City birds, big bugs and a new birdwatcher

A Starling disassembles a cicada, on a sidewalk in Alexandria, Virginia.

It’s a big year for bugs.

Cicadas crawl about forests all over the world, and most have annual life cycles. But periodical cicadas, which don’t exist anywhere else on Earth but the eastern United States, spend far more time underground before emerging in broods to mate either every 13 years or every 17 years. A different cicada brood emerges most years, but these groups vary greatly in size and location. This year will be special: The so-called Brood X is among the largest and densest. The insects will appear by the billions in three distinct hotspots that cross parts of Pennsylvania, Delaware, Washington, D.C., Illinois, Ohio, Indiana, Georgia, and Tennessee. 

House Sparrows were munching cicadas too.

Seems like a big bug for a small bird, but cicadas are slow and defenseless. Though perhaps their defenses are in their periodically large numbers.

Birds usually help keep bug populations in check, and the cicada influx will be a bonanza for a number of medium- or larger-sized birds that are big enough to dine on the two-inch insects. But because millions of cicadas emerge on a single acre of forest during big brood years, even the keenest birds hardly put a dent in the population.

If you live in the mid-Atlantic region, you can: Help researchers learn which birds eat periodical cicadas.

I am visiting my eldest daughter Anna who moved to the DC area with her husband a year ago during the stress, masking and lockdown restrictions of Covid. Regarding meeting new people and enjoying the culture and variety of city life, she said, “I might as well be living on the moon.”

Earlier this spring, Anna discovered a woodland area along a stream a few blocks from her apartment. It connects to a small park with a paved path looping under trees and through the grassy flood plain. She goes there many evenings after a long day of working from home and before doing homework for her online classes. She has started to learn the birds.

A Great Blue Heron is a regular visitor to the stream.

Yesterday in the early evening, Anna logged her first eBird checklist there. A new birdwatcher has fledged!

These Mallards made the list, as did one Mourning Dove, two Blue Jays pestering three Crows (Fish or American, we weren’t sure), a couple of Carolina Chickadees in a willow tree, four European Starlings strutting around on the park lawns, two madly-singing Gray Catbirds, three Northern Cardinals, and a couple of House Sparrows.

She also learned that a pair of binoculars plus intent staring up into the tree canopy or down into a meadow can be a conversation starter with other nature lovers, dog walkers and curious passersby. Welcome back to Earth from the Moon, dear daughter.

An ear-full of waxwings

IMG_3205-2

Pointy on one end, blunt on the other, the European Starling.

IMG_3212-2

A silhouette of starlings, perched on a wire over a busy street. Why do they like the busiest streets?

IMG_3214-2

Is this Cedar Waxwing singing, or screaming at the top of its lungs?

IMG_3221-2

Big flocks of Cedar Waxwings are still here in Sewall’s Point. Shouldn’t they be heading north by now? Human snowbirds are pretty much gone. Traffic is blessedly light.

IMG_3222-2

Cedar Waxwings are easier to hear than see, unless they are moving across the sky from the tops of one big tree to another.

IMG_3223-2

When they are not eating tree fruit/ berries, they perch close together and hang out, not moving too much.

Collective nouns for waxwings are an ear-full and a museum. (Link.)

A Museum of Wax(wings), get it?

IMG_3229-2

Solo or in small flocks, White Ibis are ubiquitous.

IMG_3230-2

This one was standing on a tree limb across the street from our driveway, keeping a big blue eye on the lady with the camera.

Birds of black

IMG_9932

Starlings, my darlings.

IMG_9936

Grackle on the lawn.

Welcome back, blackbirds! Many grackles and red-winged blackbirds have been flying through in the last couple of days. Another sign of spring.

Starry, starry day

snowing

It’s snowing.

This is the maple tree next to our house and deck and bird feeders that is the birds’ most popular perching spot pre- and post-feeding.

starry

Some starlings visited today.

The snow is wet and spring-like on this, the first full day of spring.

starling

Nice hairdo, bird.

Bird watching a(nother) snowstorm

White-throated Sparrow close up

One White-throated Sparrow.

More big snow yesterday. What else was there to do but watch birds?

Anyway, it was one of my two counting days per week for Project Feederwatch.

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.

White-breasted Nuthatch

One White-breasted Nuthatch.

I bet there are two that visit our feeders, I just didn’t see them at the same time on Sunday or Monday.

Mourning Dove

Subtly beautiful colors, a Mourning Dove.

I like their calmness, as the other birds flit and flap. The most I saw at once: 7.

Downy Woodpecker male

A male Downy Woodpecker, black and white with a little red cap.

