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Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Around the backyard, late May edition

Things have settled down considerably in the backyard since the last of the orioles passed through a few weeks ago. The pace of migration has slowed. Fewer and fewer new voices are being heard.

One new voice that I heard over the past weekend was that of the "Rain Crow" - the Yellow-billed Cuckoo. I heard it calling from somewhere on my street on Saturday afternoon. Unfortunately, the call did not, as the old folk tale implied, announce the coming of rain. At least not yet. Nevertheless, it is a voice that is always welcome.

Another newcomer over the weekend was the Mississippi Kite. I saw one of the birds circling over the yard on Saturday. They and the Swallow-tailed Kites have become more and more common in this area over the last few years.

I said the orioles had passed through the area, and, indeed, the Baltimore Orioles have, but the Orchard Orioles are still here. I hear them singing around the neighborhood throughout the day. They do nest here.

Most of the excitement in the backyard avian community these days is supplied by the fledgling birds that are daily joining that community. Just over the past week, I have seen young American Robins, Red-bellied Woodpeckers, Tufted Titmice, House Sparrows (sigh), Northern Cardinals, and Downy Woodpeckers taking their first flights. These are in addition to the young Carolina Chickadees and Carolina Wrens that were already making themselves at home in the yard. And now the second brood of fledgling Eastern Bluebirds have left the nest.

The young ones, all five of them, took their first flight in the early morning hours today and, boy, did they leave a mess behind! This is how the outside of their home looks. I won't show you the inside. It is even more disgusting. Most bluebird parents that I have encountered in the past have managed to keep their nests pretty neat, but evidently, this pair did not get the memo about cleanliness. They left the box just as messy after their first brood, too.

Although the voracious winter visitors have left and there are fewer migrants coming through now, the pressure on the feeders continues. Many of the permanent resident birds bring their fledglings to the feeders. The Red-bellied Woodpecker papa has two young ones that he takes to the suet cakes several times a day. Mr. Downy Woodpecker has one baby (that I've seen) that he has been showing the ropes around the feeders. But it's not just the young birds that are devouring my food. The large flock of White-winged Doves that frequents the yard has yet to disperse and recently several Common Grackles (10 - 15) have joined the queue. This, of course, is in addition to all the other usual suspects.

Meanwhile, on the hummingbird news front, for several days I thought all the hummingbirds had moved on. I was wrong. The female Ruby-throated Hummingbird is still here and I'm guessing that she is nesting somewhere in the yard. She's not as active as she was and I imagine that's because she's spending most of her time on the nest, but I do see her at the feeders several times during the day.  

Monday, May 27, 2013

Memorial Day

Never forget the meaning of the day. Memorial Day. Always remember and honor the sacrifice of those who gave everything they had in the service of their country.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

The World's Rarest Birds by Erik Hirschfeld, Andy Swash, and Robert Still: A review

The most striking thing about this fascinating book is the wonderful photographs of birds. Many of the photographs were obtained through the method of organizing and running an international photo competition. More than 300 photographers from around the world submitted over 3,500 photographs. The winning images along with 800 others appear in the book. Yes, this is a very photo-rich volume! 

There are some 650 birds that are considered Endangered or Critically Endangered by conservation groups which monitor the status of birds in the wild. There are a number of those species that have never been photographed. They may, in fact, be extinct, but at the very least they have rarely been seen and no usable photographs exist. This category includes some 76 species and these were illustrated for the book by Polish artist Tomasz Cofta. But for the rest of the birds included here, photographs were obtained.

The book begins with several introductory pages which explain the diversity and distribution of birds around the world. For example, we learn that the birdiest places on Earth are the northern half of South America and the islands of Indonesia. 

Further, it explains how bird species are assigned to certain threat categories and goes on to explore the many threats which these rare birds - and, indeed, all birds - face. Most of these threats are related to human activities and include things like residential and commercial development, agricultural practices, logging, energy production and mining, dams, etc.

