Sunday, January 31, 2010

A Lovely Day in the Neighborhood

Of course you know I’m counting birds…for Project FeederWatch. That is not as big a deal as it sounds…just look out the same window or sit in about the same place in your yard and view your ‘counting area’. Your counting area can be your yard, edged by a fence, your yard and the big trees that surround it (which is what I do), a field you can view from the same spot regularly…or a pond or a lake or a river or a patio. And you don’t actually count birds all day; you merely record the largest number of a particular species you see at one time; the idea being that way you will never count the same bird twice!

I managed to get a shot of that silly Magpie going after the suet feeder. Apparently the 'fat-worms' are just an appetizer...this guy actually manages to hang upside down from this feeder; tail spread, wings flapping like some guy who has slipped on a banana peel. But I've never caught it. It must embarrass him when I get out the camera, because he always takes off in a hurry!

As I watched a bunch of big, black birds gather in a tree; it is not unusual to see as many as 5 or more crows at any one time…but as I watched, more and more big black birds arrived to join the other agitated birds. Yes, it seemed I was watching a ‘mobbing’ where many birds will harass a predator; usually an owl or a hawk. As I watched, many birds came and some would leave…but I never did find the object of their ire. Course, I didn’t try…had I gone out and into the alley under the tree I surely would have been the straw that brought the whole scenario to an end. I didn’t want to do that and my reward was…more than 50 big black birds in that tree! There were also 13 Black-billed Magpies on one branch, joining the ruckus. These big Corvids seemed less than half the size of the black ones…so either I was watching a mixed bag or this was a tree full of Ravens! Awesome. I have enjoyed watching a single crow dine with a couple of magpies right outside my back door; and while I could see the crow may be heavier, the magpie was every bit as long…and perhaps taller. While the tree was just too far for me to get really a good look at details, I’m convinced these were the larger Raven.

All day Thursday and Friday morning I watched as many as 200 Rosy-Finches feed in my yard. I was surprised to find just two Black Rosies feeding alone yesterday…along side House Finches and Evening Grosbeaks. I’ve never seen anything but large flocks of those the Rosies. Generally, perhaps because they like to feed so closely together, I get lots of photos of them on the ground in a huge mass. Yesterday I took a picture of a tree they use in-between forays to the ground. Just look at all those pink-butts!

And while I’ve not looked for it and haven’t noticed it in a week or so, I did clearly see a single White-winged Dove today, too. I wonder if this is the same bird that’s been around for so long and why, like the one who froze its feet and disappeared, does it hang around with the Eurasian Collared-Doves? I’ve done some research and doubt they cross; White-winged Doves are actually more closely related to Mourning Doves; which cannot cross with Eurasians. Unfortunately, I seldom find the much smaller Mourning Dove in my yard, anymore.

I'm tickled to say adding peanuts to the flatbed feeder has brought a few more Blue Jays to my yard, too. Sometimes I see three or four at one time; but so far very few Steller's and never a Scrub or Pinion Jay. I'm bound and determined to get a fruiting evergreen for them, the robins and perhaps Cedar Waxings!

I did see one of the Song Sparrows that feeds under the thistle feeder with all the juncos and across the yard one of the Cassin’s Finches with that pale, pale belly who feeds with the House Finches at the Sunflower Seed feeder.

I quit putting out the acorn-sized kibble I offered to the magpies along with the fat-worms and peanuts-in-the-shell for the Blue Jays. A Lewis’s Woodpecker which is not a bird usually drawn to feeders, had decided the kibble (a large-sized kibble for my very big dog) was a great food source and claimed ownership of my yard. This guy was pretty scrappy and mixed it up with everybody from magpies to flickers to starlings, as well as the Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers I like to have visit. The only other person who’s had them to her yard told me Lewis’s will drive off even the chickadees and nuthatches…and so I’ve quit the kibble offerings. And yet, still he comes…though he forages further, now and spends less time here. While he seems to ignore the fat-worms, the Lewis’s does like the caged, suet-feeder.

Today, I had a huge flock of Evening Grosbeaks in the yard. There are often as many as twenty of these beauties at and under the feeders, but today I’ve watched more than fifty at a time…more than I could easily count. I had to guestimate how many ‘blocks’ of ten birds I could see…and even while more birds arrived, I counted at least five blocks before they all took off for the trees. This makes me so happy, as I’ve read the Evening Grosbeak is on a decline.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Be Careful What You Wish For...

This just in:
"When we bought our home here in Eckert, there were two colonies of Lewis in our big, old Cottonwoods. So we've watched them for nearly twenty years. They are very territorial and will not allow other birds in their domain. They do very un-woodpecker-like things: they sit on telephone wires, they hawk flying-insects, they hoard food (they fashion the tidbit into cracks and crannies in the tree bark), they live in family colonies and won't accept other Lewis's, they don't create nesting holes but just re-fashion whatever is available. And, they're territorial to a ridiculous degree!
We don't have any other woodpeckers (including Flickers), or any bird like a Chickadee or a Titmouse or a Nuthatch! The dominant Lewis's won't tolerate the neighbor's cat! So, Lewis's can be a bit of a pain, but a fun bird to have and to watch. ...E"
I am not sure if my new friend means the Lewis's chased the other birds away, or that she didn't have these birds in her yard to begin with...and so enjoyed the Lewis's. What I know is this, the Lewis's in my yard chases anything he considers to be a threat to his food source. I've watched him buzz nuthatches, chickadees and other woodpeckers. This morning he spent at least twenty minutes running off a Downey he found at another feeder; chasing it from tree to tree as the little guy tried to hide. And just now I watched him go several rounds with a squirrel, chasing up and down and round and round a big cottonwood where he hides kibble. He even tries to run off the big magpies that come to the feeder he likes best.

