When do Birds Fly South?

Swapping Birds

All summer we’ve watched and listened to wren couples who built nests and raised young in our yard.  An Indigo Bunting welcomed each summer morning with his song and serenaded the evening until dark.  Early this spring, we marveled at the brilliantly colored orioles and grosbeaks who visited. During warm months, hummingbirds flitted up and down and all around outside our windows.

When a long-absent bird suddenly makes its springtime appearance in full breeding color, it’s exciting and easy to spot. We greet spring’s migrants after their long journey north with a hearty, “Welcome Home!” and some seed.

With fall now in the air, our vivacious summer bird friends are drifting away, pushed southward by vigorous north winds. Departure is different from arrival. When they appear in spring, birds are in their glorious mating colors and sing with gusto. They’ve been absent for months until one morning we look out the window – and there they are!  It’s magical.

Indigo Buntings and Wrens Leave…

Arrivals are easy to mark. No so departures. By fall many birds have molted into their more subtle nonbreeding colors and just seem to evaporate. No singing marks their departure and figuring out just when they leave is challenging. More often we just say, “Gee, I haven’t heard the indigo buntings for a few days. I bet they’ve gone.”

…and Juncos Arrive

We wish we could help migrants on their departure evening by saying, “Have a safe trip and pleasant winter. See you next spring!” Since we don’t know exactly when they’ll be winging south, they depart without our good wishes. The parting is sad, but we know we’ll soon look out the window and almost miraculously spot the fall’s first juncos nosing around on the ground looking for a few seeds to enjoy for breakfast.

Orioles and grosbeaks drift south starting in late summer and our bunting was gone by August 20. Hummingbirds and wrens disappear by late September. Juncos usually appear from northern breeding grounds in October and stick around until April. Then they seem to vanish overnight. But, that’s just before spring’s colorful songsters arrive

Where Do Bats and Bugs Go to Rest?

On a  sunny, warm, late summer day we watched countless bees and butterflies foraging on prairie plants, hummingbirds sipping nectar from Cardinal flowers, and small birds pausing to drink water on the cup plants. That evening, bats swooped across the sky as clouds gathered. Then, came the downpour.

So, we wondered, where do birds and bees and bats go during storms or just to rest? A bit of Internet searching yielded some fascinating information.

Bees

seeking shelter from the rain

Bees are active in the day and need sleep just like humans do.  How they sleep is quite different.  Bees and many insects do not have eyelids. They relax the body and antennae and sometimes fall over.  Sometimes, the other bees in a honeybee colony prop up the “sleeping” bee. As we see in this video, and similar to human babies, they sleep in shorter bursts. This sleep helps their memory.  Remember, bees, especially honeybees explore new foraging spots, return to the hive, communicate through a “dance” telling other bees where the source of nectar is.  As with people, good sleep helps them perform better.  Look for bees on the underside of leaves and grass blades after a rain or in the early morning.

Butterflies

Butterflies also seek shelter on the underside of leaves or grass blades. This vegetation protects them from furious winds and debilitating raindrops.  Think about it! How delicate a butterfly’s wings are and how a large raindrop can punish it. A Scientific American article gave a great comparison to us humans – being whacked by a water balloon twice the mass of a bowling ball!

Birds and Bats

One hummingbird fell into a torpor on the feeder!

To rest, Hummingbirds go into torpor – a sleep-like state where the body temperature drops to conserve energy. They sometimes hang upside down as we see in this video. When the temperatures rise, they  “wake up”.  They can fly in moderate rains.

Some larger birds, like turkeys, actually come out in rainstorms and forage on insects that are slowed down by the cooler temperatures.  At night, turkeys roost in trees.  Watching them navigate through dense forests into the tops of sturdy trees is amazing.

Nighthawks, along with their nocturnal companions bats, find daytime shelter on tree branches. Bats tuck under tree bark flaps, in crevices and caves, and enter tiny cracks in homes making attics a cozy den.

Next time you are out and about, look carefully on undersides of leaves and grass blades, study branches of trees for unusual shapes that might be a roosting bird, and notice animals out and about at different times of the day and in different weather.

 

What Do Baby Owls Look Like?

A Tale of Baby Owls
Guest Blogger, R’becca Groff

The first sign of an owl living back on our acreage happened late last summer when I heard a rabbit being taken late one night. A rabbit sounds like a human baby when it’s in trouble, and it is the painful reality of the food chain.

