Winter wonderland – the bigger and colorful birds

In this second-to-last blog of the snowstorm series, I’d like to feature the bigger and colorful birds who demonstrated how they adapted their feeding habits to the prevailing weather. The Northern cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis) actually didn’t change their behavior that much – they looked on the ground for fallen seeds and spent plenty of time at the feeders.

They spent some time in the snow-laden trees looking lovely, too.



The Eastern towhees (Pipilo erythrophthalmus) usually spend their time foraging underneath the feeders in search of fallen seed and they continued that behavior during the snowstorm. Unfortunately, the female was carrying a tick; I had already seen a robin and a junco with ticks on their faces – this may mean that the coming spring and summer will be an especially bad tick seasonal period for us.


The beautiful brown thrasher (Toxostoma rufum) looked both on the ground and at the feeders for his meals. Despite his size, s/he never bullied any other bird.





The remaining juniper berries on the red cedar trees (Juniperus virginiana) attracted the blue jays (Cyanocitta cristata).

The Northern mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos) was also seeking food there.





The cedar waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum) and American robins (Turdus migratorius) had already been eating the juniper berries in the autumn; the waxwings had been by about a week earlier but now the robins were all over the trees, shaking off accumulated snow to get at the remaining fruit.



One robin looked as if s/he might have lost some outer feathers but it didn’t seem to affect her balance or flight. Occasionally, a robin also visited the meal worm feeder.


On the days following the big snowfall, as the snow melted more and more, the robins began eating it. During a previous snow event, they had joined the cedar waxwings on the roof of my house to get their drinks that way; now they were taking the snow from the trees.

They weren’t the only ones taking advantage of the opportunity. The Northern flicker (Colaptes auratus), who did not visit the feeder, spent a lot of time in an oak tree near the feeders eating snow.



There were a few birds that visit my yard who didn’t show up during the snow. They included the American crows and the hawks who often make the birds scatter from the feeders: the Cooper’s, sharp-shinned, red-tailed and red-shouldered hawks. They must have been looking for food elsewhere.

Some birds may have also avoided the feeders because of the large number of competitors who showed up, a feature of the next and last blog in this series.

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.



Winter wonderland – sparrows and warblers

Yesterday, as I walked through my yard, I was surprised to see groups of daffodils sticking up their heads; it seemed rather early to me but last year we had early signs of spring as well. It is a big contrast to our weather conditions less than a month ago, though. On the 17th of January, our town was surprised by 11-12 inches of beautiful, powdery snow.




While our southern area often has a couple instances of (light) snow and/or an ice storm in the winter, our climate is generally fairly mild and temperatures in the 50s and 60s Farenheit are not uncommon during winter. So the brief but heavy snowfall was quite an event; our streets were empty of traffic as everyone stayed home and watched the falling flakes.

Some people built snowmen, others went sledding and walking, and some of us spent hours filling our bird feeders and watching the birds. I also made an attempt to photograph some frozen bubbles, which was very challenging since it was windy during the entire winter weather event.


The snow began slowly melting a bit the next day, which made some of the icicles on the house elongate to a length of almost 3-4 feet, but it wasn’t until Friday and Saturday that the snow and ice really started disappearing.

My yard looked beautiful, but I spent time on the 17th repeatedly knocking snow off the bird feeders and heated birth bath so that the birds could reach the food and water.



Although I saw a couple squirrels and the white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) also came by, I didn’t see other mammals like chipmunks, raccoons, opossums. But I had 25 different bird species come by on Wednesday and Thursday; on Friday and Saturday, two more species came by. I’d like to share some snow day photos of them all in this and the next few blogs.

First up are the sparrows and warblers. The chipping sparrows (Spizella passerina) usually get their seed from the hanging feeders in the front and back yards but now they were looking everywhere for a bite to eat. I had strewn some seed on the ground and they began looking there.

One found a trove of food and another came by asking to be fed, a request the first sparrow accommodated quite sweetly.



The white-throated sparrows (Zonotrichia albicollis) have an opposite feeding strategy, usually feeding on the ground and occasionally venturing up to a feeder. They, too, searched under the snow for some food.