This morning, I only put out the fat-worms and some peanuts. Perhaps with the lack of the kibble...the Lewis's will move on. As beautiful as he is and as honored as I feel to have him visit here, I really don't think I want to encourage a family from moving into the neighborhood!

My online friend, Mike Ross, graciously sent me these sweet photos of a Lewis's Woodpecker. You can see it is such a pretty thing...and often sits on a pole in just this way.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

A Lewis's Woodpecker Visits the Feeders!

Of course I'm counting for Cornell's FeederWatch program; my two days a week are Saturday and Sunday when I don't have to leave for work. Still, I pretty much watch the birds out my big ol' kitchen window every morning as I drink my cup of coffee.

The other day I noticed a couple especially red-headed finches and realized I've got Cassin's Finch here again. Love those top-knots.
You can see that pale, pale belly and know this is no House Finch. You can also see my home-made squirrel-baffles...they work perfectly!

The Evening Grosbeaks come in larger flocks these days; I've had at least 25 at a single visit. My friend Polly reports as many as 50 at a time in her yard! Wow.

One thing though, those are some of the spookiest birds I know. While they are not too flighty when I enter the yard, if something spooks them at least one a month hits my window. Now, I've got tree-netting over the outside and feeders quite close; so most of the birds see the netting and don't hit.

I've found a dead Grosbeak a couple months ago and this past weekend another hit, hard. That sound nearly makes me sick and knowing I was going to find a bird sprawled on the ground, I immediately went out, covered him in a towel (they bite!) and placed him in a box with another towel at the bottom. I left him to settle down after him accident in a safe and quiet spot. An hour later I took the box outside; he looked bright and alert. It didn't take him long to fly away. I especially like that part!

I've been watching the Northern Flickers, too. These red-shafted beauties have discovered not only the suet-cakes I make, but also the finch-feeders! The big galoots hang from the bottom of these feeders and lap at the tiny holes for the niger and canary-seed. It's too funny to watch. I believe they've taught the Downys some bad habits!

And every morning I put out a handful or two of what I call 'fat-worms'; thinly sliced fat I get from Charlie's (our awesome little grocery store here in town) meat department. They save their meat trimmings for 'my' birds which I toss in a little corn-meal after I cut it up. Those magpies try for huge beak-fulls at a time, the corn-meal helps me to keep the stuff from all sticking together. I add a cup of kibble and a good handful of of unshelled peanuts and they're in hog's heaven. I mean that literally; they're pretty much pigs! 'Course, this mix also brings in a few Blue Jays and the occasional crow, too. Oddly, the woodpeckers pretty much avoid this flat-bed feeder and prefer the suet-blocks I make.

However, imagine my surprise when I saw a Lewis's Woodpecker at that feeder! I had no idea they ever came to feeders...and have since discovered they don't! But there it was, picking at the kibble. Now, I have a very large dog and the kibble is good sized, too; the starlings can't swallow it; yeah! But this woodpecker apparently thought it looked good as acorns and claimed the feeder for his own. Back and forth he flew, about every two minutes till I had to leave for work, taking a single kibble and flying high up a cottonwood tree. A few times it mixed it up with several magpies at once who tried to score a free meal while watching him try to hide
his stash.

Returning to the yard, the Lewis's would buzz any of the three Flickers who where there, a Blue Jay, too...any big bird he felt had no business in what he obviously claimed as his food source.

I wonder if he'll be back. Actually, I wonder if there were two, for as often as a Lewis's returned to that particular feeder. It did quickly learn to hang upside down from the suet cage, too. I wish I had had more time to watch...
Addendum: He's baaack! I made sure to put extra kibble out this morning...and sure enough, the Lewis's was on it like he owned it!

Monday, January 4, 2010

Speaking of Owls...

I was visiting this morning, over at Owlman's blog and found an awesome video clip from the BBC there.

The clip explains the importance of facial disks, but also something else I'd never considered.

I always just assumed all hunters try to be quiet so not to alarm their prey. But that clip suggests yet another reason for the special feathering on the leading edge of an owl's wing. When sound is so important, so is the lack of it!

Thanks again, Owlman!

Below is the December Yard Bird List:

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Creepers and Tiny Owls

Recently, I've not only purchased new eye-glasses (all the better to see the world!), but I've learned how to find the tiny Brown Creeper that lives near here. Friends have spotted them in the trees around the block and finally right here in my yard. I'm tickled pink...

