Bird Lady Blog

October 8, 2009

Swallows

Filed under: Munds Park Birding,Swallows — Munds Park Birding @ 4:21 am

Tree SwallowIf you look out your window today during late September or through October, you will see the Aspen leaves turning yellow and thinning and other trees tinged with orange and red.   You will certainly hear and see fewer ATVs.  All these signs mean the fall season is upon us, and many of you will be thinking about packing up and heading south.  And that’s exactly what our swallows are doing as well – beginning their fall migration.  We are fortunate to have several species of swallows in Munds Park, and in this article I will cover three of them.

 First let’s admit – swallows are hard to pin down and get a good look at.  They swirl around us in their constant quest for insects.  They are known to mate in the air.  They have very tiny feet and long wings.  They can make a mess of our patios and decks when they build their mud nests and set up house.  But they sure are pretty to watch, and we get a thrill when we can actually identify a species.

The most abundant swallow found in North America is the Barn Swallow, a spring, summer, and early fall resident of Munds Park.  In fact, this swallow species is found worldwide, including in Europe and Asia.  To see it in Munds Park, just stand around Lake Odell or on the golf course green #1, #10, or #17, and eventually one or two will whisk around you at about knee level.  The Barn Swallow is a beautiful bird, with a light orange breast, dark orange throat, and metallic blue back.  It has a distinctive deeply forked tail, which makes it one of the easiest swallows to identify, and it’s been clocked at flying 46 miles per hour.  By December of each year our Barn Swallows have passed through Central American and will be in South America.  By April they should be found again in Munds Park, but I don’t know exactly when for sure.  It would be nice to hear from any of you who are year-round residents when you notice the first Barn Swallow next spring.

The Violet-Green Swallow is another one of our birds that is only found in the Western U.S.  It migrates through Central American but not into South America.  It is white underneath and shiny green/bronze on the top.  And of course it is flying past you faster than a speeding bullet as you try to identify it.  This swallow often forages in flight higher than other swallows.  You should be able to spot the white sides on its rump during flight and a short tail (compared to the other swallows).  The nest of a Violet-Green Swallow is a cup of grass, twigs, roots, and straw and lined with feathers from other birds.  These swallows build their nests in rock or tree crevices, and they have been known to use nest boxes.

 A real nest box user, however, is the Tree Swallow.  Just ask Roy and Pat H. on Raintree.  For three years they had a Chickadee nest box in their front yard with no takers, but this year they were surprised with a nesting pair of Tree Swallows.  We sat on their deck, sipping our wine, or rum and coke, and eating crackers and cheese, and watched as the parents flew back and forth feeding the babies, their little heads popping out of the nest box hole each time mom or dad approached.  The Tree Swallow is shiny blue-green on top and white below.  It is the most likely Swallow to use a nest box if you are near water.   They favor Bluebird boxes, which have an entry hole that is one-and-a-half inches in diameter, but the Roy/Pat pair decided the Chickadee nest box, with an entry hole of only one-and-one-eighth inches in diameter, was suitable enough.  Nest boxes are a good solution for declining Tree Swallow habitat as a result of cutting down of old trees and draining of swamps. 

When you are sitting on your deck at sunset and your guests from the East and Midwest marvel that they are not being harassed by mosquitoes and other insets, you can give partial credit to the Munds Park swallows.  They scoop up insects with their wide mouths, often catching several at a time.  One swallow can eat over 1,000 mosquitoes or other insects a day.  I hope they get the “no-see-ums” as well.

Band-Tailed Pigeon, Black-Headed Grosbeak, and Rufous Hummingbird

Filed under: Band Tailed Pigeon Grosbeak Rufous Hummingbird,Munds Park Birding — Munds Park Birding @ 4:13 am

Black headed grosbeakI think most people become interested in birds because they first notice the ones around their homes and pay attention to their colors, habits, and vocalization.  Or in the case of woodpeckers, sometimes it’s their unwelcome rap-rap-rapping on the siding of your house that gets your attention.  In this article I am going to cover three more birds that you are likely to see from your deck or on a walk through the neighborhood, and especially likely if you have feeders or a bird bath.

