Friday, March 27, 2009

This Just In: Tree Swallow

This morning when I took Phoebe out to the bus, dawn was barely breaking and there was a heavy dew on the ground. By the time I took out Liam to his bus, just after 8 am, the dew was still there, and it was joined by a heavy, filmy mist, which obscured the sun. As we walked to the garage, the silhouette of a bird sitting on the power line caught my eye.

"Is that a tree swallow?" I asked myself. Liam overheard me and said "Walll, you know what preddy-mush all the birds are Daddy, so, yep, it prolly is!" He was right! It WAS a tree swallow.

Now THAT'S a good sign of spring's arrival.

Bus duties completed, I tossed a handful of dried eggshell bits up onto the dark-shingles of the garage roof. The tree and barn swallows eat these eggshell bits all spring and summer. I know it's early, but it felt good to start yet another spring ritual: The Feeding of the Eggshells.

Also in full song this morning: eastern meadowlarks, eastern bluebirds, house finches, a red-shouldered hawk, and all the usual suspects (cardinals, chickadees, titmice, nuthatches, woodpeckers, song sparrow, wild turkey) joined by some het-up dark-eyed juncos who are getting a head start on their spring concertos.

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Friday, February 27, 2009

On the Radio

Here's a heads-up for your ears. I'm going to be a guest on the Martha Stewart radio show "Living Today" today at 2:30pm. This show is available for subscribers to Sirius/XM satellite radio, on channel 112. I realize that not everyone subscribes to Sirius/XM but you can sign up for a free three-day Internet trial subscription on their website.

I've been on the MSL show several times before, usually being interviewed via the telephone. But last May I was in New York City for a variety of events and I was invited into the Sirius Radio studios for an interview, which was pretty cool. Today's spot will be a phoner from Whipple. We'll be talking about bird feeding and the approaching spring migration.

I'm hoping the wind quiets down a bit—it's howling this morning as I write this—loudly enough to be heard over the phone!

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Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Starting the Year Off Right

For the past 20 years of my birding life I've tried to start each new year off with a good bird, an exciting field trip, or at least SOME sort of birding activity. This, unfortunately, often comes into conflict with the revelry of New Year's Eve, especially in years when I am playing music for someone's party. Arriving home in the wee hours of New Year's Day, crashing hard, then waking up well after the sun's appearance has usually meant that the new year starts off with a cup of coffee at 11 am, accompanied by a bleary cardinal or two at the feeders.

I always note my first bird of the year. Last year it was an American goldfinch. I'll tell the tale of this year's first bird in a future post.

The subject of today's post is the first stop on the birding trip Julie and I took on New Year's Day with our pal Shila. We called all the members of The Whipple Bird Club to organize an impromptu field trip for January 1. The fact that it was already nearly noon on January 1 was of no concern.

The Whipple Bird Club may be the only bird club in the world with its own gang-style hand sign. From left: Shila, Steve, Bill, Julie.

Shila could make it. Steve could not. Our destination was The Wilds, a recovering strip mine about 40 minutes north of Indigo Hill. The soil there is too poor to support trees, so it remains grassland and thus attracts birds that prefer vast open spaces: northern harriers, rough-legged hawks, short-eared owls, horned larks are just some of the winter species regularly found at The Wilds.

Before we could head north, we had to head south into town to drop of kids at my folks' house and to pick up Shila. En route to Shila's abode my cell phone rang. It was Steve.

"Billy! I've got a bird here that's different. Can you help me ID it?"

Now I know enough about Steve's birding skills to realize that he would not be fooled by a female red-winged blackbird, a leucistic house sparrow, or a winter-plumaged starling.

"I think it's something good."

We high-tailed it to Steve's and this is what we saw at his thistle feeders:

How many bird species are in this photograph (above)? Two? Three?

Is this any more helpful? There's an American goldficnh (upper left), two pine siskins on the upper and lower right. And...

An adult female common redpoll!

Steve had found a common redpoll among the 30 or so pine siskins at his feeders. We waited for about 40 minutes before the redpoll showed up and when it did, Steve's the one who spotted it for us. This was a great bird to see so early in a new birding year!

