Saturday, May 31, 2008

What To Feed?

Several have asked what is it I offer to attract the Orioles and Tanagers; they love oranges and grape jelly…and suet. It turns out the Western Tanagers like that stuff, as well…though I don’t seem to have quite as many today as I did a couple weeks ago. Heck, even the Black-headed Grosbeaks like the grape jelly. It’s a good thing I bought a huge bottle of the stuff…I figured a 3- (three!!!) pound jar of Smucker’s would last all season; but no, I already need to buy another after only about a month. And no, I do not eat the stuff myself; thank you very much for asking.

For the last several weeks, the main birds at my feeders are Grosbeaks (mostly Evening with several Black-headed ones as well) …with Pine Siskins, Red-winged Blackbirds, Grackles, Starlings and Doves also present most of the time. The occasional Goldfinch, House Finch, Rose-breasted Grosbeak still show up, as well as what must be three or four nesting pairs of Bullock’s Orioles. I know there are that many pairs, because I see that many males at one time…each one seems to think all the jelly is his! I have recently posted at least one photo of a Tanager posing as a jelly-head, so it’s no wonder I’m going through the stuff.

Chickadees, Nuthatches, and Woodpeckers all come and go daily; darting in and out for sunflower seeds or for a couple minutes at one of the suet-feeders. I hang at least one fruit- and one nut-packed suet-cage all the time. Many of the birds enjoy suet, including the Orioles and Tanagers…who knew? I regularly see Flickers as well…though never at actually at a feeder. They seem to prefer hunting ants on the dry patches at the edges of my lawn. For the past two days, a very large Black-billed Magpie has been trying to feed, without much success, at the suet-cage. It's just too big to hang their easily, but it must get enough as it keeps coming for more.

Somewhere, I read that there are some who think feeding too strong a sugar solution will burn out the kidneys of the birds…but a 4-1 solution is considered best for hummingbirds and a 6-1 ratio for Orioles. Right, like I’m going to be able to keep them apart! Actually, some time ago I drilled all my feeders’ drinking-ports out so that either hummers or Orioles could enjoy them. Mine have perches, so the bigger birds do just fine with them. My concern was if I make the solution too thin, the birds will quit bothering with it. Make it too weak and it is not worth their effort to drink it, on the other hand, I don’t want to make the birds sick, either. That is when I decided to offer more choices.

A few weeks ago, I did some research online and found what I consider the best place to buy mealworms. Dang, the prices are all over the place, some of the websites are not exactly intuitive or well-kept and some of the people I talked to were downright impossible to talk to; either not able to discuss their product knowledgably or in such a hurry to make a sale that they had no time to help me make an informed decision. Then I found Sunshine Mealworms and the very nice owner who told me she’s been farming worms for some time. What a neat bunch of people must work there! I bought 4,000 worms for about $20. And they keep forever in the fridge (don’t forget to put apple slices in their container; they need the moisture to stay fat & sassy) and I figured the birds would love them.

Not the case, at least at first. Well, except for the big black birds…all those guys seem to eat anything. I add a top-dressing of mealworms to the Black-oil seeds I put out and the Grosbeaks ignore ‘em! I refuse to purposely feed blackbirds…to the point that I am mostly feeding safflower seeds these days (about the same price as Black-oil Sunflower seed, but squirrels and those impossible starlings don’t like it). At any rate, big seed is all those conical-beaked birds seem to want. But…it turns out the Orioles love the worms! I’ll have to watch a bit more closely to see if the Tanagers also eat them. It is primarily those two birds that I see at the fruit and jelly feeder.

Finally, I can feel better about feeding a heartier solution (4-1) of nectar to the birds because I’m also feeding orange-halves, apple slices, grape jelly and now mealworms, too. I believe variety is the spice of life…for birds, too. An online acquaintance and expert naturalist/writer, Kevin Cook, has graciously answered several questions I’ve privately posed to him about birds. He suggested I separate my feeders both by distance and by food choices. He told me that all the jostling for position and food is what contributes to the spread of disease and scares off smaller or more timid birds. It was very good advice, and now hummers eat in peace, shell-crackers enjoy what they eat without flinging smaller seed all about and the fruit and worm eaters get just what they want on their plates, too.

