"I hope you love birds too. It is economical. It saves going to heaven."
Emily Dickinson

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Birds & Blooms October/November issue shares owl secrets

Did you know that owls are among the most specialized and highly adapted bird species? Their keen vision and hearing allow them to hunt at night for small prey, such as mice, voles and toads. Fringed feathers ensure silent flight. And sharp beaks and talons are perfect tools for hunting, killing and eating prey.

Owl feathers help camouflage them, so they can be difficult to spot. They're active at night but rest during the day. Grab your binoculars next time you hear the shreiks of crows and jays. They often mod together to run off a resting owl, thereby giving its location away.

A roundup of the most common owl species is included in this month's issue of Birds & Blooms. Go to birdsandblooms.com to order.

Happy Birding!

Saturday, October 7, 2017

White-crowned sparrows have arrived!

White-crowned sparrow  Photo by J.J. Meyer
     You know it's winter in Orange County when you see flocks of white-crowned sparrows hopping around your back yard. I spotted one yesterday and two today. Many people have reported waking to  their sweet song.
     They're easy to identify with their black and white striped head, pale beak and gray breast. Juveniles have a reddish brown stripe instead of the white.
     White-crowned sparrows are ground feeders and prefer to stay close to the safety of trees and shrubs. They'll visit platform feeders – though they're more likely to stay on the ground eating seeds dropped by other birds. 
    These small songbirds can travel as much as 2,600 miles to winter in Southern California. Welcome these visitors by tossing a handful of millet, shelled sunflower seeds or cracked corn on the ground and providing a source of fresh water.
    Happy birding!

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Shasta the bald eagle recently spotted in British Columbia

Shasta with adult white plumage, spotted at Glendale Cove, British Columbia, Sept. 4, 2017. Photo by Robert Higgs

Shasta, with juvenile plumage, in Laguna Beach, Calif., April 17, 2015. Photo by Adrienne Helitzer

I recently received a note from Robert Higgs, who captured the top photo on Sept. 4 at the estuary at Glendale Cove, Knight Inlet, British Columbia while on vacation. 

"I was with my wife, Jean, and the General Manager of the Knight Inlet Lodge, Brian Collen, when we spotted Shasta," Higgs said. "We saw her fly in and she settled high up in the tree. It was a few minutes before we noticed something orange on her wing – and it was only with binoculars that we were able to identify it as a tag – and the number 32."

Higgs discovered that the orange wing marker #32 belonged to a bald eagle named Shasta on the Institute of Wildlife Studies website. 

"Her feathers were smooth – and she looked to be in great condition – healthy, strong, very fine, elegant and regal," he said. "We watched her continuously whist she was perched in the tree, during which time, whilst she was clearly very alert, she appeared to be resting. After about 20 minutes of observing her we watched her fly away – and it was then that we noticed additional tags underneath."

Shasta hatched on Catalina Island in March 2013, which makes her about 4 1/2 years old. Bald eagles develop the distinctive adult white plumage on the head and tail at about age 4 or 5.

"Reflecting upon the jouney she has made, I now feel a strange, emotional attachment to Shasta," Higgs said. 

 The bald eagle was the focus of my column on April 30, 2015, read the complete story in The Orange County Register.

To report additional sightings of Shasta or other banded birds, go to reportband.gov

Happy Birding!

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

It's time to clean out old nests

A mourning dove egg from an abandoned nest. Photo by J.J. Meyer

By this time of year, it's safe and legal to remove bird nests from your property because the breeding for songbirds is over.

Birds and active nests are protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918.  This means the California Dept. of Fish and Game and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officers can fine homeowners and companies who blatantly harass or harm a protected bird or nest. Note that this law does not protect non-native species.

Some species, such as hummingbirds and raptors, will reuse nests year after year. Many bird experts recommend leaving these nests undisturbed. Clean out nest boxes, but leave them up year-round. Some species roost in nest boxes on cold nights.

Use gloves and dispose of the nest in your green waste container. Bird nests can harbor mites. 

Note:  The egg shown in the photo above never hatched while the parents were on the nest. We found it when we removed the nest, which was long after the birds had flown off. However, the pair had success with one baby that fledged.

Happy Birding!

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Where do birds go in a hurricane?

Wood stork in the Florida Everglades -- Photo by J.J. Meyer
This post is reprinted from Forbes. com. 

As the southern United States faces a second record-breaking hurricane in less than two weeks, I’ve been asked many times: “What happens to birds in hurricanes? Where do they go?”

