Bird Lady Blog

July 26, 2014

Red, White, and Black


Painted Redstart in Munds Park

Painted Redstart in Munds Park

I received an e-mail from a reader asking “what bird is this?”, and with his question he attached a photo.  What a great photo it is, and quite an unusual bird – a Painted Redstart!  Chuck, who is the e-mailer, and his wife have had their cabin near Munds Canyon since 2001, and just recently this Painted Restart captured their attention.

As you can tell from Chuck’s photo, this bird is a flashy red, white, and black.  It is the only member of its genus that appears regularly in the Americas.  Its relatives are actually known as “whitestarts” and most members of its genus, of which there are 12, are found in Central and South America.   But for a non-scientific person like me, I just know that this bird is a real find.  It was a “lifer” for me in July 2012, when I watched one darting through the forest for an entire weekend from the back deck of our home.  We live on the opposite side of Munds Canyon from Chuck, so perhaps it is the same bird or an offspring.

The Painted Restart flits energetically from tree to tree in search of insects.  When it flits, you can see the flash of its white wing parts and outer tail feathers.  Painted Restarts prefer pine or pine-oak woods, oak canyons, and pinyon- and juniper-covered high slopes.  They build their nests on the ground, usually on a slope in a canyon or creek bank in a concealed place close to a large clump of grass or protruding rock or tree stump.  Given that, Munds Canyon seems like a logical place for breeding Painted Restarts, and I’m grateful to Chuck for sending his observation and his wonderful photo.

While the Painted Restart is not seen that often by most of us, the other black, white, and red bird I have in mind – the Acorn Woodpecker  –  is much more common and a frequent visitor to our feeders.  The Acorn Woodpecker is a resident woodpecker in Munds Park.  For some reason I can only guess at, Acorn Woodpeckers are frequenting my bird feeder much more than in past years.  Perhaps it was the milder winter, with less snow and more birds making it through the winter, or perhaps the new bird seed mixture I have appeals more to them.  The new combination I’m using has black oil sunflower seeds, white millet, wheat, dried cherries, peanuts, safflower seeds, and raisins.  Last year I only placed sunflower seeds in that feeder, and while I still get the usual birds at that feeder, now the Acorn Woodpeckers are also really frequenting it.

Acorn Woodpeckers have a very distinctive face – sometimes called a “clown face”.  I just learned that the female has a black patch between the red crown and its white forehead, so now I am going to pay more attention and try to identify the males and females separately.  Otherwise the sexes of this species are very similar.  These woodpeckers stay in groups, and they store nuts so tightly in individually drilled holes that even squirrels cannot pry the nuts out.

May 2, 2014

Hairy and Downy and Acorn


Downy Woodpecker Courtesy of Gordon Karre

Downy Woodpecker Courtesy of Gordon Karre

One Friday night this summer I was sitting at a table in the Pinewood Country Club bar waiting for karaoke to begin and a member came up to me and said “Why don’t you write about the three woodpeckers we have here?  We see the Acorn, Hairy, and Downy Woodpeckers all the time on our property”.  So I thanked him for his interest and his suggestion, and that’s why we are going to discuss woodpeckers in Munds Park.  These three species have black/white/red coloring, but they are distinctly different in other ways.

The Acorn Woodpecker is most prevalent here.  This bird’s back is mostly black, but when it flies from tree to tree or across your property, you can see the white under parts of its wings and belly. Acorn Woodpeckers live in year-round social units and depend on groups to build up and defend their stored supplies of acorns and insects.  Their breeding behavior is quite unique – multiple males and females combine their efforts to raise young in a single nest.  The species has a clownish, comical face, with a bright red cap and a face that has a distinct white eye ring and black-white pattern.  These birds would be a real “find” for visitors from the Midwest or East because they only inhabit parts of the Southwest and California.

The second black and white bird with some red on its head is the Downy Woodpecker.  This little bird, about seven inches in length, is common throughout the United States and a welcome sight with its bright red cap on a wintry white day.  We don’t see them too often in Munds Park – but now and then I spot one on our property.  The Downy Woodpecker has a black back with a broad white patch down the center, a white checker-board pattern on its wings, a white belly, and a small red spot on its crown. Because it is so small and can forage in small spaces among trees and their limbs, it uses food sources in its natural habitat that larger woodpeckers do not.