Having said that, I just watched a White-breasted Nuthatch run off another bird and sift through the flat-bed feeder looking for mealworms. The little bird found several that it collected in one beak-full before it flew off. This makes me immensely happy, as I figured those worms were just going to cook in the sun this afternoon...or fill the belly of a dreaded Brown-headed Cowbird.

Usually I bring my feeders in at night, not wanting to encourage bears who will come right up on a porch and bite through a hummingbird feeder and drink it down like a kid with those juice-filled wax teeth. Once I found a suet cage across the yard; totally mangled. I suspect the masked raiders; doesn't everybody have racoons from time to time? No point in inviting them...or this pretty thing.
Somehow I imagine she'd love some grape jelly.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Spring Migration

What a wonderful Spring I’m having! This birding stuff is opening my eyes, getting me outdoors and leaving me in awe regarding the realization of all that I’ve been missing. It still amazes me that I’ve lived nearly 25 years in Colorado and had no idea the plethora of colors, sizes and shapes of birds we have here. It really is astounding. One evening last week I came home from and added three (!) new birds to my growing list of ‘Yard Birds’ before work the next day. I’m so tickled.

Today another first showed up! I’ve decided I saw an American Redstart at my feeders. Nice dark bird, not unlike a black-bird, but with a creamy belly and distinctly orange ‘epaulets’ and markings on its back. It spent a lot of time trying to scare off other birds; raising the feathers on its head, generally fluffing up and opening its wings some, while fanning its tail. He was definitely trying to look big and ferocious. I missed his flying away, but am confident it was the Redstart. My how smug; feeling confident enough finally to ID a bird all by myself! While I didn’t get a photograph of the pretty little thing, I’ve linked to a good example of what I saw, but what really shows the pugnacious attitude of the little guy is this 1890 drawing by B.H. Warren, M.D. from his book: Birds of Pennsylvania.

One of the ‘new’ birds is the Western Tanager…a beautiful creature which apparently is nesting near here. Odd thing about this bird, unlike other Tanagers and most other birds, the red on its head is manufactured by eating certain insects…not unlike the pink Flamingos exhibit if they’ve been eating shrimp. I wonder why the male has more red? Perhaps when his hormones are raging, he gets a penchant for the bugs. At any rate, this red coloring is called rhodoxanthin and is a rare plumage pigment, according to Cornell.

Speaking of oddities, what is up with that bird's belly? I have no idea, but the photo above reminds me of broody-birds. While in most birds it is usually the female who sits on eggs, some males give it a go as well. To the point that they too, exhibit the brood-patch; the un-feathered belly-skin with which a bird covers and incubates eggs. Woodpeckers and occasionally Nuthatches are two breeds where the male oftentimes develops a brood-patch. You can see pictures of a brood-patch here.

While doing the research on incubation, I discovered yet another bit of superfluous information. When eggs are first laid, the reason cold weather doesn’t bother them so much…and so the female can spend several days laying a full clutch…is because the new eggs are thicker. As the developing bird grows (and who knew it was called an eyass?), it produces Carbon Dioxide which, as it mixes with the fluids within the egg forms a mild carbonic acid…which will slowly react with the shell, thereby thinning it over time and making things much easier for the hatchling to break out. While the egg is new and strong, the adult birds can carefully roll the eggs every hour or so, which keeps everything inside properly suspended. Unturned eggs will not develop properly…and will die. And when actual incubation does start, the 15-20 minutes of time eggs are left uncovered from time to time is not inattention on the parents part…it is necessary to let oxygen diffuse into the eggs. Who knew? I found this fascinating; you can read all about it by John Blakeman here. …and who is John Blakeman? I Googled him too; he’s an expert biologist/birder in Ohio.

I visited the Great Horned Owls the other day…the babies are growing fast! I wish I had a lens that would allow me to take better photographs! Still, these little shots remind me of my visits and how cool it is to see such a site in person.

