Archive for December, 2013

Amazing Hummingbirds

Thursday, December 26th, 2013

Hummingbirds are really concoctions of feathers and air— figuratively and literally. Some scientists think they “should” not be able to fly with so little muscle mass. Other scientists who study hummingbirds continue to produce amazing facts about them such as their observed ability to go into a “torpor” state to conserve energy, which is similar to hibernating but   doesn’t involve actual sleep.

When I have read in scientific journals about these amazing creatures I am fascinated with their method of getting oxygen. Unlike humans who breathe in and out- through the lungs– hummingbirds have a one-way flow of air. Air flows into the lungs and then circulates around some other air sacs—9 of them to be exact to then be expelled out the nostrils but not via the lungs. This allows for richly oxygenated air to be constantly supplying the lung’s arteries with fuel for flight.

We have all seen the two species of hummingbirds in our area hover over flowers, fly backward (the only species of bird that can do this maneuver), do aerial gymnastics to fight off other hummers and in general “zip” around our yards. We have two species with an occasional rarity showing up. Anna’s hummingbirds stay year round but the Rufous hummers are only here in the summer months. If you are fortunate enough to go south there are many species of hummingbirds in the American Southwest and in Mexico – some with great variations in the coloration from our two species and some much larger or much smaller. Our two hummingbirds weigh about what a penny in your pocket weighs!


A continued question that people ask me is about feeding hummingbirds. Like most animals the closer to natural and real food is probably healthier so plant some nectar rich plants. This year I found some blue flowered plants at the Cedar Mill Farmer’s market, which I had never seen before. Amazingly the hummingbirds really like them—I wish I knew the name but I don’t— generally I had heard that they prefer red or orange or yellow flowers and always before they did seem to prefer my fuchsias or the crocosmias but this year the blue flowers are the more preferred food.

If you do choose to feed hummingbirds make sure to clean the feeder really regularly. This is a time commitment since in the hotter days the sugar water turns to vinegar within a day or two. Also mold grows rapidly so use a small brush designed for feeders and scrub away. I personally don’t use bleach since I am not confident I can rinse it enough to not have some traces left. Hard scrubbing does the trick. Also most Audubon sites do not recommend the use of red colorings often found in commercial foods—according to some experts this is not good for bird liver function. I generally  “saturate” the water instead of using a specific recipe but there are recipes on line.

Besides all the amazing science and function—hummingbirds are simply inspiring creatures. What lovely pieces of natural beauty, which inspire delight and joy when we see them.  We are soon to say goodbye to our summer guests the Rufous ones—ours were very prolific this year and are gathering now to fly south together—we must have at least six in our yard now drinking down the nectar in the feeder every day putting on “weight” to fly the thousands of miles. Amazing hummingbirds indeed.


Thursday, December 26th, 2013

All that singing for mates and territory, the frenetic nest building and then the costly egg laying and feeding of “babies” has led most of us to have younger birds in our yards.  If we notice now the sounds are much quieter— birds are NOT calling for potential mates or defending nest sites—they are quietly avoiding predators and filling up their fat stores for migration or surviving the winter. Many birds also need to eat a lot to build a new set of adult feathers – losing the old feathers for new ones is called “the molt” and is often most obvious to use as the young birds mature into the adult plumage.

In many birding magazines or web sites the nuanced discussion is long and sometimes contradictory about when to call a particular bird species a nestling, a fledgling, a chick or duckling or some specific word such as cygnet for swans, a juvenile, an immature or a subadult.  While we can leave these to ornithologists to debate it is a source of great pleasure as well as knowledge to see the variety in our own environments.

Generally when birds hatch they are relatively free of feathers or are covered with very fine “downy” feathers. As they grow these change into rather “fluffy” juvenile feathers. The young birds grow really quickly to achieve adult size in the space of a few weeks and can generally fly within a couple weeks of hatching. Therefore to see “babies” one looks not for size but for variations in feather patterns, color and also in bird behavior.

