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Tuesday, August 28, 2012

My new feeder

My new bird feeder for my front yard was delivered today. It's an attractive thing and I'm very happy with it. It's a chalet style and it allegedly will hold up to 20 lbs. of birdseed! That should cut down on my having to run back and forth to the birdseed barrel every day or so. Of course, it is imperative that my new squirrel baffle works perfectly, otherwise those 20 lbs. of seed will be going down squirrel gullets and I'll still be making frequent trips to refill. As soon as I get it installed, I'll post a picture of it here.

The bird feeders are getting a lot of traffic these days and the suet feeders particularly are being hit hard. I've been using a new (to me) kind of suet made by Royal Wing. It's billed as "no melt" and its base is peanut butter. It comes in several different flavors - one with nuts, one with oranges, one with berries, etc.  I usually get some of every kind that the store has on hand when I shop, but I can't tell that the birds prefer one kind to another. They seem to like them all. And the woodpeckers in particular, especially the little Downies, just go nuts over it! Carolina Wrens, Carolina Chickadees, Brown-headed Nuthatches, Northern Cardinals, and Northern Mockingbirds all have been observed eating the stuff. No wonder it disappears so quickly! It's a good thing that it is reasonably priced. If you are looking for a suet to use in your yard, I can unqualifiedly recommend the Royal Wing "no melt."

My garden has a bumper crop this year of all the wild berries that the birds love - things like beautyberry, pokeweed berry, and elderberry - and they are already being eaten by the birds. Soon enough, though, the berries will be gone and then they will rely even more heavily on the bird feeders as autumn turns into winter.  I'm happy to have my new feeder, as well as my two new squirrel feeders, which should keep all the hungry critters in my yard well-fed.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

This week in birds - #34

A Mountain Chickadee among the pines of Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado. The birds feed on the seeds in the cones of these pines.


The use of native plants in home gardening has been a popular trend in recent years. Now a study led by an ecologist from the University of Massachusetts suggests that the use of such plants in urban areas is very important for birds and other wildlife. It offers them mini-refuges in which they can feed from and nest in plants which are familiar to them which aids their chances of survival.


Blue-throated Macaws are found in only one area of northern Bolivia and the birds are considered critically endangered. Here are some pictures of these gorgeous birds.


It seems that every week or so we hear of a new species of bird, previously unknown to science, that has been discovered. This week we have three to report. A new species of wren, the Antioquia Wren has been discovered in a little-known dry forest in Colombia. And in the Philippines, two new species of owls have been identified: The Camiguin Hawk-owl was found on a small island just north of Mindanao and the Cebu Hawk-owl on the island of Cebu. The Cebu Hawk-owl had been thought to be extinct because of widespread deforestation on the island.


Members of the House of Representatives Science and Technology Committee seem to be uniquely devoid of actual scientific knowledge. Notorious Rep. Todd Akin of Missouri is a fair representative of how seriously misinformed the members of the committee - at least on the Republican side - truly are. This article gives other examples of their militant ignorance.  Is it any wonder that Congress's approval rating ranks alongside that of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez?


The American Bird Conservancy has produced a new 30-minute film which documents the critical plight of the native birds of Hawaii that are facing extinction from loss of habitat and invasive species including domestic animals which prey on them.


Studies in Denmark have shown that male Rock Sparrows indicate their age and their reproductive success by variations in their songs.


Yao Ming - remember the former Houston Rocket great? - is making an anti-poaching documentary with which he hopes to persuade his fellow Chinese to stop using products from elephants and rhinoceroses and to protect the animals.


Ammonia produced in the guano of large colonies of seabirds may have a global impact on the environment. It's an issue which has been under-investigated until recently but is now receiving the attention of researchers. Not all seabird colonies are thriving, however. The Kittiwakes of Scotland are undergoing serious declines in population.


Global climate change may have different effects on different areas. These differences can occur even within a single state, particularly if it is a large state, like California.


It's not only birds that are shifting their ranges in reaction to the warming of the climate. Even butterflies are moving farther north. Southern species like Giant Swallowtails are being found farther and farther north this summer.

Giant Swallowtail on milkweed in my garden this week.


Around the backyard:

I had mentioned yesterday that there was a diminution in hummingbird activity in my yard this week. Well, today that all changed again. Another wave of the little guys apparently blew in last night, including some more Rufouses. The hummingbird war was back on today.

