Winter wonderland – the smaller and medium-sized birds

Oddly, during our January snowstorm, the brown-headed and white-breasted nuthatches did not visit my bird feeders – that was unexpected as they really do like the sunflower and other seeds, as well as the home-made suet. Other smaller birds did appear, however, and they filled up on the provided food since finding insects was almost impossible during those days.

The Carolina wrens (Thryothorus ludovicianus) were fans of the dried meal worms and at one point, I put out an extra tray of these treats on the dry front porch. Other birds are more reluctant to come onto the porch so they had a nice quiet feeding area, although they also spent time perched on the snowy bushes and feeders.

  

  

 

The Carolina chickadees (Poecile carolinensis) worked their way in between the other birds to reach the feeders, sometimes waiting patiently on a feeder pole for their turn.

The ruby-crowned kinglets (Regulus calendula), of which I have two visiting the feeders, were happy with the home-made suet. Occasionally, I smeared a bit of suet on dried flower stalks and they would perch there to snag a bite to eat. Other times, they just waited on a twig until the yellow-rumped warblers had vacated the area so they could eat in peace.

    

While the downy woodpecker (Picoides pubescens) is slightly larger, they are like the small birds in being somewhat hesitant to approach feeders if there is a crowd. Once on a feeder, they will feed and then hang on to take a look around.

  

The dark-eyed juncos (Junco hyemalis), who have an understated quiet beauty, were looking for meal worms.

    

The similarly colored tufted titmouse (Baeoloophus bicolor) often zoomed in on its target of the fruit and nut feeder without taking time to perch first.

The American goldfinches (Spinus tristis) didn’t come round very much, only snacking on some sunflower seeds. Since they often feed on the crepe myrtle tree seeds, they were likely finding enough food there.

The Eastern bluebirds (Sialia sialis) came in spurts of activity. They always look rather bedraggled when they get wet with snow or rain and perhaps prefer to stay drier under branches until there is a break in the falling moisture. Even wet, though, they are still attractive to me.

The smaller/medium bird group was rounded off by the house finches (Haemorhous mexicanus). The females were looking especially nice. The finches never have spats with anyone and are among the most peaceful feeder birds. Not everyone was like that, however, and the next blog looks at the rowdy ones.

 

 

An under-appreciated bird?

In the area where I live, many birders are thrilled when spring migration begins and the wood thrush (Hylocichla mustelina) arrives. They find its song especially appealing and exclaim over the fact that they had the privilege of hearing the wood thrush in their yard or in the woods.

 

 

While it’s a nice song, however, I find that I’m more attracted to our winter visitor, the hermit thrush (Catharus guttatus), perhaps because this species seems less afraid to emerge from the vegetation when people are around. I find its song quite nice as well, even though it doesn’t seem to have as many trills in it as the wood thrush.

 

   

The past couple years, I seem to have been seeing the hermit thrush more and more often. Presumably, this is not because there are more of them but because I have grown a little more adept at spotting and identifying birds as time has passed. The past six weeks, I’ve seen them in various places and have very much enjoyed each spotting.

On the 15th of December, during a walk at Mason Farm Biological Reserve, I spotted one eating berries with gusto.

 

       

Ten days later, birds in different parts of the reserve came out on twigs, observing me as much as I was observing them. On the 2nd of January, one caught my eye when s/he was bobbing its reddish tail up and down. It gave me a good view of the bird’s underside, which looked nicely cushioned. That part of the tail is the most colorful part of the bird, which otherwise is a rather muted light brown with a cream-colored, lightly spotted breast.

   

On the 4th of January, we had a light smattering of snow and I saw a hermit thrush in a crepe myrtle tree, an unusual sight in my yard as their visits are usually few and far between. The next day, the bird returned to the red cedar trees (Juniperus virginiana) to make a few meals of the nicely ripe juniper berries.

  

The snow melted quickly but the bird was back the next day for more berries; fortunately, the American robins and cedar waxwings had not eaten them all.

  

In the spring and summer, the hermit thrush’s diet consists mainly of insects and sometimes small reptiles and amphibians. In the winter, they turn to eating berries and fruit. Here, a thrush at the Brumley Forest Preserve had been foraging on the ground and found a seed or fruit.

