Juncos, our winter sparrows

junco

Dark-eyed Junco on the deck. Looks like a white egg with a head and two feet, dyed charcoal gray on top. A winter Easter egg.

A flock of 10 or 12 was here yesterday, hopping around on top of the snow under the feeders, occasionally venturing closer onto the deck or railings.

Dark-eyed Juncos are neat, even flashy little sparrows that flit about forest floors of the western mountains and Canada, then flood the rest of North America for winter.

dark-eyed junco

Our juncos tidy up after the messier birds. They seem to like millet, which is scattered by many other birds who prefer the sunflowers and peanut bits.

Dark-eyed Juncos are primarily seed-eaters, with seeds of chickweed, buckwheat, lamb’s quarters, sorrel, and the like making up about 75% of their year-round diet. At feeders they seem to prefer millet over sunflower seeds.

Winter cleanup crew.

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Breakfast of the Birds, Gabrielle Munter, 1934

I signed up for Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Project Feederwatch yesterday, to count birds this winter. My kit should arrive in a few weeks.

FeederWatchers periodically count the birds they see at their feeders from November through early April and send their counts to Project FeederWatch. FeederWatch data help scientists track broadscale movements of winter bird populations and long-term trends in bird distribution and abundance.

Anyone interested in birds can participate. FeederWatch is conducted by people of all skill levels and backgrounds, including children, families, individuals, classrooms, retired persons, youth groups, nature centers, and bird clubs. Participants watch their feeders as much or as little as they want over two consecutive days as often as every week (less often is fine). They count birds that appear in their count site because of something that they provided (plantings, food, or water).

Looking forward to it.

Attracting birds with meat

bluebird

Eastern Bluebird eating… cooked crumbled sausage.

Home from Thanksgiving, I was making a shopping list and cleaning out the refrigerator. I had some sausage leftover from quiche-making last Monday. I tossed it onto the feeder tray and voila! .. instant bluebird attractant.

bluebird chickadee

Chickadee also checking it out.

Suet and Other Foods, Birding Basics: Animal fat is easily digested and metabolized by many birds; it’s a high-energy food, especially valuable in cold weather.

Lots of birds at our feeders since I refilled them after our little holiday snowstorm. And these birds attract attention…

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A hawk took a run through the backyard, landed on a branch, then flew back across the yard with me standing there on the deck trying to snap a few photos. It did not seem afraid of me.

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It landed on a maple branch nearby, probably pissed off.

I am pretty sure it’s a Sharp-shinned Hawk. They are hard to tell from Cooper’s Hawks, but this was more the size of a bluejay than a crow and had a shorter neck and more of a hunched, hooded look.

It was 13 degrees this morning and 4 to 6 inches of crusty snow blankets the earth.

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The cat perched like a hawk on her cat tower, watching birds.

Ask a Naturalist: Cooper’s Hawk or Sharp-shinned Hawk?

Project Feederwatch: Sharp-shinned Hawk and Cooper’s Hawk

Snowy owl goes to the beach

snowy owl

Not my backyard, but just a few miles away… SNOWY OWL.

This bird was sitting on top of a dune at Hampton Beach State Park, not far from the inlet, around 1 p.m.

snowy owl

Will it stay for the winter? Or move further south down the coast?

Will this year be another banner year for winter owl watching? Stay tuned.

House finches

house finch

A couple of male house finches. Often confused with purple finches, but house finches are streaky brown on their flanks and purple finches are not.

We don’t see many at our feeders, but there are many out there…

The House Finch was originally a bird of the western United States and Mexico. In 1940 a small number of finches were turned loose on Long Island, New York, after failed attempts to sell them as cage birds (“Hollywood finches”). They quickly started breeding and spread across almost all of the eastern United States and southern Canada within the next 50 years.

The total House Finch population across North America is staggering. Scientists estimate between 267 million and 1.4 billion individuals.

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House finches plus photobombing chickadees.

With their finchy beaks they crack open the sunflower shells to eat their favorite feeder food. They do not flit, but rather… sit.

Tufted titmouse

Tufted Titmouse

Familiar friends, Tufted Titmice visit pretty much every day all year round.

Like chickadees, they are members of the Paridae (or Tit) family of perching birds.