I snapped this Carolina Wren at the backyard feeder today. The poor thing looks terrible, doesn't he? But, trust me, he's perfectly fine, just as perky and active as any wren. As soon as he finished his snack, he perched in a nearby shrub and sang his little heart out. Love these guys - even when they are almost bald.  

Friday, August 24, 2012

The joy of bird-blogging

It always makes me happy to meet someone who has read the blog and has actually learned something from it. Maybe it's the identity of a bird, or some tidbit about feeding the birds, the habits of backyard birds, why birds migrate, or even why so many of our backyard birds look so disheveled and funny at this time of year. It doesn't really matter to me what the information is - I'm just glad to have shared it and glad to know that someone gained something from it.

That, after all, is the whole reason I started doing the bird blog in the first place. I make no pretense at being an expert on birds. There are many blogs available on the Internet by such experts and I can't compete with them. But the common backyard birds that I got to know around our farm when I was growing up were one of the first loves of my life and I have spent a lifetime watching them and learning their habits. Yes, I enjoy going on birding trips and meeting new birds to add to my life list, but nothing really compares with just sitting in my own backyard and observing "my" birds as they go about their daily lives. These common, everyday birds are endlessly fascinating. There is no such thing as a boring cardinal or wren or chickadee.

Happily, the hobby of birding continues to grow in popularity, and ecotourism has become a major component of the travel industry. I find that a very hopeful development because, as people learn to value the birds and the places where they live, perhaps they will be willing to do more to protect those places.

Ecotourists spend large quantities of money every year traveling to faraway places to view exotic birds and expand their life lists. Many of those people travel here, to Southeast Texas, to see our "exotic" birds, because we actually live in one of the birdiest places in the country. Aren't we lucky that we don't even have to travel to Costa Rica or India or other birding hotspots to see lots of birds, but we can just walk out our back door, sit in our favorite chair, and watch a colorful and ever-changing parade of avian beauties?  

I am the luckiest of all because I get to share my observations with you. There are few greater joys in my life than sharing my passion for birds. Thank you for reading.

Male Ruby-throated Hummingbird with Hamelia patens blossom. The shrub is sometimes called the "hummingbird bush" because hummingbirds flock to it, especially at this time of year when they are on migration.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

The migration and the molt continue

What a difference a week makes. Last week I told you about the extreme hummingbird activity that was dominating my backyard. You could hardly step outside without having two or three hummers zip by in front of your face. We had both Rufous and Ruby-throated Hummingbirds and they put on quite a show for us.

Well, things are different this week. Much quieter. Last week's wave of hummers has passed on through. This week I've only noticed two of the tiny birds in the backyard - one female and one male Ruby-throated Hummingbird.

Here's the female sitting on one of her favorite observation perches where she is able to keep an eye on the entire backyard and especially her favorite Hamelia bush and sugar water feeder.

There may be - likely are - other hummers around, but I've only seen these two at the same time and can confirm their presence. Tomorrow, though, may be different as the migration continues and the cast of characters changes daily.


Though the hummingbird activity has slowed down, there are still plenty of birds and plenty of action in the yard, but it is mostly the permanent resident birds that dominate the scene.

At the front yard feeder, the House Finches continue to be omnipresent. There are at least a half-dozen that visit the feeder daily.

This old feeder has served the birds - and squirrels! - in my yard for many years and it is showing its age and slowly falling apart. I have ordered a new feeder which should be delivered in a few days and a squirrel baffle! This will be a shock to my little furry friends who have always considered this their feeder. But never fear - I've also purchased a couple of squirrel feeders with which I hope to placate their hurt feelings.

All around the yard, the summer molt is continuing and the birds are looking really scraggly. I haven't yet seen any bald-headed cardinals or jays as we have in some years, but there are several more weeks of molt to go.

Though not bald, this Blue Jay is certainly showing signs of the molt.

The rattiest-looking birds though are the Common Grackles which continue to surprise me by showing up in my yard in big numbers.

This young one looks pretty unkempt with his missing feathers. (No, he's not "singing," he's panting.)

This one might be a tiny bit further along, but he's still missing feathers, too.

The only birds that I see in the yard that are not showing visible signs of the molt are the Mourning and White-winged Doves.

This White-wing was busily preening its feathers...

