Finches and Hummers and More

How pretty! I look out at the bird feeders and see goldfinches and house finches, too. The goldfinches are getting their yellow on and they are just gorgeous. And if the feed runs out, as it did this morning, a goldfinch will fly up to the window to let me know.

I’ve been asked what I feed the birds. I’ve used different things, but I always have black oil sunflower seed. Some folks think you have to buy thistle seed for the goldfinches, but I’ve run out and they are happy with the sunflower seed.

I get raw peanuts for the blue jays who usually make an announcement from the sweet gum tree before swooping down to grab one. When I hear them, I tell my cat, “Incoming!” so he knows to watch for them. We call all this bird activity kitty movies. Well, I call it that; the cat is pretty quiet, but happy.

I have some safflower seed that I got for a special treat, but I probably won’t buy that again. I put it on the platform feeder. The doves didn’t read all the books that say they are ground feeders and they are up there eating safflower seed. Those silly birds even get on the hanging feeders although they’d rather eat off the platform. If they wipe it clean and all they are left with is what’s hanging, they will flutter up against the windows trying to get me to put more seed out for them.

Sometimes, I’ve bought a mix of different seed, but still it’s not necessary. I guess if a person wants to discourage certain birds, maybe that’s a good idea, but if your budget is tight, sunflower seed (black oil seems to be best) is fine for everyone, even for the buntings that come through in spring.

Speaking of migration, it’s time to brush up on those birds that we only see once or twice a year. I really like to use Cornell Lab’s site. This morning, I used this to look at hummingbirds. I like the way they have it set up so you can see birds that are similar and compare them.

Last week, I watched the male rufous hummingbird sit on a branch near the feeder. He was constantly twitching his head from side to side, watching as if there was another bird that wanted to come to the feeder.  After a few minutes, sure enough, another hummer showed up. I’m almost positive it’s a male ruby-throat.  I figured he must be a scout. I’m not sure why they send a scout to find the groceries, when all they are going to do is fight over feeders once everybody gets here. The two of them spent a few days chasing each other and then the rufous left.

Now a female ruby-throat is here.  There was some confusion when I saw streaks on her throat, but as she sat on a branch preening, I saw that she has the forked tail of a ruby-throat. Yesterday I saw three different hummers and I’m not sure I can identify all of them. I’m really having to watch this closely and not assume anything since so many others are here in the winter. I may call a lady from the Audubon Society who gave a talk on hummers, and see if she makes house calls.

I’m really new to this as far as these other species goes. We used to put up feeders in the spring and take them down in fall after everyone left. I started leaving mine up four winters ago, hoping for a rufous. The first two years there was no rufous, but there was a buff-bellied hummingbird who spent the whole winter here both years. Last winter, I may have misidentified a few birds that I thought were female ruby-throats. This winter I learned there are several hummingbirds that the books used to say didn’t come here, but they do in the winter. If you live near the Gulf of Mexico in the Southern US, don’t ever take your hummingbird feeders down. Mine are staying up all the time, unless there’s a hurricane or a freeze. No one will stay through the winter who should be leaving, and you just never know who might show up.

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Lost My Flying Flower Garden

I regret to have to tell y’all that Bubba (the male painted bunting who spent 11 days at my feeders) has left. His lady is gone, too. The last time I saw him was the day he landed on my windowsill. I guess he wanted to let me know he needed groceries so he could fill up his little bird tank for a trip to someplace else. I miss him! It’s like a whole flower garden is gone; he was so colorful. We’re back to our brownish, grayish with a bit of green winter. I’m not seeing enough cardinals to make up for his absence.

However, there are lots of other birds around here to appreciate. There is a flock of robins who are out in my backyard at this very moment eating Ligustrum seeds. I didn’t know they would do that. I always think of robins and worms, and I never see them on a feeder, so I just assumed they were carnivorous. I guess not. They sure are pretty. Have you ever seen one’s face straight on? I was looking through the binoculars and saw one of them turn his head so that his beak and eyes were what I was seeing. The way his markings are on his eyes and throat, he looked like a cartoon character.

