A “superflight” irruption for North Carolina – the pine siskins

As mentioned in my previous blog, North Carolina’s Piedmont region is experiencing a spectacular winter irruption of multiple finch species. So many birds have migrated south from the northern USA and Canada that scientists are calling this a “superflight” year. The first to arrive in my yard during this irruption were the pine siskins (Spinus pinus).

Scientists don’t yet know as much about siskin migration as they would like to know. From 1960 to 2011, almost 675,000 siskins were banded but only 2000 of them were ever spotted again.

However, it is known that the siskins enjoy eating many types of seeds. The finches’ usual diets up North center around the fruit and seeds of spruce, pine, hemlocks, maples, and beech trees, among others. Some species favor certain trees, while others enjoy eating a large variety of seeds.

In “mast years,” the forests provide large amounts of seeds that both feed animals (e.g., birds, squirrels) and provide the germination material for new vegetation. In other years, the forests produce very few crops because of fires, drought, and outbreaks of spruce budworms that eat the needles of spruce and balsam firs, which can kill the trees. In 2020, it was noteworthy that authorities in Quebec were unable to completely treat the forest trees for budworms because of the COVID epidemic.

 

Some trees also have slow biological cycles. For example, the Eastern white pine (Pinus strobus), known to the Iroquois as the “tree of peace,” has cone production that peaks every 3 to 5 years.

When mast years have taken place and there are large budworm infestations, the finches have plenty to eat and their numbers increase substantially. When the following seed- and cone-poor years occur, the large populations then need to travel further away to find sufficient food supplies and that is what has now brought them to our area.

The pine siskins arrived in my yard in late autumn. They came in a large crowd, with some 30 birds flocking to the feeders at a time. Most of these little brown and beige birds have a trace of yellow on their wings.

About 1% of the siskins – all males – have more yellow or yellow-green coloring on their backs, heads and under-tail coverts. These so-called “green morphs” also have less streaking on their chests. The siskins above may be in this group. Interestingly, whereas female birds of many species prefer brightly colored males as their mates, female siskins appear to choose males with less yellow to distinguish them.

 

What really distinguishes the siskins for me – in addition to their penchant for visiting in large groups – is their feistiness. They seem to be very troubled by the idea that there may not be enough seeds to satisfy their appetites if many other birds are around.

Below you see them challenging a house finch, a downy woodpecker and cardinals.

 

And this includes not only birds of other species but also their species mates with whom they arrive! They first will open their seed-filled mouths to “yell” at the incoming diners.

Next, they may open their wings in a challenging display.

 

Sometimes they seem to be taking food from another’s mouths! (But perhaps this is not aggressive but a sign of care between family members?)

Finally, they will fly at their food rivals in an effort to drive them off.

Unlike other members of the finch family, the siskins not only eat a very large variety of seeds from conifers, deciduous trees, grasses, weeds and flowers. They also forage for insects and have been seen to drink from sapsucker sapwells in trees.

A group of siskins can clean out a feeder with mixed seeds in my yard in very short order indeed. They have developed body mechanisms to help them survive cold nights: increasing their metabolic rates and gaining body fat for the winter.

 

This is accomplished by eating more seeds than they can process right away; they can store seeds weighing up to 10% of their body mass in their crop (part of the esophagus) for a short period so that they have access to more energy during the night!

 

Some local birders who were delighted to see them at the beginning of the season are now occasionally voicing “regrets” since large groups continue to visit their feeders. They could refrain from putting out seed and hope the flocks move away so they don’t spend so much on bird seed, but many birders would then miss seeing the other species and don’t want to forego that pleasure.

 

 

Fortunately, the siskins have been eating seeds from crepe myrtles and other trees in my yard so their visits to my feeders have been somewhat sporadic when the weather is mild. When it rains or gets very cold, they return in feisty groups!

“My” yard siskins have also refrained from pecking at the cement of my brick house. Other birders have seen them chipping away at chimney and brick cement – they do this get at minerals contained in the cement.

 

While the siskins migrate in very large groups (e.g., flocks numbering up to a few thousand individuals!), they are still considered to be a common bird that is showing a steep decline in numbers. They are vulnerable to predators as well as contagious diseases spread at feeders such as salmonella.

Although we are still in the throes of winter in North Carolina, spring is fast approaching and it’s uncertain how long these irruption birds will stay. I’ll miss these lively little visitors when travel back up North!

Chilly mornings and nights – birds coping with and resisting the cold!

Many birders focus their attention on nest boxes in the spring and summer, hoping to see avian parents bringing food to nestlings – and if they’re lucky, getting to see the young fledge. Those blessed with yards or a voice in deciding what goes in public spaces may create more such places by putting up nest boxes on poles and trees. (Poles with baffles are a better choice as it makes it harder for snakes and raccoons to enter and eat the eggs and nestlings.)

What many people don’t always realize is that nest boxes can be enjoyable birding spots in the fall and winter, too. As more and more people choose not to leave snags in their neighborhoods and/or have trees removed from properties, birds are losing places to construct their natural nest cavities. Nest boxes help make up a little bit for that habitat destruction.

