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

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Plant berries for the birds

Toyon is a small evergreen shrub also known as Christmas berry or California holly.Photo by J.J. Meyer

Below is a reprint of my story that ran in the Orange County Register on Dec. 6, 2014.

       Many birds change their eating habits in fall and winter. Some insect-eating birds will turn to berries to supplement their diets.

      Winter berry-producing native shrubs are important sustenance for year-round species including California thrashers, Western bluebirds, American robins, Northern flickers, Nuttall’s woodpeckers and Northern mockingbirds. Berries can also be magnets for winter visitors such as cedar waxwings.
       “If you want to have birds and butterflies, you need native plants,” said Reginald Durant, executive director of Back to Natives Restoration. The nonprofit group in Santa Ana promotes the use of locally native plants in habitat restoration.
      Native plants are species that occur naturally in a region or habitat without human intervention.    According to Durant, there are 806 native plant species in Orange County.
      Having a diversity of these plants in your backyard habitat will attract a diversity of birds, he said. Natives are ideal for attracting birds because they’ve co-evolved and therefore benefit each other. These plants are enticing to birds because the fruit meets their nutritional needs at the right time of year. Dense native shrubs also provide shelter to protect birds from the winter wind and rain.
       In turn, many native plants depend on the birds to distribute seeds for propagation.
      Durant says there are many bird-friendly, fruit-producing natives suited for our climate, including California wild rose, holly-leaved cherry, manzanitas, California coffeeberry, California grapes, fushia-flowering gooseberry and toyon, a small evergreen shrub also known as Christmas berry or California holly.
     The majority of these native berry-producing shrubs retain their fruit through the winter unless they are knocked down by high winds, he said.
      Fall is the best time to plant native shrubs, so they have time to become acclimated before the summer heat.
     “We usually wait until after the first rain to plant,” Durant said. So now is the perfect time.
     For information on choosing the best plants for your landscape, go to backtonatives.org.

Thursday, December 6, 2018

Cedar waxwings have arrived

Cedar waxwings travel in nomadic flocks. Photos by J.J. Meyer

It's time to start watching for cedar waxwings. The species arrival to Southern California is an announcement that the holiday season has begun.

Check out their travel patterns on ebird:  eBird Abundance Map

Cedar waxwings appear to be little fruit bandits because of their distinctive black masks outlined in white. They measure about 7 inches in length with a pale brown head and crest that fades to soft gray on the wings and tail. Birders often spot them by their yellow bellies. Other markings include bright yellow tips on the tail and the red waxy wing tips, which increase in size and number as the birds age.

Cedar waxwings are gregarious birds that travel in large, noisy flocks. In fact, it's rare to spot a single bird. They're nomadic birds that travel in search of food, instead of a taking a predictable migration path. Their distinctive call – a high-pitched, trilled whistle – often helps birders locate their presence.

While these birds eat insects, they are primarily fruit-eaters in winter. Therefore, fruit availability may be more of a predictor of their winter presence than temperature or latitude. They're very partial to soft fruits and berries and can be susceptible to alcohol intoxication and death from eating fermented fruit.

Their name comes from their strong attraction to the sweet blue berries of the red cedar tree.
Cedar waxwings visit California in fall and winter, staying until late February or early March when they fly north to breed in the northern United States and Canada.

To attract cedar waxwings to your yard, plant native trees and shrubs that bear small fruits in winter, such as California wild rose, holly-leaved cherry, manzanitas and California holly.

Happy birding!

Sunday, November 4, 2018

Every bird counts -- Join FeederWatch

Grab your binoculars! Cornell Lab of Ornithology's FeederWatch runs November to April. If you have bird feeders, you're watching the birds anyway. So why not count them for science?

Sign up at FeederWatch.org to support the scientific study and conservation of birds with your observations. Your reports help scientists understand population trends and movements of our backyard birds.

Happy Birding!

Sunday, October 14, 2018

USPS Birds in Winter stamps

These newly released USPS Forever stamps will look great on this year's Christmas cards!
Order online at Birds in Winter Stamp. You can also order note cards with matching stamps.

Happy Birding!

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Changing with the seasons -- Winter birds are arriving

White-crowned sparrows are among the species that spend the winter in Southern California. Photo by J.J. Meyer
Here's my latest column scheduled to run the Home & Garden Section of The Orange County Register on Saturday.  The O.C. Register

September can be bittersweet, as we say goodbye to the migratory birds that spent the summer nesting and raising their young in Southern California backyards. Many species, including hooded and Bullock’s orioles, black-chinned and Costa’s hummingbirds, black-headed grosbeaks and cliff swallows, have already begun their journey to their winter grounds in Mexico and Central America. But soon our winter residents such as yellow-rumped warblers, dark-eyed juncos and flocks of white-crowned sparrows will be arriving.

