Sunday, March 30, 2008

Seeing Red

I have been watching the dozens and dozens of Red-winged Blackbirds who come to my yard; good sized, dark colored birds with pale median covers creating a lovely chevron on each side. At first, I didn’t even see their beautiful red shoulders and was convinced they were some other kind of Blackbird. They mob my feeders and work the areas where I spread chicken-scratch for them while keeping the red quiet. I find that amazing and wonder if the term ‘Seeing Red’ is somehow connected to this behavior. They keep their red politely under wraps while they genially feed and roost in great masses. This behavior is decidedly different than the red-topped Cassian’s finches I watch regularly peck and run-off others with the same, bright-red heads.

I notice some of the dark birds are Starlings with striking lacy, gold-speckled backs and occasionally a very large, bright-eyed Grackle shows up, too. I have seen both the Common and Great-tailed Grackles here; which I find to be a stunning bird with that iridescent purple head.

The little Grape Hyacinth are up and edging a step in blue in spite of crushing snows that have browned leaf-tips, Oriental Poppies are thick and bushy already and the old apple trees look ready to burst into a froth of blossoms. I want to go play in the dirt, but it’s a bit early for this part of the country. Heck, on and off it looks like it could snow today, in-between the glorious sunshine that has raised the temperature to the mid fifties. I took advantage of the sunshine to spread out a couple of soaker hoses that may relax their coils in the warmth.

I wonder if it was the earlier cloudiness that brought a dozen or so Evening Grosbeaks to my feeders. The males are beautifully gaudy birds with dark heads and bright yellow foreheads and bright white patches over dark edged wings and an overall bright yellow body. They have large, conical beaks which turn greenish this time of year…making even the demurely colored females seem exotic to me.

Now that its afternoon, the Blackbirds have gone to another yard but the Eurasian Doves have taken to the lawn like lambs to new grass; I spread more corn for them. The Blackbirds will be back again this afternoon, en mass.

The Juncos are here in smaller and smaller numbers; as it warms up, I think they go north to breed, but the nuthatches and chickadees continue to fly in and out for a fast grab at a sunflower seed or a nut. My constant companions are the Pine Siskins and American Goldfinches and the poor House Finches, so many with pox and blind eyes and open sores. I wonder how it is they can get around, and in fact some have such a difficult time. I almost wish those hawks more often frequented the yard.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

In Like a Lion

Well, spring has sprung and its pull is strongly felt by me; I want to play outside. I got to do so, for a bit yesterday…it was sunny and almost warm here in my little mountain community.

A friend told me at this time of year she feels a religious excitement and emotional uplifting with her church’s activities during this Easter week. She thought perhaps I would not understand it, but I see a correlation between this time and the renewal that Spring brings; something not lost, I’m sure, by the churches of ancient times interested in enrolling pagans into their way of thinking. It is an exciting and uplifting time; buds are swelling on trees and shrubs, bright red, asparagus-looking Peony sprouts are pushing up through the tattered, brown leaves of last year.
I wandered around and checked the grass seed I’d spread across my lawn a week ago, hoping to shore up thin spots before more weeds take hold; it looks like the ravenous blackbirds prefer the sunflower-seeds and chipped corn I put out to distract them. I found several cold-hardy Oriental Poppies already thick and green with fuzzy, serrated leaves clumped several inches tall; and the Sedum, called Dragon’s Blood, which I stuck around the edges and corners of a dry bed are already coming in shockingly pink and vibrant.

I am ready to get dirty…but the pile of old horse manure another friend gave me last year is still frozen; I cannot even pull the already long, sharp, green blades of Bermuda-grass that encroach the double-dug circles I where planted new shrubs and small trees at the far reaches of my yard.
The muddy earth is still frozen just below the surface and the sunny day was just one of the teasing-rituals my ‘church’ offers up this time of year that plunks the strings of my heart and wells up excitement and yearning to be outside again. I am well rested and looking forward to gardening.

Suddenly, every bird in my yard disappears…so I looked around and found a regular visitor; what I believe is a red-tailed hawk who hunts here. [a couple years later, I now believe that is probably a Swainson's Hawk.] The big birds, owls and eagles, like to land in the very tall willow trees and cottonwoods that edge the river near which I live. For some scale, this hawk is perched half-way up a 100' tree, maybe 75' from where I was standing. Someday I’ll get a good photograph of this beautiful bird.