In two days I counted 96 individual birds of 19 species. Three downies, one male and two females.

titmouse

Five Tufted Titmice in total, but with the definite impression I am missing some as they move so quickly. Although not quickly enough for the snow. This is the first time I noticed snow building up on some birds! What a February we are having. And today is only the 10th.

Purple Finch Valentine

A little birdie Valentine: Purple Finch.

The state bird of New Hampshire looks lovely in snow. I counted two males yesterday.

Starling

The pestiferous though kinda pretty European Starling.

At one point there were 9 in the birch trees watching the feeders, as I stood on the other side of the sliding glass door and watched them. They are spooked by people, still, but I bet they will learn fast to ignore us.

They seem to eat anything but especially like my homemade suet dough. So do the bluebirds – who are not afraid of me. I scared the starlings away a few times so the bluebirds could eat too. I may need to consider a special starling-excluding feeder if I get too many of them.

This week’s Project Feederwatch totals…

Mourning Dove 7
Red-bellied Woodpecker 1
Downy Woodpecker 3
Hairy Woodpecker 1
Blue Jay 5
Black-capped Chickadee 10
Tufted Titmouse 5
Red-breasted Nuthatch 1
White-breasted Nuthatch 1
Eastern Bluebird 6
European Starling 9
American Tree Sparrow 12
White-throated Sparrow 1
Dark-eyed Junco 12
Northern Cardinal 13
Red-winged Blackbird 1
Purple Finch 2
Pine Siskin 1
American Goldfinch 5

Flickr album: February 9 snowstorm birds

Tree Sparrow

American Tree Sparrow, with its rusty-red buzzcut hairdo.

Steve Grinley: Bird Feeders Help Birds Survive, and Breed Successfully

It has been a harsh winter here in New England and feeding birds can certainly help them survive. Birds that have stayed the winter or migrated from further north to feast on natural seeds and fruit in our area will be finding that the winter supply of natural food is being depleted. Our resident birds appreciate the added handout that feeders provide. In addition to the nourishment that bird seed and suet provide, the birds expend less energy and burn less fat, helping them to survive the cold. A number of birds that don’t normally stay the winter or that may be here accidentally and are not used to New England weather are particularly helped by seed and suet at feeders.

Fun facts about starlings

IMG_0943

Fact #1: This is the first starling we have ever seen in our immediate backyard. It visited the feeders, preferring the homemade suet dough in the dome feeder.

Pretty feathers! Reminds me of a speckled hen.

IMG_0949

More facts, from Cornell Lab of Ornithology…

Starlings turn from spotted and white to glossy and dark each year without shedding their feathers. The new feathers they grow in fall have bold white tips – that’s what gives them their spots. By spring, these tips have worn away, and the rest of the feather is dark and iridescent brown. It’s an unusual changing act that scientists term “wear molt.”

This one is fluffed up to keep more warmth near its body (making it look even more like a fat little hen). It is 10 degrees now and was -6 this morning.

IMG_0956

All the European Starlings in North America descended from 100 birds set loose in New York’s Central Park in the early 1890s. The birds were intentionally released by a group who wanted America to have all the birds that Shakespeare ever mentioned.

Now there are 200 million all across North America!

Scientific American: Shakespeare to blame for introduction of European starlings to North America

Clearly, the Bard abided birds—his works include references to more than 600 avian species. A Bronx resident, drug manufacturer Eugene Schieffelin (a street bearing his name isn’t far from my house) seems to be particularly responsible for the starlings’ arrival here. Well, his chickens have come home to roost.

IMG_0962

Because of their recent arrival in North America, all of our starlings are closely related. Genetically, individuals from Virginia are nearly indistinguishable from starlings sampled in California, 3,000 miles away. Such little genetic variation often spells trouble for rare species, but seems to offer no ill effects to starlings so far.

IMG_0960

Starlings forage in lawns, fields, and other open areas with short vegetation. They wander over the ground, often quite rapidly, poking their closed bill into the ground and using their strong jaw muscles to force open the bill and search for soil insects and other invertebrates. They often forage with other species, including grackles, cowbirds, blackbirds, House Sparrows, Rock Pigeons, American Robins, and American Crows. Watching starlings in flocks can reveal several ways that these gregarious birds communicate with their neighbors. Starlings signal agitation by flicking their wings, or by staring at their opponents while standing erect, fluffing their feathers, and raising the feathers of the head. Submissive birds crouch and move away with their feathers sleeked. Confrontations can escalate into birds charging at each other and stabbing with their long bills. Birds on wires may push others away by sidling along the perch until they’ve run out of room.

This bird seemed alone – no other starlings. Plenty of other birds around, though: chickadees, titmice, bluebirds, blue jays, downy and red-bellied woodpeckers, nuthatches, mourning doves, cardinals, tree sparrows, juncos, goldfinches.