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Saturday, December 09, 2017

Winter Bird Feeding Tips, How to Help the Birds!

Goldfinches


Here's Some Advice on Winter Bird Feeding Basics

Brrrrrrr!  When winter temperatures plummet, furnaces are turned on, down parkas and mittens are taken out of storage, and hot cocoa is made on the stove. This how we humans cope with winter, but what do the birds do? Their feathers are their down parkas and their metabolism keeps them warm but they need increased fuel to stoke their furnaces and shelter from wind and cold. Understanding their needs is the first step in setting up your winter bird feeding station.

Where to place feeders

One of the best places to set up feeders in winter is on the south side of a thick stand of evergreens whose branches go from ground level to tree top. This green wall should have as much sunlight hitting it as possible. Not only is it a big solar collector that the birds will love for its warmth, but they can use the dense foliage as protection from predators, shelter from storms, a nightime roost and a place to await their turn at the feeder, or munch a seed recently taken. 

If you do not have this ideal set-up, then be inventive and  create some of its elements. Put your feeders in protected locations that get lots of sun, create a brush pile nearby for cover, plant evergreens, or stand up your discarded Christmas tree near the feeder.



Pine Siskins, Purple Finch,m.


Winter Chow; Supersize me

Because birds have higher metabolic needs in the winter, they consume more calories than in  warmer weather; thus, they need foods that are calorie-rich. Interestingly, one gram of fat provides 11 calories, and one gram of protein or carbohydrate contains only 4 calories.

Here is an interesting list of bird seeds and their protein, fat and carbohydrate content by percentage of weight. 

                                 Protein/Fat/Carbohydrate

black oil sunflower   16/40/38
peanuts   30/48/2.5
thistle   18/32/13.5
millet   11.5/4/6.5
milo   11/3/2.5
Cracked Corn   9/4/2   


So for winter feeding in cold areas, the type of food you provide for is important.

Black-capped Chickadee

Suet cakes contain a high amount of fat so they are a calorie-rich food; so are black oil sunflower, peanuts and thistle. These foods are a good choice for feeder birds such as chickadees, titmice, nuthatches, woodpeckers, finches and cardinals. Offer these seeds in tube and hopper feeders hung above the ground. 

There are other feeder birds, such as Mourning Doves, White-throated Sparrows, White-Crowned Sparrows, and Juncos that normally feed on the ground and whose seed preferences can tend toward carbohydrates. These species will eat seeds such as millet or cracked corn, or mixes containing them. You can offer these birds winter food on platform feeders near the ground, or even sprinkled directly on the ground provided you keep the ground raked clean of any old seed that is not quickly eaten.


Evening Grosbeak, males

In addition to offering food variety to fit the palate of your winter customers, the basic tenet of winter bird feeding is the all-you-can-eat buffet. Basically, keep feeders full so the food is there when they need it. Even though many of your feeder birds will alternate feeding at and then away from your feeders, they especially need supplemental food in severe weather when the wild foods are covered with ice and snow. In these tough times, a good feeder set-up can help their survival. Pay particular attention to filling feeders in mid-afternoon and early morning. This is when birds need to stock up on food and calories to heat their bodies through the cold night and replenish their furnace fuel in the early AM.

Consistency is the key

Once you have the birds coming to you in winter, it is important to be consistent in your feeding program, for they tend to rely in severe weather on the additional supplementation of foods you are offering. So if you go on vacation, see if a friend or neighbor, or hired youngster, will fill your feeders; that is what we do. You may also want to put out larger capacity feeders in winter so they do not have to be filled so often and so there is less chance of them going empty.



Let it Snow

One of the challenges in keeping your winter restaurant open for the birds occurs when there are storms that pile up snow and cover feeders. It is important to keep your feeders free of snow, especially in the portals of tube feeders, ledges of hopper feeders and the tops of platform feeders.  We always go out and knock or wipe the snow off feeders several times during a storm. Another good trick is to hang one of those squirrel baffles shaped like a clear plastic umbrella, above the feeder to shield it from the snow. One of the best snow protectors we have seen was done by someone who had made a giant plastic umbrella out of two big plastic window-well covers mounted back to back. This was held up well off the ground by wooden posts and multiple feeders were mounted under it.