Back at Mason Farm, the 21st of January was a stellar day for seeing hermit thrushes; I must have seen at least six in different parts of the woods. At one point, I had stopped to listen to a downy woodpecker (Picoides pubescens) calling and then noted a thrush sitting on a sapling branch near the walking trail. S/he flew down to the path to forage and suddenly another one flew in landing atop the first thrush! The attacked bird spread its tail feathers on the ground while the other one glared at it.

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology notes that hermit thrushes may respond to predators by crouching and pulling in their heads; perhaps this was an adaptation of that response.

I always think of these little beauties as being peaceful birds so seeing one challenge the other in such a physical way was a real surprise. Then as suddenly as the attack had happened, all was sweetness and light as the two birds began foraging on the path about 2-3 feet from one another. The downy woodpecker even joined them on the ground for a little while.

  

The oldest recorded hermit thrush was almost 11 years old. Perhaps their generally sweet disposition helps them survive.

   

Depending on whether these birds are fluffing their feathers against the cold, they can either look like a sleek and slender avian or a puffy little ball of feathers. In both cases, I think they look quite appealing.

  

Whatever shape they take, I do look forward to seeing more of these lovely, usually demure and delightful thrushes!

 

 

Avian generations in the making – part 1: courtship

The tragedies being faced in the Caribbean islands after hurricanes Maria, Jose and Irma are horrible and other than donate cash to help alleviate the needs, I’m not in a position to offer more assistance. I’m grateful for all those who can and hope government assistance will be forthcoming to help all the people in those nations recover.
The effects of the hurricanes also will be noticeable for the wildlife. Many of those living on land will drown or die of hunger; some birds may be a little luckier – able to shelter against the winds if they are native to a place or able to change their migratory pattern (e.g., delay arrival on wintering grounds) for a time. But when the effects of the storms are immense with lots of habitat destruction, the birds, too, will lack places to shelter and not have sufficient food supplies to survive.

It’s thought that some birds endemic to the islands may be severely endangered as a species. On 22 September, birders were happy to hear that eight Barbuda warblers (Setophaga subita) had been spotted on that island; not a lot but they may help ensure this tiny bird doesn’t become extinct.  At the time of writing this blog, the fate of some other bird species was still unknown. I hope that all the Caribbean bird species survive and will be thinking of them as I share this series with you on how birds take measures to ensure future generations. (It might seem odd to write this series now, but some birds are still feeding their young here.)

So, the process begins with courtship. Some birds mate for life, or at least form long-term (multiple-year) bonded relationships. They include bald eagles, black vultures, blue jays, Canada geese, white-breasted nuthatches, brown-headed nuthatches, Northern cardinals, Carolina chickadees, American crows, pileated woodpeckers and my favorite raptor shown above, the osprey (Pandion haliaetus).

Those who form ongoing bonds may have a courtship period that consists of the male bringing the female some food to indicate it’s time to get ready for nest-building. This was the case for these lovely Northern cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis).

The American crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos) has a similar behavior; in my yard, I sometimes throw out bits of apple or bread for them in the spring as these seem to be considered real treats. The female will sit on a branch overhead calling until the male brings her some – and sometimes almost shoves it down her throat!

The Northern mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos) males will sing their repertoire in the spring to entice female mates – often they perch on the top of trees and fly up and down with spread wings in a beautiful display while singing.

        

   

The yellow-billed cuckoo (Coccyzus americanus) seeks new mates each year but has an interesting courtship behavior described by All About Birds: “A receptive female perches with its head up, pumping its tail slowly up and down…Just prior to mating, the male Yellow-Billed Cuckoo snaps off a short twig that he presents to the female as he perches on her back and leans over her shoulder. Both birds then grasp the twig as they copulate.”

 

     

 

The downy woodpecker (Picoides pubescens) females and males may both flutter between trees with slow wingbeats. Two females may also compete for the attention of a single male, a behavior I observed this past spring and which surprised me.

 

     

The male brown-headed cowbird (Molothrus ater) will vocalize for the female while spreading his wings in a display.

The killdeer (Charadrius vociferus) has a somewhat prettier courtship dance, bending forward and spreading its tail feathers to show off the colorful underside.

  

Next year, I hope to see more of the birds courting as it gives me a happy feeling.

The next step for the birds is nest-building. We don’t have the bowerbirds in North Carolina, who build elaborate nests as part of their courtship. But the species we have do spend a good deal of time on their nests and I’ll share some of their efforts in the next part of the series. (But one or two blogs on another topic will come first.)