 We have large pigeons here in Munds Park, and when you first see them you may think, “Oh no!  Where did these pigeons come from?” suspecting they are the variety you see on the streets of New York City and Chicago or lined up on your telephone wires in central Phoenix.  Those “city birds” are Rock Pigeons and are not native to the United States.  Our Munds Park bird is a native Band-Tailed Pigeon, and in the U.S. it is only found in the West.  It is a predominantly gray bird, about 14 inches long, and my first impression was that its head is just a bit too small for its large body.  A green iridescent band covers the back of its neck along with a thin white collar or horizontal stripe at the top of the green.  Its feet are yellow.  Little Pygmy Nuthatches will bop back and forth to the feeder in front of your eyes, but the big Band-Tailed Pigeon in contrast is a shy and quiet giant that will abandon its post at the feeder when it senses people nearby.  These birds feed on seeds and will go through the least expensive bird food in a flash, but their natural food is acorns.  One early morning I was almost fooled by its call – I thought I heard a Great Horned Owl, and instead what I heard was a Band-Tailed Pigeon.  The two birds sound very similar.

 If you see a medium-size bird with orange and black and a little bit of white, you are seeing a Black-Headed Grosbeak.  The male is the most distinctive, with a black cap, deep orange breast, and white wing bars.  The female is a watered-down version of the male, with more black and white striping on its head and a duller breast.  These birds are seed eaters and only found in the Western United States, but they have hybridized with their close relatives, Rose-Breasted Grosbeaks, which are found in the Eastern United States.  The two species used to be separated by the vast, treeless prairies in the central part of the country, but as cities and towns emerged, along with their trees, both species met in the middle.  Birds of both species have heavy beaks and can open almost any type of seed, and they also east insects.  I have not been fortunate enough yet to see a Rose-Breasted Grosbeak in my travels, but watching the Black-Headed Grosbeak we find in Munds Park is always a treat. 

 It probably is best to write about the Rufous Hummingbirds now before they take off for the winter.  This little hummer is feisty and buzzy – an individual will drive off competing birds at your sugar water feeder.  You can hear it often before you see it, with its distinctive metallic whine from its incredible wing motion.  Males are almost all orange or rusty except for their white breast and green wings.  If you see one sitting on your feeder with the bright sun on it, I think you would agree it is gorgeous.  Females are bright green above and white below with washed rufous color on the sides and rump.  These birds winter in Mexico and Texas and have been found even on the southern part of the East Coast.  By August, Rufous Hummingbirds leave Alaska and British Columbia and migrate down the Pacific Coastline.  In Munds Park they leave later for their migration, typically in late September.  Their habitat is coniferous forests and shrubby-pine sub-alpine forests, and they depend on the wild flowers, typically red ones, to provide a source for nectar and insects. 

Another word or two about hummingbirds.  If you have a feeder, use one part white sugar to four parts water and don’t put red food coloring in the mixture.  Artificial coloring is not necessary – birds will find your bright red feeder.  If you have more interest in hummingbirds, visit the web site of the Southeastern Arizona Bird Observatory, at www.sabo.org.  Located near the San Pedro River in southern Arizona, SABO holds hummingbird banding volunteer workshops.  You might even get to meet Sheri Williams, a co-founder of SABO and author of the Peterson Field Guide to Hummingbirds in North America.  You can contact me at margaretdyekman@cox.net.

Raptuous Raptors

Filed under: Munds Park Birding,Raptors — Munds Park Birding @ 4:08 am

ospreyI ended post #3 with the promise that I would have more information about fall migration.  Less than a two-hour drive from Munds Park is the site of one of two Arizona Raptor Migration Projects.  Raptor is another word for “bird of prey” such as hawks, eagles, and owls.  Hawk Watch International monitors birds of prey crossing the Grand Canyon each year at two different points from August 27th through the end of October.  The first time I went to view the migration was seven years ago.  After a breakfast of Belgium waffles at the El Tovar Lodge, I headed over to Lipin Point to join ornithologists who counted these magnificent birds soaring through the InterMountain Flyway down from Canada and the northern states to their wintering grounds.  I saw my first Peregrine Falcon at Lipin Point and learned the difference between a Coopers Hawk and a Sharp-Shinned Hawk.  It is quite a sight to behold, standing at eye level with the hawks, falcons, and eagles that come soaring across the vast expanse of the Canyon to land on the south side – all with the intent of resting before continuing on with their migration.

