Betsy's Backyard Bird Journal - 1996

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December 2, 1996

She's baaaaaccccckkkkkkkk....... Well I must admit that I let work get in the way of updating this journal. I did keep up with the bird observations - can't let anything get in the way of the birding :-). So here is a recap of the fall migration to the best of my recollection. We had all of the usual birds plus 3 newbies! Here are the new birds: Pine Warbler, Ruby Crowned Kinglet, and Golden Crowned Kinglet. I had thought that the Kinglets were migrating through but just today I saw another in the bush outside my window. These are cute little birds who flit from branch to branch looking for bugs. The Pine Warbler seemed to only be around for about a week - must have been migrating through.

A Yellow-Rumped Warbler has spent quite a bit of time close to the house. This bird gave me a fit for identification since the view I had was of the front and sides. Warblers in winter dress are quite difficult to identify. This little bird was about the size of a goldfinch with a dark grey back, white eyering, white wing bars, clear chest in the center but dark streaking on the sides of the chest, and slim dark beak. It is always exciting to see a bird just 4 or 5 feet from the window.

The winter birds have arrived and the Rufous-sided Towhees left in October. Our winter arrivals include: White Throated Sparrow, White Crowned Sparrow, and Slate Colored Junco. Winter will really be here when the Fox Sparrows finally decide to show up :-).

The little Tufted Titmouse with the bad foot still gets around here. She's modified her schedule so that she can fly in when there are no other birds around. Makes it easier to get around and get seed.

July 26, 1996

The lack of entries is certainly not due to the lack of activity in the backyard! There have been large numbers of babies. For the first time, I've been honored with seeing Red Winged Blackbird babies.

There has been a female Tufted Titmouse coming to the feeder with an injured foot. I noticed her on what appeared to be the first day of the injury and she was having a terrible time getting around. She had no balance and had to constantly beat her wings in an effort to stay upright and perform simple tasks. I felt so sorry for her. When coming for seed she'd compete with other birds - and lose. When she did get a seed, she couldn't grasp the seed with both feet and would drop the seed as often as get one open. I didn't think she had a chance :-(. Well... I'm happy to report that she has learned to adapt to the situation and is doing extremely well. After a few days, she learned when the optimal time was for getting seed from the hopper feeder. Since she could only perch on thicker branches, the tube feeders were pretty much out of the question. She has mastered the art of opening a black-oil sunflower seed with minimal effort grasped in only one foot. I haven't seen her in a couple of days, but I also haven't been able to watch the feeders at odd times of the day. After watching her master seed handling as well as hanging upside-down with one foot to get suet, I feel comfortable that she has adapted well enough to survive.

July 6, 1996

Well, it's been awhile since I've written in this log but that's not to mean that the backyard has been boring! There have been more babies in the yard including Cardinal, Rufous Sided Towhee (yes I know they've changed the name - I just can't remember it!), Blue Jay, American Crow, Mourning Dove, and Downy Woodpecker. I've heard what I believe are fledgling Chickadee's but haven't spotted them near the feeders yet.

The Indigo Bunting has been by every evening for the last month. I certainly hope he has a nest nearby and that one day I'll get to see more than just one of these beautiful blue birds!

June 5, 1996

Babies on Parade! Just now (10:39am) I heard quite a racket outside my window and there was a baby Common Grackle begging to be fed by its parent. This scene is quite comical since the 'baby' is almost as big as the parent! So, frantic parent is diligently picking up cracked corn and nibbling at the edges to make the piece small enough for the begging young. From what little I watched, only about 50% was acceptable and the parent had to keep nibbling at the corn to make it just right. When the parent finally left, the baby stayed back for a few moments with a wide-eyed, 'Huh?' expression.

May 29, 1996

It's been awhile since my entry - it's not due to a lack of excitement at the feeders but more so due to my workload :-(. But, as always, the birds bring so much joy and entertainment into my life. Ok, so where to start. First, I bought two hanging planters containing Fuschias and placed them on hooks on the front porch. Within a half hour, a pair of House Finches began building a nest in one of the planters. We watched this pair as they carefully constructed this nest with branches, grasses, feathers, etc. over the next couple of days. Mama then promptly placed 2 eggs in the nest and began the actual nesting phase. I was thrilled and couldn't wait until the eggs hatched. Unfortunately, during this period a House Wren took up nest in some bushes in the side yard. I knew that I'd have to keep an eye out for this rascal as they have a nasty reputation of piercing the eggs of other nesting songbirds. I thought that all was fine but after a few days, the House Finches were no longer at the nest. What happened? It would seem that the House Wren found a small window of opportunity when the nest was left unattended and attacked the eggs. Oh well, maybe next year....

