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.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

This Bird's A 'Knock-Out'

Birdwise, the talk-of-the-town for the past few weeks has been the rose-breasted grosbeak.

Numerous calls from observers who have seen this spectacular bird at their feeders have come from Evans, Martinez, Augusta, North Augusta, Aiken, Beech Island, Langley and other Central Savannah River Area towns. This bird is a 'knock-out' and when you see him for the first time you are dazzled by his beauty.

On their way to northern nesting grounds in the spring, a scattering of a flock drops down to feed and rest all along the route and only a small number is seen each spring. However, when there are numerous spring storms producing rain, hail and wind, migrating birds will come to rest because they can't battle such forces in flight. This will lead to an unusually large influx of birds.

Finding themselves in a new territory, one in which there is plenty of natural food and gobs of bird feeders, they linger awhile, enjoying the warm weather and other amenities of the deep South. From wintering in Central America, the rose-breasted grosbeak arrives in this region from mid-April through early May in a striking new spring and summer suit. The male is handsomely garbed in black and white with a patch of the loveliest bright re-rose on his snow white breast and the most delicate of pink linings on the underside of his wings. The only fault that can be found in the beauty of this feathered Beau Brummell is his big over-sized nose. It seems to overwhelm his black face.

The dowdy lady grosbeak in her streaked dress of brown and grayish white resembles a puffed-up sparrow. She has not a rose-colored feather on her. White eyebrows are noticeable and her bill is thick and exaggerated like her mate's. Her size (eight inches) and big pale bill distinguish her from the sparrows. She wears the same dress the year 'round. No new styles for her.

Rose-breasted grosbeaks do not nest in our area and they are not common residents until you get "way up north" or, occasionally, in the mountains of Georgia and South Carolina.

His song is not unlike that of the robin and we sometimes mistake it for the scarlet tanager, another migrant. You must go to his breeding grounds to hear him, for seldom does he sing on migration.

In fall migration, when these elegant birds return through the area, usually the male still will be wearing his resplendent black and rose dress. As the year advances and he travels to the tropics, he will change outfits.

Changing his dressy duds to an outfit more like the female's, he keeps a tinge of rose on his breast and black and white on his dowdy wings. These small bright spots will distinguish the two.

If you want to attract these birds this fall and in the spring, keep your tabletop feeders filled with sunflower and safflower seeds. A tired migrating grosbeak will thank you, maybe in song, but always in beauty, for easy access to food.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

The Waders Return

Luscious spring days bring a slew of large wading birds to the Central Savannah River Area. Unless you have a pond on your premises or have access to a neighbor's, you'll have to get out in the field to see these beauties.

You might expect to see the great egret, snowy and cattle egrets, great blue and tri-colored herons and the smaller green heron . . . all elegant and graceful birds.

The cattle egret is a comparatively newcomer to the States, showing up in the CSRA in the early sixties. It is an African egret and no one knows for sure how it found itself in South America about 100 years ago. It is assumed it was blown by hurricane winds from Africa to South America. From there it easily hopped over to the Caribbean Islands. It appeared in southern Florida in the early 1940s.

Augusta birders were expecting it to find its way up the Eastern Coast and in the early 60s it was seen at an Augusta airport for the first time. A new bird in the area! Excitement ran high.

During the breeding season, cattle egrets show buff on their crown, breast and back. The bird appears white at other times of the year, the buff becoming indiscernible. Usually, these striking birds head for the coast for the winter months.

This little egret gets its name by following cows and grabbing up insects disturbed by the grazing cattle. They perch on the backs of cows and other animals and there they find sun-warmed insects. They know a good insect cafeteria when they see one.

Slightly larger than the cattle egret, the snowy can be distinguished from the cattle by its yellow slippers and block stockings. During mating season, it is adorned with waving plumes that curve about its neck, fluttering in the breeze as it feeds and takes care of its young in the nest. Standing over three feet tall on slender black legs and feet, the great egret's entire body is snowy white, accented with straight white plumes on its breast and back when breeding. This handsome egret can be seen at all times of the year in the CSRA.

