Thursday, January 23, 2014

Snowy Bernheim Birds

Earth Measures Sculpture
I have filled feeders for my backyard birds for many years. More Starlings and House Sparrows eat my seed than any other birds. But I don't mind, since other cute backyard birds come to visit too. Today, fighting a severe case of cabin fever, I joined Dick on a snowy trip to Bernheim Forest and Arboretum. While he made copies for a presentation this weekend, I bundled up and went birding. I've never been to Bernheim in the snow before, and it was absolutely beautiful.

Northern Cardinal - female
The Education Building has a warm room looking out on the bird feeders. This time of year, many familiar birds, and some I rarely see, come for a snack. Cardinals are very common, of course.

Northern Cardinal - male
Carolina Chickadee
 As are Carolina Chickadees and Carolina Wrens.
Carolina Wren

Eastern Towhee
While I tried to distinguish one LBJ from another, a bright orange and black bird hopped into the brush. Every time I moved from one place to another in the bird room, all the birds took off for a convenient branch, but they soon resumed feeding.

Goldfinches positively refuse to come to my yard, unless the zinnias are blooming. But these little guys in winter plumage ate anything they found around the feeders at Bernheim.
Red-bellied Woodpecker
The Red-bellied Woodpecker is a very polite bird at the feeder. He quietly approaches the seed on the ground, chooses one piece, and retreats to the branches to eat it. You can just see the red wash on his belly in this photo.
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
After lunch, we thought we heard a hawk, and walked out looking for it. A small bird landed on the tree trunk and started walking up the bark. It called again, and we knew the sound belonged to a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker! I'd never heard one call before!

Song Sparrow
Now, I'm pretty comfortable with the more common birds, but Sparrows, the LBJ's in the world, can be my downfall. As I watched all the birds, I identified several little sparrows, including the ever present Song Sparrow, with his stripped belly and brown thumb-print.
White-throated Sparrow
The White-throated Sparrow is a winter visitor in Kentucky, with two different color morphs - the crisp black and white head stripes, or the tan and black head stripes. I sometimes think the black and white is a White Crowned Sparrow, but the yellow spots by the eyes and white throat patch are distinctive, of course. I love to hear this little guy calling "Oh Sam Peabody, Peabody."
Fox Sparrow
 OK, I'm good with the Song and White-throat. Yikes, what is this bright rusty tailed bird with gray on the head and nape? Curiously, it scratched not with one foot at a time, but by hopping and scratching the ground at the same time! Larger than the others, this must be the Fox Sparrow, and there were at least ten of them on the ground. Another winter visitor, unsuccessfully trying to evade the cold northern winter this year.

American Tree Sparrow

Another different sparrow - rufous crown, but not a Chippy. Gray breast with a dark spot, and finally, a two-toned bill - dark on top and yellow on the bottom. It's an American Tree Sparrow! Not a lifer for me, but one I don't often see. And one I was very pleased to identify on my own!
Fox Sparrow, American Tree Sparrow and White-throated Sparrow
On a day when the high temp was 12 degrees in the sun, how wonderful it is to sit in a warm room, watching feeders filled by someone else, and seeing new birds that never visit my house! As I write this blog post, my favorite movie, The Big Year, plays on TV. I'll never go for a big year, of course, but I'm always excited to see and identify an unusual bird all on my own!

Thursday, January 16, 2014

First Robins of Spring?

We often hear people talking about the first Robin of Spring - as if they have disappeared for the winter and come back one at a time. Although robins are considered harbingers of spring, many American Robins spend the whole winter in their breeding range, basically the entire continental United States. But because they spend more time roosting in trees and less time in your yard, you're much less likely to see them. The number of robins present in the northern parts of the range varies each year with the local conditions. This morning, I found hundreds of Robins clustered around a single holly tree in a neighbor's yard.
Holly berries, rock hard even a month ago, must "ripen" before birds find them edible. OK, think something closer to "rot" rather than "ripen." Only after weeks of freezing nights followed by above-freezing days will berries soften enough for birds to show interest. Well, we certainly have had weeks of freezing nights lately! Did you ever see a Robin hovering before?
American Holly produces bitter chemicals calls sapon ins that make the leaves and berries unpalatable to most forms of wildlife. Production of unpleasant or poisonous chemicals is a common strategy in plants to discourage animals from eating them. In American Holly, the saponin level in berries declines as they ripen, and then apparently declines further during the course of the winter when the plant is mostly dormant. So by late winter, when food supplies for birds are at their lowest, American Holly berries are available and edible for a wide range of fruit - eating birds. The birds, in turn, disperse holly seeds in their droppings, helping the hollies reproduce and disperse. Of course, the Robins only find berries on the female trees, so a tree without berries might be a male, or simply be already stripped by Robins and other fruit eating birds.
I was amazed at the "politeness" of the Robins. Large numbers foraged for berries on the ground, while others moved from branch to branch in the tree. Large numbers waited their turn on the nearby rooftop and at least five different trees. When a car drove by, all the birds flew off, then more returned to resume the feast.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Let the Sun Shine