Basically, birds have a variety of strategies for dealing with large storms, such as hurricanes, including: leaving the area; flying ahead of, or into the storm; or sheltering in place.

Birds may leave in advance of an approaching storm

Research has shown that birds can hear infrasound (ref) and are sensitive to barometric pressure (ref and ref), so they know when a storm is on its way -- especially when the storm is as large and as powerful as a hurricane. When a large storm approaches, birds in its path may adjust their behaviors within the parameters of their own life histories and according to season. For example, white-throated sparrows, Zonotrichia albicollis, are migratory songbirds, so if a large storm is approaching during their annual spring or autumnal migration period, they may migrate sooner than they might otherwise do (ref). Interestingly, research has found that sparrows speed up their autumnal migratory departure date in response to falling barometric pressures (but not temperature), whereas they delay their spring migratory departure in response to falling temperature (but not barometric pressure).

Birds may fly ahead of, into, or through, a storm
Some migratory birds may intentionally fly into a large storm. For example, a whimbrel, Numenius phaeopus, named Chinquapin, flew into Hurricane Irene’s dangerous northeast quadrant in 2011. This medium-sized shorebird was part of an ongoing research project and was carrying a satellite tracker, allowing scientists to watch this intrepid bird’s progress in real time as she migrated from Hudson Bay, Canada, to her wintering grounds in South America.

Chinquapin was lucky. Although this same bird successfully flew around the edge of Tropical Storm Colin in the previous year, a second satellite tagged bird flew into that storm and was killed.
But storms are not the worst of what whimbrels and other migratory birds encounter. Several other satellite tagged whimbrels, named Machi and Goshen, survived their flights through hurricanes in 2011. (Like Chinquapin, Goshen also tangled with Hurricane Irene, although she flew through the outer edge instead.) But both Machi and Goshen paused on the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe and tragically, both were shot dead within hours of their arrival. (This is a common fate for hurricane survivors landing on Guadeloupe.)
In the same year, another satellite tagged whimbrel, named Hope, flew into Tropical Storm Gert off the coast of Nova Scotia, Canada. Incredibly, she endured strong headwinds for 27 hours straight, but was able to fly at an average speed of only 7 miles per hour (11kph). In contrast, after she successfully emerged from the middle of that storm, she then was pushed by strong tailwinds at an average speed of 90 miles per hour (145kph) and safely returned to her staging grounds on Cape Cod -- after expending a huge amount of effort for no gain.

But migrating ahead of, or during, a hurricane is a strategy that is fraught with dangers and can have unexpected consequences, especially for small birds. For example, in 2005, a large flock of migrating chimney swifts, Chaetura pelagica, was swept up by Hurricane Wilma, and the lucky survivors relocated to Western Europe -- to the delight of bird watchers there.
Other small migratory bird species may become trapped inside a hurricane, as probably was the situation for those migrating chimney swifts. For example, radar images of Hurricane Matthew as it raged across Florida in 2016 showed it had a huge flock of birds trapped in its eye.

These birds were relocated by many hundreds or thousands of kilometers away from where they were, or wanted to be -- again, to the delight of local birders.

Birds may shelter in place and hang on for dear life
Many non-migratory birds seek shelter inside thick bushes or on the leeward side of trees. Trees and shrubs can dramatically reduce wind speeds and can keep birds dry even during a torrential downpour. And since birds adapted to sleeping whilst perched, their feet automatically close when they are relaxed, thereby making it easier for birds to hang on to something solid for dear life.
Birds may also find cover where ever it exists. For example, an injured Cooper’s hawk, Accipiter cooperii, now known as Harvey, took refuge in Willam Bruso’s taxi in Houston during Hurricane Harvey just a few days ago.

Harvey (the bird, not the hurricane) was given to the TWRC Wildlife Center the following day, where it was discovered that she had suffered a broken wing (and was probably in shock from the pain), thereby preventing the terrified bird from flying. Harvey is expected to make a full recovery.
In addition to taxis, other birds, such as woodpeckers and parrots, may seek shelter in their nest-holes or in other cavities. This works well unless the tree they are sheltering in is uprooted or snapped off at the cavity, or if these birds become trapped by floodwaters — just as people become trapped in their attics and drown.

