Monday, March 31, 2008

The Redstart . . . Coming or Going?

When I first see the little tyke he is standing on a rock in the middle of one of the small pools. He timidly puts one foot into the wet stuff, then slips off the rock into the shallow water and begins splashing. After his bath, he jumps onto the rocks around the pool and shakes his feathers dry. Then he flies to a small shrub. From there he darts out into the air and grabs a small insect, flycatcher fashion. Probably a gnat, for swarms are already out.

Leaving the pool, the dazzling little redstart plays among the shrubbery, picking off early hatched insects. From the shrubbery he flies to a slightly leaf-budding sweet gum tree. Sliding along the sun-splashed limbs, opening and closing his orange fan-shaped tail, the tiny bird dances for his breakfast.

Is he here this morning because he remembers his stop at the pool last fall, found it pleasing and refreshing, and now has it on his itinerary for his northward journey this spring?

Dashing out into the air to grab insects, he is likened to the flycatchers, but here his method of securing insects ceases. He is perpetually in motion, seizing gnats and other gossamer-winged goodies in the air. Flycatchers are more sedentary. They sit on a tree branch or fence and wait patiently for their dinner to fly past. Then they dash out and seize it.

The redstart is one of the commonest of the warblers. It is more abundant in South Carolina in the fall than at any other time of the year.

This vivacious little warbler, flashing orange-red tail and wings, gives us a pleasant surprise late in March when he drops into the pool outside our kitchen window.

Most redstarts spend their winter in the West Indies and Central or South America, some 2,000 miles or more from our area. This is an early date for this little guy to be this far north. Because of his earliness, our place is probably just a pit stop for him and in a few days he will be far up the coast, if he has his eye on New England or Quebec. He is probably on his way back to where he was born.

With the exception of the white lower breast and belly, this tiny 5 1/2 inch warbler is dressed all over in black with bright red-orange accents on wing and tail. It has a habit of drooping its wings, fanning out its tail and jumping into the air after insects. It rarely sits still.

The color pattern is the same for the female, though she is grayish olive-green and pale yellow, where the male is flame color and black. Young resemble the female but young males usually have black on the breast and a light salmon wash on the sides of the breast.

Is he a migrant, or has he spent the winter hidden in thick foliage in swamps and along stream banks? If a migrant, he is an extremely early one that hazarded an early arrival, or he has been well-hidden from bird watchers this past winter.

Some Baltimore orioles opt to spend winters in southern swamps and river bottoms rather than seek refuge in tropical forests. Our little visitor may have chosen to do the same.

We didn't hear his "tsee, tsee, tsee-o" song which might mean he hasn't reached his destination yet. Consequently, he'll continue his journey and wait for the females to arrive before he breaks into sweet song.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Sights & Sounds of a Mountain Childhood

A long time ago I lived in a small village in the North Georgia mountains. In its summers, I enjoyed the simplicity of living and never knew boredom. Those long, sun-filled, mountain- breezed days would last forever, or so it seemed.

There were no radios, televisions or telephones. Communication in the village, over the hills and to distant places came about through mail, foot, automobile, newspapers, books and magazines.

Today's youth would complain, "There's nothing to do. Nothing ever happens here. I'm bored."

But big events did happen in those serene hills. Birds! In April, the big experience was the return of the birds. The coming-home-song of the wood thrush would jolt me out of bed. Quickly dressing, I would rush out into the nippy dawn to find the speckled-throated songster.

And down in the greening orchard, the clear sweet song of the bright indigo bunting bubbled out over the countryside. This small bird began singing as the first sunbeams wrapped the highest hills in light and continued all day long, literally.

For as long as I can remember, phoebes nested on a window frame of my parent's bedroom. We welcomed them home when first we heard the male call in an irritable voice, "phoebe, phoebee," as if he wanted his mate to hurry up and get busy with house building.

Then there's the summer tanager I put to bed each summer night. A big white oak stood below the wall of the front yard and near the road. As darkness crept over the land, I sat under the tree and listened for the tanager's bedtime chatter. "Quick, pick-it-up," he taunted a half dozen times. He seemed to be telling the family to clean up the clutter before hitting the hay. He sputters and spits a few times and then everything is quiet. He goes through this "to-bed" procedure every night, sleeping on the same grizzled mattress under the same green blanket. I wait until he's quiet, then I go into the house. Deepening dusk draws the shutters for the night for both the bird and me.

Our house had a tremendous peaked roof made of weathered shingles. Up from the ground and over the tin-roofed porch, and up the peaked two-story roof, between the two chimneys at either end of the house, ran a lightening rod. It dropped from the peak down the back roof and into the ground at the well porch.

We used to play on the lightening rod. Scrambling up the rod and holding tight, we reached the roof peak. Straddling the peak and grasping the rod, we scampered across the roof to the far chimney. Here, we were in the treetops with the chickadees and titmice and blue jays. And we could look down on the mimosa tree with sometimes a dozen nectar-feeding, ruby-throated hummingbirds. From this exalted position, the horizon expanded over countless mountains and we could see Amicoloa Falls dashing down its rocky slide into a jagged mountain stream some sixteen miles away.

Spanking after spanking we received when we were caught on the roof, but the spankings never deterred us from experiencing this thrill again and again when we could slip to the roof without our mother knowing it.

