Birds in the Garden

Poor indeed is the garden in which birds find no homes.

~ Abram L. Urban

This garden (NC Botanical Garden) is anything but poor if the birds are any indication. Bird activity seems to have increased dramatically the past few weeks. Many seem to be thinking of the coming nesting season…bluebirds singing from atop nest boxes, a house finch gathering nest materials, and a brown-headed nuthatch checking out a cavity in a snag. And bird activity in the feeding station near the bird blind has really picked up. We moved the feeders closer to the blind this week and I went down yesterday for about 15 minutes to see what was happening. The late afternoon light is not conducive to photography from the blind itself, so I was just standing out near the feeders with the light coming in over my shoulder. It didn’t take long for things to get busy, very busy. In 15 minute I saw 16 species, with some great views of most. I’m hoping to create some interpretive information so I grabbed a few photos while standing in the midst of the avian mess hall.

cardinal and bluebird

It’s not every day you see these two species at the same feeder (click photos to enlarge)

brown-headed nuthatch on suet log

Brown-headed nuthatch on suet log

tufted titmouse

Tufted titmouse

white-breasted nuthatch

White-breasted nuthatch

northern cardinal

Northern cardinal female

downy woodpecker

Downy woodpecker

pine warbler and reflection

Pine warbler

Here is a list of species seen yesterday in the bird observation area (not bad for 15 minutes):

Eastern Bluebird; Northern Cardinal; Carolina Chickadee; Tufted Titmouse; White-breasted Nuthatch; Brown-headed Nuthatch; Yellow-rumped Warbler; Pine Warbler; Downy Woodpecker; Mourning Dove; Brown-headed Cowbird; Dark-eyed Junco; White-throated Sparrow; House Finch; Ruby-crowned Kinglet; Carolina Wren

Suet Sightings

I think the most important quality in a birdwatcher is a willingness to stand quietly and see what comes.

~Lynn Thomson

This past week must have been the peak of spring migration in our woods. Every time I looked out, I saw something of interest, either just passing through among the branches, or stopping by the feeders.

Rose-breasted grosbeak in tree 1

Rose-breasted grosbeaks have been very abundant this past week (click photos to enlarge)

One of my favorite migrants is the rose-breasted grosbeak. They have been here for a couple of weeks now but seem to have reached their peak this past week. I have counted as many as eight at one time near the feeders. The males are one of our more boldly marked birds, with striking black and white and a colorful rose-colored breast and underwings.

Rose-breasted gtrosbeak female

Female rose-breasted grosbeak

Females arrived about a week after the males and don’t seem quite as abundant. They are drab in comparison, but are still a striking bird, especially with that bold head stripe and huge beak.

Rose-breasted grosbeak ifemale at suet

Female rose-breasted grosbeak helps herself to some suet

And they have been putting that beak to good use at both the sunflower feeders and the suet. It seems the suet has been getting more than its share of visitors this spring and on a few recent days, the birds have gone through more than one entire suet cake in a day (there are two suet feeders out).  I decided to set the camera up with the tripod, 500mm lens, and a flash, to see what I could record. The light is best late in the day when there is a shadow cast on the feeders, but still plenty of ambient light on the trees behind the deck. The flash highlights the birds without appearing too harsh, as is the case earlier in the day. In three afternoons, I had some pretty good luck, plus some bonus species that didn’t visit the suet, but were feeding in nearby trees.

Female common yelowthroat

Female common yellowthroat foraging in some low shrubs

Among the passers-by were a few warblers, including a female common yellowthroat, a worm-eating warbler, some northern parulas, and several black-and-whites. Some beautiful non-warblers also made the scene – American goldfinches, northern cardinals, blue-gray gnatcatchers, and summer and scarlet tanagers, along with a few others I’ll mention later.

Rose-breasted gtrosbeaks at suet

A pair of male rose-breasted grosbeaks at the suet

But most of the action has been at the suet feeders. So, close to one of the feeders on the deck, I attached a branch to the rail with a clamp, and set up the camera in the bedroom with an open door (yup, real wilderness photography), and waited. Here are a few of the highlights…

Blue jay at suet

A pair of blue jays have been making the rounds

Carolina chicadee on branch

A Carolina chickadee having a bad hair day

Downy woodpecker male on branch

Downy woodpecker hanging on

Tufted titmouse

Tufted titmouse thinking…suet or seed? So many choices…

Red-bellied woodpecker male on branch

Red-bellied woodpecker male showing how he got his somewhat confusing name

Black-throated blue at suet

A black-throated blue warbler is the highlight of my suet sightings

But, of all the birds that are coming to the suet, my favorite has to be a male black-throated blue warbler. This is the first time I have had one of these beauties visit a feeder. There have been several moving through the trees (including one female that I have spotted), but this little guy is a regular visitor at the suet.

