Birds on Distant Hill
A Beak of Another Color
It’s hard to predict where in the western and northeastern US Evening Grosbeaks (Coccothraustes vespertinus) will show up in any given winter to feed. Knowing that, we are lucky to have a small flock of Evening Grosbeaks visiting our bird-feeder this winter here in New Hampshire.
These beautiful birds are fairly large and often travel in sizable flocks. Because of their size they prefer platform feeders to tube feeders. They eat sunflower seeds but are also attracted to the seeds, berries, and buds of trees and shrubs, especially maples, in the gardens and forests of Distant Hill.
In summer Evening Grosbeaks fly north to breed in spruce-fir, pine-oak, pinyon-juniper, and aspen forests of northern North America and the mountains of the West.
Both male and female Evening Grosbeaks display an interesting physical change from winter to summer — not in the color of their plumage but in the color of their rather large beak. It turns a pale, pearly green color during breeding season from a bone-white color in winter. The beak of the bird in the photos is beginning to change to breeding color.
A Peaceful End to the Nesting Box War
To learn about the Nesting Box War go to an earlier blog 'Bluebird vs Tree Swallow'
We have been trying to get Eastern Bluebirds to nest in our birdhouses for many years, without any luck. After noticing that we always had Tree Swallows use the boxes instead of bluebirds, I decided to do a bit of research. I soon found out that we were not the only ones with this problem, but that there was a possible fix.
Scientists have discovered that the distance between the nesting boxes is critical to attracting bluebirds instead of swallows. We followed the recommendations and moved our four boxes. I guess it worked, because this is the second brood of bluebirds raised in this box this season.
A Rare Bird
A male Northern Bobwhite (Colinus virginianus), in a maple tree on Distant Hill in Walpole, New Hampshire. The Northern Bobwhite is a resident throughout eastern North America, from southern Mexico and western Guatemala through the United States to extreme southern Canada. Southern New Hampshire is at the northern most geographic range of this bird in New England.
In Long Island, New York, students and teachers are helping biologist Eric Powers with an initiative named 'The Bobwhite Quail Project'. He feels that ground feeding birds are a missing link in the fight against ticks and lyme disease. They have been raising Bobwhite chick and releasing them into the local parks, with a noticalbe reduction in the tick population.
Here is a very short video gives a hint of why this bird is named a "BOB-White".
Bobwhite...A Near Threatened Species
Bobwhites are classified as 'Near Threatened' by The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species™ because of loss of habitat and over hunting. They are found in early successional vegetation in a variety of habitats, often created by disturbances from fire, agriculture and timber-harvesting. Maintaining tree canopy cover at less than 50% to develop open, parklike conditions is essential. It has been estimated that over 20,000,000 individuals are being killed annually by hunters in the United States.
Wood Ducks Taking Flight
This pair of Wood Ducks (Aix sponsa) visited the swimming pond at Distant Hill Gardens in the early morning. Because of the low light, I had to use a very high ISO "film" speed. This makes them look more like paintings than photos. Beautiful, none the less.
Wood Duck Facts
- Natural cavities for nesting are scarce, and the Wood Duck readily uses nest boxes provided for it. If nest boxes are placed too close together, many females lay eggs in the nests of other females.
- The Wood Duck nests in trees near water, sometimes directly over water, but other times up to 2 km (1.2 mi) away. After hatching, the ducklings jump down from the nest tree and make their way to water. The mother calls them to her, but does not help them in any way. The ducklings may jump from heights of up to 89 m (290 ft) without injury.
- The Wood Duck is a popular game bird, and is second only to the Mallard in numbers shot each year in the United States.
- Wood Ducks pair up in January, and most birds arriving at the breeding grounds in the spring are already paired. The Wood Duck is the only North American duck that regularly produces two broods in one year.
The above facts are thanks to allaboutbirds.org
A Declining Species
North America has two easily distinguished races of Northern Flickers: the yellow-shafted form of the East, which occurs into Texas and the Great Plains, and the red-shafted form of the West. The key difference is the color of the flight-feather shafts, which are either a lemon yellow or a rosy red. Hybrids look intermediate and are common at the edges of these two groups’ ranges.
The Yellow-shafted Flicker is one of the most rapidly disappearing birds in North America. Breeding Bird Surveys show a steady decline of three to five percent annually since the mid 1960s. Christmas Bird Counts depict the same trend. By these estimates, there may be only one-third as many flickers around today as there were in 1960.
Interesting Flicker Facts
- Although it can climb up the trunks of trees and hammer on wood like other woodpeckers, the Northern Flicker prefers to find food on the ground. Ants are its main food, and the flicker digs in the dirt to find them. It uses its long barbed tongue to lap up the ants.
