that spend half their lives elsewhere. Seeds and suet, rich in protein, were ready for their arrival to provide the energy they need.

Two mated pairs of rose-breasted grosbeaks recently arrived from their winter in Panama and northern South America and are being well-fed at separate feeders.

Two male ruby-throated hummingbirds arrived a week ago and each claimed a different feeder as his own. They fuss across the branches but no fights yet… and, sigh, no lady loves either. It may take a week or two before the females arrive. Instead of hovering and guarding their food, they spend time staking out the best territory for breeding and sit high in the treetops as if scouting for the arrival of the first female. Then the fights may begin.

One male is very approachable and will hover inches from me each time I drag out the hose to water the baby grass or fill the birdbath. All he wants is a nice mist shower. I follow him to a branch where he flaps his wings and washes every feather for at least 5 minutes.

Male Ruby Throated HummingbirdOne of my favorite bird species, the gray catbird, is now frequenting the feeding area, flitting here and there, in a shrub, on a limb, running across the ground, on the suet, and then the feeder. The pair is vocal, mewing and repeating the calls of a number of other birds, as they forage for insects and enjoy sunflower seeds. I added a ground water bath that they especially love.

gray catbird in the ground bathFour varieties of woodpeckers, all paired off, visit the suet along with pairs of nuthatches, titmouse, bluejays, and chickadees.

Whether watching plump mourning doves, two by two, pad quietly beneath the feeders looking for spilled seeds or the sweet affection of a male cardinal feeding his mate, we both agree that birdwatching is an amazing experience in the spring.

 

Good Mourning!

Mourning DoveThis graceful mourning dove (zenaida macroura) is a regular visitor at our breakfast window. Normally shy and retiring, the love of sunflower seeds overrides his wariness.

It’s a very common backyard bird in this country, a protected bird in some places yet it is hunted in season in many states…. not in New Hampshire since they aren’t numerous enough.  Other states that ban dove hunting are Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maine, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, Vermont and Alaska.

Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maine, Michigan, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Vermont and Alaska. – See more at: http://www.ussportsmen.org/hunting/dove-season-equals-safe-fun/#sthash.ZzhBDjNQ.dpuf

Interesting facts:

  • They are monogamous and mate for life.
  • Some migrate. Some do not if food is plentiful.
  • They are named for their ‘mournful’ song.
  • They are the Wisconsin state symbol of peace.
  • Nests are so loose you can see the eggs through the twigs.
  • They are the most frequently hunted species in North America.
  • Up to 45 million are killed by hunters annually, yet they remain plentiful.
  • They eat approximately 12 – 20 percent of their weight daily.
  • The oldest mourning dove lived to 31 years 4 months old.
  • They are one of a handful of birds that enter a shallow state of torpor at night when fasting.
  • …and finally, many years ago, my young daughter adopted and raised an abandoned chick.

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….

Birds of All Feathers Flock to the Feeders

With the storm on the horizon, we made sure we fed our birds well today with a variety of nuts, seeds, fruit, and suet.  Even the pesky house finches were welcome. Eat up little one. I hope you have safe shelter during the nor’easter tomorrow.

Click the photo for a close look at a house finch puffing feathers to trap warmer air closer to his body. It provides great insulation against the bitter cold.

house finch

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

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.

Holiday Tradition: Christmas Bird Count

If you love being in the great out-of-doors and if you love birding and being with like-minded friends, then the Christmas Bird Count is the perfect wintertime activity for you. This National Audubon Society sponsored event, begun on Christmas Day in 1900, collects data for a study of the long-term health and status of bird populations across North America. Our local team of a dozen volunteers walked and drove within the 15-mile radius of our assigned area of the count circle in Mathews and Gloucester Counties on Sunday (no hunters!), January 2. The combined information is available on a CBC database on the Audubon website where you can view historical counts, track a species, check maps or make a graph.

Fog and drizzle over the Ware River

Yesterday’s weather forecast was favorable: a high of 57 degrees, morning showers predicted to end when a front pushed through in the afternoon. This seemed to be an improvement over a year ago when 19 degrees and howling winds caused my camera to freeze after the first few shots. However we were disappointed to awake in the wee hours to drizzle and heavy fog on this year’s 110th Christmas Bird Count. Most of our counting takes place over rivers and creeks and marshes where it was difficult to see much at all early in the day.

Fog rolled in the pre-dawn light, then lifted for brief moments, allowing us to count and estimate thousands of birds on the waterways of Gloucester.

Belleville Creek, normally a haven for ducks, geese, kingfisher, woodpeckers

Heavy fog on low lands obscured most of the water and shore.

We hear them. We just can't see them.

Hampered by high tides, volunteers traverse makeshift bridges

A glimmer of hope past the noon hour....

...then early afternoon clearing provided anticipation and good cheer....

..and clear counts on the water...

... only to be dashed with the arrival of the front and heavy rains.

Yet, here we counted numerous small birds seeking protection from the rain just like us!