Black-throated blue on branch 2

This little male is rather bold, but only stays a few seconds on each visit

Male black-throated blues are one of our most stunning spring warblers, with a beautiful blue back and top of head, set off by the black throat and sides, and a white belly. They are common spring migrants in the east as they head north or to our mountains to nest. They may look so fresh and bright because they probably spent the winter in the Bahamas or the Greater Antilles. My warbler guide says they are frequent feeders at peanut butter or suet during migration, so I am glad this one (or more than one?) is living up to its reputation.

Black-throated blue on branch best

A quick pose, and then off he goes

I am glad I am around to appreciate the beauty of this tiny visitor, however long it decides to hang around. Sunday afternoon was a special treat with this guy visiting every 30 minutes or so, plus, out in the yard, a great crested flycatcher, two blue-gray gnatcatchers, and two male northern orioles (a new species for the property).

Rose-breasted grosbeak male on branch

Rose-breasted grosbeak waiting his turn

Oh, and the rose-breasted grosbeaks are still here, chowing down. Guess I had better get some more suet.

Changing of the Guard

Migrations speak to us, not just as observers of nature but as integral parts of it. The world moves and, deep inside, we long to move with it.   Mike Bergin

Leaf out scene in Piedmont woods

Spring scene in the woods out my door

Spring is truly here. I look out the door and see the rapid changes, the appearance of so many new things. But I can also tell by what is missing…the smell of the smoke from my wood stove, the chill in the morning air, and the dominant feeder birds from the past few months. I was going to post something on this last week to encourage you to watch for their disappearance as the warm weather of the past week moved in. But, I was gone a few days and when I returned, they were all but gone, just like that, as if the pale spring green of leaf-out had sent them packing. It is much easier to document the first arrivals. The last departures do not resonate in my brain as well. One day the birds are here, and a week later I realize I haven’t seen them for awhile. But this changing of the guard is as sure a sign of spring as the growing palette of greens.

Are any of these birds still at your feeders?

Dark-eyed Junco

Dark-eyed Junco (click to enlarge)

Purple Finch

Purple Finch male (click to enlarge)

The Juncos, (many people call them Snow Birds) are our classic winter feeder bird although at my feeders they tend to stay mostly on the ground beneath the feeders. Peak abundance in the Piedmont is mid-October to mid-April. They move north or to higher elevations in our mountains to breed. I always enjoy finding their nests along the trails at Mt. Mitchell each summer.

Ruby-crowned Kinglet

Ruby-crowned Kinglet (click to enlarge)

Purple Finches are one of winter finches that tend to vary in abundance from year to year. Roger Tory Peterson described males of this species as a “sparrow dipped in raspberry juice.” Females are streaky brown with a distinct white eye stripe. Purple Finches are often confused with House Finches, a year-round resident in our area. Purple Finches are far more common out here in the woods.

One of my favorite visitors to the suet feeders is the energetic Ruby-crowned Kinglet. Unlike its cousin, the Golden-crowned Kinglet, this species does not breed in our high mountains but moves to the far northern U.S. and Canada to nest. Male Ruby-crown’s only occasionally show their reddish crown. These tiny birds are easily recognized by their habit of wing flicking.

Pine Siskin

Pine Siskin (click to enlarge)

The only one of these winter birds still at my feeder as of yesterday is the Pine Siskin (although I have not seen one this morning, so they, too, may be gone). They are one of the so-called irruptive species, whose numbers on the wintering grounds can fluctuate greatly from year to year depending on food resources and weather in their northern forest habitats. And this has been an amazing year for siskins – on my Great Backyard Bird Count this past February, I had 62 siskins at once at one feeder. I’m sure there were well over a hundred between all three feeders, but their squabbling and rapid comings and goings made them tough to count. Although they do gulp down the black oil sunflower seeds, siskins are especially fond of thistle seed. My bank account will appreciate the rest once they are gone.

And this week has also brought some members of the new guard – the return of a Brown Thrasher to my garden, the teach, teach, teach song of an Ovenbird down in the woods, and my first Ruby-throated Hummingbird this morning. It has begun…