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

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Mockingbirds' songs stop while they care for their young

A juvenile mockingbird makes high-pitched begging calls. Photo by J.J. Meyer
Here's my next column, scheduled to run in the Orange County Register on Saturday.       

      It’s nearing the end of the breeding season, though many birds are still feeding their families away from the nest.
      I’ve been watching a pair of Northern mockingbirds with two fledglings for the past week or so. The youngsters’ downy feathers make them appear slightly larger than the parents. I can hear the fledglings’ relentless high-pitched begging calls coming from the honeysuckle in our back yard. With two large mouths to feed, the parents fly in and out of those bushes continuously throughout the day.
       Mockingbirds have two to three broods, or hatchings, each season. They typically begin in mid-February and are finished by early September. Females incubate the eggs and provide most of the nestling care, though both sexes share in feeding once the babies are out of the nest. Babies fledge, or leave the nest, at 12 to 14 days when they’re still flightless. Until they can fly, these young birds are extremely vulnerable to predators, including cats.
       Mockingbirds don’t typically sing this time of year. The adults I’ve been watching have been relatively silent except for the shrieking alarm calls they make when a crow or jay ventures too close to their fledglings. Mockingbirds can be very aggressive when defending their territory, nest and young. The parents often join together to attack intruders.
      These medium-size songbirds pack a lot of attitude in their 10-inch-long frame. Their plumage is gray or gray-brown overall and their bellies pale gray. In flight, they flash their white wing patches and white outer tail feathers. Other identifying features include long legs and tails, short slightly curved black bills and reddish-brown eyes with a dark eyeline. Juveniles have streaky gray breasts and bright yellow gapes – the name for the interior of the mouth and edges of the bill.
      Mockingbirds are common backyard birds and year-round residents in Orange County. They’re insect and fruit eaters, so they don’t visit seed feeders. But they eat suet and frequently visit the large suet cylinder in my yard. They also appear when I step outside to feed mealworms to the black phoebes. I’ve learned that there’s less competition for the worms when I toss a few on the ground for the mockingbirds first, then toss worms one at a time in the air for the black phoebes, which are able to catch them on the fly.
      When the breeding season is over, the birds will begin molting, a systematic process of replacing feathers. Birds tend to become secretive during this time, vocalizing infrequently and hiding in the vegetation to evade predators.
      Both male and female mockingbirds will begin singing again in September and continue until early November. Males sing two distinct repertoires: one reserved for spring and another for fall. The female also sings in the fall, although usually more quietly than the male.

Happy Birding!

Friday, July 29, 2016

Juveniles make bird identification tricky this time of year

An immature spotted towhee shows streaked juvenile plumage. Photo by J. J. Meyer
Here's my column, scheduled to run in Saturday's Orange County Register:    

     So you think you’ve sighted a rare bird. The color pattern is so unusual.
     You consult multiple field guides before discovering that the sighting is actually a common bird, though an immature one that hasn’t yet developed its adult feathers.
     Generally, juvenile plumage is drab and streaked to provide camouflage while the young birds are particularly vulnerable to predators. And it makes bird identification tricky this time of year.
     Spotted towhees are a good example. As adults, these striking birds have jet-black heads and throats, prominent white spots on wings and backs, burnt orange flanks, bright white bellies and red eyes. Immature birds of this species are much less colorful with buffy brown heads and brown to black streaks across the breast. This juvenile plumage lasts only for a few weeks, though it takes nearly a year for these birds to develop its red eyes. Their eyes are brown for the birds’ first fall and winter, turning red by the following spring.
     Immature Western bluebirds have a similar pattern: they show very little blue and have pronounced dark streaking across the chest and wings. Once a bird has molted out of this plumage it is no longer considered a juvenile.
     While many songbirds lose their juvenile plumage in just a few weeks after leaving the nest, larger birds such as hawks can take much longer. Bald eagles don’t develop their distinctive white heads and tails until they are 4 to 5 years old.
     Avid birder and professional photographer Anthony Gliozzo has taken many photos of common Orange County birds showing juvenile plumage for his website at ocbirds.com.
     He says there are many factors to consider, such as behavior and vocalization, that can determine the bird species and whether the bird is a juvenile. “Don’t just rely on color for bird identification.”
If the bird is following a parent, or demonstrating begging behaviors, such as wing flapping with an open mouth, it’s obvious that it’s immature.
     “Listen for begging calls or sounds that are incomplete or different than the adults,” he says.
And there are also oddities to look for in different species such as a brightly colored gape, or base of the bill. The corners of the mouth can be yellow, pink or orange, almost giving an appearance of lips. It’s commonly seen in wrens and black phoebes and suggests that a bird is immature.
     Sometimes the behavior of young birds can appear uncoordinated, especially when they are learning to fly. Watching young mallards attempt to copy their parents feeding under water can be quite comical.
     The breeding season is not yet over for many species. Many songbirds have two to three broods, or hatchings, so some are still raising their young. Mourning doves have a particularly prolonged season. These birds can have up to six broods per year. So it’s not unusual to see immature birds in August and September.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Yellow-breasted chat banded at Starr Ranch Sanctuary

Photo by Tom Sheffield
This is the first time the a yellow-breasted chat has been seen at the Starr Ranch Sanctuary in south Orange County, California in 25 years. The bird was banded and released.

Chats are small songbirds but are large and bulky compared to other warblers. They have a long tail, large head and a relatively thick, heavy bill.

