Our Summer Birds

September 10th, 2012

Summer is really a time for birds to feast on the nectar in the flowers, the bugs and caterpillars on the plants, the worms in the ground and the abundant fish in the ponds. This past week, the family of Belted Kingfishers, which regularly visit the backyard pond in the Bethany Wetlands, has been a source of amusement. The adult pair has successfully raised chicks every year now for several seasons.  It is so delightful to hear them do their “rattle call” which is almost like a celebration “hip-hip-hooray” when they catch a small frog or fish and fly up to a tree branch exclaiming loudly about their catch.  These birds are easy to see and very easy to hear.

I have also watched with interest as the Bald Eagle and Osprey and Great Blue Heron pluck small fish and frogs and occasionally snakes out of the wetlands.  The Bald Eagle used to be a rather infrequent visitor but this year we see one or two almost every week or so out hunting at the edge of the pond.

The winner this year I think for breeding success in Cedar Mill has to be the Spotted Towhee—so many juveniles are around, I have never seen as many.   They seem to eat the same things as the various sparrows since I see them all busily scratching under bushes.

While it may seem like a really cool summer in terms of weather and many of us wish for more sun—I have had birding clients from other parts of the country suffering from record temperatures and drought who find our coolness to be incredibly refreshing.  When I hear them talk about never ending humidity or water shortages I feel really fortunate to live where it is green and the mornings are cool.  Also of course it’s more fun to go birding in the morning when it’s not so hot!

Birds are in fact most active in the morning compared to other times of day. They too have rested all night and need to break their fast by getting going in the morning.  Our new (indoor) kitten finds incredible delight at watching the early morning birds at our feeder. Last week we had quite the assortment—I casually counted for about an hour and it was around 45 different species – from woodpeckers to nuthatches and sparrows and wrens and Grosbeaks and the towhees.

I know it’s truly summer when the wild blackberries ripen and the California quail chicks start to show up in the yard running through the open spaces rapidly to get back to cover. They also take “dust baths” so it’s fun to see the indentations if I haven’t seen them that morning—I know they’ve been by and I just missed them.  When I do pick the blackberries I often “flush” quite the group of quail. The record of chicks I saw this year was 24!

The sounds of summer are different than our winter visitors. Some of our Goldfinches do leave for places further south. The Rufous Hummingbirds as well as the Green Herons and the Black Headed Grosbeaks I have so enjoyed hearing in our back yard will soon depart. They will of course be replaced with our winter birds that have spent the summer eating the abundant mosquitos and other insects in the northern parts of Canada and Alaska.  Paying attention to what is in our yards allows us to be distracted for a few moments from our layers of busy minds. It gives us a new perspective, it can give us joy to hear a lovely song and it makes us aware of how alive we are in this moment. Get outside, choose to look and listen.   Notice how some of the daily tensions may lessen.

Altricial and precocial

September 10th, 2012

Most birdwatchers learn a bit of ornithology as we start to become competent at identification. After understanding the differences in birds of the same color    (like the brown sparrows compared to the brown songbirds) or birds that act the same (like ducks compared to grebes in the water) we often then start to become more interested in the more esoteric science.  Why are some bird chicks very soon upon hatching out and about with the parents, yet other birds hatch with no feathers, closed eyelids and require some time to emerge out of their nests?

I recently just learned these two words—altricial and precocial. Even though I was a science major and took comparative vertebrate anatomy I must have missed these two interesting concepts or else they weren’t discussed in those courses.  Seeing the tiny goslings swimming immediately after hatching and apparently eating grass with the parents got me curious. I know that other birds species like chickadees or robins spend quite a bit of time being fed by parents before even growing downy feathers or searching for food on their own.

Altricial species of birds (and mammals) have young who are born relatively helpless. Many have eyes, which have not opened and need a lot of care to maintain body temperature and continue to be fed to grow to be able to defend themselves.  Examples of such birds are the robins we might have seen “naked” in their nests while the parents fly back and forth feeding large quantities of insects.  These birds tend to have smaller eggs and tend to have both parents involved in the post hatching feeding extravaganza to grow large enough fledglings to leave the nest competently.

