Monday, August 4, 2008

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Sunday, July 13, 2008

July Is A Time For Birds To Make Changes

July, the turning point of the year, comes tripping in with hints of fall.

Yellow leaves are already sprinkling green lawns. Spring flowers are hanging their straggly, browning heads, making room for vibrant fall colors of asters, dahlias, chrysanthemums, roadside flowers of Joe-Pyeweed, mullein and those fields of goldenrod that will delight us from now until frost.

July brings starlings, grackles and red-winged blackbirds in small flocks back to our yards. It seems only yesterday they left to build their nests and rear their families in the swamps and marshes of the Savannah River. Orchard orioles are planning and packing for their South American tour. By the end of the month, only now and then can we expect to see one of these orange and black songsters.

Young Carolina wrens are learning the "wren screech" and the "sheree-e, she-ree-e" song. Fledgling wrens are brought to the pool to drink and play by their dad who is baby-sitting while mom is busy constructing a new nest.

A nest full of spotted-breasted robins is hidden in a low-branched tree. Fledglings from a second nesting of towhees, rich brown above, streaked with darker brown all over, usually stay hidden in the foliage, but once or twice a day we see them in the pool splashing around. Dad is usually close by.

Honey bees, pollen-laden, are out in profusion. The humming of the honey-makers suckling nectar from purple wave petunias makes sultry July days even more slow motioned and oppressive.

Bird song begins to dwindle in this hot month. No longer does the dawn chorus greet us. Now the days and nights are filled with insect music.

That winsome jewel, the ruby-throated hummingbird visits our tubes more frequently now that the young are on the wing and the far north nesters are already moving southward. Expect a greater number of the dainty sprites to use your feeders from now until about mid-September when they begin to leave our area for the coast and Central America.

Millions of dashing little sandpipers and plovers that passed through our section of the country on moonlit nights just weeks ago on their way to nesting grounds in the Arctic will be making their way back to the Argentina plains during these hot days. Though we will miss the migration of the massive flocks that usually follow the coastline, hundreds will drop out along the way throughout the southern states to feed and rest in small pools, sandbars, and stream sides.

Purple martins are antsy and begin to gather in small groups on telephone wires. They are aware of their thousands of miles of journey to Amazon jungles and begin to prepare for it by flocking. Before July gives way to August, millions will have left the States.

In late July and early August, I am usually greeted with the pensive, almost pathetic, plaintive note of the wood peewee. He usually visits us for about a month before he leaves for sunny South America. He sits silently in the tall pine trees on our back lawn and waits for passing insects. If you sit silently and wait, you can observe his leaving his perch, grabbing an insect with a snap of his beak, then returning to the same perch he left. He is as much a part of July and August day as are fireflies and katydids and the simmering heat.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Birds A Source Of Inspiration

Birds can be a source of inspiration to those of us growing older in this constantly changing world. From all my childhood memories, it is only the birds that have not changed their personalities or appearances from when I first knew them as a gangling, tree-climbing child.

Houses we knew and loved are torn down, gurgling streams we waded in as children, picnicked by as young lovers, camped by with our families, have been filled in by huge earth moving machines. Forests we walked in with the soughing wind, woods that shaded jack-in-the-pulpits, trilliums, and hepaticas have fallen victim to the chain saw. Concrete replaces the forested beauty of the mountain valley.

My brothers and sisters, as well as childhood friends, have moved away from the North Georgia mountain. All have grayed and wrinkled and grown older with the passing years. Personality changes in us are not at all rare, but birds never change at all from the way we knew them when we were roaming youngsters learning the birds and their ways.

Recently, I visited my childhood home and was deeply moved by what I found. The window panes were shattered, the mill work was stripped, wallpaper hung in shreds and the stairs hung precariously from the second story.

Nothing was as I had remembered it as a child until we reached the front porch. There, on a ledge of a window, sat a phoebe on her nest, just as a phoebe has sat some sixty years before. No doubt she was a ten-times removed great grandchild of the phoebes I once knew. Before we left the male called out to us "phoebe-ee-eee" irritably, exactly as his ancestor had called to a mountain lass more than a half century before.

The orchard below the house where the orchard oriole sang each spring was gone. It had succumbed to a growing forest of maples, poplars and oaks.

I climbed an apple tree as a child, I remember, half-hiding myself with foliage, and watched the orioles build their green grass nest on a sloping limb. As the sun grew hotter each day, the grass nest dried to a pretty yellow. The nest was so low that from my perch I could see the eggs, bluish-white, with purplish-brown splotches. One was laid each day until the clutch of five was complete.

After a long time, counting in childhood days, five ugly little creatures hatched. I watched them grow and was disappointed the day I found the nest empty.

My dad told me that within a few weeks, when they learned to fly well, they would be on their way to South America, not to return until the next spring.

Each spring we eagerly awaited the return of these colorful black and orange birds. When they arrived we knew spring had crept into the mountain valley, over the hills, along the woods, roads, highways and gurgling brooks and singing waterfalls.

Beautifully feathered, singing birds . . . linking childhood memories with the aging years . . . a source of comfort and delight.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Rare Kites Making Home At Houndslake

An Aiken resident of Houndslake Country Club called in a sighting of a Mississippi kite near the sixth hole of the golf course.

This attractive hawk is seen only occasionally in the Central Savannah River Area, though it is a common to uncommon summer resident along the coast of South Carolina and Georgia. When one is observed, usually there are about half a dozen or more about, as is the case in this report.

These kites at Houndlake have found a perfect kite habitat; borders of deep woods, with tall oaks, pines, sweet gums and elms aside meadows filled with large insects not far from creeks and lakes.

Measuring 14 inches from the tip of its pale gray head to the tip of the square black tail, it has a wingspan of 36 inches. Its aerial flight is spectacular. Swallow-like, it soars in great circles and hovers in the air. They play at skydiving. These amazing feathered fliers twist and turn in the air. They plunge earthward, then rocket skyward again with speed and grace, circling and floating high in the air.

Could it be possible that the Houndslake kites are nesting in some tall tree at the edge of the woods? Oaks, elms, hack berries and sweet gum seem to be their favorite trees.

If a kite nest is found, and it is low enough in the tree, check for a green-leaf lining. A green-leaf lining is a good identification point. Nesting is usually under way by the middle of May.

The rather small twig, leaf and moss nest is cradle to the two bluish-white eggs which require a 31 to 32 day incubation period. This would put the hatching by the middle of June.

Fledglings don't leave the nest for another four weeks or so. With this schedule, the young could possibly be in the nest at this time.

This kite is most aggressive in the defense of the nest. It has been known to attack the climber, diving at him repeatedly and threatening to strike him. Be cautious if you find a nest. Observe it from a distance with glasses.

Feeding almost exclusively on larger insects such as cicadas, locusts, grasshoppers, crickets, katydids, dragonflies and large beetles, this hawk is most beneficial to man. Small snakes, lizards and frogs are sometimes eaten. These stunning birds feed on the wing. The insect is grasped in the claws and eaten in the air.

By the middle of August these birds begin preparing for their southward migration and put on migration fat. By the first days of September, they usually vanish from the area.

The kite is in the hawk family. To most people a hawk is a more or less savage big bird that eats chickens, birds and small animals. Most hawks, however, are not like this and are beneficial to man. Not only is the Mississippi kite beneficial, but adds grace and beauty to the sky with its aerial ballet.

When you see these big birds, stop for a little while and observe. You'll be glad you did!

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

English Sparrows Seen As A Nuisance

I seldom see English (house) sparrows around our place anymore. Nor or they as visible around downtown North Augusta or shopping centers as I remember them not too many years ago.

Our most familiar bird alien is the English sparrow. After its introduction in the 1850s in New England, it took less than fifty years for it to "capture" the country, establishing itself in California and other western states by the 1890s.

Perhaps more than any other feathered creature, this sparrow takes advantage of man's progress. Its rapid spread across the country was not only by its own wings but it has been attributed to its bumming a ride in cattle railroad cars loaded with grain from which it fed en route to the west coast. Free ride, free food, free shelter. Why not go for it? And it did!

Sparrows are mainly seed eaters and rural America was just their thing. When these brown-backed birds first arrived in the States in the 1850s no gas guzzling machines existed. All local transportation was by wagon, buggy, carriage or cart, all driven by grain-eating horses. Much grain was dropped around these animals and sparrows followed wherever the animals went.

Some people say the house sparrow is a pest and call it a tramp, a hoodlum and a gamin . . . a sort of street urchin . . . for years ago it was a city dweller.

This little free loader also has a talent for multiplying and is known as the mouse of the bird world, hatching brood after brood from early spring through late fall. But now his numbers are decreasing, possibly because horses have been replaced by automobiles and his food supply is dwindling.

Our sweet-singing native sparrows are shy little birds that live quiet lives along wood edges and in thickets and grassy fields. Until the 1850s they were the only sparrows in North America.