From the reports I've heard this is a big pine siskin year and a big white-winged crossbill year here in Ohio. We've had siskins at the Indigo Hill feeders for a month, but no other special northern finches have visited us (evening grosbeaks, crossbills, redpolls). However Steve's bird gives us all reason to check through the feeder flocks.

I first saw common redpolls at the Thompson family feeders in Marietta, Ohio in the winter of 1978—the very same year we started Bird Watcher's Digest. They came in with some evening grosbeaks and siskins and stayed for more than a month. They all came back the following year, too—both '78 and '79 were fierce winters. Little did I know it would be 14 more years before I'd see redpolls in Ohio again. We've had two visits—both short and more than a decade ago—from common redpolls at Indigo Hill. The last one we saw here was in 1994.

So this lone female common redpoll is a special bird, seen with great birding pals, on the very first day of a new year. Here's hoping 2009 turns out to be a special, memorable birding year for all of us!

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Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Death Rocket

Northern cardinal male. We have one less of these on the farm this morning.

First thing this morning, while I was talking on the telephone with a hick buddy from West Virginny, the death rocket came blasting past the studio window.

This was a big female sharp-shinned hawk and she swooped up into feet-forward position to grab a male northern cardinal. Her piercing talons must have killed the redbird instantly because he hung limp as she pumped her wings and propelled the two of them into the sumac thicket. Entering the thicket at full speed, she turned just so, and did not disturb a single snowflake from the branches as she passed.

The entire event took less than three seconds. The sharpie was in blurry, fluid motion the entire time. Many of the birds at the feeders next to the birch tree were so surprised that they did not have time to react. And in the aftermath, no one dared visit the feeders for half an hour, despite the ice and snow covering everything.

Nature red in tooth and claw...

Sharp-shinned hawk at our feeders last spring.

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Friday, December 12, 2008

Today at the Feeder

An adult female yellow-bellied sapsucker showed up at the peanut feeder today. Zick had noticed that the peanut consumption was way up and the peanuts in the feeder were way down, and wondered why—even going so far as to wonder specifically about a sapsucker.

I think she may have even conjured this bird. It's been years since we've had a sapsucker at the feeders regularly. I'm hoping this gal stays for a spell. We've got lots of peanuts on hand—she can eat all she wants.

Happy Friday everyone.

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Friday, December 05, 2008

No Snowflake The Junco
Snowflake at the suet dough in February 2008.

Some of you might remember my posts last winter about Snowflake the leucistic adult female dark-eyed junco who was a winterlong visitor in our yard.

Well, Snowflake did not show up in October, when the first returning juncos did. And now, it's December and we've got at least 30 dark-eyed juncos scattered around the various feeders and fields—but all of them have normal-looking plumage.

Which makes me wonder what happened to Snowflake. Did she make it through the spring and summer and now is spending this winter somewhere else?Did a sharp-shinned hawk get her? A house cat? Did she collide with a radio tower? Did she die of natural causes?—most passerines are lucky to survive more than just two years. Or is she just not back here yet? I'm hoping it's the last one on that list.

Dark-eyed juncos are considered short-distance migrants. The distance between their boreal forest breeding range and their wintering range pales in comparison to the migration of a blackpoll warbler, which also breeds in the boreal forest but migrates to South America. Most juncos spend the winter within the United States and Canada. Some juncos, such as those that I see in the West Virginia mountains each spring, don't migrate at all.
We've got plenty of "normal" juncos around this winter.

We could always tell Snowflake because she looked more like a snow bunting than a junco. She was a perfect "marker bird"—a bird with an obvious and unique physical character that allows you to identify it as an individual. Otherwise, most individual birds of a single species are hard to tell apart, unless you get a really close look and spend some time looking for subtle differences.
Snowflake looked like a snow bunting at first glance.

Bird banders love to tell stories about trapping ruby-throated hummingbirds or chickadees at a feeding station. They'll catch a dozen birds and band them, but still more unbanded birds keep showing up. It's pretty amazing when you realize just how many individual birds of a single species might be visiting your feeding station, bird bath, or garden. You might THINK that that is Mr. Reddy the cardinal who always shows up right after dawn on the hopper feeder. But it may only be one out of 17 different Mr. Reddys that come for an early meal.