I haven't seen the Indigo Bunting in a few days. He was quite a regular there for a few weeks. And the Rose Breasted Grosbeak has not made another appearance. A female Rose Breasted Grosbeak spent a considerable amount of time at all of the feeders (including the suet feeder - that was quite a site!) for one day and I haven't seen her since. The latest arrival was a female Ruby Throated Hummingbird - it's time to put up the feeder.

May 12, 1996

Just looked out the window to see 2 male Red Winged Blackbirds with red epaulets showing. Normally when the male is not in flight you don't get to see much if any of the red. I would take it that this was a territorial display and was quite interesting. After a few minutes of this male puffering, one chased the other out of sight. At which point I looked to the ground and saw a female Red Winged Blackbird feeding. Two guys fighting over one girl - cool! This is the first year I've had the Red Wings spend so much time here. As with the other birds, I'm really looking forward to seeing the babies.

May 10, 1996

This morning a female Rose Breasted Grosbeak was on the Safflower feeder when I sat down with my coffee. There was no mistaking this bird - large like the male, heavily streaked with a prominent eyebrow stripe and that unmistable grosbeak bill. I'm looking forward to see the young.

I've been thinking for awhile that I've mis-identified one of the sparrows which ground feed near the window. Most days, I take the usual cursory glance and based on some quick observations I'll generally identify birds such as the White Throated Sparrow. Funny thing is, I didn't always see the predominant white throat. I generally attributed this to a) lighting b) speed of identification c) position of the bird. Well, after careful review of the markings for a White Crowned Sparrow and now hearing the call from Peterson's Bird Songs CD, I think it's safe to say that there's more than White Throated's in that crowd on the ground! I'll be watching a little more closely from now on.

May 9, 1996

NEW BIRD! NEW BIRD! I say this twice since I've been waiting for this bird for 2 years. And today, a male Rose-breasted Grosbeak came to one of my feeders. What a beautiful bird with a black head and back, white underside and bright red triangle on its chest. I didn't expect to see the bird and was a bit jealous of all those who had reported recent sightings on rec.birds. The sighting actually came as a bit of a surprise since I was in my morning routine (coffee and the Washington Post beside the bow window) and happened to look up. And there he was - in full splendor not 5 feet from the window eating black-oil sunflower seed from the hopper feeder! Based on the latest sightings in the backyard, I'd say this is going to be an excellent year for backyard birding.

Jim got a chance to see the Rose-breasted Grosbeak this afternoon and was quite impressed. In fact, he stopped in mid-sentence to ask me what type of bird was landing on the hooper feeder. This is quite impressive since he likes to tell our friends and family that he couldn't care less what type of bird just landed on a branch. I know otherwise! He's definitely a closet birder. First, his favorite bird was the Cardinal (for its coloring), then it was the House wren (for it's bug eating ability), then the Rufuous-sided Towhee (coloring), and now it's the Rose-breasted Grosbeak. I thought he might have been impressed when the Indigo Bunting showed up but alas he's more of the striking colors kind of guy - blacks, reds, etc.

This afternoon we had quite a show on the feeder out in the open. The first year I put up this large tube feeder, I had a terrible time keeping the squirrels off. After some careful consideration and extensive measurement taking, I thought I'd found the perfect spot - 8-10 feet from the nearest tree and over 5 feet off the ground. I even used a tape measure to make sure that no tree branch was near enough to give the squirrel a jumping off point. The tube feeder has sat in this open spot for about 1.5 years now on a 5.5 foot post with a large squirrel baffle/seed tray to prevent the squirrels from climbing up the post.