The house sparrow is really not a sparrow but is of the weaver family of the Old World. Early settlers called them sparrows and the name stuck. It was quite natural to call it the English sparrow since most of the birds were imported from England, though the species is widely distributed throughout the world.

This saucy, keen-witted little gamin, who thrives where other birds would starve, and who insists on driving away other cavity nesting birds such as purple martins, bluebirds, chickadees and titmice by destroying their eggs and young then usurping the house for themselves, is now considered a nuisance.

The decrease in these birds is most marked in the eastern states, especially in the cities and towns, though the sparrows are still common in rural districts around poultry and cattle farms where there is still plenty of grain fed to livestock.

Nonetheless, with all his shortcomings, the male is a good looking chap in his black and hazelnut-striped coat and chestnut, black and white head and black bib. The female looks much like the male but lacks the conspicuous markings about the head and the black bib.

Song wise the house sparrow flunks. All he can usually manage is a harsh chirping and chattering.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Drowsy Days Of July Just Around The Corner

The drowsy days of July are on their way. The hot, brassy sun, the droning of bees and the still, flower-perfumed air seem to voice the peacefulness of the mid-summer day.

It is in the month of July that the new generation of birds, frogs, mammals, yard and garden weeds and other forms of animal and plant life begin to mature and come into their own.

After the hustle and bustle of May and June, July seems to bring a sense of maturity to the young of the feathered tribe and you see them coming to feeders alone. Young cardinals, more than any other young I have observed, seem to be skilled in "working the parents for food" as long as the parents will allow it. Sometimes you will see a good-sized young-of-the-year cowbird being cared for by a vireo or cardinal.

July is the first full month the sun begins its southward journey. Our calendars say summer is just beginning and we like to believe these long, sweet days will last forever. But we know days are now growing shorter and shorter, and will continue to do so until the winter solstice in December.

July, like any other month of the year, has dumped into her thirty-one days left overs of the months before and signs of what is to be in the months ahead. Along roadsides and in abandoned fields, early goldenrods, black-eyed Susans, sunflowers and butter-and-egg toadflax say "autumn" loud and clear.

Somehow we get the idea that trees don't begin to shed their leaves until the calendar says "fall". But look. Some of the trees are beginning to drop colorful leaves now, leaves that are hidden deep within the green tree. Notice the leaves on your lawn. First a yellow one here and there, then an occasional red or wine one. These falling leaves will increase steadily until late October and early November when the last ones are downed by winter winds and rain. Even if we have a wet summer, leaves will drop.

Trumpet vine and jewel weed are the most bounteous in July, just in time for hummers north of us to join our locals, giving our yards more flash over flower beds and lawns as they sip nectar from the feeders.

Killdeer are leading about their spindle-legged fledglings, hatched from a quartet of earth-colored eggs deposited on a slight depression in a graveled plot of a cemetery.

Purple martins, red-winged blackbirds and grackles are early flockers. Already you may see them in small bands in trees or strung along a utility line like a row of beads. The orchard oriole is usually on its way back to the tropics by the end of July, staying in the temperate zone less than four months, just long enough to rear a brood of five brownish-yellowish youngsters. So soon do they vanish from our turf that usually the young-of-the-year are still in juvenile plumage when they arrive in Central America.

During July sunsets begin to change. The sun no longer sets behind the same tree or house as it did before the twenty-first of June. It is slowly moving southward (notice the shadows), and this will bring to the Central Savannah River Area the migration of the million of birds making their way to South and Central America for the winter.

Ruby-throated hummingbirds will be the first to hit our area. Be on the lookout! Some will be fattening up at your feeders in the next few weeks for the six hundred mile trip over the Gulf.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Drought Takes Toll On Birds Too

When hot and sultry days of summer bring thirst to the South and salvia droops and impatiens hang their pretty heads, it is then we must be aware of the needs of birds.

There has been neither dew nor rain for days and a bird must wet its whistle if there is to be song in the red-leafed maple tree. So we turn on the sprinkler.

A bold robin is the first to come under the delightfully refreshing drops. He smacks his beak as if he's tasting the wet stuff. Evidently he's delighted with the taste. He fluffs his feathers, shakes himself like a feathered Elvis, then smacks his beak again. He moves into the pool, dimpled by drops of water from the sprinkler.

A female towhee flutters down timidly to sip the water. Acting as if she's on her lunch break, she stays but a moment, just long enough to take a quick shower. That darling of the yard, the chickadee, comes floating in and alights ever so lightly upon a rock washed by the flowing water.

The robin has moved farther into the pool, standing knee-high in the water and seems to close his eyes. A fat bee is droning on the begonias. The day is drowsy with noon.

Yellow eyes gleaming, a brown thrasher plunges into the pool, disturbing the sleeping robin, who, frightened, bolts away. Bathing and fluffing his feathers, the thrasher seems to be bold and self-assured. But wait, here comes a blue jay screaming his head off, followed by another. It looks as if he well alight on the thrasher and that's enough to make Mr. Bold Guy fly away through the shrubbery, leaving the pool to the jays.

Bathing, shaking wet feathers, preening . . . the jays take over for some minutes. One scolds. Not another bird in sight. Evidently the scold must be for the mate, who must be crowding him in the shower. They take another bath but use separate tubs this time. Now they are gone.

Empty of avian creatures for awhile, the pool soon plays host to a small band of house finches, probably mama, papa and four young. They bathe in the water, then one rises in a tiny welter of spray, scuds with tingling wings to the edge and perches there on the rocks, tossing a shower around him.

No summer day, and especially one with a pool of clear water, can get by without a visit from the troubadour, the mockingbird. He stands on the rocky edge, raises his tail and wings, pulls them down, then drops onto the silvery rocks barely covered with the gurgling water. Splashing and flashing, wetting himself all over, he finally hops onto the edge of the pool and fluffs his feathers.

Before he is through with his primping, house finches again descend on the pool, look it over, and without drinking or bathing, leave. Under the refreshing spray are two gray-bodied, pink-footed doves.

A noisy Carolina wren, poking in and out all the rock crevices around the pool, finds the little waterfall refreshing as he hops hurriedly through it, bursting into song as he flies away.

Hidden in the red-leafed maple tree, a robin is signing a song to the hot summer day.

Albino Crows Sighted

Friday, June 20, 2008

Look-alikes Can Fool Birders

For the beginning birder, look-alikes are tormenting.

First, let's take the house finch and the purple finch. The purple finch, of course, is not in the Central Savannah River Area except during winter months but a beginner might not know this and will confuse the two finches.

Arriving in our area in late November and early December, the purple finch is a purplish rosy-red, while the color of the house finch is usually a bright fire-truck red. The male purple finch looks as if he's been dipped in "cranberry juice", giving his brown feathered back an overall purplish look. The rosy color of the purple finch's throat and breast blend into the white of the belly. The brown-backed house finch has a brown-streaked breast and belly while the purple finch has a plain rosy breast.

Female purple finches have a distinct face patch defined by a whitish eyebrow line and cheekstripe. They are heavily streaked overall with dark brown on a white background.

Female house finches have light brown streaks on a beige background and lack the eyebrow line and cheek stripe and are slimmer.

Other look-alikes are the mockingbird and the loggerhead shrike, both permanent residents of the Central Savannah River Area. Though both birds are gray and white, and both have solid white breasts and gray wings with white patches, the grays are different shades.

The shrike's gray is almost a charcoal color while the mockingbird's feathers are a soft, light gray. The mockingbird has a slim bill. The shrike's is dark, short and hooked. Another distinguishing field mark of the shrike is the black eye mask. And he is a stouter bird than the mockingbird, though not as long.

Summer tanagers are solid red, sometimes with a dark washing on the wings and tail. The trouble here are the females, with the summer tanager looking much like the female orchard oriole, both summer residents of this area. Both are yellow, though in slightly different shades. Oriole beaks are dark, sturdy and pointed. Tanager beaks are not as long as the oriole's and are blunt at the tip and are whitish in color. The female orchard oriole has grayish wings with white wingbars. Wingbars on the tanager are hardly noticeable.

The wood thrush is a summer visitor, the hermit thrush a winter tourist. Usually, the wood thrush is on his way to Central America before the hermit arrives for the winter, though sometimes they meet in the South long enough to say "hello". Both thrushes are brown-backed, with off-white, brown-spotted breasts. Look at the head and tail to distinguish the two. The wood thrush has a reddish-brown head, with duller brown on the wings, back and tail. The hermit thrush has a reddish-brown tail, with the remainder of its body a duller brown.

