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Thursday, November 29, 2012

A murder of crows

Crows are present in my neighborhood throughout the year, but they tend to be mostly invisible for much of that time. In fall and winter, though, they become very much a part of the backyard bird scene. They show up in noisy, boisterous groups, called "murders" and often make themselves obnoxious to the other backyard birds.

I often see them patrolling the ground under my feeders, looking for fallen seeds. They even visit the birdbaths for a drink and an occasional splash.

They are large birds, with a wingspan that reaches almost 40 inches. That, along with their loud voices and their mischief-making personalities, makes them a dramatic presence in the yard

The American Crow is the much bigger cousin to our Blue Jay. Their personalities do have much in common. They both tend to be neighborhood sentinels, always on the alert for predators and quick to cry the alarm. Both birds are implacable foes to owls and hawks and will "mob" - i.e., gang up on them and harass them - whenever they find them.

I've seen a couple of examples of mobbing by the crows just this week. I've already written here about their harassment of a Red-tailed Hawk on Sunday and of how they chased a tiny American Kestrel that they dislodged from its perch. Yesterday, I saw three of them tackle that same Red-tailed Hawk again.

The hawk was lazily circling over my yard, probably looking for his lunch. The bird seems to have taken up winter residence here, probably attracted by the large number of very well-fed squirrels in my neighborhood. The crows had gathered in the neighbor's big pecan tree and were socializing and perhaps eating the pecans when they noticed the hawk. They immediately rose into the air and gave chase. I suppose I should say they tried to give chase. The hawk was singularly unimpressed with their efforts and continued his circling until he finally moved a couple of yards over and the crows lost interest and returned to the pecan tree.

Crows really are fascinating birds. As a family, they are considered to be among the most intelligent of all birds. The New Caledonian Crow, for example, has been documented to use tools in order to obtain its food. The intelligence of the American Crow may be proven simply by its survival and abundance. Many times throughout our nation's history men have tried to extirpate it, even going to the extreme of dynamiting its roosts, but the versatile crow continues to outsmart its enemies and to adapt to whatever living conditions it finds. Its natural habitat has long been woodlands, farms, and fields, but it has learned to thrive in towns and even cities.

And I am here to testify that it is doing very well indeed in the suburbs. I'm quite happy with that. It would be a duller backyard without them. 

Monday, November 26, 2012

Among the missing

My third weekend of FeederWatching brought some unexpected entries to my list of observations and also some unexpected absences.

Yesterday afternoon, as I was scanning the trunks of trees for nuthatches and woodpeckers, I got a nice surprise. There, on one of my neighbor's pine trees was a Brown Creeper! These little birds are so inconspicuous that they can easily go unnoticed. I've only ever had one other sighting of the bird in my yard, even though I suspect they are present in fall and winter most years. I was able to watch this bird for several minutes as it crept up the trunk, poking its beak under and around the bark as it went. That observation made my day.

The neighbor's pine tree played a part in another unexpected observation. I happened to be looking up as a magnificent Red-tailed Hawk settled into the top of the tree. Unfortunately, he was positioned behind some branches and I was unable to get a clear picture of him. A few minutes later, a "murder" of crows - five in number - arrived and started harassing the hawk, mobbing him and trying to evict him from his perch. The big hawk ignored them, but a smaller hawk that I had not seen did not. A tiny American Kestrel was dislodged from another nearby tree and rose into the air where he was chased by three of the much larger birds. He soon flew out of my visual range and the American Crows went on about their business of stirring up mischief in the neighborhood, but I would never have known that the kestrel was there but for the action of those naughty crows.

On the other end of the spectrum, among the missing this weekend were Northern Cardinals and Blue Jays. Yes, these most ubiquitous of backyard birds were totally absent for the entire weekend. at least during the times that I was counting birds. In fact, thinking back over the past week, I don't think I've seen or heard either of those birds in the yard at all. Another mystery for me to ponder.  

Saturday, November 24, 2012

This week in birds - #45

A roundup of the week's news of birds and the environment:

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker photographed at Big Bend National Park.


As of a few days ago, the young Whooping Cranes of the migratory Eastern flock (Wisconsin to Florida) had only about 200 miles more to fly in order to reach their wintering grounds at St. Mark's National Wildlife Refuge. This year's migration has gone much more smoothly than last year's that was plagued by all sorts of problems, both natural and bureaucratic. This year's flight was helped enormously by strong tailwinds during part of the trip.


Melting sea ice presents a problem for the life cycle of the Emperor Penguin. They use the ice for feeding and breeding and for resting during their long journeys out to sea. 


