A widely used phrase for developing a bird-friendly yard is “habitat development.” Plant a few trees, shrubs and flowers, add a water feature and you are done – habitat developed.
I prefer to think of my home, its two inhabitants and the surrounding yard, as a micro-ecosystem. If a giant, and oddly shaped bell jar was placed over my home and small yard could I and the other creatures living there survive? Obviously not, but I try to think along those lines.
To develop my micro-ecosystem I considered two things that work together.
1. Use of safe, natural organic gardening products. Avoid pesticides and harsh chemical fertilizers.
The most important part of my ecosystem starts underground. Healthy soil is loaded with heaps of microbial life and critters like earthworms. These underground denizens of my yard will do great things if I let them; as they feed on things like dead blades of grass and leaves.
And just as too much salt in the diet is not good for people, too much salt is not good for the those underground caretakers of the yard. Chemical fertilizers act as a salt, either killing or driving beneficial underground life down deeper or away from where they can do the most good. Every good gardener knows good earth is the key to a good garden and that extends to the yard.
Pesticides are also a bad idea. They kill good insects and have potentially bad effects on other wildlife.
I turn to Howard Garrett, AKA the Dirt Doctor for information on safe, organic gardening and yard management. He has a great web site and his radio show is broadcast on over 200 stations across the country.
2. Native plants
For flowers, tress, shrubs etc I focus on the use of native plants. I hired an expert on the native plants that do well in my north central Texas location. He helped with the planning and selection of the plants and was able to supply many of the plantings.
Native species do well with less water and tend to be insect and disease resistant, helped along by the healthy soil in which they are grown.
Audubon has a great new web site for native plants. Users enter their email address and zip code. The results show list of native plants for the area along with information on the birds attracted.
I am not where I want to be yet, but am always looking for ways to support my micro-ecosystem. Composting is next on my list of things to do.
One of the most interest facets of bird watching is studying bird behavior.. The behavior of a bird, including posture, the way they move, feed and fly can be distinctive enough to identify a bird just by its behavior. Here are my five favorite bird behaviors, mostly learned early in my birding career, which is probably why I enjoy them so much.
1. Marsh Hawk
Many years ago I needed two hours to graduate from college. My botany professor, Dr. Bob Neal, offered to give me the credit if I would do some research for him and learn to identify 100 birds by sight and 25 by their call, and some more research. I had never been birding before in my life.
On one of the first trips Dr. Neil identified a Marsh Hawk at a great distant, no binoculars needed. It turned out the Marsh Hawk (now called the Northern Harrier) hunts by flying low over grassy fields. I was impressed, also by the distinctive white rump of the hawk. Of course I later learned that Short-eared Owls hunt in a similar fashion.
2. Black Skimmer
An early trip to the Texas coast revealed a bird I had never heard of called a Black Skimmer. Their unique bill and feeding style made this bird an easy ID for a beginner birder and a fascinating introduction into the world of unique bird behavior.
3. Spotted Sandpiper
This bird stands out as a shorebird I identified by myself, far from the coast. They are a rather plain looking bird when they visit Texas in the fall. They bob as trey walk around but the more distinctive move to me was the way they fly. Their seemingly stiff wings beat rapidly and show a thin white line across the back. They seldom raise more than 3 feet or so when moving along a shore line or mud flat.
4. Reddish Egret
Many years ago I was birding on the Texas coast in the company of a young lady, She had been birding a few years but was not experienced with coastal specials. She was trying to convince me that a Reddish Egret was really a Little Blue Heron. I told her to be patient and watch the bird’s behavior. If it started to hunt for food it would move around in what appeared to be a drunken, erratic manner. It also might use its wings to shield light from the soon. Right on time, the bird began to dance around in search of a fish. That call paid dividends later that evening:)
5. Brown Pelican
Many years ago the Brown Pelican was almost extinct in the United States. My first observation of this bird occurred on a lake near Dallas. A very unusual inland record and at the time a very good record for the state.
Brown Pelicans have made a remarkable recovery and are one of my favorite birds to watch. They will glide effortlessly along the surface of the ocean, sometimes seeming to fly in the trough between waves. So smooth and graceful.
Their feeding style is what make them so spectacular. As they soar high over the water in search of a fish that almost come to a stop before folding their wings and diving straight into the water. A spectacular move i can watch for hours.