 

Credit map: By Kmusser (Own work, all data from Vector Map.) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Outwitting the starlings during Winter Storm Helena

white-tailed-deer-i77a4029-maria-de-bruyn-resSo this past weekend, our part of North Carolina dealt with Winter Storm Helena, which brought us 83 straight hours of below-freezing temperatures (e.g., -9C/15F but we had lower) and a need to bundle up really well if venturing outside. (It also brought me a realization that winter storms are being named like hurricanes.) The first morning, when I went out to fill the bird feeders, I didn’t put on gloves or a cap and dealt with hypothermia symptoms when I finally went inside. I had on triple layers after that! The deer had their fur puffed up and seemed to be coping well.

The frigid air made me feel very sorry for the wildlife, although living outdoors is, of course, what they do and what they have evolved to accommodate. (I did hear today, however, of some birds and small animals that were found frozen to death!) With the snow covering the ground, it turned out the birds were more than happy to visit the feeders and piles of food I had strewn on the snow for the ground feeders.

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Not only did I have many types of birds coming round, but also record numbers of them. Some birds, like the yellow-rumped warblers (Setophaga coronata, above), usually tend to visit on their own and are not happy with their species mates in the vicinity but during these days, I had four of them alighting near feeders at a time. The same was true for the colorful pine warblers (Setophaga pinus) although they didn’t come close to each other.

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pine-warbler-i77a2441-maria-de-bruyn-res

The Carolina wrens (Thryothorus ludovicianus) and Carolina chickadees (Poecile carolinensis) don’t seem to have too many problems with sharing space and visited the feeders in the same way they always do – quick flights to and fro from nearby tree and shrub branches.

carolina-wren-i77a3873-maria-de-bruyn-res   carolina-chickadee-i77a2710-maria-de-bruyn-res

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Most of the birds were fairly content to be in close proximity to one another during the snow days. The brown thrashers (Toxostoma rufum) did get very cross with one another, however, when they came too close to one another and chased their rivals away.

Sometimes a bird would go off and rummage in the snow, like this blue jay (Cyanocitta cristata).

 

blue-jay-i77a2776-maria-de-bruyn-res blue-jay-i77a2770-maria-de-bruyn-res

european-starling-i77a2674-maria-de-bruyn-resThe biggest challenge for me was keeping the suet and meal worms in supply, mainly because the European starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) show up in large groups and gulp down food at a speedy pace. The other birds nibble but the starlings seem to inhale food as if they have vacuum cleaners in their throats. They can get grumpy with one another and don’t mind landing atop each other to get a foothold on the feeder.

brown-thrasher-i77a3641-maria-de-bruyn-resI was pleased that the other species of birds are learning to cope with them, no longer being intimidated to fly away when these greedy avians arrive. However, they may get displaced from a feeder just because the bulky starlings take up so much room and never wait their turn to get a spot. The larger birds, like the thrashers and red-bellied woodpeckers, may express their displeasure to the starlings while trying to hold their ground. Other people report common grackles (Quiscalus quiscula) as feeder dominant birds but they are well behaved at my house.

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So, what was I going to do? Some of my feeders are set in a flower garden and I had left the dried stalks of sage, butterfly bush and scarlet mallow standing. They don’t look pretty but the birds love sitting on them near the feeders as they digest a bite before getting another. So I began smearing suet on the stalks, which are not sturdy enough to hold the starlings.

The yellow-rumped warblers and chickadees were pleased, as was my faithful ruby-crowned kinglet (Regulus calendula) and the Carolina chickadee.

yellow-rumped-warbler-i77a3913-maria-de-bruyn-res  carolina-chickadee-i77a4283-maria-de-bruyn-res

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To my surprise, even the larger Northern mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos) and brown thrashers discovered and sampled the suet-laden stalks.

northern-mockingbird-i77a3629-maria-de-bruyn-res   brown-thrasher-i77a3607-maria-de-bruyn-res

Following advice from the Bird Sleuth program, I had stuffed the bluebird and nuthatch boxes with pine needles and wool in case the birds wanted to shelter there overnight. I don’t know if any of them did, but the brown-headed nuthatches (Sitta pusilla) were again checking out their preferred nest box, so perhaps they did roost there overnight.

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I was filling the heated bird bath daily, too, as it became a popular drinking fountain.

The thrill of the wintery snow days for me was a new yard visitor, a gorgeous fox sparrow (Passerella iliaca). I have never had one here before so it was a wonderful surprise and discovery. (I’m still hoping that a red-breasted nuthatch will turn up, too.)