There's something about the returning birds that sends my senses reeling. The bird chorus that comes with the mountain dawn awakened me to a medley of songs and calls and inspired me to rise with the birds and enjoy the freshness of the morning.

My childhood in the mountains taught me much and has made my life tremendously richer. I feel sorry for today's youngsters who have their sense of wonder of the great outdoors dulled by having only computers and TVs to tell them of the big events of summer days exploding all around them.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Light Leads To Singing

Spring mornings belong to the birds. The sounds of a dew-studded morning is bird song at its best.

Light! This is what moves birds to song. The northward moving sun brings more light each day and birds are the first to respond.

Even as the sun teased us these past chilly spring days, birds felt its warm touch, and that touch was overpowering. They began to sing way back in cold February. Now bird song in our area is climaxing, but it will continue until late May and early June. It is then that most summer visitors drop courting antics and close their nurseries, causing song to decrease noticeably.

Nearly all of our permanent residents nest a second or third time. From these nestings we have the mating songs and nursery lullabies until late July and August when both residents and visitors go into molt and song turns into call notes and angry shrieks.

Arising early, shortly after six o'clock, we find a pair of Carolina wrens, who have a nest in a basket of ferns on our porch, already busy feeding the six gaping yellow-rimmed mouths in the cradle. The male stops in a near by river birch between every trip to the nest and belts out a loud, "Shree, shree, shree." His industrious mate works consistently, probably cheered on by his go-go yell.

Where the wood lot meets the wall, there's a robin's nest saddled on a sweet gum branch. Here again the mother is busy with breakfast for four babies while dad adds his melody to the morning chorus. His concert was going before we arose, and he's been at it for an hour now.

Choosing a yaupon holly for their twig and leaf nest, a pair of brown thrashers thrash the debris under the hedge. While he and she dress alike, he soon leaves the thrashing to his new wife and flies to a dead branch of a tall pine where his throaty melody fills the scented air. She leaves the ground where she's feeding and flies to the nest. We watch as she settles down. After sitting, quickly she stands up in the nest again, turns around, shakes her wings, then quickly sits again. There were two eggs in the nest yesterday. We expect three when she leaves this morning.

A southern morning would be drab indeed without the clear whistle of the cardinal as he calls, "What-cheer, what-cheer, what-cheer." He's giving a message to his less brightly colored mate who is busy checking out the cherry laurel hedge. Now, while she hides in the foliage, she sings softly and sweetly to her mate. He stops and listens. When she finishes, he begins a loud and long solo.

Two doves on pink feet swish and sway down the driveway, swinging their little hips from side to side, keeping time with their nodding heads. The dove is a prolific breeder and the two have already built their shallow stick nest high in the crotch of a pine tree. One or the other has been cooing since early morning, a soft, soothing note, compared to the loud boisterous songs of the more active yard birds.

And what would spring be without that master of song, the mockingbird. He is a tireless singer. Sitting atop a twig of a nearly-leafed tree, he sings incessantly hour after hour. We're expecting him to buy building space in the yellow jessamine vine.

He's happy and wants you to know it. The mocker has been known to change his song eighty-seven times in just seven minutes. This outburst of song is as much a part of spring as blooming dogwood trees and flaming azaleas.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

I Am Green

Along with the arrival of warblers, another group of dainty birds, though not as colorful as the warblers, will be filling the trees and shrubs in your yards this spring.

Spending their lives among green foliage, vireos wear camouflaged colors . . . olive, olive-green, whitish, buffy or yellowish hues and soft dark grays. Their bills are more curved than the warblers and have a slight hook. The Latin word "vireo" means I am green.

The three species that we are most likely to see in this area are the white-eyed, red-eyed and yellow-throated. The solitary (blue-headed) vireo is a mountain summer resident, nesting occasionally in the piedmont and, rarely, as far south as Lake Thurmond. It is a common migrant through the area, while the red-eyed and yellow-throated are common nesters in the Central Savannah River Area.

Vireos are truly our friends. Watch one search for his dinner. He slowly, deliberately and methodically searches each leaf, above and below it, whereas the excitable, skittish warblers hurry from branch to branch without combing the leaves of harmful insects.

Another way to know you have a vireo in your glasses is to learn their songs. The red-eyed is perhaps the best known vireo in the eastern United States. He wears a gray cap edged in black that sits on his head just above his white eyebrows. His coat is dull olive. It is accented by the white shirt.

There are some birders who think his song is rather tiresome, "you see it-you know it-do you hear me-up here, see me." All through the long, hot summer days, his wearisome monologue, repeated over and over again, fills the humid air. But learn it, then compare the other vireo song's to the red-eyed's.

The yellow-throated is the beauty of the vireo clan with its brilliant yellow breast, its olive green back and its double white wing bars. When you hear it you know it's a vireo because it has touches of the red-eyed's song, but it is more mellow. One song says to me, "e-ay-ee-eight" with a short pause, then repeated. The yellow-throated nests here and is well known by birders in our area.

Another well known vireo of the area is the white-eyed. He wears a brighter olive-green coat than his cousins. His white shirt is washed in yellow on the sides. The two yellowish-white bars on his wings and white throat identify him from a distance. His white eyes are ringed in yellow. This vivacious little vireo wants his own song so he moves away from the typical vireo song. He makes up his own song in chips, chucks and mews which sound like, "chick'-a-per-weeoo. Chick' or chick'-ticha, wheeys, chick!"