I’ll include a couple shots of Grosbeaks here, too. I was fascinated to discover the females are not at all dull-looking. The female Black-headed Grosbeak is a beautiful bird with a boldly striped head. Apparently she is quite similar to the female Rose-breasted, but that one has more defined streaking which also continues across the entire breast. Also, the Black-headed female has a two-toned beak, the top mandible is darker; while the Rose-breasted female’s bill is all-over pale. I’m not sure if I’ve seen her, yet; I’ve only seen a male or two and not very often. Course, the fact that they hybridize creates more problems with identification.

The female Evening Grosbeak looks entirely different in her somewhat formal looking black and grey and dramatic white wing-patches. What I find beautiful about the two of them is that both their beaks turn a beautiful teal-color during breeding season. I noticed this once, and have read that this occurs with the males; but obviously it is both sexes which sport this pretty display.

Speaking of females, I had to study up on the difference in the females of Bullock’s Orioles and Western Tanagers. They are somewhat similar…but the Tanagers are smaller and the Orioles’ bills are longer and sharper looking. The female Western Tanager’s back is dusky with an almost olive-yellow head, while the Bullock’s Oriole female’s head and face are quite strongly bright yellow-orange.

I think I’ll include four shots of my feeders to show the incredible number of birds which visit here. This is just some of ‘em! Wow…

Great-tailed Grackle, Western Tanager (m), Black-headed Grosbeak (m+f),
Bullock's Oriole (m+f) Evening Grosbeaks (m)

all changed places...and add a Hairy Woodpecker (f)

Sunday, May 18, 2008

The Wonder of Learning

A view of the Wahatoyas: Breasts of the Earth

I am approaching sixty years old…the new forty. I find it amusing that I am embracing the interests and hobbies of an older generation.

Spring snowstorms; why I feed birds.
A Black-headed Grosbeak w/Bollock's Oriole and
Bollock's Oriole (m) with Hairy Woodpecker (f)

and three-in-one: an Evening Grosbeak, a Black-headed Grosbeak and a Bollock's Oriole .

Still, having always had an interest in the natural world; from camping to snake-hunting, from gardening to bring home crayfish to watch the birth of thousands upon thousands of young; from watching and raising chickens to catching and keeping lizards, shrews and large, unusual bugs; I have enjoyed time outside watching the creatures that live there. Now I am bird watching.

...haven't seen them for weeks, and suddenly there was
a Dark-eyed Junco.

In Bill Thompson III’s book Identify Yourself; the 50 Most Common Birding Identification Challenges, Kenn Kaufman writes in his forward to the book “…knowing the names for things can change our perceptions of them for the better.”

He goes on to say that when someone asks “I wonder what kind of bird that is?” and cares enough to find the name of a bird, that person has started down the road to becoming a bird watcher.

The beautiful Western Tangaer, a short-time visitor here.
Heyyyyyy, could this be a Jelly-head impersonator?
(looks like a jelly-drip to meee.)

The Tangaer shares a meal with a Black-headed Grosbeak

A male (left) and female (right) Bullock's Oriole,
but I'm not at all sure which is prettier.

The female Black-headed Grosbeak is quite similar
to the female Rose-breasted, but the lack of strong
streaking on her breast identifies her.

I suspect that is why there is a move to get children outside. Too many are spending days inside with television, computers and game-players and not discovering, and naming, the treasures in our natural world. Is it any surprise so many young people do not care to keep habitats clean or intact? Is it any surprise that people who do not know nature feel that humans, as the top-predator, have the right to change the world in any way that suits them to make life easier for them, even if it gravely impacts the world itself?

When I first saw this tiny bird, I thought it was a Bluebird. While
he is blue, this is the Lazuli Bunting..only 5-6" long and unlike the
Bluebird he sports a wide, conical beak for breaking seeds.

Kevin Cook says today in his weekly column Pathfinder: “To know the steppe is to love it; and knowing and loving are a simple commitment: teach the mind and the heart will follow.” and “If one tethers their sense of beauty to trees, then the absence of trees implies an absence of beauty misperceived as emptiness. Such tethering is a bondage of mind and soul.”

As George Schaller observed three and a half decades ago: "The character of a region has much to do with the character of the person describing it, for we see our own heart in a landscape. That the mind understands, the heart can love. It's a kind of magic.”

A seldom seen Rose-breasted Grosbeak with the
oft-seen Black-headed Grosbeak and ubiquitous Pine Siskin.

