Bird Lady Blog

August 17, 2017

Garden Birds


Dark-Eyed Junco

I received a couple of e-mails lately about small, secretive, brown-reddish birds building nests in planters around Munds Park and Flagstaff. One of the writers sent me this great photo of her bird near the planter it built a nest in, on the deck of a home in Forest Highlands, and another reader in Munds Park sent me a photo of the eggs in her nest – in an artificial plant on her property.  Both asked if I knew what bird it was, and luckily these are pretty easy to identify.  Their garden bird is a Dark-Eyed Junco, a sparrow-like bird that favors our yards in search of nesting spots as well as food, typically insects and seeds.  Most of the time I see this bird on the ground foraging and only very rarely do I see it at one of my deck feeders.  But one spring it was the first bird that showed up at my feeders after they were just hung.

The American Robin is another bird that frequents our gardens. A friend named Robin told me she specifically plants strawberries each year to attract Robins – and it works!  The American Robin, probably best known for pulling long earthworms and grubs out of lawns in the Midwest and back East, also eats fruit, so berry plants are another good way to attract them.  The American Robin is the state bird of Connecticut, Wisconsin, and Michigan.  Although the American Robin is a true thrush, it was named a Robin by English settlers who were homesick for their native Robin.  The General Assembly of Connecticut adopted the American Robin as its state bird in 1943.  It joins the Sperm Whale as the state animal and the Praying Mantis as the state insect.  In Wisconsin, school children selected the American Robin as their state bird by voting during 1926 and 1927.  In Michigan, the Audubon Society selected the “Robin Redbreast” as the official state bird 1931.  Later, in 2003, school children lobbied the legislature to change the Michigan state bird to Kirtland’s Warbler, but they were not successful, and that’s another story in itself.

Another garden bird is the House Wren, a small, plain brown bird with a big voice. It loves to nest in human-made small places, including nest boxes, but it can be found nesting in a fence hole, an old shoe, a basket, shoe box, or empty can.  While doing my research I even read about a pair of House Wrens that built a nest on the rear of an automobile axel in 1937 in a car that was used daily.  When the car was driven, the Wrens went along.  In the end the eggs hatched and the birds fledged successfully.  One golfing friend told me there was quite a scene for a while in her front yard as a pair of House Wrens bickered back and forth about which nest box the female wren would settle on.  Male House Wrens start multiple nests and then the female chooses the one she prefers.  Sounds like a good arrangement to me.

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January 1, 2016

Bird Quiz


It’s been a while since we’ve done a birding quiz.  Let’s see how you do!  Answers to these questions are found somewhere else in the Pinewood News.

  1. What birds have a large nest on the top of a dead pine tree near Lake Odell? Turkey Vulture, Osprey, American Kestral, Common Raven.  Hint:  They catch and eat fish.
  2. Which Goldfinch species is common in Munds Park? American Goldfinch, Lesser Goldfinch, Lawrence’s Goldfinch, Coconino Goldfinch?
  3. When a group of Turkey Vultures are soaring in the sky, what do ornithologists call them? Cast, Committee, Meal, Vortex, or Wake.
  4. Which finch has not been sighted in Munds Park (at least to my knowledge?) Black Rosy-Finch, House Finch, Cassin’s Finch.
  5. When is the least favorable time to be bird watching? Morning, High Noon, Late Afternoon.
  6. Are Acorn Woodpeckers best described as being: Communal or Solitary?
  7. What blackbird is not common to Munds Park? Lone-Pine Blackbird, Red-Winged Blackbird, Yellow-Headed Blackbird?
  8. What bird is often thought to be a duck, but is not? Mallard, American Coot, Blue-winged Teal
  9. About how many times a minute does a hummingbird’s heart beat? 400, 600, 1200.
  10. What is one of the easiest and cheapest ways to attract birds to your property? Cracked corn, green ham and eggs, dripping water into a bird bath, rock music played over back-yard speakers.
  11. What are the primary colors of a male Western Tanager?  Gray and Black; Red and Black;  Red, Yellow, and Black; Brown and Blue
  12. Which grosbeak is found regularly in Munds Park? Black-Headed Grosbeak, Blue Grosbeak, or Steller’s Grosbeak?
  13. What would be a favorite food of a Pygmy Nuthatch? Unshelled peanuts; nyger seed; black-oil sunflower seeds.
  14. Where do Western Bluebirds nest? In a triangular configuration of branches in a Ponderosa Pine; On the ground near a source of water; In a cavity such as in a tree or nest box; Under the eaves above your deck.
  15. Which swallow species has a long forked tail? Purple Martin; Barn Swallow; Blue-Green Swallow; Tree Swallow.

