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Friday, April 27, 2012

This week in birds - #18

(Photo of Prothonotary Warbler by Greg Lavaty courtesy of ABC.)

The American Bird Conservancy's Bird of the Week is the beautiful Prothonotary Warbler, to my mind perhaps the prettiest of all the warblers. The Prothonotary is a hole-nester of southeastern swamps, often nesting in a rotting tree standing over water. They will sometimes use birdhouses that are placed close to water. Population numbers of this lovely bird have declined due to the clearing of southern swamp forests, but it is still fairly common in appropriate habitats. 


A couple of researchers at the Baylor College of Medicine have identified cells in a pigeon's brain that record detailed information on the earth's magnetic field, a kind of biological compass. This built-in GPS helps the birds to navigate and find their way home. It has long been speculated that birds navigate using the earth's magnetic fields, but this study, described by one scientist as "a stunning piece of work" pinpoints the areas that make it possible.


On April 10th, 61 percent of the lower 48 states were listed by the U.S. Drought Monitor to be in abnormally dry or drought conditions. Moreover, states west of the Rocky Mountains are poised for a dry, hot summer, because those areas received less than 70 percent of the average snowfall according to USDA National Water & Climate Center, meaning less water in available in streams, lakes and watersheds.


Every year nearly 7 million birds die as they migrate from North America to Central and South America and back again, according to a new study. They are killed by the 84,000 communication towers that dot North America and can rise nearly 2,000 feet into the air.


Researchers have found that birds with feathers in the red, orange and chestnut palette are more likely to suffer from eye damage due to cataracts. The question is why this should be. 


New research indicates that the water cycle of evaporation and condensation has sped up over the last fifty years and threatens to continue to accelerate if the heating up of the planet is not slowed or reversed. Climate scientists worry that this will cause more extreme weather, including severe droughts and floods.  


Male Bowerbirds of Australia build elaborate structures to attract mates. They use plants, including fruits and flowers in their decorations and thus sometimes wind up planting seeds and becoming accidental gardeners


Scientists have found that day length affects genes differentially in some bird species. The lengthening days in spring trigger the urge to mate in the birds. 


Colombia has doubled the size of a preserve set aside for the protection of the critically endangered Fuertes's Parrot


Mexico has become the second country in the world, after the UK, to pass a comprehensive climate change bill for the purpose of controlling emissions which contribute to the warming of the planet. 


Around the backyard: It has been a very exciting week in the backyard. My yard has been Warbler Central all week as various warblers pass through on their way north. In addition to the Yellow-breasted Chat that I reported on earlier in the week, I have seen a beautiful Blue-winged Warbler, a Common Yellowthroat, and what may have been a Swainson's Warbler. And who knows how many I've missed.

Baby birds have been fledging all week, as well. The Northern Cardinals that grew up in a nest behind my garden shed are out and about in the yard now.

Here's one of the young ones perched on a crape myrtle limb. Although the fledglings may be almost as large as their parents, you can identify them as babies because of their dark beaks. As they grow to adulthood, their beaks will turn red like their parents'.

Elsewhere, the female Eastern Bluebird is brooding four pretty blue eggs in her nest in my vegetable garden.

Whenever I'm working among the veggies, she pokes her head out of the box periodically to check on my location. She doesn't trust me one whit. If only she knew, she has nothing to fear from me.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

The chattiest of birds

All day yesterday I kept hearing a bizarre series of bird sounds, hoots, whistles and clucks, coming from the shrubs and tangle of vines around the yard. These unmistakable "songs" announced the arrival of that quirkiest of warblers, the Yellow-breasted Chat, who also just happens to be another of my favorite spring visitors.

The chat is well-named because he always seems to be chatting as he skulks among the hedgerow looking for tasty insects or berries. It's good that he is so chatty because otherwise we might never know he was here. This bird is much more often heard than seen. He is very secretive and seldom wanders into the open. There have been springs where I have never seen the bird at all, even though I knew from the sounds coming from the shrubbery that they were around. But yesterday I got lucky.

I was sitting in my backyard late in the day after having been around the yard taking a few pictures of some of the spring flowers. My camera was on the table beside me. I was watching the pair of Eastern Bluebirds that are now nesting in one of my boxes. I had checked the box earlier and there were four beautiful blue eggs in the nest. As I watched the birds and speculated on whether they were already brooding or were going to lay more eggs, a movement at the left periphery of my vision caught my attention. I turned to look at a bird which I immediately recognized was not one of my permanent resident birds but whose actual identity I wasn't sure of at first.

