Our eyes and ears should be open and alert to the natural wonders that surround us every day. Take time to look out our windows to see the birds that visit us and open our windows to hear them. Walk around whatever space we have to enjoy the birds in nature. Every day, work on improving our powers of observation.
Nature happens. We cannot MAKE natural things happen (or NOT happen). We can create habitats to encourage natural things to happen around us, but there are no guarantees.
Birdfeeding comes with responsibilities to the birds and the environment we share with them. If you are unwilling to accept these responsibilities, you shouldn’t feed the birds. We also have a responsibility to share these natural wonders with the next generation.
As we near the end of a winter that has been the oddest in recent memory, it doesn't take much for birds to return to the birdfeeders. Today, I woke up to about 2" of new snow and the temperature had dipped to a few degrees below freezing. But just that little bit of snow and a couple degree temperature drop reawakened the activity at my feeders. At least for the time being...
American Goldfinches busy on the feeders
This has been the warmest and least snowy of all the winters that I've experienced since I moved to upstate New York in 1991. Snowfall is well below average - I've recorded only 29" of snow, well below my winter snowfall average of around 80" (I live at an elevation of 1,345 feet, so we generally have more snow than Saratoga.) Our winter has been so weird that I had more snow fall in October (5") than in December (1")!! And temperatures have been above average all winter long as well.
As a result, birds have just not been visiting birdfeeders. But I'm note alone. Birds have been less busy than normal at my house, at the majority of our customers' homes, throughout the Northeast, as well as at other locations. In areas around the country where winters are closer to "normal", birdfeeder activity has also been somewhat normal.
The good news is that there hasn't been any known widespread outbreaks of disease amongst bird populations. What we're experiencing is just nature being nature and birds being birds:
When temperatures are warmer, birds need less energy throughout the day. When the ground is free from snow cover and trees are not iced over, birds can find their daily energy requirements in the natural food sources that are still accessible to them on the ground and in trees and bushes. The birds are around - they're just not frequenting our feeders as much as they typically do and certainly not as much as we'd like them to.
Male American Goldfinch - is he molting already?
But as was demonstrated this morning, add a little snow to the equation or turn the temperature down a few notches, and the birds readily return to an easy source of high energy food at your birdfeeders. And winter is still not over; all you have to do is look back to the 20" that fell on March 7-8, 1996 or the 18" that fell on April 9, 2000. But whatever happens in March and April, the winter of 2011-12 will go down as one of the weirdest and one of the least birdiest.
Our harbingers of spring, Red-winged Blackbirds, will be here "konk-ler-eeing" within 2-3 weeks' time, followed shortly by native sparrows, cowbirds, and phoebes.
Until then, enjoy the bursts of bird activity that accompany temperature drops or whatever snow we do get. The birds are out there, but they're just getting along without our birdfeeder offerings. In other words, they're doing just fine, even though we're missing them dearly.
While at sea between Grand Turk and Jamaica, I saw a Brown Booby! No, not THAT kind of brown booby, even there were lots of sunbathers on the decks of our cruise ship. As I was looking out over the open sea, I saw a single Brown Booby BIRD.
The Brown Booby, Sula leucogaster, is a sea bird that is often attracted to ships. It's a widespread resident of the West Indies and will soon begin the breeding season on a remote eastern Caribbean island or sea cliff.
Even though they can be gregarious, I saw just a single bird as we were cruising about two hours northeast of Jamaica. It was a new bird for me, and besides Magnificent Frigatebirds seen in a few locations this trip, it was the only pelagic, or open ocean bird, that I was lucky enough to encounter. But it was exciting that it was close enough to identify and to capture at least a few images of the Brown Booby.
Our cruise departed on a beautiful winter night in Miami. We had a cabin with a balcony and I enjoyed watching the full moon through the clouds above the lights of the city. We sailed along the coast of southern Florida toward a 9am arrival in Key West, 156 miles away.
Off the dock in Key West, we chose to take the trolley tour, which showed us some of the main attractions such as Hemingway's home and the southernmost point in the US (only a 90 mile swim to Cuba.) But it also allowed us to jump on and off at any stop around the island. Our first (and primary) stop was at the Key West Butterfly & Nature Conservatory.
Within the conservatory at any one time throughout the year, there are 50-60 species of butterflies from around the world. It is almost surreal walking amongst the butterflies as they flutter all around you, crossing your path. And If you're lucky, they may even land on you. This Blue Morpho, which is the signature butterfly of the conservatory, landed on this guy multiple times, including one tickly stop on his bald head.
Blue morphos were plentiful throughout the enclosure, but always in motion, and when they land, it is most often with their wings closed. So my best images of them are in that closed-wing position, which shows off their interesting strong eye-spot pattern.
