Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Bird Listing

Birders love to keep lists.  Some people keep a list for the year and try to find as many species as possible. This is called a "Big Year".  Other people are more casual and relaxed about listing, but still keep a list for the year.  Some keep a list for a day, or a week, or a month.  Some keep lists for certain locations.  But most every birder has a "life list", every bird they've ever seen (or heard) in their entire life. 

There are also "rules" to list keeping.  Officially, the American Birding Association has a list of rules for those keeping a "Big Year" list competively.  But most birders adopt and abide by their own set of rules.  Most will count a bird if it is heard and 100% identifiable by ear.  I count "by ear" birds because some (like whip-poor-will and owls) are extremely difficult to find, but much easier to hear.

I keep three lists.
1. Life List (all of the birds I've seen since I've been birding, 5 years total)
2. Yard List (birds seen or heard within my yard, includes fly-overs)
3. Cabin List (all species found within our 30 acres of land: both wooded and pasture)

In addition to the three lists above, I keep lists each time I go out birding.  I enter these lists at eBird, Cornell Lab of Ornithology and National Audubon Society's citizen science project. Learn more about it here.
Because I am birding the same location over and over, I tend to be very skilled at a certain number of bird species. I see the same species, and combinations of, all the time.  However, when someone new shows up, it is a cause for celebration and a challenge for me to learn a new bird.

Here is the list from Memorial Day weekend: (30 acres of pasture and woods)
1. eastern phoebe
2. northern cardinal
3. eastern bluebird
4. turkey vulture
5. barred owl
6. ruby-throated hummingbird
7. mourning dove
8. american robin
9. eastern kingbird
9. common yellowthroat
10. chipping sparrow
11. song sparrow
12. brown-headed cowbird
13. european starling
14. baltimore oriole
15. eastern wood pee-wee
17. field sparrow
18. scarlet tanager
19. wood thrush
20. carolina chickadee (active nest!)
21. tufted titmouse
22. red-bellied woodpecker
23. blue jay
24. american crow
25. american goldfinch (as seen from the cabin kitchen window!)

26. house finch
27. hooded warbler
28. yellow warbler
29. tree swallow
30. house sparrow
31. red-winged blackbird
32. red-eyed vireo
33. white-breasted nuthatch
34. brown thrasher
35. pileated woodpecker
36. carolina wren
37. ovenbird

Monday, May 6, 2013

Nesting Cardinals

Cardinalis cardinalis                     Order: PASSERIFORMES                          Family: CARDINALIDAE

 I really love cardinals! Who doesn't?!  They are beautiful, excellent singers, and our state bird!  Early in spring (sometimes late February), the male cardinal is the first of my neighborhood songbirds to really sing in earnest.  His "cheeeeer, cheeeeer" song is just what I need to hear after a long, hard winter!

Cardinals are sexually dimorphic, meaning that the male and female look differently.  The bright male is vibrantly suited in red... a color that the female cardinal finds irresistible! :)  The female is more drab... a light brown, pinkish color. The fact that she is drab in color is no accident!  Her coloring allows her to blend perfectly with her nest allowing her to avoid predation.

Cardinals are here year round and often flock together without problems... in fact, you've probably seen many at backyard feeders.  During breeding however, they tend to become very territorial... to the point of fighting their own image in car mirrors, house windows, and anywhere with a reflection!

In the picture below (taken during the spring of 2012), the male cardinal seems to be "courting" the female.  He passed a seed to her during this intimate "kiss".  I can only guess that he is attempting to convince her that he would be a wonderful provider and that she should chose him to father her children!  .... a bit of anthropomorphism (applying human actions and feelings to animals!)

This spring, at the farm, I've been keeping an eye on a pair of cardinals.  I was certain they were nest building in a small stand of white pines.  Sure enough, I inadvertently flushed Mama from the nest while investigating the area.  She gave her nest location away when she left the nest.  I was delighted to find three perfect eggs!  After snapping a quick photo, I left the area, so that Mama could return.  By the way, I once learned that it is best to leave a bird's nesting location via a different route than you arrived... as to not leave a human scent trail directly to the nest for other predators to follow.