There are two wrens that you might see around your place during the colder months . . . our State bird, the Carolina wren and the little mousy winter wren. The winter wren is much smaller than the Carolina, with a short, stubby tail, grayish-brown back and barred belly. The Carolina's back is reddish-brown and its belly is buffy, not white, and it has a strong eye line. There's little risk that these two wrens will be confusing.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Spring Begins To Slip Away

Songs of second and third courtships bring the last days of June to a close. After spring's first frenzied courtships and nestings, the feathered world quietens down for a few weeks. The chores of incubation and the feeding of young take their toll from the adult bird's free-spirited life. But now the males are belting out their courting songs from dawn to dusk, anxious to get on with the busy life of a second family.

After this recurrence of activity, the birds usually cease singing until the next spring. About mid to late July most summer visitors go into molt and cease their singing. During this time summer visitors and permanent residents become almost totally silent.

The scrappy little Carolina wren belts out a song occasionally, singing more often than any other bird of this season. (Silence must be pure torture to him . . . he is such a vocal ball of feathers.) The blue jay might squall a few notes and doves continue to coo, the pewee continues his plaintive, sad song, and the wood thrush gives fewer evening concerts. The lessening of song is a sure sign the days of spring are slipping away into summer.

The brown thrasher is singing lustily and I see why. The female is sneaking twigs into a dense photinia shrub. Looking like sleek ballerinas in gray tutus, two mockingbirds gracefully soft-toe it down the driveway. But now scientists tell us it is two males bidding for territory. Evidently thinking of another nest and four more mouths to feed this summer.

Towhees are singing in the late June performance. They nest as many as three times in one season. They are with us year round. I have just seen a pair pack a brood off on their own. Now they are busy on another nest. Several years ago, a pair nested in the photinia hedge in September.

I hear the robin's cheery song each day now that he's building next door in a dogwood tree. Soon his bubbling song will cease for the season. Chasing blue jays burn green leaves with blue fire. After the chase, I watch the male feed the female. This is a courtship gesture used by many birds. He's probably courting her for the second nest and the last of the season.

Whistling loud and clear, the cardinal, no doubt, has another family in mind and before long I should find the nest in some thorny shrub or rose vine.

Soon after the active days of June are over, summer visitors hide in the wooded lot and dense borders of our yard and change into their traveling duds. Now about all we'll hear from these guys is a half-hearted short song, but usually we hear only chips and chirps.

Though summer is but a few days away, already preparations for another season have begun.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Mocker Turns Into Migrant

For a number of years a mockingbird has built a nest in a Jessamine vine at the corner of our yard. The vine crawls up a wild cherry tree, kept trimmed to keep the vine fairly low and thick-leaved. This spring we were disappointed . . . no nest in the Jessamine vine.

We began a search for the new location of the nest, for the birds were still in the yard and singing from high perches, especially the chimney. We found the nest in a dense sasanqua bush about twenty feet away from its old nesting site. There were four tawny-spotted, greenish-blue eggs in the nest. Later, all four eggs hatched.

The fledglings left the nest in mid-May. One of the adults, we assume the female, and two youngsters were observed bathing in the pool. The slender, but dowdy-looking, mother was cleaning her gray and white frock while the brownish-gray youngsters stood in the shallow water unsure of their new environment. We didn't see papa and the other two youngsters. Perhaps the "boys" were out learning other lessons.

The mockingbird, until recently, has been considered a southern bird and year-round resident of the area. To mention the mockingbird would bring memories of the moonlight and roses and these birds singing all night. They are synonymous with lovely brick-walled gardens and magnolias and scented flowers. Never would one think of a mockingbird in the snow-clad pines and hemlocks of New England or the towering spruces of Michigan or the red cedars of Iowa, bent low with snow and ice.

But no more can we think of the mocker as strictly a southern bird. He has jubilantly traveled the sky ways as far north as Maine and Illinois, Michigan and Iowa. The mocker has been considered a non-migrant, but now perhaps his travels north and west will move him to come South again each winter with the human snowbirds. By changing his range, he'll be considered a migrant within the United States.

Regardless of where he might hang out, the mocker is known as the best singer (not the most musical) of the avian clan. He loves to sing on moonlit nights. He usually repeats a phrase five times before he grabs another phrase from his pocket to repeat it five times, then another phrase, and so on. This goes on for days while he's courting and nest building. Although he is a good husband and helps with the cozy nest, he spends more time singing than working.

Fluttering from his chimney perch to a dead pine branch, to a swaying branch of a river birch, to a telephone line, and then bounding into the air again, leaving a trail of golden notes behind as he dips and turns in flight appearing to have everlasting energy, always in motion.

Even with all these wonderful attributes, sometimes a resident mocker is a bully. He takes over berried bushes in winter and chases all other birds away. He's a bully at feeding stations too, perching nearby all day so that he does not miss one bird that tries to feed.

By mid-August all is quiet on the mockingbird's high perches, his song not to be heard again until October when he comes out of hiding wearing a newly pressed gray and white suit. After two or three weeks of vigorous singing, he again ceases song until spring.

He sings a few notes in February, increases his medley in March. By April he once more is on the chimney tossing into the perfumed spring air his repetitive refrain. By May he will again be nesting in the thick-leaved sasanqua bush.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Insect Control? Look To Natural Predator

Have a need for insect control? Why not try a natural predator, himself a blood-thirsty insect. In different sections of the country he is known as prophet, mule-killer, soothsayer and devil's rear horse.

Measuring from two to five inches in length, this grayish-green fellow has two sets of slim grasshopper-like back legs and prizefighter-looking front legs. These strong, muscular-filled arms have wicked hooks underneath to hold its victim while it actually eats it alive.

The praying mantis is also a cannibal. He has no love for his own kind. If he's hungry, he'll eat his brother.

His color and shape resemble the plants on which he spend the day to escape notice.

Like a pair of binoculars, his black eyes protrude from a heart-shaped face. His body is slender, the wings short and broad.

The praying mantis is a pretender. As soon as dark begins to fall, he crawls from his hideout onto foliage or bark, a perfect camouflage for his twig-colored and twig-looking body. Kneeling in a pious position, he lifts his huge front paws as if in prayer, but really he's getting in position to attack unsuspecting prey. He remains in this pious position until an unfortunate insect ventures near. Then he snatches him, pinning down the victim with his vicious claws and eats it alive.

A birder once snapped a mantis at dusk devouring a ruby-throated hummingbird at a nectar feeder.

The female, larger than the male, has even stronger cannibalistic traits. She takes advantage of this and after mating will turn on her husband, kill him, or make a meal out of him while he is still alive. Her weakling mate, resigned to his fate, lifts not a hooked claw to save his life.

In the fall the mantis cycle begins anew when the female lays an oval mass of eggs on the stem of a plant and covers it with mucus that hardens in an eye-catching, creamy-tan case, assuring the next summer's supply of praying mantises.

This beguiling insect with ravenous appetite is considered beneficial, especially to gardeners. It is a glutton and feeds on nothing but insects (with the exception of a small bird or two) and can be called nature's garden vacuum cleaner.

A single mantis eggcase, hardly an inch in diameter, holds scores of hungry nymphs. Pushing out of the eggcase, they, like butterflies and moths, need only to hang upside down for a few minutes until their bodies and legs harden in the cool air.

Within minutes after hatching, these young cannibals are snatching and devouring destructive insects in your garden. Mantises are also fond of some beneficial insects such as honeybees and ladybugs, but they do away with harmful insects in greater numbers.

The easiest way to stock a garden with mantises is to buy eggcases (available at some nurseries) and tie them to bushes or low trees during late fall, winter or early spring. The nymphs stay secure in the snug eggcases throughout the winter months.

Then when the spring sun is warming in the sky and the air is fine and sweet with the fragrances of roses and the first insects are hatching and humming, the little nymphs crawl out of their cozy bedroom, hang themselves up to dry and charge!

Monday, June 9, 2008

How To Pick The Right Bird House

Rare Kinglet Visit Always Pleasant

The budding trees of May in the far north call the ruby-crowned kinglets to come home. The sun is climbing higher in the sky each day and it has that spring warmth that fattens buds and brings a glow to spring flowers.

After wintering in the sunny South, they hear the call and heed it. We have not seen one of these vivacious little jewels now for three weeks. We won't see them around again until they replace our hummingbirds in September when they come bouncing in to fill the void.

We know they are busy and happy for now they are in their breeding grounds. The male must win a mate, help build the dainty little nests, usually lined with rabbit fur and feathers, and all the while keep up his exuberant, almost tumultuous chorus in song. Into this cozy nest of moss, lichens and grasses, the female lays nine teeny, pale buffy eggs with tiny dots of henna-brown. With nine hungry mouths to feed, who has time for singing.

Discarding pansies and planting impatiens one day in mid-May several years ago, I was startled with a loud burst of tumultuous birdsong I had never heard before. I dropped my trowel and sprang to my feet, hoping I could find the author of such a gay melody.