Marker birds allow you to be sure you are seeing the same individual bird. Last winter I was home a lot finishing up a book project, so I got to know Snowflake's routine. In the morning she was in the weedy edge along the orchard. In late afternoon she'd come to the deck railing around back for some suet dough. At night she roosted in the brambles along the spring trail, down the hill behind our house.

Sitting here at my desk today, watching the snow dance down, I can see a small pod of juncos kicking through the mixed seed under the pines. I'd like to look out and see a mostly white one for the third winter in a row. Guess I'll keep watching and hoping.

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Monday, December 01, 2008

The Chow Line

Blue jay, dark-eyed junco, northern cardinal on a snowy afternoon.

In winter, when we feed suet dough to our backyard birds, we often see a number of hungry individuals waiting for their turn to eat. I did not realize this fully until I started taking pictures of the suet dough visitors on our back deck railing. This series of images, like many other similar shots I've shared here recently, was taken with a Wingscapes BirdCam.

I think it's pretty interesting how the birds line up along the deck railing. There were a number of neat combinations of birds in the images the camera captured—I'm only sharing a handful here.

Cardinals at the suet dough.

Juncos only.

Junco (head only) and three cardinals. We're out of food.

Cardinal, bluebird, cardinal, bluebird.

Ever see those old couples in restaurants eating unhappily and saying NOTHING to each other?

Cardinals are always the last birds at the feeder at the end of the day.

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Monday, November 17, 2008

Hello Winter!

Snow falling on sumac. Hey wasn't that a book?

There's a wet snow falling here in SE Ohio, with the temperature hovering just above freezing. It's not yet sticking on the roads. The barometer is calling for more.

The feeders are stocked and today's specials are: homemade suet dough (really popular with our regular customers), unsalted peanuts (sans shells), and black-oil sunflower seed.

I am marking the bird spa for early retirement. Bob the chipmunk is racing around like a maniac stuffing his cheekbags with seed. Why? Because tomorrow never knows.

Special message to Guyana Gal: Yes, the greenhouse thermostat is jacked. Bonsai pit is covered. Baker is under many blankets. Snoring. At least I HOPE those are snores...

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Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Bird (Life) Goes On

Nice to know, in spite of major things happening in this big old goofy world of ours, that the birds just carry on with their lives.

I set up a Wingscapes BirdCam on our new platform feeder this weekend and got a few images of our regular customers. Still need to reset the camera's date and time I see....

If you've never tried a remote birdcam, you might want to—it's a lot of fun. The Wingscapes BirdCam is really user-friendly. I think it took me about 15 minutes to set up everything, including batteries and memory card. More images from and comments about the Wingscapes BirdCam in the future.

I really like the look on this tufted titmouse's face. I think he's asking if you managed to VOTE TODAY!

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Thursday, May 29, 2008

Time to Feed the Dogs

Fledgling eastern bluebirds come to our suet dough dish with their parents every day. When the dish is empty they give us their sad, hungry hang-dog look. It makes us rush to put just a bit more in the dish—though in these insect-rich summer days we cut way back on the dough we dish out.

I swear I heard a whimper and a soft bark from the bird in the dish as I took this photo.

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Saturday, March 22, 2008


This morning dawned sunny and cool—almost springlike if you just looked and listened out the window. One step outside, however and the chill in the air was easily felt. The weather forecast was for winter to reassert itself this afternoon, so I decided to get a little outside time in before the arrival of the next weather front.

We've been having some fox sparrows around the yard. They always show up in earliest spring, hanging around for a few days on their way back north. Earlier this week, Julie counted seven fox sparrows at one point—nearly enough to make a fox sparrow fur coat—not that we'd actually DO that. But isn't that a good term of venery for this species? A fur of fox sparrows?

I spent the morning in the Doghouse. By that I mean the Doghouse photo blind I use to get close-up images of our flighty feeder birds. These visiting fox sparrows are a shy lot, so the blind worked its perfect magic. I am surprised each time at how quickly the birds seem to accept the blind's presence and return to their normal business.

Here are some of the images I captured this morning of our foxy-brown migrants.

At first the fox sparrows stuck to the brushy edges of the yard, unwilling to be the first visitors to the newly scattered corn.

Three birds kept to the shadows beneath the spruce on the north border. Their spot-breasted plumage must help them blend in under dappled light conditions on the woodland floor.