 

 

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The birds “missing” from the storm gathering were the hawks. I’ve had a Cooper’s hawk  (Accipiter cooperii) visiting for years, but recently discovered that a sharp-shinned hawk (Accipiter striatus) is also taking birds from my yard. As they look quite similar, the sharpie may have been coming around for some time and I just never realized it. They were both here in the last couple weeks, but neither one made an appearance during the storm.

coopers-hawk-i77a1341-maria-de-bruyn-res   sharp-shinned-hawk-i77a8520-maria-de-bruyn-res

Our two neighborhood white-tailed does (Odocoileus virginianus) and their three offspring came by, obviously finding my yard a peaceful and safe space to rest.

white-tailed-deer-i77a4432-maria-de-bruyn-res   white-tailed-deer-i77a4431-maria-de-bruyn-res

So I’ll end with some “beauty shots” from the snow days as the snow and ice are now melting. In two days’ time, we are supposed to be having temperatures of 68F/20C or higher! And then we can wait out the rest of January as well as February and March to see if we get any more winter storms.

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White-throated sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis)

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     house-finch-i77a2852-maria-de-bruyn-res

Chipping sparrow (Spizella passerina)        House finch (Haemorhous mexicanus)

dark-eyed-junco-i77a2590-maria-de-bruyn-res  downy-woodpecker-i77a2810-maria-de-bruyn-res

Dark-eyed junco (Junco hyemalis)          Downy woodpecker (Dryobates pubescens)

eastern-towhee-i77a4111-maria-de-bruyn-res    northern-cardinal-i77a3099-maria-de-bruyn-res

Eastern towhee (Pipilo erythrophthalmus)      Northern cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis)

blue-jay-i77a2858-maria-de-bruyn-res     eastern-bluebird-i77a2285-maria-de-bruyn-res

Blue jay                                                       Eastern bluebird (Sialia sialis)

red-bellied-woodpecker-i77a4047-maria-de-bruyn-res       ruby-crowned-kinglet-i77a4263-maria-de-bruyn-res

Red-bellied woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus)     Ruby-crowned kinglet

northern-mockingbird-i77a2714-maria-de-bruyn-res   pine-warbler-i77a2657-maria-de-bruyn-res

Northern mockingbird                                              Pine warbler

 

My nemesis birds!

european-starling-dk7a5386-maria-de-bruyn-resIn the birding world, a “nemesis bird” often refers to a species of bird that is eluding a birder intent on adding to their life list of bird species seen in person. For me, however, a nemesis bird is one that is emptying my feeders and depriving other birds of their bit of nutritional goodness because it descends in such great numbers that no one else has a chance. Which bird is this? It’s the European starling (Sturnus vulgaris), a bird which I admittedly find visually beautiful but rather unattractive as far as temperament goes.

northern-mockingbird-i77a9648-maria-de-bruyn-resOther birders who spend time attracting birds to their yards often comment on how Northern mockingbirds (Mimus polyglottos) chase other birds away – those in my yard feed quite happily alongside other species, however, and even wait their turn for the suet feeders. Another large bird, the brown thrasher (Toxostoma rufum), does the same. In fact, most of the species that visit my yard are content to share feeder space and/or wait their turn.

brown-thrasher-img_9913-maria-de-bruyn-res     sharing-feeders-i77a9154-maria-de-bruyn-res

american-crow-dk7a2281-maria-de-bruyn-resOther species that are called “bully birds” include common grackles (Quiscalus quiscula, below), who can look quite beautiful with iridescent feathers, blackbird species and house sparrows. The grackles and red-winged blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus) in my yard have not been too dominant; they do sometimes come in numbers but let other birds near. I haven’t had crowds of grackles lately and when they’ve come, their main concern was to attempt to drive away the American crows (Corvus brachyrhynchos, above), so my main foe has been the starlings.

common-grackle-dk7a2236-maria-de-bruyn-res   common-grackle-i77a1447-maria-de-bruyn-res

They discovered my yard as a buffet about a year ago and introduced their young to the feasting area this past summer.

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What is striking to me is the fact that they not only will “yell” at other species to go away but also compete vigorously with one another for a spot at the platform and other feeders, indicating a rather nasty disposition.

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The young starlings pick up on this behavior quickly.

If I come outside, they quickly fly off and roost high up in the tallest trees; sometimes, they will actually fly off to another place in the neighborhood. Clapping my hands and banging on the window will also get them to leave. However, they stick around to assess whether I will appear and if I don’t come out, they are back in short order.