There are threats to birds which know no borders. Birds on migration face habitat degradation, hunting, trapping, as well as the growing menace of powerlines and wind turbines. The need for aggressive conservation practices is paramount. 

Following the very informative introductory sections, the book is divided into seven regional sections--Europe and the Middle East; Africa and Madagascar; Asia; Australasia; Oceanic Islands; North America, Central America, and the Caribbean; and South America. Each of the geographical sections includes an illustrated directory to the bird species under threat there, and gives a concise description of distribution, status, population, key threats, and conservation needs. 

Finally, there are some sixty species of birds that are considered "Data Deficient." This simply means that they are so poorly known that their threat status cannot be assessed. But there is summary information included which details their presumed population trend, the population size (if known), the apparent distribution, and, when possible, notes on status, habitat preferences, and ecology. 

There is an enormous wealth of information here which would be of interest to bird lovers everywhere and to everyone who is concerned with protecting and preserving these wonderful creatures whose very existence is so seriously threatened by our activities. It is a concise and easily accessible compendium of what is known about these birds and, most importantly, about ways that interested individuals and groups can work to assist their survival.

(A copy of this book was provided to me free-of-charge by the publisher for the purposes of this review. The opinions expressed are entirely my own.)

Saturday, May 18, 2013

This week in birds - #67

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

Kentucky Warbler photo by Greg Lavaty, courtesy of American Bird Conservancy.

The American Bird Conservancy's Bird of the Week is the beautiful little Kentucky Warbler, a bird of bottomland hardwood forests of the southeastern United States and up the Atlantic Coast during the breeding season. The bird winters in tropical lowland and foothill forests in southeastern Mexico into northern South America. It is a bird of concern to conservationists because its population is declining. 


I'm sure you've seen or heard stories this spring about the periodical cicadas, the amazing insects that spend seventeen years underground. They come out for just a few weeks in order to mate and produce offspring that will then burrow underground and stay there for another seventeen years and then the parents die. Well, the insects that went underground in 1996 are just beginning to emerge and it is expected to be a cacophonous summer wherever they are present.


Conservationists are concerned the wind farms are not being prosecuted for the killing by their turbines of eagles and other birds protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. They charge that the government is turning a blind eye to abuses and are calling for stronger enforcement of the law.


New research seems to confirm that birds that are normally thought to be tolerant of human activity are ten times more likely to abandon their nests due to excessive human stress. One of the birds mentioned in the study is the small colorful falcon, the American Kestrel.


Wildlife groups in the UK are calling for tighter regulation on the shipping of certain chemicals after spills at sea of those chemicals have killed up to 4,000 seabirds off the southwestern coast of England. 


Scientists at the Center for Conservation Biology have tracked 3 Whimbrels from wintering areas on the coast of Brazil on a nonstop, 4,000 mile (6,400 kilometer) flight to the Gulf of Mexico. This flight represents the third leg of a previously unknown loop migration route and connects four widely scattered locations in the conservation of this declining species.


Researchers observing Reed Warblers noted that the males would aggressively try to chase off their competition and attempt to keep their double-dealing mates in line. However, once the chicks were hatched, they would care for them regardless of who the father was.


Once introduced for biological pest control, Asian lady beetle (Harmonia axyridis) populations have been increasing uncontrollably in the US and Europe since the turn of the millennium. The species has been proliferating rapidly in Germany. Conservationists fear that the aggressive Asian lady beetle will out-compete and displace native lady beetle species.


Climate change is affecting where waterfowl spend their winters. Scientists are finding that many of them do not go as far south as they used to. Indeed, many stay quite near their breeding grounds.


Birding is Fun! featured the beautiful Blue Grosbeak this week. Which just served to remind me that I have not seen a single Blue Grosbeak this spring. Normally, I get a few through my yard in the spring but not this year. At least not when I've been looking.


