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

Monday, April 21, 2014

Are mockingbirds keeping you awake?

A Northern Mockingbird sings its little heart out.  Photo by J.J. Meyer
Is an all-night song fest keeping you awake at night?

The noisy culprit is likely a Northern Mockingbird. It has a vocal repertoire of more than 400 songs and can imitate other birds, barking dogs and even musical instruments. Generally it's a male that sings all night, especially during the breeding season when it's trying to attract a mate.

His song fests will continue throughout the nesting season in order to defend it's territory and reinforce the pair bond with its mate. So if you have a resident mockingbird in your yard, the best you can do is close the window or buy earplugs, because the singing will not likely fade until July.

Happy birding!

Friday, April 18, 2014

Dead trees are lifesavers for birds

Nuttall's woodpeckers are among the many species that nest in dead trees. Photo by Tom Grey
In case you missed my column in today's O.C. Register, here it is:

       Gillian Martin would like everyone to know just how important a dead tree can be.
Martin, a volunteer naturalist, is spreading the word about the benefits of keeping dying trees, called snags, in place. Instead of reaching for a chain saw, we should consider the benefits of saving them, she says.
      “Dead trees and tree limbs provide vital habitat for cavity-nesting birds and other wildlife,” said Martin, of Laguna Niguel.
      About 84 species of birds in North America depend on dead trees for nesting, she said. About 40 of these rely on woodpeckers, a family of birds known as primary excavators, to make holes in these rotting trees. In Southern California such primary excavators include Nuttall’s, downy and hairy woodpeckers and the northern flicker. When woodpeckers abandon their nest sites, secondary cavity nesters such as tree swallows, Western bluebirds, mountain chickadees and oak titmice inherit them.
      “The removal of too many snags results in competition among the species and fewer breeding opportunities for these cavity nesters,” Martin said.
       Snags also provide benefits beyond nesting. Unlike live trees, snags provide unobstructed views for birds of prey when hunting. Other species use them during displays of courtship and for defending their territories. A dead tree also returns nutrients to the soil when allowed to die in place.
       To promote the preservation of dead tree limbs and snags, Martin developed the Cavity Conservation Initiative, a program established in conjunction with the Southern California Bluebird Club. As part of the program, she brings the message to local schools and community organizations. As an environmental activist, she has also been educating land managers and officials from golf courses, county and state parks and the Forest Service on the value of snag retention.
       “A securely rooted dead tree can often be safely retained by reducing its height and weakest branches,” she said. Cutting the tree down to as low as 6 feet and shortening the limbs to 18 inches is enough to provide valuable habitat. Dead limbs need to be at least 8 inches in diameter to be useful to cavity nesters.
      “The project requires perseverance,” she said. “But the word is definitely spreading.”
       Martin recently returned from the International Woodpecker Conference in Spain, where the scientific studies presented underscored the repercussions of lost habitat.
      “I learned that whether one is managing a forest, woodland or urban park the issues are the same,” she said.
       For more information, go to cavityconservation.com.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Easter grass kills birds

      Plastic grass sold for Easter baskets can be dangerous for wild birds and pets. Birds may pick up remnants left on the lawn after Easter egg hunts for their nests.  It can strangle young birds or get tangled on legs and wings.
     Dogs and cats may require surgery if they decide to eat it.
     So please choose other alternatives such as cotton batting, feathers, or leaves and twigs from your garden.  Or simply line baskets with colorful tissue paper. 
     Tweet this!
     Happy birding!

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Missing my white-crowned sparrows

Adult white-crowned sparrows are easily distinguished by the bold black and white stripes.  Photo by J.J. Meyer
A flock of white-crowned sparrows winter in my back yard every year.  They arrived last year at the end of September and they officially left yesterday.  I took this photo on the last day of their visit.  According to Cornell Lab, they tend to return to the same area every year, so hopefully I'll see them again this fall. 

Most white-crown sparrows migrate to their spring breeding grounds in Canada and Alaska, traveling as far as 2,600 miles.  Scientists at Cornell have documented resident white-crowned sparrows along the Pacific Coast and parts of the West that do not migrate.  Post any sightings on eBird.

Happy Birding!

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Black-headed grosbeaks are back!

