A Backyard Whodunit….

We have six hummingbirds at the feeder now. They eat a lot less than the dozens of hummers at my Virginia feeders so only one feeder is needed. All hummingbird feeders have small bee guards on the openings to prevent insects from crawling into the nectar. A few mornings ago I noticed two of the bee guards were missing. The next morning, another of the guards was gone. The birds were left with three gaping holes from which to feed and one bee guard. This is an obvious sabotage from some creature. But who or what could do this? Hmmm…..

The number one suspect is the squirrel. He’d been caught with his hands in the cookie jar many times.

So I moved the hummingbird feeder to the squirrel proof pole with the rest of the feeders. The hummingbirds didn’t seem to mind mingling with the larger birds and Mister Squirrel seems to be mystified by the baffle. In and out of the pole’s squirrel baffle he goes but has not yet found a way to the feeders. (He hasn’t given up so stay tuned for new tricks)

All was well for a day until I noticed the fourth bee guard missing. Jeepers! It wasn’t the squirrel after all! I quickly bought a second hummingbird feeder and organized a round-the-clock stakeout with camera in hand for the other. The hummers migrated to the new feeder and I watched the old feeder. It didn’t take long before the culprit appeared. Click…click…click….click.

A beautiful Baltimore Oriole (Icterus galbula) has claimed this nectar as his own. He’s the one who pulled off the bee guards, quite common I read, and he drains a feeder in a day and a half. We are delighted. Oranges and a new oriole feeder go up today. We believe Mister Oriole arrived on June 1, ahead of female orioles, to stake out the best territory for his lady. We are waiting and watching for her.

The Icterids are a group of birds, mostly black, often with splashes of yellow, orange or red. This group includes the bobalink, meadowlawks, and red-wing blackbirds that we see breeding and nesting across the meadow surrounding this property. Matter of fact, we have seen these two ‘cousins’ coming face to face atop the feeding station, each going to different feeders. Birdwatching sure is fun and full of surprises!

Baltimore Oriole and Red-Wing Blackbird

It’s a Grey Fox… not a Red

I’m not venturing out to garden, weed, or prune in our new frozen tundra this winter. The only outdoor activity I’m fully engaged in so far is feeding the songbirds. We have no trees near this house so instead of hanging feeders from limbs as I did in Virginia, I discovered a great Advanced Pole System at Wild Birds Unlimited to bring the birds closer.

The pole with attached auger is simply twisted into the ground about 24″ and additional poles are snapped onto this pole. The top of the pole is where you can get fancy or stay simple. This is what you could do:

I chose to stay simple with one squirrel baffle tube feeder until I saw how many birds would be tempted to dine with us. The small chickadee was the first to discover the feeder, followed by the tufted titmouse, hairy woodpecker, goldfinches, nuthatches, and the ground feeders, the juncos and other sparrows.

I’ve had the system for one week and the food is disappearing fast. Now I’m waiting for those birds I rarely or never see in the south, like the redpolls, the grosbeaks, the crossbills. I’m gearing up the the Great Backyard Bird Count of 2012 on February 17-20. I’ll count the birds around the feeder and the birds I see in the distance or simply flying over. With an extensive salt marsh vista, hawks are numerous, busy scouting for food over the grasses, gulls soar from the nearby rivers, and noisy Canada geese fill the skies.

With the noise at the feeder today, we attracted a new visitor.  What I thought was a Red Fox is really a Grey Fox. I’m sure his acute hearing alerted this visitor to see what all the ruckus was in his neighborhood. He stood very still on a sunny hillside where the snow has melted and just observed the bird activity at the feeder. After a moment, he turned tail and quietly disappeared over the hill into the white pines. There were no dining opportunities at our feeder on open ground.

Grey Fox

However…. should the fox be interested, there is a meal or two available if he is patient and quick. You see, not only the birds have found the feeder. We have one or two uninvited guest who are eating more than their fair share of my costly bird food. And, boy, are they FAT.

Brown-Headed Nuthatches have moved in….

