Category Archives: Birds

Thrush-Bob is back!

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I was staring out the window, looking at a Tufted Titmouse and thinking “Man…I guess Thrush-Bob isn’t gonna come back this year…” and literally at that moment he landed on the birdbath and began splashing around.

This is his third year here. Hermit Thrushes do often display site fidelity, but the northern forests are big and life is tough for birds, so I am never sure if he’ll make it back here. And of course, since he showed up on the back deck three years ago and began demanding mealworms (a behavior he trained into us, not the other way around–Hermit Thrushes are supposed to be shy and retiring!) he is now one of the crew.

I think we’re basically the winter spa–fairly regular water when it’s freezing, hot and cold running mealworms, and a sheltered corner of the deck. I always worry because there are feral cats about, but making it three years (or more–we have no idea how long he was showing up in the area before he learned that monkeys were a good source of mealworms) means Thrush-Bob is a tough and canny thrush.

More broadly, Hermit Thrushes are one of the few migratory songbirds whose numbers are rising. We are told that they are rare in backyards and don’t come to feeders, but apparently Bob didn’t get the memo, or “feeders” did not include “Kevin shuffling out at six in the morning muttering “‘Blood and Mealworms for my lord Thrush-Bob…'”

Species #1: Blue-headed Vireo

By | Birds, Stuff In My Yard | No Comments

So I actually did wind up making a New Year’s Resolution, which you can read about here.

Fifty Species Goal

My current yardlist of resident/visiting species is well over 300, which sounds really impressive but is less so than you might think. The impressive bit is that I actually got down on my hands and knees and looked for the darn things, and that’s more a tribute to the weirdness of my hobbies. There is an extraordinary amount of life out there if you know where to look…and aren’t actively trying to nuke it from orbit, of course.

In my perfect world (such as it is) we would all consider the number of species in our yards to be a source of inordinate pride. They’d give us property tax breaks for biodiversity. The perfect sterile lawn would be treated with mild contempt and HOAs would leave you faux-concerned notes stating that your grass was too short and appeared to be a monoculture. When you sold the house, your real estate listing would mention that there were spotted salamanders and ovenbirds breeding on the lot.

Oh well. Fantasy aside, the point is, I’ve knocked off a fair bit of the low-hanging fruit, and if I want to increase the count, I have to A) be lucky and B) actually get in there and look closely and track down IDs, not just throw my hands in the air and go “I dunno, it’s a bee.”

Fortunately for me, I got a surprise guest the other day, a lovely little blue-headed vireo attracted to the open water in the birdbath. This is an insect-eating species, although they’ll nosh on fruit in the winter (I think the suet may have interested him a bit, and perhaps the rose hips.) This particular vireo’s population is actually increasing, making them a rare good news story in the bird world. (Go, Team Vireo!)

So that’s one down and forty-nine to go…

Bluebirds

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It is December 17th.

There are bluebirds house-hunting in the garden.

They start early–I’ve heard of them looking at prospective real-estate in January, and I won’t swear this is out of historical range–but god, it seems early. I feel the urge to apologize to them. The garden is a shambles, it’s been cold and wet and miserable and I haven’t felt any desire to get out and spread cow manure on the garden.

Today is a blindingly sunny day, not horribly cold, and more birds than usual are out in the garden. I usually don’t see bluebirds all the way back here. They like the neighbor’s open yards. (Some day I will sink a pole in the grassy area by the driveway entrance and set up a bluebird house, but sinking poles in this clay is a grim prospect.) We’ve also got a smattering of woodpeckers–not uncommon, but there’s a flicker and those rarely wander into the garden. They were extremely common when I lived in town, but for some reason, my current yard doesn’t appeal to them as much.

A golden-crowned kinglet seems to have settled in here for the winter, much to my delight. Thrush-Bob is still demanding mealworms on the deck. (Kevin slogs out in the morning, chanting “Blood and mealworms for my lord Thrush-Bob!”)

Everything’s kind of dormant and in stasis right now…but dude. Bluebirds. There’s a thing.

Best. Thing. Ever.

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There is a baby hummingbird in the garden.

I can tell it’s a baby because it has the remains of a fluffy gray cap and I don’t think hummingbirds have taken to wearing wigs. It’s a Ruby-Throated Hummingbird, that being the only species that breeds out here. (Incidentally, this brings our fledgling count of the year up to a dozen, which is leaps and bounds past anything we’ve ever achieved in the garden—just an incredible year. I am still not sure if this is because the garden is getting older and has a better carrying capacity or if the rains led to a mosquito explosion that fed zillions of fledglings, but just—amazing year.)