Here are just a sampling of the butterflies there, along with my best try at identification. If you can supply any IDs or correct any I'm wrong on, I'd appreciate it. There seemed to be many butterflies from the longwing, or Heliconius genus, but I had a hard time naming the specific species.
Tropical Blue Wave
I also had a hard time identifying the exotic birds that shared the habitat with the butterflies, but here's a sampling of them, again with my best guesses on the species (assistance welcome!)
Diamond Dove (?)
Red-headed Parrot Finch (?)
It was a hot and humid visit inside the conservatory, but quite enjoyable. We then hopped back on the trolley to continue our tour of Key West before returning to the ship.
One of the benefits of a cruise with multiple ports-of-call is being able to make one-day stops that help you determine which sights you might want to return to. Key West is one of those places. Sure, it's touristy, but you can't beat the climate (they boast being the only frost-free city in the continental US.) The atmosphere is fun, there's plenty to do on the Keys and of course there would be the obligatory trip to the Dry Tortugas which is just 70 miles west of Key West.
We'll avoid the crazy weekends like the yearly Conch Republic Independence Celebration or the LaTeDa Redux Queen Mother Pageant, but I'm gonna say a return trip to the Florida Keys will be in my future!
I've been away from blogging for awhile as I enjoyed a 10-day pseudo-retirement cruise in the Caribbean. Today's Wings on Wednesday image of a Tri-colored Heron in Cockburn Town Grand Turk will kick off a series of posts about my cruise.
It wasn't a birding cruise, so I'll be sharing images of birds but also of other wildlife we encountered (wild and otherwise), plus some of the excursion fun we enjoyed.
Our ship, the Costa Atlantica, took us to Key West FL - Grand Turk, Turks & Caicos - Grand Cayman - Ocho Rios, Jamaica - Roatan, Honduras - Cozumel, Mexico. Stay tuned and join me on a journey through the Caribbean!
A. Especially during fall and winter, many birds like Blue Jays, Black-capped Chickadees, nuthatches, and Tufted Titmice will hide food to retrieve and eat at a later time. This behavior is called "caching".
Caching helps birds survive during bad weather and when food sources are low. These birds store hundreds of seeds a day. Each seed is placed in a different lcoation and they remember where each one is, even a month later!
Here's some caching fun facts:
Some birds' hippocampus, the spatial memory part of the brain, actually grows larger in the fall to help them remember where the stored food.
Because weather conditions are typically more severe, northern birds rely on caches more than southern birds. Not surprisingly, more northern birds have larger hippocampi for greater memory storage than southern birds.
11 species of oak trees have become dependent on jays for the dispersal of their acorns.
Provide an easily accessible food source to help your birds with their caching habits!
We love to encourage our customers to participate in citizen science projects, especially the Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC), which is held annually over the 4-day Presidents Day Weekend. This year the dates are February 17-18-19-20.
Here's the Top 5 questions we get asked about the GBBC:
What if you don't know what the bird is? Do your best to identify the bird using a bird guide or online resources. If you can't positively identify it, ask us at Wild Birds Unlimited, we might be able to help. Bringing a photograph in and/or good notes will help. If the bird just can't be identified, that's fine, you just won't report it.
I've had a hawk fly through the yard during a count that I was unable to identify. I couldn't tell whether it was a Cooper's Hawk or a Sharp-shinned Hawk. I wish I could've reported it, but I couldn't clearly identify it, so it went unreported. Don't worry - it just happens!
How long of a time do you need to count? All it takes is a minimum of 15 minutes. If you have longer, that's great too!
You can count multiple times over the 4-day count period (and hope you do). You can even count multiple times on a day. For example, you count in the morning before you go to work, and then again when you get home. This would be submitted as two separate checklists.
I'm not going to be at my own house; can I count someplace else? Sure. One year, I did Day 4 while visiting a friend in Old Forge, NY.
If I see a male bird one time and a female bird the next time, I count 2, right? No, unless you see the male and female bird at the same time. Why not? Consistency; this is the surest way to ensure that everyone that counts, counts in the same manner.
Do I count the birds I see in the sky? If you can clearly identify them, yes, include them in your count.
Enjoy counting the birds this weekend in the Great Backyard Bird Count. Wild Birds Unlimited is proud to be a sponsor of this citizen science project!
Q. Why don’t birds’ feet stick to metal when it's freezing out?
A. Birds don’t have sweat glands to produce any moisture to freeze. Their feet are mostly bone and tendons, which have a limited supply of nerves, blood vessels or muscle tissue to freeze. Also, their feet are covered with scales.