Bird Lady Blog

August 17, 2017

Going, Going, Gone


Black-Headed Grosbeak

‘Tis the time in northern Arizona when many people start asking: “So when are you closing up and heading back to (fill in the blank)?”  After all, pine needles are dropping like crazy, occasionally the lovely smell of a wood-burning fireplace permeates the air, fall decorations adorn our doors and tabletops, and we hear about plans for Halloween costumes and parties. It’s that transition time from summer to fall, and the days are usually gorgeous, with the monsoon rains long gone and the spring’s strong and gusty winds hardly thought of anymore.

But where are the Black-Headed Grosbeaks and Anna’s Hummingbirds? They have already headed south to Mexico and South America.  The Western Bluebirds, though, are still showing up all over the Pinewood Country Club golf course, pulling out grubs and worms that are just underneath the trail of the electric carts and golfers’ steps.  The Yellow-Headed Blackbirds are gone as well, but the Swallows – Barn, Tree, Violet-Green, Rough-Winged – are still around as long as there are plenty of the insects to catch on the fly.

Why do some birds move on and others don’t? Well with people, we’d say “follow the money”, but with birds, it’s all about “follow the food source”.  The insects that are sources of food to American Robins, Black-Headed Grosbeaks, Western Bluebirds, and Red-Winged Blackbirds do not exist in our cold northern Arizona winters, so these birds migrate to follow food sources and survive.  Other bird species, such as our American Crows, Steller’s Jays, Western Chickadees, and Pygmy and White-Breasted Nuthatches, stay in Munds Park because their food sources extend into the winter.

I recently had a reader approach me and ask if it was normal to see a Steller’s Jay taking peanuts and burying them into the ground. “What was going on, weren’t the birds hungry?”  Actually, this is normal behavior for a lot of birds.  They were taking the food and caching it for a rainy day, or in bird-speak, for later consumption on a cold and wintry day.  Many bird species take nuts and seeds and store them in crevices in trees or in the ground for future use.  Acorn Woodpeckers are notorious for this behavior; sometimes there are thousands of acorns in a “grainary” tree, and the woodpeckers even move seeds and nuts from larger holes to smaller holes as the seeds or nuts shrink.  It’s all about survival and being prepared for the worst.

The birds that stay year round in Munds Park are the ones that have dependable food sources. Those that migrate need more of an insect diet.  Right now is an exciting time for birders in Arizona – everyone is on the watch for the migrants coming through their neighborhoods.  For example, the Bird List Serve run by the University of Arizona mentions a migrating Blackpoll Warbler in Chandler, White-Crowned Sparrows showing up, (I always hear them in Scottsdale about the first week of October), and a Blue-Throated Hummingbird in Green Valley.

Probably only one more article to go this season; we are headed to Bryce and Zion Canyons in Utah soon. I haven’t yet researched what special birds we might see on that trip, but I will for sure let you know what I find when I write the last article of 2016.  I’m hoping for a Clark’s Nutcracker.  In the meantime, please let me know what you see or hear in Munds Park (birds only, please!) while I’m gone!

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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.

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

The Bluebird Nest Box Project

Filed under: Birding,Western Bluebird — Munds Park Birding @ 10:36 am
Tags: , , , ,

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.

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