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Monday, December 31, 2012

Happy New Year!

The winter night closes in on the forests and fields that are homes to the birds we love, and the feathered ones sleep warm, tucked into their downy comforters. In a few hours, the sun will rise on the first dawn chorus of the New Year. May the birds be there to greet every new day of the new year, and may we all be there, too, in good health, to enjoy them. 

Saturday, December 29, 2012

This week in birds - #50

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

Sometimes a fellow has to share. This juvenile male Rufous Hummingbird is sharing the drips from his feeder with a bee.


An endangered finback whale washed ashore on a New York City beach this week. The badly emaciated 60-ft. whale was still alive when it came ashore but it later died.


Sport fishermen in Oregon have found a new use for old Christmas trees. They are collecting the used trees and placing them in coastal streams to provide habitat and a food source for coho salmon.


Sage Grouse in North Dakota have suffered a severe decline in population this year because of West Nile virus. Now the state is asking its neighbor, Montana, to send some female grouse to help replenish the population. Montana is considering the request and may send up to 80 of the birds.


Thousands of new species were described by scientists for the first time this  year. Here is an article which lists, describes and features pictures of some of the top discoveries of the year.


Haast's Eagle, a giant raptor with an 8-ft. wingspan, once hunted Moas from the skies over New Zealand as late as 600-700 years ago.


EPA administrator Lisa Jackson announced this week that she will be leaving the agency. Her four-year tenure has been marked by constant controversy and resistance by radical conservatives to any efforts to regulate emissions that harm the environment. In spite of that, quite a bit of progress has been made, but because of indomitable opposition by the deniers of global warming, very little progress has been made in that important area.


A Kumlien's Iceland Gull has returned to the same territory in Hammond, Indiana, for at least the fourth consecutive year.


A Florida man has pleaded guilty in a Manhattan court to the smuggling of dinosaur skeletons. The skeletons were obtained in China and Mongolia and were illegally transported into the United States where they were offered for sale.


A seabird called the Razorbill is a bird of the North Atlantic and rarely is found south of North Carolina, but this season, large numbers of the birds are turning up in Florida waters to the great delight of birders there.


A new biogeographical map of the world's vertebrates has been published. It depicts the interrelationships of animals from various parts of the world. Images of the map can be found here.


Around the backyard:

Everything seems in motion in the yard this week. Birds are everywhere! Especially at the feeders. New sparrows turn up almost daily and the coming of the hungry Pine Siskins means that the feeders are emptying a lot faster.

Even the seeds in my big feeder in the front yard that haven't had to be replenished for weeks are beginning to noticeably decline.

From now through about the middle of February is the height of the feeder season in my yard and it is one of the most fun times of the year to be a Backyard Birder.

I hope your New Year brings you good health, contentment, and lots of beautiful birds.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Feeder activity picks up

With the coming of the Pine Siskins and the increase in the number of American Goldfinches, the feeders have suddenly become very busy places.

One of the record number of Yellow-rumped Warblers in the yard this winter waits on a blueberry bush limb for an opening at the nearby feeder.

When the noisy Blue Jay arrives everybody gives way.

Northern Cardinals and sparrows like this White-throated often feed together on the ground under the feeders.

Of course, the House Sparrows are always a part of the mix.

The cardinal's favorite seed is the black-oil sunflower.

A goldfinch awaits its turn at the feeder.

The clown of the backyard, the Red-bellied Woodpecker, seems determined to carry as much of the food as he can pack into that big bill!

The juvenile male Rufous Hummingbird prepares to sip from the sugar water feeder.

Striped Pine Siskins and a few goldfinches share the platform feeder.

A brightly colored Pine Warbler shares the feeder with a female cardinal.

I love watching the acrobatics of the tiny Downy Woodpeckers at the suet feeders. They do love their suet!

When the boss of the backyard, the Northern Mockingbird, shows up, everybody scatters!