One of the fox sparrows finally came out into the light long enough to be photographed.

Classic fox sparrow pose: eating while scratching with its feet for more cracked corn.

I'm glad I got out to take some pix while the light and weather were in my favor. It's now snowing and sleeting and the wind is picking up—classic Easter weather for SE Ohio. Our kids wouldn't know HOW to look for their Eastern baskets if it were warm and sunny. They'd be completely lost without mud boots and down coats and mittens on Easter morning. They'd squint at the bright yellow light, flail their pasty-white arms, and run around in circles squealing confused squeals.

Happy holiday weekend everybody!

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Saturday, March 01, 2008

Yellow-bellied Peanutsucker

This lovely female yellow-bellied sapsucker has been visiting the peanut feeder irregularly during the past two weeks. Yesterday I caught a couple of images of her, shooting through the studio windows.

Back in 1992 when we first moved to this old farm, my birding mentor, Pat Murphy, gave us a homemade peanut feeder as a wedding gift. Her husband Bob had made it. It was mesh hardware cloth in a cylinder with the cut-off ends of a croquet mallet as the top and bottom. Peanut feeders like the one shown here were not commercially available in the U.S. at the time. However over in Europe, especially in the U.K. peanut feeding has been the central feature in any garden 'bird table', as they call them.

We got our first sapsucker that winter visiting Pat's feeder. What a thrill that was. Sapsuckers at our feeders have been few and far between since then. They are fascinating birds and I love the swoopy way they fly. In fact you can often identify a sapsucker just by the way it swoops into land in a tree. Of course the long white wing strip is pretty obvious, too.

We'll keep the peanuts out and hope the sapsucker feels like sticking around the farm until spring calls her back northward.

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Friday, January 04, 2008

Foul-Weather Feathered Friends

This week's big snow has kept the kids out of school until today.

Hello Cabin Fever Hotline?

The weather has also brought in a bunch of bird species that normally only visit the feeders when the weather is horrible. Among these foul-weather transients is a big male common grackle in his iridescent best winter plumage.

You can see from this photo why this species used to be called the purple grackle. Grackles are really beautiful birds, if you look at them carefully. Too bad their reputation as agricultural pests, feeder hogs, and marauding nest robbers is what sticks in most peoples' minds.

I'm still hoping these winter storm fronts will coax some common redpolls down to southeastern Ohio. They have been seen in other parts of the state. I'll be keeping one eye on the feeders this weekend.

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Wednesday, December 12, 2007

When Death is on the Wing

Male sharp-shinned hawk.

We've had a male sharp-shinned hawk haunting our farmyard and feeding station. I can see why he's coming here. We've got a plethora of feeder birds, some of whom seem to NOT KNOW WHAT AN ACCIPITER IS.

Well, in case any of our backyard birds are reading Bill of the Birds (and they SHOULD be) an accipiter is a bird of prey that specializes in eating other, smaller birds. Sharp-shinned hawks and Cooper's hawks are our two widespread and common accipiters across most of North America. A surprising number of people who feed birds also get to see birds feeding upon birds at their feeding stations when an "accip" bursts into the yard to nab a victim.

Short, rounded wings and a long rudderlike tail (a build like a fighter plane) allow Coops and sharpies to pursue songbirds at high speeds through wooded habitat. They either sit and wait for a bird to pass by, or they soar high overhead and make a dive on unsuspecting birds below--often coming at them directly out of the sun, a strategy that fighter pilots often use.

This male sharpie is unflappable. He lets us snap his photo out the windows of Julie's studio and he even let me walk out the door and sneak within about 30 feet of him as he sat on the crossbar of our feeder set-up.

I love having this bird around. He's keeping our birds on their toes and keeping their populations healthy by weeding out the slow, sick, and weak.

He's not here everyday. Every third day or so I find another pile of cardinal or junco or goldfinch feathers in the yard. Then I know that death has come again, on the wing, passing through this old ridgetop farm.

It is stealth then flashing pursuit. Talons grabbing, parting feather barbules and piercing skin, a songbird's tiny heart racing through its last few beats. Blood droplets merge with the soggy soil. Then the coup de grâce, and Nature, red in tooth and claw, heaves another sigh of contentment.

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