 For those of you who are not birders, you might want to take a cue from my husband.  While I was birding at the Hawk Watch, he was on the tram sightseeing all the way to the western end of the Grand Canyon and then back again to the El Tovar Lodge.  On the El Tovar patio, while enjoying a martini, he was privileged to see several California Condors soaring overhead, close enough so that he could read the numbers that were attached as identifiers on their wings.  Even he, a non-birder, was impressed.

There are several raptors at Munds Park, one of the most common being the Red Tailed Hawk.  The story goes that if you see a hawk and are unclear about what kind it is, just say “Red Tailed” and you will be right 90% of the time, no matter where you are in the U.S.  The Red Tailed Hawk is a hawk of open country, so you will most likely see it soaring above the golf course or an open meadow or perched on an electric pole along the road.  Like its name, a key identifier of this hawk is its red tail.  Probably the most famous Red-Tailed Hawk in the country is one named “Pale Male”, who took up residence on a building on 5th Avenue across from New York City’s Central Park.  He has had several mates over the years and was responsible for siring over 26 chicks over nearly a decade.  An entire documentary was produced about Pale Male, and the film won “Best of Festival 2009” at the International Wildlife Film Festival.  If you don’t believe me, “google” Pale Male for yourself and enjoy the information.

Another raptor found in Munds Park is the Osprey.  For those of you who frequent Lake Odell, you may have seen or heard it and its offspring.  Ospreys have nested at Lake Odell for many years.  This bird has a wing span of up to six feet, and it is predominantly brown on top, with white undersides, and a black eye patch.  The Osprey is unusual in that it is a single species that occurs nearly worldwide, found on all continents except Antarctica.  Ninety-nine percent of the Osprey’s diet is fish, and after it catches a fish, it turns it head-first to reduce the drag as it flies.  The Ospreys at Munds Park may fly to California or South America for the winter.  I’ve seen wintering Osprey above the golf course at Arizona Country Club (56th Street and Thomas in Phoenix) or Tempe Town Lake (Scottsdale Road and Rio Solado Parkway), so maybe those birds have decided the grass in not always greener in South America. 

And then there is the occasional sighting of the Bald Eagle in Munds Park.  The Bald Eagle is the only eagle unique to North America and, of course, our National Bird, beating out the Turkey as proposed by Benjamin Franklin.  With its striking dark body and white head, a fully mature Bald Eagle is hard to miss.  Look for them in the fall or late winter soaring high overhead or basking at the top of a dead tree to catch the warmth of the sun.  The Bald Eagle eats primarily dead or dying fish.  It has very few enemies, especially as it is now protected from humans like other birds under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.  The first Bald Eagle I saw was on the very last hole of a 6-day, 6-round golfing trip in British Columbia.  As I readied for my 3rd shot, approaching the green with an 8-iron, low and behold above the green soared a Vancouver resident Bald Eagle.  Even the Canadians we golfed with, who had seen many a Bald Eagle, got excited because it was a “lifer” for me.  Since then I’ve spotted a Bald Eagle around Munds Park twice, and both times were as thrilling.

Brown Creeper, Red-Faced Warbler, and Cordilleran Flycatcher

Filed under: Brown Creeper Red-Faced Warbler Cordilleran Flycatcher,Munds Park Birding — Munds Park Birding @ 4:05 am

Brown CreeperIn the last article I asked you the question, “what is the least expensive way to attract birds to your property”?  Thoughts that come to mind include bird-friendly landscaping, natural habitat, brush piles, nest boxes, bird feeders with seed, suet or nectar, and finally, water.  In my opinion, water is the winner.  A simple bird bath or water dish will do more to attract birds to your home than any of the other ideas mentioned – and the price is right!  At our home, we have had a large variety of birds, from the large Crows to tiny Lesser Goldfinch, take advantage of our water dishes. 