I hope to spend a lot of time watching the birds in my yard this weekend in order to increase the numbers that I'm able to report to Project FeederWatch. This is the time of the season when the activity in the yard really picks up and things get very interesting.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012


Dear old St. Nick, or in my case St. Bob, got me a new lens for my camera for Christmas and this afternoon I headed out to the backyard to try it out. Guess what my new lens found first?

 A Pine Siskin! He was feeding at the sunflower hearts feeder with a group of American Goldfinches.

As I swung the lens around, I found several more of the little birds at the feeders.

They didn't seem interested in the nyger seed feeders today. They were going for the other seeds and for suet.

The wait is over. The Pine Siskins are here. Let the real winter begin.

But siskins weren't the only new birds I saw today.

White-throated Sparrows were feeding on the ground under the feeders.

And they were joined shortly by tiny Chipping Sparrows.

Sweet little chippie! Really one of my favorite winter birds. (Of course, I say that about all of them.)

I wonder what I'll find with my new lens tomorrow.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Happy holidays!

Santa has brought this mockingbird everything he could possibly wish and he is enjoying his Christmas feast. He much have been a very good mockingbird this year!

Merry Christmas and happy holidays to all! Thank you for reading my blog this year.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

This week in birds - #49

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

Male Red-winged Blackbird at Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge. They should begin showing up at my feeders soon.


Did you hear about the Fork-tailed Flycatcher that showed up on a Travis County Christmas Bird Count? The bird was recorded near McKinney Falls State Park and since reports of its visit have been circulated, birders have been coming from all over the country to see it. The bird is native to Central and South America and only rarely shows up in Texas. However, as the climate changes, it may increase its presence here.


Another wandering bird is making news in the UK. An American species, the American Pipit which the English call the Buff-bellied Pipit, is exciting birders, or "twitchers" as they are called there. It is thought that the tiny vagrant bird, smaller than a robin, flew across the Atlantic in two days. When we were in Big Bend National Park at the end of October, I saw and photographed one of the birds there. Here is my bird.


It's mistletoe time! It is a tradition in many places to go into the forest at this time of year and cut the mistletoe to bring home for Christmas decorations which encourage kissing, but, as far as trees are concerned, it has been thought to be nothing but a pernicious parasite. Now, however, an Australian study paints a different picture of the plant, one that indicates that mistletoe might actually be beneficial in expanding diversity in the forests where it lives.


Wood Storks, once in imminent danger of extinction, have made such strides in recovery of their population that the Fish and Wildlife Service is planning to change the bird's status from "endangered" to "threatened." This represents another significant victory for the Endangered Species Act.


A World War II Carrier Pigeon whose body was found in a chimney in Surrey, UK, with its coded message still attached to its leg has excited interest among cryptographers. Now it seems that one of their number in Canada may have cracked the code.


Eelgrass is an aquatic plant that plays an important role in many watery ecosystems, but it has been declining in some places. A new study shows how many animals distribute seeds of the plant to new areas. Ducks such as the Lesser Scaup are particularly important to its dispersal.


A new analysis of the DNA and skull of a strange whale which washed ashore in New Zealand in 2002 has shown that it was, in fact, a pygmy right whale, an animal that had been thought to be long extinct.


Anyone who has ever heard the squawk of a male Peacock in the throes of passion can testify that it is a resounding call, one that can be heard over a great distance. It seems that there may be an evolutionary value in that. The bird that is able to attract mates from a considerable distance enhances his chance of mating and of producing more offspring.


As the climate warms up and bird species push their ranges ever farther north, they may come into competition with the boreal forest species that are already there. This could well prove detrimental to those boreal species, scientists fear.


A recent study suggests that the construction of housing developments may have just as negative an effect on the survival of many bird species as will global warming. Unfortunately, birds must deal with both challenges. A double whammy.


Around the backyard:

Traffic at the feeders has picked up considerably this week.

I counted eight Northern Cardinals at one of my feeders in the late afternoon one day this week. Today this one was feeding on sunflower seed hearts when a Carolina Chickadee decided to fly in and join him.

Pine Warblers are regular visitors at the feeders now.

There are still at least two Rufous Hummingbirds in the yard. This is the female.

