Birding in our Back Yard
We’ve traveled throughout the United States seeking interesting birds, and we just discovered the very best place.
It’s our backyard! Since we began actively diversifying the plants in our yard they’ve welcomed many new bird species to visit, rest, and eat. And, we live next to Faulke’s Heritage Woods, a 110 acres of shrubs and old trees that is a warbler and woodpecker haven.
Anyone who plants an array of bushes and grasses in their yard, even if it’s a tiny yard, can enjoy birding at home. Planting appropriate shrubs, mainly native species is important because some shrubs like barberry are invasive and crowd out beneficial plants.
Because the yard is right out the door, it is an easy place to grab the binoculars and a glass of wine or cup of tea and sit quietly.
Here’s what we’ve seen or heard in our yard in the past two weeks:
Reflecting on Heron Rookeries
Guest blog by Sigrid Reynolds
Heron rookeries are one of the most peculiar sights you will see.
Photo by Sigrid Reynolds
Picture three large sycamore trees in the middle of a swamp in Ohio. Skunk cabbages, those harbingers of spring, poke up along the early pioneer road that crosses these wetlands. One narrow parking spot across the street hosts cars and vans while up to 20 nature lovers with binoculars and huge camera lenses stand on the shoulder across the street. Clacking, clicking sounds pulse from the trees that host more than a score of messy stick nests. About half of them have great blue heron silhouettes standing sentry nearby. By late April, fluffy chicks poke their heads up from under a parent. And, by June, the adolescent chicks, now the size of their parents, still demand food.
Hmmm, one’s mind drifts to adolescent humans taking over home acreage while ravenously emptying the fridge.
This heron rookery between Cleveland and Akron, Ohio, has sheltered generations of great blue herons and has delighted visitors to the Cuyahoga Valley National Park every Spring. Rookeries abound across the US but few are as accessible as this one, less than eight miles off I-80. Along the same interstate in the Indiana Dunes, is an enormous rookery of up to 98 mating pairs. It is closed to visitors during nesting season.
Herons return each year (as do the nature photographers) and re-inhabit their nests, adding more limbs and sticks as needed. One year in a Nebraska swamp, herons arrived to find an eagle pair has appropriated their home.
Eagles nest earlier than herons and find that their nest makes the perfect platform for more sticks. A tussle seems to go on between these two large species of birds. YouTube has intriguing videos of eagles vs. herons. Here is an amazing one. Usually, eagle activity won’t drive the herons away but does cause turmoil.
Human endeavors do drive off herons. When wetlands are drained for subdivisions, the amphibians and fish that feed herons disappear. So, these magnificent birds must seek a landscape that can sustain them and their hungry families.
Our parks and nature preserves protect these nesting sites so that we can continue to see the solitary visitors we welcome to our neighborhood ponds and creeks. I’m grateful for these preserves every time I sit on my back patio watching “our” heron arrive. He lands on a branch of my neighbor’s big pine to peruse food possibilities before he heads down to the shores of the small pond that marks our property line.
A Heron waits patiently for a fish.
Small pond in back yard.
Keeping Squirrels at bay
Bruce Frana, a Winding Pathways visitor, saw one of our blogs on our “squirrel proof” feeder and how we discourage squirrels from gobbling up sunflower seeds we put out for birds. He crafted a similar but much more attractive version that’s in his yard. Our contraption is a box framed with 2X2 lumber with sides of 2” x 2” wire mesh. A piece of plywood forms the roof, and we attached it to a wooden table with a pair of hinges. The hinges let us lift the cage to sprinkle sunflower seeds inside.
It works. Sort of. Cardinals, chickadees, and nuthatches easily pass through the wire mesh to feed. Some squirrels and wild turkeys, which we like but get frustrated when they gobble up all the seed, can’t get through the mesh. Our fox squirrels are too chunky to squeeze through, but smaller gray squirrels manage to get in and gobble seeds. We could keep the grays out if we could find 1 ¾ x 1 ¾ mesh wire on the market. As far as we know it doesn’t exist, but if it did it would let birds in but exclude even the skinniest gray squirrel.
Bruce reports that his fox squirrels can’t enter either but the grays do. Here is a photo of his squirrel foiling feeder:
Do It Yourself “Squirrel Proof” Feeder!
Here is what he shared: “I have had a platform feeder for several years but, like your blog mentioned, turkeys, and even some clever squirrels, were able to get on top of it. I built (a feeder) based on the plan/picture you shared on your blog. I adapted the plan to the platform feeder I had and made some of my own modifications.
“As you can see from the pictures, I attached the structure onto the original platform by using hinges, just as your plan had done. I also put a pitched roof and handle to be able to easily lift the one end to place seed on the platform. The entire system is attached to a 2″ PVC pipe that slides over a steel post. I have had one ingenious small grey squirrel figure out how to get into the feeder and solved that problem, at least for now, by making the wire openings a bit smaller on two sides.” It works…sort of!”
Readers can go online and find “Do It Yourself” (DYI) “squirrel proof” feeder instructions. Good luck and let us know how it goes! Thanks, Bruce Frana.
Adaptation to feeder
Back View of feeder
Geese mate for life.
“Loose as a goose” is an apt expression. Many people dislike Canada Geese for their habit of depositing droppings on trails and lawns. Despite their mess geese are intriguing birds, especially if they are carefully observed. We enjoy watching them all year and love the goose music they treat us to as they wing over our home at Winding Pathways.
Young Canada Geese form pair bonds early in their lives and have high fidelity to their mate for what can be a long life together. Urban geese enjoy an enviable lifestyle. They eat lawn grass and insects common in town and also snack on grain dropped from railroad cars and an occasional dying gizzard shad. Food is plentiful, and few predators pester adult geese. They have plenty of time for loitering and often socialize and rest with the flock in the shade on hot summer days or in the sunshine when the temperature is cool.