...making sure...

...that every single one of them is in place.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

This week in birds - #33

This week's news of birds and the environment:

Two Black-necked Stilts forage for food in shallow water at Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge.


Proof that stress is not all bad: A study shows that young birds that have some stress in their lives have a higher rate of survival than birds that are relatively stress-free.


Anting, i.e., sitting in or rolling in an anthill and allowing the ants to crawl through their feathers, is one of the more weird actions that birds are known to do. It's an action that is not fully understood but is believed to be a way of using the ant's formic acid to combat parasites such as lice. Here are some pictures of a Common Crow enjoying anting. 


Butterflies with severe abnormalities have been turning up in Japan this summer in the Fukushima area where the tsunami and resultant damage to the nuclear facility occurred last year.


The American Ornithologists' Union has been at it again, messing with the names and taxonomy of our birds and now eBird, the online birding record that many birders including myself use, is in the process of updating their records to conform to the new taxonomy. One change affecting the birds in our area has been the rechristening of the Common Moorhen. It is now the Common Gallinule.

Meet the Common Gallinule.


The lice that feed among birds' feathers have evolved along with the birds that they parasitize. (And at some point the birds learned to use ants to help get rid of them.)


The U.S. Forest Service has issued a new report that details how the heating up of the climate might affect forests in the northeastern United States and Canada. In other global warming related news, Greenland has suffered record melt this summer and a major part of the Northwest Passage is open and free of ice.


As a part of the Audubon Society's SAVE program (Save Agricultural Viability and the Environment), New Jersey farmers are paid to grow black-oil sunflower seeds that are then sold to the Audubon Society as birdseed to be sold in their retail facilities. It's a win-win for the birds and the farmers.


Birding the Galapagos Islands is a dream of many birders and one birder/blogger recently fulfilled that dream and wrote about it and posted some pictures online.


There is some hopeful news regarding birds and wind farms: It seems that Pink-footed Geese are able to avoid the wind turbines in their migratory flight. If they can do it, perhaps other birds can as well. 


Cleaning up polluted waterways presents many difficult questions, one of which is, is more harm than good produced by stirring up the pollutants in order to try to remove them from the water?


Around the backyard:

It's molting time for the backyard birds and most of them are looking pretty scruffy these days.

This male Red-bellied Woodpecker would normally be sleek, with every feather in place, but this week, he has a bit of a disheveled appearance. 

Likewise, the Carolina Wren looks a little frumpy and out of sorts.

This Northern Cardinal is missing many feathers already but will lose many more before his molt is complete

Only the White-winged Doves still seem to have every feather intact and in place.

Earlier this summer, I detailed my efforts to photograph the Mississippi Kites that fly over my yard every day - efforts that have mostly been a failure. Well, the birds are still here and I'm still trying to get recognizable pictures of them.


...and still mostly failing. Sigh.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

West Nile virus emergency in Dallas

Our sister city to the north, Dallas, is suffering through a severe outbreak of West Nile virus among humans this summer. They've had about 700 confirmed cases and 10 deaths as a result of the disease. Consequently, the mayor has decided that it is time for drastic action. He has declared a state of emergency and has authorized the start of aerial spraying of the county for the mosquito which delivers the virus to humans. This will be the first use of aerial spraying for the mosquito in the county since 1966 and it does, of course, raise some environmental concerns.

The full effects of the insecticide used are open to question. It may, for example, kill many other insects besides mosquitoes, both "good" insects like butterflies and bees as well as "bad" insects. And what about the domino effect? What might be the damage up the food chain to the wildlife that depend on those insects as a part of their diet - birds, bats, frogs, e.g.? And what are the full implications of the spraying for humans who may be vulnerable - pregnant women, the elderly or chronically ill, e.g.? It's a complicated question, but ten people have already died there and across the state there have been a total of sixteen fatalities this summer. Officials are making the gamble that the benefits of the spraying to human life will outweigh the damage that it may do to the environment.

While the prevalence of the disease among humans in Dallas is noteworthy and worrisome, I have not heard of any unusual outbreaks of West Nile among birds this summer. There are always some deaths from the virus and in some summers I've even found one or more dead birds in my yard that I suspected might have been West Nile victims, but I haven't seen any dead birds here so far this summer.