The three above described vireos are the most commonly seen in this area. They come in and stay to nest. Three others, the warbling, Philadelphia and solitary vireos spend a few days with us during migration, then move on northward.

If you're not looking for a vireo you might never see one, so inconspicuous are they among the green foliage.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Which Bird Built This Nest?

"How do different birds know how to build distinctive nests", queried a friend, "and how can you identify the nests of different species?"

Being addicted to the fine art of finding and identifying bird nests, I tried to answer.

Baby birds are born with individuality and a wild wisdom, a guidance factor known only to them and God. When they hatch they already know how to build a nest like the one in which they were born.

The birds of a given species follow a fairly consistent pattern in nest building although individuals sometimes depart from the general rule, both as to location and materials used in the nest's construction.

Cardinals build nests in our yard every year. Without fail the not-so-neat nests are made of small twigs, strips of paper, weed stems, rootlets and grasses. Fine grass and hair are used for the lining. The nest is from four to twelve feet from the ground in a bush, small tree, hedge or thick and thorny vines.

The yuppie wood thrush has two sets of house plans for the two different sites he usually chooses. His country home is placed in the crotch of a sapling, completely filling the crotch with leaves and paper. The outer depth of the nest can easily reach six inches. Dead leaves, weed stalks, rootlets and paper make up the foundation of the nest. It has some weight because of the compact mud or leaf mold inner wall. It is lined with thin rootlets.

Smaller, shallower and cup-shaped, the other style home is saddled on a large horizontal limb of an aged tree. It is cemented to the branch with mud. The same materials are used as in the country place but in lesser quantities.

We believe the same wood thrush built in the identical crotch of the same sapling in our yard for three years. The act of decorating the outside of the nest each year with a long flowing piece of toilet paper told us we had a hippie decorator in our midst, one who didn't cotton to the traditional decorating styles.

When you find a delicate and cleverly interwoven small cup-shaped nest of dainty grasses and tiny rootlets, lined with horse, cow or deer hair, the petite, rust-headed chipping sparrow is the builder.

To be such a chatterer, and so small, the Carolina wren defies his size with the large rough and sloppy nest he builds. It is lined with fine rootlets and hair. It is domed and has a side entrance.

Any old place will do for him to stick his nest, a hanging flower basket, a discarded coffee pot, a cluttered shelf, baskets, a door wreath, on the top of porch cabinets, underneath automobiles. Lean-tos and crannies seem to fascinate him more than bird boxes for nesting sites.

Of the three mimics, the mockingbird's nest is the smallest, the catbird's is in between, with the brown thrasher building the largest.

All three of these long-tailed birds make their nest foundation with sticks . . . the size stick reflecting who's building the nest. For the second layer of the foundation, the mockingbird and catbird use smaller sticks, but the brown thrasher's second layer is loads of dead leaves, then more small sticks with a lining of fine rootlets.

The catbird's lining is of fine rootlets and grapevine bark, paper and plastic. The mockingbird, after a foundation of small sticks, collects litter for his nest . . . leaves, grass, rags, string, hair, down, tree blossoms, paper, and feathers . . . and lines it with fine rootlets and soft hair.

The red-eyed vireos nesting in our yard always place the nest in a tree close to the end of the limb. They choose not a fork, but a sort of parallelogram (a small branch with two almost evenly spaced twigs protruding from it), and attach the nest to the three twigs.

Yet many of these birds have never selected a location or made a nest before. When the small blind, squiggly, pink animal is born there is within it a food preference, a migrating pattern, a nesting behavior, a distinctive set of marks and song, all waiting to begin that struggle known as survival.

But, with all that said, the best way to identify a bird's nest is to find the owner at home.

Monday, March 24, 2008

The Bewitching Beauty of the Bunting

Two of our most beautiful buntings will fly in on the soon to be fragrant-filled, moon-silvered April nights. Both species, the painted and the indigo, nest in the Aiken-Augusta area.

The painted is thought to reach its most northern and inland nesting habitat near Augusta, GA at the fall line along the Savannah River. It breeds each spring, though sparingly, in the river bottoms, other low-lands, brier patches and hedgerows.

At one time, Augusta was the only locality in Georgia where the painted bunting bred, or even occurred regularly. Merry Brothers brickyard ponds had several breeding pairs observed each spring.

Wrapped in a patchwork-quilt coat, including his intense violet-blue head and vermilion breast, this 5 1/4 inch bunting is a dazzling beauty. There is no blending of hues of the startling colors but each is definitely defined, as if they are hemstitched together.

A beauty in her own right, and outfitted in a green to yellowish-green dress, the female is one of the truly green birds found in the United States.

In her sparkling green dress, she primps before the dun-colored females of other sparrows and buntings. She knows she's a glowing beauty. The adult male wears his patchwork coat the year-round.

In the last decade or so this colorful little bunting has been observed in Aiken, South Carolina, males in summer, females in winter at feeders.

Arriving about a week before the females from their tropical vacation, courtship begins almost immediately with the male strutting and flying before his intended mate. The lethal battles begin with males fighting for a certain beauty.