I watched as the mystery bird walked up and down the top of the vegetable garden fence near the asparagus bed and suddenly it hit me. It was the Yellow-breasted Chat! I immediately grabbed my camera and tried to get a recognizable picture, but I wasn't very successful.

The bird resolutely kept his back turned to me. He was apparently attracted by something among the asparagus.

Come on, turn around at least just a little bit!

Well, he did turn around just a little bit, at least enough so that I could see that bright yellow breast which helped to give him his name, but then he dived into the asparagus and was lost from the view of me and my camera.

It was just a brief and blurry look at this very interesting bird that loves its privacy. I may not get another one, but even this view was more than I usually get.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Happy Earth Day!

Another Earth Day has rolled around and we all need to get outside and enjoy Earth and all her gifts, especially the birds.

In my yard today, the Blue Grosbeaks have arrived and so has a female Ruby-throated Hummingbird, the first of the year.

Is this the same little female that has nested in my yard these last few years? No way to know really, but I'm happy to see her anyway.

The male RTHs are still passing through as well and now that a female is here, there are constant noisy chases around the yard.

A male takes a sip from a bright canna bloom, a favorite of the hummers.

In honor of this Earth Day, the National Audubon Society has published its ten ways that you can make a difference to migrating birds. By following Audubon's suggestions, we can all be better friends to the birds and we all need to do that because the birds need all the help they can get.


Friday, April 20, 2012

This week in birds - #17

The sentinel of the backyard - the raucous Blue Jay - is always on the alert for passing hawks or cats and is the first to cry an alarm.


Remember the young Whooping Cranes, raised in Wisconsin last year, who were being led to wintering grounds in Florida by an ultralight last fall when their journey was interrupted in Alabama due to a dispute about flight permits? Ultimately, the ten cranes were trucked to a wildlife preserve in Alabama to spend the winter. There was concern that their migratory instinct and sense of direction might have been inhibited by that trip by truck. Apparently, there was no reason to worry. Mother Nature is one smart lady and when she told the birds to get up and go, they got up and went and in the right direction, too. Indeed, one of the birds, a female, had broken away from the group and had made her own way to Florida. Now, she has also made her way back to Wisconsin! The remaining nine birds are following the route on which they were led south and are now crossing Illinois, heading back north.  


Today is the second anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon explosion in the Gulf that resulted in the biggest oil spill in the nation's history. The good news is that the ecological recovery has been much faster than was feared. The bad news is that many species, including common seafood such as shrimp, have been found to be suffering gross abnormalities as a result of exposure to the oil and to the chemicals that were used to disperse it.


The oldest known breeding Osprey has returned to a Perthshire preserve in Scotland where she has nested for at least 22 years. She has laid a egg in her nest there.


U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials estimate that at least 10,000 birds have already died this year at the Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge in California and Oregon, known as "the Everglades of the West," because of a reduced flow of water there. They fear that the final total may be close to 20,000 birds if water is not released to the area.


Did you know that arsenic is an ingredient in some chicken feed? Well, neither did I, but apparently it is. Now Maryland has become a trailblazer by passing a law banning arsenic as an ingredient.


There is new evidence that ravens, some of the smartest birds around, are able to memorize relationship bonds and affiliations and that they can differentiate individuals based on past interactions. In other words, if you irritate a raven, he's most likely going to remember it and you, so watch out the next time you meet him!


Mute Swans are big birds that are highly aggressive, especially during the breeding season. They are known to attack humans. Even so, this story is incredible. In Illinois, a swan knocked a man out of his kayak and then kept him from swimming to shore, causing him to drown. The death was investigated by the police and apparently the facts were confirmed.


Where have all these frogs been hiding? A total of 36 previously unknown species of frogs have been discovered in a Madagascar forest.


And in Saskatchewan, a previously unknown species of prehistoric bird was discovered by scientists. It was a big toothy creature that looked a lot like a loon and it splashed around in waters in the area while Tyrannosaurus Rex lumbered around on land.


(Male Short-tailed Albatross and chick picture by USFWS.)

A bird once thought to be extinct and now known to exist in a small area of Japan may be colonizing the Hawaiian Islands. At least ten Short-tailed Albatrosses have shown up at various sites in the islands.


Around the backyard: The voices of baby birds are being heard in every corner of the yard. The chickadees have hatched, as I showed you on Wednesday. So have the Northern Cardinals. I'm unable to look inside their nest but I hear several strong voices coming from the tangle of vines and shrubbery behind my garden shed. Elsewhere, I see the Northern Mockingbirds carrying insects, although I haven't quite discerned where their nest is located.