In Munds Park I first saw a pair of Hairy Woodpeckers this spring off our back deck.  The two birds – probably male and female – quickly came and went.  Someone new to birding, and even old pros, find that it is hard to distinguish between a Hairy and a Downy.  They are very similar in appearance, but the Downy is much smaller – about seven inches long compared to the Hairy, which is about 10 inches long.  The Downy has a small, dainty bill, while the Hairy has a longer, chisel-like beak.  Both are found through the United States, while the Acorn Woodpecker is found in a very limited area.

Actually there is one other woodpecker we should be able to spot in Northern Arizona – the Lewis Woodpecker.  The only time I’ve seen it in up north has been on the NAU campus walking from the parking lot to a meeting on a cold winter day.  It has a greenish-black back and a pinkish-salmon colored belly – if you see one of those here in Munds Park, please let me know.

Finally, I have an “oops” to report.  Last month I stated that Bill and Corrine had a nest of Yellow-Eyed Juncos.  I got called out on that by an Audubon friend of mine from Flagstaff.  Our Juncos here up north are Dark-Eyed, not Yellow-Eyed.  I know, to the non-birder person, it doesn’t sound like a big deal – but it is!  It would be like calling a Jeep a Subaru.  I slipped up by not thoroughly looking through my field guide and not thinking through the Junco sub-species.  So please accept my apologies and enjoy the Dark-Eyed Junco next time you spot one in your binoculars.

September 11, 2013

My Favorite Birding Things – Part 1


Black-Headed Grosbeak courtesy of Gordon Karre

Black-Headed Grosbeak courtesy of Gordon Karre

My newest favorite birding thing is our new cement bird bath, bought this spring at the Munds Park Farmer’s Market.  It is very heavy – made of cement – and sits just about eight inches off the ground on a small pedestal that actually looks like an upside down Bundt pan.  I especially like the blue-colored bottom of the water bowl because it stands out, and I like that it is solid enough that I can hose it down hard to clean it and it doesn’t tip over.  So far I’ve seen Dark-Eyed Juncos and Lesser Goldfinch drinking from it.

My other bird bath is attached to the back deck and it is used a lot by all types of birds, including American Crows.  This one is a plastic tray and it hangs over the deck, so I keep a flat rock in it to hold down the tray if it gets dry and the wind is blowing hard.  Just today as I wrote this article a female Black-Headed Grosbeak took a bath in it.

I have three types of feeders out on the back deck.  One is an inexpensive, plastic stout feeder that has four very small perches.  I put sunflower seeds in it.  The best part about this feeder is that the Band-Tailed Pigeons cannot perch on it.  They dominated my other feeder that has a larger perch, and none of the other birds could have a turn.  So now this feeder is visited regularly by Pygmy Nuthatches, White-Breasted Nuthatches, Black-Headed Grosbeaks, Mountain Chickadees, and Pine Siskins.

The second feeder is an 18-inch tall tube just for nyger seed, and it attracts Lesser Goldfinch and Pine Siskins.  Pine Siskins are small finch-like birds, very plain brown, but with heavy striping on the breasts.    The wings have small patches of yellow, but mostly you can describe them as small, brown-streaked birds.  They usually travel in compact flocks, so where there is one Pine Siskin, there will be others.

My third feeder is a tray feeder I built from some leftover lumber and screen, about two feet square and two inches deep.  This feeder is my concession to the squirrels and the Band-Tailed Pigeons.  Mostly I put sunflower seeds in this one, but sometimes peanuts in the shell or cheaper, mixed bird seed.  The squirrel have learned to precariously climb the three-foot rod that holds the feeder, and the Band-Tailed Pigeons will sit on it six at a time and make it crooked with their weight.

Let me not forget to mention the Acorn Woodpeckers.  They also will come to the tray feeder and the other sunflower seed feeder.  And the peanuts in the tray will attract the Steller’s Jays.  They are stunning in the sunlight with their blue and black iridescent coloring.

