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Saturday, March 30, 2013

Happy weekend!

I'm taking a holiday weekend with my family. "This week in birds" will return next week.

Have a joyous and peaceful weekend and take time to watch the birds!

Friday, March 29, 2013

The bird fountain

We installed a new fountain in our backyard a few weeks ago. It's nothing very special, just a stock item from Lowe's - except for the little ceramic frog which was my touch. I figured the birds would probably like the fountain. Little did I know just how much!

They drink from it, they splash in it, all day long there is a constant stream of birds visiting the fountain. They obviously think it is a bird fountain meant especially for them.

Here you see finches, Pine Siskins and American Goldfinches, enjoying it, but I've also seen Northern Cardinals, Carolina Chickadees, Blue Jays, Tufted Titmice and various warblers visiting it.

The clear lesson here is that moving water attracts birds, so if you want to attract more birds to your yard, you might consider adding a bird fountain!

Thursday, March 28, 2013

It's March and the kites are flying

I was in my backyard late Tuesday afternoon when I became aware of a shadow of something passing overhead. I looked up and there, circling over my yard, was a beautiful Swallow-tailed Kite.

  Swallow-tailed Kite photo by Jay Paredes, courtesy Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Over the last few years, these gorgeous raptors have been summer visitors to our area. I've seen them frequently making lazy circles over my yard, except for last summer. I never saw a single one over my yard last summer. I did have Mississippi Kite visitors but no Swallow-taileds, so it was with a particular sense of joy that I welcomed Tuesday's visitor.

In the past when I've seen them here, they've usually been in pairs, so I looked around for a second bird but didn't see one on this day.

Kites in general but especially Swallow-tailed Kites are such fun to watch in flight. Their flight seems utterly effortless. They hang motionless in the air and then swoop and glide and sometimes roll upside down or zoom high into the air, all with barely a motion of those long wings. They put on quite a show.

The adult birds eat mostly insects like dragonflies, beetles, grasshoppers, cicadas, wasps, etc., but when they are feeding nestlings, they may capture snakes, lizards, frogs, and even nestling birds to feed the young ones.

They usually nest in a tall tree in open woodlands, most often in a pine tree. In spite of the deaths of so many trees during our long drought, there are still plenty of tall pine trees in the area, so these birds should have no trouble finding a nesting site. They usually lay two eggs and both parents participate in the incubation.

They are early spring migrants, so it shouldn't be surprising to see them here in March. They will generally stay until late August or September.

According to Kenn Kaufman's book, Lives of North American Birds, these magnificent birds once ranged as far north as Minnesota in summer, but disappeared from most regions in the early 20th century. With the changing climate, it seems that they may be expanding their range once again. At any rate, I'm just glad their range will apparently include my yard once again this year.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Watch the eagles hatch

One of the more interesting developments in bird watching in recent years has been the nestcam - video cameras trained on birds' nests that allow us to watch the bird's family life unfold. This is Nature, so it isn't guaranteed to be pleasant, but it is fascinating.

One of the most popular of the birdcams currently operating is trained on a Bald Eagle nest in California. The eaglets are expected to hatch by March 31. Click on this link to watch the eagles hatch.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

This week in birds - #62 (With update)

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

Black-bellied Whistling Ducks have become perhaps the most ubiquitous duck in our area. Every evening, just at dusk, a large flock of these handsome birds, sometimes numbering up to fifty, flies over my yard on their way to their nighttime roost.


There has been a lot of reporting lately about the possibility of reviving species that have gone extinct through the use of extracted DNA from their fossils. On Friday, a day-long conference of scientists was held to address both the tricky scientific and the ethical issues related to such an enterprise. The conference was sponsored by National Geographic and they carried a live webcast of it, but it seems to have garnered very little attention from the press. Many scientists have expressed serious reservations about the idea. And I admit that, as much as I would love to see a live Passenger Pigeon, the world and the environment have moved on since that bird went extinct. Would it be right to bring the bird back to that changed environment?   