Looking at the isotopes of 250 bones from Hawaiian Petrels (Pterodroma sandwichensis), scientists have been able to reconstruct the birds' diets over the last 3,000 years. They found an unmistakable shift from big prey to small prey around 100 years ago, just when large, modern fisheries started scooping up fish at never before seen rates. The dietary shift shows that modern fisheries upended predator and prey relationships even in the deep ocean and have possibly played a role in the decline of some seabirds.


Peregrine Falcons have been one of the success stories resulting from the banning of DDT in the United States and the implementation of the Endangered Species Act. They have made a strong comeback in the Midwest and Indiana is now considering delisting the bird from its state endangered species.


Around the backyard:

I haven't seen a Pine Siskin in my yard for a few days now. It is possible that the last of the winter finches have finally moved north.

Today, I enjoyed watching a pair of Brown-headed Nuthatches feed at my backyard feeders. Sweet little birds!

Female Rose-breasted Grosbeak enjoying a sunflower seed.

I've continued to have a few Rose-breasted Grosbeaks passing through this week. The last one I saw was an adult female at the feeders two days ago. It's been a good year for seeing Rose-breasted Grosbeaks but none of their blue cousins.

Other birds absent from the yard this spring have been the buntings. I haven't seen a single Painted or Indigo Bunting here.  It's not so unusual not to see the Painted but most years I do have a good number of Indigos coming through the yard and visiting my feeders. Not this year.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Hummingbird courtship

Have you ever witnessed the courtship ritual of Ruby-throated Hummingbirds? I have seen it described in print and had even seen it on a television show about hummingbirds, but I had never actually witnessed it in Nature. Until this week.

I was sitting on my patio in the late afternoon a couple of days ago, watching the male and female hummingbird who currently share my backyard as they visited feeders and blossoms and chased each other around the yard. Then all at once the chase ended and the female perched while the male went into this weird pendulum-like flight pattern. He would fly high into the air and then drop suddenly toward the ground but before he reached the ground, he made a U-shaped arc and flew high into the air again before dropping toward the earth and doing the whole routine over. While he was doing this, he made a kind of whirring sound. He did this several times, possibly as many as seven or eight - I was too mesmerized to count. I don't know whether the female hummer was impressed, but I certainly was!

I didn't observe the two mating, but I hope the female did accept the the little male and that she will stay and nest in my yard. If she does, she'll be much on her own. Once mating is over, the male considers his family responsibilities done. The female builds the nest, broods the eggs, and feeds and protects the two babies until fledged. Incubation lasts from 11-16 days and the young stay in the nest for another 20-22 days before flying.

Somewhat surprisingly, I think, these hummers can produce multiple broods during the summer. They may have two broods, or occasionally even three.

I know that hummers do nest in my yard but I've never been lucky enough to actually discover a nest while in use. The nests are quite small, of course, and are usually built on a horizontal limb with lots of leafy cover. After seeing that exciting display of courtship behavior, I am certainly going to be on the lookout for one of those tiny nests. Maybe I'll get lucky again.    

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Around the backyard

In the bluebird box in the vegetable garden, the latest family of little Eastern Bluebirds has hatched and the busy parents fly on hunting missions from dawn until dusk to find insects to keep the little ones fed. Lucky for them, there is no shortage of insects.

Meanwhile, the oriole invasion seems to be over. Last week was very exciting with all the Baltimore Oriole and Orchard Oriole visitors, but the last Baltimore was seen on Saturday. It appears they have all moved on. Orchard Orioles generally nest in the area, but even they have been absent from the yard these last few days.

The hummingbirds have done their best to make up for the orioles' absence. There were at least five Ruby-throated Hummingbirds in the yard over the weekend. There may have been more - it's so hard to be sure of a count of the fast moving little critters as they chase each other around. Their antics certainly were entertaining, and though some of them seem now to have moved on also, there are still at least two, a male and a female, in the yard.

There are still a few Pine Siskins in the yard as well. Very few. Many fewer than even a week ago. Two were seen yesterday and, so far, only one today. The large flock that spent the winter here is well on its way north now.