Those who have witnessed these battles say they are savage and are often fatal. It just goes to show you can't judge a gentleman by his clothes.

On a warm southwest breeze the indigo bunting comes riding in with a song in his heart. He is a high-spirited little tad in indigo blue. His color changes from dark blue to dark greenish or even blackish as the sun strikes him from different angles. He is a persistent singer and immediately buys up his real estate with song.

While awaiting his mate to arrive, the deep-blue colored male spends his time on the highest singing perch available, pouring out his bewitching song to all who will listen.

He is an impressive and persistent singer and everywhere through all the hot days of May, June, July and August you'll hear his cherry "Swee-swee-swee, swee, swee, sweet-sweet-sweet, swee-swee" from his favorite treetop perch.

When courting, this blue-clad casanova follows the tiny brown-dressed female hour after hour, with hardly a pause in his serenade, until she succumbs to his wiles.

After family duties are ended, the male indigo starts drifting southward with his fellows. He changes his blue serge suit to brown coveralls with pockets stitched in the faintest blue. She follows a few days later dressed in her own little brown dress.

In late summer, out in the field, you are aware something is missing, but what?

As the morning wears on, you hear only one lone indigo singing, and it hits you!

Summer is riding away on the back of a little blue-feathered tad.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Spring Follows Its Own Schedule

The calendar informs us spring has been with us now for three days, but we cannot always depend on spring to exactly follow our calendar.

Azaleas, violets, flowering quince, dogwood and Japanese magnolia were showing color early. Changing weather, now warm, now cold, keeps waking them up and then they have trouble wrapping themselves in their long underwear again for protection in this come again, gone again spring.

The way to tell spring is finally here is when the air is sweet-scented with tea olive, when tender green leaves are popping out all over the boxwoods, sasanquas, blooming azaleas, roses and oxeye daisies are pushing through mulched ground. Spring comes not by calendar's prediction but as an answer to the call of the sun that reaches deep within roots and buds.

Bird songs say spring lies ahead, no matter the rain, or a swing in temperature from 70 degrees to dips of morning lows into the 20s.

One of the most delightful promises of spring is the singing of birds. It is a joy to hear them, a joy to watch their nuptial antics, and a joy to see the beginnings of nest building.

A Carolina wren awakens us from deep sleep on a sunny morning with its loud "sheree, sheree, sheree, tea-kettle, tea-kettle." A cardinal joins in the music. "What cheer, cheer, cheer, cheer" sounds loud and strong. A towhee tweets in the budding azaleas, a chickadee calls his name over and over. When we look out on the front lawn, robins are doing the "River Dance," stiff-legged and unbending straight upper bodies.

Resident birds are already practicing mating songs. The morning chorus gets louder and sweeter and longer each morning. At this time of the season, the choir is made up of local yodelers. They will have picked out locations and some probably will have young before our visitors arrive from the tropics. Then the morning choir grows more beautiful as the voices of our summer guests blend with our local residents.

A goodly number of winter guests will have departed by now, weather permitting, including the dark-eyed juncos, red-breasted nuthatches and purple finches. White-throated sparrows are not in a hurry to leave, some lingering until May. Though millions of red-winged blackbirds opt to stay in the South, millions more are winging northward to nesting grounds in the meadows and marshes, weaving long black lines in the sky.

Within days summer residents will begin to arrive with spring in their throats. The wood thrush, crested flycatcher, orchard oriole, summer tanager, red-eyed, white-eyed and yellow throated vireos jet in through the first weeks of April. Purple martins are here and chimney swifts will be in before the end of the month. The first venturesome hummingbirds, green-backed and ruby-throated, are usually in by the last of March, depending on the blooming flowers.

All our forecasts for the widespread arrivals of our summer guests, of course, depend on the weather . . . spring's only true calendar.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Where Do Birds Get Their Names?

Have you ever wondered how and why birds were given the names we know them by today? Thanks to bird watchers before us, common names were given to beautiful creatures as they were discovered in the New World's streams, forests and plains. Regardless of whether the names are appropriate today, the birds are stuck with them.

Over the years, some names have been changed but eventually some birds get their old names again. For instance, for hundreds of years, it was the Baltimore Oriole. Then, for a couple of decades it was the Northern Oriole. Now it's the Baltimore Oriole again.

Color played a significant role in naming the birds of North America. Some were named for their habitat, others for the location of nests. Many were named for size and many for their songs or other characteristics. By far the parts of the birds' bodies were used most often, usually coupled with colors.

Checklists used by birders on walks and daily sightings usually give only the common names while bird guides supply both the Latin and common names.

To head the list, there are house wrens, house sparrows and house finches. Because they are cavity nesters, they became opportunists and took advantage of every nook and cranny about houses and other buildings for nesting. Now we furnish them their own houses but they still like people places.

The songs of the peewee and phoebe named them. The chickadee's call note suggested the name for this little mite and cowbirds and cattle egrets had bovine names attached to them because they pal around with herds of cattle.

A few swallows were named for their nesting habitat choices . . . the barn, bank, cliff and tree to name four. Then there are names because of the habitat the bird has chosen . . . the marsh hawk, often called the northern harrier, because he hunts and nests in marshes. The barn owl because old barns are his favorite haunts. The meadowlark, a blackbird, is usually found in meadows and pastures.

