Bird Lady Blog

January 1, 2016

Reader Questions


Black-Headed Grosbeak

Black-Headed Grosbeak

It has been a busy two weeks with reader correspondence.  The most common question has been “where have all the birds gone?”  The answer, I think, is that they are migrating!  At least many of them are.  The Black-Headed Grosbeaks seem to leave in mid-August.  I haven’t seen an American Robin in a while.  But what about the Lesser Goldfinch?  They are still here in Munds Park but not that active at our feeders.  The theory:  they are spending more time on the wild flower seeds from all the vegetation that has bloomed and now is going to seed.  And the Western Bluebirds are abundant – one of the last to arrive in Munds Park and last to leave for fall migration.

On the other hand, the Canada Geese are sticking around and have been seen at the ponds of the Pinewood Country Club Golf Course.  Also at the ponds was a new hatch of American Coots – must be the second brood of the season.  At first the babies are black with red head feathers and a red beak – very cute!  Then they turn into a boring gray before the distinctive black body and white beak.

Second question:  What happened to the Osprey nest?  This question came from my women golfer friends, who exhibited much concern since the Osprey nest, often with one or two birds on it, has been part of the landscape on the back nine of the golf course this summer and last summer.  There were several theories:  1) the tree the nest was built on fell down of natural causes; 2) some terrible person cut down the tree because the Ospreys are loud, vocal birds and disturbed the human’s sleep; 3) the nest tumbled down on its own during the last very big storm, which seemed to be a micro-burst of rough weather.  My friends and I concluded that the most likely answer is #3, primarily because we see one of the Osprey perched on a tall tree that we think was the exact one that held the nest.  So the Ospreys are going back to a familiar place only to find that the house up and crashed, and they will have to build another next year.  We all hope it will be in the same place so we can keep an eye on it in between our golf club swings.

Third question:  Why don’t we have Magpies in Munds Park?  The Black-Billed Magpie is a very large, noisy, black and white member of the jay family.  I have seen them in Colorado when we visited Durango.  The only part of Arizona they inhabit is the northeast corner of Apache Country – almost into Colorado.  I did manage to find a scientific paper on Magpies in Arizona and concluded that probably temperature and humidity are the reasons they are not here.  Probably a good thing, because the American Crows are noisy enough and I’m not sure we need another bird species to compete with them!

Lastly, a reader did say that she switched to nyger seeds and safflower seeds and the Brown-Headed Cowbirds went away and the Lesser Goldfinches returned.  So that was a happy resolution to that dilemma.

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

The Bluebirds Have Arrived!


Western Bluebird

Western Bluebird

Each year, the Black-Headed Grosbeaks arrive, followed by several species of swallows, and finally by the middle of June our Western Bluebirds show up in Munds Park en-masse.  I get anxious by early June thinking something bad has happened to all of them on the way back from Mexico.  Then I spot one, then two, and finally by the end of June they are all over, especially on the Pinewood Country Club golf course.

There are three species of Bluebirds in the United States:  the Eastern Bluebird, the Mountain Bluebird, and the Western Bluebird.  The Western Bluebird is the species we have in Munds Park.  Bluebirds are loved by many people across the country – perhaps because they are so colorful (blue/rust/white), they often live around humans, and they will nest in our nest boxes.   Bluebirds even have their own non-profit association (founded by humans, of course) with the purpose of protecting them and their habitat.  The North American Bluebird Society was established in 1978 by Dr. Lawrence Zeleny to promote the recovery of bluebirds.  The organization is headquartered in Indiana and has a website that provides educational information about bluebird nest boxes, predator control, and feeding.  Much of bluebird nesting habitat has been destroyed by human development or taken over by House Sparrows and European Starlings (both non-native birds), so people have helped by setting up nest boxes specifically for bluebirds, especially Eastern and Western species.

Bluebirds will often lay two broods a year.  The will nest in old fence posts, cavities in trees, and of course in man-made nest boxes.  They tend to stay around meadows, golf courses, parks, and cemeteries – all places that are somewhat open but have some trees or large bushes then can use to perch on.

Last fall a couple of us cleaned out and re-secured all the bluebird nest boxes on Pinewood Country Club’s golf course, and we put up an additional seven boxes.  We already saw one new nest box (on the left side of hole 3) being used by Tree Swallows in late spring.  Lately we’ve seen bluebird nesting activity in another two of the new nest boxes – one of the boxes to the right of hole 11, and another to the right of hole 15.  In mid-fall, we will take a look at all of the nest boxes, clean them out, and perhaps change locations of some of them.