The Eastern Bluebirds have finally settled on a nesting box and the female is busily preparing a nest to meet her exacting specifications. 

There is new life and soon-to-be new life everywhere. What an exciting time to be a backyard birder!

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

White-eyed Vireo

Since early this month, I've been hearing the distinctive songs of the White-eyed Vireo in trees and shrubs around my yard. The males are incessant singers at this time of year, so it is easy to know when they are around. It's not always so easy to actually see them though. They tend to stay in dense cover and so they are often hidden from view. Today, I finally managed to observe one in  the sycamore tree in my backyard.

(White-eyed Vireo photo by Lloyd Spitalnik.)

The reason for the bird's presence in the sycamore tree was very evident. The tree is just full of small green caterpillars right now. They're the larvae of a small moth. Vireos love caterpillars and the bird I watched today was stuffing his face with them! He moved up and down the limbs and twigs, turning over leaves as he went, searching for those juicy caterpillars and he was finding plenty of them.

These vireos do nest in our area and I'm hoping to have a pair in my yard this summer.They build a well-constructed nest that is a deep, hanging cup made of such things as twigs, roots, shreds of bark, grass stems, leaves, plant down, lichen, moss, and sometimes even fragments of wasp nests. They bind the nest together with spider webs and line it with fine grass and fibers. Usually the nest is built relatively low to the ground in a shrub.

The female generally lays four eggs in the nest and both parents take turns incubating for about 13-15 days. Unfortunately, these birds are often parasitized by Brown-headed Cowbirds that lay their own eggs in the vireos' nest. The White-eyed Vireo may have as many as two broods during our long, long summers.

They are lovely birds and great fun to watch when you can manage to find them among the dense leaves. Today, I got lucky.

Friday, April 13, 2012

This week in birds - #16

(Photo courtesy of American Bird Conservancy.)
The American Bird Conservancy's bird of the week is the Red-cockaded Woodpecker. The little woodpecker is declining in numbers and its status is threatened as the longleaf pine savannas that it requires for its habitat are cut down or ravaged by pine beetles, disease and drought. This bird was once endemic throughout the Southeast but now is confined to a few isolated locations. It is most numerous in South Carolina and Texas, including here in Montgomery County.


There is an old proverb that says that the best time to plant a tree is twenty years ago and the second best time to plant a tree is today. In a piece in The New York Times this week, Jim Robbins explains "Why Trees Matter."


Did you ever wonder how Homing Pigeons, or indeed, pigeons in general, are able to find their way home? There has been a persistent theory that it is due to iron-rich cells in their beaks that make them sensitive to magnetic fields. Well, apparently you can scratch that theory. A report of a new study just published in Nature pretty thoroughly disproves it.


Another new study says that the familiar backyard bird, the White-breasted Nuthatch, may actually be four distinct species.


Last month was the warmest March in U.S. history, with 25 states east of the Rockies recording their warmest March on record and 15 more reaching the top ten of their warmest month of March.


Conservationists have been very concerned about the effect of wind farms on migrating birds, but a new study in the United Kingdom did not find notably adverse effects to ten species that were included in the study. It should be noted though that those ten species did not include any large raptors which are of most concern in this country.  


The Bermuda Petrel, or Cahow, was thought to be extinct for over 300 years, but there are now known to be at least 100 breeding pairs in the world.


White-nose syndrome is a disease that has been devastating to bats in the Northeast and in Canada and it is spreading to other parts of the country. It has now been confirmed that the origin of the fungus which causes the disease is Europe.


Scientists have used geolocators to track the Golden-crowned Sparrow for the first time from its wintering grounds in California to its breeding range in Alaska.


The American chestnut tree was once an iconic image of towns and countrysides, but it was virtually wiped out by a pathogenic fungus. Now an attempt is being made to reintroduce genetically-modified forms of the tree in the eastern U.S. which, it is hoped, will be resistant to the disease.  


Blogger Bug Girl is concerned about the GOP war on caterpillars


Around the backyard: Nesting is well under way although I haven't seen any fledglings yet. I do hear their voices though, in the hedgerows and trees around the yard, and I expect they'll be making an appearance soon.

As I noted earlier this week, the first Indigo Buntings of spring have arrived. Beautiful birds with a joyous song - it's such a pleasure to have them around.

The male Ruby-throated Hummingbirds are still passing through, but I haven't seen any females yet. I'm hoping that the little female that has nested here in recent years will be returning. Time will tell.