Euphonias and chlorophonias are neotropical birds in the finch family. They were previously placed in the tanager family. DNA research has moved them to the finches but future research may change things again.
They are typically small, colorful birds about 4 inches long. They primarily feed on fruit and berries and will also take small insects. They have short tails and a chunky body.
Both groups are endemic to the Neotropics.
Chlorophonias are mostly green birds. There are only five recognized chlorophonia species. The unusual bright green color make them one of my favorite, albeit very small, family of birds.
Male euphonias are often colorful, with dark metallic blue above, contrasting with yellows, and reds below. Males and females are very different in appearance. Females much duller. There are 27 recognized species according to the 44th supplement of the AOU checklist.
All photographs are by the outstanding nature and bird photographer Glenn Bartley.
The path of Hurricane Hermine seems ideal for birders looking to discover birds far removed from their normal range. As it moved through the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico the eye of the storm trapped thousands of birds that were then forced far north of their normal range.
As birds encounter rotating hurricane force winds they sometimes spiral inward into the eye of the hurricane. The relative calm of the eye seems like a safe haven compared to the powerful winds outside the eye. Many birds will find it easier to move with the eye of the hurricane than to try to force their way out. As a hurricane moves inland, the winds diminish and the birds can escape the storm.
It is this forced movement of birds trapped in the eye of the storm that excites birders as they search for species well out of their normal range. Some birders will brave hurricane force winds in hopes of seeing a rare bird; perhaps adding a new species to the official state list or a new species for their own life list.
As Hurricane Hermine moved northward along the eastern coast, it began to weaken and thousands of birds had the opportunity to escape. Many may have been sea birds from the Caribbean, such as the Brown Noddy (a type of term) that is sometimes reported along the eastern coast after hurricanes. The Brown Noddy is normally found in the Dry Tortugas and other Caribbean Islands.
In September of 2008 I observed a Magnificent Frigatebird near Ithaca, New York, no doubt carried north by the winds of Hurricane Ike. The Magnificent Frigatebird is a rare summer visitor to the Gulf Coast and east coast of Florida. As with this sighting, it is sometimes driven inland by storms.
Bad for the birds:
During September millions of songbirds are migrating south for the winter. Some larger shorebirds may be able to fly through a hurricane but smaller birds, such as warblers and tanagers, are no match for a hurricane and are no doubt lost at sea. Hurricanes can also damage prime nesting locations.
Birds moved by the hurricane may remain out of their normal range for several days. Gulls and terns are powerful fliers with good homing instincts. They will have a good chance to make their way back to their normal, seasonal home. Smaller birds that were migrating south may not have the energy to repeat their earlier migration path.
In recent years weather radar has been used to locate and even monitor the movement of migrating birds. Weatherman Brad Panovich posted this picture showing thousands of birds trapped in the eye of Hurricane Hermine.
There is now a lot of online information on the use of radar to track bird migration. Three of the best are:
Fall is a great time to study migrating raptors. Multiple hawk watch locations around the country are located where the geography funnels large numbers of hawks through the area.
Hawk Mountain, PA:
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary is a 2,600-acre natural area in southeastern Pennsylvania, about 30 miles west of Allentown, Pa. It is perhaps the best-known hawk migration location in the country. Between August 15 and December 15 an average 18,000 raptors fly past its ridge tops, often at eye-level.
Corpus Christi, Texas
Many raptors migrate along the gulf coast as they head into Mexico and points south. There are several hawk watch locations along the gulf coast. The best may be the one located in Corpus Christi, Texas at Hazel Bazemore County Park.
Corpus Christi is the only HawkWatch in North America where you have a chance of seeing Swallow-tailed Kites, White-tailed Kites, Mississippi Kites, Zone-tailed Hawks, Short-tailed Hawks, White-tailed Hawks, and Harris’s Hawks.
Broad-winged Hawks typically comprise greater than 95% of the total count, but counts of Mississippi Kites, Turkey Vultures, and Swainson’s Hawks also typically total in the thousands. Over 1 million raptors have been counted in one fall season.
All birders or even non-birders are welcome to visit.
Visit the Hawk Watch International web site to learn more about hawk watches and to find a hawk watch location.
I may be in the minority of people that feed birds but I love Blue Jays. Whenever a neighbor or birding buddy makes a disparaging remark about a Blue Jay I counter with this quote from the Bent Life History series.