For about a week I have not seen the Rosy-finches or Evening Grosbeaks that were regularly stopping at my feeders this winter. It seems that as the weather warms, they come less and less often; suddenly appearing only if it snows. Sure enough, after yesterday’s taste of spring, I awoke to a couple inches of snow…and a couple of these bigger finches, but the lions-grip of winter is not yet over. Still, it felt like an Easter treat and brought a big, warm smile.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

What’s Wrong with This Picture?

From Associated Press:

Cattails Targeted for Sunflower Farmers
By JAMES MacPHERSON – Feb 28, 2008

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — Federal wildlife officials will target entire parcels of cattail-choked wetlands in North Dakota this year to kill the preferred habitat of sunflower-scarfing blackbirds.

Some 60,000 acres of cattail marshes in North Dakota have been destroyed since 1991 to try to keep blackbirds at bay, said Phil Mastrangelo, state director for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Wildlife Services agency.

Last year in North Dakota, about 4,500 acres of wetlands in 16 counties were treated, Mastrangelo said. This year there will be enough money to treat about 8,000 acres, he said.

A herbicide is applied from a helicopter, at a cost to the government of about $23 an acre, Mastrangelo said. The program targets only cattails on private land and is free to sunflower farmers. Last year, 43 of them got treatment.

In past years, about 70 percent of a cattail marsh was treated with a herbicide, but blackbirds were still able to nest, loaf and roost in the remaining fuzzy-topped weeds with reedlike leaves. "That 30 percent still gave some heartburn from the blackbirds," Mastrangelo said.

The USDA estimates blackbirds eat more than $10 million worth of sunflowers each year in North Dakota, which accounts for about half of the nation's sunflower production.

"Just getting rid of cattails is a real good tool to use," said Mike Clemens, a sunflower farmer from Wimbledon, in eastern North Dakota. "If you can get rid of them within two miles of a field, blackbirds will go somewhere else to find something else to chew on." Clemens, who has used the program for two years, said eradicating all the cattails in an area is important. "If you leave 10 percent of cattails, it's still just enough to attract birds who will still want to hang around," he said.

Some 70 million blackbirds come through the Northern Plains each year, including about 6 million that stop in North Dakota, biologists say. Each blackbird can eat about an ounce of sunflower seeds daily.

Larry Kleingartner, executive director of the Bismarck-based National Sunflower Association, said cattail eradication has been effective in controlling blackbirds. He said the loss of habitat makes the blackbirds more vulnerable to predators during nesting.

Cattails cover some 600,000 acres of wetlands in North Dakota. Mastrangelo said wetlands treated with the herbicide are typically free of cattails for about five years.

Dump herbicide on wetlands? That is a typical government move, isn’t it? I wonder what it does to frogs, salamanders, butterflies and bats.
“Frogs have been found to be very sensitive to some herbicide products and in particular to the surfactants, or wetting agents used to improve the effectiveness of the chemicals (Bidwell & Gorrie 1995).”
We wonder what it is that is reducing our songbirds and bees and amphibians; perhaps this is much like the canary and the miners…and a good solid indicator that we use to much poison.

And what about erosion control, or mosquitoes getting easier access to still water and fewer birds eating them? Will we then have to spray insecticide? When will we stop the madness? I am no real fan of blackbirds, but I am just so over this kind of ridiculous thinking…or am I just flashing my tree-hugging, left-wing, liberal nature?

Thank you, Birdchick…for bringing the article to the light; it never ceases to amaze me what people will do in the name of easier money. I hope the people in North Dakota are able to do something about this before they reap the poisonous results along with their larger batches of seed. I just wish people would think before they come up with knee-jerk solutions like this. Am I being silly to be so outraged?

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Six words

Funny, I just listened to an interview on NPR’s “Talk of the Nation” regarding six-word biographies (Mario Batali, the wildman/chef, wrote “Brought it to a boil, often”; Wow. Today I find a note from a new online-pal telling me I’ve done been tagged, as he put it. Apparently someone came up with the idea of doing six-word statements that describe our inner birder. Cool! I like that my friend felt just fine focusing on his interest in the natural world (which obviously includes birds) and, as a brand new birder I’d rather do the same.

My statement is: “I see, I feel, I wonder.”