What can you do to help prevent the disease? The best advice is to just make sure there are no standing water breeding grounds for mosquitoes in your yard. Moreover, if you do find a bird that is dead from unknown causes, especially a member of the Corvid family that is highly susceptible to the disease such as a jay or a crow, it would be a good idea to contact your local Health Department to see if they are testing dead birds for West Nile. Also, it is always good practice not to touch such animals with your bare hands.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The woodpeckers are coming back

I spent some time in my backyard yesterday trying to get pictures of the Brown-headed Nuthatches and the Downy Woodpeckers visiting the feeders. The nuthatches never did show up while I was watching, but I was able to get a few shots of a female Downy at the suet feeder.

It seems to me that most of the Downies that I see visiting the feeders are either females or juveniles. Occasionally I see an adult male there but not as often as the females.

One of the reasons that they are suddenly turning up may be that I'm using a new brand of  "no melt" suet which they really seem to like.

This bird stayed at the suet cake for several minutes.

You can see that there is no red nape patch, so we know for sure that this is a female.

While I was watching this bird, out of the corner of my eye I caught the flash of white on the wing of a bird flying into my neighbor's pine tree. I trained my binoculars on the spot where I had seen the movement and got a terrific surprise!

I had complained here just a couple of weeks ago about the disappearance from my neighborhood of the Red-headed Woodpecker. They used to be fairly common here, but for several years now they have been absent from my yard and the immediate vicinity of my yard. Imagine my astonishment and delight then when I looked through my binoculars yesterday and saw this:

You might think there is nothing red about that head, but, in fact, this is what a juvenile Red-headed Woodpecker looks like. In a couple more months, he'll complete his first molt and then his head will be entirely bright red. But right now, he's just a baby and he's still wearing his baby feathers.

But this baby has caught himself a big lunch! Can you see what he is holding? It's a cicada. It took him several minutes to dispose of the big insect.

Even after eating the cicada, he was still hungry and he started rooting around under the bark of the dead limb where he had perched to eat his meal. He seemed to find quite a bit to munch on. I couldn't tell if it was ants or possibly some kind of larvae.

This young bird was doing a good job of making a living on his own, away from Mom and Dad.

 After several more minutes, he decided to try his luck elsewhere and took flight.

The numbers of woodpeckers of all kinds do seem to be increasing in my area and, thinking about it, I guess I shouldn't be surprised. Woodpeckers love dead trees and there have been a lot of those around over the last couple of years because of the drought. Even though most of the dead trees in my neighborhood have been removed by now, there are still lots of trees, pines particularly, with dead limb snags. These are a magnet for woodpeckers, and also nuthatches, chickadees, titmice and a lot of other birds that like to explore under bark for insects. So, the drought has actually improved the habitat for such birds and it shouldn't surprise us to see their numbers increasing.

And now I have a juvenile Red-headed Woodpecker in my yard - well, my next-door neighbor's yard actually - and he seems to be finding lots to eat here. I can dare to hope that he'll make this his territory and that these wonderful birds are on their way to a comeback in my yard.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Return of the Rufous

As I've reported here over the last two or three weeks, the hummingbird activity in my yard has been frantic. There have been several Ruby-throated Hummingbirds passing through, but I really had not had much of a chance to get out and observe the action. Until today.

Guess what I found? It's not just RTHs. I've got Rufous Hummingbirds, too!

I'd had a couple of the little birds spend the season with me last winter and I was certainly hoping they would return, but I never expected them this early. As soon as I realized they were here, I went and grabbed my camera and tried to record their presence.

An adult male was cooperative enough to sit still on his favorite perch for a while as I snapped away.

His head was constantly swiveling as he responded to the presence of other hummers in the area.

 He was ready to take off at a moment's notice to defend his space.

No movement escaped his notice!

"Who's that over there? Is she a threat?"

An adult female was sitting just a couple of feet away from him on another bare twig.

She, too, was keeping a beady eye on all those other hummer interlopers.

 Left, right, left, right - that little head was constantly in motion.

Look at those tiny, tiny feet. These birds never cease to amaze me. How can something so small be so perfectly a bird? How can they even be in the same family as Whooping Cranes or Bald Eagles?

I took my nectar feeders down and scrubbed them and refilled them and a little later I was rewarded by seeing one of the adult males visiting one of them.

Hmmm...I wonder if there might be other hummer species in my yard that I haven't seen yet?