Punxatawney Phil correctly predicted an early spring for our part of the world, but his part of the U.S. is shivering in some unusually cold March weather. The culprit seems to be the melted Arctic ice which has released colder weather to flow into the eastern part of the country. 


Beginning in the summer of 2007, the Center for Conservation Biology (CCB) began deploying satellite transmitters with onboard GPS receivers on Bald Eagles within the Chesapeake Bay region.  Transmitters have been fitted on 70 birds, some of which have been delivering daily tracking data for nearly six years. It is hoped that understanding patterns in eagle movement across the landscape will aid responsible placement of hazards such as power lines, wind turbines and cell towers, and help to avoid bird-aircraft collisions near airports.


Scientists have discovered eight new species of frog in a wildlife sanctuary in Sri Lanka. Nearly all of the species are critically endangered. Meanwhile, on the other side of the world in the Peruvian Amazon region, two new colorful species of woodlizard have been discovered.


A new University of Florida study of nearly 5,000 Haiti bird fossils shows that, contrary to a commonly held theory, human arrival 6,000 years ago didn't cause the island's birds to die simultaneously. Some species were more resilient than others. Understanding how and why the birds became extinct may help conservation efforts today.


The Myrmecos blog discusses the recent reports of the disastrous decline of the Monarch butterfly, and postulates that, although there is much speculation, we don't really know what is driving the beautiful butterfly to extinction.  


As part of a study on impacts from the world’s most widely used class of insecticides, nicotine-like chemicals called neonicotinoids, American Bird Conservancy (ABC) has called for a ban on their use as seed treatments and for the suspension of all applications pending an independent review of the products’ effects on birds, terrestrial and aquatic invertebrates, and other wildlife. (Suspension of its use would probably help the Monarch, too.)


Earlier this year, the Discovery Channel released the first ever footage of the legendary giant squid in its natural environment.  The question that now arises is, was that the only species of such a giant or merely one of several?


A study of the collective behavior of animals in groups - swarms, flocks, schools, colonies - is revealing how the individuals interact and take their cues from their neighbors.  


On a Friday afternoon in early March, the State Department released a draft report that downplayed the environmental risks of the northern portion of the controversial Keystone XL Pipeline which would ferry oil from Canada's tar sands to refineries in Texas, passing through Montana, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, and Oklahoma. However, the State Department failed to report that the "experts" who helped draft that report had previously worked for TransCanada, the company looking to build the Keystone pipeline, and other energy companies poised to benefit from Keystone's construction. In my world, it seems like that might be a conflict of interest.


Around the backyard:

The baby bluebirds have flown! The little family that I've been reporting on here for the last couple of weeks have abandoned their box home and launched themselves into the wide world. I have to say that these birds were not good housekeepers. They have left behind one nasty mess for me to clean up and disinfect the box before it is used again. Maybe by this same pair of Eastern Bluebirds.

I've noticed that the flocks of Cedar Waxwings have grown quite a bit this week. They are still not as numerous as they were last year, but this morning I saw a flock of more than 50 of the birds in my yard. That's a significant change from the five or six I was seeing just a few weeks ago. 

It's been a few days now since I've seen or heard a Ruby-crowned Kinglet. Have they headed north already? 

There's still plenty of activity in the yard. This morning, I saw a Northern Mockingbird carrying material for a nest. Other baby birds will be joining the bluebirds soon.

UPDATE: I was in the backyard late this afternoon when I heard chattering overhead that announced the arrival of the Chimney Swifts. I looked up to see two of the birds barreling around the skies over my yard. They almost always arrive just on the tail feathers of the Ruby-throated Hummingbirds and so it was again this year, as the hummingbirds arrived just a week ago.  

Friday, March 22, 2013

Friday's birds

It's a busy day for gardening, but I can't help getting in a little bird watching, too. I mean, they are always there, just waiting to be watched!

There is still a good-sized flock of Pine Siskins in the yard as this group feeding on the ground under the feeders will attest.

The siskins often perch in the redbud tree that is full of blooms just now.

And when they perch they nibble!

