Now That You’re Feeding Birds, Think About Counting Them

This will give you 4 days to think about whether you might want to be involved in the Great Backyard Bird Count–and no, you don’t technically need a “backyard” to participate. You can count birds anyplace you can watch–or even hear birds! People start their counts just after midnight on the first day (this year the first day of the count is February 15). I am presuming they are hearing owls. I am sleeping.

What’s the Great Backyard Bird Count (or GBBC, for short)? It’s a 4 day count, held every year over the Presidents’ Day weekend. You can find out more than I could ever tell you here, at the web site.

And it’s pretty much as easy as it sounds. You “count” birds (instructions for counting are at the web site, along with optional counting sheets) over the 4 day “count period (again, this year February 15-18) and submit those counts to the web site. Last year close to 3 million birds were counted.

Why do you want to do this? For one thing, it’s fun. You’d be surprised at the number of different birds you’ll see if you just sit still and look.

For a second, it’s remarkably low tech (despite the fact that you have to submit your results online). You have to sit still and look at nature for at least 15 minutes. When was the last time you did that? It’s almost like forest bathing through a window. It can be remarkably relaxing.

So get to the web site, read the instructions, and even if you don’t participate, at some point over the long weekend, get your favorite hot beverage, park yourself in front of a window (or better yet, outdoors if it’s nice enough to do so where you are!) and just watch nature for 15 minutes. You’ll be surprised how refreshed you are at the end of it.

Nesting Places for Birds

I’ve lived in my house 25 years. By now, I know where I am likely to find birds nests. Every so often one will surprise me–but for the most part, there are several trees–small trees–and shrubs where I know that I am likely to find birds needs if I just pay attention.

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I will always find at least one, if not two, American robin’s nest in my American dogwood (cornus florida). Interestingly enough, they also like the Japanese maple and the japanese holly–so it’s not an “american” thing.

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I will also find various other birds nesting in these topiary blue spruce we have. We have several (don’t blame me–I inherited them). They stay because they birds like them.

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The japanese holly is another inherited shrub that I tolerate because it’s good for the birds. As I mentioned in the last post, it’s wonderful shelter for them (it doesn’t berry–I don’t think we have enough sun) and they do nest in it so I am not likely to remove it even though it is a bit of an overgrown monstrosity.

As for other nesting places, I was foolish enough to think that you needed nest boxes. Silly me. We must have at least 10 pair of nesting birds on the property at any one time all summer long. I attribute that to providing habitat (and of course, no pesticides).

You saw 2 nest boxes in the dogwood. One is pretty much decorative. The other is a working wren house and it’s used every year. I fledge ( actually the wren parents fledge) at least 2 broods of baby wrens each year. And they get mighty irate if I try to garden underneath.

But the trees and shrubs are the true nesting stars. My bird population relies heavily upon them to perpetuate their future.

Giving Birds a Place to Shelter

So in talking about birding habitat–or any habitat for wildlife–we’ve already covered food and water. And if you think about it, all living things need these–you or I wouldn’t survive for longer than a week or so without sustenance.

We’d also have to find some sort of shelter for ourselves. Birds and other wildlife need to do the same.

And in just the same way that each of us chooses different types of dwellings, birds have surprisingly different requirements when it comes to “shelter.” (I will talk about “nesting,” or places to raise young, on Friday).

If there’s a hawk or other bird of prey after them, any sort of cover will do, of course. They will duck into a shrub, a thicket, a tree with branches near a trunk or even under a rock.

But if it’s winter and they need to shelter from cold winds, evergreens are better protection for this. Evergreens on the leeward side of a building are even better (away from the prevailing winds).

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These 2 pieris andromeda don’t look like much, but I have seen lots of finch, sparrows and cardinals sheltering here. It’s on the south side of my house. I suspect that my cardinals even nest here but I haven’t confirmed that.

Even ornamental grasses left standing can be protection–and can offer valuable seeds–in a pinch.

What’s important is to know the places where your birds do shelter and to try not to let things disturb them. On a cold day–or night–it costs them precious energy to fly. I try hard not to let my dog get too close my large evergreen hollies where I know that birds sometimes huddle for protection. I don’t want her flushing them out needlessly.(You’ll see these hollies in my post on nesting).

Take a look around your yard–or if you don’t have a yard, a park or other place you like to visit. Can you find the places where birds like to shelter?

Providing Water to Birds in Winter

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You saw the photo of my little backyard pond all frozen over–or almost frozen over–last Wednesday. Believe it or not, that’s one of the best ways for birds–and even the squirrels and the chipmunks that pop out of torpor on a warm day–to get water in winter.

Once that pond gets a nice crusty, ice covering, it’s a safe place for birds and small wildlife to approach the small open fountain for a drink.

