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.
2013 is almost gone and I don't have a new yard bird yet this year! With only days to go and migration done, the pressure is on to add #95 to my yard list.
Since the house was built and we moved in in July 1991, I've added at least one new bird species just about every year. And since our Wild Birds Unlimited shop opened in 2003 (when I probably started paying even better attention), we've had at least one new species every year.
Admittedly, it gets harder each year, and calls upon my identification skills more. There's been many a day, especially during spring or fall migration, that I thought I'd be able to add to my yard list if only one of my more knowledgeable birding friends was present. I'd bet big bucks that I've had numerous warblers stop by that I just couldn't identify.
Birds don't always give us the best view!
My 2012 new yard birds were a Lincoln's Sparrow in May and believe it or not, a first ever Red-tailed Hawk (overhead) in June. The year before, I added Field Sparrow and Palm Warbler.
Lincoln's Sparrow New Yard Bird in 2012
So over the closing days of 2013, I'll need to keep a sharp eye out for that new bird. I know the "potentials" are shrinking. My best bet might be to watch overhead, where if I'm really lucky, I could see a hawk or waterfowl that hasn't passed over before. Or I could dream really big and hope that one of this winter's irrupting Snowy Owls passes overhead.
Wish me luck! And if I don't get that new bird in the next few days, I'll just turn the calendar page and shoot for 2 or more new species in 2014!!
I was coming off a Project FeederWatch count that would depress even the most optimistic bird feeding enthusiast: just 6 species and 17 individual birds observed over the 2-day count period. I even wrote a blog post about it, predicting the rest of the season to be disappointing in number and diversity of birds.
But there had been minor changes in the weather since my last count. Temperatures had turned much colder, with daytime highs just around freezing and overnight lows nearing single digits. Patchy snow covered the ground. Just north of us, a winter storm was in the forecast. Changes like these are perfect to help turn bird feeding activity up a notch.
I began my count just minutes after the 7:02am sunrise, and my initial look outside included 5 Blue Jays, 3 Black-capped Chickadees, a Dark-eyed Junco, and an American Goldfinch. I was optimistic - I had ten birds by 7:05, when I only had seventeen in 12 hours of counting the week before!
Then around 7:15, the noise began. "Kaak, kaak, kaak, kaak!", coming from the trees all around the house. High in the pines in the back, they looked like big black ornaments, sometimes 3 or 4 to a branch, every branch. In the maple to the east, they dotted every leafless limb. They crowded the plum tree right off the corner of the deck. At first, the Blue Jays perched amongst them, until the sheer number of intruders drove off even the most aggressive jay. Yea, Alfred Hitchcock's "The Birds" did come to mind.
There were well over a hundred of them, Common Grackles on the move. Grackles begin forming communal roosts in late summer, shortly after nesting, and typically migrate from our area in October and November. Migrating flocks in flight can look like long ribbons in the sky.
I don't know where they came from, perhaps a roost just north of us. Grackles leave their roosts at first light and these descended to my yard within 15 minutes of sunrise. Maybe the winter storm in the forecast got them on the move and the jay activity in my yard alerted them to an easy food source before they took flight.
They descended from the trees and became a black moving carpet over the entire yard. They crowded the gravel driveway, likely taking in grit to aid in digestion.
My best count: 163 Common Grackles
I count 114 grackles on the driveway, walk and corner of yard
Interestingly, they didn't crowd the bird feeders, they just foraged on the ground. They were spooky, flying off to nearby trees with any movement, but returning to forage as soon as it seemed safe to return.
They didn't stay long, just 30 minutes or so. But that's all it took to put on an impressive display, sending me off to find out more about this common but often underappreciated bird.
After finishing my second week of Project FeederWatch, I tallied the sad results and came up with only 6 species and 17 individual birds over the two-day count. It made me wonder what my counts have looked like in Week 2 of previous years and how those years turned out overall.
Bird activity has been very slow at my birdfeeders this fall, the product of a wet spring and warm summer that has provided wildlife, including birds, with a lot of natural food to feast upon. This Week 2 (during the 3rd week of November), I had only Black-capped Chickadees (albeit a fair number of them - 9), American Goldfinches (3), Mourning Doves (2), and one each of Red-breasted Nuthatch, Blue Jay, and Dark-eyed Junco.
My single Red-breasted Nuthatch
This second week was even slower than my first week, when I had 9 species and 36 individual birds visit my yard. Oh, make that 35 individuals - I lost a Downy Woodpecker to a Cooper's Hawk that day. :(
Not only is the diversity of birds below average, the sheer number of birds at the feeders is way below average.
The yard "regulars" that are MIA include White Breasted Nuthatches, Hairy Woodpeckers, and Downy Woodpeckers. I haven't seen a Hairy Woodpecker in weeks! And the birds here in smaller numbers than usual are the Blue Jays, Mourning Doves, and Dark-eyed Juncos.