For migrant songbirds, fall is all about moving on from their nesting grounds to their fall and winter feeding territories. Many birds are long-distance travelers, including several species of hummingbirds that travel thousands of miles from the Pacific Northwest and Canada to the southern region of Mexico.

September and October are the key months for songbird migration, said Trude Hurd, Project Director of Education for Sea and Sage Audubon.

“The decrease in daylight is the primary environmental cue that signals it’s time to migrate,” Hurd said.

Shorter days indicate that fall is on the way. “Birds are sensing the change,” she said.
“Decreasing daylight can trigger what’s called a ‘false spring. The birds confuse the change in daylight with spring and begin to sing to defend their territory, but it doesn’t last long. We get calls at the Audubon House this time of year from people asking why the mockingbirds are singing.

“The breeding season is over, but you may still see young birds learning to fend for themselves,” Hurd said. The presence of juveniles can also make bird identification tricky this time of year. Many species will not display their adult plumage until after their first year.

By the beginning of September, many songbirds have started to molt, a systematic process of replacing feathers. “Molting usually kicks in after breeding because it’s very calorie-intensive activity,” she said. Many species undergo a complete molt on or near their breeding grounds, which allows them to migrate south with a new set of feathers.

This time of year, giant flocks of crows form at dusk as they head to their roosting areas for the night. At daybreak the noisy corvids return to their respective territories to feed.

The fall arrival of sharp-shinned hawks presents an additional challenge for songbirds that already cope with Cooper’s hawks as year-round residents. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, studies indicate the presence of birdfeeders won’t greatly increase a bird’s chances of being taken by a sharp-shinned hawk — the hawks get the majority of their diet elsewhere. However, the Lab suggests taking feeders down for a couple of weeks if a hawk has been a regular visitor. The hawk will move on and the songbirds will return when the feeders are replaced.

In late fall, watch for cedar waxwings and American robins that often flock together in search of food. These nomads typically arrive when native berries are ripe.

Homeowners can help migrating birds in a number of ways. “First, provide fresh water,” Hurd said. “The weather will still be hot for the next month and the Santa Ana winds kick up this time of year, which dries out the vegetation.”

Other tips include turning off outdoor lights or directing them downward. The majority of birds migrate at night, navigating with the sky. They can become disoriented when flying over cities, where they crash into buildings.

Keep cats indoors. Roaming cats kill billions of birds every year.

Break up the reflecting surface of windows by applying decals, bird tape or other window coverings.

Fall is the best time to plant native trees and plants. Birds rely on native plants for food along their migration route. It’s also the best time to trim trees.

For a plant list and information on how to create a bird-friendly garden, go to seaandsageaudubon.org.

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Seeing fewer birds at your feeders?

A Cooper's Hawk visits a back yard in Mission Viejo. Photo by J.J. Meyer

I recently heard an alarm call from the pair of black phoebes that frequent my yard. Their chirps reserved for accipiters, or hawks that prey on small birds, are the most shrill of the calls in their repertoire. I also noticed my feeders were empty. There had to be a hawk in the area. When I turned around, I saw the Cooper's hawk on the wall.

This accipiter is found year-round in Southern California. Their numbers have grown significantly since they've adapted to urban areas, where they've found it easy to snatch a meal at backyard birdfeeders. It's part of the circle of life. But if you want to protect your songbirds, hang your feeders where they can take cover for a quick escape. Songbirds may become scarce when a hawk has been visiting regularly.

Happy Birding!

Thursday, August 30, 2018

Drink shade grown coffee for the birds

Trader Joe's shade grown coffee contains Arabica beans from Nicaragua.
One of the easiest ways to help migratory birds is to buy shade-grown coffee. Why? Because habitat loss, especially tropical rainforests, have caused a decline in migratory songbird populations. And sun coffee plantations have contributed to this loss. Basically shade grown coffee benefits birds because it provides far better habitat than sun-grown monoculture coffee plantations.

This espresso blend from Trader Joe's carries the Rainforest Alliance Certified seal. For information, go to Rainforest Alliance. And buy the way, it brews a great cup of coffee. 

Happy Birding!