 We have one simple pan that fits into a holder that attaches to the top railing of our deck.  In the pan I place a flat rock, which holds down the pan on windy days if it’s become dry.  The rock also serves as an indicator for the birds of the depth of the water.  Occasionally birds will bathe in the pan, but ours is mostly used for drinking.  If you would like to invest in something fancier, as Munds Park resident Martha W. has, install a bird bath with a drip system – birds are really attracted to running or moving water.

 The material you use and type of water container is not as important as keeping the container clean and filled with fresh water.  An occasional light scrubbing with a mixture of nine parts water to one part vinegar will ensure your water oasis is safe for drinking.

 I’ve written about eight of the most common birds you will see in Munds Park, but how about some of the surprises?  Three that come to mind are the Brown Creeper, Red-Faced Warbler, and the Cordilleran Flycatcher.

The Brown Creeper has a special place in my heart.  Ten summers ago when we were cabin-hunting here, I finally found a house that I thought would be perfect.  My husband was out-of-town, so I had the fun job one weekend to look at houses without him.  As our realtor (Rosie, that means you) and I stood on the deck, there on a tree in our soon-to-be property was a Brown Creeper, climbing up the trunk, about eight yards away.  I took it as a sign that Munds Park was going to be a fun place to not only enjoy golf but also birding.  The next time I saw a Brown Creeper was during a hike in the forest on the way to Mormon Lake.  The Brown Creeper is not a common bird, and it is hard to see.  It is a brown, camouflaged small bird that does just what its name says – creeps up trees in search of insects and plucks them out of the bark with its curved bill. 

I have been told that Red-Faced Warblers inhabit Munds Park, and I will buy someone breakfast if she or he can show me one.  This bird would be a “lifer” for me.  The Red-Faced Warbler is only found in Arizona and New Mexico in the USA, and its habitat is the high forest.  Well, that high forest description fits Munds Park, and friends have told me they’ve had this bird at their bird bath, but I’ve not been that lucky.  Look for a small bird, red face, mostly gray body, with a black crescent on its head amid the red.  An interesting fact about the Red-Faced Warbler is that it nests on the ground, often in old mouse holes, under a fallen log or plant.

 The Cordilleran Flycatcher is a bird we’ve had the privilege of seeing up close because a pair has nested under our deck for four of the five years we’ve been in this house.  This flycatcher used to be called the Western Flycatcher, but a few years back ornithologists determined that here were really two species, the other one being the Pacific-Slope Flycatcher.  Trust me, you and I can hardly tell the difference between the two, but all my field guides state that it’s the Cordilleran Flycatcher here in Munds Park.  This bird is only about five inches long with a triangular type head with small crest.  Its dominant color is olive, and it has a white eye ring.  If you are lucky enough to have a pair build their oval cup-like nest on a beam on your deck, plan on not sitting on the deck for a while as they sit on the eggs and raise their young.  Every time we’d go out on the deck the poor bird would fly away and then chirp from a nearby branch, making us feel bad that we were intruding on her nesting responsibilities.  She obviously felt sharing the deck with humans was not acceptable.  So we’d head back in and let it go back to its nest in peace. 

 By the time you read this article, birds are preparing for or undertaking fall migration.  Robins and Western Bluebirds are flocking together and dispersing from the North Rim of the Grand Canyon.  Soon the Hawk Watch over the Grand Canyon will take place – a sight to behold as Canadian and northern states hawks head down the fly-way across the Canyon.  More to come on that topic next time.  You can contact me at margaretdyekman@cox.net.

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.