The doves we always have with us, of course. Especially the White-winged Doves.

Recently, a male Red-winged Blackbird has been coming to the feeders in the backyard. His mate never comes around, but they must have a nest somewhere in the area.

The Red-bellied Woodpeckers can be counted on to visit the feeders throughout the day, every day. This is the male. When their young ones fledge, they will bring them to the feeders as well.

As always, that sentinel of the backyard, the Blue Jay, is on duty.

The cast of characters may change from day to day and week to week, but whatever the action is, there is never a dull moment around the backyard.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Happy Mother's Day

I'm taking the weekend off from blogging but wanted to take a moment to wish all mothers among my readers a happy Mother's Day. And if you still have your mother with you, treasure her and let her know that you do on her special day.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

The oriole invasion

My garden is currently experiencing a remarkable invasion of Baltimore Orioles. There is a smattering of Orchard Orioles as well, but mostly it's Baltimores. It started last Friday when I noticed the first one in the yard. After that, I filled my oriole feeder with nectar and put an orange half on it and hung it on a crape myrtle tree near my patio. Since then I've had a constant stream of the brilliant visitors.

My next door neighbor has hung her oriole feeder as well and, between our two yards, it is common to see a dozen or more of the brightly colored birds at once. I find this quite amazing since I've never had more than one or two orioles at a time on migration in the past. Whatever confluence of events has worked to bring these visitors my way this spring, I am enjoying them tremendously and when I think of this season it will be as the "Time of the Orioles."

It's not uncommon to see several birds waiting for a turn at the feeders. There were a couple more in the tree in addition to the three that you see here.

Sometimes they don't wait very patiently. When they squabble, their voices sound much like their cousins, the Red-winged Blackbirds, but when they sing, their melodic phrases sound more robin-like.  

 This was the victor in one squabble

Meanwhile, a pretty female waits her turn.

 These two males were almost able to share an orange.

 This female is hoping that male will leave some for her.

There is quite a bit of variation in the colors of the females. Some are quite brightly colored while others are duller.

 Patience pays off! She gets her turn at the orange.

 There is a lot of variation in color among the males as well. Some of the younger males that I've shown you previously, like the first one I saw Friday, are less brilliantly colored. Even older males like these two can appear different - as you see, the bottom bird is quite yellow, while the top bird is bright orange.

I noticed the orioles visiting my hummingbird feeders as well, so I removed the bee guards from one of them to make access to the nectar a little easier for the birds. Of course, these feeders are not built to accommodate birds as large as orioles, but this female has perfected her technique for feeding from them. 

 Here is the classic pose - a brilliantly colored adult male.

And a female - just as attractive with her softer coloration.

I don't know how long this invasion will last, but I'm prepared to provide fresh oranges and nectar for as long as it does.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

This week in birds - #66

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

Spring migration was in full swing this week, as several new birds arrived, including this first ever pair of  Rose-breasted Grosbeaks recorded in the yard.


Did you know that the first actively conservationist president, Theodore Roosevelt, was a bird lister? Turns out he was, and, in 1908, he kept a list of the birds that he observed on the White House grounds.  His list contained 93 species and it was published in the March/April edition of Bird-Lore magazine in 1910. I was interested to see that his list contained many of the birds that I have in my yard. It was also interesting that the list had Mourning Doves but no Passenger Pigeons.


A pair of  Bald Eagles have made their home in a tall cluster of cottonwood trees overlooking Overpeck Creek in the Meadowlands in New Jersey. Unfortunately, their nest tree sits on a state-designated toxic waste site that will soon be cleaned up and turned into a large-scale development. All of the vegetation on the site is to be removed as part of the clean-up and remediation, but it is illegal to mess with an eagle's nest site, so the agency charged with the clean-up must make some tough decisions regarding how to proceed.


A new report from the Agriculture Department on the Colony Collapse Disorder which is devastating the honeybee population names several contributing factors but emphasizes mites as the likely prime cause. Interestingly, the report seems to soft-pedal the widespread use of neonicotinoid pesticides as a major cause even though other reports have laid substantial blame on the pesticides. 