Precocial species on the other hand tend to have larger protein rich eggs (think ducks and chickens and turkeys and pheasants)—tend to be ground nesters although one can find exceptions and tend to have chicks who don’t “need” much from the parents other than some “protection” and possibly learning about great food sources.  When they hatch they tend to have most of their downy outer layer and be able to move about – although most baby birds do seem slightly awkward.

Various ornithologists have tried to make some ecological niche sense out of this. There are a variety of theories about numbers of young and types of hatch but basically there are many exceptions to most theories so since I am not a dedicated ornithology scientist I quit reading the science at that point…

However it seems to me that we are all “hatching”. I have been impressed with how much our cells are ever changing. We are truly “new” beings as time goes by. Our skin cells totally renew themselves generally in about a month— and our other cells “turn over” at various rates as well. Some of this is genetic and some can be accelerated by environmental factors. The new science of epigenetics—the factors in our surroundings, which influence such biological events, is truly an exciting new field.

As we all hatch— we have some “biology” that makes us more “altricial” at some things and more “precocial” at others. I am sure this is an artistic take on these biological words yet it does resonate to me that all of us are hatching. Not just in spring— but all year and as we age.   If I add a new skill (i.e. new cells in my brain or new neural pathways) to an existing skill I am more likely to be somewhat “competent:”—i.e. somewhat precocial and need “less parenting” from my mentors/bosses/ teachers/ elders. If however I add something totally new I am more like the brand newly hatched helpless chick—I will need a lot of “feeding” from the elders.. I have personally done both—picked up knitting after some years—precocial—still awkward but can do it. And then I started teaching – brand new—needed lots of help – altrical or the cautiously incompetent phase of new learning. Thankfully in my symbolic world if I mess up my knitting I just rip it out, in the wild world outside where the birds live if they mess up a coyote will have the gosling for dinner—a totally different outcome…

I hope you enjoy learning new things like I do, and that you go outside whether you are an ”altricial “birder or an experienced “precocial“ birder who wants to ask new questions….

Babies

September 10th, 2012

IF we are talking bird “babies” we should use the biologically correct words gosling, chick, duckling, nestling, fledgling, hatchling…. but I just call them babies…

After all the frenzy of the mating calls, the dances, the nest finding and building we now have the product of all that effort—many chicks in our yards in Cedar Mill. This year I was lucky enough to have a pair of nesting Black Capped Chickadees in a bird house on my deck. These birds are very comfortable in urban areas so they paid no attention to our rowdy deck parties or the lawn mower or the lights. They just persisted in feeding large bugs to their group of young and eventually all of them left the nest. We still see them flying around our yard in a group of four. The chicks are obviously “fluffier” than the parents and on occasion do the “begging” routine of fluttering the feathers and opening their large mouths to have suet and bugs just dropped in. This reminds me of our youngest son who has metaphorically a large mouth with his college tuition bills!

I have been amazed at the diversity of the species in my yard when it comes to parental behaviors. Some groups of young and parents stay together for several months in large flocks (geese) and others seem to disperse relatively quickly (Spotted towhee young I see all alone foraging).  This reminds me of the book by Margaret Small–  “Our Babies Ourselves” and the comments about child rearing practices around the world. She describes huge variety in variables such as how much mothers smiled at babies (highest in the US which values “happiness in childhood” more than in traditional African or Asian cultures she studied) and sleep patterns and other language patterns. I have found similar incredible disparities just in my own yard.

One of the things I like most about looking outside is to understand our natural world in more detail rather than assuming that things fit some preconceived notions. Some of the most amazing things can be seen in our own areas. For example I saw some Anna’s hummingbirds visit the holes that Sapsuckers had drilled into willow trees— the hummingbirds were eating the rich sap as well.  If you look around you can see amazing diversity in your own back yard.  I have enjoyed the Swallow nest camera at the Columbia Edgewater Country club.  The babies open their huge mouths the moment the parent’s return. All of these natural events are infinitely interesting if one takes a closer look.