Downy Woodpeckers are frequent visitors to the suet feeders.

The American Goldfinches are more and more evident, but still no Pine Siskins.

A Downy Woodpecker visits the suet feeder as an American Goldfinch admires her style.

 There are more Yellow-rumped Warblers than I have ever seen in my yard this season.

Among other birds that I saw at the feeders today but did not manage to get a picture of were the Brown-headed Nuthatch, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Tufted Titmouse, and Red-bellied Woodpecker. Of course, the ever present House Sparrow was there, too.

I hope the holiday season is a bright one for you and your loved ones and, at some point during it, I hope you will be able to stop and enjoy the gift of birds.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

The waxwings are here!

I was in my backyard checking on my little fish pond yesterday afternoon when I heard a very welcome sound emanating from my neighbor's big pecan tree on the far side of her yard away from me. Zeee, zeee, zeee came the familiar sound of a well-loved winter bird. I looked up to see the outlines of their bodies against the sky.

Cedar Waxwings, those dapper birds of winter days, had arrived just ahead of a cold front.

I always look forward to the coming of the waxwings and mark it as the real beginning of winter in my yard. In some years, it is nearer the New Year before they first appear, but this year they've come before Christmas, a real Christmas present for this birder, and even though it was almost 80 degrees in my yard yesterday, I thought, yes, it really is time for winter.

(These are some pictures of the birds from previous years.)

Whenever they appear, these beautiful birds always bring a smile to my face.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

This week in birds - #48

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

Photo by Benjamin Skolnik courtesy of American Bird Conservancy.

The common name of this beautiful woodpecker is...Beautiful Woodpecker! Its scientific name is Melanerpes pulcher. I think I prefer the common name. The bird lives in the tropical and subtropical forests of the northern Andes in Colombia. Its population is believed to be stable at this time. It was chosen as this week's Bird of the Week by the American Bird Conservancy.


The 113th Christmas Bird Count is underway. It started on December 14 and will run through January 5. It is an important citizen science project which helps to determine the whereabouts and the health of specific bird populations at this time of year. If you would like to get involved, it's very easy. Just go to the Audubon website and find a count that is taking place in your area and sign up for it. You will be most welcome.


The "Fab Five" Whooping Cranes that recently made their way from Wisconsin to Florida have now been released from their holding pen to begin to acclimate to life in the wild. It is a "soft release" in that their keepers still use recorded crane calls to guide them back to the fenced-in area at night. The fence protects them from nighttime predators.


Montana wildlife commissioners have voted to close the state's gray wolf hunting season early. This is in response to the adverse publicity caused by hunters killing several collared research wolves from nearby Yellowstone National Park that had strayed into the area north of the park.


Western Scrub Jays have been recorded as acting strangely in response to a death of one of their flock. They may gather around the body and give loud distress or warning calls. Scientists theorize that these "funerals" are the jays reacting to a perceived threat and their calls are what they would give in response to a predator.


A list of the ten most recent extinctions in Canada has been released. These exterminations have happened when the critter died out within the borders of the country or else their population was extirpated by human activity. Several of the species still exist south of the border in the United States and one - the black-footed ferret - has recently been found to have a small population alive and well in Saskatchewan.


Seven states - New York, Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, Vermont, Massachusetts and Rhode Island - are suing the EPA for its failure to control the greenhouse gases produced by the fracking process of extracting oil and natural gas from the earth.


Many of the natural areas devastated by Superstorm Sandy will be very slow to recover from the damage. One of the worst hit was Gateway Recreation Area on Long Island. I can certainly empathize. I remember well how sick I was when we first visited Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge just a couple of months after Hurricane Ike hit. It frankly reduced me to tears. I wondered if it would ever recover. But now, four years later, one would hardly notice the damage unless you know what was there before. It has come back better than ever. Nature's powers of regeneration are remarkable.


The Farm Bill that is currently working its way through Congress changes conservation regulations in such a way that may well doom some prairie birds. It will essentially destroy the "potholes" that are so much a part of that environment and on which resident birds as well as waterfowl migrants depend.