Click to enlarge photo of nuthatch

I am overjoyed about the current residents of mister gardener’s newly constructed bluebird house. A few days before their arrival, I received a forwarded article from the Northern Neck Virginia Audubon Society on a study by Dr. Mark Stanback of Davidson College in Charlotte, NC.  The United States Golf Association Wildlife Links sponsored a two-year study of the importance of pine forests density and nesting competition between bluebirds and brown-headed nuthatches.

The study focused on golf courses where bluebird boxes were distributed. Dr. Stanback found that the density of pines had little to do with nest competition between both species yet his studies found that the small nuthatches are attracted to the bluebird boxes. Bluebirds would routinely evict resident nuthatches from boxes with the standard 1.5” bluebird openings. When the openings were reduced to 1.25”, too small for bluebirds, the nuthatches in North Carolina were regular bluebird box occupants.

I’ve had year-round brown-headed nuthatches (Sitta pusilla) for the past three years and they nested somewhere in the pine forests. But just as I read about Dr. Stanback’s study, here they are going in and out of the new bluebird chapel in the azalea border.  But what’s this?  In and out were the neighborhood bluebirds, too. We needed to take immediate action. Mister gardener quickly overlaid a 1.25” opening atop the 1.5” opening. Like magic, it worked.  Mr. and Mrs. brown-headed nuthatch are nesting. The bluebirds still sit on the steeple and leave their messy calling cards but they can no longer enter the nests. UPDATE: Dr. Stanback has notified me that he is now advising 1″ openings, rather than 1.25″, to discourage sparrows. We will make a new 1″ opening as the 1.25″ can also allow titmice, the only birds we see the nuthatches chase from the area.

Dr. Stanback’s study concluded with an encouragement to golf courses in the nuthatch distribution range to make a subset of course boxes with smaller entrance holes and that 1/3 of the current bluebird boxes be provided with small holes. The brown-headed nuthatch is in decline in the Southeast.  Always thought to be caused by the loss of old grown pine, this study offers a different hypothesis: competition with the burgeoning Eastern Bluebird population is causing the decline of the brown-headed nuthatch.  Well, well, well….

USGS Patuxuent Wildlife Research Center -Brown-Headed Nuthatch Range

The Virginia Bluebird Society offered the following supportive statement on their website:  “Considering the availability of inch hole spacers, the current health of the bluebird population and the plight of the nuthatch, it seems reasonable to ask bluebirders in appropriate habitat in eastern Virginia to dedicate a subset of their nest boxes to this dull colored but charismatic cooperative breeder.”

Our bluebirds in Ware Neck are plentiful and bluebird boxes dot the landscape on our property and across the county. I am thrilled to learn of this latest study. The proof that it works is right in our own backyard and I encourage others who have an empty bluebird house and the brown-headed nuthatch in their yard to give this a try.  It worked for us. Thank you, Dr. Stanback!

Ann Hohenberger, The Garden Club of Gloucester

Just Passing Through…

Cedar Waxwings dining on fosters holly

I heard their high pitched whistles before I saw them on Sunday morning. The sound was piercing enough to serve as my early morning wake up call.  I hopped out of bed and dashed to the window to search for these traveling gifts from nature.  In the pre-dawn light, I could only see the dark silhouettes dotting the limbs at the very top of the sycamore tree but there was no mistaking the unique calls of this bird. The whistling bzeeee bzeeee, a little like a high pitched dog whistle, was coming from cedar waxwings, about 80 of them, dark against the sky.  They’ve finally arrived. They never made a stop on their fall migration but this small ‘aristocracy’ or flock of waxwings was making its way to their northern breeding grounds.

Acrobatic waxwings often eat upended!

I was so honored to welcome these well-dressed birds to dine at the foster hollies again. The three trees were full of red juicy berries waiting for their arrival. Cedar waxwings are frugivores, meaning they eat small fruit during the fall, winter and spring, but they are also invertivores, or insect eaters, during the summer months.  They are acrobatic in flight and are excellent insect catchers in mid air. I must alert my daughter in Maine that the birds are on their pilgrimage back to their nesting grounds near her. They breed around the lake near her home and entertain her as much as they do me. She once ‘saved’ a moth inside her home by tossing it from the back door… only to have a cedar waxwing snatch it in midair.