“The blue jay is a strong, healthy-looking bird, noisy and boisterous. He gives us the impression of being independent, lawless, haughty, even impudent, with a disregard for his neighbors’ rights and wishes: like Hotspur, as we meet him in Henry IV, part 1.
To be sure, the jay has his quiet moments, as we shall see, but his mercurial temper, always just below the boiling point, is ever ready to flare up into rage and screaming attack, or, like many another diplomat, beat a crafty retreat. He is a strikingly beautiful bird: blue, black, and white, big and strong, his head carrying a high, pointed crest which in anger shoots upward like a flame. Walter Faxon long ago told me of a distinguished visiting English ornithologist who was eager to see a live blue jay because he considered it the finest bird in the world. He was surprised to find that this beauty, as he called it, is one of our common birds.”
Blue Jays readily visit feeders for sunflower and suet. They are more willing to share space at feeders than some give them credit for. A family has been making regular visits to the feeders in my back yard. They are adapt at using window feeders and an upside-down suet feeder.
Blue Jays have a mixed migration pattern. Some Blue Jays in the northern United States are permanent residents, while other members of the same population migrate south in the winter.
Blue Jays are members of the Corvid family, which includes crows and ravens. Corvids are among the smartest birds and Blue Jays are no exception. Their intelligence supports a variety of behaviors.
Like many birds, Blue Jays will cache food for later consumption. Acorns are a favorite food. Blue Jays will bury acorns for consumption at a later date. A single Blue Jay may hide 3,000 – 5,000 acorns in a season. Some of these hidden acorns are not eaten and grow into a new oak tree.
At the end of the last ice age, about 10,000 years ago, oak trees advanced north again at a faster rate than would have been expected. One theory is that the acorn-hiding Blue Jays accelerated the northward expansion.
Blue Jays are best-known for their loud “jay” call. They also give soft, easy-to-miss notes when communicating with other nearby Blue Jays, especially when around their nest. A queerieup and many other often strange calls are in their standard repertoire.
They frequently, and quite accurately, mimic the calls of Red-tailed and Red-shouldered Hawks.
While not a common behavior, Blue Jays will raid the nests of other birds, dining on eggs or young. They will rarely take small, adult birds. I did once see a Blue Jay sitting on a large tree limb feeding on a Dark-eyed Junco.
Blue Jays will loudly mob hawks or owls that invade a Blue Jays territory. Their loud calls announce to other birds in the neighborhood that a predator is in the area.
By the way, Blue Jays aren’t actually blue. The pigment in their feathers is brown. The feather structure causes light to refract, resulting in the blue color.
The next time you see a Blue Jay thank them for the all the oak tress they have planted, and marvel at their memory that can locate hundreds of buried acorns that were cached for later consumption.
Quote from the Bent Life History quote was written by Winsor Marrett Tyler.
Oak Woodland Management – University of California
Blue Jay: Acorn Planters – Loyola University New Orleans
If you went on a birding trip to Melanesia, where would you be? Any guesses?
Melanesia extends from the western end of the Pacific Ocean to the Arafura Sea, and eastward to Fiji. The region includes the four countries of Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands, Fiji, and Papua New Guinea. Now you know.
Each of these island groups has their own history and reputation. Vanuatu is perhaps the least know of the group. It is also known as the New Hebrides and includes New Caledonia.
Fiji is known for its beautiful beaches and Papua New Guinea for its famous Birds-of-Paradise.
The Solomon Islands are best known to many from World War II and the Battle of Guadalcanal, one of the islands in the Solomon island chain.
All of these distant islands can be difficult to reach and are seldom visited by birders. Rockjumper Birding Tours is one of the few companies that regularly provides birding and nature tours to the area. In October of 2017 they are offering tours to New Guinea and the Solomon Islands. These are great trips that provide birders with the opportunity to see birds found no where else in the world.
Their Secrets of Melanesia 2017 expedition features birding, wildlife and cultural tours as it takes birders into a world that few have ever experienced, including visiting idyllic islands and isolated villages.
Commencing in Honiara, the capital of the Solomon Islands, the tour sets sail to discover the beauty of the outer Solomon Islands. Birders can relax as their ship glides into secluded bays. The trip extends into Vanuatu where birders will search for several endemic bird species.
In addition, the waters of the Solomon Islands provide some of the greatest diving in the world. The trip offers various opportunities for participants to snorkel and appreciate the beauty beneath the waves. An optional scuba-diving program includes an opportunity to explore wrecks from World War II.