June 16, 2013

Spring Has Sprung


Steller’s Jay courtesy of Gordon Karre

May has been a month of transition for all of us:  spring cleaning, raking fallen pine needles, putting away our winter clothes and bringing out the summer wardrobe, and moving up to Munds Park if we were away for the fall and winter.  Our Munds Park birds are making similar transitions:  changing their drab winter feathers to bright colors so they can attract a satisfactory mate, building nests, and finding the best sources for food.  Two Munds Park birds that come to mind with striking colors are the Black-Headed Grosbeaks and the Lesser Goldfinches.  The males of these species are especially beautiful with their contrasting colors of orange or yellow against black and white.

So what should you be doing in preparation for migration and nesting?  First, if you have a nest box, open it up and clean it out.  Discard the old nesting material, shoo out the spiders that may have taken temporary residence, and wash or scrape out any residue.  Make sure your next box is still firmly secured to its post or tree.

Second, if you attracting birds by putting out feeders, make sure they also are cleaned.  You can wash them in a solution of water and a small amount of bleach – don’t forget to rinse them thoroughly.  The same goes for your bird baths.  Keep the water fresh.  If you hang a hummingbird feeder, remember the following:  the nectar should be made out of white granular sugar and water  – one part sugar to four parts water.  Do not use red food coloring.  The color of your feeder will be enough to attract the birds, and they will be back as long as you keep a fresh mixture.  If the mixture starts turning cloudy, discard it immediately and replace.

Lastly, start thinking about how you can protect your birds from window-kills – that is, preventing birds from flying into those wonderful windows we appreciate because of the forest and mountain views, but which can be deadly to our flying friends.  I will have more information about what you can do to prevent window crashes in a future article but would also like to hear what practical solutions are working for you.

For those of you who are relatively new to our Munds Park birds, here is a short list of the common birds you will see in our area:  Lesser Goldfinch, Mountain Chickadee, Acorn Woodpecker, Steller’s Jay, American Robin, Western Bluebird, Black-Headed Grosbeak, Band-Tailed Pigeon, American Crow, Turkey Vulture, and Common Raven.  And some of the harder-to-find ones will be Summer Western Tanager, Painted Redstart, Red Crossbill, and House Wren.

March 3, 2012

Steller’s Jay, American Crow, and Away We Go


Photo courtesy of Joseph V. Higbee

Some of us are packing it up and heading south.  I will be spending the winter and spring in Scottsdale, and already I’m looking forward to planting flowers in our garden and birding.  So far in our new home I have seen the following at our feeder from my office window:  American Cardinal, Inca Dove, Mourning Dove, Abert’s Towhee, Gamble’s Quail, Curved-Bill Thrasher, Red-Shafted Flicker, House Finch, and House Sparrow.  I also saw flying in our new neighborhood, but not at our feeder, Lesser Nighthawk, Harris Hawk, Turkey Vulture, and Western Wood Peewee.

There will be a few birds over the winter in Munds Park for sure, and I would like to hear from those of you who live here year-round about what birds you see.  I think two of the more common birds you will see are Steller’s Jay and American Crow.  They are related – both from the Corvidae family of birds in the Passerine order.  The American Crow is found throughout most of the United States, while the Steller’s Jay is found only in the Western part of the country and usually in habitat that is 3,000 to 10,000 feet above sea level.

The Steller’s Jay will be after peanuts if you put them out.  These birds are very smart and will watch for you, especially if you have a consistent time of day for filling your peanut feeder or placing peanuts on your deck railings.  With its black and crested head,  iridescent body, and loud call, the Steller’s Jay is will continue to remind you all year long that it is a proud and loud resident of Munds Park.

I had a business colleague in Los Angeles who told me once that she thought the American Crow is an urban phenomenon.  What she meant by that, I think, was that this large, all-black, social, mischievous, and noisy bird seemed to find itself at home in LA parks, parking lots, school yards, and lawns as well as the wilderness outskirts of the city.  American Crows live in most parts of the United States, and they are year-round residents.  While they eat insects, earthworms, small animals, seeds, and fruit, they will also pick at garbage, frequent landfills, and eat the stale bread or popcorn you may throw out the door for them.  American Crows nest early – about April – and they do not breed until they are at least two years old.  They are monogamous, and the mated pairs form families that stay together for many years.  American Crows have come to our bird bath in Munds Park and always more than one show up.  I am guessing it’s a few of the “teenagers” going out on their own for an exciting adventure at a new watering hole.