Click to enlarge photos

The fosters hollies are practically cleaned of berries today. They are nibbling on the seed balls of the sycamore and may linger for another day before they are off on their arduous northward journey. If you’d like to invite these well-dressed birds to dine with you, consider planting native fruit trees or maybe their favorite, fosters holly.

Ann Hohenberger, The Garden Club of Gloucester

Great Backyard Bird Count: San Diego

Making my bird count this weekend from San Diego has been interesting.  I’ve enjoyed the hummingbirds most of all.  There are three varieties that make their way to the feeders: the Anna’s, the Costa’s and the Black Chinned hummingbirds. Many of the Anna’s little ones are beginning to come to feeders, their short beaks just long enough to sip the nectar.

Crows, ravens, sparrows, phoebes, jays, gulls, pelicans, and the black cormorant round out my bird list.  A favorite daily visitor has been the song sparrow with its beautiful melody morning, noon and twilight.

I hope everyone has had fun counting the birds in your gardens over the weekend.  Today is the last day and my count will be the birds in Gloucester Virginia. I can only hope that mister gardener has kept them well-fed.

Ann Hohenberger, The Garden Club of Gloucester

Time To Get Counting!

Here’s a little fact you may already know.  According to several sources, gardening is the fastest growing hobby in America. But here’s a little fact you may not know. Running a close second in fastest growing hobbies is birdwatching. And there is a exciting opportunity to do just that right around the corner.

Folks of all ages and abilities are invited to take part in the Great Backyard Bird Count. If you weren’t involved in the Christmas Bird Count, this is a great time to grab your binoculars, pencil and paper and get involved in the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the Audubon Society’s 13th Annual Great Backyard Bird Count.  This event gives scientists a record of bird declines or recovery, trends, migration ranges, effects of climate changes and/or disease on the total populations.

The GBBC takes place over four days, Feb. 12 – 15 and no backyard is really needed. You can count birds at a park, while you take a walk, or anywhere you happen to be.

According to the GBBC website, it’s easy as 1-2-3

1. Plan to count birds for at least 15 minutes on one or more days of the count. You can count for longer than that if you wish! Count birds in as many places and on as many days as you like—one day, two days, or all four days. Submit a separate checklist for each new day. You can also submit more than one checklist per day if you count in other locations on that day.

2. Count the greatest number of individuals of each species that you see together at any one time. You may find it helpful to print out your regional bird checklist to get an idea of the kinds of birds you’re likely to see in your area in February. You could take note of the highest number of each species you see on this checklist.

3. When you’re finished, enter your results through our web page. You’ll see a button marked “Enter your checklist” on the website home page beginning on the first day of the count. It will remain active until the deadline for data submission on March 1st.

Ann Hohenberger, The Garden Club of Gloucester

When the Going Gets Tough…

Click to enlarge

… the tough definitely get going. Yesterday, as temperatures hovered around 19 or 20 degrees and winds gusts of 15 MPH lashed down narrow beaches, a light crew braved frostbite at dawn for the Christmas Bird Count.  The weather was harsh and inhospitable for man and beast, even dangerous, yet it was an amazing count of birds under these conditions.

Hundreds and hundreds of ducks and geese and swans were counted on the water. Angry white caps on the open water made it time consuming to identify water birds far from shore but the more experienced birders prevailed.  On the shoreline, ice flows like plate tectonics heaved to and fro in the first 50 feet of the rivers.

Inside our 15-mile diameter circle, we found most inland birds hunkered down in protection from the wind.  But eventually they must feed and during those times we counted amazing numbers and varieties of woodpeckers, cedar waxwings, vulture, sparrows, hawks, warblers, robins, cardinals,  bluebirds, blackbirds and so forth.

Although the waxwings have not visited our foster holly, we found them stripping clean Bradford Pears lining a driveway allée.  The homeowner said he would like to replace his many Bradfords that have split time and time again in storms, but the sight of birds feasting on the tiny fruit each winter holds him back.  Seeing the birds feed, I agree with him.  Eventually, he plans to replace the trees with Chanticleer ornamental pear trees that are less likely to split.