When I was a little girl I remember my mother telling me that my maternal grandparents took a car trip from Illinois to California – much of it on Route 66 – to see relatives.  The trip was in the early 1950’s and a big deal for both of my grandparents, especially my grandma who didn’t drive and never had been west of Illinois.  But what did she always talk about as a memory from that trip?  Seeing Bluebirds!  Maybe hearing that story is in part why I became a birder early on.  Those grandmas have a way of making an impression on our minds!

May 26, 2015

Nesting and Babies


Steller's Jay feeding on Junco chick courtesy of Gordon Karre

Steller’s Jay feeding on Junco chick courtesy of Gordon Karre

I’ve already received reports from Munds Park residents that birds are in high-reproductive mode.  Dan sent me photos of a pair of Steller’s Jays that nested on the light above his garage door.  As I write this article (shortly after snow in May and really cold temperatures), the mother bird is in the nest keeping the chicks warm while the male keeps bringing food to them.  I also heard from Les who had a Dark-Eyed Junco, actually the Gray-Headed Junco sub-species that we have here in Munds Park, trying to build a nest in his wife’s Mandevilla plants in pots on the deck.  The human activity around the first pot seemed a bit more than the bird could handle, so she moved to a planter farther away on the deck.  We’ll have to see if she actually lays eggs and they hatch.

This time of year is very stressful for birds.  Selecting a mate and a suitable nest site, finding the nesting material and hauling it over to the site, laying the eggs, sitting on them and still getting enough food to sustain a healthy female – it all takes a toll on the parents.  On top of that, there are predators who would love to snack on the eggs plus the chicks themselves.  These predators include other birds plus raccoons, skunks, and snakes.  I recently experienced this last threat in Scottsdale.  A Gamble’s Quail built a nest and laid 14 eggs in a pot with an asparagus fern at our front door.  We stopped using the front door and I posted a sign for anyone approaching the house – “Caution, Quails Nest!  Please do Not Disturb”.  One Sunday morning I peeked out the shutters and feathers were everywhere, as were egg shells and some left-over yolks.  It must have been a coyote that came right up to our front door in the middle of the night and made a dinner of our resident quail and her eggs.

So what can you do?  First and foremost, do not let your cats out of the house.  Keep them indoors – at all times.  It is estimated that there are 77 million cats in the USA, and only 35% of them are kept indoors.  Those that go outside kill adult birds, baby birds, and other wildlife.  Not because they are hungry – because owners spend billions of dollars on cat food – but because they can and they do.  It’s their nature.  So do us all a favor – keep your cats indoors.  And tell   your neighbors to keep their cats indoors.  (I suppose “explain nicely” is a better way to put it.)

Secondly, if you do have nest boxes (for Western Bluebirds, Tree Swallows, Mountain Chickadees, Brown Creepers, and White-Breasted Nuthatches) – make sure they conform to good nest box design and practices.  You can go online and start with birding hobby companies and order boxes with the right dimensions.  Or you can get designs that are easy to build, like the ones I use to make nest boxes with pine and a few battery-operated hand tools.  You should clean out nest boxes after every season.  Make sure they are secured and won’t crash down with our Munds Park winds in May and June.  Last fall we put up seven new Western Bluebird nest boxes on trees around the Pinewood Country Club – can’t wait to see if they will be occupied this year.  We also cleaned out the others – so all in all there are some good opportunities to provide safe nesting sites for our Western Bluebirds and Tree Swallows.

The Bluebird Nest Box Project

Filed under: Birding,Western Bluebird — Munds Park Birding @ 10:36 am
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Hanging the Bluebird Nest BoxMany of you reading this article have bird houses on your property.  I’m guessing that a few of you received them as gifts and decorations. Others have purchased or built them yourself in the hopes of attracting one of Munds Park’s cavity-nesting species and to ensure a safe and appropriate habitat for breeding birds.  Regardless of the how and why, it is important to remember that if we put up a nest box, we are responsible for ensuring it is done in the safest way possible to protect the breeding bird.