Birds may die
Remember that flock of chimney swifts that I mentioned? Most of them met a horrible end: at least 727 of these tiny birds’ bodies were found later (ref) -- but how many thousands more died and were never found? Indeed, Hurricane Wilma’s effects on chimney swift numbers were so severe and widespread that, in the province of Québec, Canada, where these birds lived, chimney swifts became quite rare as the direct result of this one tragic event. In the following year, roost counts declined by an average of 62% and the total chimney swift population is estimated to have decreased by half.
Surprisingly, we don’t really have much robust data for how storms affect bird populations -- until they become vanishingly small. But researchers studying sooty terns, Onychoprion fuscatus, which are plentiful in the Atlantic, report a strong positive correlation between “wrecked” individuals found throughout the Caribbean and the number of tropical storms, particularly hurricanes (ref). These data are being used to build computer models that may help to more precisely predict storm-caused mortality for seabirds.

Read the complete story at Forbes.

Monday, August 28, 2017

Help birds beat the heat

A mourning dove visits a fountain in Mission Viejo.  Photo by J.J. Meyer
            Temperatures in So Cal are supposed to heat up this week. So please keep your fountains and birdbaths sparkling clean.

Having a fountain or birdbath helps attract species that don't typically visit backyard birdfeeders, such as insect-eaters.  All birds are attracted to moving water.  In the absence of a pump, small battery powered gadgets such as the Water Wiggler available at garden and nature stores help keep the water moving in a birdbath.  Stagnant water can play host to mosquito larvae, which is factor in the spread of West Nile Virus.  It’s also important to clean the birdbath every few days, especially in the heat.
Consider adding a mister or dripper to your birdbath for hummingbirds and other species that love to shower.  Watching birds fly through a mister is like watching children at a waterpark.  Large open rose blooms that collect overspray from misters and sprinklers act as nature’s bathtubs for hummers. 

Happy Birding!

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Praying mantises pose a threat to small birds worldwide

A praying mantis kills a hummingbird in San Juan Capistrano.  Photo by Kris Okamoto
Zoologist Martin Nyffeler from the University of Basel, Switzerland contacted me after my story about praying mantises killing hummingbirds ran in the Orange County Register on February 15, 2014.  He was studying this problem and asked to contact the photographer, Kris Okamoto from San Juan Capistrano.  He received permission to use the photo as part of his scientific research published on July 4, 2017 in the Wilson Journal of Ornithology.
Original Source: 
Martin Nyffeler, Michael R. Maxwell, J. V. Remsen, Jr.
Bird predation by praying mantises: a global perspective
The Wilson Journal of Ornithology (2017) 129(2): 331-344 | DOI: 10.1676/16-100.1

 A study by zoologists from Switzerland and the United States shows: praying mantises all over the globe also include birds in their diet. The Wilson Journal of Ornithology has just published the results.
Praying mantises are carnivorous insects with powerful raptorial front legs that usually depend on arthropods such as insects or spiders as their primary prey. Rather infrequently, they have also been witnessed eating small vertebrates such as frogs, lizards, salamanders or snakes. A new study by the zoologists Martin Nyffeler (University of Basel), Mike Maxwell (National University, La Jolla, California), and James Van Remsen (Louisiana State University) now shows that praying mantises all over the world also kill and eat small birds.

Feeding on birds is a global pattern

The researchers gathered and documented numerous examples of bird-eating mantises. In a systematic review, they were able to show that praying mantises from twelve species and nine genera have been observed preying on small birds in the wild. This remarkable feeding behavior has been documented in 13 different countries, on all continents except Antarctica. There is also great diversity in the victims: birds from 24 different species and 14 families were found to be the prey of mantises. “The fact that eating of birds is so widespread in praying mantises, both taxonomically as well as geographically speaking, is a spectacular discovery," comments Martin Nyffeler from the University of Basel and lead author of the study.

Praying mantises pose a threat to small birds

The researchers assembled 147 documented cases of this feeding behavior from all over the world. However, more than 70 percent were reported in the US, where praying mantises often capture birds at hummingbird feeders or plants pollinated by hummingbirds in house gardens. Consequently, hummingbirds make up the vast majority of birds killed by praying mantises, with the Ruby-throated Hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) being a particularly frequent victim.

Decades ago, several alien species of large mantises (e.g., Mantis religiosa and Tenodera sinensis) were released across North America as biological pest control agents. These imported species now constitute a new potential threat to hummingbirds and small passerine birds. However, there are also large native mantises that prey on birds. “Our study shows the threat mantises pose to some bird populations. Thus, great caution is advised when releasing mantises for pest control,” says Nyffeler.

Further information
PD Dr. Martin Nyffeler, University of Basel, Department of Environmental Sciences, Tel. +41 61 702 07 03, email: martin.nyffeler@unibas.ch