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Their first love turned out to be the dried mealworms, which are a big hit with the Eastern bluebirds (Sialia sialis), tufted titmice (Baeolophus bicolor), Carolina chickadees (Poecile carolinensis), Carolina wrens (Thryothorus ludovicianus) and pine warblers (Setophaga pinus, left) among other species.

eastern-bluebird-i77a6862-maria-de-bruyn-res  eastern-bluebird-i77a9596-maria-de-bruyn-res

tufted-titmouse-img_4143-maria-de-bruyn-res   tufted-titmouse-i77a9678-maria-de-bruyn-res

carolina-chickadee-i77a9738-maria-de-bruyn-res   carolina-wren-i77a7312-maria-de-bruyn-res

It’s always a pleasure to see the banded birds return, like the Carolina wren below.

carolina-wren-i77a9548-maria-de-bruyn-res   carolina-wren-i77a9547-maria-de-bruyn-res

When five or more starlings gather around a feeder, they literally gulp the mealworms down, making short shrift of a good-sized supply.

european-starling-dk7a0937-maria-de-bruyn-res   european-starling-dk7a2433-maria-de-bruyn-res

northern-cardinal-i77a2061-maria-de-bruyn-resI began putting out only mixed seed, sunflower seeds (Helianthus annuus) and my home-made vegetarian suet, the latter being a favorite for many species: the bluebirds, chickadees, wrens, titmice, yellow-rumped warblers (Setophaga coronata), brown-headed nuthatches (Sitta pusilla), Northern cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis, left), and downy and red-bellied woodpeckers (Picoides pubescens and Melanerpes carolinus).

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brown-headed-nuthatch-i77a6423-maria-de-bruyn-res

downy-woodpecker-dk7a1967-maria-de-bruyn-res   downy-woodpecker-dk7a1961-maria-de-bruyn-res

red-bellied-woodpecker-i77a4258maria-de-bruyn-res red-bellied-woodpecker-dk7a0440-maria-de-bruyn-res

My resident ruby-crowned kinglet (Regulus calendula) hasn’t returned this winter (though I hope he is just late), so he doesn’t have to compete with the much, much larger starlings for his beloved meals.

ruby-crowned-kinglet-img_1776-maria-de-bruyn-res  ruby-crowned-kinglet-dk7a0538-maria-de-bruyn-res

european-starling-dk7a5647-maria-de-bruyn-resTo my dismay, when the starlings discovered no mealworms were available, they decided that suet could be a nice substitute. Oy vey! They manage to empty the suet holders in record time.

I waited to put out the suet until I saw no starlings in any of the tall trees surrounding the yard.

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european-starling-i77a7189-maria-de-bruyn-resThe smaller birds came but this lasted only a little while. Soon the starlings showed up, leading me to think that either “scout” or “watch birds” were left behind to warn the flock when preferred food arrived, or they had a tremendous sense of smell that led them to my yard. It does turn out that starlings use their sense of smell to identify plants for their nests, so who’s to say they don’t use it to find food, too?

 

red-bellied-woodpecker-dk7a1833-maria-de-bruyn-resOne bird advice website recommends avoiding sunflower seeds as “bully birds” prefer them. Well, so far, the starlings have assiduously avoided any seeds. So a couple days ago, I filled all the feeders with seed except for the suet feeders – and I stood outside next to them so that the songbirds could have a go at the suet without their bigger avian neighbors chasing them away. It was gratifying to see the little ones enjoy a bit of suet while the starlings perched high above, unwilling to come down in my presence. Today, it was raining persistently but the songbirds were flying to and fro among the feeders so I put suet in three holders and some mealworms in one.

For an hour or so, they had the dried worms and peanut butter-based treat to themselves; then a starling appeared. I went outside but this particular bird didn’t seem to mind. When three of its compatriots arrived and saw me, they swooped away so the little birds still could grab some suet and mealworms.

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Now I’ll wait to see if the starlings begin eating the seed or finally move on or stay away for longer periods. I’m guessing as long as there is occasional suet, they will leave their scouts in place to warn them when a tasty meal is available. And I do want to put out some mealworms now and again so I don’t disappoint the chickadees and wrens who greet me with loud twittering when I approach empty feeders. Non-birders probably think that’s silly (to put it mildly) but I think bird lovers will understand….