I am remodeling my home…I do not have access to much of my stuff; so I cannot post some old pictures that I’d like to for this piece. Perhaps some of the fern and fungi I like to shoot…laying on my belly in the woods. Or maybe one of those really neat newts with the frilly gills that lived in my pond. Or the really huge rattle snake I saw that looked like it just swallowed a hare. I might include a seriously close-up shot of the crunchy-looking millipede on the mossy, old stump, or the awesome spider-web I found between two bushes or the sweet bumblebee with the red-butt, or the lichen on a rock, or the bats that lived on the porch. I am a geek…just not a well-educated one; I like flowers and bugs and snakes and clouds and ponds and birds. I like very many things. I feel very close to the natural world and will research about anything that catches my fancy.

Here are the rules (copied from the original blogger who started this):

1. Write your own six word memoir
2. Post it on your blog and include a visual illustration if you’d like
3. Link to the person that tagged you in your post and to this original post if possible so we can track it as it travels across the blogosphere
4. Tag five more blogs with links
5. And don’t forget to leave a comment on the tagged blogs with an invitation to play!

And now I'll go tag these five fine folks: Sherrie, Lisa, Mike, Cindy and SeEtta

But, as person who never forwards chain-letters and who refuses to collect online profiles and call them 'friends'...I feel a bit odd doing this. I'll probably not do it again.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Snow Day with Black Rosies

Well, today was yet another snow day; I’d say we got at least six inches of snow; perhaps a lot more…it melts fast this time of year. It began snowing before I went to bed last night till afternoon today, and yet by three o'clock the sun was shining and it was about forty degrees outside. Lovely day, but not for driving; I missed work.

While I did spend several hours working online, I also spent several hours sitting at my back door trying to take pictures of something I’ve never seen. I was walking past my kitchen window when I saw about eight or ten Rosy Finches in a new flat feeder! One was very, very dark. These birds are some of the most skittish birds I’ve watched; even worse than Red-winged Blackbirds…they’ll fly at any movement from inside my house.

So of course, I went right out and spread seed outside the glass backdoor, moved the bird netting aside and sat on the floor for about an hour. Unfortunately, this old house has a very old, glass-paned door…double-paned for Colorado winters. And of course the seal is broken and the panes are no longer clean on the inside. Lordy, I do have a time getting pictures of birds!

And what is the deal with this digital camera; why is it that it doesn’t just take a picture when I press the darn button…it goes through some sort of internal gyration and by the time it actually snaps the shot…the bird has moved and is no longer in the position I tried for. Perhaps I also need camera lessons, too.

The male Black Rosy is a stunning bird this time of year (breeding season); quite dark with shockingly pink-neon wing coverts. They have sooty foreheads like the others, and a gray crown to the back, though not so much as the Grays. The heads of the Gray Crowned Rosy reminds me of a very old black man with a seriously receding hairline; dark forehead, surrounded ‘ear to ear’ with gray cotton. I finally figured out how to tell them from the Brown-caps…which really have little gray behind their black foreheads.

I have another question. I understand most people like photos which are NOT ‘Photoshopped’… are the best photographs also not cropped? I crop like mad; it is the only way to get a ‘close-up’ of a bird. I take large-format pictures…and then crop to fit, so to speak. I wonder if that makes me a wannabe.

At any rate, I did get a few almost passable shots; there were all three Rosies here today: Gray-crowned, Brown-capped, and Black. I feel blessed. I’ll tell ya, I wannabe as good as Bill Schmoker some day; take a look at his Rosy-finches here.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Spring is here

What a day Saturday was! I got to play in my yard all day long; I loved it. I discovered two things; one, that some body ate a red-winged blackbird in the yard yesterday…there were feathers everywhere! And two, apparently some body roosts in the big cottonwood in my front yard; I found the pellets to prove it. Yes, it may be one of those enjoying lunch at my bird feeders, as the pellet had a little bird skull in it.

I find all this way cool and it got me to thinking about the Eagles in Platteville, Colorado. Xcel Energy has several BirdCams on a website…and one is of an Eagle nest: This year’s pair has three eggs!

The company also has a cam on a Great Horned Owl’s nest which already has a chick! Man, talk about cool…and when last I could see the other egg, it had a little hole in it…this morning I checked the pictures and very early; there were two chicks!

Check it out, there are also Falcon, Kestrel and Osprey Cams available to watch at Xcel’s website at different times of the year:

Where is the snow? I spread grass-seed all over my yard, especially the bare spots…knowing we were expecting a nice snow overnight. I’ve got blisters to show for my work, but no moisture on my new seed. Sheeshhhhhhhh! It appears the eagles got the snow I was hoping for, however. What a good parent!