This would certainly qualify as a trip of lifetime.
The latest video cameras are shooting 4K video. The results allow amateurs, like me, to end up with fantastic video quality that matches what the experts were doing 20 years ago. But just as vinyl records have made a comeback, old video formats can still be used effectively.
Steven Siegel of Raven on the Mountain has always taken a creative approach to the video he produces. He has developed several tricks that produce interesting and beautiful presentations that can effectively use older video formats.
American Impressionism Using painting techniques with video editing software Steve has created a five-minute video of birds that resembles a moving impressionistic painting. The screen shots are from the video. View them as you would a painting. The old impressionist masters would be impressed.
Visit Monet Goes Birding on Vimeo to view the presentation. The video looks best on larger screens.
Most migratory shorebirds are headed south to their winter home.
While most people are staying inside to dodge the summer heat, most shorebirds are migrating south. Large numbers and a great variety of shorebirds can be seen this time of year.
Where to see them
Shorebirds will be migrating across much of the United States. Coastal shorelines can be ideal, both sandy and rocky shorelines will have their own group of birds.
Almost any interior body of water with a mud flat can be productive. With water levels typically low in August, mud flats can be common.
Settling ponds around waste-water treatment plants can be very productive. A few such facilities in the country are managed to provide habitat for both nesting and migrating birds.
Identification of shorebirds can be extremely challenging. Some species, like the Long-billed Curlew are hard to miss.
A group of birds known collectively as “peeps” provide many birders with a real challenge.
It can take years of experience to accurately separate Long-billed and Short-billed Dowitchers.
See how you can do with these images.
The very best shorebird guide book is called simply The Shorebird Guide. It was written by Michael O’Brian, Richard Crossley and Kevin Karlson. It is available on Amazon for under $20.00. It is a must-have guide for anyone trying to improve their skills in identifying shorebirds.
The Shorebird App
Birdzilla.com and Keven Karlson (one of the authors of The Shore Bird Guide) combined efforts to produce the Shorebirds of the United States and Canada app. The app covers 50 species with multiple images of each species. Kevin provides descriptions of the various plumages of each species. The app is available for the iPhone and iPad. Available in the Apple App store.
How far do they go?
Many shorebirds nest in Alaska and northern Canada and migrate amazing distances twice each year, often to South America.
For example, the rufa race of the Red Knot will be leaving its home in the Canadian Arctic to visit its winter home in Argentina or Chile, a distance of up to 9,000 miles. Then back again next spring. The Red Knot is not much larger than a robin and has a wingspan of about 20 inches. It may fly up to 1500 miles at a time before stopping to rest and feed.
Dowitchers: Long-billed Dowitcher is the top image, Short-billed the second image.
Peeps: Baird’s Sandpiper is the first image, Least Sandpiper the second image. The Least is the easiest to identify of all the peeps as it is the only one with yellowish legs.
These “lover of grubs” are spectacular birds.
Campephilus is the genus of several large woodpeckers (12 species, 2 of which are now probably extinct.) The name Campephilus means lover of grubs. They (the birds) are found in Mexico, Central and South America. And previously in the United States.
The most famous is the Ivory-billed Woodpecker. At about 20 inches in length it was the size of crow. Reports of an Ivory-billed Woodpecker in Arkansas surfaced in 2005 but no conclusive evidence was ever obtained. The Cuban Ivory-billed Woodpecker is considered a subspecies and is also thought to be extinct.
Campephilus woodpeckers are known for making a rapid double-knock. Listen for the sound if you are ever in isolated forests of the southern U.S. In this film David Attenborough calls in a Magellanic Woodpecker (Campephilus magellanicus).
An even more spectacular woodpecker was the Imperial Woodpecker. It was up to 24 inches or so in length. The bird was once widespread and fairly common throughout the Sierra Madre Occidental of Mexico, from western Sonora and Chihuahua southwards to Jalisco and Michoacán. Logging and hunting have both contributed to its demise. Like the Ivory-billed, it needed a very large area to survive. It fed on beetle larvae found in dead or dying trees. This article describes a search for the Imperial by famous author George Plimpton and birder Victor Emanuel.
Fortunately other members of the Campephilus genus still exist. Here are examples of four of the remaining eight species.
Photographs by Glenn Bartley.