Tits are active, noisy and social birds. They are territorial during the breeding season and often joining mixed-species feeding flocks during the non-breeding season. The tits are highly adaptable and, after the corvids (crows and jays) and parrots, amongst the most intelligent of all birds.

Tufted Titmouse

They eat a variety of our feeder foods – seeds, suet, suet dough and peanuts.

They will store food for later use. They tend to be curious about their human neighbors and can sometimes be spotted on window ledges peering into the windows to watch what’s going on inside.

Like chickadees, they can hold a seed with one foot while cracking it with their beaks – unusual in perching birds.

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Chickadee and titmouse at the tube feeder.

Wild turkeys out of the woods

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Those are some big birds.

We see more wild turkeys from late fall through the winter as they come out of the woods to look for easy food. And every year there seem to be more turkeys than the year before.

Presumably these are Eastern Wild Turkeys, a subspecies of Meleagris gallopavo (silvestris).

They number from 5.1 to 5.3 million birds. They were first named ‘forest turkey’ in 1817, and can grow up to 4 ft (1.2 m) tall. The upper tail coverts are tipped with chestnut brown. Males can reach 30 lb (14 kg) in weight. The eastern wild turkey is heavily hunted in the Eastern USA and is the most hunted wild turkey subspecies.

I have never tasted wild turkey, but I would like to someday… and compare the flavor to Meleagris butterballus.

wild turkeys

Impressive wings. They look ungainly, too big to fly, but I have seen them take off high into the trees when my dog ran into the backyard. A bizarre sight.

Good book I recommend, with a chapter on wild turkeys: Nature Wars: The Incredible Story of How Wildlife Comebacks Turned Backyards into Battlegrounds, by Jim Sterba. From page 160…

… wild turkeys have had the same comeback history as geese and deer, and an even sharper trajectory, going from the edge of extinction in the 1920s to abundance a half century later. Then, just as quickly, they too went from novelties to nuisances. Here was one of the wiliest of wild creatures, one that would in the deep woods flee in an instant at the slightest movement by a hunter otherwise invisible in camouflage, suddenly turning up where people lived in the suburbs like an overgrown robin.

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Here’s a review of the book by Russell Baker writing in the NY Times: Visitors.

During America’s first 250 years, early settlers cleared away some 250 million acres of forest. Yet the forest comes back fast. By the 1950s, one half to two thirds of the landscape was reforested. Most of us now “live in the woods,” Sterba writes. “We are essentially forest dwellers.” The new forests “grew back right under the noses of several generations of Americans. The regrowth began in such fits and starts that most people didn’t see it happening.”

Here is a Thanksgiving-appropriate cocktail from the Wild Turkey bourbon website. Tipple before the feast this Thursday, or save it for a cold night and a good book by the fire.

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Yesterday I was looking up Thanksgiving-themed jokes to tell some kids and found this chestnut…

What did the turkey say to the turkey hunter?

Quack, quack, quack!

Redwings in rain

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Red-winged Blackbirds in the cold November rain, last Monday.

In winter Red-winged Blackbirds gather in huge flocks to eat grains with other blackbird species and starlings.

A large flock – maybe 40 birds – visited that morning, taking turns flying from the trees to scrounge fallen seed from the ground under the pole feeder. But a few ventured closer to the house, where a human and a cat watched them through the windows.

blackbirds

We remember them for the red on their wings, but don’t forget the yellow. They are members of the family Icteridae.

Most species have black as a predominant plumage color, often enlivened by yellow, orange or red. The family is extremely varied in size, shape, behavior and coloration. The name, meaning “jaundiced ones” (from the prominent yellow feathers of many species) comes from the Ancient Greek ikteros, through the Latin ictericus. This group includes the New World blackbirds, New World orioles, the bobolink, meadowlarks, grackles, cowbirds, oropendolas and caciques.

Yesterday, waiting at a stop sign across from Optima Bank to turn onto Route 1 in North Hampton, I spotted a mixed group of blackbirds and cowbirds… plus one Yellow-headed Blackbird (very rare in the eastern U.S.) I would have thought my eyes were deceiving me, except I subscribe to the local birder email list and knew people had been seeing this flock around, with an eye-catching male and a couple of females.

