Monday, February 20, 2012

Cleaning House

...in preparation for "open house"!

Soon (very soon!) there will be lots of feathered families searching the real estate market for the perfect abode to call home.  In the human world, real estate is often valued on location, location, location.  Well, birds aren't much different as they also seek out prime locations.  The chosen house must be safe from the elements, safe from predators, and perfect for raising a family.  A proper food and water source must also be nearby.



Nesting habits vary amongst bird species.  Woodpeckers, tree swallows, eastern bluebirds, screech owls, and chickadees are a few of the cavity nesters (which means they will sometimes use a man-made birdhouse).  Other species, such as robins, cardinals, and most warblers, build cup nests (the type of nest most people think of as a typical bird nest).  Some birds, such as the ovenbird, are ground nesters,   Red-winged blackbirds build a cup intertwined with cattails low to the ground near a body of water.  Baltimore and orchard orioles build swinging pendulum nests that hang high in the trees.  Birds nests are amazing!

tree swallow nest.  tree swallow nests are almost always feather-lined.  the swallows will travel great distances to find feathers to line their nests and will sometimes fight over them in midair!

This is an eastern bluebird nest.  The location of this nest-box is surrounded by open field where grass clippings are plentiful and easy for the birds to fetch.  However,  the nest box near the front gate is near two towering white pines, and sure enough, the nest in that box was made exclusively of pine needles!


Each year, in late February, I check all of my birdhouses at the farm to make sure they are in good condition and clean.

I currently have ten birdhouses:
1. bluebird/tree swallow box at the pond
2. bluebird/tree swallow box near the gate
3. bluebird/tree swallow box on the west end of the sanctuary
4. bluebird/tree swallow box on the east end of the sanctuary
5. northern flicker house on the north end of the property
6. barred owl box on Ovenbird Trail
7. robin/phoebe shelf on east side of barn
8. robin/phoebe shelf on north side of barn
9. chickadee box at the head of Ovenbird Trail
10. chickadee box at east tree line

chickadee box
You may wonder why I am wearing blue rubber gloves?  It really has very little to do with the birds.  I'm not afraid of any bird mess or some random bird disease (and I do wash my hands very well by the way!).  I wear the gloves precisely because of the situation that arose at the chickadee box.  The above photo was taken by Phil just seconds before I opened the side of the box to discover a mouse nest!!!  I knew the nest didn't look like a bird nest, but I wasn't sure what it was.  I unknowingly reached in and grabbed the nesting material, which was mostly white cottony fluff-- like stuffing from a pillow.  I immediately thought I felt something move in my hand, I looked down just in time to see a tiny gray mouse jump from my hand and land on the ground below.  He scurried off into the leaf litter and I never saw him again.  My heart raced for just a second when I pondered the notion that he could have run up my arm and down into my coat - and I could've startled enough to lose my grip on reality and the ladder!  But none of that happened.  I'm not afraid of mice (or snakes)... I just don't like to be startled!

chickadee (mouse) box

Saturday, February 18, 2012

The Great Backyard Bird Count

Today was such a beautiful day!  Bright sunshine, clear blue skies, and warm temperatures!  I spent the entire day outside. This morning I went birding with a group of friends, and this afternoon I went out to the farm to clean my birdhouses (I'll blog about that next time).

A small group of Athens-area birders got together this morning for a hike at Sells Park.  It was a great opportunity for beautiful birding, but more importantly, it was an opportunity to participate in the Great Backyard Bird Count led by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and National Audubon Society. The Count is an annual four-day event where bird species are tallied and submitted to Cornell. The count gives scientists a real-time picture of what is going on with our winter bird population.  Weather, disease, and habitat loss all play a vital role in a bird's life.  The count helps keep track of the progress or decline of any given species during a particular year.  

we hiked a lovely trail that wraps the perimeter of Avon Lake
The morning started off with a carolina wren, northern cardinal, and song sparrow, all singing their little hearts out.  As we climbed the hill and headed deeper into the woods, we encountered several brown creepers and a pileated woodpecker. 