As I watched, the fledgling hummingbird fed off the scarlet runner-bean flowers adorning the deck, and shoved its beak deep into one particular carmine flower.

Which came off.

On its beak.

Suddenly the hummingbird is zipping around in a panic with GIANT HEAD-SIZED RED FLOWER STUCK TO MY FACE AAAAAAHHHH GET IT OFF GET IT OFF GET IT OFF while I laughed like a hyena on nitrous. Fortunately the flower fell off within a second or two, much to the bird’s relief (and mine, since once I stopped laughing, I’d have had to figure out how to help the bird, and that would be a mess.)

There is pretty much nothing that can top that ever today, so I’m gonna go get coffee.

A Garden Getting Better

By | Birds, My Garden | 3 Comments

Every time I start to get depressed about the weeds coming in on all sides, I must remember that the garden really does get better every year.

It’s not just the plants (although they, too, get better every year—my fire pinks went from a single spindly stalk to a respectable clump and my American spikenard is going from a respectable clump to a terrifying parasol of doooooom that may need thinning.) It’s also the wildlife, or rather, our carrying capacity for wildlife.

My back-of-the-envelope math indicates that for the last few years, we got four to six fledglings per year in the immediate vicinity of my garden. What they ARE varies–last year was a banner year, we had two apiece of chickadees and gnatcatchers and ruby-throated hummingbirds, a few years ago it was red-bellied woodpeckers and titmice, but generally those seem to be the numbers.

This year we’ve got six ALREADY, by early June. A juvenile chipping sparrow, a rather wobbly great crested flycatcher (nowhere near as vivid as the parents, and spending a lot of time floundering amid the flowerpots) three baby Carolina wrens who are all gone from the nest today (hoping they fledged and weren’t devoured, but honestly, I’d rather have “part of the food chain” than “not enough food to exist in the first place.”) and a juvenile brown-headed cowbird.

Not sure how I feel about the cowbird, honestly, but there he is.

There was also a rather delightful first-year summer tanager, who was molting red over yellow, like a goldfinch with psoriasis. He perched on a tomato cage and sang his heart out. I would be perfectly happy to have tanagers settle in here—we’ve had them pass through but not stay—but this little guy may be out of luck for the year. I don’t know how first year males do in the great songbird wars.

On top of that, more and more birds stop by to grab a drink or a snack on the way to something else. The butterflies are thicker on the ground every year. (I have enough pipevine for a couple of swallowtails this year, instead of just one!) My neighbor’s honeybees coexist peacefully with respectable quantities of native bees.The frogs…well, the frogs tend toward a boom-and-bust cycle, near as I can tell, and the pond is SWARMING with predacious diving beetles, which are very cool even as they are keeping the tadpole numbers in check this year. (I have faith it will all reach equilibrium eventually.)

There are fireflies in the field, and occasionally wandering through the garden or sitting on the screen and pulsing with light.

This spring I found a wild native honeysuckle growing on the fence, where I hadn’t planted it. (And yes, I pulled about half of it before I realized my mistake and felt like history’s greatest monster.)

And this is all with big bare mulched patches left between plants still. When it all grows in, if I ever manage the lush cottage-esque garden of my dreams…well, who knows what might show up?

ETA: As of 6/10, there’s a juvenile (probably) female cardinal, mourning dove still with baby fluff, and a juvenile red-bellied woodpecker spotted as well. Also a herd of grackles on the feeder. That’s one new yard bird (never had grackles before, oddly enough) and three more fledglings, for a grand total of NINE.

Also grackles are bad at sharing. And if we get much more water, the yard will just be underwater.

The Migration Has Begun!

By | Birds | One Comment

I figured we were probably well into migration season, since the Juncoes are gone and Thrush-Bob, the Hermit Thrush that overwintered on our deck, has left for more northerly pastures. (We wish him well. Likely we will never see him again, but I like to think that his steady diet of mealworms over the long winter have made him a big, sturdy thrush.* Go, Thrush-Bob! Have a zillion fledglings!)

I was peering out the window at some birds bathing in the pond—pair of Chipping Sparrows, a cute little common sparrow—and I saw something small land on the far side of the pond, next to a clump of spiderwort.

If I hadn’t seen it come in, I would have missed it entirely—a very drab little bird. Grey head, white eye-ring, yellow breast. By that I knew it was a warbler, and Sibley narrowed it down the rest of the way. My garden had been, at least for a moment, host to a Nashville Warbler. (No, they don’t sing country, so far as I know.)