Dark-eyed Junco

Keeping the ground free of snow for ground feeders like White-throated and White-crowned Sparrows, Juncos, Mourning Doves, and even Wild Turkeys, like we have coming to our feeders, takes dedicated shoveling or a snow blower. During one of last winter’s worst storms, we took turns shoveling out a space on the ground under our feeders just about every hour. On our deck we shoveled out spaces under our built in benches and sprinkled seed there for the Blue Jays and Juncos.

Northern Cardinal, f.

In Milder Climates

We are aware that not everyone shivers through winter with snow and cold. Mild climate areas, like California and the southern states, escape the worst weather. In addition to the resident birds, such as Cardinals there, many migrant birds from the North, like Goldfinches, Doves, Catbirds, even an occasional hummingbird, visit feeders there. We have fed birds in Florida in winter for a number of years and it is great fun. While there is not snow, some of the basic practices of bird feeding apply — a diverse menu for both tree-dwelling and ground-dwelling species, providing clean water and good cover, and keeping feeding areas clean. We have even put out oranges in Florida and had catbirds regularly come to them. Maybe they are the same catbirds that breed in our yard in New Hampshire in the summer. We like to think so.

Rewards

One of the biggest rewards of winter feeding, in addition to knowing you are helping the birds survive, is being entertained by all those wonderful, active creatures while you are house-bound. Colorful Cardinals, perky Chickadees, big-eyed Titmice, maybe even a more rare visitor like a Pine Siskin, will line up for your restaurant where there will be standing room only.

This winter, meet your birds’ needs for the right food and shelter and have your own winter bird festival.

Thursday, December 07, 2017

Yellow-breasted Chat, a "Good Bird"





A "good bird" for a birder who likes to see rarities is often the wrong bird in the wrong place at the wrong time. There's recently been seen a Yellow-breasted Chat in New Hampshire, a surprise bird, out of it's usual range. There was also one there in Nov. 2012 and that is when I took above photos. We went to see that cool warbler in 2012 in the backyard of some birders lucky enough to have this avian celebrity. Yellow-breasted Chat is classified with warblers, but it doesn't seem like a warbler. It's big and slow and large-billed compared to tiny, hyper, delicate warblers. The backyard had just what Chats like, lots of tangled growth of brambles and shrubs to hang out in. The Chat was being pampered with oranges and dried mealworms, which she scampered out happily to consume. 

That previous NH Yellow-breasted Chat was a female (the male has black lores with black bill and gray lower base to bill, female has gray lores and brownish bill with yellowish-pink base to lower mandible.) She is the virens subspecies which occurs from e. SD-e. TX and east and these birds have  a white moustachial stripe that is small and narrow and stops below the eye.  Below are photos of a bird I photographed in GA in winter and it is the auricollis subspecies which occurs from s. SK-w. TX and west, vag. to GA and has a white moustachial stripe that is large and white and extends to behind eye.




For more on Yellow-breasted Chats and all other birds, see our best-selling, most complete field guide, The Stokes Field Guide to the Birds of North America.

Monday, December 04, 2017

Rare Finches Coming To Your Feeders This Winter! Here's Who.


White-winged Crossbill, adult male, eating hulled sunflower seeds at our feeder


White-winged Crossbills, 1st yr. male, left, adult male, right


White-winged Crossbill, adult male


White-winged Crossbill, adult male


White-winged Crossbill, 1st yr. male

According to the 2017-2018 Winter Finch Forecast compiled by Ron Pittaway this could be a good year to see rare Red and White-winged Crossbills and also other finches like Pine Siskins and Common Redpolls at your feeders if you live in the Northeast and eastern Canada. Cone crops are bumper this year in these regions, drawing the finches to these areas.