The creeper is small (5.25" long), smaller than a House Finch (6" long) and not much bigger than an American Goldfinch (5" long). By contrast, an American Robin is huge; twice as large (10" long) and much heavier.

My friend and CBC leader, Dave Silverman, tried to teach me the call of this bird...but it is so high and so feint, even with my good hearing I had a hard time making it out. Reading about the bird I've learned the phonetic version is: "tseeeeeeee" or "see-see-titi-see"... a rather musical song of four to nine high, clear notes. It's a good idea to listen to calls online, where you can really listen to them. This makes it much easier to identify the call in the field. Just Google 'Brown Creeper Sound' and you'll find lots of examples and tons more information on this fascinating little bird.

I have finally started an early Christmas present; Small Mountain Owls" by Scott Rashid. What a treet! Scott tells in great detail his experiences with all four of the tiny owls that live and breed in the Rocky Mountain National Park, near where he lives. I had no idea owls could be so small; the Northern Pygmy-Owl is but an inch longer than a Brown Creeper!

This Northern Pygmy-Owl may be tiny, but it is fearsome! While most active at dawn and dusk, it is often seen during the day. The scientific name is Glaucidium gnoma; and is why he calls it the Gnome of the Forest. As you might see, this little bird has shorter wings and a much longer tail than do most owls. Not unlike a Sharp-shinned Hawk, this enables it to hunt in dense woods. Because this little owl hunts during the day, there is no reason for it to have the silent flight like other owls...and it doesn't; it lacks that special wing-feathering. Scott tells its flight is a direct, undulating burst of rapid flapping and short glides not unlike a woodpecker and that when it lands a hard-hitting 'thud' is heard. The little bird has tiny ear tufts that it can raise and lower which help to break up its silhouette and adds to its spectacular camouflage. Dark 'false-eye' spots on the back of the head also help keep the bird safe. They hunt smaller rodents and birds, but often capture and feed on creatures larger than themselves.

Scott also discusses the Flammulated Owl (6.75") and the somewhat larger Northern Saw-whet (8") and the Boreal Owls (10").

The Flammulated Owls are unmistakable with dark eyes, ear tufts and equally tiny size. However, this owl is extremely nocturnal and is almost completely inactive during the day. Unlike other owls, these are nearly entirely insectivorous, hunting mostly crickets, moths and beetles; an activity that forces them to migrate south to Mexico or further every fall. Unmistakable, but extremely well camouflaged; this little bird is a vermiculated-gray or brownish (not unlike a nighthawk) and blends completely in dense vegetation or against the trunk of a tree. It was once considered rare, but improved methods of counting has proven it to be quite numerous. It is the most abundant owl of the mountainous pine forests.

Northern Saw-whet Owls may be more numerous than other small owls and live throughout parts east, central and western North America. They are entirely nocturnal and highly migratory, are superb hunters of mice and sound remarkably similar to Northern Pygmy-Owls. While fairly common, these bull-headed, short-tailed owls are infrequently detected. They have no ear-tuffs; their defense mechanism is to sit completely still...sometimes making them seem almost tame.

Boreal Owls, while similar to Northern Saw-whets, are larger (~10"), have pale bills and are somewhat darker in color. They may be numerous, but like many owls are seldom seen; favoring dense forest and being nocturnal creatures. Their song is surprisingly like Wilson's Snipe. These owls are mainly sedentary and in winter time, roosting birds are quite approachable.

The Western Screech-Owl (below), is also found in this part of the country, but apparently doesn't nest where Scott does his research. It seems to be found even more westerly, though from Alaska through Central America. It is nonmigratory and found in western woods and riparian zones in arid country.

This little gray owl (8.5"), while similar to the Eastern version has distinct differences; the bill is dark and it has prominent vertical breast streaking.

It astonishes me to know there are even smaller owls that live south of where I am in Southern Colorado.

The Whiskered Screech-Owl (for which I have no photographs), is just over 7' long and otherwise much like the Western Screech-Owl...though with noticeable whiskers. This little owl lives in southern Arizona and Mexico and at higher elevations than the Western. This is a nocturnal owl with ear-tufts, yellow eyes and unusually small feet.

The Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl, just over 6" long, is similar to he Northern Pygmy-Owl though their range and habitat differ and seldom overlap; and the Ferruginous prefers a lower altitude. It has the unmistakable long tail and small size and dark eye-spots at its nape, but is more streaky than spotted. This is a stocky little owl with disproportionately large talons. While numerous in the southern American tropics, it is uncommon in its northern ranges of Arizona and Texas, where it prefers mesquite groves and low riparian woods. While most active at dusk and dawn, this owl often hunts during the day. This bird may be declining due to wildfires and urban sprawl.

The world's smallest owl is the Elf Owl, is also found in the Sonoran Desert, where it often nests in saguaro cactus, and in open, dry woodlands where it nests and roosts in tree cavities. The little gray-brown owl has pale yellow eyes accented by white 'eye-brows'. It has no ear-tufts. It is nocturnal an feeds mostly on insects, including scorpion. This little owl is just 5.75" long ...about the size of a Brown Creeper! Who knew an owl could be so small?