Here in Munds Park the cavity nesting species are Mountain Chickadee, House Wren, Brown Creeper, Western Bluebird, and Tree Swallow.  The first three require a nest box with an opening diameter of 1 and 1/8 inches.  The last two require an opening of 1 and 1/2 inches.  You can buy nest boxes through many non-profit birding organizations or online retail sites – just search the internet and you will be amazed at the selections and sources.  You will also learn that ornithologists have figured out the most appropriate specifications for depth, width, and type of wood and other material to help ensure the most success for birds that use the boxes.  You can find free nest box plans on the internet.

One of my goals this year was to help with the bluebird nest boxes on the Pinewood Country Club golf course.  So, a couple of weeks ago Kathy K. and I set out with a ladder hitched to the back of a golf cart, a bag of cedar shavings, a tool box with two battery-powered drills, 3 and 4 inch long screws, gloves, a hammer, and various screwdrivers.  We really didn’t know what we might encounter so we wanted to be prepared.  Our goal was to clean out the dozen or so bluebird nest boxes on the course and put up six more.  Here’s what we found.

Cleaning out the existing boxes was pretty easy because each had a side door that pulled up once the door latch was slid open.  All the boxes had evidence of nesting birds.  Some of them seemed to have three different nests piled on top of each other, which we ascertained based on the type and deterioration of the material.  One nest was almost completely made of dog or another type of animal hair.  That probably was not a Western Bluebird nest.  We were careful each time we opened a box – not knowing what could be inside.  Hornets?  A snake?  Our only surprise was a swarm of ants in one of the boxes on Hole #12.  Luckily we had on gloves and were fast on our feet because ants were everywhere once we opened the box.  That box happened to have 4 Western Bluebird eggs at the bottom – laid but never hatched.  That is probably why the ants were there – they had eaten out the insides of the eggs.

We learned from Dan Bright, head of golf course maintenance, that the boxes were put up by Pinewood Country Club about 10-12 years ago.  They probably were donated through one of the non-profit bluebird societies.  The boxes were still in good shape but some were close to falling down.  After tossing the old nesting material, we drilled through the back of the boxes and inserted one or two good-sized screws to further secure them.  The final step was placing about a two-inch layer of cedar shavings in each – sort of like putting out a bluebird welcome mat.

The next process was hanging the six new nest boxes.  That is where the ladder came in most handy.  Bluebird nest boxes should face east and be hung five to eight feet off the ground.  They also should be at least 100 yards apart.  A golf course is a good place for bluebirds – they need meadow-like surroundings and an abundance of food in terms of grubs, worms, spiders, and other insects.

Next summer we will cautiously monitor the next boxes and see how many are occupied.  The boxes are typically set off the beaten path and nesting activity certainly will not disturb the golfers.  Rather, I hope that when I am out on the course and hit an errant shot, instead of getting upset, I can take a deep breath, look at a beautiful bird going about its business of propagating the species and keeping nature balanced, and put golf and life in the proper perspective.

August 6, 2012

Munds Park Bird Walk


Photo Courtesy of Gordon Karre; Immature Pied-Billed Greve

Our Munds Park Bird Walk on Sunday, July 15th, was held after a day and night of heavy rain.  However, a morning sun and blue sky greeted the dozen birders who met up in the Pinewood Country Club parking lot at 7 a.m.  We Munds Parkers were joined by two gentlemen from Mesa and one from Flagstaff, all of whom helped make our bird walk a very pleasant and informative session.

Our first stop was at the Pinewood Country Club golf course.  Because of the heavy rain the night before, golf was delayed for an hour, so we could bird to our heart’s content without interfering with any golfers.  We spent about 45 minutes at the pond between holes 1 and 18, and immediately we were rewarded with sightings of several Yellow-Headed Blackbirds.  We believe they have nested here this year because we spotted a couple of juveniles in the group. The Red-Winged Blackbirds, Barn Swallows, Tree Swallows, and Violet-Green Swallows were abundant, as were the American Coots.  We were treated to great looks at three recently-hatched Pied-Billed Grebes following a parent and begging for food.  A surprise was a young Red-Naped Sapsucker that was spotted by Gordon Karre, one of the men from Mesa, who had along his camera and recorded many of our sightings.

Next we moved on to Lake Odell.  We spotted the Osprey nest pretty easily, with no Ospreys in sight, but an unexpected find was a Great Blue Heron nest, again on the opposite side from where we were.  Through the spotting scope we were able to see at least one youngster in the nest, and later that week I received reports from two different Munds Parkers that they had seen the nest as well, occupied with more than one juvenile bird.  At the lake we saw Canada Geese, Mallards, Great Blue Herons, a male Ruddy Duck, Eurasian-Collared Dove, Northern Flicker, Black Phoebe, Western Bluebird, and Pygmy Nuthatch.