Mammals suggested monikers for some birds. The fox sparrow, for his foxy-red color; the catbird, for one of his calls that sounds like a cat's meow.

Some birds are named for states. The Carolina wren and the Mississippi kite are so named. And then there are the Kentucky and Tennessee warblers. For habitat and speed, who else but the chimney swift, a dark, sooty chimney dweller. Then there are those named for their entire body color . . . the indigo bunting, the cardinal and the blue grosbeak.

For feeding preferences we have gnatcatchers, flycatchers and the worm-eating warbler. Many carry the name of America(n) . . . American bittern, American goldfinch, American kestrel (sparrow hawk), American crow, American robin, American redstart.

Others are named for people. The Bachman's, Harris and the Henslow sparrows, Baltimore Oriole, Wilson's warbler.

The crown or crest suggests the names for the tufted titmouse and the great-crested flycatcher, and the two kinglets . . . golden-crowned and ruby-crowned. Other birds are named for the body, from head to foot. We have the red-headed woodpecker, the red-bellied sapsucker, the brown-headed cowbird, the yellow-rumped warbler. Two vireos are named for the color of their eyes . . . red-eyed and white-eyed.

Those named for the tail and wing are also numerous, but we'll wind up with the red-winged blackbird, the blue-winged warbler, the scissor-tailed flycatcher and the boat-tailed grackle.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Enjoy Spring Now!

Everything is responding to an age-old rhythm. Day and night have changed, shorter nights with longer days bringing more light and warmth. Things that seemed dead are burgeoning with life.

Daffodils stand tall with yellow bloom. New green life pokes up on bleached lawns, swamp willows have a lacy mahogany cap. Bluebirds nestle together on naked limbs and chosen boxes. With nuptial thoughts the male and female cardinals are eating together again at the table. Pine warblers serenaded daily before leaving the yard early for nesting in high pines. Doves softly coo.

February winds change course often but now comes a warm wind, soft as a kitten's fur, more and more days from the southwest. Under its spell, violets bloom, tight red quince buds unfurl, and cascades of yellow-bell brighten yards. Yes, we are aware of how quickly late winter weather can change. A cold winter day could hold them back, but on warm days they rush to catch up, and do. The Carolina wren is up and singing at first dawn. He's looking around for a home, looking over the real estate in our yard. They'll make good neighbors, the wren and the cardinal. Red-tailed hawks soar and swirl in the warm thermals. Purple martins are already here and looking for apartments. Sinuous columns of blackbirds darken the sky as they push northward.

On warm days, spring comes skipping through, tossing aside fragments of winter, gathering in her arms the smell of moist earth, the perfumed essence of tea olive and spice-scented camellias. With color, renewal and growth, spring is on her way, no matter the weather we have today.

Out my kitchen window I watch a pair of doves sashay up and down the driveway picking up fallen grain from feeders. One waddled over to the small rock pool, drank, then fluffed himself out upon a gray rock and sat perfectly still. I was surprised at how hard it was to see him and distinguish him from the gray rocks surrounding the pool.

Nature's camouflage is the "best ever invented" and no doubt it is given to her creatures as a survival weapon. I walk in the yard on one of the near 70 degree days and find another evidence of spring — a little ribbon snake sunning itself on the warm stone walk. Apparently he has not long been out of hibernation and has just shed his old skin. On this day he was a beautiful shiny patent leather black with a sunny yellow ribbon running down his back. I stand still and watch him. He lifts his sleepy eyes and nods, then slides off into the liriope. I look for his cast-off skin but don't find it.

The mockingbird is in fine form this morning. For ten minutes from the top of the chimney he pours out his sweetest, most musical song. Then all of a sudden he starts mimicking other birds. I counted as many as five other birds' songs that came from the mocker's throat. A brown thrasher, the mocker's cousin, is showering the neighborhood with rich, throaty notes of his beautiful nuptial song from high in a bud-swelling tree.

So much beauty and song today that will be gone in such a short time. Get out and enjoy SPRING today!

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

The Beautiful Woodie

These warm misty days bring out the incredibly beautiful iridescent color of the wood duck's plumage.

The summer duck, as it is sometimes called, never leaves our area the year 'round. About the middle of this century we began to see a decline in the woodie's numbers. One reason for its diminishing numbers was thought to be the development of wetlands and swampy areas, causing hollow trees and stumps to disappear. A cement front lawn is a big "no no" to a wood duck. Now man is helping the housing shortage by placing nesting boxes throughout the wood duck's breeding area.

If you've never seen either the male or female of this species, and see the female first, you will exclaim her beauty. And she is beautiful in her own right. Her small crest when displayed, sits atop a grayish-green, olive-brown head. Neck and sides are streaked with yellowish-brown. Her breast is spotted with brown. And a lady she is, for she wears a white pearl in the middle of her upper bill. She has brownish-red eyes and wears yellow slippers.

The male's crested head is a metallic green with shadings of blue and purple and white. Back feathers are a glossy green-purple, the breast a purplish-chestnut flecked with darts of white. The belly and throat patch are white. Chestnut, buffs, reds, blues, greens, purples, black and white, with many tones and shades, make up the indescribable oriental feather pattern of this pond dweller. His eyes are blood-red, his short bill black and orange-red.

