Saturday, January 29, 2011

Birds in Review Part XII More Winter Feeding

American Robins are members of the Thrush family and are particularly fond of the Crabapple Orchard. They are often thought to be heralds of spring but here they reside all year round, certainly in part due to this little orchard. Robins live on fruit in the winter months and are seen during the growing seasons standing like sentinels one minute and the next running nearly horizontal to the ground searching for worms and insects. They are scattered in open areas throughout the gardens . . . sometimes in groups of fifty or more spaced a few feet apart making the land appear to be in motion. 

Come spring theirs will be the first song to fill the gardens and they will begin nesting earlier than other birds. Robins can raise up to three broods a year, though less than half of their babies will survive to become adults. They are preyed upon by Hawks, Crows, Bluejays, snakes, weasels and squirrels to name a few. Enough do survive, for I have read that some winter roosts can be as large as a quarter million!

Robins will also dine on the smaller rose hips in the garden . . .  favored as well by the Bluebirds. The Northern Cardinals prefer the larger Rosa Rugosa hips, which are in abundance just across from this Crabapple . . . the very direction the female Cardinal is facing. The Cardinals do not appear to eat the Crabapples and I believe that is why there is no contest here between the two birds.

A female Cardinal works hard to open the outer covering of the hips.

She appears to be examining this one carefully . . . 

clearly it passes the test!

When we hear the songs of birds, we might assume that only the males are singing and in most cases this is true. The female Cardinal . . .  along with a few other female songbirds . . .  also sings and her song can be more varied and last longer than the males. I have read that the more rose hips a Cardinal eats the redder their color becomes. I think it rather terrific that not only can my garden feed the birds but it may help to paint them as well!

This male surely has been eating tons of rose hips!

The couple is very conscientious and leave nothing to waste on the cold snowy garden floor. 

It must be pretty cold as this fellow shows . . . all puffed-up and holding one foot within the warm fluffy feathers. 

Now . . . where was I? 

There were two large shrubs filled with hips in 2009. This last summer due to the drought the roses did not produce as many rose hips . . . still there are a good many for the Cardinals to feed on complementing their diet of wild grapes . . . dried at this time of year. . . sumac and many varieties of seeds. 
Both the male and female will defend their territory from other Cardinals. It is very comical to see them relentlessly tapping their reflections in windows or even car rear-view mirrors during the season they are rearing their young. 

One day last winter a Robin was equally resolute in driving away the Bluebirds from the tiny rose hips behind the farmhouse. I am not certain of the identification of this wild rose but it may be the invasive Japanese multiflora . . . though the hips seem more oval in shape. The Bluebirds love the smaller size and enjoy dining on the fruits of the two bushes I inherited. The Robins will have none of it, however, and even when the flock is off somewhere else feeding, one will remain behind to watch over the nutritious hip filled rose bushes. 

The Bluebirds are always on the fly and I feel I must have a word with the Robin!

He does not appreciate my scolding . . . is not interested in sharing . . . but does finally fly off allowing the Bluebirds to feast. 

I have promised myself to find out exactly which rose this is and to replace it with a native rose that will provide similar hips. I will leave these until the new ones become established. Please let me know if you think you can identify this plant. It has lovely small white clustered flowers. I cannot bear to remove a plant that offers such important winter food for birds. 

Eastern North American Rhus glabra or smooth Sumac if very invasive but does have some redeeming graces. It has vibrant fall colors and more importantly provides berries rich in vitamin C that many birds love and which sustains them throughout the cold winter months. 
This morning Bluebirds are flying up to the barn windows and doors, as I cast out new born flies! Finally I find a beneficial purpose for those born inside during the winter. I am happy to report that I am seeing many Bluebirds today. In fact it is very busy out with Juncos, Cedar Waxwings, Bluebirds, Robins, Chickadees, Cardinals and surprisingly a few Pine Siskins darting about the naked trees and shrubs.
My next post will feature other plants and trees about the gardens that also feed the birds. 

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Birds in Review Part XI Hoarfrost and Twinkletoes Turkeys

One morning recently I looked out onto a glistening landscape. I had noticed the night before, as I walked to my barn studio, a peculiar twinkling within the branches of the shrubs and trees in front of the house.

I confess to not even knowing the name for this marvel. Two friends immediately said "Hoarfrost!", when I began describing what reminded me of tiny, thin crystals of dolomite or mica flakes of frost, covering countless branches and waiting buds or calyxes across the countryside.

There is a mysterious mystical quality about this phenomenon of water vapor freezing in still weather and collectively coating anything in its path, with a random design of frozen flakes. I was enchanted by the transparent jellyfish like bodies floating away in this photograph.