That’s bird #60 on the yard list, which is not bad at all, and a lifer for me.

What I always think in these cases is that I would never have seen it if I hadn’t looked in the exact right place at the exact right time. So I wonder how many birds are passing through the garden unspotted, unidentified, and unrecorded. Which is the sort of thing that can drive a birder crazy, if they think about it too much…

 

*The cats are sad that Thrush TV is now off-air, and can be found mooching around the windows, hoping for re-runs.

Swans in the Mist

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I went to take the trash out with Kevin, and as we walked back down the long gravel drive, I happened to look up. It’s been very foggy these last few days, so it was one of those oddly bright dusks where the fog is brighter than the sky.

A V-formation of swans went overhead in total silence.

They were very low over the house, almost skimming the tree-line, their outlines just faintly blurred with fog. I could see the darkness of their bills. It was a perfect monochrome image—white birds on white fog with black bills and black scribbles of trees reaching up toward them. There were nine or ten of them, maybe more—it didn’t even occur to me to count them.

It was eerie how silent they were. Geese honk when they go by. These didn’t.

I, being the cool operator that I am, yelled “Shit! Dude! Uh! Thing!” and pointed wildly.

Kevin looked up and said “….whoa.

I scrambled inside and checked the internet. It turns out that North Carolina has the largest wintering population of tundra swans on the East Coast—75 thousand birds. These birds were a good bit farther west and south than usual—I’ve never seen one out here before (or in fact ever, they were lifers for me!)—but given the weird weather and the fact that we’re due a winter storm coming in very soon, I expect they were moving in response to incoming weather, probably heading to Jordan Lake. (All tundra swan reports in this county are on that particular lake, making it a safe bet.)

It was an extraordinary sight, and not one that I expected when I was pulling my coat on to help Kevin drag the trash down to the curb. So I guess you just never know, huh?

Eleventh Day of Christmas

By | Birds | 3 Comments

On the eleventh day of Christmas, my true love gave to me…

eleven

ten

six

four

one

no great big hawks!

 

…ten tufted titmice!

…nine frogs a-croaking!

…eight vultures circling!

…seven spiky yuccas!

…six types of milkweed!

…fiiiive! naaaative! plaaaaants!

…four hummingbirds!

…three moorhens!

…two mourning doves!

…and a replacement for a Bradford pear tree!

 

There are a couple of kinds of raptors locally—if you cross our local lake, you’ll see lots of osprey and the occasional bald eagle—but the only ones that come into our yard are red-tailed hawks and red-shouldered hawks.

Of the two, red-shoulders are by far the more common, as they hunt inside forests. They’re a very maneuverable bird. (Mostly I see them because they’re being mobbed by crows, as they also blend into these dappled brown woods like you wouldn’t believe.) They come for prey—primarily frogs from the frog pond—but also for water when it’s very dry. So every now and again, I’ll be wandering past the windows downstairs and suddenly a massive shape will launch off the deck rail and I will realize that there was a hawk drinking from the birdbath.

This wakes you up very quickly.

Tenth Day of Christmas

By | Birds | 3 Comments

On the tenth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me…

…ten tufted titmice!

…nine frogs a-croaking!

…eight vultures circling!

…seven spiky yuccas!

…six types of milkweed!

…fiiiive! naaaative! plaaaaants!

…four hummingbirds!

…three moorhens!

…two mourning doves!

…and a replacement for a Bradford pear tree!

 

The tufted titmouse is one of my very favorite feeder birds, and not just because I’m twelve and still like saying “titmouse!” (Bwhaahah!) They’re one of the really common feeder birds in the eastern US and look like…well, like titmice. (Small gray and white cardinals is how I’d describe them to a non-birder, I guess.) They have little crests and big black eyes and they hoard food. In fall and winter, there is a constant stream of tufted titmice coming and going from the feeder with safflower seed to stash somewhere.

They don’t flock, per se, but hang about in pairs and trios, usually with Carolina chickadees. They’re also one of those birds who like to nest in cavities in trees, but can’t excavate their own. They use old woodpecker holes instead. I have on at least one occasion seen tufted titmice move into a tree-trunk cavity immediately after a red-bellied woodpecker has fledged.

Tufted titmice have raised multiple broods in my garden, generally averaging a fledgling or two a year. They’re very common and in no way endangered, but I’m still delighted to see them having babies locally. Makes me feel like we’re doing something right.