We are lucky to have had some of these birds at our feeders in NH in years past, waiting for them this year. These northern birds are rarely seen here, let alone seen at feeders. Finches like hulled sunflower and also nyger seed. White-winged Crossbills are large finches who mainly live in Canada, AK, and northern areas of the northeast quadrant of this country. In winter they can come down into the U.S. in search of food. They use their amazingly bill, which is crossed at the tip, to pry open conifer cones and extract the seeds. We were making it easy for them, as we had hulled sunflower in the feeders, no shell to remove.

It's fun to age and sex the birds at your feeder and our new field guide will help you. The top photos are of an adult male who has "Two broad well-defined white wingbars; white tips to tertials (lacking on Red Crossbill). M. head, rump and most of underparts pinkish red; back all black to mostly red; rear flanks paler and strongly to indistinctly streaked darker. F. variably faintly greenish, (sometimes yellowish) on crown, back, rump and breast: otherwise, grayish-brown upperparts and pale underparts darkly streaked with brown. 1st Yr: M. mixed brown with pinkish red or orangish yellow; f. brownish or faintly greenish." (The Stokes Field Guide to the Birds of North America, page 749).

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Pileated Woodpecker Scaling Signs, Up Close

Pileated Woodpecker's are numerous on Sanibel Island.

We followed this female Pileated Woodpecker one morning.

We saw her scaling bark off Mangrove Trees.

Scaled areas near where she was feeding

She landed and began to pound away at the bark,

striking blows beneath it,

and a large piece of bark fell away.

At one point, we saw her long tongue extended out.

She would poke her bill in at the edges of the scaled bark.

You can see her tongue going beneath the edge of the bark, here

and here,

and in this close-up.

We had an opportunity one morning at the Sanibel Lighthouse park to follow a Pileated Woodpecker. We watched the female in the above photos work over some Mangrove Trees, partially dead from damage done by Hurricane Charley in 2004. She whacked off chunks of bark and at one point we saw a fairly large chunk fall after she struck repeated blows. Later we went to some of the areas she had scaled and felt the bark and found it was tightly adhered to the tree. It was hard for us to pull any off.



One of the great things about digital photography is that you see amazing things when you blow up your photos. Our photos showed the long tongue of this female Pileated that tapers at the tip. How cool is that. Reminds us of seeing the tongues of Ruby-throated Hummingbirds when we watched through our binos as they perched near our feeders in NH. In the Birds of North America Pileated Woodpecker account written by Evelyn L. Bull and Jerome A. Jackson, it says the Pileated, "uses long, extensible, pointed tongue with barbs and sticky saliva to catch and extract ants from tunnels." This female was using her long tongue to poke into the sides of the scaled areas. Intriguing. At one point, we saw some tiny ants going under the bark and wondered if that was what she was getting. What an unusual opportunity we had to witness up-close-and-personal the feeding techniques of this female Pileated Woodpecker. There are independent researchers who are now searching for the similar looking Ivory-billed Woodpecker in LA and trying to determine its presence by distinguishing the type of scaling signs it does from that of the Pileated Woodpecker. Intriguing idea.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Cackling Goose, Would You Know One?

Cackling Goose, hutchinsii subspecies


All above photos, Cackling Goose, hutchinsii subspecies

Cackling Geese create excitement for birders when they show up in the East, and this is the time of year they often appear. Look carefully when you see a flock of Canada Geese, and maybe you can find a Cackling Goose! See my other blog post here. These geese, who mainly nest in the arctic, look like very small Canada Geese, but are a different species. There are 4 subspecies of Cackling Goose. It is thought that the subspecies who usually shows up in the East is the nominate subspecies, Branta hutchinsii hutchiinsii, (also sometimes called "Richardson's Goose", "Richardson's Cackling Goose" or "Hutchins's Goose"). The above are photos I took in western Massachusetts on 11/8/09 is of the hutchinsii subspecies (confirmed by experts). ID of Cackling subspecies emphasizes head and bill shape, with hutchinsii having a ratio of bill length to depth of about 3:2. This bird in my photo has a short bill, a short, steeply rising forehead, a rather flattened crown rising to a bit of a peak at the back of the head, all characteristics of the hutchinsii subspecies. Most hutchinsii also have a narrowing of the white of the cheek patch at the level of the eye, also visible on this bird. This bird also has a very pale breast, as have the majority of hutchinsii. The back and sides are also pale, the back does not appear darker than the sides. There's noticeable pale edges to the wing covert feathers, creating pale diagonal lines.