Mike, of Mike’s Birding and Digiscoping discusses ‘Electrolandia’ and The Nature Conservancy’s study that finds kids prefer TV over Trees. He quotes Richard Louv regarding saving our children from ‘nature-deficit disorder’ in his book Last Child in the Woods; where the author argues teaching awareness of and appreciation for the natural world will not only teach our children science and nurture creativity…it will ensure that we have stewards for our future.

All this brings to my mind how much I relish my childhood and the time I had to play outdoors; that my parents not only instilled in me a love of books, but by what they read to me, instilled the magic of nature. My parents were not perfect, nor were they ‘outdoorsy’; they were not well-educated people but they were curious and read about and how to do things. They had an innate respect for the natural world and showed me that respect when, as smokers, they refused to smoke when we went camping. Oddly, while interested in organized religion they also saw great spirituality in spending time in nature and saw the woods as close to godliness as any church.

I have to laugh at myself, the enthusiastic new birder. I am overly excited to see new birds; I’m feeding them at several many stations in my yard, I’m keeping lists of birds I see, I’m taking as many pictures as I possibly can. In my enthusiasm, I’m posting my failures and success; both good photos and bad. I am learning how to write, and what are the rules of blogging. I am growing. Already, though I post them here, I am rapidly loosing interest in photos of birds at feeders. I want to learn more, I want to get out more; I want to remember birds in the natural canopy of a tree, on the natural branch of a tree or in the sky where they are so comfortable. I can see my photos are improving, and they will continue to become more.

That is the wonder of learning; we become more.

The small town of La Veta is nestled within the Huerfano Valley
against the Spanish Peaks, also known as The Wahatoya:
Breasts of the Earth.

Monday, May 12, 2008

International Migratatory Bird Day

This weekend, I participated in the annual International Migratory Bird Count that occurs the second Saturday in May, that this year was May 10th. I accompanied several seasoned birders from AVAS and had an absolute blast. The day began warm, but blustery and at one point was down-right windy. Many birds seemed somewhat inactive and hunkered down to stay out of the wind, but as the wind died down they took to the the degree that we had what was considered a near-record with about 116 named birds! Holy cow! I don't have the 'official list' yet, but...116 different birds in a single day in Colorado! Sheeshhhhhhhhhhhhh

Interspersed here, I'll include some of the photos I've taken in my yard the last couple of part of my own 'Bird Count'. The Great Horned Owl nest is the one I photographed the other day, you can just see nestlings peeping over the edge. I wanted to comment on the female Black-headed Grosbeak and how beautiful she is. So different from the other Grosbeak females, this one has lots of color.

But, back to the topic at hand...this is a counting day, not a photographing or bird watching day. Still, we saw everything from Golden Eagle, Peregrine Falcon, Swainson's Hawk and Osprey to Willets, Godwits, Dowitchers, Plovers, Sandpipers and other tiny little shore-birds. Most of these birds, I've never identified so I must have had at least 50 'Firsts', but not 30 minutes after making the comment I really wanted to see a bird I find most intriguing, a Shrike...we saw a Loggerhead Shrike! Then we saw another, and yet another! Apparently one scuffled with another bird in what appeared to be a territory dispute, but I missed it. I did see the winner, our Shrike, then hope to a nearby branch and remove something it had impaled on a twig and feed it to his mate. I find that fascinating, and this storing behavior is why the bird is sometimes called the Butcher Bird, as people have discovered six or eight mice hung neatly in a row along a barbed-wire fence; the Shrike's larder. Too cool, huh?

We also saw a couple of Brown Thrashers, a stunning bird; Bohemian Waxwings, hundreds of different kinds of Swallows and Swifts, my first Kingbirds, and I spotted a beautiful little Blue-gray Gnatcatcher which was identified for me by one of the others. I also saw my first Lewis’s Woodpecker, my first Bullock’s Oriole, first Lark Bunting, and even first Mute Swan. Lordy, it was an awesome day; from a single Great Horned Owl to hundreds of Red-necked Phalarope and the young Peregrine Falcon hunting them and the ducks closer to shore. It was a marvelous day.

I call this photo: Dandi Lions...