Recycling

March 22nd, 2012

Last weekend my husband and I participated in a bird count for a Yamhill County biodynamic vineyard. That vineyard—Youngberg Hill uses a style of farming that is organic—that is, no manufactured chemicals and in addition, takes into consideration the totality of the ecosystem such as the needs of birds.   So we tromped around the scenic plantings of grape vines and peered into the dense surrounding forested areas looking for woodpeckers, hawks and songbirds. We were fortunate to find several, but what we also observed that piles of brush in the natural area on the perimeter of the vineyard, which might look unsightly in your home landscape, do provide shelter for the many tiny wrens and songbirds. This reminded us that we have an opportunity to be aware of our own back yards and how we might look at our “biodynamic” practices as homeowners.  In keeping with this concept and making one change at a time, led us to recycle our cat’s shed hair into bird nest material.

 As you can see from the attached photo, at least one early nesting species found this material attractive. Who knew that this bunch of prevented hairballs would instead be a treasured nest material?  We watched with delight as this Pine Siskin spent up to 15 minutes picking out each individual cat hair, carefully arranged in his or her (we think this is a female) beak before flying off with a mustache of fur. No expedient grabs of clumps of hair for her! A few minutes later she was back for another load.  This species seems quite “polite” – several other birds would wait their turn sitting on near by branches and it was all very orderly. This is unlike the squabbling of American Goldfinches as they jockey for position at the seed feeders with displays of aggression and frank pushing.

 So while we spend a lot of time enjoying how birds behave I was also struck at the many disparate ways the same event can be perceived by our human species. During our bird count for this winery the owner had also invited a group of George Fox ornithology students. Like a mixed flock of little brown birds, this group of students had very different reactions to the very same event. The vineyard owners in appreciation for our efforts served us lunch so we got to sit and visit about what we saw. Some of the students focused on how cold they got, how hard the hilly terrain was, how they didn’t see X species they needed for their life list and etc. My husband I an who walked the very same paths instead were awed by a Northern Harrier doing its mating swoops up and over the hills and we were glowing with awe in observing that behavior.  Amazing how what we see influences how we feel. And yes it was rainy and hilly and wet….

 In the spring we can have moments of joy if we take just a few minutes to watch what is going on and take a breather from the concerns of the day. This is a lot of fun and it changes the way you see your own back yard. What “trash” is treasure for others? How can you enjoy what is right in front of you?   What new learning can I have today?  All available in your own back yard or a short distance away. If you would enjoy a fun outing a short distance from Cedar Mill—consider driving through the wine country in Yamhill County. The owners of Youngberg Hill Vineyards allow birders to walk the perimeter of their property if you check in at the tasting room. We saw a large number of very interesting birds there and it was peaceful and quiet.   If you wanted to stay longer they have an Inn there that looks amazingly peaceful. Or simply look out your windows or as you go about your daily chores.  Consider the biodynamics of your own home— maybe some dryer lint for the birds? Maybe some yard debris not so carefully cleaned up so that it can be leaf litter for the thrushes to throw around as they scratch for insects. Maybe some fruit past its prime left out for the birds to peck?  

Great Amber Eyes

March 22nd, 2012

Owls have been associated with magical powers in many cultures’ mythology and history. Their nocturnal secretive habits and their huge eyes simply look mysteriously different than other feathered creatures.  Even people who don’t identify as being particularly interested in birds, have some understanding of owls.  Owls are portrayed in popular imagination such as The Harry Potter series for example or Beanie Babies.  Science class may have covered that they have amazing neck vertebrae, which allow them to turn their heads further than any other animal! There are Audubon classes to learn more about these elusive and rarely seen night- birds. Some people can “call” owls by using various sounds to which they respond. Other times we simply are in the right place at the right time in order to see them. Often we simply hear them without ever catching a glimpse.

 Before the trees leaf out is the best time to scan for owls so get outside and look for large nests before spring and new leaves creates camouflage for owl babies.   Great Horned Owls are particularly fond of using nests from hawks, eagles, crows or even abandoned squirrel nests.