The illegal killing of raptors continues to be a major problem in the UK. The problem received national attention recently when a well-known Hen Harrier that was part of a research project was killed.


Florida is holding a python-hunting competition with cash prizes to winners as another way of trying to slow down and eventually stop the reproduction of the big snakes in the state. The invasive exotic snakes are known to be a serious threat to birds as well as other native wildlife.


In another invasive species story, feral cats have been removed from remote Ascension Island, with the result that Frigatebirds have once again returned to nest there.


Around the backyard:

I wrote a post just yesterday about the three warblers that visit my yard in winter. After I wrote it, I was sitting in my backyard yesterday afternoon watching the two Rufous Hummingbirds joust over the feeder by my little fish pond when suddenly I became aware that the redbud tree in front of me was filling up with little birds. Warblers! Specifically, they were Yellow-rumped Warblers. At least as far as I could tell that's all they were. Of course, I didn't have binoculars or my camera with me at the time and I didn't dare move for fear of scaring them away. But wave after wave of the little birds passed in front of my eyes. I tried to count. I know there were at least thirty and I would estimate up to fifty of the warblers. I also saw at least five Ruby-crowned Kinglets. It was truly an amazing sight. If only I'd had a video camera to record it.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Three warblers

There are three warblers which I can generally count on to visit my yard, and usually my feeders, in winter: Pine Warbler, Yellow-rumped Warbler, and Orange-crowned Warbler.

The Pine Warblers have a presence in the area throughout most, if not all, of the year, but it is really only in autumn, especially in winter, and in spring that I see them in my yard and that they come to my feeders.

They haven't been plentiful at the feeders yet - in fact, none of the birds except for White-winged Doves have - but I do see the occasional lone bird checking in to fill up on suet or seeds. More often I see them working the pines trees across the backyard fence in my neighbor's yard. Many different birds find food in those trees and warblers are among them.

The Yellow-rumped Warblers also feed in the pine trees, but at any time of the day when I step outside, I find the oak trees in my front yard alive with these warblers. Tens of the birds scurry and flutter over the limbs and leaves of the live oaks picking off insects as they go and giving their characteristic "chip" call.

Very seldom do I see one at the feeders at this time of the year. Later, in winter, they will be more common there. They, too, enjoy both suet and seeds.

The Orange-crowned Warbler has always been the least numerous of the three winter warblers in my yard. In fact, last winter,  I can only remember two or three sightings of the bird all season. This year I confess I haven't seen a single one here so far. This deceptively plain but quite beautiful little bird is a winter favorite of mine, so I do hope it will visit me this winter. When it does show up, like the other two warblers, it feeds on both seeds and suet.

My feeders are all well-stocked and ready for hungry warblers and other birds. So far, the action there is still sporadic, but as the temperatures fall, it is likely that the pace will pick up. More warblers of all three kinds would find a hearty welcome here.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Wordless Wednesday: House Finch

Frosted birds

We had our first light frost last night. The temperature got down to 32 degrees F. and it is still quite chilly outside today and expected to get back down to freezing tonight.

It's hardly like trying to survive a heavy winter storm, but the colder weather does put a bit of extra stress on the birds. Those of us who provide feeders for them need to make sure that those feeders are well-stocked, so that our backyard birds don't have to wander far afield looking for food. This benefits both the birds who visit our yards and the birds in the woods and fields that don't have to compete with "our" birds for food.

Remember, too, that more and more hummingbirds are sticking around in our area through the winter and we can help them by keeping those sugar water feeders clean and full. The little birds eat a lot of insects as well, especially at this time of year, but as the weather gets colder, fewer insects will be available and fewer flowers will be available, so it is important to keep those feeders up.

I found the little female Rufous today sitting on an exposed branch taking in some rays from the sun. Her feathers were all fluffed up against the cold. Rufous Hummingbirds are much more tolerant of cold than many of our hummingbirds. That's why when we see one in winter it is most often a Rufous.