pileated woodpeckers are the largest woodpecker in our area.  not only are they huge, but they are LOUD!  I love them!!  they sure can make a mess of a dead tree while searching for a meal.  Bob (our expert in the group) guessed that the pileated was hunting for carpenter ants. 

a pileated will work very hard to excavate a nest cavity.  other species, including the screech owl, will often use an old pileated cavity for nesting and roosting.

as long as a dead tree is not threatening harm to humans (or your house!), it is a good idea to leave it stand.  woodpeckers will thank you!
My friend Heather said today, "birding requires patience".  Yes, indeed!  The birds seem to come all at once.  Everyone gets excited and begins calling out species and locations.  We all stand in a row like dominoes, binoculars raised to our eyes, necks bent and faces pointing skyward.  We zone in on our bird and become oblivious to everything else.  In fact, someone probably could knock over an entire group of birders by just giving a gentle shove to the first person in line.  Yes, we would topple like oblivious dominoes, but that wouldn't be very nice at all!!


....and then, as quickly as the excitement starts, the birds go away.  And we are left standing in silence, "where did they all go?", someone asks. We shrug our shoulders and continue on, patiently waiting for the next wave of birds to grace us with their presence.

during lulls in feathered excitement, we birders often entertain ourselves with other forms of nature.  someone on our hike noted how many pockets of bright green seemed to be popping up... especially on the hillside that receives the most sunlight.

rock formation, weathered away by the elements.  how much longer will it stand?  a hundred years? a thousand years? or longer?

looking straight up into the spiral staircase of a pine
 The highlight of my day was definitely the flurry of activity from a couple of golden-crowned kinglets that were flittering amongst the pines.  They are absolutely adorable birds!  They are so small and active that that it is hard to keep them in sight.  We all followed them intently with our binoculars calling out their locations.  Eventually they came closer and I decided to give my Nikon a try.  I didn't get any outstanding photos, but I did capture the spirit of the little guys.  Flittering about, hanging upside down, and doing aerobatics... all in high-speed time!

if you look closely, you can see his "golden crown"




Species count for the day (from memory, I didn't take notes - someone else in our group took notes for Cornell submission)
1. carolina chickadee
2. carolina wren
3. northern cardinal
4. mourning dove
5. blue jay
6. eastern bluebird
7. turkey vulture
8. black vulture
9. red-tailed hawk
10. golden-crowned kinglet
11. downy woodpecker
12. hairy woodpecker
13. pileated woodpecker
14. brown creeper
15. white-breasted nuthatch
16. tufted titmouse
17. common grackle
18. american crow
19. song sparrow
20. white-throated sparrow
21. red-bellied woodpecker
(I think I am missing a few, but that is all my brain can remember)

Friday, February 10, 2012

First Signs of Change

We are ten days into February and I have noticed such a change!  It is so exciting really. The waning of winter and the subtle waxing of spring -  like creeping to the top of a roller coaster hill... slow, slow, slow... and then weeee!!!!  Patience is needed while inching our way through the remainder of winter, but the signs are everywhere that winter is subsiding and spring is knocking on the door.

Have you noticed the increase in avian activity since we flipped the calendar to February??  Every year the change takes me by surprise.  Of course, February is still winter, but the birds know that the lengthening days mean a change is coming. 
February 6th was the first morning that I heard my resident male cardinal singing outside the bedroom window.  His song is so peppy... he is the cheerleader of the bird world with his "bird-y, bird-y, birdy-birdy-birdy", upbeat and rhythmic song.

male northern cardinals are highly territorial during spring mating and breeding.  soon we will hear their peppy song every morning


The carolina chickadees have been singing since about the first of February. Their song is high-pitched, clean and clear, like a piccolo... "spring soon, spring soon".   Of course, they also sing their trademark "chickadee-dee-dee", but that song is sung all the time and not nearly as telling as the "spring soon, spring soon".
carolina chickadee