Saturday, May 10, 2008

The Golf Course

Be careful what you wish for; I’ve been busier than usual, since becoming a birder, actively getting outside to see birds, working in my garden and writing a blog it seems I have less time to care for individual things. I’ve got photos to post and no time to do it!!!

Here’s a teaser: the Red Fox my friend Dave knows out at the Golf Course. The pretty thing is tame in that she’ll come up for handouts or to eat the cat food Dave puts out for his mousers, but not so tame she isn’t very wary when getting up close and personal. This is a shot I got of the fox wondering if camera's are edible.

The reason we were at the Golf Course is because Dave let me know there is an Owl nesting in last year’s Eagle Nest…and would I like to see it? Right; do bears like blueberries? Of course I invited my friend Janie to come with us, as she’s the photographer of the group. My lens won’t reach as far as the nest was, so here is one of Janie’s shots. Have I mentioned I want a scope? I really appreciate SeEtta's piece regarding Ethical Bird Photography; as I said we were about 300' or more from this nest. Still, we only stayed around about 15 minutes. Fifteen glorious minutes...

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Yard Birds

During the last couple of days, I’ve logged several more ‘Firsts’ in the birding department. First birds period…first time I’ve ever really seen them at all and firsts for my ‘Yard Bird’ list (it's a birder-thing...track all the birds you can see in (or from) your own yard.) For one, I finally saw a Black-headed Grosbeak here. Unfortunately, the first few pictures were through glass and of a puffy, sick-looking bird. Finally, a beautiful, health male showed up and let me photograph him through an open door. That makes three [species] Grosbeaks that I’ve found in my yard…apparently there are three more. Oh, and the Evening Grosbeaks seem to be visiting again...

This afternoon, I observed the male Hummingbird again, but didn’t get pictures. I did, however, get one of a female. A friend says it is likely a Broad-tailed Hummingbird, though the male I’ve watched seems to be the tiniest thing I’ve ever seen…I just assumed it is a Ruby-throated Hummingbird; but have since heard it is unlikely I'd see one here. The suggestion is it might be a Black-chinned Hummingbird. Based on size alone…I might guess the thing is a Calliope, but truth be told, I’m not at all sure I’d be able to tell the difference in a Calliope, a Broad-tailed, a Black-chinned or a Ruby-throated Hummingbird. [Addendum: it is not likely to find a Ruby-throated Hummingbird in this part of the country...though it has happened.] Later in the day, I discovered a female hummer trapped in my garage…beating herself silly at a window. It took several tries, but I finally caught her in a fish-net; poor thing was trying to bite the broom I tried first. When I finally caught her, she made a high-pitched call which drew in a male who hovered in my face for several minutes. At that time his neck looked purple, rather than red. Sheeshhhhh, how does one learn to tell colors that change in the light? Since I had feeders handy, I tried to get the little female to take some sugar-water before I let her go…I am not used to handling such tiny birds and sure do hope I didn’t hurt her when I caught her. While she wouldn’t drink, she seemed to fly just fine; fast and away. Part of me wished I’d had the nerve to more thoroughly examine her. BirdChick is my inspiration.

The other day I got a nice photo of the Turkey Vultures in the tree in my front yard. I understand such a gathering is called a wake of vultures; too funny! Hopefully I won’t have the issues some people have had with Vultures, but I will say, I’ve never seen them sitting on a car, much less pulling rubber pieces off of one.

Just as I was finishing up a late lunch, I noticed a blue dot at a feeder and grabbed my binoculars. It was a small bird, long though, and it flew when I moved too quickly. Patience prevailed though, I found the tree it flew to and got a photo through a screened window…enough for a friend to tell me what I was seeing. The bird has a blue head, an orange breast and a creamy belly…and a beak more like a seed-cracking Finch than a bug-eating Bluebird. At first I wondered if it was a Grosbeak, but it was so tiny; only a bit over 5” or so…about the same size as the Pine Siskins sharing the feeder. I had no idea what it could be. I looked all through a field guide, but couldn’t discover it. It had very dark eyes and finally I noticed the bars on the wings. I don’t even know how to pronounce this bird’s name, but it’s a Lazuli Bunting; I’m not at all familiar with Buntings. Thanks again, Gary.