Another magnificent long-legged wader is the great blue heron . . . a permanent resident of the area, though its numbers increase in the winter.

It's a good thing great blues are well behaved and don't go in for necking. If they did, their long necks would become like the maze of a tangled water hose. Beside his long slim neck, the great blue has long, slim dark legs that lift him to a height of over four feet. A wing span of six feet adds to his splendidness.

Though the tri-colored heron is not common to the area, we do see it occasionally. As its name suggests, its plumage is composed of three colors. The head, neck, wings, back and tail are dark slate-blue. Its belly, rump and under wings are white. The third color, a tawny to dark chestnut stripe, runs the length of the neck.

Arriving in the spring after a winter absence, the unique green heron is back, claiming his "home stead rights" on the border of some miry pond. This is one of the smallest of the large waders. He stands only 16 to 22 inches from his long pointed bill to the end of his stubby tail. A bluish-greenish-gray back is accented by a chubby chestnut colored back. The legs are extremely short for his size.

All herons fly with the neck folded backwards in an "S" curve, their head between their shoulders and their long legs stretched out behind.

These beautiful and graceful birds are out there now. Go see!

Condominiums For Birds

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Colorful Visitor Arrives

Early in April there is a colorful visitor that comes to our area. He is one of our first returnees from the tropics for the summer.

Indigo buntings appear in the Central Savannah River Area about the time lawns, roadsides and meadows are filled with dandelion seed puffs and when crabgrass, sock and other weeds spring up.

When we first moved to our present location, indigos visited us every spring. We had a little pool situated under small pines in the backyard. Looking back, I see where our backyard was probably a cotton patch at one time. Through the years it was abandoned as a field and now was being taken over by mostly pines, thick vines, shrubbery and residences.

Indigos had probably used this space for nesting, rearing young and singing from high perches from time immemorial. Birds are known (by banding) to return to the former year's nesting sites with regularity. Now we have taken their home site for our own, for we don't see them around the yard anymore.

Indigos are small birds measuring only 5 1/2 inches from bill tip to tail tip. The adult male indigo is our only small, all blue North American finch. In the fall, the male molts into plumage much like the female but there is always enough blue in the wings and tail to identify him. During the fall molt he could be confused with the blue grosbeak but for his smaller size.

Adult females are warm yellowish-brown above pale buff below. She has no discernible streaks or wing bars as other little brown female birds do. Though the young look similar to the female, prominent streaks on the breast tell you who they are.

Indigos seek out brushy cover close to the ground for nesting. But it must be near high perches for the elegant male to sit all day and pour out his exuberant and ceaseless song. A song expert says this about the indigo's song: "One remarkable song that can give an idea of the rhythm was zay-zay zreet zay zay zeah zay-zay- seeteeteet zit-zit zeah." The remarkable thing about this is that the rhythm is exactly like that of a well known human jingle. "Bean porridge hot, bean porridge cold. Bean porridge in the pot, nine days old."

It has been determined that different individuals have songs of many patterns. If you hear a bird singing but are not sure it is an indigo, search it out for certain identification.

Male indigos sing all day throughout the hot days of summer. The hotter the days, the more intense their singing.

Bark strips, weed stems, broad grass blades and skeletonized leaves make up the thick walled nest. It is lined with fine grasses or hair and is usually placed low in the shrubs or branches of prickly vines or bushes. Three to four white eggs with a bluish or greenish tinge are laid. Incubation is 12 days, with nestling fledging in about the same number of days.

Fall migration begins late in August or early September for these brilliant birds and may continue through early November. Some indigos winter in Florida but the preponderance of the massive flocks move on to Cuba, Mexico and Central America.

You will know another season has rolled around when you no longer hear the incessant singing of the indigo.