In other years, some of these week 2 counts have included some migrants such as Fox Sparrows and Common Grackles, as well as some uncommon birds to my yard like Ruffed Grouse and Cedar Waxwings.
The other two PFW seasons that had lower than average Week 2 counts were 2004-05 and 2011-12.
2004-05 finished with a high species count of 12 (average of 10) and a high individual count of 68 (average of 35) with 15 different species visiting over the season. That season may have been influenced by the fact that we were just then getting into the heavy birdfeeding in our yard and it was my first year counting.
2011-12 finished with a high species count of 15 (average of 8.1) and a high individual count of 94 (average of 51) with 17 different species visiting over the season.
Both these seasons finished below the average PFW counts (over 9 seasons) of 11 species and 71 individuals.
If I were to use this history as a predictor of what the remaining 13-17 counts might be, I would say that this will be a BELOW AVERAGE Project FeederWatch season at my birdfeeders here in upstate New York. I will see not only fewer species but many fewer total birds. To add to this grim prediction, Ron Pittaway's Winter Finch Forecast suggests that we won't see Pine Siskins or Common Redpolls in our area this winter because of plentiful natural food sources up in Canada.
My lesson here is that natural foods always trump the birdfeeders. Birds will return to birdfeeders when natural foods are either covered up by snow/ice or when those foods are depleted. Birds move to where the natural foods are plentiful.
Another important point is that I should (and will) continue my Project FeederWatch counts even during slow count periods. The REAL scientists who know what they're doing will add my counts to all the thousands of others that come in and make sense of it all. Here's what they say on the Project FeederWatch instructions:
"Remember if no birds visit your feeders, this information is important. The only way scientists know when birds are missing is if the people seeing no or very few birds tell us."
So I'll continue to count and continue to enter data, and hope my predictions are wrong. Either way, I'll take great joy in the few birds I'm seeing out my window this winter.
ps: My final point to this post is the realization that I'm a real nerd. But a real nerd untrained in math, or statistics, or science, which makes me a dangerous nerd. But thanks for reading anyway!
As a casual nature photographer, I do believe that every picture tells a story, and this seemingly simple image is no exception. But it's a sad story.
Bird activity has been slow around my house all fall. Lots of Black-capped Chickadees, some sporadic American Goldfinches, a Dark-eyed Junco and Red-breasted Nuthatch or two, a few Blue Jays, and a single Downy Woodpecker has been it for many weeks. It's been the slowest autumn of woodpecker activity we've ever had, as they forage on all the natural foods out there. One little downy had been all we'd seen in weeks.
A few days ago I was working at my computer that sits on a desk overlooking my yard and birdfeeding stations. Just after noon, I heard a bird glance against a window on the other side of the room, followed by catching out of the corner of my eye the movement of a large bird on our deck.
A bird had lightly struck the window, probably fleeing from the large bird - a Cooper's Hawk on the hunt. The hawk then plucked his prey, either straight off the window or off the deck, and flew to the yard to begin consuming it. I thought I saw the bird he held was mostly black and white. But as I got up for binoculars and camera and approached the window, the hawk flew off with the bird in his clutches.
I never really got a good look at the unlucky bird, but I did think it seemed bigger than a chickadee, and mostly black and white. I checked the feathers on the window, but they're mostly white down feathers that insulate a bird, and their size and color (or lack of it) tell me nothing.
What has somewhat confirmed my fear that I had lost my only Downy Woodpecker to this hawk strike is that my downy has been absent ever since. When you only have a few birds visiting your yard, the absence of even one is noticeable and notable.
I know there are more Downy Woodpeckers out there feasting in nature, and I wish for their speedy return to my feeders to fill the void created by my lost little downy.
Not too long ago, I wrote a post called "A Letter from Your Feeder Birds" about our bird activity being slower right now due to the abundance of natural food sources. Many people across the country are experiencing this as birds are feeding on seeds, nuts, fruits, insects, spiders, berries and more.
So, the next question many folks ask is, "so when will they return?" Here's what you can expect:
After the first big freeze that kills off insects, you might see a bit of an increase, but the birds will still be feeding on insect carcasses, egg casings, and other insect debris left behind.
When you get your first snow cover, you'll see an increase in activity at your bird feeders as the natural food on the ground gets covered up. If you get an ice storm, natural food hidden in tree crevices could get iced over and become unavailable to birds until the ice melts.
As temperatures decline, birds may visit your bird feeders first thing in the morning to get some easy pickin's before they head out to forage for the day. Likewise at dusk they may visit for some quick, easy calories before tucking in for the night.
Bottom line: Birds will return to bird feeders in earnest when natural foods are gone, either depleted or made inaccessible by snow and/or ice.
The moist spring and warm summer has given wildlife a wonderful supply of natural foods. That's a good thing for the birds and other creatures we enjoy seeing in nature. The price we pay is that things are a little slower in our yards, and sometimes we don't like that. We miss the movement and color and sound in our yards!