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Where the deer and the antelope play...

My stockbroker told me an option to stay financially solvent through my old age, would be to leave my rural home and move back to Denver and get a real job. Bad enough I had to sell my cabin in the woods and the almost 40 acres that surrounded it…off grid, no less…and move to town after only three years of ‘retired bliss’ so I could in fact get a job at all. But, leave my adopted rural home? I am not at all sure I’d want to…there is something about ‘quality of life’.

Okay, sure…I have to drive an hour to even find a mediocre restaurant or grocery store which sells fresh vegetables other than broccoli, but yesterday I saw about 250 or 300 elk gathered in a huge open meadow I pass every day going to and from work. A few months ago I regularly watched black bears from my front yard; a sow and her cub walking up the road a few hundred yards away and once a huge cinnamon-colored bear spent the night and half the following day in a tree at the edge of my property.

Yes, it does get tiresome dealing with the muddy season that turns the roads slick and messy and stains shoes and jeans red, as we have few sidewalks here; but I do get to listen to owls calling at dusk and watch hulking buzzards open their wings to the morning sun, warming before taking to the air lifts and soaring off to look for food.

And it is a challenge to figure out what the local deer really are not interested in eating so that my garden can grow, but it is also refreshing to know that a traffic-jam here is five or six deer mincing across the little 2-lane highway that is also our Main Street.

I don’t miss the stench of cars and busses and in fact rather like the odiferous presence, at a distance, of the skunks which must live near here, by the river. I even see them from time to time, one was as big as a cocker spaniel, waddling across a yard.

In the city of Denver we had Robbins and pigeons of course, but to see a true variety of birds, I had to go to the park. There I did see waterfowl and even the occasional Great Blue Heron; but here I see them regularly…and not begging handouts of cheap white-bread from children, nor do I slip and slide in the copious amount of guano at the edge of the water. In my little rural town I see Golden Eagles, Osprey and Bald Eagles fishing for their own food in the lakes around town. I share an image taken by my friend Jerry; bear feet in a tree in the middle of town.

In Denver when someone says ‘towards the mountains’, one often has to go several blocks to even get a slice of a mountain view, but here, nestled against them I feel their presence all the time. There is a wildness in the air that you can actually feel when you can watch the weather spilling over a ridge and thick, white clouds, rimmed in charcoal, bringing a bone-chilling end to what had started out as a bright, sunny day.

While I no longer live off-grid and cannot afford to move back to the city, living where the deer and the antelope roam is not a bad thing…and there is such a thing as quality of life.

Home really is where the heart is and waking up to cattle lowing or a donkey braying really is a good thing.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Today was a Snow-day

So, I’d say I know I’m a birder because I had a snow day today and stayed home from work feeding birds and watching them the whole day long! I fed them often and tried very hard to keep those voracious Red-winged Blackbirds from mobbing every place the little songbirds tried to eat; to the point that I spent a couple hours at the back door where I finally spread seed just on the other side of the glass door. It’s fun to watch them get so full, it looks like their chests are puffed out in pride from cleaning their plates. I was pleasantly surprised to see the Pink-butts for an hour or two in the morning, too!

Today, I watched what I believe to be:
Generally I also see 2-3 White-breasted Nuthatch, a few Evening Grosbeak, several Purple Finches, American Robins, Black-billed Magpies, Northern Flickers, the occasional Steller's Jay and the usual Common Grackles who seemed to be missing from the blackbird mob today. Once in awhile, a Hawk (Sharp-shinned?) and a Great Horned Owl stop by for lunch.

What a lovely way to spend a snow-day; I heard geese go by overhead...
I love that!

Monday, March 3, 2008

Cryptic Praying mantis

Why Are My Birdies Sick?

For the last few weeks, I’ve been noticing what seems to be a growing number of sick birds; a Junco with a bad foot, then a House Finch with a problem in one eye. He kept it closed for the most part, but when he opened it, it was all dark and muddy looking. And another with his face all black and swollen, though still able to eat, that one kept one eye closed a lot. A female House Finch with a large lump on her cheek returned one day with the side of her face all bloody. Several others seem to have wet-head; it looks dark and sticky so that I wondered how the birds were getting their heads cut. Yesterday I saw another Junco holding one leg out stiff behind, and today yet another female finch showed up; missing an eye. I fully intended on doing some research when I crossed a blog I frequent and discovered the problem. Salmonella!

