Yes, this sounds like a love/hate relationship. But, it is truly pure enjoyment for my wife and me to witness the birds that visit our backyard feeder here in SE Minnesota.
Throughout the year a variety of birds comes from the woods to feast at my wife’s feeder. From late April to early May the orioles make their appearance. Baltimore Orioles have a vivid bright orange color and the Orchard Oriole has a noticeably darker burnt orange color. The recent reality of retirement has allowed us more time for photography and our birds have become a passion.
Capturing a static image of a perched bird is relatively easy but my goal has been to catch them in their interactions and flight. Shutter speeds of 1/1000th of a second or faster are recommended and patience is mandatory but the results might get you hooked. Beware…
Another beautiful, blue-sky day. This early morning I am drinking tea and looking out the patio windows. As I enjoy the view of the freshly cut lawn and watch the birds flit about, a bit of busy-ness above the deck catches my attention. A small, loose clump of grey moss trembles and jerks around. It seems suspended like a little tube sock from a maple branch.
A tiny head and two bright eyes appear. In a wink, she’s gone. Moments later, another flash, this time with a hint of yellow. More trembling and jerking around, on the branch. And now I’m sure we have a nesting pair in our tree at the end of the deck.
Despite the yellow, her beak is too long and slender to be a goldfinch. A burst of warbling and I think it might be ‘Mistress Mary’, one of my favourite songbirds that keeps me company on long summer afternoons.
I can look forward to hours of entertainment.
Mistress Mary is just my name for a songbird whose phrases sound like an event organizer ordering people around:
“Jay-jay, sorry, Jo-Jo, sit here.” “That’s your story? “So?” “Bring it here.” “Will you do it?” “Where are you?” “Do ya think?”
She has quite a repertoire of a dozen or so phrases that she repeats faithfully. Fun to listen to. I first heard her about five years ago.
The Hermit thrush has also arrived in Eastern Canada for his summer stay. His ethereal song echoes in the woods.
We’re lucky. Scarlet tanagers nest near us. Winding Pathways abuts Faulkes Heritage Woods, a protected 110-acre forest of mostly monstrous oak trees. So, every May we’re delighted as this brilliant bird arrives and sets up home.
Male scarlet tanagers appear at our feeders in mid-May. Females come a few days later. The male’s amazingly brilliant red feathers and contrasting black wings make the bird unmistakable. For only a week or two they visit the orange-colored suet we set out and pick sunflower seeds from silo feeders. Then they disappear. We knew they abandoned our yard to nest near the tops of big oaks in the nearby woods, but they are very hard to spot there, even as they sally forth to catch insects from mid-air catching a meal. Their summer diet is mostly insects.
The male scarlet tanager arrives. several days ahead of the female.
The tanagers willinging come to the platform feeder.
We wondered where they went after nesting and consulted our friend Jim Berry, retired executive director of the Roger Tory Peterson Institute in Jamestown, New York. Here’s what he wrote:
“Once the baby birds fledge, familial responsibilities end and the birds move away from forests to places where they can find food and molt. Often these are old fields and marshes, where they seem to disappear. This is called the post-season dispersal.
They soon replace their brilliant red feathers with duller-colored new ones that help them migrate.”
Jim told us we are lucky to have scarlet tanagers come to our feeders. They don’t where he lives in Western New York.
After they molt the birds fly all the way to northwestern South America for the winter. We won’t see them again until next May.
These are breathtakingly beautiful birds that brighten our yard for just a short while each year. We’re humbled to be able to host them.
We like geese. Yes, they leave piles of poop on trails and urban grassy areas. And, that is a pain. We’re not fond of running the gauntlet of goose dirt on the sidewalk. Still, we like geese. They recently made us laugh with an antic we found hysterical.
While driving on Shaver Road, NE, near Cedar Lake in Cedar Rapids we spotted dozens of fluffy baby geese on a nearby lawn. There were at least 50 fuzzy babies watched over by only nine adults. All streamed across the road as fast as their little legs would take them and sprinted across a parking lot. It was a herd of fluff balls moving in concert. We were laughing so hard photography was difficult. Another couple had also stopped to watch and catch a video of them.