Most unusual bird spotted: a rooster.  We did not count him.  What we did not see: our eagles.  Bummer News: My camera froze after 15 photos. Best news: We managed to count all day without frostbite.

Ann Hohenberger, The Garden Club of Gloucester

A Holiday Tradition: The Christmas Bird Count

I have never met a gardener who didn’t like birds. Some are passionate bird lovers and other gardeners feed them or simply enjoy seeing them in the gardens. Birds bring color and life into your gardens and are interesting animals to study.  With bird habitat vanishing and weather patterns changing, it is vital that we collect data to track the health of bird populations and identify trends for conservation.  Time is drawing near for the largest and longest-running wildlife survey that exists, the Christmas Bird Count or CBC.

The Christmas season marks this exciting time for birders as they brave the winter elements for one full day as citizen scientists.  The CBC is a program of the National Audubon Society, where over 55,000 volunteers are up at the crack of dawn to count all the birds they can identify by sight or sound in a 15-mile diameter in one day.  The count that runs from December 14 through January 5, collects data on all birds seen in each circle and is compiled and used to track the health of bird populations.

Folks do not have to be die hard birders to take part in the count.  Less experienced counters are paired with experienced birders who head up each field team.  All that volunteers need is to bundle up with warm, waterproof clothes and boots, birding binoculars and/or a spotting scope, a good field guide, and a few snacks and water.

The Chesapeake Bay area is rich in bird life and several groups count in this area. Much of our group’s time is spent on the beachfront identifying and counting waterfowl and shorebirds on and over the water.  Starting out on the banks of the Ware River where estimates of waterfowl are recorded, we slowly work our way around the peninsula to the North River, then we move toward the interior of our circle through wooded areas, back yards and across fields.  At dusk, when all is finished, we gather to complete our data and raise a glass of cheer to another successful count.

Wintertime is a great time to watch birds.  The leaves are off the trees making the birds more visible to bird watchers. And, of course, there are some birds that are visitors only in the winter. More Yuletide volunteers are needed for the CBC.  To find out about the count in your area visit the National Audubon Society website. To see count data, visit Bird Source, a joint project of the National Audubon Society and the Cornell Labrotory of Ornithology.  Check it out!

Ann Hohenberger, The Garden Club of Gloucester

My White-throated Sparrows Blew in with Ida

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White-throated sparrow rests after long migration

They’re as common as… well, a sparrow, but I do love these little birds that return from their breeding grounds up north to spend the winter in our cotoneaster.  I like to think the same family returns year after year as they seem so familiar with their surroundings and almost seem happy to see us.  As soon as they arrive, I sprinkle sunflower chips over their same feeding station on the ground and they know the routine.

cotoneaster beneath the ginkgo tree

Just outside our bedroom retreat, we dug a small fish pond and surrounded it with a dense semi-circle of cotoneaster.  It has created a thick tangle of screening around the pond and bird feeders, providing a favorite haven of protection for our returning white-throated sparrows.  The cotoneaster shrub is a mounding and spreading evergreen thicket that birds love.  A member of the rose family, it is not a showy shrub but it is perfect for our needs.  It is drought tolerant and requires only an occasional pruning to keep it’s shape.  The inconspicuous white flowers in the spring are followed by showy red berries in the fall and attracts many of our fine feathered friends, especially our white-throated sparrow.

This sparrow is a medium-sized bird with a striped breast and a large white throat.  Its head is striped black and white with distinct yellow patches above the eyes.  It loves the thicket we have provided and will move in and out all winter, dining on spilled bird seed from the feeder or on what I supply over the ground.  Other birds move in and out of the cotoneaster during the day but for the white-throated sparrows, it is home.  They will gather in numbers to roost in the cotoneaster at night and at sunrise, they begin to provide us with their sweet “chips” and their lovely clear song, “sweet, sweet Canada, Canada, Canada,”  which is quite appropriate since Canada is a major area of their breeding grounds.

As our natural habitat shrinks from over development, think about how you can supply shrubs and thickets around your yard for bird habitat.