There are still American Goldfinches coming through on their way north. This one is a female, I think.

The male goldfinches look a lot more like this these days. They are getting their bright spring colors.

Here is a pair sharing some sunflower seeds.

I wondered if the Rufous Hummingbirds would hang around once the Ruby-throats started showing up. Well, so far they have. I saw two male Ruby-throats in the yard and then I saw two Rufouses, so there are at least four hummers here today.

Here's one of the Rufouses. Note the load of yellow pollen on the beak.

And here is the other Rufous just a bit later at the same feeder.

Here's one of several female Brown-headed Cowbirds that have been frequenting the feeders this week.

And, at the bluebird box, Mama and Papa are still feeding their family. I showed you Mama a few days ago. Here's equal time for Papa.

Surely, it won't be long now until these little ones are ready to fly. May they do so safely and enjoy long and healthy lives where they are able to feed themselves just as well as Mama and Papa have fed them.

Happy weekend! Enjoy the birds in your backyard.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

New visitors

There are new voices in the backyard this week. Yesterday, I heard my first Orchard Oriole of the year, always a welcome sound.

Also, yesterday there were a pair of Barn Swallows circling over my yard. I usually don't get these beautiful swallows except as passers-through, but how delighted I would be if this pair should find a spot to nest in my yard.

The neighborhood Purple Martins have been very active in my skies also this week. I counted seven swooping around after insects late in the afternoon yesterday. I always feel a pang of guilt when I see them over my yard because my martin house has been taken down and stored away because of the plague of House Sparrows that we have. But evidently they find sufficient places to nest here, and for that I am grateful.

I could not tell you how many hummingbirds I have in my yard at the moment. There are at least two Rufous hummers still here, but more Ruby-throat males come through every day and it is almost impossible to say how many are here at any given time. I haven't seen any females yet.

Plenty of winter visitors are still here, too. The Pine Siskins have reduced their numbers over the past week, but I still have a sizable flock visiting my feeders every day. Moreover, every day now I also see some of their cousins, the American Goldfinches, as birds that have wintered farther south drift my way on their route north.

Tuesday afternoon, late, as I was watching the platform feeder in my backyard, I became aware that I was seeing three kinds of finches at the feeder at the same time. In addition to a goldfinch and a siskin, there was a beautiful and very colorful male House Finch feeding there. It was a wonderful moment.

I still have White-throated and Chipping Sparrows, Ruby-crowned Kinglets, Yellow-rumped Warblers, and now they've been joined by (Sigh) Brown-headed Cowbirds. Yesterday, too, I thought I heard a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, but I never could be really sure.

It is an exciting time. The cast of characters changes almost daily. Who will arrive tomorrow?

Sunday, March 17, 2013

This week in birds - #61

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

Mourning Doves descend on my yard in the late afternoon these days to feed on the ground under the feeders. They are always welcome visitors since they are one of my favorite birds dating all the way back to my childhood on the farm.


The decline of the beautiful Monarch butterfly continues. An op-ed in The New York Times this week detailed the full extent of the horror. The butterflies' doom is being written by the conjunction of a variety of lethal factors, including illegal logging in the mountains of Mexico, indiscriminate use of pesticides and herbicides in the factory farms of middle America, and, of course, global warming which is changing the environment faster than the butterflies are able to adapt. Reports this week stated that the winter colonies of the butterflies in Michoacan, Mexico, had receded from 22 acres in 1994 to only 2.9 acres this year.

  One of the last, perhaps? 


From a species that is declining, we go to what is perhaps the most numerous bird in the world - the Red-billed Quelea of Africa. Flocks of hundreds of thousands of the little birds are not uncommon across the skies of the continent.


An recent expedition into the mountains of Cambodia to the Virachey National Park discovered 163 species of birds.


Over the past three decades, temperatures have risen faster in the Arctic than anywhere else in the world. Consequently, the growing season has gotten longer in the far northern latitudes, bringing major changes to plant communities in tundra and boreal (also known as taiga) ecosystems. The changes are so extensive that they can be seen from space.