To my surprise there he was, a small midget in feathers. How could such a loud melody come from such a small buffy throat? There, on a limb of a water oak, sat a tiny olive-gray bird, his crown patch glowing . . . a ruby-crowned kinglet!

"Why", I asked him, "are you still here?"

I feel the most fortunate of birders to have heard this boisterous song for I might never be in his far northern breeding range when he is in full, rich song.

Kinglets are wee, plump little birds clad in olive and buffy gray plumage. The bright red crown patch of the male is a positive field mark but it is often covered by the head feathers. Other good field marks are the white eye ring, making the small black eyes appear pop eyed, and the two white wing bars.

The ruby-crowned kinglet is a common winter visitor in the Central Savannah River Area. They move about through the naked trees and luxuriant growth of evergreen trees and shrubs in search for food. Not being noisy or flocking birds, though they are abundant in our area, one would scarcely notice.

During the winter they stay busy just hunting food. Then by early May a wee voice tells them the trees are budding in the northern states and they zoom away on a silvery, moonlit night.

Why was this perky little fellow still at my place in mid-May when he should be helping a mate trim their cozy home with green moss?

We'll never know but from his exuberant bursts of song in the water oak on that May day, wild wisdom sent him a message and courting, mating and nesting were on his mind. Why else would he explode with such melody?

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Birds Experience Housing Crisis Too

Unusual nesting sites of birds are always interesting, especially when the nesters use locations that aren't in the books.

Some years ago an article appeared in the Atlanta Constitution of an unusual mockingbird's nest. Adelaide and Laurance Sawyer of Ringgold, GA, put up a log bird house for bluebirds with a metal flange around the opening to exclude larger birds. An arbor supported the 10-foot pole. The arbor, the pole and the bluebird house were supported by trellises for growing tomatoes and climbing beans, come spring.

In the spring, before the bluebirds could nest, a yellow-shafted flicker comes bouncing in and tries to enlarge the cavity. Day after day he works at it. His constant drilling gains the sympathy of the Sawyers and they remove the flange thinking they are helping the flicker. That does it. He doesn't want anyone messing around with the construction of his house and never returns.

To their surprise a pair of mockingbirds become interested in the bluebird house. One day they see both birds go into the box. One goes in and stays. When the Sawyers check, they find one egg . . . a mocker's egg in a mocker's nest.

If another article was in the paper giving the outcome of the nesting, I missed it. I never knew if they completed incubation and the youngsters fledged.

On our bluebird trail we had a mockingbird build in a hanging basket of begonias on the porch of a family who had one of our bluebird boxes on their premises. Eggs were laid in the nest but they disappeared. There were no clues as to what happened to the eggs. The birds didn't attempt another nesting in the basket.

To our surprise and excitement, a robin started a nest in somewhat of a crotch on a slopping branch of a sweet gum tree outside our living room window. It was not saddled on the branch as usual, but about half of it hung somewhat like an oriole's nest from the unstable fork.

One day it looked as if it were complete. That afternoon a strong thunder shower came through the area and the nest was thrown to the ground. I examined the fallen nest. The same materials were used as in other robin's nests. The nest was not as large as usual, but the inside depth seemed to be about the same.

The next day the female starts another nest using some of the material from the nest nature had foreclosed on. She placed the nest on the same spot on the branch. In a few days it appeared to be near completion. It was not meant to be. A strong wind comes out of the west and brings destruction to the second nest.

Two days later the robin was busy rebuilding . . . same style, same spot, same materials.

Again, in a few days, the nest appears ready for use. A determined mother, wouldn't you say? A few mornings later we find this nest on the ground. At the time, no eggs were in the nest.

There had been no wind nor rain. We never knew what brought the third nest down. She used mud on it, as all robins do, and that makes a robin's nest heavy and not very suitable for swinging in the wind.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Take Part In Bird Banding At Chatfield

Whip-poor-will's Song Tugs At A Memory

Nostalgia sweeps over me when I hear the call of the whip-poor-will as he passes through the Central Savannah River Area in spring migration.

This wisp-of-the-night is a summer resident of the North Georgia mountains where I lived as a child. Consequently, his continuous calls were one of the first "bird voices" I could recognize. These denizens of the night came into the edge of our yard as the sun splotched glades of the surrounding woodlands were overtaken by the spooky twilight of dusk.

Although many people have heard the songs of this ghost of the night, few people have ever seen the author. These birds sleep all day on dead leaves and other debris on the forest floor, their mottled coloration protecting them from enemies.

I used to sit with my dad on the steps of a stone wall in the deepening dusk to listen to the whip's calling as he did almost every night throughout the summer. Suddenly, there the bird was on an almost bare oak branch where he began his incessant "whip-poor-will, whip-poor-will, whip-poor-will". Then he dropped to a sandy spot in the road where he continued his calling for a hundred times or more. Reluctantly, I had to go to bed most nights with the whip still calling.

This spectral bird belongs to the Goatsuck family. Believing these birds sucked milk from goats during the night, centuries ago Europeans gave them the ill-named moniker of goatsucker. These birds did and do fly around goats and cattle at twilight, but it is to catch insects bothering the animals rather than the whip's love of milk.

This fellow has an enormous mouth, bordered above by long, stiff bristles which act as a net in catching insects, their only diet.

Measuring around ten inches from his short, dark bill to the short, rounded tail, the whip's overall plumage mimics the color of dead leaves of the forest floor. He wears a narrow white necklace around his throat. In flight, white tail feathers flash out. The female appears all brown. The large, black pair of button eyes, typical of nocturnal birds and mammals, is the easiest field mark to attract attention.

No attempt at nest building is made. The two eggs, buff colored with gray or light lavender splotches, are laid on a litter of dead leaves where the flickering light of the woodland tends to give them protection. The incubation period is around twenty days. During incubation, the female sits with her eyes closed, the better to avoid detection.

The nestlings match the dead leaves on which they are hatched. Their down is soft and silky, shading in color from cinnamon on the back to pinkish cinnamon on the crown and abdomen.

The whip is a common summer resident of both north Georgia and the upstate of South Carolina. It is now thought to breed along the Edisto River in Aiken County and in the Lake Thurmond area. It has been heard calling in midsummer, a good indication that it is expanding its breeding range southward. It winters along the Gulf and Florida coasts. Some of the more daring will go on to the Islands for their winter respite.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Don't Confuse A Loggerhead With A Mocker

We haven't seen him in our yard for several years, but on a sunny warm May day, he arrived. He sits on a dead limb of a dogwood tree and surveys the comings and goings of the large insects and butterflies fluttering by. I make myself comfortable to watch for the catch, but it doesn't materialize. Evidently, beetle or butterfly fingers don't whet his appetite, or the warm sun has made him too lazy to make the effort for such a small prize.

Slightly smaller than a robin, the loggerhead shrike has a big rounded head, thick neck and an all black, hawk-like bill and hook-like claws.

Having the weak feet of song birds, the shrike kills its prey with his strong bill, shaking, twisting and choking it until it is dead. Small birds, shrews, small rodents, grasshoppers and other large insects are some of its favorite catches. Shrikes hunt only by day and have remarkable eyesight, comparable to that of hawks, eagles and falcons. They are the only truly predatory songbirds in that they consistently prey on vertebrate animals.

The shrike gets its nickname "butcher bird" from the habit of hanging its prey on thorny trees, barbs of wire fence, or wedging them into the crotches of limbs. The head of the victim is up, the body hanging suspended, much like a butcher hangs a leg of lamb or a side of beef from a hook in his shop.

These situations are used as pantries to store food for future use as well as a "dish" for his present meal. The thorny branch, his plate, holds the prey while he eats it. There are scientists who say shrikes don't return to eat the impaled food. There are others who say it does occasionally return for its stored food. I wouldn't know, but when I'm out on walks I see dried insects, a mouse or bird hanging on thorns, indicating the prey has been there for awhile.

Light gray covers the back and head of the shrike. A black mask covers the eyes. Black wings with a white patch, white throat and dirty white breast complete his attire. He blends well with his surroundings.

The only bird that could be confused with the shrike in our area is the mockingbird. Though both are black and white and gray birds, the shades and tones of the colors differ, the shrike's being much lighter. The shrike is a chunkier bird than the mocker and his head is larger with a thicker neck. The black, gray and white of the shrike are distinctly defined. They don't blend as they do in the mocker's plumage.

Breeding from Florida northward to southern Canada and westward to Louisiana, the loggerhead is a common resident of the Central Savannah River Area. He builds a bulky nest of twigs, leaves and grasses in a thorny bush or dense tree from eight to twenty feet above ground. Usually, a clutch of four to seven dull white to grayish or creamy white eggs is laid. They are thickly and evenly spotted and blotched with dull browns and light lavender.

The loggerhead is a poor songster. About the best he can do is a series of squeaky whistles, strangling gurgles and high-pitched pipings, though sometimes he might burst into harsh warble-like notes.