 Great Horned Owls are among our earliest birds to nest in this location.  Later on of course we’ll see some ducks and geese building nests. Our latest nesting birds tend to be the American Goldfinch who doesn’t lay eggs until much later in the summer. Even now at our feeders we can see these Goldfinches start to change from their drab olive winter plumage to their bright yellow breeding plumage despite the fact that the date for egg laying is months away. 

 My own personal experience is limited with owls but when I see one I am truly awed.  These are magnificently camouflaged creatures. The attached picture is from Fernhill Wetlands where we were incredibly fortunate to see this bird peeking over the nest.  According to reputable sources these birds mate for life and start producing offspring when they are about two years old. Both male and female share the duty of sitting on the eggs. There are typically two eggs, which take around 30 days to hatch, and then more time to develop feathers and leave the nest (technical term is fledging). So we look forward to watching this family grow over time. We did not see the other bird but hope to.  This will require careful scanning of trees given their camouflage and another dose of incredible luck.

 I have heard Great Horned Owls in my back yard in Cedar Mill at night. I know they nest in this area. Their – hoo hoo hoo hoo and maybe even one more note at times, is loud and distinct. Once I saw one at dusk land in my back yard tree for a few moments. That was a real treat and the only time I have seen one in the 13 years I have lived in my home.  I hear them a lot in January and February and then when they start to nest they don’t call..

 My brother had an encounter with a Great Horned Owl as he was running in Forest Park with his small terrier dog. The owl apparently thought the dog would be tasty and made a run at the dog. They will eat whatever is available including small dogs and cats. Mostly they eat rodents..

 What mostly amazes me are their huge eyes, which can bring in lots of light to see in dim conditions. Birds have so many adaptations to specific habitats. Some of them have beaks for cracking open nuts, some drill holes in my trees for sap and insects and owls have huge eyes to see at night. It reminds me of our human signature strengths. We don’t all have to be alike and being different and unique may allow us to thrive together.  It also is fascinating the variations in responses to owls in history. While these creatures are in fact hard to study due to their habits this has not stopped fertile imaginations from interpretations. In many cultures owls are revered for wisdom and are symbolic of fertility (such as being the companions of many ancient goddesses of fertility in recovered artwork—due to their association with the night maybe?). Other cultures have found them to be symbolic of rather evil and dark things like harbingers of death and destruction.

 Human’s beings are able to interpret the very same event or animal in markedly diverse and creative ways. To me the owls are intricately adapted to harsh conditions and are such a rare treat that I am transfixed. I think I watched this particular owl for about an hour and the time just melted. What awes you?

 Get outside and see..

Oh the Words One Learns

February 17th, 2012

I have recently learned about irruptive birds. The definition of irruptive is– an influx of birds either of a species not normally observed in an area or in greater numbers than normally observed or in a different season than generally observed.

It amuses me when American Robins show up on the Audubon Society rare bird alert in winter months because most of them do in fact leave for the winter. While they are incredibly common in the spring and summer months here they are relatively rare in the winter. I experienced an afternoon last month when our cherry tree was full of robins they must have been migrating though in a flock since I have not seen any since. I am reminded that Robins are the first birds to sing around 4 AM in the spring with their “cherrio cherri up “ songs. It’s very quiet at that time in the winter…

Our most rare back yard bird was a single Tundra Swan who appeared in our wetlands in January. The folks who have lived next door for about 25 years had never seen a swan in the wetlands so this definitely qualifies as an irruptive species, at least for our little area.

The swan was lovely. It was banded and its neckband had a number indicating it was part of an avian flu study originating in Alaska. I was able to find out that this bird, a female, was banded in White Salmon Alaska when she was about 2 years old. Where she has traveled since that time I don’t know. Several of her banding cohorts are currently in the Ridgefield National Wildlife refuge in Washington. Why she became separated from the flock is a mystery. However this bird appeared to find a new flock of Canada and Cackling geese, which is great for socializing and protection from predators.