American Robin, Lesser Goldfinch, Western Bluebird, and Mountain Chickadee

Filed under: Munds Park Birding,Robin Goldfinch Bluebird Chickadee — Munds Park Birding @ 3:01 am

Western BluebirdHow we all love nature and being here in Munds Park to experience the smells, sounds, and colors that are so different from the other places we live in or visit.  Part of the attraction to the outdoors for many of us is the bird life.  I have been a birder (aka birdwatcher) since I was in 5th grade, and no matter whom I speak with or where I am, people can always relate to or share a story about our feathered friends.   If you are like many us, you, too, are intrigued with the behaviors of birds and their “companionship” as they visit our backyards, feeders, and bird baths. 

Here in Munds Park we have many species of birds that are not found in the desert or big cities of Arizona.  In this first article I am going to write about four of the most common ones – those you typically see from your deck or when out walking or hear in the morning or early evening.

The American Robin, which is so common in the Midwest or East where many of us have come from, is a welcome sight for those of us who sometimes get homesick for the distinct four seasons and the suburbs with their wet and grassy lawns.  Everyone knows that spring is on its way when the Robins arrive.  With its erect posture, red breast, and size, the American Robin is often described as “stately”.  Its beautiful cheery, warbling song, especially around twilight time, reminds us that life is good, but also that each beautiful day comes to an end with dusk.  Robins’ diets include beetle grubs, and you’ll see them searching for these and worms and insects on the golf course fairway.   A little known fact about the American Robin is that it is found in 49 of our 50 states, including Alaska, but not Hawaii.

Lesser Goldfinches are those “little birds with a lot of yellow” that come to your Niger or thistle seed feeders.  The males have a distinct black cap, greenish-black backs, and yellow breasts.  The females and immatures are duller, with greenish upper parts and less pronounced yellow under parts, and with white wing bars.  A relative of the American Goldfinch, a common bird east of the Mississippi, Lesser Goldfinches are fun to watch as they hop back and forth sharing the pegs on your seed feeder or hanging on to your thistle sock feeder.   A little know fact about Lesser Goldfinches is that they are one of the few birds in the U.S. that are vegetarians.  They feed only on seeds and very seldom take small insects – only by accident it seems.  For those of us who live the in the Valley of the Sun, putting out a thistle seed feeder during the winter will attract Lesser Goldfinches as they migrate South to escape the cold weather up North.  Who knows, they may even be the same birds that are your summer neighbors in Munds Park.

If in Munds Park you live a bit away from the forest and pines and instead have a home with a small open area or grassy yard nearby, you could be lucky enough to attract the beautiful Western Bluebird.  With their blue backs and rusty breasts, Western Bluebirds can be seen in hot pursuit of insects, but they will also frequent your bird feeder if you offer them mealworms.  Bluebirds are cavity nesters and will use a nest box if built to the right dimensions, which includes an entry hole that is 1 and ½ inches in diameter.  If you are a golfer, the nest boxes you see on Pinewood Country Club are for Bluebirds.   

 The fourth and last bird I’ll discuss here is the Mountain Chickadee, a bird of the trees that is a little larger than the Lesser Goldfinch and much smaller than an American Robin.  Mountain Chickadees are black/white/gray, and you can see them clinging upside down in the trees and searching through the pinecones and bark for insects.  The Mountain Chickadee is easily identified by its song, which is a “Chic-a-dee-dee” call.  When Mountain Chickadees come to my seed feeder, they will stay up to a half of a minute, but during that time, they rapidly peck at the seeds, throwing the millet into the tray and off to the ground, which delights the doves feeding on the ground below, and looking for a sunflower seed.  The Chickadees prefer sunflower seeds, so I’m rethinking my bird food buying strategy and next time will get sunflowers seeds only.  These birds, like the Western Bluebird, are cavity nesters and will use the right nest box, one with a hole that is one and one-eighth inches across.  They can breed up to two times per year, so if you have a nest box, you might see them active in it later in the summer when you would think the time for hatching baby birds should have already passed.  I had a family of Chickadees in one of my nest boxes last year, and it was a delightful surprise to see it used mid-summer.

In the next article I will present a few more birds that you should be able to easily see in Munds Park.  If you have any questions or stories you would like to share about Munds Park birds, feel free to send them to me at margaretdyekman@cox.net, and I’ll try to include them in a final article before fall migration.

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