I don't think I actually have SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder), but I do prefer sunny weather than cloudy cold days in the winter, as do most people in Kentucky, I suppose. Once again, Google brings answers to all my questions. According to a study I found online, Louisville, KY, has actual sunshine only 43% of the time in winter, and an average of 18 clear days, when cloud covers at most 30 percent of the sky during daylight hours. So I headed off into the woods at Creasey Mahan Nature Preserve this morning, just to take advantage of this sunny day. The thawing ground and rain from yesterday made for some pretty muddy spots - walking on grass or leaves did not keep me from sinking in. However, sunshine makes up for everything!
Of course, I looked for birds first, and many of our local residents were singing in the sunshine too. In my experience, birds start to sing lots more after Groundhog Day in February. As I walked up a creek bed, I found Black Vultures flapping above, and a collection sunning themselves along the edge of a dam on the border of the Preserve. When I approached in my best stealthy manner, they saw me, of course, and took to the air. Notice the stubby tails that Black Vultures have.
Last week, all the creeks and waterfalls were frozen, but today the water is flowing freely, making delightful sounds that remind me of Spring.
A pair of House Sparrows are checking out one of our Bluebird nest boxes already. It will soon be time to remove the old nests and prepare for the new season. Until then, the birds will often seek shelter in a nest box when the weather turns bad.
I love to look for the first blossoms of the year, and found one witch hazel bush (Springtime witch hazel - Hamamelis vernalis) in the Woodland Garden that wins the prize. This small, spidery yellow and orange blossom hardly looks like a flower, and you don't expect to see anything blooming in mid-January. There are several varieties of witch hazel, which bloom at different times of the year, but almost always when it is too early or too late in the season to expect flowering plants!

Yes! Spring will come, no matter how many gloomy days we have to go through!

Wednesday, January 01, 2014

Start the New Year Right

Whoa! I just realized I haven't posted anything here since we went to Florida in November. What's been going on? Well, try volunteering, taking care of raptors at RROKI, Grandma duty, bad weather, or preparing for the holidays. I know, excuses, excuses. I'll try to do better in 2014. On New Year's Eve, I drove out to a Shelby County, KY, farm looking for Short-eared Owls. Saw them at this location several times last year, but last night I only saw one Kestrel and some Mourning Doves. The sunset was beautiful though, and gas at the local Kroger's was only $3.05 before a $.45 discount, so the trip wasn't a complete loss! In Louisville, gas costs $3.45 right now.
New Year's morning sped by as we took down all the decorations and packed them away till next year. Dick and I headed out to the Anchorage Trail for a walk in the sunshine and a little birding. The single Mute Swan who lives at the lake came over looking for a handout...
...while a trio of Green-winged Teal stood in the shallow water, looking in all directions.
Dick's sharp eye found this Red-Shouldered Hawk perched in a tree.
It seemed to be looking for prey at first, then watched for dogs walking under the tree.
Finally it looked directly at me and my camera! I think they hear the motor on the lens as I zoom.
Yes, definitely too many dogs, so it flew closer to the lake.
Allowing me to get this wonderful closeup. I'm always amazed that a bird this big has such a small beak.
The first time we walked by the lake we thought it was odd not to hear the Belted Kingfisher as we walked by.  But the second time around, we heard two of them calling back and forth as they flew over the swampy area at the head of the lake. I don't often get nice photos of Kingfishers since they don't sit still very long!