Well, today Jim came down to tell me that a squirrel was eating from that large tube feeder. I couldn't believe it! Surely he meant one of the other feeders. Nope. Somehow a female squirrel had figured out how to get onto that platform (note that I specified the sex of the squirrel since it seems that the female is always the first to figure out how to get onto a feeder! :-) ). After scaring the squirrel off the feeder, we waited and watched until she showed us how she did it. This mega-athelete climbed up into the Cedar tree on a branch 4 or 5 feet above the feeder and jumped across a space of about 7 feet to 'catch' the feeder. From this position, the ONLY way to land on the tube feeder was to catch a small wire loop at the top of the tube with her back claws. If she missed, she'd overshoot the feeder and tumble into a mess of bushes and rocks! Jim and I both applauded her skills since this was quite a feat! Oh yeah, and then we cut down the branch which she used as a launching pad. I can live with the squirrels as long as they stay out of my feeders :-)

April 29, 1996

I've started ground feeding just outside a window by my desk - this is a nice way to spend the work day. Well, since it's spring it's been non-stop bird calls and chatter (I love it!). Some of the sounds I can identify, most of the others I have no clue about. But I removed one from the unidentified list just now :-). There's been a bird making a nasally 'zweep' sound who it turns out is a Rufous Sided Towhee. A male has been ground feeding (to my delight) just outside the window this morning and between bites is making that 'zweep' sound.

NEW BIRD! An Indigo Bunting just showed up at that area just outside my window. What a beautiful bird - blue all over, about the size of a goldfinch, and darker striping on the wings. This was a shy bird but I'm sure as time goes on, he will be like the others and not fly off when I move about. Also, a Gray Catbird just made an appearance at the window as well. It seems that this bird is always the last to show up in Spring.

April 25, 1996

It's been awhile since I last wrote in this journal. I'd posted to the rec.birds this week chiming support for Blue Jays (yeah-yeah, I know, most think they are obnoxious birds) and even received private email from another Blue Jay advocate. There are several reasons that I like the bird including 1) simply beautiful bird with the blue & gray colorations and 2) they warn the entire neighborhood when a predator is nearby. Just today, I saw another example of this behaviour.

A new hawk, Rough Legged Hawk came swooping through the backyard today and when unsuccessful in its first pass, the bird alighted on a nearby maple. There was a single Blue Jay in the yard, and she promptly started screeching and harassing the hawk. Within minutes, there were several more Jays doing the same thing. There was no way the hawk would be able to hunt silently in my backyard. I watched this go on for about 5 minutes - it was quite a show. Fortunately, the hawk stayed around long enough for be to note distinctive details and make a guess as to its type.

The Rough Legged Hawk was different than the others I've seen in the backyard. This bird was about the same size as the Red Shouldered Hawk we had over the winter but without the distinctive colorations. It has a dark eye, yellow and black beak, streaked breast, and short tail without distinctive coloration bands - just one. The count is now up to 5 distinct hawks through the yard!

March 25, 1996

I was beginning to think it was going to be a boring spring. WRONG! I can't believe my eyes - I just saw an Oregon Junco. There was no mistaking this bird. It resembled the Slate Colored Junco in every way except it had a distinctive black head and brownish back and sides. My first impression was that the colorings resembled a male Junco's head with a female's body. According to Peterson's, this bird is an occaissional straggler to the east. I'm thankful it decided to alight in my yard especially when I had others around to see this bird. Now of course, I didn't have a camera handy but if it comes back - I'll be ready!

It's been a good spring overall for sheer bird numbers. I've continued ground feeding (I stopped at this time last year) and am being amply rewarded for my deed. The Chipping Sparrows are back this year and in greater numbers - I'm now seeing about 3-6 at a time.

March 8, 1996

Well it snowed again last night (gee - surprise!), this is by far the snowy-est winter I've experienced here in Virginia. So as usual, the birds were out in full force this morning. The regulars included Northern Cardinal, Tufted Titmouse, Carolina Chickadee, Slate Colored Junco, White Breasted Nuthatch, Red Breasted Nuthatch, Blue Jay, House Finch, White Throated Sparrow, Fox Sparrow, Song Sparrow, American Crow, Starling, Purple Finch, Downy Woodpecker, Carolina Wren, and Mourning Dove. What did surprise me is the number of male and female Brown Headed Cowbirds. In the past I've only seen one or two at a time - this morning there were about 8-10 feeding on the ground. Later in the day, a flock (about 10) of Common Grackles honored us with their boisterous presence. They were joined by a single, male Red Winged Blackbird. What I find interesting about the Red Winged Blackbird is that I've only seen males in our backyard. With many of the other bird species to have graced the yard, the female is the first (and sometimes only) to visit.

