Hardy Winter Citizens

My header images these days contain pictures of the birds that come to our feeders. I thought I’d do a post that matches up the images with their species. There are currently eight birds in the rotation.

Dark-eyed junco
Dark-eyed junco

This is a female; the male is darker. A pair of these nested in our hanging plant a few years ago. They usually feed on the ground, but we’ve seen them several times on our tube feeder this year.

Mystery junco
Mystery junco

This one has more tan on its sides than the juncos we ordinarily see. I think it may be one of the western variety that has ventured east, as they sometimes do. (Or so I’ve read.)

Female goldfinch in winter drab
Female goldfinch in winter drab

In summer these birds (especially the males) look like drops of fire as they dive from the branches to the feeder, but in winter they’re more dull-colored. I’ve read that if other birds lay eggs in a goldfinch nest, they rarely survive the all-seed diet goldfinches feed their young.


I’ve never noticed this bird before, but they’ve appeared at our feeder this week. When they look straight at you they look grumpy, thanks to the black fu and black mask. :-)


See what I mean?
See what I mean?
American Tree Sparrow
American Tree Sparrow

This bird doesn’t come to the feeder; it’s one of a flock we saw on a recent walk. It’s plump with a spot on its breast and a yellow lower beak.

White-throated Sparrow
White-throated Sparrow

I love white-throats, though prior to this year I thought they lived farther north in summer and migrated farther south in winter. Maybe because of the placement of our feeder further from the house this year, I’ve discovered that they are year-round residents in this area of New York.

Carolina Wren
Carolina Wren

I adore this little ball of bird that’s been coming to our cake of homemade suet (Christmas morning bacon drippings, hardened with peanut bits and sunflower seeds). It’ll be one of the earliest singers in spring, belting out its earsplitting “Teakettle Teakettle TEA!” (*Edited to add: I’ve since read that using bacon drippings for suet is not a good idea, so we won’t be doing that again!)


Black-capped Chickadee
Black-capped Chickadee

Who doesn’t love chickadees?

Forget your troubles, try to be
just like that cheerful chickadee
and whistle while you work…

Actually,  chickadees are made of strong stuff. It was 5 degrees out this morning! They and the other little birds fluttering around out there are in a life-and-death search for food all day long today. It makes the bird feeder more than just a source of pleasure for us birdwatchers.

I read in The Forest Unseen that chickadees have various adaptations to the cold. They grow 50% more feathers in winter (the original down jacket). They sometimes sleep huddled together in a “ball of birds.” And they search constantly for food with eyes that are lined with twice as many receptors as humans’:

On a winter day, the birds need up to 65,000 joules of energy to keep themselves alive. Half this energy is used to shiver. These abstract measures become more understandable when they are converted into the currency of bird food. A spider the size of a comma on this page contains just one joule. A spider that fits into a capitalized letter holds one hundred joules. A word-sized beetle has two hundred and fifty joules. An oily sunflower seed has more than one thousand joules…

Sharing this information, I’m doing what I can to show what a great thing it is to keep the feeder filled in winter. And the fun of watching the birds is one of the real pleasures of the colorless season. There are many more than the eight species I’ve managed to capture lately in pictures: cardinals, titmice, nuthatches (red and white-breasted), house finches, downy and hairy and red-bellied woodpeckers, mourning doves. There were bluejays, though they seem to have vanished. But as my stock of pictures grows they’ll appear in my header, at least for awhile.


The Birds Our Teachers

“Many Christians have a good doctrine of redemption, but need a better doctrine of creation,” writes John Stott at the start of The Birds Our Teachers. Because God reveals himself in his works, and because he delights in creation, Stott urges Christians to study “at least one branch of natural history” as an avenue of knowledge about God.

Seeing as I just paused in my writing of this to snap pictures of two flickers jabbing at ants in my back yard, it’s plain enough that I share Stott’s chosen branch — or should I say, wing — of natural history: birds. Many times my reflection on the beauty and uniqueness of these diverse creatures has led me to consider aspects of my faith, but in this slim book John Stott gives us the gift of an extended, biblically based exploration of what he jokingly calls “orni-theology.”

Interspersed with photos from a lifetime of bird watching, and supplemented by a dvd in which he describes a trip to the Falkland Islands, Stott’s book is a delight. Each chapter focuses on the habits of a particular species as an illustration of a spiritual principle. One of my favorites was “The Migration of Storks: Repentance.” He writes,

Would that we had as strong a homing instinct spiritually as birds have physically! The more we come to recognize that God is the true home of the human spirit, and that we are waifs and strays without him, the more quickly and painfully will we become aware of even the smallest estrangement from him, and the more eagerly will we return to him. For when we come back, we have come home.