The pine warblers (Setophaga pinus) tend to be rather shy; only very rarely does a pair visit together. Mostly, one shows up at a time; their beautiful yellow color was really highlighted against the white background.


The pine warblers did have to brave a bad-tempered bird to get to the feeders. One of the six resident yellow-rumped warblers (Setophaga coronata) has become very territorial, chasing away some other yellow-rumped warblers, the ruby-crowned kinglets and the pine warbler – in other words, the birds his size or smaller. He allows a couple other yellow-rumps to feed peacefully and I think perhaps they are his family members so that he tolerates them. He didn’t stop the other small birds from coming around, however, as we’ll see in the next blog.


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!



My squirrel nemesis – a worthy opponent!

Today is Squirrel Appreciation Day in the USA, a holiday created by Christy Hargrove, a  wildlife rehabilitator affiliated with the Western North Carolina Nature Center. The Eastern gray squirrel species (Sciurus carolinensus) was first recorded in the Carolinas, so I thought I’d honor this wild creature by sharing some photos of the squirrels in my yard who sometimes drive me up the wall with frustration. There is one in particular who can get my ire up. Of course, I realize it may not always be the same creature – perhaps several of “my” squirrels are taking turns in trying to overcome my measures to keep them off my bird feeders. But I do think one in particular is especially tenacious and persistent.

The yard squirrels are lucky since my neighbor has beech trees and I have a couple oak trees that provide plenty of acorns; these mammals therefore have plenty of nuts to store for winter. I periodically see them digging little holes in the lawn and different parts of the garden, “squirreling away” the nuts they have found in the trees. I also saw one burying some grapes that I had put out for the birds; that didn’t seem like a good strategy to me, but I have since learned that they will make temporary caches so perhaps that squirrel was just hoarding a treat for later. They have also occasionally gone after the persimmons.

These squirrels aren’t satisfied with the natural bounty of the yard, however. They also want to get the nuts and seeds in my bird feeders, even when they have been able to  partake of the bounty strewn over the earth for the ground-feeding birds.

I learned early on that the bird feeder poles need to be at least 10 feet away from the roof of my house and any sturdy shrubs or stumps that they can use as a launching pad to bypass the baffles placed on poles to outwit them. They do go up the raccoon baffle from time to time, testing whether they now might find a way through it but so far that has not been a useful strategy for them. One has managed to climb a thick-stalked sunflower so that it could nip off the seed bud.

I had put a couple stumps in my front flower garden as natural decorations. Then, it appeared that one of the squirrels was using a stump as a launching pad – managing to land above the baffles atop the nut and fruit feeders.


I made the mistake of putting an oriole feeder on a pole without a baffle; I didn’t think it would attract the squirrels but apparently the jelly and nectar did appeal to one individual.


Another time I had only a hummingbird nectar feeder on one pole, which seemed rather flimsy. But the squirrel had to check it out all the same, even though there was nothing to its liking there.

As I have been removing invasive plants and shrubs from my yard, I’ve been adding native shrubs and plants. At one point, I thought it would be nice to have a black walnut (Juglans nigra) so I took a couple walnuts home from a park and then planted them in a deep plant pot with lots of soil over it. I had looked around beforehand and didn’t see a squirrel anywhere watching me, so I thought it was ok.

The next morning, I found a pile of walnut husks in the carport next to the plant pot. Then the next day, I saw one of the squirrels making off with the remaining walnut. Apparently, they can re-locate their hoarding caches partly by memory and partly by smell – so this squirrel must have discovered the tasty walnut by its odor (which I couldn’t detect at all).




The Eastern gray squirrels are only one of earth’s 200 squirrel species (there are four others in the USA: the fox squirrel, red squirrel, Northern and Southern flying squirrels and the ground squirrels, like this Uinta ground squirrel (Urocitellus armatus) seen in Yellowstone National Park.


I’m glad that I mostly only deal with one species and while I must admit that I don’t appreciate them every day, I always do admire their tenacity, perseverance and ingenuity in finding ways to overcome my strategies for outwitting them. The squirrels are not only a source of food for the neighborhood hawks, but also a source of entertainment for the humans.