There's been a small bird here off-and-on for the last 2-3 weeks. I've been at a loss to identify it and after careful analysis I'm almost ready to say it's a Lincoln's Sparrow. I've had several long, close views of this little sparrow and at first I thought it must be some sort of greyish song sparrow. The characteristics of this bird include grey and rusty-brown stripes about the head, grey about the neck, streaked breast. This is a small bird like the Song Sparrow but unlike the Song Sparrow, no central spot on the chest. I have a few books I use to identify birds with and none was very specific about the Lincoln's winter habits. So could it be? I'll try to get a picture of this guy to post.

February 28, 1996

I understand that it's going to snow again on Saturday. This doesn't seem to affect the birds at all - Spring is here! I noticed late last week that the Tufted Titmice had begun their late winter song. You know the one where they melodiously 'wail like a banshee'! Now in these last couple of days, several of the other birds have begun their spring songs. The Cardinals are singing in the early morning, the Carolina Wrens are serenading us all day, the House Finches are chatting up a storm, and in the late afternoon I've heard flocks of Canadien Geese noisily flying overhead. Hopefully this year, I'll get Purple Martins in the house I put up last year.

February 18, 1996

Well it snowed again this past Friday - about 6". We have already set a record for snowfall (about 55") and winter isn't even over yet! The nice thing about all this snow is that I get to enjoy large numbers and variety of birds and animals on a daily basis. I meant to put in the log 2 weeks ago that I believe I saw a Sharp Shinned Hawk. I first spotted the Sharpie chasing birds into the bushes. The other hawks will generally break off a chase once the intended prey has entered the blackberry bushes - not this fellow! Since it is such a small hawk, it probably can chase birds into spots the larger ones can't or won't enter. On this day, the Sharpie was out of luck. She chased about a dozen or so birds and remained in the yard for about 10 minutes but eventually left the area. I believe this is a Sharpie and not a Cooper's based on several characteristics (of course I had Petersen's Advanced birding guide to help with this) such as tail feather configuration, head size, and body size.

There haven't been any new sightings - perhaps we need another blizzard :-).

February 13, 1996

No new birds to report but..... (you knew that was coming :-) )... I'm sitting here in the office after midnight doing some work and on the side listening to Peterson's Eastern/Central Bird Songs. I'm probably only hearing about 100f the calls since I'm supposed to be working not learning new bird calls. So the first bird call I actually pay any attention to turns out to be the Brown Creeper. The sound was quite familiar and now that I've spotted this fellow in the trees, I'll definitely be on the lookout with an ear for its distinctive call.

February 12, 1996

New Bird! Brown Creeper showed up just yesterday. I believe I've seen the bird before but never really paid attention to it until now. This smallish, brown-speckled bird was 'investigating' the Maple tree about 30' from the house. I first noticed the bird when it began its spiral ascent of the maple - quite different from the other birds. Fortunately, I'd left my binoculars by the bow window in the back so I was able to get a pretty good look at the bird. Well, the list continues to grow.

February 9, 1996

Well we survived another 6" of snow last week. As with the blizzard, we had a large array of birds to the feeders. One pleasant surprise was a NEW BIRD! A Yellow Bellied Sapsucker has taken to the large Blue Atlas Cedar in the backyard. I believe I've seen this bird before but this was the first time I got a good close look - the cedar is just a few feet from the screened porch where I keep my supply of birdseed. Quite an interesting and very noisy bird. The Sapsucker makes a noise which resembles a cat wailing.

Spring must be near as yesterday I saw a Rufuous sided Towhee. Last winter I didn't see any until about March. To me the Towhee means as much that spring is coming as the Robins do! I took some pictures of the feeders after the last snow - I hope to get the film developed soon and the pictures online here.