I plan on taking a few birding trips over the winter, including one to Wisconsin in October.  Hopefully I will get to add at least one “lifer” to my birding list.  However, I have come to realize that one never knows where the next new bird will appear, so a pair of binoculars is always at hand wherever I go.  Each day is an opportunity to open our eyes and ears to the wonderful nature around us, which includes our feathered neighbors.

September 4, 2011

Which Half Are You In?

Filed under: Acorn Woodpecker Steller's Jay Nuthatches,Birdwatchers,Football — Munds Park Birding @ 9:24 am

In the last issue I made a comparison of bird watching to football watching.  According to two separate studies, 60% of the U.S. population follows professional football, and 20% of the U.S. population is actively birding (referring to birders who get out of their neighborhood and seek birds).  I
don’t know enough about the surveys’ methodologies to know if this comparison is “apples to apples”, so I decided to conduct my own unofficial survey in Munds Park of our “birding” population and generate my own statistics.

I took a walk north on Stallion Drive from our house, up east and then south on Mustang, and back west on Thunderbird to our house.  I looked at each house and yard and made a tic mark on one of two columns.  The first column was for any house that had any bird attracting apparatus – a bird bath, bird feeder, or bird house.  The other column was for tic marks for houses with none of the above.  Keep in mind I could only look in front and side parts of the property, not back decks or yards.  After all, I did not want to look so nosy that the Neighborhood Watch folks would be notified!

I counted 95 houses in all, and 43 had something for attracting birds, and 52 did not.  Taking my survey one step further, I made a conservative assumption that 10% of the 52 homes had some type of bird attracting apparatus in their back yards or decks, but not in the front, so I adjusted the count by 5 less to the 52 number and 5 more to the 43 number.  End result?  48 houses with bird-attracting “stuff”, and 47 not, for a 50/50 split.  Which leads me to conclude that there are almost as many people who watch birds as do follow NFL football.  I probably will never be hired by Gallup polls.  But even though my survey was unscientific, I think it did imply that there is a large population of bird lovers in Munds Park.  And I bet that a good majority of the other 50% are probably noticing birds at their neighbors’ feeders or flying through the trees.  But that is just a guess – I promise to not go knocking on doors to find out.

For those of you who feed birds anything other than peanuts or nyger seed, you probably have nuthatches visit your feeder.  We have two types of nuthatches in Munds Park – Pygmy and White-Breasted.  Nuthatches have large heads, short tails, powerful bills and feet, and advertise their territory using loud, simple songs. Most nuthatches exhibit grey or bluish upperparts and a black eye stripe, and members of the genus are found in other parts of the world such as India, Afghanistan, Turkey, Greece, Iran, and China.

Pygmy Nuthatches are seen in flocks of several or more. They are busy little birds, scrambling on twigs and pine cones or climbing head-first down tree trunks in search of the next meal. At four inches long, they are considerably smaller than their relative, the White-Breasted Nuthatch,
which is about five and a half inches long. Pygmy Nuthatches have a slate gray back and a buffy white belly. Their vocalization is described as a “piping”, usually a two syllable call repeated over and over. When they come to your feeder for sunflower seeds, they will arrive one after another, flying back and forth, often storing the seeds into crevices in the bark of trees. These little birds are very gregarious. Nesting pairs may have  helpers, and during the winter they will huddle together in a cavity roost, sometimes as many as 100 of them together.

