Bird Lady Blog

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.


Migration – A Hazardous Journey

August and September begin the migration period for many of our Munds Park spring and summer birds.  It is a time when birders get excited about the chance to see new and unusual species moving south, yet it is a scary and dangerous time for the birds themselves.  Bad weather, predators, crashes into vehicles, lights, and skyscrapers, exhaustion, and most significantly, the lack of suitable habitat for rest periods, all add up to make the journey a treacherous one.

Birders across our state  – from Lake Havasu, Parker, Rio Rico, Tempe, Glendale and Phoenix – are all reporting sightings of migrating birds, including our summer species of  Black-Headed Grosbeak, Western Tanager, Lesser Goldfinch, and Red-Faced Warbler.

One of my favorite movies is Winged Migration.  This documentary was filmed over the course of four years on seven continents and provides amazing footage of birds migrating over land and sea.  The scenery is beautiful and expansive, but more importantly the movie provides real-life examples of birds, many of them waterfowl, flying thousands of miles, wing-beat after wing-beat, to their wintering home.  If you haven’t seen it, it is worth renting and watching, especially if you have school-age children or grandchildren to share it with.

So where do our birds go for the winter?  The American Robin may hang around up to the dead of winter as long as their primary winter food source of fruit remains abundant.  In the spring Robins switch to earthworms and insects as their primary food source.  When they do migrate from North America, American Robins move into Mexico and South America.  A close relative of the American Robin is the Rufous-Backed Robin, which rarely enters the U.S. from Mexico.  However, my mother and I spotted one during a trip to the Boyce Thompson Arboretum near Superior, AZ, a couple of winters ago.  Being on the U of A’s BIRDGW05 Listserv was helpful, because I had received notices of the sighting from other birders.  We knew where to look as a start to finding the Rufous-Backed Robin, which was a lifer for me and her.

Western Bluebirds will also migrate, and sometimes not that far into lower elevations.  For example, for more than one winter in Phoenix we’ve had Western Bluebirds at the Arizona Country Club.  We have no way of knowing if they are Munds Park birds, but we can imagine that perhaps they are.

What about Turkey Vultures?  These are the large, black birds with a wing-span of five to six feet that you see soaring often just east of the intersection of Pinewood Boulevard and I-17.  On September 3rd, before writing this article and finishing up a round of golf, we saw more than a dozen Turkey Vultures circling unusually high in the air.  This flock of Vultures circling within a thermal is called a “kettle.” A kettle will ride the thermal high until it begins to falter, then they move on seeking the next thermal.  By using thermals and moving from one to the next, Turkey Vultures save energy and very rarely have to flap their wings, instead just gliding to cross vast distances.  In Phoenix, Turkey Vultures are typically spring, summer and early fall residents.  For the winter they have migrated even further south into Mexico, but in many of the Southern states, such as Florida, Turkey Vultures are year-round residents.

A wonderful place to view raptor migration is at the Grand Canyon during the months of September and October.  HawkWatch International used to have teams of scientific observers counting hawks, falcons, and eagles from two spots – Lipin Point and Yaki Point.  However, this non-profit has taken some funding hits in recent years and, as a result, has closed a couple of their fall migration projects.  The Grand Canyon project no longer is a HawkWatch International site, but of course birds are still migrating through.  A great day trip or overnight adventure is from Munds Park to the Grand Canyon to stake out one of these locations and watch the raptors soar across the Canyon as they migrate south.  I saw my first Peregrine Falcon at eye-level this way, and the whole experience is wonderful.  Try to pick a warm and not-too-windy fall day, pack a lunch, a folding chair, your binoculars, a field guide, and water, and enjoy the day seeing how many raptors you can identify.

Some of us humans are beginning the migration back to our winter homes.  We pack our cars, fill up with gas, settle into our comfortable leather seats, put on satellite radio, take along water and stop for a cup of coffee or shake or burger along the way.  Think of the birds:  tiny things beating their wings thousands of times, landing quite exhausted in your yard or a park or pond, and then having to seek water, food, and a safe place to sleep.  No Holiday Inn with complimentary continental breakfasts for them.  A hazardous journey indeed.

Which Half Are You In?

Filed under: Football,Nuthatches — Munds Park Birding @ 9:29 pm

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 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 break from winter.  This bird nests in tree cavities, so you could possibly attract one to your property with a nest box.

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