The World Meteorological Organization has reported that 2011 was a record year for greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere on which we depend for life.


It appears that the early ancestors of birds were more gliders than fliers. Fossil evidence indicates  that their wings were not built for strong sustained flight but would easily have been able to support gliding from tree to tree.


In 1992, the Snake River Sockeye Salmon was down to just one known fish in the wild. He was dubbed Lonesome Larry. Since then, state, tribal, and federal fish managers have painstakingly bred the fish in captivity and released it to the wild to rebuild the population. Today the wild population is up to about 2500 fish and there is real reason to hope that the species can, in fact, be saved.  


October was the 332nd consecutive month of above average temperatures on the planet. A 27-year-old person has never lived on a planet with lower than average temperatures in any month.  


Although Norway has only a few dozen wolves left, the government is seeking to cull the predators even further, giving the lie to the country's claim to environmental progressivism. Indeed, many of the Scandinavian countries, as well as Canada, are losing their vaunted environmentalist credentials under pressure from their petrochemical industries. (Sounds very much like another country we all know and love, with the initials U.S.A.)


Orange-fronted Conures, a parakeet found from western Mexico to Costa Rica, mimic the calls of others of their species in order to start a conversation. Each of the birds has an individual "contact call" and they respond more readily when another bird mimics that call.  


Some birds have also been found to change the pitch and length of their songs in response to ambient noise. In particular, Vermilion Flycatchers in urban areas have been found to sing longer songs than their counterparts in rural area.   


Members of the crow and jay family are notorious for their mobbing behavior. If they spot a predator - a hawk or owl - they put out the call for every member of their family in the area to come and help them repel the intruder. The blog 10,000 Birds has a post with several pictures of a murder (Did you know that's the name for a group of crows?) of American Crows mobbing a Great Horned Owl that was just minding his own business.


Around the backyard:

...The thistle socks were hung on the feeder post with care in hope that the finches soon would be there.

And, sure enough, the American Goldfinch showed up right on cue. But he wasn't interested in thistle seed. He preferred the nearby feeder with sunflower seed hearts.

I've seen only one or two of the birds at the feeders so far, but I'm sure the traffic will soon pick up.

Those sunflower seed hearts must have been very tasty!

Bird traffic around the yard has picked up a bit this week, with the arrival of the goldfinches and the Red-breasted Nuthatches. A few more of the permanent resident birds have been showing up, too.

Like this Tufted Titmouse.

And this Eastern Bluebird. I see him quite often these days on some prominent perch and often hear him singing his song.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

I'm gonna stop assuming she's gone!

Whenever I fail to see the female Rufous Hummingbird around for several days, I assume she much have moved on and I have reported that here...several times now. And then I'll be outside working in my yard and I look up and there she is on her favorite perch in the crape myrtle tree. And so it was again today after I had just told you yesterday that she was probably gone.

Yep, it's her. She hasn't gone anywhere.

So here's my plan: Even if I don't see her for a while, I'm not going to assume any more that she is gone. On the contrary, I will assume that she is still here - just hanging out in some other part of the yard. I'll keep the feeders cleaned and filled for her just in case she wants a snack other than the blossoms that are still blooming. In a few weeks, we'll probably have frost and she'll need to depend on those feeders more than she does now, so they'll be there waiting for her.

And so will I, should she decide to show herself to me again.

Monday, November 19, 2012

More feathered visitors - big and very small

I spent part of Sunday afternoon in my backyard doing observations for my second weekend of FeederWatching. It had been several days since I had seen or heard the little female Rufous Hummingbird that had spent several weeks in my yard, so imagine my delight when I heard the chattering that announced a Rufous among the shrubbery.

When I finally was able to locate the bird and get my binoculars trained on it, though, I was in for a surprise. It was not the female but an adult male in glorious full rufous color! Of course I didn't have my camera - I never do seem to have it at these moments - so I ran inside to get it, hoping that the bird would stick around. It was feeding from my Cape honeysuckle so I figured that might keep it nearby for a while.

When I got back outside though the bird had disappeared. I sat down to watch and wait, hoping that it would return, but then suddenly my attention was distracted by another bird.

Yes, it was our resident Cooper's Hawk. He flew through the yard and perched in my neighbor's pine tree. He sat there for several minutes, long enough for me to take a series of pictures.

Once the hawk showed up, all bird activity in the yard stopped and everything became quiet and still. After several minutes the hawk flew on his way, but the Rufous Hummingbird never returned - at least while I was watching. Again today I looked for him but never saw him. He may have moved on or he may just be hiding among the leaves laughing in his feathers at my futile attempts to get his picture!