Answers:

  1. Osprey
  2. Lesser Goldfinch
  3. All of the choices
  4. Black Rosy-Finch
  5. High Noon
  6. Communal
  7. Lone-Pine Blackbird (I made that name up)
  8. American Coot
  9. 1200
  10. Dripping water into a bird bath
  11. Red, Yellow, and Black
  12. Black-Headed Grosbeak
  13. Black-oil sunflower seeds
  14. In a cavity such as in a tree or nest box
  15. Barn Swallow

Brown-Headed Cowbirds


Brown-Headed Cowbird

Brown-Headed Cowbird

Several readers have told me that birds are building nests on their property, and some have sent photos.  Martha on Reindeer has two nest boxes that are supposed to be for Western Bluebirds but are now occupied by nesting House Wrens.  This particular House Wren in Martha’s photo is bringing in sticks wider than the width of the hole and somehow, either by luck or instinct, manages to get enough twigs fitted through the hole and into the nest box to build her nest.  Cindi and Kathy on Turkey Trail also reported they have nesting House Wrens in one of their next boxes.

Alan and Cheryl on Wildcat sent me a great photo of eye-catching blue American Robin eggs in a nest on their property.  At the time of this writing, the chicks hatched and are growing on a daily basis.  The next photo they sent me was of open baby bird mouths waiting for the proverbial worm, and the third photo showed how they were developing their feathers while still demanding food every time a parent approached the nest.  I think the nest is amazing – all the twigs tightly woven together to make a little cup perfectly fitted for the eggs.

I also heard from Lu and Don who live on Lake Odell, and they had a complaint – too many Brown-Headed Cowbirds dominating their bird feeder area.  Brown-Headed Cowbirds are one bird I haven’t written about before; they have not been high on my list.  They have a unique approach to nest building – they don’t build nests at all and instead lay their eggs in the nests of other birds.  They are considered a parasite because they lay an egg in another bird’s nest, usually a smaller bird like a warbler, sparrow, or vireo, and often they toss out one of the eggs already in the nest.  Brown-Headed Cowbirds hatch faster than the host bird’s eggs, and their chicks are larger, so they compete with the host bird’s babies and often cause them to starve to death.

In years past, Brown-Headed Cowbirds still had a balance in nature; much of the time they were found following herds of buffalo.  But then humans made changes to the landscape by cutting into forests with roads, introducing cattle, and causing deforestation, so the habitat for Brown-Headed Cowbirds changed and made it easier for them to find the nests of host birds, and therefore to multiply.  Cowbirds can lay 30-40 eggs within a breeding season, negatively affecting the nests of that many host birds.  The Brown-Headed Cowbird is considered one of the key reasons for songbird decline in North America.

What can we do to help stop this Brown-Headed Cowbird trend?  On a big picture, the best approach is landscape management – ensuring large tracts of land are available for other native birds and minimizing fragmented landscapes.  On an individual scale, you can use tube feeders with smaller perches and no catch basin at the bottom.  Don’t use tray feeders, and avoid sunflower seeds and cracked corn.  At our home in Munds Park at the edge of Munds Canyon, I have a tray feeder (frequented by Band-Tailed Pigeons) and a sunflower feeder, used by all types of birds, but never frequented by Brown-Headed Cowbirds because our home is in the woods, not in an open area.  At Lake Odell, however, the Brown-Headed Cowbirds stay in flocks with Red-Winged Blackbirds and Brewer’s Blackbirds, so they will be harder to control.  Sticking with a nyger seed feeder, suet feeder, and a peanut feeder is probably the best way to still attract birds and discourage Brown-Headed Cowbirds.  I also have read that Brown-Headed Cowbirds do not favor safflower seeds, which might be good to try as an alternative to sunflower seeds.

May 26, 2015

What I Learned in Africa About Munds Park Birding


African Fish-Eagle

African Fish-Eagle

This past January we took a three-week trip to southern Africa to golf and go on safaris.  I of course also planned to do some semi-serious birding.  Semi-serious in that I made no changes to our itinerary to see specific birds, but I did take with me a field guide of the most common 500 birds of southern Africa and my lightweight Leopold binoculars.  I learned several things on this trip.