Last week I was sitting in my yard with a friend and we noticed two Downy Woodpeckers at the suet feeder. One was sitting on top of the feeder rather loudly verbalizing and flapping its feathers. The other obligingly got some suet and delivered a nice packet to the “chick” on the top of the feeder. Many young birds even though as large as the parent, able to fly and certainly able physically to peck at the suet still ask to be “fed” and will “beg”. A typical begging posture is one where the younger birds call in a high pitched tone and flap their feathers but don’t fly off. I have seen almost all species exhibit this behavior from the four Black Capped Chickadees who nested in our birdhouse on our deck to the Red Breasted Nuthatches and the American Robins.

Another clue to youth is that the feathers look “fluffier” and less colorful. Many birds do not develop the full adult coloration till many molts later. The most obvious to many American is the Bald Eagle, which can take 3-5 years to develop the white head that is particular to adult birds. Bald Eagles who are four years old are typically called sub-adults, which is the bird term for teenagers.

So notice what is in your yard—which Robins have spotted breasts indicating youth. Which Chickadees have larger beaks—the beak shape has not solidified to the adult shape yet. Which Woodpeckers have orange on the backs of heads rather than bright red—indicating a newly molted juvenile. These physical characteristics along with behavior can be clues to the newly hatched. Hopefully they enhance your enjoyment of the diversity in our own yards..

Of Cherries and Mealworms

Thursday, December 26th, 2013

Our first juvenile American Robin appeared in our yard yesterday. The windstorm we had on May 14 with several high gusts did blow down several nests in our area including the one featured in the April Cedar Mill news. Imagine how happy I was to see that at least one nest apparently was wedged tightly somewhere in a bush or tree so some young robins survived. The pair whose nest with freshly hatched young got blown down is now rebuilding so possibly the robin population will not be as decimated as feared.

During the time of rapid growth we can watch the various pairs of parents of the newly hatched chicks do the frenzied back and forth to the nest with beaks full of various insects/caterpillars/aphids/worms and other “high protein” foods needed for developing feathers and bones in the chicks. Our yard appears to have a great supply of worms.  This makes me more mindful of the chemical use— how can I have a reasonable looking yard without dumping tons of chemicals which effects the soil composition and also gets into the bodies of the birds who forage there. Since becoming a bird watcher I have greatly reduced my yard chemical usage finding that the aphids on the roses are appreciated by the Black Capped Chickadees as they go back and forth to the hatchlings with several aphids per trip in their beaks. I have reduced my use of chemical lawn fertilizers in favor of the organic ones, which don’t kill off soil microorganisms and worms. I tolerate more weeds or I hand pull rather than using weed killers which I know the bird’s track back to the nests on their feet.

Watching these creatures has given me a new appreciation for my impact on their lives.

As the temperature rises the sources of protein and fat I have been offering such as suet gets “messier”. It melts when the sun comes out and I have heard of birds getting their feathers coated with melted suet— not helpful for rapid flight I would imagine. I just discovered a “new” source of protein for my “new parent” birds to offer – dried mealworms!  One can order fresh mealworms but since they are alive they do require some attention to keep them alive and some find them “gross”. However dried mealworms are easy to use and a great source of protein. One can simply spread them on the ground or put in with other foods such as sunflower seeds or buy a specific dried mealworm feeder.  If the birds are not attracted to the dry mealworms some sites recommend rehydrating them and putting them out in a bowl or simply on the ground. I didn’t find that necessary but it’s an option. The morning dew seems to hydrate them just fine.

Many birds at this time of year find these mealworms to be a welcome high protein addition to the feeder options—so look for Grosbeaks, Robins, and other insect eaters. I don’t have Bluebirds at my feeders but mealworms are known to be a favorite treat for them.