“Something Going On in that Tree”
Guest Blog by Wahneta Dimmer
Todd and I sat at the breakfast table – coffee for me and a coca cola for him – looking out the sliding glass doors at the backyard and out into the park beyond. As he half read the newspaper Todd said, “Hey, look in the tree, there is a big bird sitting on that lower branch.” It took me a minute to find the object he was focusing on but sure enough, there in the early morning light, sat a large bird shadowed by snow-covered branches. We are accustomed to having many small birds visit our feeders throughout the winter but to see a predatory bird is rare. And so low and close to the house, seemingly eyeing the park for prey, is exceptional! We watched for a while before going on about our morning.
Both the kids were spending their third day home from school, recovering from a winter virus, not too sick to stay in bed but just miserable enough to lay low. Kael was standing at the same sliding glass doors when he excitedly exclaimed, “There is a fight or something going on in that tree, Mom.” I told him about the large bird his dad and I had seen earlier in the morning. As we watched, snow was flying out of the upper branches and cascading downward. Kael imagined the bird duking it out with a squirrel! Suddenly, the bird dropped from the tree and flopped into the snow. I said to Kael that it looked like a red-tailed hawk. He wasn’t sure he agreed but we thought we should investigate.
Reconnaissance, Research and Rescue
We both hastily bundled up and headed out across the backyard. As we approached the landing zone, the bird jumped away dragging a wing with him. Kael and I agreed on two things: positively a red-tailed hawk and clearly, injured. Knowing any attempt to get closer would exhaust its remaining reserves, we retreated to the house and called for backup. Kael researched online what to do with an injured raptor and settled on the RARE program. According to their website, the program focuses on rescue, triage and long term medical treatment of injured, sick and distressed raptors. Todd and the kids asked for advice on how to gently capture the bird and safely transfer it to the Iowa City facility. They settled on a wool blanket and dog carrier and as the best options.
True to February in Iowa, it was sunny and brisk with temperatures in the mid 30s and a breeze that made you think is was much cooler. Todd, Kael and Ava headed out into the park just after lunch to relocate the missing, injured raptor. The guys went to the right toward the ball diamond while Ava intuitively chose to head out the gate to the left. Within minutes, Ava located the injured hawk resting at the base of a crab apple tree. She called the guys over, and taking the advice of the RARE associate, they got just close enough to toss the wool blanket gently over the hawk and then Todd scooped him up! The poor bird was so cold and tired, he didn’t even fuss when they put him in the dog carrier, covered him up again and closed the door. As they drove to Iowa City, they wondered aloud what had happened to it and whether it would recover.
When they arrived at RARE, rehabilitator, Nikki Herbst, greeted them, assessed the newest arrival, determining it probably was a male hawk, and told them about what the rehab center does. She even introduced them to some of the permanent residents, those too injured to be released into the wild. “Miss Nikki” wasn’t too optimistic as she assessed the hawk. It seemed too weak to stand on its own, much less eat.
Ava Rare Champion Hawk Award
She was kind enough to award the kids with a RARE Wildlife Champion Award and thanked them for their service. Her parting words were, “No news is good news,” meaning she would only call us if he died. If he were to be released, it would be done with discretion at the same place that the bird was found.
Five weeks later, much to our surprise, we received a joyous call from “Miss Nikki.” She was eager to share the news that our hawk rescue was successful, and he was ready to be released. She wondered if we would like to participate?! She went on to say that he was back to his feisty self and flying around the indoor enclosure as high to the ceiling as he could. He was completely recovered from his injury, a broken femur! We agreed on a time with the place predetermined, the park – just outside our backyard.
Dimmer family with Nikki and hawk
After a few family pictures and with the hawk in a box, “Miss Nikki” coaxed the Red-Tailed Hawk from his cardboard carrier and invited him to see again the park and his home. With a count of one, two and three, she encouraged him into the air and off he flew. He paused for a moment at the top of an oak tree before taking off across the park.
Three cheers for the Red-Tailed Hawk, for lessons learned and for good deeds done!
We have a RARE chance to help out: The Raptor Advocacy Rehabilitation & Education (RARE) is based out of Iowa City and is a 501c3 organization. For more information please visit their website at www.theraregroup.org
Photo Journey of Release
Ava by carrier.
The Dimmer family watches as Nikki brings hawk out of the carrier.
Hawk out of box
Woman hold hawk
Ava, Todd, Kael, “Miss Nikki” and hawk.
Hawk in tree
This fall thousands of hunters will bring millions of ringneck pheasants home to be converted into delicious meals. Pheasants have been around so long that many people think of them as native birds. They’re not but they provide a lesson on how to structure a modern yard to attract wildlife.
In the 1880s Judge Owen Denny was stationed as a government agent in China. He and his wife took a fancy to colorful and tasty pheasants, which are native to Asia. They had some captured and shipped to Portland, Oregon where Denny’s brother released them on the family farm. They reproduced like crazy, and just ten years later Oregon opened the nation’s first pheasant season. About 50,000 were shot.
Pheasants began spreading out on their own and people speeded the process by capturing many and releasing them all over the country. The birds never took hold in the hot humid south but thrived in northern farmland that was a patchwork of grain and hayfields separated by brushy fence rows. By the mid-1900s they were abundant in the Midwest and eastward to the Atlantic wherever farms provided the right habitat.
Pheasants live near human activity. They love farmland yet shun forests. The bird did well until enormous changes in agriculture took place in recent years.