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.

yellow-rumped-warbler-i77a4305-maria-de-bruyn-res

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.

yellow-rumped-warbler-i77a3138-maria-de-bruyn-res

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

brown-thrasher-i77a4236-maria-de-bruyn-res

 

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.

common-grackle-i77a3068-maria-de-bruyn-res

suet-i77a3541-maria-de-bruyn-res

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

ruby-crowned-kinglet-i77a4167-maria-de-bruyn-res

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.

brown-headed-nuthatch-i77a3959-maria-de-bruyn-res    brown-headed-nuthatch-i77a4183-maria-de-bruyn-res

heated-fountain-i77a3586-maria-de-bruyn-res

 

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.)

 

 

fox-sparrow-i77a4347-maria-de-bruyn  fox-sparrow-i77a4348-maria-de-bruyn-res

fox-sparrow-i77a3773-maria-de-bruyn-res

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.

white-throated-sparrow-i77a2733-maria-de-bruyn-res

White-throated sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis)

chipping-sparrow-i77a2830-maria-de-bruyn-res

     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

 

Woodpecker welcome!

My celebration for the arrival of 2016 happened on 21 January, when I had my first nature walk of the year. It was delayed by a hospitalization at the start of the year and home treatments for a couple weeks after that. When a relatively warm and sunny day arrived, I just had to get out there despite still dealing with some recovery-related issues. I chose the North Carolina Botanical Garden as my venue since it has plenty of benches for short rests in between walking. It was simply lovely.

pileated woodpecker I77A7321© Maria de BruynMy first bird of the day was a beautiful male pileated woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus), a harbinger of the day’s theme – the woodpeckers were my welcome committee!

Loud rhythmic hammering had me searching the snags among the tall trees for the next greeter – it reminded me of the facts I had learned about woodpeckers and their adaptations to a pecking life.

downy woodpecker I77A7372© Maria de BruynIt turned out to be a diminutive downy woodpecker (Dryobates pubescens), whose hammering sounds were enhanced by the hollow stem with which he was busy.

Next up was a lovely female yellow-bellied sapsucker (Sphyrapicus varius) who was very industriously flitting from branch to branch in search of sustenance.

yellow-bellied sapsucker I77A7419© Maria de Bruynyellow-bellied sapsucker I77A7582© Maria de Bruyn

When flattened against tree trunks, she demonstrated how well camouflaged her back feathers make her. A male sapsucker showed it, too.

yellow-bellied sapsucker I77A7476© Maria de Bruyn

yellow-bellied sapsucker I77A7860© Maria de Bruyn res

red-bellied woodpecker I77A8242© Maria de BruynA red-bellied woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus) rounded out the welcoming committee.

The other birds didn’t disappoint. Several species were in the woods and at the feeders near the Garden’s bird blind. A lovely Carolina chickadee (Poecile carolinensis) flitted about. A tufted titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor) was singing.

 

Carolina chickadee I77A7639© Maria de Bruyn tufted titmouse I77A7388© Maria de Bruyn

 

white-breasted nuthatch I77A8203© Maria de Bruyn

 

A white-breasted nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis) foraged on tree trunks overhead. A Northern mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos polyglottos) posed among red winter berries.

 

Northern mockingbird I77A7737© Maria de Bruyn res

hermit thrush I77A7658© Maria de Bruyn

 

A hermit thrush (Catharus guttatus) emerged near the bird blind, and then the same bird or another seemed to accompany me as I walked another part of the native habitats garden.

 

hermit thrush I77A7818© Maria de Bruyn

hermit thrush I77A7788© Maria de Bruyn res

Later, a male sapsucker (identifiable by his red throat) appeared near the Paul Green cabin, where he had been busy working on his sapwells.

yellow-bellied sapsucker I77A7858© Maria de Bruyn res yellow-bellied sapsucker I77A7854© Maria de Bruyn res

Shortly thereafter a downy woodpecker came to the same spot and sampled sap (or something else) from the row of holes left by the sapsucker! That was a nice example of how what one animal does can benefit another, too.

downy woodpecker I77A7912© Maria de Bruyn

downy woodpecker I77A7921© Maria de Bruyn res

During a plant interlude, I was surprised to see some Southern purple pitcher plants (Sarracenia purpurea) that had not yet shriveled up in the cold.

Southern purple pitcher plant I77A8086© Maria de Bruyn Southern purple pitcher plant I77A8081© Maria de Bruyn res

 

 

 

When, I was leaving, a ruby-crowned kinglet (Regulus calendula) alighted overhead,

ruby-crowned kinglet I77A8165© Maria de Bruyn ruby-crowned kinglet I77A8164© Maria de Bruyn

a red-bellied woodpecker arrived, and one more woodpecker made an appearance – a Northern flicker (Colaptes auratus) high up behind some branches in a tall tree. I was using my small zoom lens so the photo quality isn’t great, but you can see that s/he was there.

red-bellied wooodpecker I77A8234© Maria de Bruyn Northern flicker I77A8154© Maria de Bruyn

downy woodpecker I77A8006© Maria de BruynThe only woodpeckers that are common in our town that I missed were the red-headed and hairy woodpeckers – it was truly a woodpecker welcome and a really lovely start to my wildlife photography outings for this year!