Monday, April 9, 2012

The end of FeederWatch

Last Friday marked the end of Project FeederWatch for this season. The citizen science project runs from the second week of November through the first week in April. My last report period was March 31 - April 1.

It was an interesting 21 weeks, marked by less diversity of species in the yard and at the feeders than we have in many winters, but, as always, there were a few delightfully unexpected visitors to keep things interesting.

For example, this was the first winter in which I have had Rufous Hummingbirds in my yard. One of the birds showed up the first week in January and was last seen in the yard on the 27th of March. Throughout most of this period, two of the birds were in my yard and visiting my feeders. Moreover, the migrating Ruby-throated Hummingbirds lingered in the yard until December 3 and then made their reappearance earlier than ever before on March 17.

This FeederWatch season marked my first ever sighting of a Dickcissel in my yard. The lone bird visited my feeders on November 26.

Another non-typical sighting was that of the Brown Creeper on March 17.

But perhaps the most notable aspect of this FeederWatch was the birds who were absent. There were no Pine Siskins or Red-breasted Nuthatches. The Orange-crowned Warblers that are plentiful here in some winters did not make a single appearance at my feeders during any of my FeederWatch observation days and I saw only a few of the birds at other times during the winter. Even the Yellow-rumped Warblers were fewer in number than usual. The first Common Grackle was not noted in the yard until March 17 and the birds only appeared on my reports for that date and for March 24. For many years, a Red-shouldered Hawk pair lived in my neighborhood and appeared on practically every report I submitted to any citizen science project.  This year, a single Red-shouldered only appeared twice, on December 3 and February 11, while the Red-tailed Hawks were much more likely to be seen and a Cooper's Hawk or Sharp-shinned Hawk appeared nearly every week.

My most productive weekend of feeder watching was February 18-19 when I found 29 species of birds feeding in or over my yard. It was not a coincidence that that was a part of the Great Backyard Bird Count weekend which is my most intensive weekend of bird watching during the year. The fewest number of birds were seen on the first weekend of watching, November 12-13, when I only found 13 species.

So this season of feeder watching is in the books but the project is already signing up participants for the next season beginning in November. If you've never participated before, please consider signing up. It's an excellent way to learn more about the birds in your yard and also to provide valuable data to the scientists which can be instrumental in protecting and conserving all birds. The birds need all the help we can give them.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Happy weekend

There were still plenty of American Robins in the backyard this week. 

The blog will be quiet for a couple of days while I take a long holiday weekend. I hope you enjoy your weekend and that you will be able to spend some part of it outside enjoying the birds and the other beauties of Nature. See you next week.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

The Scissor-tails are here!

Driving into Houston this afternoon, I discovered that another of our favorite migrants has arrived on the scene. Yes, the lovely Scissor-tailed Flycatchers are here!

This is not one of the birds that I saw today, but one seen in a previous year. Today I saw three of the beauties perched on a utility wire along the roadway, a common place for them to sit. It's where I often see them all during the long summer months.

It's quite likely that these birds have been in the area for a while, but these are the first ones that I've actually seen. It's always a thrill to see that first one each spring and to welcome them back. I'll make sure to report this first sighting of the year to eBird.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Another early migrant: Whooping Cranes

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service photo of Whooping Cranes

You can add yet another species to the list of birds that are heading north earlier than usual this year. The endangered Whooping Cranes are leaving their winter home on the Texas coast at least a month earlier than usual. Some of the birds have already made their way as far north as South Dakota, on their way to their summer home in Canada.

It was an unusual winter all way around for the cranes. First, the flock that arrived in Texas was larger than it had been in the memory of living observers. Second, when they got here, they found a landscape, including their habitat, that had been devastated by drought and wildfires. That was a bad combination that did not bode well for a successful winter, but the cranes proved themselves adaptable. They responded by expanding their ranges to areas where they had not been seen before in winter. Mostly, they moved out into areas adjoining their usual ranges at Aransas Wildlife Refuge, but nine of the big birds - six adults and three chicks - even spent the winter in Central Texas near Granger Lake!

This winter's experience of the cranes is just more evidence for my theory about why birds are among the most successful animals on earth: They are adaptable. Even more importantly, they can fly. If things are not working out for them in one location, they move on in search of a more amenable spot. And they can readily respond to changing climate conditions.

So, now we've heard from the smallest North American birds, the hummingbirds, and the largest, the cranes, both of which started their migration earlier than usual this year. Moreover, birds up and down the size spectrum in between those two extremes are also on the move. It will be interesting to see what effects this might have on the breeding season, as well as whether this represents a new trend in migration.