Throughout this past winter, my neighbors and I have been listening to two owls living across our adjoining properties – a very large one and his smaller mate — we assumed.

I was the only one who wasn’t getting outdoors in time to see them, however.

The other day I heard the hooting midday and ran outside, determined to see where this owl was perched. It sounded so close to my office window. And there it was…staring down at me from one of the old Austrian pine trees between my house and my neighbor’s.

I spoke softly to it, hoping it wouldn’t mind but it wanted nothing to do with me, and promptly vacated its branch perch, gliding gracefully across my neighbor’s back yard to a safer distance.

As I’d been hearing about a huge hawk nest way at the back of our property line, I went to have a look for myself. Studying the tree line as I walked, I came upon an owlet watching down from one of the lower branches of another pine tree. I couldn’t resist it. I had to try and converse with this beautiful creature. It sat there watching back at me, unhinged by my presence. Just for fun, I circled the tree, and the baby followed my every move.

Of course, I texted the neighbors, only to learn there are two new owlets as my northern neighbors have been watching that hawk nest through binoculars. They’ve been observing as mama owl hunts and feeds these babies around dusk. She obviously is doing a fine job as we all have plenty of owl pellets on the ground around our trees.

Throughout the day I couldn’t keep away. I kept walking back out to view this new baby living in my yard. Later that day I finally caught a glimpse of its sibling perched near the top of the pine tree at the end of our acreage’s property line.

The neighbors and I had a chuckle, as we’ve noticed the rabbits seem to have moved across the street —
out of our yards!

Wren Antics

As lingering snow banks melt we look forward to the arrival of our favorite spring guests.  They arrive in late April, but we put out the welcoming mat a month ahead.

Wren

We welcome the wrens each spring

For many years a pair of house wrens have nested right outside our dining room window.  We laugh at their bubbly energy and enjoy watching them bring caterpillar after caterpillar into their home to feed growing babies. In some years we get to watch as the youngsters peer outside their nest box before taking their first awkward and short flight.

How Many Species live in the United States?

Carolina Wren

Sometimes the Carolina wrens stay around in winter.

House wrens are only one of six wren species that live in the United States. We’re fortunate to have both house and Carolina wrens in our

yard. Carolinas don’t migrate, so we sometimes see one feeding on suet in winter. House wrens are, perhaps, wiser and leave Iowa each October to winter down along the Gulf Coast.  

It’s almost magical when the house wrens return each late April. Suddenly the air is filled with their delightful song. We usually hear them before we spot their nervous energy as they seek a nesting location. The nest boxes we set up in March are their welcome mat.

Making a Birdhouse

Few birds are as easy to lure into a nest box as house wrens. In winter we make new ones out of scrap lumber. Wrens aren’t fussy. Many elaborate nest boxes can be purchased but all it takes to make one is a four-foot section of 1X6 inch pine lumber, a few nails, and simple tools. We like the plans posted on Birdwatching Bliss.   

We’re crude carpenters but the birds don’t seem to mind if the joints aren’t perfect.

Many wren house plans call for a circular opening of 1 1/8th inch but we’ve had great success with a one-inch hole. Larger holes welcome messy house sparrows. We also never place a perch in front of the entry hole. Wrens are acrobatic flyers and have no trouble entering a hole without a perch nearby.  

Entertainment

Few birds are as entertaining as bubbly house wrens, but there’s another reason we love having them around. They’re voracious predators of insects that love feasting on our garden crops, so our wren tenants help boost our vegetable crop.  

Wrens start nesting almost as soon as they arrive. Their nest is carefully made of small sticks that nestle a few reddish spotted eggs that hatch in about two weeks. Babies grow like fury and leave the nest by the end of June. We then clean the nest out of the box, and often the eager parents produce a second brood in the late summer.

No bird is as likely to fascinate a child as a pair of bubbly wrens nesting in full view just outside the window.   

 

Canada Geese

Too many people hate Canada geese. Once rare, this giant bird is now common across North America and enjoys living in town.

Geese were once uncommon rural birds, but starting several decades ago people began restoring populations in places where they were long absent. Our town of Cedar Rapids is an example. Nearly 40 years ago a few of the giant Canada subspecies were released in town. No one dreamed how successful they would be. Geese multiplied like crazy and now seem to be everywhere as they relax along the river or wing over downtown.

