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