Our last stop was at two friends’ front yard on Turkey Trail.  We birders sat on deck chairs graciously provided by our hostesses and saw the following birds come to feeders and bird baths:  House Finches, Lesser Goldfinches, White-breasted and Pygmy Nuthatches, a Hairy Woodpecker, and a Mountain Chickadee.  We were hoping for the Red Crossbills to show, but alas and alack, we were not that lucky that morning.  We have since heard they still show up almost daily, with a youngster in tow.

Shortly after 9 a.m. we called it a successful birding walk, and some of us went to the Pinewood Country Club as planned and had breakfast.  There we did a recap of our sightings and just visited with our new birding friends.  Zack Zdinak is the president of the Northern Arizona Audubon Society in Flagstaff and was a great help in finding and quickly identifying some of the birds we saw.  Gordon Karre, who came up to Munds Park for the cooler weather and birding, was our surprise photographer.  He has a blog with photos of many of the birds we saw.  Check it out at http://desertwing.blogspot.com/2012/07/munds-park-az.html.  This wonderful photo of a juvenile Pied-Billed Grebe is courtesy of Gordon.

For those of you who want to venture out of Munds Park for a day and participate in a bird festival, check out the first Hummingbird Festival in Sedona August 3rd through 5th.  You can find more information at http://www.hummingbirdsociety.org/index.php.  For hummingbird lovers here, remember that you do not need to and should not add red food coloring to your feeder sugar water.  Just one part of white sugar to four parts of water is sufficient.  The red feeder will attract the hummers, without the food color additives.

March 3, 2012

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.

July 23, 2011

Lesser Goldfinch, Western Bluebirds, Western Screech Owl


When I first started writing about Munds Park birds, I wrote about those that are pretty easy to see even if you don’t think you are a birdwatcher”. That was in June, 2009, when article #1 was published, and some things don’t change – we still have “old faithful” birds that appear easily each year.  So if you missed that article back in 2009, here is a refresher with some new information as well.

Lesser Goldfinches are those “little birds with a lot of yellow” that come to your nyger seed or thistle seed feeders.  You may also catch a glimpse of them flying across the road or from tree to tree on the Pinewood Country Club Golf Course.  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 is the American Goldfinch, a common bird east of the Mississippi, which has quite a bit more yellow.  Lesser  oldfinches 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.   Except for in the heat of the day, they appear almost constantly at our feeder, especially early morning and later afternoon.  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 similar seed feeder during the winter will attract Lesser Goldfinches as they migrate South to escape the cold weather up North.

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 golf course are for Bluebirds.  Bluebirds have fans all across the country – there is the Eastern Bluebird and the Mountain Bluebird,
neither which I have seen yet.  For more information about Bluebirds, you can visit http://www.nabluebirdsociety.org/, the North American Bluebird Society.  The Society is having its annual meeting this September in Jackson, Tennessee, at the same hotel I spend many a night at for business meetings, so I will vouch for its fine accommodations.  And if you are traveling there with a spouse or friend and he/she is not in to birds, try a visit to the many places with Elvis memorabilia.

A little off topic but exciting to report is that this late spring we discovered that Western Screech Owls successfully nested in the next
box I built and put up in our Phoenix yard.  I had given up on ever having a nesting pair in there after one spring the box fell down in a storm and I found two eggs inside, crushed.  We re-hung the box much more securely, but no activity.  We’ve seen and heard the Western Screech Owls in the neighborhood, so I knew they were around.  Imagine our surprise one day near dusk when looking out the window to see something moving around in the cavity hole (3 inches in diameter).  There were two fledglings poking their heads out, and in a about a half hour, a parent bird
appeared on the telephone wire nearby.  Both juveniles then left the box and off they went.  I posted this find on the U of A list service I’ve written about before and got several responses, one from a fellow-birder in the neighborhood.  Two evenings later he was staked out in our back yard (while we were in Munds Park) with his spotting scope and got to see the owls.  For him this species was life bird #518, less than a half mile from  his home.  So you never know what you will find or what new friends you will make when birding. To see a photo of one of the juveniles poking its head out of the nest box see the post on June 1st.

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