Common nicknames are French mockingbird, butcher bird and cotton bird, from the habit of using cotton in his nest.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Noisy Outcast Pretty But Annoying

In every family there's a black sheep, usually. The yellow-breasted chat is that dude in the warbler family.

When you think of a warbler, you think of a small songster dressed in olive-greens, yellows, grays, blues and black and whites. The chat fits into the family as far as colors are concerned, but there his qualifications end.

His song, if you can call it a song, unlike that of any other warbler, is loud and fractious. Not only is the song unusual but the manner of singing is different. He flies from one bush to another while getting his garrulous message across. All the other little warblers' songs are soft and pleasing.

He is a full two inches larger than most warblers. He has a long tail like a mocker, a bill that is larger, heavier and more curved than the smaller warblers and his wings are shorter and rounded.

He's a handsome guy. He wears this year's fashionable olive-green on his back with a yellow shirt. His colors glisten in the golden sunlight. The white strip over his eye and his size distinguish him from the small yellow-throated vireo.

He prefers brushy habitats for his hangouts, the better to hide, for he is more often heard than seen.

The eccentric, ludicrous, almost clownish behavior is one of the chat's most outstanding characteristics. He hides in dense thickets and from this secluded place he sends out "bizarre noises", whistling, chuckling, barking, mewing, scolding and swearing. He gurgles, laughs, chatters, squeaks and cackles.

But wait, when the females arrive from the tropics his language changes. He finds some elevated perch and there pours out what melody he can muster. Then, pitching himself into the air . . . straight up . . . with wings fluttering and legs dangling limply like a Raggedy Ann doll, he lets fall from his yellow throat a wild, rich, rapturous love song. While he's courting he leaves off name calling.

Measuring 1 and 1/2 inches from the stout, arched bill to the long, rounded tail, this largest of all warblers is the good ole boy of the bird world. He's here now, joking and cat-calling and generally interrupting the sweet songs of other birds.

The chat claims a characteristic of the mockingbird and that is singing all night on moonlit nights, but the chat adds dark nights also to deliver his repertoire.

One chat observer says the olive-clad bird on her premises usually starts singing at 10:30 in the evening and keeps up his "noise" all through the night. The next morning she serves breakfast, accompanied by his squeaks and squawks. She serves the noon meal. The shrieking goes on and on. Sometime in the late afternoon the songster stops, apparently to rest up for his next performance at 10:30 that night.

Becoming involved with keeping four hungry nestlings satisfied, he quietens down. He's so quiet you might think he's left his tangled haunts, but he's still skulking around.

By late August, however, he heads south and calm once again reigns in thickets and tangles across the countryside.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Small Effort Brings A Treat

Walking in the yard, I heard distinctly the feeding cries of young birds. Because the cries seemed to be near I searched every shrub and tree for a nest.

Several species of birds were in and about the yard but not being able to find a nest, the birds' cries haunted me.

The next day I sat down on the terrace with glasses and followed each bird that came into view. It was not long before I picked up a tufted titmouse with food in its beak. It alighted in a nearby pine tree and quickly disappeared without my seeing where it vanished. Again, I heard the feeding cries of nestlings.

I examined the tree and found no cavity. To my amazement a few seconds later the bird popped out of an old squirrel's nest. The rodent's nest was situated on a large branch approximately four inches in diameter and about two-thirds out on a limb from the trunk of the tree. It was placed among three small branches that grew out from the larger one. The opening of the squirrel's nest was directly in line with the large branch. Each time the bird came with dinner for the nestlings it alighted on the large branch near the opening, then tip-toeing into the hole, it went down into the cavity.

On leaving the nest, it first stuck its head out of the opening and looked around as if checking to see if all were safe. Then it came up out of the cavity and flew away.

The large-eyed, black-eyed, tufted titmouse is a permanent resident in the Central Savannah River Area. It has a gray pointed crest, which it can raise or lower at will, gray back, off-white breast and belly with rusty-red sides and short, rounded wings.

Usual nesting sites of the titmouse are old woodpecker holes or other cavities. Because the bill is short and stout without a chisel, it is unable to excavate its own cavity, unless the wood is very rotted, and much search for a deserted cavity or openings in posts, dead trees, or bird boxes.

A pair of titmice visit our yard each summer and raise a family in cavities of old trees or in bird boxes placed near the wooded lot.

Titmice are fairly early nesters and usually only one brood is raised in a season. By the time the young are on the wing and are finding their own beetles, caterpillars and wasps, having perfected their "peto, peto, peto" song, you will be unable to tell the young from the mother and father when they visit the sunflower feeders in your yard this fall.

After fledging, all the families of titmice in the neighborhood get together as one big party for the rest of the summer until they join mixed flocks of chickadees, gnatcatchers and white-throated sparrows that roam the woods during fall and winter.

But, if you feed them well, you might expect a lively troupe of titmice in your yard during the cold, gray days of winter.

What a treat for such small effort!

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Beware Of Summer Birdwatching Hazards

Summer birding calls for planning . . . planning for the hazards you might encounter on summer walks. Protecting yourself from the mass attacks of insects that you might confront and shielding yourself from the broiling hot rays of a brassy sun is of the utmost importance.

Your skin should be covered. Large hats that shade your face, ears, nose and neck are ideal. Sunscreen applied to all exposed skin is helpful.

Summer birding calls for loose-fitting, long-sleeved, light-colored clothing and, of course, long pants that can be tucked into boots, if possible. An insect repellent should be applied to arms, legs and sock tops. Don't wear any kind of "stinkum" . . . deodorant, perfume, cologne, hair spray or after shave lotion.

Walking down the levy, or a leisurely stroll around ponds, might be followed by a week of insufferable itching caused by bites and stings if you discount the warnings. As the weather grows warmer, insect pests grow larger and stronger and will be out looking for a meal of blood.

A few of the bad guys are mosquitoes, ticks, chiggers (also known as red bugs), yellow jackets, wasps and hornets. Stagnant ponds, oozy stream banks, wet and shady wood edges, swamp streams and low-lying fields and meadows will become humming mosquitoes' and other insects' maternity wards.

The tick season will be at its peak from April through October. Ticks are small creatures about one-fourth-inch long. They cling to grass, leaves or branches of bushes and trees until they can attach themselves to a puffing, out-of-breath, red-faced, sweating birder chasing a scissor-tailed flycatcher (not likely to be seen in this area) who is oblivious to the tick-infested region.

It's always well, after being in the great outdoors, to examine body and clothes when you get home or get back to the motel. Ticks might not be felt even when they are feeding on you.

Other insect habitats to avoid are mosquito infested swamps, chigger-clogged wood edges, grassy roadsides and fields and pastures full of wasp and yellow jacket nests buried in soft ground. Watch where you step.

Insects . . . those creatures that bite, buzz, sting, swarm and spoil almost all summer outdoor activities, dominate the land. Scientists have accounted for a mind-boggling 850,000 different species of insects and there may be as many as another million species that have not been cataloged.

Humans are a perfect chigger lunch. This tiny, almost invisible, six-legged mite, after attaching itself to your flesh, digs in with a vengeance, causing intense itching. Chiggers don't attach themselves immediately, so a hot soapy shower after a walk will probably get most of them before they bite.

Most birders know poison ivy, poison oak and poison sumac and the dangers they hold. But we do get carried away sometimes when bright feathers flash before us. We charge right into a bed of such hazards. It's worth it, though, if we find a rarity or a "lifer".

With proper preparation, your summer outings should never be ruined by creepy-crawly, blood-sucking, chemical-injecting, needle-poking, disease-carrying vermin.

Prepare wisely and let's go birding!

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Kids Get To Sit In Bird Nest And Play With Eggs

It's Time To Tuck Away Sweet Memories

Summer. June begins that most vivid of seasons . . . long sun-dappled, flower-splashed and fragrance-filled days.

She makes a gift to us of 15 hours of daylight, of colorful, early dewy dawns and brilliant sunsets, made more brilliant by billowing, graying thunder clouds.

Summer spreads its glory over the land in the exquisite black and orange of the oriole, it sings to the bubbling song of a wood thrush, it hovers on the iridescent wings of the ruby-throated hummingbird, it yodels with the raucous call of the great-crested flycatcher, and sighs with the purring, mournful song of the wood pewee.

Now we sit, or amble along, and notice the extravagant red of a tanager, the shifting blues of the indigo bunting, the sheen of the blue-gray on the back of a gnatcatcher, or the bright yellow-orange of a prothonotary warbler.

Trees are fully leafed out, come this first month of summer. Roadsides are awash with sunflowers, coneflowers, taodflax, may-apples, morning glories, trumpet honeysuckle, wild geraniums and ragged robins.

Fields and meadows are a lush green. Little streams giggle as they flow over smooth, silvery rocks that have touched the toes of bathing feathered wood nymphs.