 

In the winter, birds check out nest boxes to get a head start on choosing possible nesting sites come spring and summer. In my own yard, especially the Eastern bluebirds (Sialia sialis) and brown-headed nuthatches (Sitta pusilla) will visit one nest box after another to decide which one they might choose as a brooding site in the spring. The nuthatches may be accompanied by a youngster from the past summer who will help raise their new siblings.

 

 

Various species of birds also use nest boxes as warm overnight abodes when the temperatures fall to near freezing and below. Besides the Eastern bluebirds and brown-headed nuthatches, I’ve seen white-breasted nuthatches, Carolina wrens (Thryothorus ludovicianus) and downy woodpeckers (Picoides pubescens) checking out a nest box inside and out.

    

Carolina wren                                                 Downy woodpecker

Some species even use a nest box as a communal overnight refuge, with 12 or more birds squeezing together to conserve their body heat. I haven’t seen so many birds enter a box but perhaps I’m not looking at the right time.

The competition for nest boxes as warm overnight roosting spots can also be intense. A male downy woodpecker in my yard has adopted one particular box as his overnight abode, but the bluebirds would rather have the refuge for themselves. He gets there in the late afternoon and sometimes must pass angry birds to squeeze through the hole.

The bluebirds will then scold from atop the box and while hovering in front of the entrance, but he hunkers down and refuses to leave.

It’s interesting to see that the nest boxes also serve other creatures. Various birds perch on nest boxes while checking out the yard to see what’s going on, like this beautiful Northern flicker (Colaptes auratus).

One day, when looking out my window, I was certain I had seen a lizard peeking out of a box hole. Shortly thereafter, when I was outside, I caught a glimpse of a head and went over to open the box. And it turned out that a Carolina anole (Anolis carolinensis) is sometimes using that box as a place to rest! The birds don’t enter when s/he is there as far as I can tell.

When it’s cold and damp, you can also see birds using other measures to stay warm and resist the cold. Most birds eat quite a lot to put on body fat that is used up at night through shivering (which helps keep them warm). This means you may have crowds at bird feeders with species sharing space as they increase their body mass.

You may also occasionally get an “invasion” of one species, like the pine siskins (Spinus pinus).

Puffing up their feathers is another strategy that our avian friends use – they trap pockets of warmer air around their bodies.

Ruby-crowned kinglet (Regulus calendula)

                                              Brown thrasher (Toxostoma rufum)

           

Chipping sparrow (Spizella passerina)         Dark-eyed junco (Junco hyemalis)

The birds keep their feathers in good condition by engaging in vigorous preening. Some water birds oil their feathers to waterproof them, while others grow special feathers that disintegrate, producing a special waterproofing powder. And birds like mallard ducks (Anas platyrhynchos) have a special blood circulatory system in their legs whereby they lose only about 5% of their body heat through their bare feet.

Creating wood piles and leaving dried leaves and stalks from summer and fall grasses and shrubs can provide birds with some shelter from winter winds and cold, so my yard is now home to five wood piles. Several species of birds also seek out protected roosting areas when the deciduous trees and shrubs lose their leaves and the branches no longer provide hiding spots from predators. My native holly bushes serve that purpose for the lovely white-throated sparrows (Zonotrichia albicollis), as well as Eastern towhees (Pipilo erythrophthalmus) and Northern cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis). I’m glad it keeps them returning to the yard!

As 2021 gets underway, I wish you readers all the best – hope this new year is healthy, happy and as worry-free as possible for you! And thanks for reading my blog. 😊

My special bird in autumn 2018

Well, having had time to finally process photos as the year end approaches, I’m “on a roll” with posting blogs in contrast to other months in 2018. I have two more to post on mammals this year. This one is to commemorate a real birding treat that came to me during the snowstorm that was featured in my last two blogs.

 

There had been reports on birding sites and listservs that some bird species which usually don’t come too far south during the winter were on the move this year to warmer climes. They included birds that sometimes arrive in North Carolina (NC) in winter, but who don’t always come in large numbers (an “irruption”) such as pine siskins (Spinus pinus, above) and purple finches (Haemorhous purpureus, below).

  

I’ve also been lucky to see red-breasted nuthatches (Sitta canadensis), another irruption species, either in my yard or on nature walks.

 

So why are they coming here in numbers?  It turns out that trees in the northern boreal forests are not producing enough food sources that these birds need to survive winter weather such as conifer seeds and berries (from trees such as hemlock, spruce, firs, alders and larch).

What was really exciting for birders in NC, however, was that some other bird species are also seeking new winter foraging areas. They include redpolls, crossbills and the gorgeous evening grosbeaks (Coccothraustes vespertinus) who are seen here only rarely.

I had only ever seen a photo of these grosbeaks and thought it would be fun to see one in person. Members of a listserv mentioned that these grosbeaks had been spotted in Virginia, just above the NC border, so we should be prepared to perhaps see them.

On my visits to the Brumley Nature Preserve, I spent time in the spruce areas in the hope of spotting one, but I had no such luck. And then as the snow was falling heavily on the first morning of our snowstorm, I caught sight of a bright yellow and black bird on a feeder as I looked out my window. Lo and behold, when I grabbed my camera I discovered a male evening grosbeak on a feeder!