Late afternoon on Davis Creek

Although afternoon temperatures dropped 10 degrees with gusting winds and intermittent rains all afternoon, we covered much ground in Ware Neck with good results. Drying out that evening while tallying our counts we were satisfied with the final bird census of the day. Despite not seeing some familiar birds like vultures and some songbirds, we were pleased with the variety and number of birds that we reported this season.

Ann Hohenberger, The Garden Club of Gloucester

 

Having Fun With The Brown-headed Nuthatch

Brown-headed nuthatchSunflower seeds, peanuts, and suet bring the gregarious brown-headed nuthatch to our garden feeders in the winter.  Like other nuthatches, they eat seeds at the feeder during the winter months, but during warm weather, the bird will forage for bark-dwelling insects.

In the summer, we are alerted to their arrival by their familiar rubber-ducky squeaks.  We watch them climb up and down the pine trunks in characteristic nuthatch fashion inspecting the bark, the cones and pine bracts in their search for spiders, cockroaches, egg cases, etc., as well as pine nuts.  To have a little fun with them, we hide peanuts under the bark that they love to discover, sometimes with the male feeding his mate.

Sadly, due to the loss of their mature pine forest habitat, it is reported that these 4.5″ birds are declining at a rate of 2% a year, down close to 45% in the last 30 years.  One possible way to help the brown-headed nuthatch is to build a birdhouse.  Make sure the entrance hole is 1 1/4″ in diameter with a 4″ x 4″ floor and 9″ ceiling.  Hinge one side for cleaning, make ventilation holes and attach about 7′ or 8′ above the ground. Next, invite them to your feeder.

Ann Hohenberger, The Garden Club of Gloucester

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Fireworks Every Day in the Garden

Every two and a half weeks I stand in line at Costco along with other bulk shoppers, their carts full of king-size supplies of food and my cart containing only two items….two king-size bags of sugar, 50 lbs. of sugar to be exact, just enough to fill 7 hummingbird feeders with nectar for about 18 days.  There is a formula to estimate how many hummers reside in an area by the amount of nectar they consume but we aren’t interested in knowing.  We only know we have oodles of Ruby-Throated Hummingbirds that are drawn here year after year by an abundance of food, water, and nesting sites. Suburban and rural gardens are ideal hummingbird habitats with trees, shrubs, open areas of grass or meadows, water and flowers.  With the addition of the right flowers, most gardens will attract these miniature thespians to entertain you in the garden.

leucistic Ruby-Throated Hummingbird in Ware Neck VAThese “glittering garments of the rainbow,” as John James Audubon called them, are the most colorful and prolific bloomers in our gardens from early spring until late fall. We recognize the same individuals as they arrive each spring, not only by their familiarity with us, but by unusual markings on some of them.  Several of our hummers are leucistic, a condition of reduced pigmentation in the feathers.  As new generations are born each spring to these birds, it is interesting to see the white leucistic variations on the heads of the offspring.

We are entertained by the raging territorial battles to protect their nectar source. They battle each other, bees, birds, the dogs and people.  As the ‘king’ of one feeder chases an intruder, several others slip in to have a sip from his nectar cache. These jewel-colored birds with their explosive and ferocious territorial dances at speeds of up to 60 mph provide us with 4th of July fireworks every day of the summer.

Did you know?

  • The Ruby-Throated is the only hummer to breed east of the Mississippi yet during migration you can see other varieties passing through.
  • Hummingbirds are great pollinators, often better than bees because they feed continuously from dawn to dusk.
  • Hummingbirds do eat insects: gnats, mosquitoes, spiders, aphids, etc.  In the early spring they will look for insects trapped in sap from woodpecker holes.
  • Females do all the nest building, often attaching it with spider silk and pine resin, and camouflaging it with lichens and fungus.  The nest is walnut-sized and the 2 eggs are pea-sized.  The male continues to court other females after mating.
  • Predators include spiders, preying mantis, dragonflies and other birds. I have witnessed a bullfrog in our pond jump a foot straight up to within 1/4-inch of a hummer at a pickerel weed bloom. We have rescued them from spider webs and nursed them from collisions with each other.
  • At night, due to their small size and lack of insulation, hummers enter a state of torpor, a hibernation-like condition where the breathing and heart rate slow dramatically.

Nectar recipe:  1 part white granulated sugar to 4 parts water.  According to Bill Williams of William & Mary’s Center for Conservation Biology, it is not necessary to boil the solution, just dissolve the sugar. Male Ruby-Throated HummingbirdThe nectar solution can be stored in the refrigerator for two weeks. Do not use the commercial red dye solution.  Keep the feeder very clean to avoid black mold that can be harmful to the birds.

Bill Williams also states that the Ruby-Throated Hummingbird has recently been documented wintering over in two Tidewater locations.  Is this a new trend? It very well could be he says.

Plants to attract:  hibiscus, flowering quince, currants, weigela, azalea, mimosa, and buddleia.   Flowers to attract: morning glory, columbine, trumpet vine, fuschia, bee balm, bleeding heart, honeysuckle, virginia creeper, and salvia.  Remember, they are attracted to the color red.

Ann Hohenberger, The Garden Club of Gloucester