One morning, I opened the blinds to see a Northern Flicker up in a tree on the other side of my neighbors’ house. He is so pretty! And another morning, I saw a pileated woodpecker. We had one of those several years ago who was pecking at his reflection in side mirrors on vehicles in the neighborhood. He broke two of my dad’s mirrors down the street. My cousin (next door) saw it on a truck at his house and said he never would have believed it if he hadn’t seen it himself. That bird even saw his reflection in one of my windows and went after it. I was torn between shooing him away so he wouldn’t break the glass and staring at him in awe. I’d sure never seen a pileated woodpecker from just a few feet away! I guess you know I just watched him. No shooing here.

Everybody I talk to is wondering why we don’t have many goldfinches. The most I’ve seen at once is nine. We have tons of sparrows. I like them but they sure like the expensive food. I got some safflower the other day, so they can eat more black oil sunflower seeds and just a little of the millet. That way the other birds can have something to eat without so much competition at the table.

OH! There is still a lady rufous hummingbird coming to the feeder. She sure is hard to photograph! As soon as I get ready, she flies. Last time it warmed up she sort of disappeared, so I’m glad to still have her during this warm spell we’re having. Shoot, most of this winter has been a warm spell. Birds are singing like it’s spring. I wouldn’t get too comfortable though; I’ve seen snow on roses around here.

ADDENDUM: I just saw the female bunting!! It’s now about 8am on the 21st of January, one day after writing the above post. Maybe Bubba is still out there!! It’s been a week since I’ve seen either one of them. Oh, wow. How cool!

His Name is Bubba

I learned that Mr. Painted Bunting prefers to be called Bubba. A few days ago, I was sitting at my indoor bird blind (down low behind a table) close to the window waiting for him to show up so I could practice taking video with this new camera. (I’m using the manual to take lessons on how to use it and it was video time.) The daylight was fading away and his colors were going to be muddy if he didn’t hurry up, so I said, “Come on, Bubba!” and there he was within seconds of me calling him.

Yesterday afternoon I didn’t get the millet refilled. Or, the peanuts either, but there was plenty of black oil sunflower seed, thistle and suet and I knew I’d be getting up pretty early this morning, so I didn’t go out in the dark to refill millet and peanuts. This morning at about 7:30 I was in the kitchen when I heard a bird kind of flutter and thump at the window. I figured someone had landed to complain about the breakfast menu. (Sparrows seem to do that most often if there is no seed at all.) When I looked there was Bubba! I was shocked! He was on the windowsill looking inside the house. He has millet now.

I’ve been asked for photos so I’m going to post one even though it’s sort of embarrassing because I know better ones are coming. I’m still using the auto setting, but I have gotten some pretty good shots of sparrows so I know it’s possible on auto. However, this camera (Kodak Easy Share) has a faster speed on manual settings than my Honeywell Pentax that I was given as a graduation gift in 1975, so I know better photos are coming. But just so you can see that this bird is colorful and he’s here…(Addendum: click on the photo for a better look!)

Mr. and Mrs. Painted Bunting

Mr. and Mrs. Painted Bunting

How My Family Took Up Birdwatching

This morning when I woke up I was thinking about how I was introduced to birding. I have a friend who would come to our house when we were homeschooling and do fun things with us. This friend has watched birds for a long time and she taught us. Before I learned from her, I knew there were blue jays, cardinals, mockingbirds and Sonic birds and not much else. I learned the Sonic birds – you know, the ones who hang out at the hamburger joint and eat french fries?– are grackles and there are three different kinds of them. I also learned not all bird watchers are like Miss Jane on “The Beverly Hillbillies.” Have you ever seen her? She looked like she was dressed for a safari with her knobby knees sticking out between her knee socks and her long shorts. Her pith helmet topped off her strange outfit. Oh, and she was always babbling about a Prothonotary Warbler. Sounds like a made-up name, but it’s not. I had one here in my yard several years ago. It made a nest on my neighbors’ front porch. I’ve never seen a bird watcher dressed like Miss Jane, by the way.