The first fireflies appear in June, spangling the warm nights with hundreds of twinkling lights. Swooping, gliding, diving, night-hawks are high overhead, seining the air for gnats, mosquitoes and moths. June is alive with sound and action.

By mid-month our yards will be awash with fledglings. By now, young Carolina wrens hidden in the sasanqua hedge, cheep like spoiled brats begging for Big Macs. Ratty looking fledgling cardinals sit on the fence waiting to be fed, mouths agape and begging. Already immature, spotted-breasted robins over our lawns, show the arrogance of the parents.

Song has diminished somewhat, and for good reason. With the parents making hundreds of food-totin' trips a day to feed the squawking young, little time is left for making music.

Most of the young yokels will rest again this season, but the preponderance of summer visitors will begin to prepare for fall migration. How quickly the year turns!

June with its green lushness and pretty, dewy dawns and colorful blossoms scattered over the countryside, is a month of sweet memories to be tucked away in the mind.

Come winter, recalling these will sustain you through all the cold, wet, rainy, snowy days of the frigid season and you know June will be again.

Good ol' summertime!

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Be On The Lookout For The Snake-Bird

Where the banks of our local ponds, streams and marshes are overgrown with rank vegetation and stately pines and cypress trees are draped with long strands of Spanish moss, look for these curious birds.

Birds are known locally in different parts of the country by names based on their characteristics. Picturesque names have been hung around the neck of this strange looking bird. Depending on what section of the country you are visiting, you might hear the anhinga called the American darter, black darter, snake-bird or water turkey . . . the nickname it is known by in our area.

If it's a warm, sunny early morning you'll likely find one sitting quietly on a branch or a post with wings fully opened, drying them, as it exposes its wet feathers pleasantly to the warmth of the sun. It sees you approach but seems slow to leave its perch. As you come closer, it will slide into the pond, submerge its body and swim away under water with only its snake-like head and neck showing above the rippling greenish-colored water.

Long-necked, long-tailed and short legged, the anhinga measures around three feet from bill to the end of its light-banded tail. Its yellowish webbed feet have toes and sharp nails to use to scramble about among shrubs and trees where a pair builds their loose and bulky nest, some five to fifteen feet above the water. The nest contains lots of dead leaves, mixed with sticks. Its lining is green willow leaves.

The male claims the nest and advertises for a mate by wing waving and bowing before one or more females. Then the female chooses a mate and his nest site from one of the exhibiting males. When both are accepted by one another, she builds the nest with twigs and other plant matter brought to her by the male.

Though it breeds somewhat sparingly in the Central Savannah River Area, it spends the winters to the south along the Carolina and Georgia coasts and in Florida. Seldom do we see one in this region during deep winter.

Though slim, trim and prim in appearance when perched on a high dead branch or post, the water turkey is somewhat awkward when perched in a tree among the branches. It is the epitome of gracefulness in the air. It rises from its perch, mounting high in the air and soaring in circles gradually upwards until almost out of sight. When in flight it holds its long neck, wings and tail in a cross shape. This is a good identification mark.

Water turkeys have no song but make shrill rattlings and clicking calls. The males are blackish with silvery patches on the front part of their wings, while the females and young are more brownish. The female is the same size as the male but can be distinguished from him by her conspicuous fawn colored neck and breast. Pink eyes surrounded by bare green skin put the finishing touches on a completely weird appearance.

In the water, the anhinga swims gracefully and swiftly on the surface or sneaks away with its body submerged and only its snake-like head and neck showing in sinuous curves.

In the deep solitude of swamps lives a bird that soars like a hawk, perches like a cormorant, and swims like a snake. When his body is underwater with only his small head and long slender, curved neck showing, he does indeed, look like a snake slicing through the water with head back, poised to strike!

Friday, May 23, 2008

Birds Loose Their Mates Also

Birds and people have similar problems such as losing their mates through death or desertion. When this occurs it places a demanding burden on the surviving mate, whether bird or human.

A fellow bluebird enthusiast, Ann Sawyer, called to report that she found the nestlings of one of her bluebird families dead in the box when she monitored it.

She has seen neither parent since finding the young dead. The nestlings were about a week old.

Her question.

What could have caused the death of the baby birds? It could be they were fed by the parents worms and insects that had eaten a diet of pesticide sprayed foliage. This might be confirmed if the parents return to the box after it is cleaned out and start another family.

If the parents have truly disappeared, most likely they were killed because bluebirds don't commonly desert their nestlings. If one is killed, or flies away from its responsibilities, the other takes over the job of rearing the young until they are able to care for themselves.

Generally, female bluebirds start another nest almost immediately after the young leave the nest. The male then takes charge of the fledglings, feeding them and guiding them in selecting their own food, protecting them until they fly well. The parent birds of the dead brood might have already moved away from the disaster and started a new nest.

It is well to remove the nest as soon as the young fledge. On our bluebird trail, we observed that if it was not removed, often the pair would build a nest on top of the old one bringing it almost to the level of the opening. We found starlings, house sparrows, 'possums, raccoons or other predators could reach their dirty paws or claws into the nest and pull out the eggs or young and destroy them. This happened several times on our trail.

There was a couple who discovered one of their bluebird boxes on the ground and all but one egg gone. The husband secured the box back to the pole. A new nest was built and five eggs laid. The culprit returned and stole the second clutch of eggs without damaging the nest. They decided they needed a metal-mounted box.

Erecting a new box about six feet from the old nest and pole, they removed the nest from that box and put it in the new one. The bluebirds sat on the wire overhead and watched and cheered and hurrahed.

Three days after changing boxes and putting the nest in the new box there were two eggs in the nest. In time, a clutch of five eggs was laid.

These experiences point out how little bluebirds are disturbed by human contact. On our trail, when we found the female on the nest we quickly closed the box. We didn't try to count the eggs. We observed that if the hatching date was near, the mother would not leave but would sit tightly on the eggs. If incubation had just begun, she flew away as we touched the box.

The late T. E. Musselman pointed out that during 40 years of working with thousands of bluebird broods, he had never seen a bluebird desert a nest because of monitoring. Even some, he wrote, didn't leave the nest while he checked the eggs beneath her.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Ghostly Chills In The Night Air

A purple and aqua afterglow bars the western sky. As the last gleam of sunset fades, there comes a sudden radiance in the east as the full moon vaults above the wooded hills.

Abruptly, from the wooded lot comes the "whoo, hoo, hoo, hoo" of the great horned owl. Visiting our neighborhood frequently is the barred owl whose screeches and screams send chills up your spine. The great horned owl's voice, a ghostly and weird sound, is much softer than the barred's shrieks.

We stand in the deepening dusk and search for the intruder whose voice comes across the moonlit lot. A few moments later a shadow drifts across the yard and vanishes in the branches of a tall, thickly-leafed sweet gum tree on the front lawn. The flight of the horned owl is powerful, swift, graceful and quiet. This predator's habitat is heavily wooded regions where it nests and finds ample food supply in the deep dark woods. It seldom leaves such security. This is only the third time it has visited us in the 40 years we have lived in this lightly wooded neighborhood.

The great horned usually does not nest in hollows but almost always usurps the nests of red-tailed hawks, eagles, ospreys or crows. They line these stolen stick nests with downy feathers of the owl. These owls are early breeders, the female laying 2 - 4, two being more common, rounded white eggs in February or early March. Incubation is 26 - 30 days with both parents participating. The young leave the nest when they are four or five weeks old. Only one brood a year is undertaken.

These owls are hostile and will not hesitate to attack humans if the owls think their nests or young are in danger. There have been reports that the owl's ferocious attacks draw blood.

Measuring 24 inches with a 60-inch wingspan, the great horned is the largest of the common owls in the Central Savannah River Area. It is some three or four inches larger than the barred, darker in color and brown rather than gray-browned as the barred. Perched, the horned's ear tufts are conspicuous, but in flight the tufts are not usually seen. The large head and short neck will tell you you are seeing the horned owl. It has a white throat patch and large yellow eyes.

Other names for this owl are "Tiger of the air", "Big hoot owl" and "Cat owl".

Though horned owls migrate from the frozen north when food becomes scarce, they are year-round residents of the CSRA.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Beauty And Tragedy Go Hand In Hand

In nature beauty and tragedy often go hand in hand. Some avian creatures are spectacularly lovely in their own right. Others acquire a magnificent beauty through albinism. Seeing a partially albino robin on the lawn set me to reminiscencing about other albinos I have seen.

The sad history of the great egret tells a tale of what is meant by exquisite beauty. This beautiful bird almost became extinct because of being killed for its lovely feathers, used by milliners to decorate hats. Other pretty feathered birds have faced s similar fate.

Albinism in wild creatures gives them a radiant but hazardous beauty. Science attributes this condition to a lack of pigmentation that causes a white color of the skin and of the hair. The eyes of a pure albino appear pink.