Other irruptive species are being found more and more in Oregon. This winter we have had unusual ducks including Ring Necked ducks, Common Mergansers as well as many Green Winged Teals and Hooded Mergansers. Who knows why we have so many of these “unusual” birds in our ponds. Of particular note are the sightings of Snowy Owls in the Northwest. I have not seen any in my back yard but am always hopeful…

So birding can be a treasure hunt for rare creatures but now I know the scientific term is “irruptive”. Keeps my brain active but mostly makes me look out the windows… have fun looking..

Reflections on January

February 17th, 2012

As I put away the flashy lights and ornaments, which decorated my yard for the Christmas holiday season, I am reflecting on the simple pleasure of bare bark, clean lines, natural colors and the feathered, living ornaments that aren’t nearly as flashy, but are just as beautiful.

No more gold shiny orbs or flashing crystal bulbs. Instead I see the natural forms of my garden “skeleton”. Fortunately I have planted some bushes, which produce berries, some trees with interesting bark coloration and patterns and lots of great dogwoods which change color in the cold temperatures to showy reds and yellows.

As the leaves have fallen, we can more clearly see some of our Cedar Mill winter bird inhabitants. While many of them are in their “drab” winter wear we can in fact see some hints of the vivid breeding plumage soon to come.

Out of the corner of my eye, I notice the white-edged flash of Junco tail feathers. They are a common sight in our winter yards. Usually they lurk around under bushes to find food but as they flit from one dark cover to another we may see the quick flashes of brilliant white, which stands out particularly well in our recent string of foggy days.

Other birds also treat us to small patches of resplendent colors. Our over-wintering resident, male Anna’s Hummingbirds have iridescent crimson on head and throat, which glints in the (rare) sunlight. The Yellow-rumped Warblers are aptly named. As they visit the suet feeders near our windows I admire their outfit, which includes matching bright yellow on their heads and some on the flanks. Our male Downy woodpeckers have obvious red patches on their crowns of their heads. Pine Siskins become common in the winter as the groups who summer in the North come here for “warmth”. These non-descript little birds are often in mixed flocks of both types of Goldfinches (American and Lesser) and other “little brown jobs” or LBJs.

Many of the small winter birds fly in mixed flocks. So take a look the next time Bushtits swarm your suet feeders. Almost always in my Bushtit flocks of late, there is a lone Ruby-crowned Kinglet. They are about the same size but clearly different; they are deep olive, the have two white wing bars, an eye ring and a slightly larger and plump body shape. If it is a male, and he has a moment of excitement we may be fortunate to witness the split second display of the incredible luminous scarlet topknot as they feed on the suet.

As the busy-ness of the holidays wind down and the glitter of the artificial decorations is stored in boxes for the next season, we have a chance to enjoy the pleasures of ordinary, quiet winter days. We can reflect on our goals for the coming year, make plans and resolutions but we can also choose to enjoy some quiet before the yard beckons us to spring chores. We can look for the small moments of wonder in a flash of color.

And as those of us lucky enough to have a break from work go back to the tasks awaiting us—may we keep our promise to enjoy the daily opportunities to find delight in the living “ornaments” adorning our surroundings.

It’s Cold Outside

February 17th, 2012

When it gets colder some of us put away our shorts and flip-flops and find the hats, gloves and coats. What do our avian friends do to stay warm and survive the harsh winds/rain/plunging temperatures?
What can we do to help our back yard birds in the winter season? What do we know is useful to their survival and comfort? As the weather gets more severe what do the birds do to survive and what we can do to help or hinder that?