Ann Hohenberger, The Garden Club of Gloucester

Cedar Waxwings in the Garden

cedar waxwing in foster hollyThere is a quiet lull in the garden right now.  Fall maintenance chores are complete, tools have been cleaned and put away, hoses have been drained, and the first frost has arrived in Tidewater.  For me, this time of year signals a new excitement as I view the landscape from my windows, binoculars in hand, camera ready, and Sibley’s bird guide at my side for it’s all about birds and migration now.  Much of what I have chosen for garden flora has been for the birds, their nesting, their food, and their winter protection.

One bird that I am eagerly awaiting is the cedar waxwing. My daughter in Maine delights in the arrival of cedar waxwings each spring that remain and breed in Maine, dining voraciously on her blueberries and honeysuckle berries and insects all summer.  Before migration, she watches as they begin to flock in August over a fast running stream near her community, diving and swooping over the rapids chasing insects.  It is such a spectacle that she makes the pilgrimage back to the rapids to watch the incredible show each August.

Now she has alerted me that she no longer sees her resident waxwings. Have they left Maine? For me that can mean only one thing; they’re migrating my way.  And I am ready, checking the trees, listening for their high pitched calls, looking for movement around the cleaned and filled birdbaths.  They could be here any day from now till March but I know they will come for the waxwings and I both favor one variety of our trees: the foster holly.  I love it for its beauty and the food it brings my feathered friends. The waxwings love a variety of berries but this holly is their ‘caviar’ of berries on our property.

The slender, 20 – 30′ tall foster holly is a hybrid, the The arrival of cedar waxwingsoffpring of the female Dahoon Holly and the male American Holly.  I planted 3 of them massed together off the corner of the house as a vertical accent.  They produce tons of berries that are bright red against the glossy, dark leaves that are less spiny and softer than other holly leaves. These hollies are beautiful during the summer but they seem to save themselves for their brilliant berry display in the fall and winter.  I check the trees each day, looking for movement or the high pitched call of the cedar waxwings.  They could come today or they could come in January for they wander widely as they move south.

When the flock of birds do arrive, the scene is reminiscent of a piranha feed on the Amazon River.  The hollies are under attack for 24 hours until nary a berry is left. The gluttonous feeding habits of the bird are a far One waxwing with a red tail from consuming honeysuckle berries.cry from the image of the proper looking bird with its elegant silky feathers in shades of browns and yellow. The adults sport a distinctive black mask outlined in white that extends broadly over the face.  The adult wings end in secondary feathers with red waxy tips and the tails of most end in yellow tips.  However, since the 1960’s, there have been sightings of orange tipped tails due to eating the pigments of berry from a newly introduced variety of honeysuckle while the feathers are still growing.

After two days of feasting on foster hollies, cedars, cotoneasters, and wild cherries, my fascinating friends are off for a feeding frenzy at another location.

Ann Hohenberger, The Garden Club of Gloucester

Having Fun With The Brown-headed Nuthatch

Brown-headed nuthatchSunflower seeds, peanuts, and suet bring the gregarious brown-headed nuthatch to our garden feeders in the winter.  Like other nuthatches, they eat seeds at the feeder during the winter months, but during warm weather, the bird will forage for bark-dwelling insects.

In the summer, we are alerted to their arrival by their familiar rubber-ducky squeaks.  We watch them climb up and down the pine trunks in characteristic nuthatch fashion inspecting the bark, the cones and pine bracts in their search for spiders, cockroaches, egg cases, etc., as well as pine nuts.  To have a little fun with them, we hide peanuts under the bark that they love to discover, sometimes with the male feeding his mate.

Sadly, due to the loss of their mature pine forest habitat, it is reported that these 4.5″ birds are declining at a rate of 2% a year, down close to 45% in the last 30 years.  One possible way to help the brown-headed nuthatch is to build a birdhouse.  Make sure the entrance hole is 1 1/4″ in diameter with a 4″ x 4″ floor and 9″ ceiling.  Hinge one side for cleaning, make ventilation holes and attach about 7′ or 8′ above the ground. Next, invite them to your feeder.

Ann Hohenberger, The Garden Club of Gloucester