After the clarity of a passage like that, it will come as no surprise to hear that I read some chapters of this book to my daughters. Avid bird watchers themselves, they loved the natural details, and we all added to our knowledge of birds. But equally compelling are some of these unforgettable illustrations.

This was a birthday gift from my husband. It makes a great gift for the birders in your life, but it also educates the eye of the heart. In that respect it has broad appeal to all who want to learn to read the book of creation.

Pond walk

I’m considering starting a separate blog for nature posts. The idea of a second site to maintain has never really appealed to me before, but I seem to have so many photos and nature-related thoughts that a blog more narrowly focused on the subject might actually work.

But in the meantime, I can’t resist sharing just a couple (out of many!) of the sights from this morning’s walk with the girls.

Dame's Rocket
Glory the Oriole (named by the Burgess Bird Book)
Rattles the Kingfisher

We stumbled upon another nesting site, this one belonging to a red-bellied woodpecker.

There was a great blue heron fishing, and  green herons are back now too.

There were other wildflowers and ferns, yellow warblers, and two new kinds of vireos (to me) — warbling and white-eyed. We saw some turtles, as well as one “accidental” Eurasian bird, a greenshank.

Tree swallows swooped everywhere; Younger Daughter worked hard to get a photo of one in flight, and Older Daughter labored for the perfect yellow warbler picture.

It was the best possible way to spend the morning.

Nesting News

Mrs. Robin has laid a full clutch of eggs under our noses. Her nest is awfully near the ground, and awfully near the front door. But we’re all on the alert against predators and have even altered our lifestyle to the extent of letting the dog out the back door instead of the front door to avoid spooking her. I wish her all the best… she’s settled in on full incubation duty now.

I was beginning to think that the pileated woodpecker nest we’d found was not active after all, but the other day when I checked on it, I witnessed the parents changing shifts.

The female arrived...
...and the male flew away.

They must have nestlings in there now. It’s a deep cavity; I could see no trace of the adult bird in there before he flew away, much less youngsters. Maybe when they get a little bigger.

Last but not least under the Nestwatch category was this visit by Mrs. Oriole yesterday. She was plucking mane strands from the tire-horse on our rusty old swingset.

I wish her well. John Burroughs writes in “The Tragedies of the Nests” of a young oriole that was strangled by one of the strands in its nest. I hope Mrs. Oriole’s family fares better. The male has been serenading the neighborhood, and between him and the rose-breasted grosbeak the air is full of music.

New-to-us Bird: Brown Thrasher

This fellow sang from the treetop where Older Daughter and I went looking for warblers.

He’s a good-sized bird with a rich, cinnamon-colored back and an incredible repertoire of song phrases. When we read about him, we learned that he’s a shy bird who usually stays hidden in the bushes, but he can be seen singing over his territory in the spring. Both days we were there, he was perched in the same tree, singing his heart out.

Brown thrashers eat insects, seeds, fruit, and small amphibians which they forage for on or near the ground. They are related to mockingbirds and catbirds and are said to have the largest song repertoire of any North American bird. After listening for awhile, I believe it! Our Smithsonian Handbook makes me smile in its description of the way the male “sings conversation-like phrases of hello, hello, yes, yes, who is this? Who is this? I should say, I should say, with the varied phrases being given in two’s and three’s.” Over 1,100 song types have been recorded for this one bird!

As we watched, two catbirds landed in the same tree and seemed to listen curiously. Then a male Baltimore oriole did the same thing. The thrasher was unperturbed, but he never gave anyone else an opening in the conversation — just kept up his unbroken stream of cheerful volubility.

The second day, I took some video. There are other noises — yellow warblers, red-winged blackbirds, engine noises. When the chime on my phone sounds, it almost sounds like a noise the thrasher could make if he wanted to!

We really enjoyed making the acquaintance of this bird. I hope the season will see the successful rearing of a brood of chatterboxes just like him!