A study published in Science magazine reconstructs global temperatures further back than ever before -- a full 11,300 years.  The reconstruction confirms the "hockey stick," a line graph of global temperature over the last 1,500 years that shows an unmistakable, massive uptick in the twentieth century when humans began to dump large amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere is among the most compelling bits of proof  that human beings are behind global warming. As such it has become a  favorite target for climate denialists looking to draw a bead on scientists.


Canadian researchers have found that louder ambient noise in cities drives some species of birds out because they cannot tolerate it. Thus, the diversity of bird life in cities is reduced.


Fossils indicate that birds have evolved from four-winged creatures to the two-winged ones so familiar to us today.


Humans love caffeine. Now, we know that bees do, too. Apparently, this may be why the plants developed caffeine in the first place - to attract their pollinators.


Some parrots have the ability to barter. Researchers have found that they will trade snacks that are less attractive to them for the snacks which they like better.


A red tide off the coast of Florida has already killed dozens of endangered manatees and the phenomenon is continuing, with deadly effect.


Scientists who study shorebirds have found that some species reverse the typical role of the sexes. This happens when males outnumber females. In those instances, the males more often will do the incubating and primary care of the young birds.


India is experiencing a problem which may be coming to a community near us in the not-too-distant future - namely a lack of clean water for drinking. And again, one of the culprits in reducing available water resources is a changing and warming worldwide climate.  


Around the backyard:

Mama and Papa Eastern Bluebird are wearing their feathers to a frazzle trying to keep their hungry babies fed this week.

Mama swoops in with a morsel in her beak. It always amazes me how they are able to "hit the hole" every time, seemingly without slowing down.

 She leans further in to deliver the goods.

And then looks around to make sure everything is okay on the outside.

One last look at her family and...

She's off on another run to the local grocery store!

Relief is in sight for the hard-working birds. Just a few more days and their family will be fledged. Then, perhaps they can take a well-deserved vacation!

Friday, March 15, 2013

The Ruby-throats arrive!

While working in my backyard today, I saw my first Ruby-throated Hummingbird of the year, an adult male.

Typically, the adult males are the first to arrive in the spring and they seldom hang around for more than a few days. Then they are on the move again, headed farther north to their breeding grounds. Later the females and young birds will arrive and, if we are lucky as we have been in recent years, one of those females will choose to stay with us through the summer and raise her family here.

But, for now, at least one adult male Ruby-throat has arrived, much to the consternation of the adult female Rufous who is still in the yard. There have already been some furious chases today!

The young male Rufous that spent the winter here may have moved on. I haven't actually seen him for a few days now. I would expect the adult female to head northwest soon, also. But there will still be plenty of hummingbird activity in the yard for weeks to come, now that the Ruby-throats are passing through.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Waning waxwings?

During the last couple of winters, we have enjoyed having big flocks of Cedar Waxwings in our area. Last year, in particular, it was not unusual to see 200-300 of the dapper birds descend upon one of the trees in my yard in the late afternoon. This winter has proved to be quite different.

The largest flock I have seen in my yard this winter was a group of 24. The more usual number has been small groups of 5-10, like the flock of 7 that perched in my neighbor's pear tree just on the other side of the fence in my backyard yesterday afternoon.

The waxwings are usually one of the last of our winter visitors to leave the area. Generally arriving in late December, it is not unusual for them to stay through the end of April. In some years, I've had them in my yard as late as mid-May.

Though the flocks have been small so far this winter, they may grow a bit in size as birds that have wintered farther south come through here on their way back north. Regardless of the size of the flock though, 5 or 500, these beautiful birds are always welcome and we enjoy them for as long as they choose to stay.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

This week in birds - #60

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

Photo courtesy of ABC
The American Bird Conservancy's Bird of the Week is the Gunnison Sage-Grouse. Until 2000, this  bird was thought to be the Greater Sage-Grouse, but it has now been determined that it is a distinct species, characterized by a smaller body size, unique plumage, and low genetic variation. There are also differences in the mating displays and vocalizations the grouse are noted for. Some 5,000 of the birds are known to exist and they are found only in six counties of Colorado and one in Utah.