Cackling Goose, unknown subspecies

Cackling Geese cannot always be identified as to subspecies, as with the above and following photos of an individual I photographed in Ohio (east of Toledo) in May 2005. Several experts concur that this might be a hutchinsii subspecies or possibly an intergrade between the taverneri and hutchinsii subspecies, but it cannot be definitively identified. To quote the excellent article on Distribution and Identification of Cackling Goose Subspecies by Mlodinow et al. "though birds breeding on the continental Arctic slope from the Mackenzie River west are thought to be taverneri, the precise border between taverneri and nominate hutchinsii has not been defined, nor has the degree of potential or actual intergradation between the two (J. Leafloor, J. Pearce, D. Derksenpers. comm.)."

This bird shows a more rounded head than the hutchinsii bird in my top photo, with a more gradual slope from the bill to the head, more characteristic of taverneriTaverneri subspecies have "stout and somewhat triangular bills". The breast of this bird is pale. Taverneri are "typically medium-gray-breasted, becoming darker on belly/flanks" according to the article. However, sometimes they can have pale breasts.

Here's the neck fully upright in an alert posture of the goose. The head looks faintly flattened and there's white flecking at base of the black neck, suggesting a very thin white neck collar. The article estimated that only 2-5% of taverneri adults have a neck collar and that about 10-20% of hutchinsii can have a neck collar.

Here's another posture with the head looking somewhat flattened. Note that under the chin you can see a thin black line running from bill to the black neck, called a gular stripe. This is sometimes seen in a small percentage of hutchinsii, whereas 40-75% of taverneri have a gular stripe according to the article.

Here's another posture where the neck looks short.

Cackling Geese of the hutchinsii subspecies mainly winter along the Gulf Coast from southeastern Louisiana down into Mexico and also from eastern Colorado to eastern New Mexico through western Texas and into Mexico. Of the Cackling Geese that show up outside of their normal wintering range and stray to the East in small numbers, almost all reports have been of the hutchinsii subspecies. They have been reported from Indiana, Ontario, western New York, southern Quebec and Nova Scotia down to Virginia with a few reports to North Carolina, South Carolina and a few from Florida.
Taverneri subspecies winters in mainly Washington and Oregon, although some may winter in the continent's center. There are few reports of taverneri in eastern North America. There's a record from Onondaga county, New York, Sept. 2004, Janesville, Wisconsin, Oct. 2004, Amherst, Mass. Oct. 2007 and maybe the same bird in Middlefield Conn. Nov. to Dec. 2007 for photos of this bird see here.
The other two subspecies of Cackling Geese are leucoparia and minima. Minima (called Ridgway's Goose) is the smallest and darkest of the subspecies and winters mainly in western Oregon and Washington and central California. Only a handful or so of reports for minima exist for east of the Mississippi and are for North Carolina, Illinois, Connecticut, Alabama, Virginia and Tennessee. Leucoparia (called Aleutian Goose) a medium-sized Cackling, has a broad, white, complete neck collar on all adults. It winters mainly California and a little in Oregon and there are no winter records for east of the Mississippi River that we know of.
So keep looking at Cackling Geese in the East, there may be other subspecies showing up besides hutchinsii.

For excellent and complete information and photos of all 4 subspecies, see our The Stokes Field Guide to the Birds of North America, page 12.

Also consult Distribution and Identification of Cackling Goose Subspecies, by Mlodinow et al. North American Birds, vol. 62, no. 3, 2008, pages: 344-360.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Happy Thanksgiving to All!

Wild Turkey

These Wild Turkeys are headed in the right direction.
Happy Thanksgiving Everyone!

About Wild Turkeys:

* Wild Turkeys populations were once in decline but turkeys were reintroduced and have recovered and now Wild Turkeys occur in every state (but not Alaska) and in parts of Canada.