Obviously when the pond is completely un-frozen, it’s not very wildlife friendly–at least not for drinking! I have witnessed birds flying through the bubbler fountain, but I haven’t seen any really try to drink from it. I did see a mourning dove try to sit on it though. That was funny. It knocked the whole pump/pump box right over!

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Until it gets really cold, I do try to keep these plastic bird baths filled and relatively clean. Once they freeze solid, all bets are off. The stone is to keep them from becoming airborne in our gusty winter winds. It also helps the smaller birds that don’t want to dunk, but merely drink, have a perch.

I haven’t talked about what elements you need to provide to give birds–or any wildlife–a place to survive. There are four and we’ve already covered two. Food is essential, as is water. I will cover the next, shelter, on Monday.

Feeding the Birds

I talked last Friday about how much I loved to feed the birds. There was a time–maybe 10 years ago–when I used to go through 80 pounds of bird seed a week! I really love bird watching and bird feeding.

But as with all things, nature less gotten a little less predictable, and my knowledge of wildlife has gotten better. Let me explain.

I used to think that bears did a thing called hibernation, meaning that they would go into a cave and sleep for a definite period of time–probably December until maybe early March. I know now that that’s not quite exactly right.

Bears–like chipmunks, if you have those where you are–do a thing called torpor. In case you don’t have chipmunks, let me explain what they do. Chipmunks have the amazing ability to quasi-hibernate–to go into their burrows, sleep through cold periods, and if we get a nice balmy day, they pop out and refresh themselves–maybe grab a bite to eat, run around and grab some fresh air– you get the idea. That’s torpor.

Surprisingly, wildlife biologists are learning that bears do just the same thing. Bears don’t take a 4 month nap. They’ll wake up intermittently and even pop out for a snack–and a bathroom break–and maybe even grab a bird feeder or two. Hence my recent aversion to feeding the birds.

But this doesn’t mean that I have to stop providing food for them (and no I don’t mean tossing a handful of seeds on the ground). There are plenty of berrying shrubs and trees with mast (nuts and seeds) that we have on our property that are already feeding our birds.

We have oaks (planted well before I moved to the property 25 years ago) that provide acorns for birds like blue jays and woodpeckers. Our pine trees provide cones with seeds for chickadees, titmice and nuthatches and nectar for hummingbirds. The American dogwood seeds are eaten by robins and starlings. And the crabapple is eaten by robins as well. Even the juniper berries are eaten by robins.

So you see that you don’t need a lot of plants–or exotic plants (in fact, plants native to your region are often best!)–to feed the birds. But you do need something that berries or makes seeds or nuts or acorns.

Next post I’ll talk about something that’s a little harder to achieve in winter–water.

Airborne Marvels

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Unfortunately with all our rain, this photo doesn’t do justice to what’s really happening here.

Every year, for about a month or so, the timing of which seems to coordinate with the maturing of the periodic dog day cicadas, of course, eastern cicada killer wasps (sphecius speciosus)make tunnels (hence the large opening and the disturbed soil in the photo).

The cicada killer wasp is the largest wasp in my part of the world and it’s a fearsome looking creature. It looks pretty much like a giant hornet or yellow jacket–and when I say “giant” I am not kidding. They can be up to 2″ long (which doesn’t sound long until you are walking along and all of these wasps are burrowing and flying around at you!)

Despite their size, in general, they are gentle and non-stinging (although as with all stinging insects, if something happens to annoy them, they will defend themselves. The Spoiler once managed to get stung by a bumble bee! I wasn’t sure that was really possible. I now know it is.)

What these wasps are doing is making a tunnel nest for an egg. They then grab a cicada, take it down into the nest for the egg to eat when it hatches, and fly away. Nothing very scary. The whole process takes about a month.

Our cicada killers at this site have returned every year for decades and to the best of my knowledge, despite the building’s public use, no one has ever been stung.

There are lots more fun and interesting facts about our largest wasp (in North America, at least) at this site about Cicadas.

If you encounter them–or their tunnels–don’t be afraid. Just watch and enjoy.

Crop Circle?

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This first appeared in my lawn about a month ago. It was followed by something that looked like this.

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I was really mystified.

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And then I saw this. The rabbit is a little far away to see–she’s underneath the crab apple and quite alert to my presence. That’s why I didn’t want to get too close (although she does hop into my rose garden if I even dare to drive up the driveway)

So yes, by now you’ve guessed it–this isn’t an alien invasion after all–it’s a rabbit’s nest. And what I feared was destruction by a predator in the second photo (and may in fact have been) didn’t mean that the baby bunnies weren’t still alive–you can see the tunnel in the lawn. I presume they were in there. That’s why the “Mama” was so attentive and so reluctant to leave them in my last photo.

This nest has been used twice so far this summer. We’ll see how many more times it gets used before it us ultimately abandoned–or before nature takes its course and predators do get it.