Dining out in winter

cardinal and crowd DK7A9445© Maria de Bruyn resIn the spring, summer and fall, when birds have insects and other favorite foods available, many of us see moderate numbers of avian visitors at our feeders — although there are always exceptions, such as parents looking for easy meals to satisfy the voracious appetites of their offspring. Come wintertime, though, we may have whole flocks of different species flying busily to and fro to take food from our feeders.

 

tufted titmouse IMG_0635© Maria de BruynOur avian friends need to eat more, and more often, in autumn and winter to ensure that they can gain sufficient fat reserves to see them through the cold weather. Some of the smallest birds will consume up to 30% of their body weight. Nuts are a favored food for tufted titmice (Baeolophus bicolor).

cedar waxwing IMG_7967 ©Maria de Bruyn 2

In the autumn, there are still many berries available and these are a popular food. Birds that tend to eat insects much of the year will switch to berries in winter since their prey has died, is dormant and awaiting rebirth in larval form, or otherwise scarce. The berries of honeysuckle (Lonicera), privet (Ligustrum, an invasive plant) and other plants are popular foods for species such as cedar waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum).

 Holly berries (Ilex opaca) are a favorite for American robins (Turdus migratorius).

American robin IMG_3302 © Maria de Bruyn American robin IMG_0326©Maria de Bruyn res

Pine siskin IMG_6226©Maria de Bruyn resEven when much of the vegetation has dried up, seeds and seed pods remain. Pine siskins (Spinus pinus), downy woodpeckers (Dryobates pubescens) and American goldfinches (Spinus tristis) will feast on the seeds found in the pods of honeysuckles and trumpet vines (Campsis radicans).

 

American goldfinch IMG_6251 ©Maria de Bruyn res Downy woodpecker IMG_9184M de Bruyn

In some cases, dried leaves and the remains of caterpillar tents form clumps that attract tufted titmice and white-throated sparrows (Zonotrichia albicollis) as they search for sustenance.

tufted titmouse IMG_9714© Maria de Bruyn res white-throated sparrow DK7A6171© Maria de Bruyn res

Pine siskins will eat moss growing on tree trunks. Other birds search the vegetation alongside ponds, like this song sparrow (Melospiza melodia).

pine siskin IMG_7546©Maria de Bruyn ressong sparrow IMG_6959© Maria de Bruyn (2) res

The seed pods of my crepe myrtle trees (Lagerstroemia) are a magnet in winter for various avian species such as pine siskins, white-throated sparrows, red-winged blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus) and Northern cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis), as well as Eastern gray squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis).

white-throated sparrow IMG_2653©Maria de Bruyn respine siskin IMG_8177 ©Maria de Bruyn

Northern cardinal IMG_4887©Maria de Bruyn resred-winged blackbird DK7A7754© Maria de Bruyn res

Eastern gray squirrel IMG_3547© Maria de Bruyn res Eastern gray squirrel IMG_3528© Maria de Bruyn res (2)

Various species of smaller birds will flock together in winter, both for purposes of safety and help in finding food. As the season progresses, the supply of seeds, pods and berries diminishes. In addition, the variety of natural plants has often decreased in urban areas as homeowners remove “weeds” from their yards. Wildlife organizations therefore encourage bird lovers to add native plants to their property, especially those that attract birds, and to provide extra food through feeders.

white-throated sparrow IMG_1608© Maria de Bruyn ruby-crowned kinglet IMG_1635© Maria de Bruyn res

Northern mockingbird DK7A4279© Maria de Bruyn resMaking available mixed seeds, oil-rich sunflower seeds and suet (traditional or vegetarian made with vegetable shortening) will help the birds like this Northern mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos) keep up their energy. And it’s a good idea to keep those feeders filled — did you know that many songbirds are able to collect food in a special storage pouch within their esophagus so that they can then digest it after dark and overnight? This may help account for the fact that certain birds come back to the feeders over and over again within a short span of time.

 

The area where I live has had a long winter, with alternating days of relatively high temperatures and then very cold days and nights. Crocuses, daffodils and tulips are beginning to emerge in my gardens despite snow and ice and trees and shrubs are beginning to bud, giving the Eastern gray squirrels and house finches (Haemorhous mexicanus) a new source of food. I think that both the birds and I will be happy when spring arrives and stays! In the meantime, I’ll keep the feeders filled.

Eastern gray squirrel DK7A7410© Maria de Bruyn res House finch DK7A0286© Maria de Bruyn res