There are different levels of involvement with this hobby. Some folks buy or make a feeder and put out black oil sunflower seed and simply watch what comes to dine without ever cracking open a field guide or picking up a pair of binoculars. Others are up before dawn to drive to a particular location so they can participate in a bird count. And still others take trips to exotic places hoping to see a bird they have never seen before. I’m somewhere between the first and second group. It’s hard to convince me to leave a nice warm bed in the dead of winter to go to a Christmas Bird Count. That is the only one I know of around here and maybe one day I’ll go for it. The main thing is this is supposed to be fun. If you are happy watching them eat without knowing ‘who’ they are, then that’s fine. If anyone bugs you about it, just remind them you are feeding the birds and you and they are happy.

I think bird watching is an excellent hobby for children. Even toddlers like to watch birds if you put some seed on the ground outside near a window. Don’t worry about fingerprints on the glass. You will have them! It’s a sign of life in your house. Bird watching teaches children to care for animals and to be observant. Kids usually want to know all they can find out about a thing, so they end up learning about different birds’ feeding habits, migration patterns (a bit of geography gets tossed in there), seasonal plumage, their songs and more.

One day when my youngest son was about 6 or 7, he was showing his two friends, who were brothers about his age, the birds that were in our backyard. All three boys were sitting shoulder to shoulder in front of the screen door, passing the binoculars back and forth, as my son explained the differences in Boat-tailed, Common, and Great-tailed Grackles. He still watches birds when he sits on the front porch and occasionally comes in for the binoculars when he can tell–sometimes by behavior, sometimes by color–something is different from what he usually sees.

My oldest son carries binoculars and a field guide in his car. All the time. When he had a sun roof, he kept it open so he could see birds through the window on top of his car. Out of all of us, he’s the one who has the most complete bird list. He’s been to more places and is the most disciplined about keeping that list. He has also found online groups that watch birds and report to each other what they are seeing and where they are seeing them. He has run across a fellow group member or two this way as they were out in a park in Houston looking for the same bird.

My husband became interested in birds as a result of being exposed to the rest of us. He has been to some classes with me and our oldest son and looks for birds when we hike in the Big Thicket or go to the beach. He also wants to add some feeders to our backyard this year and hopes to draw in an Orchard Oriole that he saw in the woods in back of our house last spring.

If you are not currently feeding and watching birds but want to know where to start, it’s really simple. The easiest and cheapest way to make a bird feeder that I know of is to just cut the sides out of a plastic jug or bottle and hang it in a tree with a wire coat hanger. You can also sprinkle a bit of seed on the ground. Birds usually prefer to feed close to shrubs or trees so they have a place of protection nearby in case of predators, so you might keep that in mind when choosing where to place your seed. Black oil sunflower seed is the most inexpensive feed and draws the widest variety of birds. Plus, it has more meat inside than the plain sunflower seed. If your bird seed draws squirrels and you aren’t thrilled with that, you might as well put some out for them in a different spot. Maybe they will at least eat where you want them to. And maybe they won’t. No promises about the squirrels, but I can tell you that if you try bird watching, you may find it to be a very relaxing and educational hobby.

Addendum, February 13, 2010: I just found out my middle son, who just moved to a new place in Canada, now lives in a bird sanctuary. He’s looking forward to seeing the eagles that live there. How exciting!

Looking Out My Windows on September 17

This morning before 7 am the hummingbirds were already fighting over the feeder outside the kitchen window.  I guess they don’t need coffee or tea to get going for the day.  The Ruby-throated Hummingbirds have a long flight to prepare for since they go to southern Mexico or northern Panama, so they are storing a bit of body fat to use as energy. Somehow it’s hard to imagine that they gain almost as much as they weigh to begin with, so that they are almost double in weight by the time they leave. I think I’ll leave my feeders out after they are gone and just watch and see if I get a Rufous or two. I’ve never had one but from what I’ve read they are showing up where they don’t usually hang out. I have a friend just a bit northeast of me who has them so it’s not too much of a stretch to hope I’ll get one here.