The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has a long list of species that are waiting for a determination of their status under the Endangered Species Act. Some of the species have been waiting for more than twenty years, but under terms of a  2011 settlement of two lawsuits by conservation activists, the wildlife service has pledged to decide the fates of all the backlogged species by 2018. Moreover, they plan to announce decisions on 97 species by September of this year. 


Plants evolve sometimes complicated symbiotic relationships with their pollinators. Now, new research has shown that certain Australian native flowers have shifted away from using insects as pollinators and, over time, have changed their flower color to the red hues favored by birds.


This week, President Obama announced that he is nominating Gina McCarthy to head the Environmental Protection Agency. She has been serving in the EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation, where she oversaw implementation of stricter emissions standards.


When different species of birds flock together - such as various blackbirds and starlings - how is their flight behavior governed? Scientists have noted that their flight formations are determined by social dynamics both between and within species. European scientists are studying mixed flocks of Rooks and Jackdaws to gain more information about how these dynamics work.  


The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) celebrated its 40th birthday on March 3. It has often been hailed as one of the most effective of international environmental agreements, a model for others.


The future of the ecosystem of southwestern Australia hangs in the balance due to a combination of forces including fires, logging, dieback, decreased rainfall, invasive species, and climate change. Conservation groups are trying to save and protect the many unique species endemic in the area, including several kinds of cockatoos.


Solar energy is a promising source of renewable energy for the planet, but one problem related to building the solar energy facilities is that it takes a lot of concrete to construct them, and concrete, itself, carries a heavy load of carbon dioxide, a major greenhouse gas.  


"Dead as a Dodo" is a phrase meant to imply the irrevocability of extinction. The last of those giant, flightless pigeons died on the island of Mauritius sometime in the 1600s. There is a smaller version of the bird that is still alive, though. A few of them survive on Samoa. The local name for the bird is Manumea, but it is often just referred to as the "Little Dodo." Scientists and conservationists are trying to prevent it going the way of the Dodo.


Would it be possible to bring the Dodo or the Passenger Pigeon or the Carolina Parakeet or the woolly mammoth back through cloning? Would it be right to do so? These are questions which scientists struggle with now that cloning methods are within the realm of possibility.


The Falkland Islands wolf was an uncommonly tame dog-like creature that met sailors and visitors to the Falkland Islands as late as the nineteenth century. Unfortunately, its friendliness spelled its doom as it was easy prey for humans who knifed, clubbed, and shot it into extinction, but not before it was seen by Charles Darwin on a trip to the islands in 1834. He puzzled over its presence there and how it came to be on the islands. DNA analysis may now be able to answer the puzzle.


Around the backyard:

The baby bluebirds have hatched. I haven't checked the box to see how many there are, but there were five eggs in the nest. I'm hoping they all hatched successfully. The parents are now two very, very busy birds.

I've seen a few goldfinches in the yard this week, after the mass exodus of the flock last week. I saw two at the feeders today, among the Pine Siskins that continue to dominate the feeders. 

When one walks into the yard these days, the first thing you notice is the constant buzz of the chattering of the large number of siskins. When they, too, inevitably head north, the yard is going to seem very empty and quiet, indeed. 

Monday, March 4, 2013

The martins are here

I saw my first Purple Martins of the year over my yard today. I know they've been reported in the Houston area since late January and in my immediate area northwest of Houston since early February, but I had not actually seen or heard any here.

For many years, we had a martin colony in our backyard, and every year I looked forward to the birds' arrival in February, but a few years ago, all of that changed. We got a plague of House Sparrows and then a couple of pairs of European Starlings started harassing the martins. They hung on for a while and we did everything we were able to do to assist them and to discourage the intruder birds, but, though we won a few battles, in the end, we lost the war.