We often walk around Cedar Lake and always see geese, but May is probably the best month to watch them. Geese mate for life, so we usually see a pair of adults with anywhere from two to a dozen babies.
Here is why we like them. They’re attentive parents, teaching their babies how to find food and swim and keeping them safe. An adult goose is both formidable and a great bluffer. If we approach too closely they’ll open their bill and hiss. It’s clear communication that says, “Stay away from our babies.” We imagine that an enraged parent goose would drive off a hungry raccoon eyeing a baby for dinner. But, they don’t usually bother walkers beyond the hiss and evil eye routine.
One fascinating goose observation is that often several goose couples let their babies intermingle. It’s like a swarm of geese tended by many parents. Often the babies are of different sizes, so some must be older than others but the parents protect them all.
When we saw the 50 odd goslings with only four pairs of adults we wondered if they were operating a goose daycare, allowing other goose couples to have a few hours off from parenting duties.
Goose babies grow amazingly fast on a diet of mostly grass, and we’ll enjoy watching them mature as we do our regular walks around the lake.
Can you introduce kids to bird watching and get “outside” during novel coronavirus times?
We read a short article written by a diehard baseball fan. She had bought season tickets to her beloved St. Louis Cardinals just before the pandemic hit. When the virus shut down baseball she said, “I’m not watching the Cardinals but I am loving the cardinals……the ones that sing in my backyard.”
Like the baseball fan, many people are enjoying birds in their yards and neighborhoods – often for the first time. Birding is an outstanding hobby and this spring is an outstanding time to start. Being confined to the house and yard is a great opportunity to introduce kids to birds. Also, usually, the best birding of the year is in early May when avian migrants move through and visitors from the far south nest nearby.
Birding requires no license. There isn’t a closed season. Enjoying birds is free and can be done everywhere, even in the biggest cities. It’s a hobby that can be started simply and may evolve into a lifelong passion.
Basic Homebound Birding with Kids
Bird watching is again a joy with hearing aids.
Special equipment needed: None, but a pencil and a few sheets of scrap paper can help record observations.
Encourage kids to watch birds in the yard. Most can identify cardinals, blue jays, and house sparrows but distinguishing species for a beginner isn’t essential. Just have kids note how one type of bird looks and acts differently than others. Essentially how a cardinal differs from a sparrow. Maybe have the kids sketch the birds they see.
The Next Step
Cost: Around $125 for entry-level binoculars and a basic bird book.
Equipment: Binoculars and a bird book and bird apps:
At this stage begin identifying and recording species seen. Read with a child descriptions of the life history, migration patterns, and habitat of different species.
List all the birds seen in the yard. This is the start of a “life list”.
A Little More Advanced
Cost: Not much. The basic equipment listed above works but add in a few dollars for gas to visit nearby habitats.
After a child can distinguish between backyard bird species and has used a bird book or app it’s time to search for more species. Bring along binoculars and a pad and pencil. Visit nearby wetlands, woodlands, and grasslands. Even with novel coronavirus shutdowns, most places allow people to visit parks and natural areas. Each will feature new bird species. Take note of them and read about each. Add new species to the list started with backyard birds.
Igniting a Passion
Most children are curious about nature and seeing just one or two fascinating birds can ignite a lifelong passion that may become a delightful hobby or even a professional career. Advanced birders purchase sophisticated optics and travel the world to see new species and learn more about these fascinating animals. Hopefully, the novel coronavirus will pass soon and the world opens to a youngster with a new birding hobby. It all can start by spotting a blue jay in the backyard.
Where to Get Information
At Winding Pathways, we have many paper bird books produced by several companies. We don’t favor one over the other but often refer to several when we’re trying to identify a bird new to us. Increasingly we rely on the Merlin App created by the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology. The descriptions of hundreds of bird species, along with photos and calls, is at the tip of our fingers on our iPhones. It’s free. Simply go to the App Store and search for Merlin. The Lab of Ornithology has many other fascinating resources that can be accessed from a computer or smartphone, and we love their paper magazineLiving Bird.