The White Breasted Nuthatch, like its name, has a completely white breast. It has a blue-black back, dark hood and almost no neck. You will
usually see this bird alone or with its mate, or you will first hear its nasal yammering. The White-Breasted Nuthatch climbs up, down, and  sideways on trees searching for insects or placing nuts into tree trunk crevices that it will use a food later in the year. It does not use its tail as a prop against the tree as woodpeckers do, but it does wedge insects and nuts into cracks in trees for storing. Although these birds typically stay in the same territory year-round, when nI’m golfing in central Phoenix during the winter, I will occasionally hear the call of a White-Breasted Nuthatch. Maybe like the Munds Park year-round human residents, it grows tired of the cold winds and snow and needs a break from winter.  This bird nests in tree cavities, so you could possibly attract one to your property with a nest box.

August 20, 2011

Black and White and Red and Football


First some local news. There are Tree Swallows again in the nest box on Pat and Roy’s property on Raintree.  Seems like this is the second brood this season and the parent birds are mounting an all-out effort to keep the little ones fed.  You can see them flying back and forth all day and into the early evening carrying insects to their young.  By the time this article is published the babies will hopefully have successfully fledged.  I also received notice of a sighting of a Red-Faced Warbler by Kathy and Cindy near their property on Turkey Trail.  That is one bird still on my must-see list, so I am jealous.

And second, now that the NFL season is approaching, I did some research into what percent of the U.S. population over 18 follows NFL football compared to what percent of the U.S. population are birdwatchers.   Which do you think is greater?  The answer will be at the end of this post.

In the rest of this issue we will describe the birds of Munds Park that are primarily black, white, and red.  The first that comes to mind is the Acorn Woodpecker.  This bird’s back is mostly black, but when it flies from tree to tree or across your street, you can see the white under parts of its wings and belly. Acorn Woodpeckers live in year-round social units and depend on these family-type groups to build up and defend their stored supplies of acorns and insects.  This comical looking bird, with its bright red cap and a face that has a distinct white eye ring and black-white pattern, is rumored to be the inspiration for Woody the Woodpecker, in part because it was the common woodpecker near the northern California cabin of Walter Lantz, Woody’s creator. However, the Acorn Woodpecker does not have a crest, as does Woody, so I think the Pileated
Woodpecker is the better candidate for our cartoon friend Woody.

The ListServe I subscribe to reported some sightings this spring and early summer of Acorn Woodpeckers in Tempe.  Though common for Munds Park, that is big news for birders in Maricopa County.

The second black and white bird with some red on its head is the Downy Woodpecker.  This little bird, about seven inches in length, is common throughout the United States and a welcome sight with its bright red cap on a wintry white day.  We don’t see them too often in Munds Park – but I spotted one this summer and another one last summer on our property.  The Downy Woodpecker has a black back with a broad white patch down the center, a white checker-board pattern on its wings, a white belly, and a small red spot on its crown. Because it is so small and can forage in small spaces, it uses food sources in its natural habitat that larger woodpeckers do not.

And finally there is the Painted Restart – a real rarity, but it does on occasion show up in Munds Park. It is glossy black with distinctive white  wing bars you cannot miss, and it has a red belly. When it forages among the trees, it spreads showy white outer tail feathers to flush insects, making it easy to follow once located. Like the Red-faced Warbler mentioned earlier, the Painted Redstart makes its nest on the ground.  This bird is only found regularly in Arizona and New Mexico at elevations of 5,000 to 8,000 feet, so Munds Park fits the bill.  I saw one from our deck last year and it was the highlight of my birding season.

As for the statistics on birders versus NFL football fans, the football fans are more numerous.  Over 20 percent of the U.S. population over age 18 have actively birded (versus just sitting at home and watching birds in their neighborhood).  More than 60 percent of the U.S. population follows NFL football.  However, I will bet most of them are sitting inside watching on a TV.  Hmmm, there may be a connection here, though.  We have
the NFL Cardinals, Eagles, Falcons, Ravens, and Seahawks.  Maybe football and birds do go hand-in-hand at times!

October 8, 2009

Acorn Woodpecker, Stellar’s Jay, and Nuthatches

Filed under: Acorn Woodpecker Steller's Jay Nuthatches,Munds Park Birding — Munds Park Birding @ 3:29 am

Acorn WoodpeckerIn the last blog, I wrote about four common birds (Lesser Goldfinch, American Robin, Western Bluebird, and Mountain Chickadee) that you will find around your home in Munds Park.  This article covers four others:  “the clown face,” “the big, noisy blue one”, and two species of delightful-to-watch nuthatches.