The last couple of years we had martins nesting in our yard, there was only one pair in the apartments, along with several pairs of sparrows. After a couple of years of no martins, we took our martin housing down, because we didn't want to give aid and comfort to the sparrows. I don't see starlings in the yard any more, but the sparrows are still here, although in fewer numbers than at the height of their invasion. But I won't be putting the martin housing back up. Sigh.  

Martins do still nest elsewhere in my neighborhood, and so I have the pleasure of seeing them and hearing their warbling songs over my yard all spring and summer, and I have to content myself with that. I do love the big swallows. They are one of my very favorite summer visitors. Their calls in flight on a late summer afternoon are truly one of the most joyous sounds of summer for me.

And so, I welcome them back to the neighborhood, even if I can't welcome them back to my yard. Those misguided souls who thought it would be a good idea to introduce the House Sparrow to North America back in 1852 have a lot to answer for.

 My last martin in 2009.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

This week in birds - #59

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

(Photo by James Ownby, courtesy of American Bird Conservancy.)

The beautiful Lark Bunting is an American sparrow of the short-grass prairies of the mid-North American continent.  It is the American Bird Conservancy's Bird of the Week. Its continued survival is threatened by loss of habitat, use of pesticides, and predation by domestic pets. Its population has been declining over the past several years.


Overwintering flocks of waterfowl, like the Snow Geese seen in the above photo, will soon be wending their way northward. Indeed, some are already on the move. In this, they join many of our songbirds which have started their migration northward - for example, the American Goldfinches that abandoned my yard this week. Moreover, Ruby-throated Hummingbirds are already being reported all along the Gulf Coast, so I would expect to see them in my yard soon. It's all part of the constantly changing kaleidoscope of bird life.


Sand and gravel mining companies in Nebraska are cooperating with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission in an effort to protect the endangered Piping Plover and Least Tern. The companies are making efforts to ensure that their activities do not present added risks to the birds' survival.  


More and more White Storks, which historically migrated from Europe to Africa to spend the winters, are now living year-round in Europe. Scientists are investigating the links between the birds' changing habits and global warming.


Wild pollinators, such as native bees, are much more effective and efficient at pollination than the domesticated or feral honeybee. They are in serious decline, primarily because of use of pesticides, right around the world. Their destruction would present perhaps insurmountable obstacles for the continuation of life on Earth.


The blog 10,000 Birds has an interesting look at the reintroduction of the Whooping Crane in the eastern United States, primarily Florida, and explores the ancestry of the big birds.


Human residences can impact bird populations and nesting habits up to 200 meters away. Some birds, like the Hermit Thrush and Scarlet Tanager, are extremely sensitive to human presence and refuse to nest nearby. Others - Carolina and Black-capped Chickadees, Blue Jays, Purple Martins, Eastern Bluebirds, for example - do not appear to mind humans being nearby and indeed they may perceive that they gain some protection from predators by the human presence.


The Center for Birds of Prey in South Carolina treats injured and ill birds of prey of many species and from a wide area of the country. They treat more than 500 birds a year, providing rehabilitation services and reintroduction to the wild.


Shell has essentially acknowledged that it is unable to drill for oil safely in the Arctic at present and has suspended its operations there. This is after several embarrassing mishaps in the past year. They maintain that they do still see drilling in the Arctic as a long-term possibility.


Two dozen of the Guillemots that were rescued in the seas off the southern coast of England after being covered in a sticky oily substance have been rehabilitated and released into the wild.


The U.S. Navy is formulating and implementing plans to address the problem of global climate change by moving to the use of greener sources of energy. Meanwhile, in the halls of Congress, the climate change deniers continue their obstructionism.


Around the backyard:

Some winter visitors may be leaving, but the Rufous Hummingbirds are still here.

And still on guard to evict any interlopers!

White-throated Sparrows are still searching the ground underneath the feeders for fallen seeds.

And even though their cousins, the goldfinches, have moved on, the Pine Siskins are still here in force.

Earlier this week, I saw this pair of Mourning Doves courting on the telephone wire over the back boundary of the yard. Will they be nesting in the pine tree again this year? We should know soon.