No wonder he's called the Beau Brummel of the quacking world. Roger Tory Peterson, the father of bird watching, said "descriptive words fail to describe this bird's plumage."

Both male and female are from 18 to 21 inches in length, with a wingspan of 24 inches. Weighing only one and a half pounds, this gorgeous little duck is preening and courting and nesting in local moss-hung swamp lands and sun-splashed ponds that he calls home. Always using a cavity in a tree or a stump, he is one of the few ducks that doesn't nest on the ground. And, he is a loner you might say, for you will most likely find him in ponds with only other wood ducks. He likes his privacy.

The cavity used for nesting is often one chopped out by woodpeckers or in natural hollows created by large rotting limbs. Most nesting cavities are from five to 50 feet from the ground. Usually, the nest is placed near a stream, but not always.

After the mother finds a hollow to her liking, she adds down plucked from her own body to line the nest. Into this cozy bed she lays from 10 to 15 buffy-white eggs. Incubation takes around four weeks.

How do the ducklings, when only a day old, get to the ground or water from so high in the air? They jump! Our ancestors were of the opinion the mother woodie carried the youngsters to the ground or to the pond on her back. This, by observation and photography, has been proven wrong. The mother jumps first and then calls her children to come out to play.

Each youngster perches in the doorway and without hesitation jumps when the mother calls. It free-falls into the air and bounces on the swampy soil then waddle in single file behind their mother to the pond. If they jump into water, they bob like a cork and then paddle toward their mother.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Swallows Are Signs of Spring

Winter appears to be hardly gone when we sight the barn swallow home from Brazil, darting, zipping and twittering in flight. The sighting reminds us how things change for both man and birds, especially environmentally.

When we came to the Central Savannah River Area some five decades ago, there were no barn swallows around, that is that nested in the area. The foothills of the Georgia and South Carolina mountains were the southern limits of their breeding range. As man alters the environment of North America, birds adapt to the changing conditions or decline in numbers. The barn swallow adapted.

This is the second time this species has changed nesting situations. Before our forefathers came to America, these swallows built in tree cavities, rock crevices and caves. But from the time the first Colonists started building barns, the barn swallow, being an opportunists, left tree cavities and rock crevices for buildings, maybe because barns gave better protection from nasty weather. Because of this habit, this flying feathered saucer has become known as the "barn swallow," a name it holds until today.

Many of these forked-tailed birds still nest in barns. But, as our great freeways swept through the countryside, barn swallows followed, nesting under the many bridges that spanned the thoroughfares. This brought them into our area and carried them even farther south.

The barn swallow is perhaps the best known of the 20 plus species of American swallows. Small and trim, it is easily recognized because of its purplish-blue back, red-brown forehead, rich rufous breast touched with white, long pointed wings and its deeply forked tail. The forked tail is a good identification mark, the barn being the only swallow with such a tail. The female is usually duller in colors, but not always.

These sleek birds feed on the wing, never flying a straight line, but circling, darting, and twisting in the air. Holding their tiny wide-gaping mouths fully open like suction cups, they scoop out of the air hundreds of noxious insects, including gnats, mosquitoes, house flies, grasshoppers, crickets, moths and dragonflies.

The nests of barn swallows are semi-circular or cup-shaped and made of mud mixed with sand. The shape depends on whether the nest is attached to a beam or rafter or a flat shelf. The nests are lined with soft materials and feathers, usually chicken feathers. The three to five white eggs have markings of bright reddish-brown and pale lilac.

This handsome swallow breeds over most of North America, nesting from northwestern Alaska to Mexico and from the Atlantic to the Pacific coast, including much of Canada and the United States.

Barn swallows nesting in Alaska will travel 7,000 miles from the sunny pampas of Argentina each spring to nest in North America. Year after year these swift fliers travel the same sky ways to and from breeding and wintering grounds. Yet they have nothing to direct them but that "something" (wild wisdom) that speaks out from the earth or sky to guide them to their destination.

No matter the weather, spring has sprung when the swallows return.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Marching Into Spring

Puffy white clouds in a wedge-wood sky tell us spring is in the wings. March is known for its chilling, biting winds, but some days bring a soft warm breeze that beckons buds to blossom, birds to begin their dawn chorus and nuptial songs and all around us there is growing greenness.

Trees were late to lose their leaves last fall, some holding onto their precious finery until after the first of the year. But they haven't been loafing these short weeks of the new year, with sunny warm days now and then. Buds on the beech are long and pointed. Sweet gum buds and big and fat and yellow, like dabs of butter. Fattening buds of the winged-elm are reddish-brown and hairy.

To see the first spring flowers, go for a walk in the woods where emerging fiddle-heads of ferns greet you before uncoiling to become feathery fronds. The bird's-foot violet (so named because of its foliage resembling a bird's foot) and the common blue violet are blooming. Blue flags with grass-like leaves hail you when you go tramping in moist deciduous woods.

Trilliums will be easy to spot because they have leaves, petals and sepals in the whorls of three.

Another spring flower is the trout lilly, or yellow adder's tongue. Greenish-purple points emerge from under brown leaves or grasses. Soon after the stems appear, mottled leaves, and then lemon-colored flowers will cover the roadside ditches and sun-filled woods. The beauty of wildflowers is enhanced by the very wildness about them.