January 25, 1996

Nothing exciting to report. The snow is nearly gone and the birds have gone back to their usual routine. I see maybe 1 or two dozen at a time and not quite the variety the showed up for the storm. Our 'usual' set of visitors include Cardinals, Fox Sparrows, White Throated Sparrows, Tufted Titmice, Chickadees, Slate Colored Juncos, House Finches, Carolina Wren, White Breasted Nuthatch, Red Breasted Nuthatch, Mourning Dove, and Downy Woodpecker. Oh yeah, and several very fat squirrels.

Blizzard of '96 (Jan. 7 to Jan 13, 1996)

Well, I've recovered enough from nonstop shoveling to describe the effects of the Blizzard of '96 on my backyard feeding stations. Living just outside of Washington, DC (30 miles west), we were hit pretty hard by the storms - the first one dumped over 25" (in 24 hours) with several snowshowers in the following days adding a couple more. Then by Friday (1/12/96) we were hit with another storm which left about 6 more inches of snow. When I first looked out the window at the backyard, I knew the storm was raging. Not by the amount of snow and wind, but by the shear numbers and variety of birds in the trees and bushes in the backyard. At one point, I counted 21 male cardinals in an area about 15' by 15' (about the same number of females in that area as well!). The feeders were rocking!

I knew that the ground feeders (sparrows) were having a particularly hard time when several of them attempted to land on a small feeder attached to the window. Not exactly their normal feeding routine. So, on that day I went out several times spreading several pounds of Bird seed mix (purchased from the local raptor society annual bird seed sale) and black oil sunflower seeds on the ground. Unfortunately, the snow was coming down so quickly that the food was covered up within the hour. I did make sure that all of the feeders were filled to the top and put extra seed in the overflow trays of the tube feeders.

So on Sunday and Monday, I saw the following birds at the feeders:

  Cardinals               House Finch           Purple Finch
  Mourning Dove           Tufted Titmouse       Common Grackle
  Carolina Chickadee      Carolina Wren         Downy Woodpecker
  American Crow           Blue Jays             Red Bellied Woodpecker
  Red Winged Blackbird    Red Breasted Nuthatch White Breasted Nuthatch
  White Throated Sparrow  American Tree Sparrow Field Sparrow
  Fox Sparrow             Song Sparrow          Slate Colored Juncos
  Pine Siskin

And in the trees in the backyard, I also saw:
  Mockingbird             Cedar Waxwing         Starlings (ugh!)

By Monday afternoon, the winds had created some huge drifts. In order to get to the feeders, I had to wade through hip-deep snow for about 30 yards but it was worth it (my heart doesn't agree :-). The abundance and variety of birds made for a wonderful show.

In the search for seed, several of the Slate colored Juncos (ground feeders) discovered the thistle feeder. The thistle feeder is a simple tube feeder (no perches) with a plastic-coated metal cage surrounding it. This is an awkward feeder set up to keep the squirrels out and let the Goldfinches eat in peace. It took one several tries to figure out how to hang on to the feeder and extract the seed. And it seems that the bird can't or won't hang on for long, so I see them hop from a nearby branch onto the feeder and back quite often. I would have expected to see the Juncos feed from the large, overflow tray below the big tube feeder like the sparrows do - the thistle must be just good enough to make the birds want to go through all this trouble!

I don't know which day it was, but I think it may have been Tuesday, I rescued a female Cardinal from the snow. I had just placed a couple of pounds of seed on the ground for the Sparrows and Cardinals and was standing back watching the activity in the bushes and trees around me. No, the birds generally won't feed when I'm there but they do come close (3 or 4 feet!). Out of the corner of my eye, I saw this female Cardinal come flying in and attempt to land on a snow-laden branch. Somehow, she missed the branch or it gave way as she ended up head first in the snow. Fortunately, the snow was light and powdery but she ended up all the way in the snow except for the last inch of her tail. Well, I stood there for a few seconds basically in shock and then I waded over to her not quite sure if she were alive or dead. Grimly, I began to push the snow away from her expecting the worst. At that point, she spread her tail and I knew it was alright. I gently pulled her from the snow and set her down but I believe I must have frightened her badly as she flipped on her back with claws in the air and she let out a horrible screech. I picked her up again, talking gently to her the entire time, and tried to set her back down but the snow was too deep for her. On the third try when I set her on my finger, she was able to get enough of a footing to fly off into a nearby bush and rest. When I left her, she appeared to be healthy but shaken from the ordeal.