It has been very cold for humans and wildlife. I do worry for the Bluebirds! I was surprised to see six birds fly out of this house the other morning. One right after the other appearing at the hole and flying out. To see their little heads popping out one to six was a sight! I did not have my camera, but ran to get it and these not very good shots were all I could manage, looking out through two layers of windows. Three birds had already flown away. They must have been all huddled up together in the birdhouse to keep warm. I had read recently that someone found dead Bluebirds in a nest box similar to this one . . . that had clearly been trying to survive a freezing cold night in just this way. I do hope these birds are all safe. We are having a true winter for a change.

Snow keeps piling up. The large snow cake under the Crabapples has another solid layer and the chair snow cushions are thicker too.

The Crabapple Orchard is cozily covered in a bulky blanket of white and always a source of important winter bird food and entertainment for its steward!

Wild Turkeys look ever so large when teetering in the thin branches of Crabapples.

Looking through glass and a snowstorm they seem to be looking back trying to discern what my form is.

They use their wings to help maintain balance. Twinkletoes turkeys have been leaping into the Crabapples since they were planted nearly twenty years ago. It was very comical to see them in the early days, when the trees were tiny.  Their weight might well have broken a branch or two. 

Later that day, as the storm lifted, several Wild Turkeys came back to the Crabapples. I was able to sneak the door open a bit to get better shots. This time they are atop a tree further away within what I call 'The Three Graces' . . . a cluster of three trees not inside the orchard. 

I read in National Geographic that Benjamin Franklin had wanted the native Wild Turkey to be our National bird. As this turkey walks into the Crabapple Orchard, she does have a rather patrician look about her.

For every bird that is in the trees there are more below gathering the fallen apples. Not one tiny apple is wasted. The sun reflects beautiful colors in their luxuriant coat of feathers. 

Females will feed their young for only a few days and then the little ones follow their mothers and feed themselves within the larger flock of hens and chicks. I have often seen large flocks of over forty birds including the chicks crossing the road or down in the blueberry field eating blueberries. They love the crabapples but also eat acorns from the many oaks here, seeds, insects (including ticks!!), buds and even salamanders. I see them foraging for seeds in the open fields. They will jump up and down to reach seeds on taller plants. Chicks are so adorable when crossing the road . . . though I fear for them . . . as they usually walk in a straight line one behind the other much like ducklings. Within the gardens, fields and forest I see the turkeys trekking along moving in one direction behind a leader. Throughout the seasons it is a joy to hear the gobbling calls and songs of the males which are carried up from the forest.

It is hard to imagine that these noble birds were nearly extinct in the early 20th century. They had all but disappeared from the northeast, from over hunting and loss of habitat. Humans did regain their sanity in time to save the Wild Turkey and reintroduced them successfully to their former ranges and even places they had not lived before. Wild Turkeys have a fear of humans for good reasons, so that whenever I try to open a window or door to capture them better they take flight in great fright! I keep hoping that they will get used to me but it does not seem to happen. I do not think they have very good eyesight. When flying and right before landing they offer a spectacular display. I want to join Gail's Wildflower Wednesday a day late and not really flowers at all, but surely as wondrous as any flora. 

Monday, January 24, 2011

Birds in Review Part X Feeding Feasting Birds

Male Pine Grosbeak 

Long long ago . . . so it seems now . . . I had bird feeders all around the house. There was a suet feeder hanging on the south side, just outside the downstairs kitchen window, a couple of cylinder seed filled feeders dangled in front of the eastern living room windows and a small tray feeder was attached about seven feet off the ground to a bedroom storm window on the north side of the house. I enjoyed seeing the birds up close for many years in this way. Then the bear came! First, he found the suet feeder to his liking. Then off with the cylinder feeders tops and down the hatch . . .  then that left one . . . a little tray feeder rested on suction cups right on the storm window, which was a foot away from where I lay sleeping. The bed was right up against the wall under the window. It was early morning early March just before sunrise. I was sleeping late that morning . . . a strange noise awoke me and I had barely opened my eyes, when I should see much to my immediate fright . . . a large black bear looming over me with only a thin plate of glass between us! I had opened up the inside window a few days before to better see the sky. He knocked the feeder down and then went tumbling in large mass, as only a bear can do . . . towards the compost pile. I jumped up . . . very glad the storm window could hold all that weight . . .  ran into the kitchen and grabbed two large pots. Stepping outside I began banging the pots together making a loud noise . . . hoping this would scare the bear. He did run away but came back the very next day. Bears have very good memories . . . he came back for food he assumed . . . wrongly. . . would still be available to him. I had taken all the feeders down and to this day they have not gone back up. I could hear the familiar sound of his body rubbing up against the north corner of the house, as he came round to the bedroom window the next morning. I had pots nearby and began with my noise making defense right away. Bears are creatures of habits . . . and so . . .  he ran away again right to the compost pile and after digging around a bit went on out of sight. I will share more bear stories on a later wildlife post.
I hope this explains why you never see bird feeders here at Flower Hill Farm. 
My garden is my only bird feeder these days.
The Crabapple Orchard offers the most sought after food, while giving me great entertainment along with many opportunities for capturing birds in action.