Usually albinism in wild creatures means high exposure, for they are more noticeable. Because of their beauty they are more apt to be destroyed by predators. Albinistic creatures have a reputation of being extraordinarily shy. Wild wisdom tells these birds they are different from other feathered creatures and they become wary.

In most cases nature gives to animals and birds of the wild protective coloring. To survive, albinos are cautious, more alert and usually stay close to deep cover. At least the mockingbird and brown thrasher that live in our neighborhood were extremely careful. Never once did I hear either of them sing. They were seen more often in the dusky hours of evening than at any other time of day.

The brown thrasher was not a pure albino. Its wings and tail were washed in light tan and its eyes were bronzy, not pink. Otherwise it was pure white. I never saw it out of cover, it was so unusually wary. It stayed in the neighborhood all that summer, disappearing during the winter.

The next nesting season a friend called to say a "white brown thrasher" with a natural plumaged mate was nesting in his yard. Though we had not known the sex before, we now assumed she was the same bird seen in our yard. She nested on his premises for two summers, then disappeared. As far as we could determine there were no albinistic young in the broods from the two-year nestings.

The white mockingbird was first observed eating lushish mahonia holly berries in our yard. He was not as shy as the thrasher, shyness not being a characteristic of the mocker, and was seen by several of our neighbors. He, or she, stayed around for four years. If the bird nested, the nest was never found.

Several years ago a brood of albinistic bluebirds were hatched at Silver Bluff Sanctuary. Both parents had normal plumage.

Back during the big snow of "73 there was a partial albino cardinal at a fellow birder's home. The beauty of it still lingers in my mind. Notes made at the time I observed the bird will give you a good idea of its beauty.

"The top feathers of its crest are pink, the lower feathers white. The head is white, black eyes, a rosy-pink bill. The throat is white as is the breast and belly. Its back is white with pink secondary and red primary feathers, olive shoulders. Out tail feathers are a dark red-olive. The inner tail feathers are pink. This bird is much more beautiful than a true albino."

Albinism in birds is by no means as rare as many suppose, but being shy because of their white color, albinos tend to shield themselves in deep cover for their own safety making it hard for us to know they are about.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

This Wren Arrived With Style

The Carolina wren, South Carolina's state bird, has built a mansion somewhat on the order of Bill Gate's newest nest in a large hanging basket of Boston ferns on the edge of the patio.

The little architect had already bulldozed the site for the foundation when I first noticed the building project. He must have completed the job in one morning for the roots, stems, leaves and branched below the basket were a mess that could not have been overlooked for long.

I decided to let him have the basket. Ferns can be replaced. The joy and excitement of watching a sassy little mite build his love nest doesn't come so easily.

It is compared to Bill Gates' nest because it is the largest Carolina wren's nest I have ever observed. Country wrens, so say scientists, usually build larger nests than do those who hang around suburban homes. Could it be that the country cousin has come to town?

Half the fern was dumped out and a shallow depression was made in the dirt. I watched both male and female bring pine straw, small weed and flower stems, tissue paper, newspaper, small roots, tiny stems and dead leaves to be used in building the nest. It was lined with hair and several small feathers. When finished it was roofed over, mainly with pine straw, with the side opening in the nest facing the patio.

This plump and stumpy bird measures five and a half inches from its slender curved bill to the end of its crocked tail. Its rusty cap sets off the white stripe over his inquisitive brown eyes. The rich tones and earthy browns of his topcoat, the buffy-white of his underparts, with flanks washed in cinnamon-pink, blend with its natural habitats.

Its russet wings and tail are finely barred with black. The wren has strong legs, big feet and long claws, equipping it to do its thing . . . destroying insects.

Watching the activity of these energetic birds brought to mind how citizens of South Carolina had to fight to get the Carolina wren legally declared the official bird of South Carolina.

In 1930, the Carolina wren and the mourning dove were voted on by school children, civic club members and the public for state bird. The Carolina wren won by a substantial margin and was declared the state bird by popular vote. The legislature was asked by the State Garden Club to make it official. That body, however, postponed the issue for nine years until some of its members decided the mockingbird would be a more likely representative of the state.

In 1939, the mockingbird was designated the official bird of the state by the legislature. Now the General Assembly thought naming the State Bird was a "done deal."

But wait! Feathers flew. A fight ensued between the legislature and garden club members, school children, Audubon Societies and the public at large. Another campaign was waged by the people of the state.

Finally, the pressure was so great the General Assembly backed down. They decided this high honor should rightfully go to the Carolina wren.

The mockingbird was booted down the capitol steps in Columbia and the 1939 act designating the mockingbird as the state bird was repealed.

In 1948, the Carolina wren was officially declared South Carolina's State Bird. The fight that had raged for 18 years was over!

The mockingbird apparently doesn't hold grudges, for he still sings as beautifully in South Carolina as he does in Florida, Tennessee, Mississippi, Arkansas and Texas; the five other states that have chosen him as their State Bird.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Birds See Things Differently

This Bird Creates Sensational Impressions

Waxwings! They do get your attention.

The cedar waxwing is claimed by many to be the best dressed bird in America. It is also claimed to be the best mannered in that you never see them squabbling with one another as other birds do. They are quiet birds. You never know they are around until you see them, regardless of the size of the flock.

The waxwing is larger than a sparrow and smaller than a robin. A small black mask stands out underneath a pointed soft brown crest. Soft, silky, pinkish wood-brown plumage covers his 7 - 8 inch back. His throat is a light brown, his chin black velvet. The belly is washed in the softest yellow. The slate tail has a narrow yellow band across the end and on the slate-gray wings are small red spots like sealing wax. Though considered migratory, the waxwing might better be called a vagabond . . . random wanderers, if you will. They have a tendency to drift southward in the fall and north in the spring. Late winter and early spring are the best times to see these hobos in the Central Savannah River Area. They are now roving about neighborhoods in scattered flocks, large and small.

Waxwings do create a sensational first impression. Carolyn Tyler of the Aiken Museum called March 26 to report a flock of some 50 - 100 of these gorgeous birds eating berries from the ancient trees on the museum grounds. She commented that they had been seeing birds fly past the windows all day and finally investigated. It is exciting to see a tree decorated with dozens and dozens of these handsome birds.

Waxwings are a sociable bunch and travel in huge flocks. They feed on berries of cedar and juniper, dogwood and woodbine berries, elder and haw and other small fruits. On March 28 they ravaged our big fatsia plant that stands beside the bird pool of all its plump white berries. For the first time I observed waxwings feeding chickadee-like, clinging up-side-down on a branch of the fatsia while they devoured the juicy berries hanging under a leaf.

Cedarbirds, as they are sometimes called, will sit for hours nearly motionless in a tree digesting a recent feast. One curious birder found that fruit given to young cedar waxwings passed through the digestive system in 16 minutes.

The waxwing calls into competition the goldfinch as to who is the latest nester. In late June, July and August these wanders give up the flocking habit, choose mates and begin nesting. The large nest is loosely constructed of grass, shreds of bark, twine, fine roots, catkins, moss or rags. Into this cozy nest the female lays 4 - 6 gray-blue eggs marked with blotches of black and brown. Because of late nestings, some young don't leave the nest until deep into September, just weeks before they begin their nomad travels.

These slim, sleek, beautiful birds will be around for a few weeks. Look for them.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Birds & Planes

A Summer Of Adventure

The joys of bird watching.

Have you ever watched a towhee luxuriating in a dust bath? Have you seen a male summer tanager splashing in a pool and then watched him preen and align his feathers after bathing? Have you noticed the female tanager comes timidly to the pool for her refreshing bath after her mate has completed his priming?

Have you ever observed a brilliant metallic hummingbird fly through the gentle waterfall smoothly sliding into the pool? Have you seen one of those spastic jewels "sit" on a flat rock beside the waterfall?

Have you ever witnessed a brilliant blue male Eastern bluebird, with his less beautiful wife, teaching five spotted=breasted young to bathe in the sparkling water?

In early spring have you watched the flicker's courtship dance as the two birds, facing each other, do a two-step down a lichened limb of a water oak, calling "wicka, wicka, wicka" as they swing back and forth with a pendulum motion? Have you seen an Eastern kingbird chase a crow who he thinks might have an eye on the four eggs in the bulky nest of cotton and sticks in the tall pine of a wooded lot?

Have you watched a feisty blue jay bouncing up and down on a limb as if on springs and shouting his raucous cry of "jay, jay, jay"? This fellow is a tease and a scoundrel. Have you heard him give a call like a red-shouldered hawk, scaring all the small birds away from the feeder? He then, with a grin on his face, plops himself down on the feeder and begins to gobble up the goodies.