Julia's babysitter happens to live in a beautiful spot surrounded by mature trees - perfect bird habitat!  And, it certainly helps that she loves birds and feeds them!  Every morning when Julia and I get out of the car, I take quick note of which birds I can hear.  Julia says "BEE!" (which means "bird" in Julia-language).  On February 6th, I heard the largest chorus of 2012, thus far.  Song sparrows, northern cardinals, red-bellied woodpeckers (both drumming and singing), tufted titmice, carolina chickadees, blue jays, white-breasted nuthatch, and a carolina wren.  -- all singing at the same time!!  I couldn't help but share the birds' excitement!

my backyard white-breasted nuthatch has joined a small flock of chickadees and tufted titmice for the winter


I adore blue jays!  They are part of the highly intelligent corvid family which also includes crows and ravens
The day got even better when I pulled into the school parking lot.  As soon as I stepped out of my car, I heard american crows cawing and a red-shouldered hawk squawking, but best of all, I heard the KILLDEER!  yay!  Our playground residents are back!!  I just love the killdeer and have the best view of their daily happenings from my classroom window! 

Oh, and one more "first" for 2012 happened just today!  The first robin was foraging around on the ground near my crabapple tree!  Contrary to the belief of many, robins actually do winter here in southeast Ohio.  They take leave of absence from our manicured lawns and abandon their worm-diet to head for the forests where they can find berries. 

There is beauty in change and change is everywhere.  
The wheel is turning.. slowly but surely!

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Groundhog & Grandpappy Day

Ahh, the ol' Groundhog Day adage.  Don't worry too much folks, winter is going to end when it ends regardless of what goes down on February 2nd.  In fact, we would be LUCKY to endure ONLY SIX MORE WEEKS of winter.  Six more weeks puts us at March 15th.  Have you ever known an Ohio winter to end for good on March 15th?  But take heart, there are tiny signs of spring already and there will be many more by March 15th regardless of shadows.  The spring equinox (the official arrival of spring) is March 20th and there have been many years past that spring's arrival has been greeted with a snowflake.  But early or late spring... it is all a wash in the end.  The sun reaches closer every 24 hours with consequent lengthening days and nature has no choice but to respond.

But Groundhog Day is much more to me.  It is more like Grandpappy Day.  My Pappy (Mom's father) was born on February 2nd, 1927.  His groundhog birthday was always easy for me to remember.  And in so many ways, the birthday suited him perfectly!

I think that everyone who had the pleasure of knowing Pappy would agree that he was the most kind and gentle soul one would ever hope to meet.  He lived his entire life serving God through a tireless and devout Christian ministry.  He put the needs of others ahead of himself without thought simply because he knew no other way.  And even though a stroke left him crippled, it never slowed him down one single bit.  He paid little attention to the clock as he made middle of the night missions to "call on the sick and in need", as he would put it.



He loved animals, no doubt viewing them as God's creatures.  Mom and Dad have told me stories of his younger days when he would raise raccoons, skunks, opossums, and of course groundhogs as pets.  During my childhood, Pappy visited us often during his daily "out and abouts" and he never came empty-handed.  Every time his car pulled into our driveway, we knew he would either emerge with a watermelon, a tomato, a quart of strawberries, or a box turtle.  Yes, his daily ventures throughout the back roads of Appalachia while calling on folks in need, made for perfect turtle-gathering opportunities.  Of course, Pappy had no idea that removing a box turtle from its habitat was not a good idea for the turtle's well-being.  He thought he was doing the turtle (and us) a favor.  One summer in particular, he brought us so many turtles that Dad eventually built a pen out back that housed them for the season until they all mysteriously disappeared one by one.

Pappy had a gentleness to his eyes that I have never seen in another human being.  His heart was so pure that I could actually feel love and kindness emit from him.  I sensed this even as a child, or perhaps because I was a child.  He was smart and quick-witted with a sense of humor as sharp as a tack.  He liked to laugh. It is a heartwarming thought to know that I can so easily remember him sitting at our dining room table during a family dinner, laughing so hard that he would nearly choke on his food!

Pappy, I think you would be proud of me.  I turned out pretty good.  Even though I continued to listen to loud 80's rock bands after you warned me not to, I still grew up with an honest, tender heart and a love for all of God's creatures, just like you taught me. 

Groundhog's Day marks the promise of good things to come.  Spring is on its way and God's creatures will take notice.