But there's nothing we can do to speed their return. What we CAN do is this: keep your bird feeders clean and partially filled. This will serve multiple purposes. First, it will give the birds that quick easy source in the morning and at dusk. Then, as they come in for these easy food sources, they are taking note of your yard as a reliable food patch to return to once natural foods are depleted. Yes, they are "bookmarking" your yard!
It doesn't take a lot of food in your bird feeders to accomplish this. In fact, during slow times, you'll waste a lot less birdfood if you just fill your feeders halfway. Keep an eye on your feeders to make sure that the slower-moving food is not molding or clumping. If you see that happening, throw away the bad food, give the feeder a good cleaning, refill it partially, and put it back out.
It's too bad the birds aren't busy in our yards as we enjoy the beautiful weather and colors that autumn provides, but it's all part of nature's cycles. Before we know it, when the trees are bare and the landscape has been transformed into its winter pallet of grays and browns, our birds will return, just when we need it most.
Winter Finch Forecast has been released and the news is not too good for
us: we'll be seeing few to no winter finches this season.
ornithologist Ron Pittaway bases his annual forecast on the
availability of the finches' preferred natural foods. And this summer
has produced good to excellent crops of seed-bearing cones on conifer
trees and seeds and fruits on deciduous trees to the north of us. As a
result, irruptive winter finches like Common Redpoll, Pine Siskin, and
Evening Grosbeak do not need to move much in search of food.
cone and/or berry crops are low in Canada's boreal forest, we here in
eastern upstate New York can be inundated with large flocks of these
winter finches. Our last really big irruption was in the winter of
2007-08, when scores of redpolls drained our bird feeders. Evening Grosbeaks as well as uncommon Pine Grosbeaks made appearances in many area yards. We've had
smaller irruptions since of either redpolls or siskins. But
this year looks like it's going to be slow times at the finch feeders.
Common Redpolls crowd a mesh finch feeder
But here's the good news: winter flocks of Black-capped Chickadees,
White-breasted and/or Red-breasted Nuthatches, Tufted Titmice, and Downy
Woodpeckers are starting to form and are taking note right now of
reliable food patches for winter feeding. So keep your bird feeders up,
clean, and at least partially filled so these winter flocks choose to
return to your yard patch as natural food sources deplete.
A couple weeks back, I was
lucky enough to come upon two adult Bald Eagles while out in my kayak on
Loon Lake in Chestertown NY. I was also hoping to see the lake's
namesake Common Loons, but a paddle around almost the entire lake that
day came up empty.
I returned a couple weeks later, but since I was there to close camp, I had no plans to get out on the water. As we loaded the car though, the loons came to us. Not
more than 30-40 feet off shore swam two Common Loons.
grabbed my camera, hoping to get a couple images of the loons. They
were transitioning into their winter plumage, so their shiny black heads
were now a dull black on top and becoming a dirty white on the chin, cheeks and
neck. The barred white necklace was still present as was the familiar checkered
They were silent, making
none of their yodels or calls that echo across the lake on summer days.
They'd swim silently then dive. I'd try to guess where they'd
reappear, but I was always way off in selecting their resurfacing point.
one of their dives, I sneaked closer, crouching in an empty firewood
bin. I hoped they'd swim closer for some photographs from my makeshift
blind. But they only drifted away, continuing to dive and emerge
further and further down the lake.
leaving Loon Lake soon, migrating south to spend the winter along the
coast or on some large lake that doesn't freeze solid like this small,
woodland lake that bears their name.
Greetings from nature! We know we haven't stopped by your birdfeeders much lately, but we wanted to let you know we're still out there, doing just fine, and thinking of you! The weather has been gorgeous and we're enjoying it as much as you are.
The summer has given us a bounty of natural foods for the taking. There are tons of insects like caterpillars, spiders, grasshoppers, ants, and beetles out there, and we hate to pass them up while they're available to us. We're also finding lots of tree seeds and nuts, as well as fruits and berries.
So we haven't been in your yard much because we're filling up on the goodies in the wild. We did stop at your birdfeeding station last night at dusk, but we didn't see you around. Sorry we missed you.
While we're not around as much, it's okay with us if you just fill your feeders halfway. We'll use them for one last nibble before we settle down for the night or when we pass through the neighborhood. Oh, and thanks for keeping the birdbath clean and filled. Will you have that open all winter?
We know that all these natural food sources will eventually deplete. ☹ We continue to check in on your yard so that when that time comes, we know where to find a reliable quality food source and some decent habitat to shelter us when the weather turns nasty.
Thanks again for all you do for us, even when we're not around that much. We'll remember that, and will be back in your yard before you know it! You're the best!
Love, Your Favorite Birds
ps: Thanks for keeping those kitties indoors too. They're cute, but they don't seem to like us to much.