Have you seen a red start flitting about the shrubbery around the pool, then dropping into the wet stuff, opening and closing his orange-red tail all the time he's playing on the rocks in the shallow water?

Have you heard the musical, bell-like song of the wood thrush in the purple twilight, or the mimicking song of the ebullient mockingbird? The ecstasy of singing hurtles him like a rocket from his chimney perch as he sails across the yard to a swinging elaeagnus branch.

Have you watched our State Bird gather nesting material? Do you know where the Carolina wren's roofed, side-opening nest is?

Are thrashers nesting in your yard? Have you searched for a hummer's nest? It possibly could be in a dogwood or white oak tree on a sloping branch. Has the red-eyed vireo hung his nest from a swaying branch of a sweet gum tree? Have you noticed a robin's mud and rootlet nest, or the wood thrush's nest, also made of mud and rootlets?

Are you aware that a downy woodpecker has a cavity full of young who sound like insects when calling for food? Have you noticed that the delightful little chickadee calls your bluebird box home? Have you discovered the nest of the blue-gray coated mourning dove with pink accents on his frock? Did you know that the nest is so fragiley built that the two white eggs can be seen from underneath the nest?

To have all this action in your yard you must have the habitat different species enjoy . . . tall deciduous trees and evergreens, an understory of trees such as dogwood, small maples, crape myrtles, crab apples and hollies.

Water is a must. Have dripping water if at all possible. The easiest and most inexpensive way to get dripping water is to throw a hose over a tree limb and let it drip into a birdbath, a container or a small pool.

Enjoy your birding this summer!

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

New Suburban Dwellers

Owls get the jump on song birds as far as courting, nesting and feeding young are concerned. While most owls are cavity nesters, great horned owls have been photographed in February sitting on their open nests with their heads and backs sprinkled with snow.

Many owls nest as early as January and February. This early nesting is thought to concern food for the nestlings. By nesting early and with an incubation period of around 28 days and a fledgling period of about five weeks, this gives the small birds and animals that nest later just enough time for their young to be out of the nest and den to become food for the young owls.

Some of the delicacies fed to the young owls are mice, rats, frogs, lizards, small snakes, squirrels, young rabbits and small birds.

My favorite is the barred owl. In my early years it was the barn owl because the barn owl and I were friends in my childhood.

It was a windless winter night, soft and lightly scented, when the first piercing call of the barred owl in the predawn darkness snaps us awake. A barred owl and his "to-be" visit our neighborhood in a courting mood, for the air is filled with loud, spine-chilling calls by both sexes. Their voices are different, one being higher pitched than the other. We listen to the weird love calls and spectral outbursts for some 40 minutes.

From the dark shadows of the night they hoot again and again, answering each other with an almost musical rhythm, rock singers of the owl world. Their vocal displays are most awesome and exciting, deafening, booming and boisterous. The alternating hooting of a pair of these owls will keep one awake as long as they remain in the neighborhood.

They quiet down for a moment. Then eerie yells commence . . . loud, wild and uncanny. Then as if in a playful mood, maniacal laughter; interspersed with mere chuckles, softens their harsher calls.

The barred owl is a noisy bird at all seasons except when there are babies in the nest hole . . . then it is more quiet. Young remain in the nest for about four or five weeks. At this age, young are able to come out of the nest and move about among the branches, but are yet unable to fly. They are fed by their parents for several weeks after they are climbing about on branches around the cavity.

Known as a forest-loving bird, living in deep, dark woods, heavily wooded swamps and river banks, or thick growths of tall, dense pines, the barred owl spends most of the day sleeping and resting up for the night's ventures. The big round-headed, gray-brown owl is barred crosswise on the breast and streaked lengthwise on the belly. His large brown eyes are surrounded by big gray disks. His back is spotted with white. The sexes dress alike.

In North Augusta, SC, we know of a barred owl's nest deep in the hollow of a snag where people mill around under the tree all day. Sometimes he will peek out at you with one eye. Less than a century ago the barred owl was known as a bird of the deep solitudes. Along river and lake shores where there was a large, dense growth of trees and thick vines, there you found the barred owl.

The 20th century's population explosion, along with the paving of America's forests, wood lots, river banks and swamps, has brought this big owl into the suburbs where we can enjoy him now.

Monday, May 12, 2008

When Squirrels Go From Cute To Pest

The most often asked question of me today is not "What bird is that?" but "What can I do about squirrels?"

The squirrel, of course, is a rodent, a cousin of rats , mice, moles, muskrats, beavers and all gnawing creatures with sharp chisel-like teeth.

Most bird watchers who keep feeders filled with seed for the birds are exasperated by squirrels. Nuts and acorns, the fruit of forests and woods, have been for eons the basic diet of squirrels. But bird watchers have changed that. Now I think we can safely say it is sunflower seeds, at least for the city-bred furry creatures.

Squirrels will eat buds, fruit, berries, insects and even young birds. They attack the young bird in the head region, cracking open the skull as if it were a nut.

We know of its fondness for buds. Early this spring we transplanted a red maple. As the buds appeared the squirrels ate them, stripping the bark and limbs off a 2-foot section of the trunk. They almost girdled the tree. Of course, with the cambium destroyed, the tree would die.

Being prolific breeders, squirrels observe two breeding seasons, spring and summer. They are active throughout the winter. Squirrels used to rely on stored food to get through the cold months. Today they rely on bird feeders, that is, again, the city fellows do.

But now, how to squelch squirrels? We learned from an Aiken friend of a product called Squirrel Away that is guaranteed to do the job. All you do is mix the product with bird seed and the furry creatures will shake their fuzzy tails at you for ruining their banquet. Squirrels hate the taste. Birds love it. We have used it and it does work. Follow the directions carefully. Here's a link to the company's website: .

Nurseries and hardware stores sell other products claimed to be squirrel proof. Nature magazines have many products that are advertised as squirrel proof. Scan the ads in magazines and then go have a look at bird feeders and other products in stores and make your choice. But don't raise your expectations too high . . . I haven't seen a product yet that is 100% squirrel proof.

The following suggestion was gleaned from Birds and Bloom: A creative young fellow drills a small hole in the bottom of plastic soda bottles. He then strings them together on a wire hung between two trees. With six bottles on either side of a feeder hung on the middle of the wire, he says when the squirrels try to walk the wire, the bottles roll and throw them off.

Squirrels . . . are they demons or darlings? When you have only one or two on your lawn they're darlings. When you have a band of five or more eating all your seed, they're . . . well you say it!

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Air Mail?

Lively Sprite On The Scene

The air is vibrant with nuptial song. A male orchard oriole is singing from a tall willow. His mate brings pieces of long, green grass and entwines them into the basket nest hanging at the end of a water oak's sweeping branch.

From a nearby cottonwood, a male summer tanager interrupts his song every few seconds to give his harsh distress note, "quick, pick-it-up." (Say it fast and deep to get the tempo of the note.)

From deep within the thorny thicket, a gray catbird is singing his song. A yellow-breasted chat is chuckling from the brier patch. "Witchity, whichity, witchity." A secreted yellow-throat lets us know he is about but he's not showing himself.

Through all this tuning up and singing, I hear a tiny, high pitched note, like the plucking of an elf's guitar. I listen. "Tsing, tsin--g," it calls. Searching through the greening leaves, I see the owner. Agile, petite, gray-blue and white, with flashing long, black, white-edged tail, the blue-gray gnatcatcher is greedily downing its breakfast of insects. Its beady eyes dance from behind a tiny white ring of feathers, accented by its black forehead and black eye-stripe. It wears an immaculate white shirt. Its slender tail is held cocked like that of a wren.

This little sprite is more abundant in the winter here in the Central Savannah River Area when the northern nesters come down to enjoy southern hospitality. Some migrants even hop the Gulf to Guatemala and the Islands for the colder months.

Measuring only four and a half inches from his thin bill to the end of his twitching tail, it breeds over a large part of the United States.

Its nest resembles that of a hummingbird's, though it's some three or four times larger. Four or five tiny bluish-white eggs are laid. They are loosely sprinkled with reddish-brown dots. In the northern part of their range, these petite birds rear but a single brood in a season but in the deep South two broods are normal.

When a novice birdwatcher first sees this small, tail-flicking bird, he will immediately say it looks like a "miniature mockingbird," and he is right. The similarity of the two birds (except for their size) is indeed striking. Both birds have slender bodies, both are gray, though not the same shade, both have long tails, and many of their habits and expressions are alike.

Gnatcatchers are common birds in wooded areas of cities, yet they are not too well known. Perhaps it is because they are "tree birds," small and quick moving. Yet they can be readily distinguished from other small birds . . . chickadees, kinglets and small warblers . . . by the length of their tails.

One of the favorite haunts of these small, pretty and lively birds is residential areas with wooded streets. If you want to know these petite and active birds, grab your binoculars, go outside and search the treetops for them now while they are busy with family duties.