The brown thrasher is discussed (briefly) in chapter 30 of the Burgess Bird Book. It’s online here. I agree with Peter Rabbit:

“Did I hear him sing!” cried Peter, his eyes shining at the memory. “He sang especially for me. He flew up to the top of a tree, tipped his head back and sang as few birds I know of can sing. He has a wonderful voice, has Brownie. I don’t know of anybody I enjoy listening to more. And when he’s singing he acts as if he enjoyed it himself and knows what a good singer he is…”

Back yard nature notes

Mrs. Pileated visited our back yard this morning and brightened the overcast for a little while.

Obviously I haven’t mastered the art of photographing birds in flight. But even blurred, the pattern of coloration on the outspread wings is dramatic.

She harvested what she could, then flew away.

There is a robin’s nest in the shrub right next to our front door. Looks like we’re in for some up-close nature study, provided she doesn’t get scared away. We can look out a bedroom window directly into the nest, so in effect we have a robin’s nest-cam.

We met an ornithologist while walking around Sapsucker Pond in Ithaca, earlier this week. (That’s where we saw the hunting hawk pictured in the preceding post.) He told us about a rare sight in these parts, a yellow-headed blackbird, that he’d traveled to see the day before. The site was on our way home, so we stopped to see if we could spot it. It was, as he’d said, far across the marshy area where it was hanging out. But we did get to watch it for a bit with binoculars. I got a picture — more of a “this proves that I saw it” pic than anything else.

It belongs far out west, so it’s quite lost. What becomes of a bird thousands of miles off course? Hopefully he’ll find his way back to where he belongs; the red-winged blackbirds were hassling him. Go west, young man!

The ornithologist was gracious to us even though we stampeded his efforts to photograph a warbler. He told us about a palm warbler he’d seen at the pond, and though we never saw one that day, we did see one later in the week, in one of our usual haunts. It’s camera-shy, but lovely. I hope to get a better photograph of one before the warblers have all swept through.

The orioles are back, too, making beautiful music in the treetops. And the woodland plants are beginning to bloom. I’m only just learning their names: wood anemone, trillium, bluets, Japanese honeysuckle. Butterflies zig-zag everywhere. Ferns continue to unfurl. Except for the record population of deer ticks (we had no winter to speak of to cull them), it’s a great time to be outdoors.



Hunting redtails, bathing sparrows, and birding humor

I couldn’t believe how close this hawk came to us in the woods today. It was amazing to see him hunting at such close range!

He seemed to catch something, floundered around in the leaves, then flew back up to his perch. Hunting is hard work. He never did catch anything while we watched, but he perched in several trees and continued trying. I have no doubt he satisfied his hunger eventually.

I kind of like the effect of the blurred wings in this photo, but sharp talons and beak.

We also saw a white-throated sparrow taking a bath.

You, sir, are one handsome bird!
His brood patch is there in the middle of his chest, I think.
Post-bath solar drying

He looks like he’d be so warm and soft to hold in the hand and stroke, doesn’t he?

“What does a white-throated sparrow sing when he takes a bath?” I asked my husband, expecting an answer like “Rubber Ducky” or “Singin’ In the Rain.” Instead, he whistled the white-throated sparrow’s song.

It’s great to belong to a family of bird fans.

Birds and blooms pt. 1

I’ve seen a few birds out and about lately. We’ve had a return to some chilly, overcast, damp weather that hasn’t been conducive to venturing into the great outdoors, but whenever possible we’ve tried to get out and enjoy some sun.

I’ll save the blooms part of my title for tomorrow — after I learn more about ferns. But here are some of the birds I’ve seen…


Male wood duck. My wood duck pics are almost always blurred for some reason, but this one comes close to focused.


I thought this might be a female red-winged blackbird, until...
...it squawked, revealing itself to be an immature male. Even dull-colored birds are beautiful with their feathers spread.
Here's a mature male, brightening an overcast landscape.
Female junco, hung out to dry.
Neighborhood Pavarotti.
Mockingbird -- best look I've gotten at one.
And then it flew away...
Yellow-bellied sapsucker. He pounded all day, trying to attract a female, and listened carefully for response...
"Anyone? Anyone?"

Older Daughter drew a cartoon of him in his lovesick spring state of mind.

I hope he found someone. We saw this female a few miles away. Maybe she came at his call.

There’s more to our schooling than nature study. Really there is. It’s just not as photogenic. India under the Moghuls, calculating the volume of rectangular objects, doubles-plus-one facts, lists of prepositions, dictionary skills, readings, and writing assignments just don’t seem… like subjects I care to revisit in this space. But the endless array of creatures around — new ones, and familiar ones appearing in new lights — are a different story. So many varieties, and so much to learn.