It was a real joy to have Pine Grosbeaks visiting two years ago! I had never seen them before nor since, as they rarely come this far south. Pine Grosbeaks usually live in boreal forests in more northern mountainous areas across Asia, Europe and North America. The Crabapple Orchard was magical that winter as hundreds of birds were content to remain around for weeks enjoying the miniature apples. The small trees were filled and animated for hours each day with the colors, sounds and movements of this large flock of over a hundred birds. There was hardly any room in the orchard for my regular bird guests.

Female Pine Grosbeak

They were not the least bit shy allowing me to open the windows, in order to take these photographs.

Immature male Pine Grosbeak

This male Pine Grosbeak seems to have lost his tail! I would love to know his story. He was jumping around in the most unusual ways. At first I did not understand . . . then this photograph told me what was missing. He must have a hard time balancing and I am not sure how he can manage to fly without tail feathers.

Our American Goldfinches are a curious lot. They are strict vegetarians . . . eating mostly seeds, preferring asters, thistle, grasses and sunflowers. Here in the gardens they also love seeds of the White and Gray Birch. It is only in recent years that I have noticed them beginning to eat fruit in the gardens. I would see them flying around with Bluebirds and Robins and it seemed to me they were studying how these birds were eating fruit. Now I regularly see the Goldfinches eating Crabapples too. In early spring I noticed to my horror that they have taken to eating my Viburnum buds as well. The buds appear like tiny fruits before they open and just the right size for the Goldfinches to devour. Much easier than the larger and tougher Crabapples. I had to put my foot down at once on this new development! 

The first year I had not realized what they were doing until I began to notice the buds looked deflated. They were not just deflated they were gone! Those little twits ate hundreds that year. I had not one flower nor did other birds get to enjoy the later developing fruits. So the chase began. I had to be on guard early morning until dusk every day. I was able to cover a few shrubs but most were too tall. I was amazed to see how quickly they learned to stop eating the buds, for the next year I only had to cover two shrubs and then they just stopped all together. I guess they did not enjoy being chased out of the gardens with long bamboo branches. It was funny to witness their behavior  ( I am sure my behavior was not amusing to them, though I did feel a bit silly! ) and how they were able to learn from other birds to eat fruit, then suddenly began eating buds . . .  well my red Viburnum buds did look very similar to tiny fruits. . .  then simply stop eating what made me unhappy. Needless to say the garden was not harmonious with me running around with a large bamboo shaker! Shaking was all I could ever do, of course, for they were always higher than I could reach and I would never want to harm the pretty yellow birds anyway. My shrubs have rights too and the flowers offer important food for honeybees and other insects.

When Cowbirds lay an egg in the Goldfinches nests, the nestling will not survive on the vegetarian diet and it will usually die a few days after hatching. So Cowbirds are not a threat to the American Goldfinch. It is curious too that they wait until June to nest . . . for they prefer to build their nests from thistle and milkweed seeds and down. They raise their young on the seeds as well.  Every May I must keep a careful eye out for their mischief . . . to be sure they are not up to their new old tricks of eating my precious Viburnum buds. How odd that they would suddenly begin to act this way . . . ever evolving I guess. We should all learn to expect the unexpected in nature.

After bites of apple a nice drop of water will just hit the spot.

The true masters of dining on crabapple fruit has to be the Waxwings. Cedar and Bohemian Waxwings look similar but the Cedar do not have the orange under the tail and are more brownish where Bohemian Waxwings are more blue-gray as these. These exquisite Bohemian Waxwings have learned how to position and toss the fruit up, then catch the apples midair swallowing them whole. Quite entertaining to watch. Bohemian and Cedar Waxwings can live for months on fruit alone. The Cowbird nestling has trouble surviving in their nests too because they need other protein to survive. These are some of my favorite bird photos. They remind me of pastels more than photographs. I think that is what I love about them. They were taken from inside . . . looking through glass . . .  as Bohemian Waxwings are very shy and would immediately fly away, if I opened a window or door.

They flock to the Crabapple Orchard and like the Pine Grosbeaks above fill the trees with color much like beautiful exotic flowers. Bohemian Waxwings can get a bit tipsy from eating too many fermented apples. 

Gulp! Gulp!

Fly carefully! 
Planting a Crabapple Orchard or a few trees is a very good way to feed the winter birds. In the spring, birds feed on the many insects that seem to be attracted to the flowers. The trees are fantastic living bird feeders. Black Bears do not care for them!
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