Birds fluff up their feathers to trap warmth, they seek shelter in brush piles or other sheltered areas including birdhouses so don’t take those down! They seek more food to generate warmth. They flock up together to huddle and save heat. They seek alternative food sources. If we thought ahead last spring and planted sunflower seeds we now have huge sources of seed in our gardens. ( Or we might peruse garden seed catalogues which arrive soon for seeds to plant next spring). If we planted some crabapple trees that fruit that will feed several species all winter as well as decorate our yards with bright red orbs in the gray days. Or we might leave some of our flowers, which have gone to seed out a bit longer before cleaning them up since these might attract goldfinches and others to snack on those treats.
Most of the birds that must have warmth or have specific nectar or insect foods have migrated south. Every year people worry that leaving out hummingbird feeders might encourage those hummers to stay who need to leave. Don’t worry about this. The best evidence is that migration is related to day length not food availability so leave the hummingbird feeder out for the Anna’s hummers who do stay in Portland all winter. As the nectar dries up those birds tend to feed off of sap and any remaining insects. Hummers have been demonstrated to be able to reduce their metabolic rates over the winter so as not to have to eat as much. But I have seen hummers in freezing temperature try to eat out of frozen feeders. My husband rigged up a warming lamp to shine on the hummingbird feeders for the ones who were hungry. Alternatively you might bring in your feeder at night so that it stays fluid to put out again in the morning (assuming it warms up during the day!). For hummingbird mixtures to freeze it has to be really cold since the dissolved sugar freezes at a lower temperature than plain water. However I have had frozen feeders for several days in most of our winters.

Non-nectar eating species also can have trouble finding natural sources of seeds or insects. Black sunflower seed is high in energy and very appealing to a wide variety of songbirds. The foods containing millet have not been that successful for my feeders. I wonder if those mixes are more for other areas of the country or the birds in my yard will pick other foods offered more selectively. Maybe mine are picky! Other treats that attract birds to my yard are cut oranges, which I impale on a nail on my bird feeder—towhees and thrushes in particular like fresh fruit. Many birds “flock up “ in winter to stay warm together, avoid predators and help find food. In Cedar Mill we see large flocks of Bushtits, sparrows of several sorts, Chickadees and Juncos.

It is helpful to provide clean water. Certainly with lots of rain there are innumerable puddles. However puddles in the street can be contaminated with oil, run off of yard chemicals and other contaminants from asphalt. Maintaining a birdbath that is clean and free of ice in the winter is a huge gift to birds. We use a special birdbath low voltage heater, which is safe to put into the water (in general avoiding electrical items in water is a good idea!) to keep it ice-free and we are rewarded with innumerable woodpeckers, sparrows, the few hardy Goldfinches who brave the cold, and even hawks drinking out of our birdbath. Put a few drops of chlorine bleach in the birdbath so that no mold grows in the winter. Keep your feeders clean too. This reduces disease transmission from so many “customers”.

Suet is a favorite winter food of many birds including nuthatches, chickadees, finches, sparrows, towhees and woodpeckers. If you note any sick birds be sure to clean your feeders more often. I wrote a posting about cleaning out hummingbird feeders and this still needs to be done in winter albeit less often. Many people don’t think of cleaning suet feeders but they should be cleaned often as well.

The loss of leaves allows us to see the birds more clearly. Our woodpeckers are more easily viewed pecking for insects. In Cedar Mill we have several types of woodpeckers including the Downey, the Hairy, several Flickers, an occasional Sapsucker species and sometimes even a Pileated. If it’s a nice day and you want to go for a short walk consider going to the Hillsboro Library. In the dense oak woods to the south and southeast is a kind of woodpecker rarely seen outside of this small area in Oregon—the Acorn Woodpecker. These old oaks are riddled with holes in which these birds stash their winter cache of acorns. Winter can be a great time to help hungry birds, which allows you to view them closer than you might in the other seasons where more food is more widely available to them. One of my all time favorite winter activities is sitting in my comfy chair with my cat and either a book or knitting and every once in a while glancing up to see which birds are at my window feeder. Sometimes I count but mostly I just enjoy…

The Big Year

February 17th, 2012

Word around the birding community is that the new movie release (the Big Year) will encourage more interest in bird watching. I don’t know since it is about relatively competitive people traveling all over the world in a rather “manic” way to find rare birds. Personally I like to see birding as not causing so much use of jet fuel and to be a source of peace and wonder rather than listing.