The National Audubon Society is highly bird-oriented and has local chapters. Attending a meeting or going on a birding excursion with members is an outstanding way to connect with people who share a bird passion. Some chapters may offer ZOOM meetings. Others hold online excursions to help people get and stay connected. Earth Day saw a host of events online.
We also enjoy reading Bird Watcher’s Digest, a small format magazine that features articles about individual species and places to enjoy them in every issue. The Internet is loaded with many other bird resources.
We are often asked what type of binoculars we use. None of our optics is high end. Rich prefers 8X42 power while Marion’s are 10X42. The first number is the magnification and the second indicates how much light enters the optic. Eight or 10 powered binoculars that give a clear view and fit well in someone’s hands are ideal for a budding birder. Tiny micro binoculars are great for travel but we find them much harder to use than larger ones.
Spring is the best time to see migrating birds, and the novel coronavirus is confining people to yards. It’s an opportunity to take notice of the colorful and interesting wildlife that comes to us. This is a wonderful time for a child to launch a birding hobby.
*Note: Our assessment of WindowAlert is based on our experiences both from purchasing the company’s product and a complimentary set of decals to try.
Last fall as Rich was walking along the outside of the Cedar Rapids Public Library and found a tiny dead warbler on the sidewalk beneath a large window. Fall warblers are tough to identify but it was a blackpoll. Why did the bird hit the window?
This amazing bird has an enormous migration from the far north of the continent to the south each fall, with a reverse trip in the spring. The bird Rich found probably was only halfway through its autumnal journey. Its death was sad and probably could have been prevented.
Occasionally we have a bird crash against our windows at Winding Pathways, and a male cardinal persists in cracking his head against a window at our church in Cedar Rapids.
According to Spencer Schock at WindowAlert, birds are impacted by windows for two reasons. First, all year, but especially during migration, birds simply don’t see the glass and assume they can fly right through it. That’s what happened to the warbler. Second, it’s springtime rivalry. The cardinal banging on the church window sees his reflection, assumes it is a rival and tries to chase it off or intimidate it. This behavior is common, especially among cardinals, and usually happens from late winter into early spring. It’s rarely fatal to the bird but can annoy humans inside the building.
How to Reduce Bird Strikes on Windows.
The simple solution for both types of bird strikes is to do something so the animal recognizes it is glass. Here are some ways to reduce window strikes:
Close Drapes. But then people can’t see out and sunshine can’t enter.
Put something over the exterior window that looks to birds like a barrier or physically keeps them away. Draping the mesh netlike material made to protect cherry trees from birds trying to steal fruit works. The downside is that sometimes birds get tangled in it.
Put decals on the windows to help birds identify a glass barrier. We like the many designs sold by WindowAlert. They’re easy to apply, attractive, inexpensive and work well.
Eliminate reflection to keep cardinals and other territorial birds from attacking their own image. WindowAlert has a material called Stop Bird Attack. It comes in a spray can that’s sprayed on the outside of the window. The material looks like white flocking put on Christmas trees to imitate snow. It eliminates reflection and can be easily cleaned off the window after the mating season.
Check the windows first.
Ready to spray
The spray makes the window opaque.
The BirdStop spray resembles Christmas tree flocking.
What to Do When a Bird is Found under a Window
A few times we’ve been sitting in our home and hear a bang as a bird strikes a window. We sadly find the poor animal lying still under the window. There are two likely outcomes.
This bird broke its neck hitting a window.
The bird is either dead or dying and there’s nothing we can do to alter that unhappy outcome. e bury the poor creature and add more visibility items to the window.
The bird has been stunned and will soon recover and fly away. Often a bird will recover, but while it is stunned it’s vulnerable to cats and other predators. Spencer advises gently putting the bird in a closed cardboard box or large paper bag. As soon as it has recovered, release it outdoors.
Probably the best thing a homeowner can do to help songbirds is to plant a diversity of native grasses, flowers, shrubs, and trees to create habitat. The next best action is to keep cats indoors and reduce the odds of collisions with glass using the methods described above.