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

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!

Thursday, August 2, 2018

Nectar feeder draws hooded orioles

A male hood oriole sticks its tongue out after drinking nectar. Photo by J.J. Meyer
A juvenile hooded oriole, photo taken in Mission Viejo on 8/2 by J.J. Meyer

There's been a recent flurry of activity at my oriole feeder in the past few days. At one point, there were three on the feeder and one on the hook above. I believe I'm seeing a pair and their offspring.

Hooded orioles are very distinctive. Males are easy to spot with their flashy colors. Adult males tend to be bright yellow or orange over most of their body with black wings and white wingbars, a distinctive black face and throat with a hood of orange or yellow-orange. Females are less colorful with mostly dull yellow bodies and gray wings. 

Though it may look like a different species, the second photo is of a juvenile hooded oriole. It's definitely less sleek than an adult female and has a shorter bill.

Here's a description of plumage from Cornell Labs: Juvenile plumage similar to Definitive Basic (adult) female, except wing-bars buffy and plumage duller; generally olive-brown above and pale olive-yellow below with noticeable whitish belly (unlike adult female); and less contrast between grayish flanks and remaining underparts than adult female. Body-plumage without black feathers in face or throat, and flight feathers uniformly fresh. Sexes alike in coloration, although some black feathers can occur (occasionally) on throats of hatching-year males before or during migration.

Hooded orioles are migratory and return to their wintering grounds in Mexico, and Central and South America in early September. 

Happy birding!

Monday, July 23, 2018

Help birds beat the heat

A mourning dove visits a fountain in Mission Viejo. Photo by J.J. Meyer

             Southern California is heading into another heat wave with temperatures expected to be in the 90s for most of the week. People can crank up the air conditioner, but how do birds beat the heat?
              Birds have several physiological and behavioral adaptations to help them maintain a constant body temperature of 105 to 107 degrees. Scientists refer to this mechanism as thermoregulation.
Without sweat glands, birds can’t perspire like humans, nor do they pant like dogs. Instead, birds open their bills to expose their mucous membranes to the air, which sends cooler air into their air sacs. They also flutter their throats in a form of avian panting called “gular fluttering.” 
It’s also common to see birds sitting with open wings, which circulates air next to their bodies.  Some species are known to spread their wings to shade their nestlings from the sun. Female hummingbirds will beat their wings over their nests to cool their eggs or hatchlings. 
Birds sleek down their feathers to avoid trapping air next to their skin when the environment is too warm. And like many other species, birds become less active in the heat, retreating to the shade where they can hide and cool off. 
Help our fine feathered friends by keeping your birdbath filled with clean water. 
Happy birding!

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Mother hummingbirds know best

Hummingbirds generally lay two eggs, but not all are viable.  Photo by Tyler Thayer
Here's my latest column for the Orange County Register. 

 An Oceanside couple watched in awe as a mother hummingbird built its nest just outside their courtyard window.

The female hummingbird sat in the nest as she built it, working the sides up around her until the nest was about an inch tall and 1½ inches wide. The tiny bird used plant down, thistle, and bits of leaves bound by spider webs, which allows the nest to expand as the nestlings grow. Hummingbirds often cover the outside of their nests in lichen or moss. But instead, the Oceanside bird used green paint chips from a peeling patio set.

It took about a week for her to finish. Finally, she laid two eggs about the size of Tic Tac mints. She continued to sit through wind and even a cold rain, keeping the eggs warm with her little body. About two weeks later, one of the eggs hatched. The couple became concerned when the other egg failed to hatch two to three days later as expected. Eventually, the single nestling became large enough to cover the egg.

“Normally, the mother would push it out,” said Monique Rae a hummingbird rehabilitator from south Orange County. “But it’s best not to disturb the nest. The mother knows best,” she said.

Depending upon the species, hummingbirds can have up to four clutches, or nesting attempts with eggs. But not all eggs hatch and not all babies survive.

“We have a very long season here,” she said. “We’re in the second wave of babies now. Then there’s a third where we can see fledglings into July,” she said.

Female hummingbirds build the nest, incubate the eggs and raise the young without any help from the male.  “She’s the only one, so she’s very tenacious,” Rae said.

New hatchlings are fed about every 15-30 minutes. The length of time between feeding increases as they develop.  She feeds them nectar and insects by regurgitation, which is stored in her crop, a food storage sac in her throat. Hummingbirds require a large percentage of fruit flies, gnats, small spiders and other soft-bodied insects for protein as well as nectar for energy.

Generally, a mother hummingbird will not abandon her eggs or hatchlings.

“The only reason she doesn’t come back to the nest is if something happened to her,” Rae said.
Hummingbirds have a tough life. They can run into windows and get attacked by cats, predatory birds and even praying mantis.

Babies typically fledge approximately 21-28 days from hatch date. The mother continues to feed the babies out of the nest for about two weeks. If you’re lucky enough to have hummingbirds nest in your yard, don’t remove the nest when the birds are gone. Female hummingbirds often repair and reuse old ones.

For information on orphaned hummingbirds and rescue, go to hummingbirdsrescue.org.

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Happy Mother's Day from the Backyard Birder

Black Phoebes    Photo by J.J. Meyer

Black phoebes are monomorphic, meaning there are no differences in the physical characteristics of males and females. So it's hard to say if the parent in the photo is the mom or the dad. Both parents are actively involved in caring for their young.
They’re very territorial and often remain year-round in an area with an established food source. They build mud nests under the eaves of buildings, bridges and other protected shelters. The female lays three to five eggs then incubates them for 15-18 days. Both parents tend the nestlings. The male often continues to feed the young after fledging while the female re-nests.  Once the babies are deemed old enough to fend for themselves, the parents will aggressively run them out of their territory.
Because black phoebes are insect eaters, they do not visit seed feeders. But you can attract them to your yard by offering live mealworms. Start by placing a few in a dish out in an open area where they can be easily seen on a flyby. Live mealworms can be purchased at many nature and pet supply stores. And don't use pesticides, if you'd like to attract insect-eating birds to your yard.  

Happy Birding!