A female black-headed grosbeak was spotted in South Orange County.  Photo by J.J. Meyer
It must be spring!  Black-headed grosbeaks showed up in my back yard yesterday.
These beautiful songbirds breed in the spring and summer in the western United States and into the southern part of Canada.  Breeding males have a bright orange collar and underparts. Its head is black with a large gray bill. It has black wings with white patches.  The females are less colorful with dull orange underparts.  They also have a distinct white eyebrow and chin stripe, as shown above.

The males are sometimes confused with spotted towhees, which also have a black head and bright orange body.  To tell them apart, look for the grosbeaks' large triangular bill, that gives them the name.  They use those large bills to crack seeds and crush large insects such as beetles. You'll find them visiting feeders and hopping around near the brush foraging for insects.  Grosbeaks also love fruit, so don't be surprised if they visit your oriole feeder.

To attract them, offer fresh black oil sunflower seeds, millet and cracked corn. 

Happy birding!

Sunday, April 6, 2014

New books for birders arrive in time for spring

The second edition of "Nests, Eggs, and Nestlings of North American Birds" is a detailed reference for 670 bird species.

The newly released "Rare Birds of North America" is an illustrated guide to vagrant birds. 

In case you missed my column in yesterday's Orange County Register, here it is:

            It’s the perfect time of year to pick up a copy of “Nests, Eggs, and Nestlings of North American Birds,” by Paul J. Baicich & Colin J. O. Harrison.  Princeton University Press just released the second edition of this detailed reference on the breeding behavior and biology of the nesting birds on our continent.  
            If you’ve ever had a question about the type of nest built by a certain species, the number of eggs laid, or how long the babies will remain in the nest, this book will give you the answer.
            Even casual birders may find this book handy. Say you’ve seen a pair of California towhees hopping around your back yard and you’re wondering if they might nest in your shrubs.  According to Baicich and Harrison, this species begins breeding in mid-April.  The female builds a loosely constructed nest using twigs, weeds, grasses and hair in dense shrubs or small trees.  
The authors say that the female generally lays four bluish, creamy white eggs and incubates them for 14 days without help from the male.  They also state that both parents tend the young as nestlings, and that babies fledge at about 10 days but stay with the parents for 4-6 weeks.
            The book covers such details for 670 bird species and includes color illustrations of the eggs and selected nestlings.
            Serious birders who would like to understand migration and vagrancy (birds outside of their typical boundaries) might appreciate another new reference from Princeton University Press.  “Rare Birds of North America,” by Steve N.G. Howell, Ian Lewington and Will Russell is being touted as the first comprehensive illustrated guide to the vagrant birds that occur throughout the United States and Canada. 
It describes 262 detailed species accounts, including the Xantus's Hummingbird, a vagrant to Southern California.  The book includes color plates of each species, along with tips for identification.
            These books are available at nathist.princeton.edu and amazon.com. 

Happy Birding!

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Orioles have returned!

Hooded orioles at a feeder in Mission Viejo.  Photo by Ken Carrier
       They're back! Customers at the local Wild Birds Unlimited have reported seeing them for several weeks.
       Hooded and Bullock's orioles are the two most common species of orioles that breed in Southern California.  Both are medium-sized songbirds, about 8-inches long with slender bodies, long tail and a long, curved beak. They belong to the same family as blackbirds, grackles and cowbirds.
       Orioles nest in California during the spring and summer, then return to their winter grounds in Mexico, and Central and South America in the fall. 

Here's some tips for attracting orioles to your yard from the experts at Birds and Bloom:

  • Start early. Your best chance of attracting orioles is when they first arrive in early spring.
  • Use the same nectar recipe for orioles as you do for hummingbirds-four parts boiled water to one part sugar. Keep nectar fresh, and don’t use food coloring.
  • These birds are attracted to the color orange, so look for a sugar-water feeder specifically designed for orioles.
  • Make sure your feeder has large enough perches and drinking ports. It’s not unusual for orioles to try hummingbird feeders, but their bills are often too big. Orioles love the color and taste of oranges. Offer orange halves on a branch or feeder. Orioles will also eat grape jelly. Serve the jelly in an open dish or cup, and keep it fresh.
  • When placing the oriole feeder in your yard, think like a bird. Instead of hiding the feeder under an awning or tree, put it out in the open so the birds can see it while flying overhead.
  • Hang your feeder near a birdbath. If your bath has a bubbler, even better. Orioles love the sight and sound of moving water.
  • Put out yarn and string. Orioles and other backyard songbirds will use it for their nests.
  • If you don’t attract orioles in your first year, keep at it. It often takes several seasons to find a following.
Happy Birding!