  1. There are many families of birds in southern Africa (in our case Zambia, Botswana, and South Africa) that are similar to birds here in Munds Park and were easy for me to identify. For example, we have the Pied Grebe species here, seen regularly in Lake Odell or the Pinewood Country Club’s ponds.   The Little Grebe species of southern Africa is similar but even smaller.  We were golfing, and there it was in a pond near the 1st tee box.  It is so small that at first I thought it was a baby or juvenile.  Another example is the African Fish-Eagle.  It has a white head and dark body and you would think “Bald Eagle” when you first spot it.  We see an occasional Bald Eagle in Munds Park soaring in the sky or perched high in a tree limb. We also get Canada Geese in Munds Park, and in Africa they get the Egyptian Goose.  Both species are often considered pests at parks and golf courses because they are so common and so messy.  One of the smaller, similar birds I identified was a Barn Swallow – almost exactly like the ones we have in Munds Park.  And we have our Band-Tailed Pigeon, which is unique to the western United States.  In Botswana I saw the Speckled Pigeon and the African Green Pigeon species.
  2. Another thing I learned is that there are many families of birds in Munds Park that have no connection to any in southern Africa, at least in my non-scientific opinion. I didn’t see nuthatches (we have White-Breasted, Pygmy, and Red-Breasted), or hummingbirds (we have Anna’s and Rufous) or anything similar to our Munds Park’s Black-Headed Grosbeak or Western Bluebird.
  3. There were a lot of bird families I had to become familiar with, and I was helped greatly because we had very knowledgeable safari guides with us. Bee-eaters, Barbets, Bulbuls, Hornbills, and Weavers were just some of the new bird families I saw, and within those families there were different unique species.  The feather colors and sizes and shapes of their bills or head feathers always made for challenging and fun bird watching by all of us on the trip.
  4. Speaking of all of us on the trip, there were 12 of us, and everyone became a mini-birder during those three weeks. Everyone commented that seeing all the birds in between Lion or Hippo watching, for example, made the trip much more interesting.  All in all I was able to identify 125 new bird species – without trying very hard.
  5. The last thing I learned is to be prepared. I took one pair of binoculars – I should have taken at least a second pair.  I could have used stronger binoculars (such as a 10×50) for longer distances, plus others on the trip could have used my spare when I wasn’t.  Having the field guide in advance was a real advantage.  To translate that to Munds Park, I would suggest you have a field guide of US Western Birds, at minimum, handy in your house and invest in a decent pair of binoculars.  I have used Eagle Optics and Amazon when ordering online, and you can find a satisfactory pair for under $200.

May 2, 2014

Head South, Birds!


American Robin Courtesy of Gordon Karre

American Robin Courtesy of Gordon Karre

Have you noticed that we are not seeing any American Robins anymore?  And the Black-Headed Grosbeaks are gone, too.  They all are migrating south for the winter, and soon they will be followed by our Swallows:  Violet-Green, Barn, Tree, Northern Rough Winged, and Cliff.  It’s too bad the Robins left so soon – with all the storms and rain we had in late August and early September the earthworms were popping up everywhere, including on the greens at Pinewood Country Club.  I’m sure many a golfer moved more than one earthworm out of the way when lining up his or her putt.

We had a very unusual sighting in August in Munds Park this year – a Northern Bobwhite.  This bird is quail-like and found from the East Coast and to only as far west as Texas and Nebraska and north into southern Minnesota.  It is considered a threatened species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.  Martha, who lives on Reindeer, took a photo of it in her back yard, and to confirm its identity, we sent the photo to Zack, the past president of the Northern Arizona Audubon Society.  He agreed it was a Northern Bobwhite, and we also agreed that it probably was an escaped or released bird from someone in Coconino County who is breeding them for hunting purposes.  Zack’s been told these birds are available for sale and some people raise them and exotic quail for training hunting dogs.

The plight of the Northern Bobwhite is really quite a sad story.  According to an article by Jack O’Connor, “The Bobwhite Blues”, the message is:  “if you care about birds or grasslands, you should care about the Bobwhite.”  Hunters and birders alike should unite to ensure prairie birds such as the Bobwhite, Prairie Chicken, and many other birds associated with grasslands become a conservation concern.  The American Bobwhite is not yet on the endangered species list, but if we do not reverse the trend, it will be.

Finally, about two days after writing the previous article, in which I complained that I had not seen a Brown Creeper in a couple of years, one appeared in our back yard, creeping up a Ponderosa Pine.  So, you never know what you are going to see – just keep your eyes and ears open and be surprised now and then.

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