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The Blackbird
William Ernest Henley

The nightingale has a lyre of gold,
The lark’s is a clarion call,
And the blackbird plays but a boxwood flute,
But I love him best of all.

For his song is all of the joy of life,
And we in the mad, spring weather,
We two have listened till he sang
Our hearts and lips together.

Bird abundance

american tree sparrow

Cutie-pie bird. I think it’s an American Tree Sparrow.

American Tree Sparrows are small, round-headed birds that often fluff out their feathers, making their plump bodies look even chubbier. Among sparrows, they have fairly small bills and long, thin tails.

A rusty cap and rusty (not black) eyeline on a gray head, a streaked brown back, and a smooth gray to buff breast in both male and female American Tree Sparrows give an overall impression of reddish-brown and gray. A dark smudge in the center of the unstreaked breast is common.

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Three tree sparrows in a rain shower, by Ohara Koson.

Winter visitors, last recorded on my eBird checklist in February.

Look for small flocks of American Tree Sparrows in winter in weedy fields with hedgerows or shrubs, along forest edges, or near marshes. They readily visit backyards, especially if there’s a seed feeder. American Tree Sparrows breed in the far north and are rarely seen south of northern Canada in summer.

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Titmouse with seed.

Leisurely Sunday morning, cuppa coffee, observing birds, picking up the cranky old Canon with telephoto to try a few pics through the window. (A little birdy told me that Santa may be bringing me a better birding camera.)

downy nut

Downy Woodpecker looks wary of this White-breasted Nuthatch. Both were after peanuts I sprinkled on the platform feeder.

Also put out homemade suet dough this morning, plus the usual Dodge’s Agway Supreme Blend. (The chickens got some leftover rice mixed with old yogurt.)

From 7:20 to 8 a.m. I observed and recorded on eBird: 10 mourning doves, 1 red-bellied woodpecker, 3 downy woodpeckers, 6 blue jays, 5 black-capped chickadees, 4 tufted titmice, 1 white-breasted nuthatch, 2 american tree sparrows, 2 dark-eyed juncos, 1 northern cardinal, 3 american goldfinches and a posse of 6 male eastern bluebirds.

bluebird

Here is a photo of a male bluebird, taken yesterday.

They like the suet dough and peanuts… and the heated birdbath! I bet they will hang around this winter. There is also a fantastic red maple swamp beyond our backyard, full of tasty winterberries.

The last sunflower

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Sunflower seeds for our Black-capped Chickadees.

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We grew sunflowers as usual this year, out in the big garden.

Yesterday my husband found one that had not yet been picked clean of seeds so he cut off the head, turned it face up and stuck it on the garden fence.

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The chickadees, who keep an eye on us anyway whenever we go outside, wasted no time feasting… and maybe caching too.

Like many other species in the Paridae family, black-capped chickadees commonly cache food, mostly seeds but sometimes insects also. Items are stored singly in various sites such as bark, dead leaves, clusters of conifer needles, or knotholes. Memory for the location of caches can last up to 28 days. Within the first 24 hours, the birds can even remember the relative quality of the stored items.

We’re baaack

Eastern bluebird

Bluebird back for a visit.

Not sure where they went after the second batch of babies fledged, but I hadn’t seen them for a couple of months. Now one to three are stopping by a couple of times a week – probably looking for mealworms.

Bluebird

My telephoto lens broke, is one reason I haven’t been keeping up with the bird blog. August and September were dull months around here anyway, bird-wise. But winter is coming and migration is happening.

My lens has been “repaired” twice, and now only works on manual setting. That can be tough with flitting birds.

We wants a new camera, precious.

White-throated sparrow

Among our autumn visitors, a variety of small, leaf-scuffling birds like this White-throated Sparrow.

Song a clear, whistled Poor Sam Peabody, Peabody, Peabody, or Sweet Sweet Canada, Canada, Canada. The latter rendition is perhaps more appropriate, since most of these birds breed in Canada.

It is stormy today, with gusty wind and rain maybe changing to (our first) snow but probably not. Feeder visitors today are chickadees, titmice, nuthatches, blue jays and cardinals. Sparrows and juncos hopping in the grass among wind-whirling leaves. My chickens don’t want to leave the coop.

Here is a cartoon I liked in The New Yorker…

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