However in meeting people from all over the US and even the world that come to this area to bird there are many ways to enjoy this hobby. I recently took out a woman from Little Rock who was here for a conference. She always arrives a day before the conferences to see the local sites and to go on a guided bird watching trip. So we went to Pittock Mansion, to Fernhill wetlands and my back yard in Cedar Mill! She said she greatly enjoyed seeing our backyard birds. This was from a woman who has gone to 47 countries to watch birds, has a very long “life list” and travels in the US extensively on business. So our area in fact is “very birdy”. While it’s wonderful to travel it can also be a great trip to see what is in your own back yard.
Her goal in the US was to see 100 birds in every state. We made it to about 89 that day—it was a rather slow day for migratory birds. On some other day getting to 100 in a day would take some movement to different habitats such as water areas compared to forested areas but is very possible.

She saw the most birds in my back yard. This time of year the bird life pretty much “turns over” from the summer residents to the winter ones. Some birds pass through but most of them are coming from the north to stay for the winter. Others like our Rufous hummingbirds left in mid September for places further south to rest and feed before coming back here in the spring to breed.

Some of my biggest “finds” this fall have been in the sparrow category. Most people think of sparrows as little brown non-descript birds that lurk around under bushes. True but also missing a lot of variety if one really watches them. As I was cleaning out some garden foliage I noticed a small brown bird digging with both feet vigorously, which is odd. This bird was kind of jumping up and down while digging which most of our typical sparrows such as Song Sparrows don’t do. I looked more closely and it was a Fox Sparrow—much darker with some reddish on the tail feathers and definitely very streaked. This behavior, which was distinct, was my clue to look more closely. Often in migratory flocks of sparrows one can see several different types. Our Golden Crowned Sparrows are returning for the winter. Their rather plaintive and sad calls can be heard around my yard now. I can see flashes of their very golden head coloration—more so on older birds than those newly hatched ones. The White Crowned Sparrows also tend to either come through this area on their way south or some stay the winter. Very rarely we get other sparrows for a day or two. I had a White throated one in my yard for about two hours—not long enough for my husband to get a picture so it’s just in my own memory!
Similarly a Lincoln’s sparrow hung out in our yard for a few days to feed before continuing on his journey to the south.

So however you like to see birds is great. Make long lists—travel extensively—sit in your living room looking out while knitting—any way can take you on a pleasant “journey” away from daily cares. Who knows maybe you can see 100 birds in one day! See how many you can find….

Where did all the male ducks go?

October 1st, 2011

It appears that all the ducks in summer, after the ducklings have grown up, look brown and drab. Where are the brightly colored Wood Duck males or the glossy green heads of the male Mallards? Several observant bird watchers have asked me if the males migrate earlier than the females. Others have theories that the males are hiding somewhere.

They are in fact “hiding” to some degree in that they molt (lose feathers) and look more like females after the breeding season. The exact timing of this change varies on the specific duck species. In some ducks such as Mallards the change over is later in the summer compared to earlier breeding ducks such as the Wood Duck.

Many other bird species also change into more dull winter plumage—for some of them the sexual dimorphism (i.e. how males and females appear) is less dramatic even in non-breeding plumage than the ducks. The change over into female like appearance of feathers in ducks is called the “eclipse” plumage.

There is a brief period when some of the flight feathers are molting where the birds cannot fly. One notices a very drab appearance, which mostly fits in with the gradual change in grasses from green to brown and tan as the summer rains decrease and grasses go to seed. The ducks also are quieter. If you think back to a spring pond and its sounds, the fall pond sounds are very muted just like the coloration of the duck inhabitants.

However for those interested in puzzles and minutia, one can still recognize that there are male ducks mixed in with the females and the juveniles. For Mallards the key feature is the bill. In females all year long the bill is somewhat orange with a black “saddle” like splash over the top. In male Mallards the bill is uniformly yellow or straw colored. This feature is certainly less of a marker when the males have their spectacular green glossy heads in their breeding plumage—who would even look at bills?? But in the winter when both males and females are a dull mottled brown the bill difference is obvious and does not require a lot of inspection to see the difference. But one does have to be interested in that degree of detail and for some non-birders this is just the type of trivia that gets to be the brunt of jokes.

So if this helps you enjoy your wildlife viewing, take a look. If this seems over the top in terms of detail just rest assured that, yes, the males are still there…