 All of you have probably seen our most familiar woodpecker, the Acorn Woodpecker, with its bright red cap and a face that has a distinct white eye ring and black-white pattern, all making it look like a “clown face”.  This bird’s back is mostly black, but when it flies from tree to tree or across your street, you can see the white under parts of its wings and belly.  Acorn Woodpeckers live in year-round social units and depend on these family-type groups to build up and defend their stored supplies of acorns and insects.  Stored acorns in individual drilled holes constitute a granary, and a large tree can have several thousands of acorn holes.  Stored food is critical to keeping Acorn Woodpeckers alive during the long winter.  This comical looking bird is rumored to be the inspiration for Woody the Woodpecker, in part because it was the common woodpecker near the northern California cabin of Walter Lantz, Woody’s creator.  However, the Acorn Woodpecker does not have a crest, as does Woody, so I think the Pileated Woodpecker is the better candidate for our cartoon friend Woody.

 I remember seeing my first-ever Stellar’s Jay at the rest stop that is one mile north of the Munds Park 322 exit. The rest stop is closed now, and this first sighting was long before we had our home here, but the “wow” memory of seeing this regal-looking, crested blue jay reminds me that you never know just when you’ll see a “lifer”. The Stellar’s Jay is the only crested jay west of the Rockies.  Those of you from the Midwest and East probably know its crested relative, the Blue Jay, with its mixed coloring of blue, black and white.  Our Stellar’s Jays are darker because their head and chest are mostly gray black, and their bottom half is a deep blue.  Most noticeable is their large crest, and that gives them a “don’t mess with me” look.  The Stellar’s Jay got its name from the naturalist Georg Wilhelm Stellar, who discovered them in 1781 on an expedition landing in Alaska.  When you spot a Stellar’s Jay in your binoculars, look for a small white “eyebrow” on its face.  You can attract them with peanuts.

 We have two types of nuthatches in Munds Park, and both have their own personalities and habits.  The larger of the two is the White Breasted Nuthatch, which has, like its name, a completely white breast.  It has a blue-black back, dark hood and almost no neck.  You will usually see this bird alone or with its mate, or you will first hear its nasal yammering.  The White-Breasted Nuthatch climbs up, down, and sideways on trees searching for insects or placing nuts into tree trunk crevices that it will use a food later in the year.  It does not use its tail as a prop against the tree as woodpeckers do, but it does wedge insects and nuts into cracks in trees for storing.  Although these birds typically stay in the same territory year-round, when I’m golfing in central Phoenix during the winter, I will occasionally hear the call of a White-Breasted Nuthatch.  Maybe like the Munds Park year-round human residents, it grows tired of the cold winds and snow and needs a winter vacation.  This bird nests in tree cavities and nest boxes, and its average estimated life span is about two years, but the oldest known White-Breasted Nuthatch was nine years and 10 months of age.

 Pygmy Nuthatches are seen in flocks of several or more.  They are busy little birds, scrambling on twigs and pine cones or climbing head-first down tree trunks in search of the next meal.  At four inches long, they are considerably smaller than their relative, the White-Breasted Nuthatch, which is about five and a half inches long.  Pygmy Nuthatches have a slate gray back and a buffy white belly.  Their vocalization is described as a “piping”, usually a two syllable call repeated over and over.  When they come to your feeder for sunflower seeds, they will arrive one after another, flying back and forth, often storing the seeds into crevices in the bark of trees.  These little birds are very gregarious.  Nesting pairs may have helpers, and during the winter they will huddle together in a cavity roost, sometimes as many as 100 of them together.  The first time I saw a group of Pygmy Nuthatches was at Lake Odell.  A flock of them was scouring the ground covering and fallen pine cones for insects, flitting up and down between the earth and trees.  And of course, there were a lot of them, which made it especially fun to see.

 I’m still deciding about what birds I will write about next, but I do have a question for you.  What do you think is the least expensive way to attract birds to your deck or property?  Watch for the answer (at least the answer in my opinion) in the next article.

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