What was even more exciting was that he was accompanied by two female birds, both of whom were very lovely as well. I took lots of photos.

They finally flew off and I counted myself very lucky indeed. A while later, when the snow had stopped for a while, I was watching the feeders again and the threesome returned to my delight. They fed and then rested on feeder poles.

I tried to go outside quietly so I could photograph them without a window between us but they were quite skittish and left quickly as soon as I appeared. They flew to the tops of nearby tall pines and then disappeared off into the distance. They were not shy when I stood in front of the living room window, however.

The trio reappeared a third time and I stayed behind the window to admire them. It was interesting to see how they could look different, depending on their posture. The bird above looked “tall” as it fed next to the Eastern bluebird. And then the other looked fat and fluffy on the feeder pole – even looking as if it had an outsized head when it leaned forward a bit!

 

They left in the afternoon and did not return, even when it snowed again the next day. A fellow birder who lives northwest of me spotted a male evening grosbeak on one of her feeders that day – the birds were obviously en route to another destination. I hope they found a good food source area for the rest of the winter. And my photos will remind me of their wonderful visit, which made this snowstorm one to remember. 😊

Snowy portraits – part 2

The larger birds were very obvious at the feeders during our North Carolina snowstorm in early December, but they weren’t the only ones taking advantage of the fact that I spent considerable time knocking snow off feeders and a bird bath, filling feeders up multiple times daily and spreading seed repeatedly on the snow for the ground-feeding wildlife.

The Carolina wrens (Thryothorus ludovicianus), who live in the various yard woodpiles, mostly stayed on the ground but occasionally flew up to a feeder. They also spent time clinging to the brick walls of the house, I assume in search of spiders and other small insects that stay there.

Their slightly larger brethren in shades of brown, the Eastern towhees (Pipilo erythrophthalmus), have taken up residence in the holly shrubs and a privet bush near the front-yard feeders. From there, they can emerge to hop around under the feeders (sporadically flying up to perch on a feeder, too) with a place close by to which they can escape when feeling threatened.

 

 

Both house finches (Haemorhous mexicanus, left) and pine siskins (Spinus pinus, below) came to eat seeds at the platform feeders. Though the finches are larger than the siskins, the female finches and siskins look very similar to me and I usually need to look through my zoom lens to see them clearly.

 

 

 

The photo below is a nice one for differentiating them. The female finch on the left has a thicker bill and a slightly larger and bulkier size. The pine siskin on the right has a thinner bill and hints of yellow on its slender flanks.

Another pair of birds that can be difficult to differentiate are the male house and purple finches. The purple finch (Haemorhous purpureus, below) looks like it has been dipped in raspberry juice to put color all over its body. While some male house finches also have very bright red hues, the color does not spread everywhere on their bodies.

   

The tufted titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor, below) and dark-eyed junco (Junco hyemalis) are both subtle beauties in shades of gray but easily distinguishable.

   

The junco’s pink bill gives it a delicate look in my opinion.

 

The chipping sparrows (Spizella passerina) and white-throated sparrows (Zonotrichia albicollis) are both daily visitors to my feeding stations regardless of the weather. The “chippies” are here year-round, while the white-throated sparrows (right) are only resident in the autumn, winter and spring. The somewhat smaller chippies usually sit on the feeders, while the white-throats mostly seek food on the ground; both will venture into the others’ areas, however.

Two very different birds share a common feeding method for gathering suet. Both the ruby-crowned kinglet (Regulus calendula, below left) and yellow-rumped warbler (Setophaga coronata, below right) hover in front of the feeder as if they are imitating hummingbirds, snatching a bite to eat as they “balance” mid-air. Both will eventually alight on the feeder, though, and then eat at a more leisurely pace.

The bright little pine warbler (Setophaga pinus) also loves suet but never hovers at the feeder. S/he will wait until other birds have cleared the space and then clutch the frame to have multiple bites of the fatty food. During windy intervals of stormy weather, this plucky bird also holds its ground, clutching the feeder pole so as not to blow away.

 

The downy woodpeckers (Picoides pubescens) are never scared off the feeders by anyone. Their larger red-bellied cousins are often a bit hesitant to visit but the downies can’t be kept away. Like them, the Eastern bluebirds (Sialia sialis) also don’t let the presence of other avians put them off – they are willing to share space.

This doesn’t mean the bluebirds won’t show a bit of temper, especially toward their own species mates, but they generally get along with everyone.

And the bluebirds visit regardless of the atmospheric conditions, sometimes looking stunning with their bright dry plumage and sometimes looking a bit bedraggled when the pouring rain and thickly falling snow wet their feathers completely. Beginning birders might wonder if these are the same birds, but fortunately the bluebirds seem to dry out quickly to regain their usual beauty.

   

 

There were a few more birds that came along during the storm (one featured in the next blog!), including Carolina chickadees, Northern cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis, left) and red-winged blackbirds. Snow and ice storms and pouring rain can be a drag in many ways for the human species but for birders, these “bad-weather” interludes can certainly be a boon for easy armchair and window watching!

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