- The red-shafted and yellow-shafted forms of the Northern Flicker formerly were considered different species. The two forms hybridize extensively in a wide zone from Alaska to the panhandle of Texas. A hybrid often has some traits from each of the two forms and some traits that are intermediate between them. The Red-shafted Flicker also hybridizes with the Gilded Flicker, but less frequently.
- The Northern Flicker is one of the few North American woodpeckers that is strongly migratory. Flickers in the northern parts of their range move south for the winter, although a few individuals often stay rather far north.
The above facts are thanks to allaboutbirds.org
Ruby-throated Hummingbirds have returned to Distant Hill Gardens. As part of their spring migration, some of these birds fly across the Gulf of Mexico, a 500 mile (800 km), non-stop flight over water.
These tiny birds, the only hummingbird species to breed in eastern North America, don't just consume nectar but are omnivores, also feeding on insects and spiders. An adult ruby-throated hummingbird may eat twice its body weight in food each day, which it needs to sustain its high metabolism. Its rapid wing movement of 53 beats per second must burn up the calories quickly!
Females ruby-throats provide all care for young hummingbirds, often having several broods each year. They lay one to three eggs, incubate them for about two weeks, and, after hatching, feed their young for about three weeks. Ruby-throated hummingbirds are largely solitary outside of the breeding season.
Of all hummingbirds in the United States, this species has the largest breeding range, covering all the states east of the Mississippi River.
On Top of the World
Chipping Sparrows love our Christmas tree plantation at Distant Hill Gardens. A number of the birds call the conifers home for the spring and summer months. We always find a few nests in the twenty or so trees we cut to give to friends each Holiday season.
Chipping Sparrows seem to gravitate toward evergreens. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology's website allaboutbirds.org states that:"Chipping Sparrows... sing from the tops of small trees (often evergreens). When singing, they cling to high outer limbs." We can vouch for that.
The Nesting Box War
Both Eastern Bluebirds and Tree Swallows visit us at Distant Hill Gardens every spring. We have six bird boxes for them to nest in, but there is a problem - they will compete for the same box. It turns out there is a way to alleviate the problem. Bluebirds will not let another pair of bluebirds nest within about 300 feet. Tree Swallows defend a range of only about 20 feet from other nesting Tree Swallows. However, both will allow other species of birds to nest within there defended range.
The trick is to place the nesting boxes in pairs, no more than 5-10 feet apart. Each pair of boxes should be at least 300 feet from the next pair. Too many boxes in one bluebird territory may attract groups of swallows that can mob a lone pair of bluebirds. If swallows use one of the paired boxes, they will allow bluebirds to nest next to them, but not other swallows. With the next pair of boxes being 300 feet away, these can also accomodate both swallows and bluebirds, without attracting too many Tree Swallows. Everyone is happy!
The Tree Swallow Project describes the box location in detail, along with lots of photos and info on building nesting boxes that work best for tree swallows.
The North American Bluebird Society website has plans for a number of different bluebird nest box designs.
I have to go out now and place my nesting boxes in pairs. I'll let you know if it works...
UPDATE...Moving the birdhouses WORKED!
Here is Photographic Proof that the Nesting Box War is over.
An Avian Parasite
The Brown-headed Cowbird is one of my least favorite birds (on a par with the European Starling), but it is a very interesting bird nonetheless. It is North America’s most common “brood parasite.” A female cowbird makes no nest of her own, but instead lays her eggs in the nests of other bird species, which then raise the young cowbirds. Researchers believe that parasitism by cowbirds may be a significant factor contributing to the declining numbers of many songbirds in North America.
Cowbirds were historically open-country birds, associating with buffalo herds and later adapting to domestic cattle. The prairies and plains were the cowbirds’ homeland, but they have now expanded their ranges. Currently the Brown-headed Cowbird’s range includes all of the 48 contiguous states and southern Canada.
An average female lays about 80 eggs, 40 per year for two years. Only about 3% of those 80 eggs reach maturity—an average of 2.4 adults per female. Such numbers more than compensate for the excessive loss of eggs and young in the nests of inappropriate hosts. Each pair of cowbirds replaces itself with an average of 1.2 pairs—which will double a cowbird population in eight years.
Facts About the Brownheaded Cowbird
- Brown-headed Cowbird lay eggs in the nests of more than 220 species of birds. Recent genetic analyses have shown that most individual females specialize on one particular host species.
- Social relationships are difficult to figure out in birds that do not build nests, but male and female Brown-headed Cowbirds are not monogamous. Genetic analyses show that males and females have several different mates within a single season.