Last week I accidentally left a colander full of Bing Cherries after dinner on the deck. In the morning I was surprised to see the American Robin pair feasting on “my” cherries. My cherry tree has not ripened yet but when it does it attracts scores of Cedar Waxwings, Robins, and even California Quails.  The Quail parents fly up into the tree and drop cherries to the chicks waiting below. Until then they have to make do with the accidental ones left out for them after dinner!

Enjoy attracting birds to your yard with a variety of food options as well as thoughtful plantings and use of yard chemicals. I found the mealworms at our local Pet Barn which also offers many other types of foods for wild birds… check it out.


Martha Stewart Apparently Has the Same Idea!

Thursday, December 26th, 2013

Over the past few weeks the nest building and engineering in our area has really started in earnest. We have had birds marking their territories with displays and loud songs. We have migratory birds returning to make their first appearances such as the Tree Swallows who did appear on March 19! They are busily filling up their nest boxes that my neighbor provides—they are taking in twigs and grasses and long trailing plant material to stuff into their boxes.

Routinely I love to provide our local birds with materials to line their nests. Certainly there is a plethora of natural materials such as dried grasses, mosses and lichens.  I always put out some other “soft” options such as dryer lint, bits of yarn leftovers from my knitting projects, balls of cat hair from the weekly brushing episodes and even bits of shredded paper from our enormous piles of paper shredding.

I was surprised when I read in the latest Martha Stewart Living this month that she had a section “for the birds” where she endorses the very same activity—putting out bits of cotton or other soft materials you may have.   In the magazine of course they are arranged in a lovely fashion in a wooden box— I keep thinking these would blow off in a puff of light wind. Instead I put mine in an empty suet feeder. Just today I was on the deck watching our Black Capped Chickadee pair grabbing huge mouthfuls of cat hair to take into the hanging bird house they picked out from the several on our property! What a delight to see them “recycling” and hopefully enjoyed some soft linings for the new hatchlings soon to appear.

Our other local nest builder—the American Robin made one attempt at our neighbor’s house only to have the first nest blown away in last week’s “wind storm”—not much wind but apparently enough to blow away the rather light assortment of twigs and grasses. So they started over in a new location—and apparently they did this in one day. It was not there in the morning when I looked out and it was totally finished when I arrived back home in the evening—quite the feat for one day.  Hopefully this one will be more sheltered from wind and rain—it looks pretty secure as you can see from this accompanying picture.

It gave me such a huge boost to think of my yarn scraps from my many projects over the past year being put to good use to shelter our first chicks—whether Robins or ducks of various sorts of other perching birds.   The idea of our indoor cats contributing to the lives of birds is also a smile inducer!   Go look outdoors to see what is in your yard and consider how you might contribute to the comfort of these creatures.

Noticing What’s New and What’s Gone

Thursday, December 26th, 2013

As I sit on this icy, almost-spring morning, contemplating the sun and warmer temperatures promised later, I am also anticipating with some joy, my “spring “ chores.  The prediction there will be a few days without rain means I’ll apply dormant spray to my fruit trees to kill the overwintering insects and fungi that destroy fruit.  I’ll scrub off my outdoor cushions and allow them to dry in the sun. And with the rain promised later next week will activate the fertilizer I put around my roses to help them grow with vigor.

I am noticing as well that the swallows have not yet returned to our pond.  I check our records we have kept for the 12 plus years of living here. TODAY is the earliest date when swallows have arrived (March 9) but on average, later in March is more typical.   Oregon Birders on Line articles note that swallows have been seen in the past couple of weeks– apparently migrating but not staying – at other areas in Washington County.  ( Our neighbor has a number of Swallow houses near the pond.  Soon the Violet Green and Tree Swallows will be making their selections. As temperatures rise, there will soon be enough of a sustained series of insect hatches to support the Swallows and their brood. I look forward to watching them swoop over the ponds catching the latest insect hatch.