Splitting the air with his home-coming call, that black beauty, the fish crow, announces his presence. Others join him. As they move across the pond, the racket diminishes. Sweet warbles of the bluebird fall softly from the perfumed air of crab apple blossoms. The twitterings of chimney swifts bring spring closer.

On one greening and sunny day, you'll hear the chipping sparrow, the dark-eyed junco and the pine warbler singing. All three songs sound much alike. Knowing this, you'll need to search diligently in order to find the songster.

Everywhere, everywhere music! Cardinals singing, Carolina wrens, brown thrashers, mockingbirds, with woodpeckers drumming and hammering. All these natives or year-round songsters, proclaiming spring with their cheerful carols.

The morning chorus in our area lasts longer than in some. Today permanent residents pour out a throaty opera every morning. By the time these are through courting and nest building, they become busy with family chores, which necessarily mean less singing. By then summer residents arrive with spring in their throats. The wood thrush, the great-crested flycatcher, summer tanager, orchard oriole, join in the dawn chorus.

You know spring is hear when you hear the lovely but tireless warbling of the red-eyed vireo.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

The Mystery of Migration

Have you ever pondered the migration flight of millions of birds twice a year from one hemisphere to another?

This has always been a mystery to man, and scientists continue to study the phenomenon. All through the month of April and the first weeks of May these midgets of forest, field and lawn flow into the United States from tropical wintering grounds.

The late Dr. Eugene Odom, a zoologist, and his associates at the University of Georgia in Athens made contributions toward a full explanation of the mysteries. The fact is only God and the bird know how he gets from wherever he is to wherever he is going

Man asks, how can they fly so far without refueling? Studies show birds store fat, their "high test gasoline," in separate parts of their body, or "spare gas tanks". Man, lacking such a container, spreads his out all through his body.

A migratory bird is thus analogous to the airplane in that "high octane" fuel is added to and used from preexisting "tanks" without appreciable change in the tissue structure of the body as a whole.

This added fat is stored in empty spaces throughout the bird's tissues, much as extra gasoline is stored in the plane's tanks. Because it is not spread through the bird's body, the stored fat is completely independent of the bird's functioning parts.

A migrating bird's fat is "high octane" fuel. A human's fat is only a disfiguring bulge. A bird uses up the spare fat in flight and doesn't have to join the local Weight Watcher's Club once they arrive. Oh, to be a bird when the battle of the bulge attacks.

The how-come mystery of migration was addressed by Odom some years ago. He demonstrated that before migrating these birds build up their fat until their weight is doubled or even tripled, and this fat is the sole source of their long flight energy. No vitamins for these long distances fliers.

We can vouch that hummingbirds get fat before leaving for the tropics. We have from two to five nectar feeding tubes hanging in the kitchen window all through the migration period. In July and August, they come to the tubes, sleek and slim. We watch them grow fat. By the time they leave in September they are "totin' fat" and probably weigh three times their weight of July. By the time they reach their destination, the extra fat (fuel) has been used.

The energy system of man is based on glycogen, a carbohydrate. The fat-based system of a bird functions much better for them.

The available energy of a bird is greater per unit of weight than in humans, the storage capacity greater, and water balance is facilitated because fat, unlike proteins or carbohydrates, can be stored "dry" yet yields water on combustion, scientists explain.

At the current price of gasoline, wouldn't it be wonderful if all the fat and calories in our pizzas and burgers could be stored in an extra tank for the family car or lawn mower?

Friday, March 14, 2008

What To Do With Young Birds

It's that time of year again . . . nesting time and foundlings!

Every spring, people will be seeking help in handling nestlings (young birds from the pink and naked stage to the not fully feathered stage) that have fallen from the nest. Fledglings are fully feathered but still short-tailed or have no tail at all and are scraggly. They probably have been guided to the ground by the parent birds.

Wrens, mockingbirds, cardinals, brown thrashers, towhees, doves are already building nests. This means that in less than a month babies probably will be falling out of their cradles because of severe weather such as high winds and hail, or other hazardous situations.

If you find such a baby bird, the first thing you must do is try to put the nestling back in the nest. If the nest was destroyed, you might call an experienced wildlife rehabilitator. The Department of Natural Resources can put you in touch with one.

Don't try to raise a bird because the law does not permit anyone to possess any bird, dead or alive, without a permit. This includes feathers, nests and eggs. In other words, by law you are not supposed to try to care for the bird yourself. The possession of a house sparrow, starling or pigeon is excluded.

As far as the fledgling is concerned, leave it alone. It was probably placed where you found it by its parents. This sounds harsh, and although it may be tempting to rescue what you think is an "abandoned" bird, don't do it. Position yourself to watch nature takes its course and watch as almost without exception the parents will return to feed the little one.

They might guide it to a nearby shrub or tree where they will feed it. Just another phase of the difficult transition period of becoming an adult.

Evidently, it is time for the young bird to leave home and unlike many homo sapien parents, concerned avian parents make sure their offspring "go" when the time comes.

They do, however, feed them for a week or two until they learn to feed themselves and become strong fliers. Sometimes fledglings become restless and hop from the nest and climb into the branches of the tree or bush where they were hatched.