- Some birds, such as the Yellow Warbler, can recognize cowbird eggs but are too small to get the eggs out of their nests. Instead, they build a new nest over the top of the old one and hope cowbirds don’t come back. Some larger species puncture or grab cowbird eggs and throw them out of the nest. But the majority of hosts don’t recognize cowbird eggs at all.
- Cowbird eggs hatch faster than other species eggs, giving cowbird nestlings a head start in getting food from the parents. Young cowbirds also develop at a faster pace than their nest mates, and they sometimes toss out eggs and young nestlings or smother them in the bottom of the nest.
- In winter, Brown-headed Cowbirds may join huge roosts with several blackbird species. One such mixed roost in Kentucky contained more than five million birds.
- The oldest recorded Brown-headed Cowbird was 16 years 10 months old.
The above facts thanks to allaboutbirds.org
Our Organic Alarm Clock
Every spring, often in the early morning hours, a male Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker drums on the metal roof of a cabin just outside our bedroom window. According to allaboutbirds.org, most non-birders believe that the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker is a fictitious bird created just for the humorous name. It is in fact a widespread species of small woodpecker. Its habit of making shallow holes in trees to get sap is exploited by other bird species, and the sapsucker can be considered a "keystone" species, one whose existence is vital for the maintenance of a community.
Interesting Facts About Yellow-Bellied Sapsuckers
- The Yellow-bellied Sapsucker frequently uses human-produced materials to help in its territorial drumming. Street signs and metal chimney flashing, and metal roofing amplify the irregular tapping of a territorial sapsucker. The sapsucker seems to suffer no ill effects of whacking its bill on metal, and a bird will return to a favorite object day after day to pound out its Morse code-like message.
- The Yellow-bellied Sapsucker is the only woodpecker in eastern North America that is completely migratory. Although a few individuals remain throughout much of the winter in the southern part of the breeding range, most head farther south, going as far south as Panama. Females tend to migrate farther south than do males.
The above facts are thanks to allaboutbirds.org
The Eastern Phoebes Are Back
As soon as the sugarhouse at Distant Hill was built in 2007, Eastern Phoebes (Sayornis phoebe) took up residence. That first year, we made the mistake of allowing the birds to nest in the rafters. What a mess! A lesson was learned. Now the doors and windows of the main building are kept closed, starting in early spring and through the summer. Our avian visitors are welcome to nest in the woodshed attached to the sugarhouse, and for the past four years that is exactly what they have done. They still make a mess, but a gravel floor is a bit easier to clean than all of our stainless steel maple syrup equipment!
Interesting Facts about Eastern Phoebes
- In 1804, the Eastern Phoebe became the first banded bird in North America. John James Audubon attached silvered thread to an Eastern Phoebe's leg to track its return in successive years.
- The Eastern Phoebe is a loner, rarely coming in contact with other phoebes. Even members of a mated pair do not spend much time together. They may roost together early in pair formation, but even during egg laying the female frequently chases the male away from her.
- The use of buildings and bridges for nest sites has allowed the Eastern Phoebe to tolerate the landscape changes made by humans and even expand its range. However, it still uses natural nest sites when they are available.
- Unlike most birds, Eastern Phoebes often reuse nests in subsequent years—and sometimes Barn Swallows use them in between. In turn, Eastern Phoebes may renovate and use old American Robin or Barn Swallow nests themselves.
- The oldest known Eastern Phoebe was 10 years, 4 months old.
The facts above are thanks to allaboutbirds.org
Canada Geese Return to Nest
Each spring, for the past five years or more, a pair of Canada Geese have nested in the center of the marsh next to March Hill Road at Distant Hill Gardens. I don't know for sure that they are the same two geese, but the nest is close to the same place each year.
Nesting Facts for Canada Geese
Nest placement for Canada Geese is on the ground, usually on a slightly elevated site, near water. They prefer a spot from which they can have a fairly unobstructed view in many directions. The female selects the site and does much of nest construction. She does all the incubation while her mate guards her and the nest.
- Clutch Size: 2–8 eggs
- Number of Broods: 1 broods
- Incubation Period: 25–28 days
- Nestling Period: 42–50 days
Question: How many geese does it take to make a gaggle? The answer, according to my Mac Book Pro's dictionary, is Five. And a gaggle is only used do define a group of geese on the ground. In flight, a gaggle becomes a skein, a wedge or a team.
The first known collection of specific names for collective groups of animals, including many birds, was published in 1486. Click for a link to a Wikipedia web page with a list of collective names for groups of birds and animals. One of my favorite group names is a 'Charm of Goldfinches'.
More than you need to know: In terms of salt, a gaggle is equal to eight fifty pound bags of salt.