Saturday, August 11, 2012

This week in birds - #32

This week's news of birds and the environment:

America's favorite backyard bird drops in for a snack.


An interesting study by researchers at the University of Georgia involved strapping mini-cams onto 60 cats in Athens, Georgia and then following their activities for a week to ten days. These were all cats that were allowed to go outside and researchers were interested in their impact on wildlife. They found that 30% of the cats (or 18 of the animals) killed prey. Of those animals killed, 41% were lizards, snakes, or frogs; 25% were small mammals; but only 12% were birds. However, when you multiply that times the millions of cats that are free roaming in the country, it amounts to a significant carnage.


Bald Eagles have made a dramatic comeback from the brink of extinction over the last forty years and they continue to expand their range into new territory. One of the latest places to be colonized is the San Francisco Bay Area.


Also in the San Francisco area, a massive fire at a Chevron facility caused such dangerous air pollution that residents were warned to stay inside until the fire was contained and the pollution dissipated. In addition, this week Chevron faced a midnight August 6 deadline for paying a $19 billion court judgment in Ecuador for polluting Amazon waterways. The oil giant faces similar court actions in Canada and Brazil.


Los Quetzales National Park in Costa Rica is a wonderful place for birding and especially, as you might expect, for seeing Quetzals. Here is a report on an birding adventure there.  


Do gulls have good color vision? Are they repelled by the color red? A businessman in England thinks so. He's painting his roof red to keep the birds off it.


Hawaii's native birds are in deep, deep trouble and are in danger of being wiped out, and the issue just doesn't seem to be getting as much attention as it should from American birders. Audubon Magazine this month has an article on the problem called "Hawaii's Silent Extinction."


It's cicada season and that means it is also cicada killer wasp season. These are amazing critters. I watched one capture and kill the much larger cicada last summer and I was mesmerized by the action.


Recent finds at Mayan sites in Guatemala indicate that the Wild Turkey may have been domesticated as much as a 1,000 years earlier than previously thought.


It turns out that Pectoral Sandpipers don't require much sleep and those that are most sleep-deprived are the most successful in producing offspring. Apparently, less sleep means more time for mating! 


Although July was actually less sweltering than it was last year in my neck of the woods, nation-wide it was the hottest July on record in the forty-eight contiguous states since those records started being kept in 1895.


Around the backyard:

One interesting thing that I've noted at the feeders this week is that Downy Woodpeckers and Brown-headed Nuthatches are now visiting them in good numbers. Downies have been numerous in the yard this summer, but, in the past, they have almost never visited my feeders. Now it seems that every time I look at one of the suet feeders, there is a Downy Woodpecker on it.

As for the Brown-headed Nuthatches, they almost disappeared from the neighborhood for a few years but now they seem to be making a comeback here. Perhaps the trees that have been planted in yards have matured to meet their specifications. But, again, even when I saw lots of them here in the past, they never came to my feeders. Now they do and I am one happy backyard birder! 

Friday, August 10, 2012

Grackles in summer

It's unusual to have grackles in my yard in significant numbers in summer. We often see big flocks marching across our lawn and raiding our bird feeders in winter, but summer? Not so much. Sometimes individuals or pairs or family groups will visit in summer, but this season, things are different.

Starting about three weeks ago, big groups of the birds started turning up in my yard and at my feeders. They are not the huge flocks of winter, but they number perhaps 50 to 200 at their largest.

Very many of the birds seem to be young ones like this one. Their feathers are still grayish brown rather than the iridescent black they will become during the winter. It appears that the Common Grackles have had a very successful nesting season.

Some people might not consider that good news, but I confess to an unpopular fondness for this bird. Maybe it's because he's a bit of an underdog - underbird? - and is disliked in many quarters. And it is true that, when they gather in their huge winter flocks and choose to roost close to human habitations, their poop can create a bit of a public health menace. Moreover, because they are often persecuted by people, they can be quite shy, taking flight at the slightest movement or noise. They are not likely to hang around and entertain you as a cardinal or a chickadee might.

Nevertheless, I find the birds quite handsome and often quite amusing with their antics, if you can manage to watch them in their natural habitat doing natural things. So I'm not unhappy to see these summer visitors. Unusual, yes, and perhaps a portent of something we don't understand yet, but not unwelcome.