Infected birds shiver, sneeze, look somewhat unsteady and have drooping heads and wings. They suffer from lack of appetite and loose weight. Droppings look yellowish, which is a prime indicator. The birds tend to puff up a bit, looking obviously sick, and they become somewhat lethargic making them appear tame…and easy prey to cats. BTW, cats can catch the disease, so it is best to keep cats away from birdfeeders. Death is common in animals with salmonella. Oddly, it also causes arthritis in some birds; hence the bad limbs?

The Salmonella is a bacterium that naturally lives in the guts of some birds and the only time outbreaks occur is when the birds become stressed; when food is scarce, in extreme weather, etc. It is spread through droppings, so the bacterium quickly passes among birds congregating at birdfeeders and birdbaths. Hundreds of birds, in just one location, die this horrible death when outbreaks occur.

Okay, I just started feeding the birds a month ago…so never considered ‘dirty feeders’. However, having watched a bird sneeze and puke and cough and puke again, I’m thinking I do have dirty feeders. Okay, they’re not that kinda dirty…but it only takes one bird to infect the mob and the way they all eat it’s no wonder it spreads. Plus, there is an awful lot of seed they toss about; encouraging many more birds to feed on the ground beneath the feeders.

It’s been snowy, wet and muddy, no…I have not yet cleaned up below the feeders; but I will. Right now everything is under almost a foot of snow that came in yesterday.

I have pulled in two feeders. One place suggested only using tube feeders and never platform feeders. I’m confused a bit by that, as I have one made if plastic that is easy to clean. I will toss the wooden feeders I have, as wood is difficult to disinfect.

Apparently it is best to remove all feeders for a few weeks to let birds disperse a bit while the epidemic passes. Then, thoroughly clean feeders and scatter them around rather then keeping them bunched up. Moving them occasionally is also a good idea…I suppose that gives the ground below a feeder a chance to ‘clean up’.

If one does keep a feeder in a stationary location, fallen seeds must be raked and removed regularly.

Bottom line is though, clean, clean, clean! Use 2 parts simple household bleach in the cleaning water, scrub the nooks and crannies and then let the feeder air-dry.

Please, let’s keep our wild birds healthy! These helpful lists from the first link below:

DOs for successful bird feeding:

  1. Dismantle the feeder if possible, discarding any remaining seed.
  2. Wearing rubber gloves, wash all parts thoroughly in a bucket or basin of hot soapy water. Use a brush to get into corners and crevices.
  3. Rinse the parts of the feeder thoroughly.
  4. Make up a solution of 10 percent bleach and soak the feeder parts for about ten minutes.
  5. Rinse the feeder very thoroughly in fresh water and allow it to dry completely before reassembling it and refilling it with seed.
  6. Clean up the ground below the feeder, removing decaying seed and debris.
  7. Wash your hands thoroughly with hot soapy water, and follow up with waterless hand sanitizer if possible.

DON’Ts for successful bird feeding:

  • Don’t wash your birdfeeder in the kitchen sink. Salmonella bacteria and other disease causing organisms affect humans as well.
  • Don’t fill a wet feeder with seed. Wet seed goes moldy and can make birds sick.
  • Don’t fill your birdfeeder unless your birds will eat that much seed quickly. Keep adding fresh seed and clean the feeder regularly.
  • Don’t feed birds when there is a disease outbreak that can be spread at feeders. If you must put a birdfeeder out, wipe it daily with 10 percent bleach or alcohol.


Sherrie (The naturalist/artist who blogs Brush & Baren here) sent me a note which included this bit:

Sounds (and looks) like you've got critters with avian pox, which is unfortunately really common. The usual advice I hear is to take feeders down, clean them thoroughly (even mild bleach), and leave them down for a few days for the infected birds to disperse. The stuff is really contagious, so social behavior at feeders just makes it worse.

There's a great page on the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's site about feeder bird diseases:

Oh lordy…such pictures! I’m thinking I should take all my feeders down in the morning and leave ‘em down and soaking in a bleach solution for about a week! Ugg! I’m not serious about that long a soaking…but I’ll leave the feeders down for at least a week or ten days. In this weather, it seems such a shame, though.