People dislike them because of the mess they leave on sidewalks, lawns, and golf courses. The expression loose as a goose is apt. Despite their mess, we find geese fascinating and love watching them, especially during our walks around Cedar Lake near downtown.

Goose couple in the snow

Geese pair up in late winter.

There’s much to admire about Canada geese. They mate for life and are devoted to their partner and babies, live many years, and have plenty of leisure to socialize and relax. Food is usually abundant. City geese enjoy eating lawn grass and the corn that spills from railroad cars.

Because geese are common, big, and unafraid of people they’re easy to observe.  Having knowledge of their annual pattern can help see them as fascinating animals rather than messy pests.

The Seasonal Goose Pattern

FEBRUARY AND MARCH:   Geese are now in pairs, rather than mixed in big flocks. Males and females show the same plumage, making it difficult to tell genders apart but usually, the ganders, or males, are slightly bigger than the females and have thicker necks. When we spot a lone goose in March, we know it’s likely a gander. Its mate is either laying an egg or incubating nearby but out of sight.

Goose nests are usually hidden, although sometimes one will be in plain view.   Normally it will be in a low spot near water, but we spotted a goose nest in an old bald eagle nest high in a cottonwood tree. Over a couple of weeks, the female lays a clutch that can have from just a few to a dozen eggs. When the clutch is finished, she’ll start a 35-day incubation period. During this time, she stays out of sight. People are most likely to see a lone goose, the gander, in plain view nearby.

APRIL:   Most goslings hatch in April, and the proud parents lead them to water.   Amazingly these balls of fluff can walk and swim when only hours old. Mom and Dad protect them from predators and people who approach too closely. Crowd a goose family and the parents will hiss and threaten. A big goose is intimidating but we know it’s mostly bluff.

Often several goose couples bring their goslings together, so we sometimes see as many as 25 or 30 babies intermingled in big groups. Adults seem to share parenting duty.

Adult goose and goslings

Adult geese protect their young.

SUMMER:   Goslings grow amazingly fast and by mid to late summer are almost as big as mom and dad. They gradually develop their adult feathers and by late summer look identical to their parents and have learned to fly.

FALL AND WINTER:   When the grass stops growing our Cedar Rapids geese often leave town in the morning to fly into the country, where they snack on corn that farmers’ combines missed at harvest. They wing back in the evening and spend the night along the Cedar River or lake. Winter geese socialize in groups of 20 or 30. Should a hungry predator approach, the flock will make a racket and send it on its way.

Many Canada geese are migratory, although some stay in town all year. In the fall and winter, some individuals in a big group of geese may have hatched as far away as Canada, while others are locals. It’s during winter that young geese form pair bonds that can last for life. Usually the female determines where home is. So, if a Cedar Rapids hatched male goose takes a fancy to a young Canadian girl Canada goose, he will follow her north to nest, perhaps in Manitoba. But if a young Canadian boy goose pairs with a Cedar Rapids girl goose they’ll set up housekeeping here.

Geese are fascinating wild animals. Because they are amazingly common and easy to see they are one of the best birds to observe as they go about their annual pattern of life.

Do Birds Like Milo?

Bird Seed

Sunflower seed, cracked corn, milo.

We recently bought a bag of cheap wild bird seed. It contained mostly milo with some sunflower, cracked corn, and millet mixed in. We should have known better but dumped a scoop of it on top of our platform feeder at Winding Pathways and watched what happened.

Birds swooped right in. Cardinals, chickadees, nuthatches, and even a cardinal. They were joined by red-headed woodpeckers. The birds quickly devoured the sunflower seeds, then the corn, and finally the millet. They left the milo untouched.

Birds don’t like milo. Sure, they’ll eat it if they are hungry and there’s nothing else available, but they often leave it uneaten.

Milo is a type of sorghum grown in places too arid for corn. Its seeds are round, reddish, and about the size of a BB. The less expensive a bird seed blend is the more likely it is to have a high percent milo seed.

The very best all-around seed for feeding a diversity of seed-eating birds is black oil sunflower.  Many birds like cracked corn, which is inexpensive. Ground feeding birds like doves and juncos love millet, but they just don’t like milo.

Leave it in the store. It’s not a bargain.