All the other birds, the doves, sparrows, Blue Jays and Cardinals are gobbling up seed like crazy today. Usually, the Blue Jays will only grab a peanut and take off quickly, but today they are lingering and eating sunflower seed. I guess since the temperature is dropping and the days are getting shorter, everyone is taking in extra calories so they can gain a bit of extra fat and stay warm.

The mushrooms are popping up all over the past few days. I can’t imagine why anyone wants to ‘clean the yard’ by getting rid of something so interesting. Just think, they are below the surface of the ground all the time and when conditions are right for them, overnight they just show up to announce that fall is coming. There is a circle of them that I can see from one of my windows. It’s an elliptical circle, but it’s a circle and do you know what that means? My grandma told me that’s where the fairies danced the night before. You know what else she said? She told me that the Little People live under the mushrooms. When I was a bit too old to believe that, I would still lie in the grass and pretend it was true and look for them.

Well, most of us who live where it is hot during the summer are enjoying the cooler days. Some of us are anxious for the first really nice cold front so we can make a big ol’ pot chili or homemade soup. Last week I cooked pinto beans and put the leftovers in the freezer. They will make a great pot of vegetarian chili. I’m just watching the signs of change from my windows and waiting.

Crazy Birds

The birds got really smart out here this spring. We have a feeder station near our den window so we can watch the birds while they eat. They know we’re watching. And they know how to find us.

It started with the blue jays. We put peanuts out for them on the platform and they just love them. They will announce their arrival from a branch in a sweet gum tree near the feeder. I’ll say to the cat, “Incoming!” so he knows to look at the window so he can see the bird. I don’t know if he ‘gets it’ or not but, I think it’s fun to say. Then the blue jay will swoop down, grab a peanut and take off with it. If I’ve run out of peanuts out there, sometimes the blue jays will sit on the roof above the window and ‘yell’ at me to let me know I’ve fallen down on my job.

I guess the doves took notes from the blue jays. They eat on the platform and also on the hanging feeders. The hanging feeders are a last resort. The doves are so big that it’s not very comfortable for them. So, if they’ve cleaned me out on the platform the doves will fly sideways so that their wings flutter against the windows to let me know. This made me think of an old Alfred Hitchock movie.

If I’ve really let it go too long without replenishing the food supply and they have all eaten all the seeds, then the sparrows, who must have learned from the doves, grab onto the window screen and look inside. I was astonished the first few times I saw this behavior. I might have called baby chickens ‘peepers’ but, this gives ‘peepers’ a different meaning entirely.

Well, maybe they aren’t so crazy after all. They sure have me trained.

A Bit About Birds

My husband and I enjoy watching birds that come to feeders in our yard. I noticed something about the hummingbirds. They don’t like to share their space with cardinals, doves, sparrows and everybody else who comes for seed. (We have a feeding station we built with PVC pipe that holds several feeders and even has a platform on top.) I moved the hummer feeder a few feet away and that solved the problem.

I’ve learned that a vagrant is a hummingbird that is out of it’s usual territory and it’s been happening a lot the past few years, especially on the east coast. Sure would be neat to see someone new out there!

We have lost a lot of trees in the woods behind us due to hurricanes but it’s not all bad, I guess. This year we were able to see mulberry trees that were previously hidden and in those trees there were orchard orioles. A friend who is very knowledgeable about birds told us if we put a sugar water feeder near the back of the yard we may get some of those orioles to come into the yard next year. That would be really cool!

Well, I hear a blue jay hollering right now. There are no peanuts on the platform and being the well trained human that I am, I better go put some out.