When I first stepped out my back door this morning, the first sound I heard was goldfinches! Yes, the American Goldfinch has arrived in my backyard.

I grabbed my camera and followed the sound to the sycamore tree in the middle of the yard where I found this one goldfinch preening in the early morning sun.

After breakfast, we went over to our birdseed source, Tractor Supply, and stocked up on thistle seed. Today the thistle socks get hung once again along with the other feeders and I'll be looking for the finches to be hanging on the socks and picking out the seeds.

The goldfinches have arrived - let the winter begin!

Will we get Pine Siskins?

Saturday, November 17, 2012

This week in birds - #44

A roundup of this week's news of birds and the environment:

Rock Wren photographed at Big Bend National Park.


And speaking of Big Bend National Park, when we were there a couple of weeks ago, I saw many Say's Phoebes and even managed to photograph some of them. These are western birds which don't normally stray into the East, but this week one of them turned up and was photographed in New Hampshire! No one really knows how the bird came to be there, but birds do have wings and they tend to use them to fly to new places.


Superstorm Sandy caused a massive spill of diesel fuel from tanks into the waterway between New Jersey and Staten Island that is known as Arthur Kill. Several oiled birds have been found as a result of the spill. Cleanup is progressing slowly.


David Sibley has an interesting graph which shows the various causes of mortality in wild birds. By far the biggest cause of death is window strikes. Second is feral cats. Third but much less deadly are high tension wires.


The Canada/Texas flock of wild Whooping Cranes are beginning to return to their wintering grounds at Aransas. Still unresolved are legal actions stemming from the 2008 and 2009 winter when 23 birds died there as a result of lack of water in the wetlands where they feed. This caused an insufficiency of food, resulting in starvation of the birds. The Aransas Project is trying to force the state to put a water plan into effect which will protect the birds' habitat and ensure that enough water is delivered by the Guadalupe River to support the populations of creatures on which they feed.


A huge avian dinosaur of the Eocene Era, the Diatryma, was once thought to be a bloodthirsty carnivore, but a more recent study of its fossils has determined that it was more likely a slow-moving herbivore.


Wildlife along the Appalachian Trail has been impacted by the human traffic on the trail. Black bears and bobcats appear to have been negatively affected, but critters like red foxes and raccoons seem to derive some benefits from the presence of humans. 


A census of the Island Scrub Jay, one of the distinct species of scrub jays, has revealed that it is one of the ten rarest birds in America. The bird is endemic on the island of Santa Cruz off the California coast. That is its only known habitat. In spite of its rare status, the bird's numbers are actually increasing following the removal of some invasive species from the island.


You've probably heard that BP has reached a settlement with the government over its massive oil spill in the Gulf a couple of years ago. It will pay $4 billion in fines and two of its supervisors will be indicted for manslaughter in the deaths of the eleven men who were killed. Long-term damage as a result of the spill continues to become apparent.


Three-quarters of the world's population of Lesser Flamingos live in Africa and use Lake Natron in Tanzania as their breeding site. Thousands of the birds are now returning there to begin nesting. The success of their nesting season will largely depend on the environmental quality of the area which is threatened by development.


It's not just Say's Phoebes that are turning up in unusual places. Recently, a Bee-eater, a bird of Africa and Southern Europe has been found in Scotland


Bats seem to be facing a myriad of challenges to their continued existence. Unchecked fungal diseases and encroaching human development are just two. But because of their life style, bats are also highly vulnerable to climate change and this has begun to be an additional stressor for the furry fliers. 


Those clever New Caledonian Crows continue to amaze scientists. Recently, they have concluded that the crows have imagination and that they are able to infer hidden causes for events. These are definitely the PhD candidates in the world of birds.


Around the backyard:

And speaking of crows, the common American Crows of my neighborhood have been very active and very vocal this week. One day, I watched the noisy antics of a flock of ten in my neighbor's big pecan tree. I've noticed that they really seem to like that tree. I can't see that they are eating pecans, but something certainly attracts them. They also spend time in the live oak trees in the neighborhood, including the three in my front yard which had a massive crop of acorns this year. There'll be plenty of food for all the acorn-eating critters this winter.

The bird habitat in my yard has been changed dramatically this week by the removal of three threes - a red oak, a water oak, and a sycamore. The oaks were in the front yard which had become, quite simply, too crowded with trees and too shady. We still have the three aforementioned lives oaks, a red oak, a magnolia and a contorted willow out there so it's not as if the birds will be lacking for perches.