When young birds fall from the nest prematurely, they usually perish.

And just remember, it is natural for some nesting attempts not to succeed. It has been determined for most birds that a nesting success rate of just 20 percent for the season is considered a banner year.

If you have cats, keep them in the house and ask your neighbor to do the same until the birds are safe in trees and shrubs.

It is a sobering thought to realize when we try to rescue fledglings from the wild (our years and neighborhoods) that we might become an accidental predator. To best help these young birds leave them where you find them . . . in the wild. In our rush to help, we can do more harm than good because most of the time our best efforts fail!

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Spring Arrives

For those of us in the northern hemisphere, it's almost spring! The calendar confirms it . . . spring will arrive precisely at 1:48 AM EDT Thursday, March 20, 2008.

Spring with color and life and action is on its way. As the earth warms, you can smell it . . . one of the most delightful fragrances of the natural world, the warming of the damp earth.

Down along the banks of most creeks, tributaries, and rivers, shining bright in the midday light, purple violets are peeping through last season's litter. Ferns are uncurling. Pussy willows are budding, swamp willows are putting on mahogany dress and maple trees are tasseled in red and green. Yellow Jessamine is blooming, its sweet fragrance tossed about on warm spring breezes.

The warm wind touches your cheek and tells you spring is here! The sun is bright and cumulus clouds move across the deep blue sky. Chickadees and titmice and Carolina wrens are in an old rotting elm, signing spring and gobbling newly hatched insects. The March sun is a heat lamp for many creatures.

Mockingbirds are signing nuptial songs. A brown thrasher belts out a loud, throaty number from the top of a greening sapling. A spectacular pileated woodpecker cracks the quietness with his raucous and loud "kuk-kuk-kukkuk — kuk-kuk-kuk."

Flocks of pompous migrating robins will leave our lawns and parks to our resident robins weeks ago. Dark-eyed juncos show eagerness to get back to the moss-covered, wind-swept rock outcroppings of the mountains. They packed their gray suits days ago and will leave on the beams of the waxing and waning silvery moon. A remnant of white-throated sparrows will hang around until May. The purple finches that visited off and on since the first snow are gone.

Still with us are the merry little goldfinches, a delight these spring days. They are late nesters, late July and August, and have no thought of becoming bogged down with parental duties at this delightful time of year. They are gay and happy, swarming over feeders and putting on a deeper yellow suit each day. Even the little black hat is beginning to take shape.

We don't have time to regret the leaving of these friends for already purple martins are chuckling around their new homes. Barn swallows are darting under and over bridges, anticipating the mud cradles they will build later in the season.

A first year orchard oriole, with crisp black cravat, announced from a tall sweet gum his arrival from the tropics. The announcement was loud and sweet and short. Then he was off, looking for a site for a swinging apartment which he will build out of slender green grasses.

Yellow-throated warblers will show up on schedule early in March. Rough-winged swallows and fish crows will also be arriving soon.

Be prepared for the vast migration of warblers in April. Millions of these colorful wood imps will move up the countryside all through the days of April.

There's pleasure and excitement awaiting you with bird watching this spring!

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

The Cardinal's Song of Spring

Nature brings another proof that spring is easing its way into the southeast . . . a cardinal signing.

This gallant Casanova usually starts his spring mating songs in early February. Although the days remain chilly, he brings thoughts of spring to us through his melodies.

The mate will wait a few days before she commences her musical response. At this time antiphonal singing seems to be "their thing". She begins singing, stops. The suitor then picks up and sings the same song. He then waits for her to sing again and stop before he pitches in. When she changes the song or whistle, so does he. He's courting, you see, and aims to please. Often, they will sing together.

And a gracious wooer he is. Make it a point to listen to the soft and tender musical notes of his whisper song when he serenades his bride in the early spring twilight.

Though not as striking in color as her mate, the female presents a colorful picture in her more subdued clothes of olive and buff browns. Her tail and wings are washed in red, though it is not as brilliant as her mate's.

Both sexes have black faces. The black is wrapped around a large conical-shaped red bill. Both wear a black bow tie.

In the South, the cardinal is one of our best known and best loved back-yard birds. During these chilly days a cardinal winging past your window is like a radiant flying rose, or a ruby that can sing.

If you would like the cardinal to nest on your premises, landscape with thorny shrubs, rose vines, small dense trees and tangles. Give him what he wants and he will pay you handsomely in song for years to come.

In early April a cup of rootlets and grasses is placed in a thorny vine or tangle where usually four greenish-white, heavily speckled eggs are laid. Little pink nestlings are hatched in around 12 days, remaining in the nest for another 10 days or so.

The male is the exemplary father and as soon as the young leave the nest he takes complete charge of them while the female bustles about with a second nest. One birder observed one Cardinal pair building five nests in a single season, and another pair successfully producing four broods. Prolific breeders, these grosbeaks!

In their winter haunts, cardinals often gather into large flocks of 20 to 30 birds.

This red-feathered cavalier is no longer considered strictly a southern bird as he is expanding his range rapidly into the Northern Mississippi Valley and into New England, even into Canada. One reason thought to be responsible for his rapid expansion to the north is increased winter feeding, encouraging him to remain where the grub is.