Mama Cardinal set diligently on the nest all week.  Birds are really great mothers.  She would allow me to come within reasonable distance.  Although, I never pushed the boundary too much.  The following photos were taken with a telephoto lens.  You can almost "feel" her stillness and silence.  She never flinched, but kept a very close eye on me!

Saturday, May 4, I checked the nest for the first time in a week.  I was absolutely thrilled to find that two of the eggs had hatched!!!  The third had "pipped". This means that the baby had poked his way through to make the first crack in the eggshell.  I knew I had arrived at a very critical time.  The two chicks were only hours old and the third was about to hatch.  I took ONE photo and backed away quickly.  Mama returned to the nest within minutes.  The following morning, she was on the nest.  I said a "well wish" for the family as I drove my car away back towards home.

It is now Monday... and raining.  I wonder how they are doing?  Did they survive the night?  Is the chilly day making feeding difficult?  Is everything okay??  .... will it all be okay?   This is where it gets tough for us humans.  I have to trust in the cycle of nature and know that what is, is what will be.  I wish the the best and will update later.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Nesting Brown Thrashers


Toxostoma: rufum                  Order: PASSERIFORMES                 Family: MIMIDAE

I’ve come to rely on them…. the brown thrashers.  They are like dear old friends, returning each spring to the same tree to sing their peppy and spirited song… and to the same tangled mess of shrubbery to raise their family.  I like having them around, that’s for sure!

Brown Thrashers are a funny bird.  Along with mockingbirds and catbirds, they belong to the “mimic group”.  They imitate the song of others, though not as impressively as the mockingbird.  They sing in fast little bursts… repeating each phrase twice.  Some people claim the brown thrasher announces the garden planting time with their song: “drop it, drop it… plant it, plant it…. In the dirt, in the dirt”.  Mnemonic devices (applying human words to bird songs) are fun and make for an easy way to recognize and identify birds by ear while in the field.

Our thrasher typically arrives sometime in mid-April.  He sings from the top of a cherry tree announcing his territory and intentions of nesting.  

Last year, like every year, the thrasher family once again chose a very thick tangle of thorny shrubs for their nest.  The nest was large (the thrasher is a tad larger than a robin), and about four feet off the ground.  I was worried that it would be too accessible to prey, but then I remembered that the VERY sharp thorns provide adequate protection.  I have tried to get close to the nest in the past for study purposes, but the thorns tore my skin and my clothing.  Those smart birds know what they’re doing when they choose the razor sharp thorn bush as their home.  Last year’s successful nest fledged four babies.

This year, the thrashers moved their nest to the neighboring thorny shrub, about ten feet away from last year’s site. Mama is already on the nest and things are going well.  I don’t know how many eggs she has because the nest is so well protected with thorns that I am unable to get close to it.  She sits tight and watches me like a hawk, er uh.. thrasher!  She won’t budge and holds perfectly still.  I try not to stress her and give her adequate space and respect.  My zoom lens allows me to get close without being physically close.  Yet, she is still watchful and cautious! 

Do you see Mama Thrasher in the above photo?  Look very CLOSELY!!  She is a master of camouflage and holds perfectly still.  Doesn't this make you wonder how many times you have walked  RIGHT PAST a bird's nest without realizing it!?

Brown Thrashers have yellow eyes.  That is what I look for when trying to locate a nest in a tangle of thorns.  I know that I won't be able to see her body, as it is perfectly blended, but her watchful eye will catch my attention.

 Look at that tail!!  I love her form.  If she were an Olympic athlete in the event of nest sitting, I'd give her a 10!  Such beauty, poise, and grace! 

I hope the nest will be a success!  It is a little behind last year’s timeline, but that’s okay as the spring has been cold and fickle.