The big sycamore was in the backyard and was too close to the house. Its roots presented a problem and it had to be removed. It was a great favorite with the birds and with the birder who enjoyed sitting under it. Even though I know it had to be done, the birds and I will miss it. The good news is that one of its offspring is growing up in the middle of the backyard and now that it is out of the shadow of its parent, it should grow even faster.     

Thursday, November 15, 2012

They're here!

I've been expecting to see Red-breasted Nuthatches here ever since we got back from our trip out west. I've had a couple of tantalizing glimpses and heard a call which I was certain was one of the birds. But I haven't been able to absolutely confirm the presence of the little birds in my yard. Until today.

There he is! The Red-breasted Nuthatch. They dart in and out so fast that I was lucky to get this one shot. Now that I know for sure they are here, I'll be looking for a chance for a better image. I'm just glad to know that we'll have these entertaining little guys with us this winter.

Now, where are my goldfinches and siskins?

Monday, November 12, 2012

First weekend of Project FeederWatch

It's too bad I wasn't counting butterflies this weekend. There were plenty of them in the yard, in spite of windy conditions. Monarchs, fritillaries, sulphurs, swallowtails, and skippers all were present in large numbers. Birds? Not so much.

Both days of the weekend were quite windy as well as overcast and occasionally misty - not ideal conditions for finding or observing birds - but I was able to tally thirteen species, none of them very numerous except for the House Sparrows, for my first weekend of FeederWatch reporting. At the height of the feeding season in late December and January, I will normally have at least twice that many species feeding in the yard. But for this first weekend, here's what I saw.

Eurasian Collared-dove
White-winged Dove
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker
Blue Jay
Northern Cardinal 
Ruby-crowned Kinglet
Carolina Wren
Carolina Chickadee
Tufted Titmouse
Northern Mockingbird
Eastern Bluebird
House Sparrow

I hope for better conditions and more birds next weekend.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Veterans Day

Happy Veterans Day to all who have served and who still serve and also to their families who serve right along with them. Thank you.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

This week in birds - #43

A roundup of this week's news of birds and the environment:

Greater Roadrunner photographed at Big Bend National Park.


The Great Backyard Bird Count, easily my favorite of the citizen science programs in which I participate, is going global. When the time for the next project rolls around on President's Day weekend in February, anyone anywhere in the world will be able to participate. In the past, participation has been limited to the United States and Canada. Moreover, the project will now be linked with eBird so that reports made through GBBC will automatically also be reported to eBird. 


With the reelection of President Obama, the Environmental Protection Agency should be able to pursue its plan for fighting greenhouse gases, That does not mean, however, that opponents, particularly the big oil companies, will not be fighting them tooth and nail every step of the way.


Super-storm Sandy has displaced many migratory birds, pushing them off their normal routes, often sending them much farther west than they would normally be found. "Exotic" birds are turning up all over the place, including in Philadelphia. The short-term effect of the storm on birds is readily observable, but the longer-term effects are yet to be determined. Will the storm speed up the expansion of ranges for some birds?


Hurricane Sandy has also brought to the forefront in a very forceful way a recognition that global warming or global climate change is a reality. How much of a difference that might make in the political world where denial of climate change is an article of faith for a certain very vociferous segment remains to be seen.


And speaking of global warming, one of its effects is to upset normal weather patterns. In India, this has meant a disruption of the monsoon cycle upon which much of Indian agriculture depends. This could have dire consequences for the ability of this populous nation to feed itself. 


Tool-using birds are rare, but we can add one more to the short list. Recently, a captive-bred Goffin's Cockatoo has been recorded using sticks as tools to reach food. 


Conservationists and locals in Tanzania are fighting a proposed plan to build a soda ash plant in prime breeding territory of the Lesser Flamingo. A survey of local residents revealed that they were more interested in protecting the flamingos than having the plant built.


The great winter finch irruption of 2012 in North America has its counterpart in the UK where woodland birds are moving into backyard gardens looking for food. The reasons for the movement of those birds is the same as here - a failure of wild food crops that they normally depend upon.


A new study from the University of Colorado Boulder shows that the drought of 2001-2002 in the Rocky Mountains greatly accelerated the devastation from pine beetles. This does not bode well for areas of pine trees that are continuing to suffer from drought.


Two large new breeding colonies of Emperor Penguins have been located and documented by French scientists in the Antarctica.


NASA satellites picked up images of apparent massive deforestation in Latin America, West and Central Africa and Southeast Asia during the just past summer months.


The idea of intoxicated birds might sound funny, but it really isn't. Intoxication renders the birds unable to defend themselves from predators or to get out of the way of danger. Birds can become intoxicated on fermented berries. Young birds are particularly susceptible. 