The yellow-breasted chat offers a cascade of song in the spring, when males deliver streams of whistles, cackles, chuckles, and gurgles with the fluidity of improvisational jazz. It’s seldom seen or heard during the rest of the year, when both males and females skulk silently in the shadows of dense thickets, gleaning insects and berries for food. The largest of our warblers, the chat is a widespread breeder in shrubby habitats across North America, venturing to Central America for the winter. 

Read more at Audubon California.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Acclaimed scientist studies "One Wild Bird at a Time"


Just started reading this book, which was recently released by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. I'm looking forward to the opportunity to review this book by acclaimed scientist Bernd Heinrich.

Here's a description from Goodreads:

In his modern classics One Man’s Owl and Mind of the Raven, Bernd Heinrich has written memorably about his relationships with wild ravens and a great horned owl. In One Wild Bird at a Time, Heinrich returns to his great love: close, day-to-day observations of individual wild birds. 

There are countless books on bird behavior, but Heinrich argues that some of the most amazing bird behaviors fall below the radar of what most birds do in aggregate. 

Heinrich’s “passionate observations [that] superbly mix memoir and science” (New York Times Book Review) lead to fascinating questions — and sometimes startling discoveries. A great crested flycatcher, while bringing food to the young in their nest, is attacked by the other flycatcher nearby. Why? A pair of Northern flickers hammering their nest-hole into the side of Heinrich’s cabin deliver the opportunity to observe the feeding competition between siblings, and to make a related discovery about nest-cleaning. One of a clutch of redstart warbler babies fledges out of the nest from twenty feet above the ground, and lands on the grass below. It can’t fly. What will happen next?   

Heinrich “looks closely, with his trademark ‘hands-and-knees science’ at its most engaging, [delivering] what can only be called psychological marvels of knowing” (Boston Globe).   

An eminent biologist shares the joys of bird-watching and how observing the anomalous behaviors of individual birds has guided his research.

An engaging memoir of the opportunities for doing scientific research without leaving one's own backyard. (Kirkus)

Friday, July 1, 2016

Dead trees pose a threat, but provide homes for wildlife

A male Nuttall's woodpecker. Photo by J.J. Meyer

Story appeared on Audubon California website, June 29, 2016.

      More than 66 million trees in California have died since 2010 due to the drought and pine beetle infestations, according to a press release from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection this week. The accumulation of dead trees is exacerbating wildfires in the southern part of the state, in addition to demonstrating poor forest health.
      “From Southern California to the Bay Area to the Sierra, this is happening across the entire state,” said Sandy DeSimone, Director of Research and Education at the Audubon California Starr Ranch Sanctuary. “It’s a really mindboggling problem and everyone is talking about it.”
      For scale, there were only 3.3 million dead trees in California from 2010 to 2014. In 2015, officials were worried when that number jumped to 29 million dead trees. In response, Governor Jerry Brown created the Tree Mortality Task Force, a coalition of over 80 stakeholders and government agencies from the local to federal level.
      The impacts of this trend are multifold and interwoven. First, the dead trees make excellent tinder for forest fires, as they are dried out from the drought. Healthy forests contain moisture that contains fires; dry forests allow the fire to sustain and spread. Some of the consequences of such prolonged “megafires” are obvious, such as destruction of wildlife habitat and potential damage to homes and building.
      There is also a cyclical irony among the dying trees, fires and climate change. As the trees die, they no longer absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. As the trees burn, they release more carbon into the air. In fact, a Berkeley study last year found that forest fires are responsible for somewhere between 5 to 7 percent of California’s total carbon emissions.
      Climate change caused by such greenhouse gases has in turn been linked back to drought and beetle epidemics, the causes of the tree die-offs. Climate change can cause precipitation changes, and higher temperatures have increased the range where pine beetles can thrive, spelling trouble for the trees. We also know that climate change threatens 170 bird species in California.
      To address the immediate problem of the fires, the focus of CAL FIRE has first turned to removing dead trees to prevent the spread of flames. However, the dead trees—also called snags—can provide home for birds and other small wildlife as well.
      “There’s not an easy way to reconcile habitat and nesting in dead trees with the fire potential,” DeSimone said.
     However, she did suggest some general guidelines. When drought-weakened trees sustain diseases or pests, when these trees die they can no longer serve as home to birds anyway and should be removed. Additionally, human safety can be a concern to consider.
     “At this point, it’s a potential human and ecological disaster,” warned DeSimone.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

The Southern California Bluebird Club meets Saturday, July 2

Daddy bluebird guards his nest box. Photo by J.J. Meyer

Want to know more about bluebirds? Learn more about these beautiful birds and how you can become a nest box monitor at the next Southern California Bluebird Club.

The group meets this Saturday, July 2 at 9 a.m. at the Irvine Ranch Water District, 15500 Sand Canyon Ave., Irvine.

For more information, go to socalbluebirds.org. 

Happy Birding!

Monday, June 20, 2016

Hummingbirds need help during the heat wave

A male Allen's hummingbird in Mission Viejo, CA.  Photo by J.J. Meyer
The temperature is expected to be over 100 degrees again today in Southern California. So please get out and replenish the nectar in all hummingbird feeders. Nectar can ferment in less than a day in temps like these.

Please clean your feeders and replenish the nectar every day until temps cool down.

Nectar should be made in a 1:4 ratio, meaning 1 cup of sugar to 4 cups water. Any stronger can leave the birds dehydrated. Use only granulated sugar. Never use organic or raw sugar and especially NO  honey, which can be deadly.

And every bird needs water, so please keep bird baths and fountains clean and fresh too. 
Our birds will love you.

Happy birding!