Don't forget, also, the importance of water. Sometimes we forget that the birds need water in winter, too. I just looked out my study window and saw an Eastern Phoebe at my front yard birdbath and frequently these days I see American Crows using the bath as well. The point being that even those birds that are not necessarily feeder birds will make use of the birdbaths and other water sources that we provide in our yards.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

This week in birds - #47

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

Vermilion Flycatcher photographed at Big Bend National Park.


Five of the six young Whooping Cranes that started out on their first fall migration from Wisconsin to Florida arrived safely at St. Mark's National Wildlife Refuge, their winter home, last week and are now settling in. One of the young cranes, unfortunately, died in an accident along the way. Meantime, fourteen young cranes have been released at the White Lake Wetlands Conservation Area site in Louisiana where wildlife officials are attempting to reestablish a wild population of the birds. The efforts have encountered some difficulties from hunters who don't seem to have understood the concept of "protected endangered species."


House Sparrows are known to use all kinds of detritus that they pick up in the construction of their nests. If you've ever cleaned one of those nests out of a bluebird or martin box, you'll understand what I mean. But the annoying little birds may actually be smarter than I gave them credit for. It seems that they sometimes line their nests with cigarette butts, when they can find them, and these help to foil parasitic mites which attack the birds and their nestlings.


Planting even small patches of native plants to attract local pollinators can increase the rate of pollination on big farms.


On a somewhat related subject, one way to help birds is to leave an area of your yard natural and leaf litter unraked to encourage the production of insects which in turn attract and feed the birds.


Early snowmelt in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado is triggering the earlier and earlier bloom of plants before pollinators like bees and hummingbirds are around to take advantage of them. This could have a long-term detrimental effect on the plants if there are insufficient pollinators to assist their reproduction. It may have an equally serious effect on the pollinators who miss a food source.


The male Great Bowerbirds of Australia and New Guinea construct elaborate bowers to attract females. It seems they are even cleverer than we knew. They are able to use the artistic principle of forced perspective to make their constructions more enticing to prospective mates.


It is very likely that, in the future, water will be more valuable than gold or oil, as Earth continues to heat up and water reserves are depleted by drought. In the city of Atlanta, for example, the water supply is presently at a three-year low because of a long two-year drought, and rationing may have to instituted. It is a dilemma that will be faced by more and more cities. And still we refuse to acknowledge the problem of global warming and attempt to do anything to slow it.


The wild bird population of the UK fell by 1.9% in 2011. The birds that were most adversely affected were those which are specialists in their feeding habits, while the generalists fared somewhat better.


The tiny Northern Saw-whet Owl is being tracked to learn more about the bird's population density and geographic distribution. Scientists are finding that the little raptor is probably more widespread and numerous than previously thought. Its tiny size and nighttime hunting habits make it virtually invisible to many birders and scientists as well.


The retreat of seasonal ice cover in the Arctic is having an effect on a seabird called the Black Guillemot. The guillemot feeds its young on cod that it finds hugging the underside of ice floes. As the ice melts, this food source is no longer accessible and the birds must adopt other fishing habits. Or die.


The terrible wildfires in the western United States in recent years have been abetted by an invasive grass called cheatgrass. This grass dries out faster and burns more rapidly than other grasses, providing tinder to feed and spread the fires.


Around the backyard:

A few Northern Cardinals, like this beautiful female that I saw today, continue to return to the yard and to the feeders. I've seen and heard more of them this week than at any time in several weeks.

The stars of the backyard again this week, though, have been the hummingbirds. There have been at least three here: the adult female Rufous, a juvenile male Rufous, and another that may be a Rufous but I haven't been able to get a good enough look to be sure yet. I spent hours this week trying to get good pictures of the birds.

The juvenile male Rufous is a particularly pugnacious little guy who immediately attacks any other hummer who dares to invade the space that he claims as his own.

He always keeps an eye open for interlopers.

Including this Rufous female who was, after all, here first. She is every bit as pugnacious as he is so the hummingbird war continues unabated. And I am vastly entertained by it!