Around the backyard:

Today was my first day of observation for Project FeederWatch. It was a very windy day, not the best condition for observing songbirds which tend to sit tight when the wind blows. I only recorded nine species of birds feeding in my yard and at my feeders today:

White-winged Dove
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker 
Carolina Wren
Carolina Chickadee
Tufted Titmouse
Ruby-crowned Kinglet
Eastern Bluebird
House Sparrow

Where were the cardinals and mockingbirds???

I'll be making observations again tomorrow and hoping to add a few more species to the list for my first report.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Still here!

Since returning from our vacation, I had not seen any hummingbirds in the yard. I had decided that they had all probably moved along with the cooler weather we've been having lately. Yesterday, though, I was sitting in the backyard and out of the corner of my eye I caught a movement in a crape myrtle tree. I looked up to see this.

It was the little Rufous female that has been in residence here since late summer, sitting on one of her favorite perches. It seems like she really may be intending to spend the winter. I think she's the only one left now. At least, I haven't seen any others or heard any other activity around the yard.

Things continue to be pretty quiet here with little happening around the feeders. That's significant because this weekend is the start of Project FeederWatch. (Have you signed up yet? It's not too late!) My first two-day report period will be Saturday and Sunday. I just hope I'll have something to report.

One species that I hope to have to report is the Red-breasted Nuthatch. When I first walked outside a couple of mornings ago, I could swear that I heard one of the birds in the backyard, although I never actually caught sight of it. When we were in Big Bend, I did see one of the tiny birds and even managed to get a (not very good) picture.

This bird was observed and photographed at the Sam Nail Ranch site in the park. Wonderful little bird!

Also, I haven't yet actually seen any American Goldfinches here, only maybe heard one a few weeks ago, but last night I dreamed of the birds and I clearly saw them flying over my yard. Do dream birds count?

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Almost Wordless Wednesday: Ducks in the Desert

You don't expect to see ducks in the desert, but then Big Bend National Park is defined by the Rio Grande River and, along that river, there are a few ponds. In those ponds, I found a few ducks and other water birds.

 Ring-necked Duck

Blue-winged Teal (females)

Wood Duck

Northern Shoveler (female)

Redhead Duck

Another water bird, the American Coot

And, of course, the iconic American water bird can be found even in the desert - the Great Blue Heron.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Big Bend is well-named

We arrived home from our ten-day Big Bend National Park trip late yesterday and I'm still trying to process all that I saw and experienced there. It was a wonderful trip and I highly recommend it for birders or just for people who love Nature in the raw. It is a wild and ruggedly beautiful place. And big. Very, very big.

Seeing birds there is not that easy, at least at this time of year. I think it would probably be easier in spring or summer when the birds are more vocal and active, but since I haven't been there at those seasons, I can't say for sure. Autumn is a bit of a challenge because the birds tend to be quieter and more hidden, and it's often difficult to pick them out in this environment of rocks and cacti, but sometimes you get lucky.

I did manage to add six new birds to my life list and probably could have added a lot more if I were a better identifier. There were a lot of warblers there in the areas that have cottonwood trees and I have no doubt there were some that I had not seen before that I was unable to identify. I did take lots of pictures and some of them are of birds that I wasn't able to identify in the field. I'm hoping a closer examination of those pictures may help me to add one or two more to my life list.

I'll be posting many of those pictures here in coming days and weeks, but for now, let me show you just one wonderful bird from the trip, one of the last birds that I photographed there.

This hawk perched on a dead limb of a cottonwood at the Daniels Ranch picnic area right next to the Rio Grande. My back was turned to the bird as I was observing and photographing a Golden-crowned Kinglet in a nearby tree and I wouldn't even have noticed it but for a helpful fellow birder who called my attention to it. The bird perched there for a long time and I took perhaps twenty pictures.

I wasn't entirely sure at first which hawk this was, but after consulting several of my guide books and looking more closely at my pictures I decided it was a Krider's Red-tailed Hawk, the light color phase of that wonderful creature. I can only remember ever having seen one before and it was not nearly as light as this one. There are so many variations of color in that species, ranging from almost black to almost white. Mother Nature does love to confuse us.

In this view, you may be able to discern just a bit of the reddishness of the tail feathers.

Seldom does a hawk sit still for me for this long. I was ecstatic!

I have about four hundred pictures from the trip, not all of them birds. A lot of them are rocks or mountains or vegetation and a few reptiles and butterflies. I look forward to sharing some of them with you in future posts. Meantime, as wonderful as the trip was, it is good to be home.