By the time the snows came again on Friday (1/12/96), I had already beaten a path through the snow to the various feeders. I went out in the morning as had become my ritual when I noticed a Red Shouldered Hawk sitting in a maple tree not 30 feet from the back of the house. That hawk sat in the tree for at least 30 minutes just looking around. I wonder what she was thinking perhaps - "Yum! What a spread at this buffet". You see there were dozens and dozens of birds in the backyard around the feeders and on the ground. My neighbor who also feeds the birds had told me just the day before that she thought there might be a Red Shouldered Hawk in the area. She's seen the 'leavings' and once caught a glimpse of the bird as it took a Cardinal from one of her feeders.

Well, to sum it all up. I enjoyed the snow for all of the birds it brought to my feeders BUT I hate the amount of shoveling I had to do just to get the car out!

January 5, 1996

Gee - two days in a row - we have a record! Anyway, standing at the living room bow window drinking my coffee, I noted how the thistle feeder was still so full. Just this past summer, the feeder was mobbed by Goldfinches but I haven't seen one in a couple of months. Well, think it and they will come (or at least one will). A small, female hopped onto the feeder as I contemplated this lack of Goldfinches.

January 4, 1996

I've decided to try a new Journal style - all new entries will appear at the top not the bottom (easier to traverse and maintain - maybe). We're just back from a trip south (South Carolina) and saw many interesting birds (no Eagle though :-( ). The Eastern Meadowlark was everywhere it seemed along with the Wilson's Plover, Mockingbirds, Ring Beaked Gulls, Black Backed Gulls, and numerous sparrows (briefly seen - unidentifiable...). Next time I must pull out Peterson's and try to identify more of these neat birds!

Back on the homefront (or backyard-front), many of the same birds visiting the feeders though I'm a bit surprised at the lower numbers of Slate Colored Junco's and White Throated Sparrows than last year. After the summer's drought, the trees produced little fruit and I thought I'd see more birds. Of course, the male Cardinals have arrived in full force and at any point in time I can count over a dozen in the bushes. When I got back from the holidays, I discovered that the gentleman watching the place had put a bird seed mix in the big tube feeder where I normally put black oil seed. Being the 'round tuit' person, I left it in and it's been interesting watching the different types of birds on the feeder and seed tray. The white throated sparrows (normally ground feeders) have started staying on the tray and feeding from the tube. Other visitors to the tube feeder include Red Bellied Woodpecker, Downy Woodpecker, and Red Breasted Nuthatch (currently my favorite :-) ).

It's going to be a cold winter and it'll be fun watching the birds!

My Setup

I'm located in the western suburbs of Washington, DC in Herndon, Virginia - a small city in western Fairfax County. My property is a little over 2 acres and I've setup feeding stations in a small area of the backyard. It is a long strip (about 40' by 25') bordered on one side by the house and the other by a long row of Blackberry bushes. From the pine tree about 8' from the house, I have a tube feeder with overflow tray filled with Safflower, a metal hopper-style feeder with Black-oil Sunflower, and a large round cage filled with suet. In the shadow of the pine and about 10 feet from the house, there is a small tube feeder (no perches) filled with thistle hanging from a dogwood tree. Out in the clearing is a large tube feeder on a post with an overflow tray/squirrel baffle filled with Black-oil Sunflower and sometimes a bird seed mix. I leave my table scraps out in a flat open area towards the back end of the property for the Crows. I've found that these birds are great garbage disposals (I like to call them 'The Boys') who will eat most anything I put out except peas!

The original owners of our house must have been concerned about the wildlife (the house is almost 30 years old) because there is a great variety of trees and abundance of fruiting plants in the yard. Just to name a few of the trees: White Pine, White and Pink Dogwoods (the type with a brilliant red-berry in the fall), Japanese Maple, Silver Maple, Red Maple, several different types of Oak, Tulip Poplar, Mulberry, Blue Spruce, Blue Atlas Cedar, and Eastern Red Cedar just to name a few. For bushes, we have Blackberry, Winterberry, Lilac, Barberry, Inkberry, Azalea, and Rhodendron.

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