The flocks of Cackling Geese are dwindling.  Just a month ago, two or three hundred spent each night on the pond.  This morning there were about 20 Cacklers, which had spent the night. Time to move north to breeding grounds along the western coast of Alaska. These birds are often mistaken for the Canada goose, some of which become year-round residents. Cacklers are much smaller, about the size of Mallard ducks and have darker chest feathers than the much larger Canada goose.  Their voice is referred to as a “cackling” call as opposed to the HONK HONK call of the Canada goose. I am always thrilled to be able to point out the differences to my friends and bird tour guests who find they never noticed the size difference, the voice difference or the subtle coloration differences.  It’s often fun to notice something you had previously over-looked.

As spring begins to arrive we see trees forming buds and peony stems pushing out of the ground.  Yet the hellebore flowers, like the Swallows, are some of our earliest spring “arrivals”.   Our Black Capped Chickadees have started to enjoy the balls of cat hair and dryer lint I put out near our bird feeders. They take a beakful and go “feather” their nests with warm fluff. We have a variety of birdhouses for our local cavity nesters—which include the Red Breasted Nuthatch, the Chickadees and the Woodpeckers and Swallows.  I also have a Wood Duck house—they are our only tree nesting duck—most other ducks nest on the ground. So be careful as you mow—we do have some ground nesters, which are very fragile such as the Juncos – we have a pair who builds their ground nest under a large bunch of daffodils every year. So be mindful as you walk and mow and weed.

Spending time outdoors may be a way of inviting variety into one’s life by connecting to seasonal changes.  Noticing what’s new and what’s different can add awe and interest and draw your brain into making new connections.  Smiling and going outdoors are really good for you!

Sounds Like Spring,

Thursday, December 26th, 2013

In the last few weeks there have been intervals of bright sun, which beckons me outside to see what is happening in the yard. It has been quite the year for moss growth—it is everywhere—on the trees, in the grass and on my paved areas. I also see some budding trees with the plum trees showing a haze of pink and purple. The Daphne plants are just starting to open up releasing their amazing scent. Such a lovely smell from a small flower!

As I am outside looking at signs of spring in the garden I hear more bird song. The Robins are starting to sing their “Cherrio cheeriup” song—they typically are our first spring songsters starting before sunrise at 4:30 AM.  I also see our House Finches starting to claim their high trees and sing their very complex song. The small, Red-breasted Nuthatch male has claimed one particularly tall tree and is doing his “ree-ree-ree” call over and over to warn off other males. Very soon our wintering visitors including the Golden-crowned Sparrows who sing a minor note “oh-dear-me” song will fly north to establish breeding areas. The most bizarre bird in my opinion is the very brightly colored Varied Thrush (I call him the Oregon State— as in OSU Beavers—not the “official” state bird– with his orange and black “stripes”).  I still marvel at the number of screech and long note whistles that come from that bird. It isn’t really a song but a number of odd notes, which seem so “un birdlike” coming from a bird. If you ever want to listen to actual bird song recordings, the Cornell Ornithology lab has resources on their web site.

We humans have a significant portion of our brains wired to support vision. Compared to other mammals our brain territory for smell and sound are relatively small compared to our preference for sight. It is often therefore a soothing thing to listen to music or the sounds of nature.  It gives the other parts of our brain an opportunity to experience what is right in front of us in new ways. The research about using nature sounds or calming music to help with relaxation is vast. Sometimes we just need to have a different perspective to calm ourselves or to be creative. Think about how different it is to listen more and use our sight less.

I had a very interesting experience last week with shutting off the noise, which surrounds us. I shut off the TV, shut off the electronics and just sat in the dark listening. And I heard a “Who who who who who”–  a five part very soft call outside. I looked out the window and a Great Horned Owl was on my neighbor’s roof calling to another owl.  This was such a treat and also a thing I would not have heard if I had continued with the typical noise and patterns of busy-ness.

Take a break. It’s good for the brain, good for the body and good for the soul. You can take a break by being quiet and listening to what surrounds you right now.  See what you hear when you are quiet.