* Wild Turkeys live in forests and eat berries, buds, seeds, insects and nuts, especially acorns. They can scratch the ground to find food. They may come to bird seed under feeders.

* Wild Turkeys roam together in flocks in search of food. You may see them along roadsides and in fields and crossing roads.

* In spring, male turkeys perform courtship displays in fields. They fan their tails, puff up and strut and give their familiar gobbling calls. The female raises the young chicks, who can follow the female after hatching and soon can find food on their own.  Females and young form into groups and roam together.

Enjoy Wild Turkeys when you see them!

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Another Big Year for Snowy Owls? Stay Tuned!

Snowy Owl sightings so far in November 2017, ebird map. Will this be another big year for Snowy Owls to come down into the U.S. possibly in big or record numbers? In some years Snowy Owls leave their far northern areas and come into this country in search of food, possibly because food is scarce in their usual area but also in years when there is a population boom. Some are saying there was a high population of owls on their nesting grounds this year, so possibly many may leave. Stay tuned and report your sightings to ebird. And keep your distance when photographing them so as not to disturb the owls!! My blog post below was done in December 2013 when a historic irruption was underway.





Snowy Owls can come down into the U.S. in possibly historic numbers in some years (note, all photos on this post taken with long telephotos lenses from a distance, mainly from a car, so as not to disturb the owl.)
We saw 9 Sat. on the NH and MA coasts. This one was sitting in a parking lot.
I love the soft feathers around the bill, all the better to keep it warm.
This owl preened
and sat in the wind.
 Grassy flat areas, dunes, marshes, and anything like its tundra home are the habitats these Snowy Owls seek out.

Here it is in front of a New Hampshire Parks vehicle.
There are actually two of then on this breakwater way out there.
Here's a closer view taken with the powerful telephoto lens (up to 4800mm) of the Canon SX 50.
There is a mega irruption of Snowy Owls coming down from their tundra areas taking place now, with reports flooding birding listserves across the northern parts of the U.S., southern Canada, and there has even been a Snowy Owl reported in Bermuda. Birders in St. John's, Newfoundland are seeing 150 Snowy Owls in a day. There more owls on the way and this could be a historic event. You can see a map of Snowy Owl sightings on ebird.

Saturday we saw 9 on the NH and MA Coasts, with birders reporting many more owls from those areas. Owls are showing up more in coastal areas but also some from inland. They are attracted to flat or rolling, grassy or marshy tundra-like habitats. We saw our owls in coastal dunes and marshes, but they can be in other places. There are Snowy Owls showing up at airports, and one was seen hunting the grounds of the Budweiser plant in Merrimack, NH. They can perch on buildings, rocks, houses and lamp posts overlooking favorable habitat. Keep your eyes open, they could be anywhere!

If you do see a Snowy Owl do several things:
* Report your sightings to ebird, the national database that tracks birds, so this event can be well documented.
* Do not get close to the owl to view or photograph it so as not to scare it away or harass it. These are birds that have left the far north because there is not enough food there. They are hungry and may be starving and need to conserve energy to hunt for food.
*Enjoy watching and appreciating these, usually rare, Snowy Owls for this is a special event. Some of these birds, unfortunately, may not make it if they do not find enough food.

Snowy Owls breed in the far north and in winter some come down into Canada and the northern half of the U.S. Sometimes when there is a food shortage in their usual areas, they may irrupt in large numbers and move south as they are doing now. They are diurnal hunters and eat lemmings and other small mammals and rodents, sometimes ducks and seabirds.
Male Snowy Owls are generally white overall with a suggestion of grayish barring. Females are heavily barred overall and young birds are the darkest of their sex with first year females being the darkest.

To learn more about Snowy Owls, and how to identify other birds (including all those you photograph!!) see our new field guides:


The Stokes Field Guide to the Birds of North America contains over 3,400 bird photos (many of them from me and other top bird photographers) and is the most complete photographic guide to those birds ever done.


It is also available as eastern or western regional editions,


If you want to learn more about how to take photos with the Canon SX 50 Camera, go to my blog post here, where you can find out about my extensive tips.