The world's rarest duck is the Madagascar Pochard which was once thought to be extinct. It is making a comeback though, and its population is rebounding thanks to a captive breeding program.


Big Basin State Park in Santa Cruz County, California, has the largest stand of old growth redwood south of San Francisco, and harbors the vast majority of the remaining  central coast Marbled Murrelets. The state's plans for the redwoods in the park threaten the existence of the murrelet population and the Audubon Society is attempting to rally opposition to the plan.


The big oil company BP has been rebuked by the Norwegian oil and gas safety authority after a leak at one of its major North Sea platforms last year. The agency accused BP of poor maintenance and "serious breaches of regulations". This is the second such censure of the company in the last two years.


Scientists have found that one of the best ways to track ocean pollution is through analyzing the feathers and blood of seabirds.


The warming climate is allowing herds of elk to remain at higher elevations on the Colorado Plateau. This is threatening the habitat of the Red-faced Warbler and other migratory birds endemic to that area.


Unlike our Agriculture Department, the agricultural commissioners of the European Union do believe that neonicotinoid pesticides are a major culprit in the decline of the honeybee population and they have moved to ban use of the pesticides for a two-year period. If this ban is upheld and imposed, it should give some further proof, one way or another, regarding the culpability of these pesticides. 


Anyone who has closely observed hummingbirds and swifts must have noticed the similarities between the species. Now, a newly discovered fossil birdEocypselus rowei, discovered in Wyoming by commercial fossil hunters, gives further proof of their close relationship.   


In what may be an unprecedented die-off, at least five varieties of rare butterflies have vanished from the pine forests and seaside jungles of the Florida Keys and southern Miami-Dade County, the only places some were known to exist. The reason for their disappearance has not been determined. (I suspect the pervasive use of neonicotinoid pesticides.)


Around the backyard:

A young family of Carolina Chickadees has joined the Carolina Wren youngsters as they make their way around the backyard learning the tricks of survival. And in the bluebird box, the female Eastern Bluebird is busily brooding her five eggs. But the big news in the yard this week has not been these permanent residents but the migrants. Particularly the Baltimore Orioles.

Yesterday, I showed you pictures of one of the first arrivals. Today the whole backyard was alive with the brilliantly colored birds.

This young male was a constant presence at the feeder today. 

This pretty female in her colorful breeding dress dropped by several times.

 Some of the birds, like this one, were a bit wary, although most seemed to accept my and my camera's presence.

 This vividly colored male kept an eye on me as he moved in for a meal. 

 But once he got a taste of that orange, he forgot all about me!

Not to be displaced, this Ruby-throated Hummingbird was convinced that the nectar was actually meant for him!
It has been a pure joy to observe the beautiful orioles. I do hope they will stick around for a few days more.

Read more here:

Friday, May 3, 2013

The orioles arrive

As I walked out my back door today, I was surprised to look up and see a Baltimore Oriole sipping from one of my hummingbird feeders! The bird flew away and I flew back inside to dig out my old oriole feeder.

I rinsed the feeder off and mixed up some nectar and filled it. I didn't have any grape jelly, which orioles are said to love, but I did have Mandarin oranges, another oriole treat, so I halved one of them and put it on the feeder.

Then I grabbed my camera and took it and the feeder outside. I took down the hummingbird feeder (which I hadn't seen visited by hummers for a while) and hung the oriole feeder in its place. I sat down to wait and watch, wondering if the bird would return.

As it turned out, he would and did and I was able to capture a series of images.

This appears to be a first year male. He is not as brightly colored as the fully matured males, but there's no doubt as to his identity.

Where there is one oriole during migration, there are usually others, but I didn't see any others today. However, I couldn't sit around all afternoon waiting for them to turn up. I had chores to do. If more do turn up, the table is now set for them. Maybe I'll even go get some grape jelly to sweeten the pot.