Monday, October 21, 2013

Birds in the Mist

For several weeks I've been thinking of writing a short blog about using water to attract birds to your yard.  It's not that I have anything really new or different to say.  No, all of my advice will fall under the common sense category.  Rather, such a blog would just really be a great opportunity to publish a bunch of cute pictures of birds playing in the water.

The truth is that water will attract even more birds to your yard than your feeders will.  I've been doing Project Feederwatch for about seven years.  In a typical two-day span I'll get 15-18 species in the yard.   Over the Feederwatch season, I'll get a total of 30-35 species.  While the species that show up at the feeders remains remarkably constant, the additional birds that show up are attracted mostly to my bird baths and mist spray.  In short, it's the water that brings them in.  For example, only rarely will Blue Jays take seeds from one of my feeders.  However, they show up daily in my bird baths.  The Blue Jay on the left is a good example. Click on the picture to see a larger version.  You can see that the bird's backside is shaking and water is splashing all around it.  The Jay is having fun, and I love to watch the spectacle!  The Northern Flicker below NEVER comes to feeders, but it loves the water.


So, you want to put a birdbath in your yard, but what kind should it be?  You can spend a lot of money on fancy bird baths, sculpted bird baths, and decorative bird baths.  However, the birds really don't care about all that.  Once I took the plastic lid to a garbage can, cleaned it up, partially buried it in the ground and filled it with water.  It had a bird in it within fifteen minutes.  I used it for years until I ran over it with a lawnmower.  I also bought a stone two-piece birdbath comprised of a pedestal and a basin.  Squirrels and other critters kept knocking the basin off the pedestal.  And spilling water softened up the ground enough for the pedestal to keep sinking into the ground.  Finally, I dropped the basin to the ground and threw the pedestal away.  The birds kept coming.

This Brown Thrasher is getting the full spa treatment.

On the other hand, do you really need a birdbath at all?  A few years ago I bought a long, narrow hose with a blue attachment that emitted a gentle mist.  It was a great playground for birds.  They loved the mist and I often felt they were playing as much as bathing in the water.  It was so much fun to watch them.  Then I noticed that the hose had sprung a series of leaks.  Small fountains of water were being "wasted" on the lawn!  I tried several kinds of repairs to no avail.  Regretfully, I gathered it up, tossed it away, and began searching for an alternative.

Big Mistake!!

Another, smarter person had the same experience.  She saw the hose with multiple leaks as an opportunity.  She wound the hose through the low-hanging branches of a live oak tree and created an extremely successful spa for birds.  It has a pool, a mud bath, several showers, and the equivalent of a theme park's worth of water sports.  Here's what it looks like:

You can just see the blue mist spray in the upper left hand corner.  The rest of the hose winds through the branches and leaks everywhere.  Look at the dip in the hose on the right.  Here's a close up of it:

In this configuration, water cascades through the leaves, drips from the branches, and pools on the ground.  I don't know if it's the sight of the water or the sound of it dripping in the pools, but the birds LOVE it.  She can turn on the water, and within minutes there are birds frolicking everywhere.  Here are a few pictures from "The Spa."  In the first, check out the birds in the queue waiting for their turn.  One Cardinal is in the shower, another is just behind, and a Summer Tanager waits patiently:

Eventually, the Tanager got her turn:

Another important aspect of The Spa is that the over-hanging branches and the canopy of the huge oak offer a protected area.  Birdbaths that are in the middle of an open yard may be tempting for birds, but they also expose birds to their predators.  This Pileated Woodpecker (below) seems quite relaxed.

This Swamp Sparrow couldn't find a swamp, but the mud bath seems to be doing the trick.  Click on the photo and look at the large version.  You can see droplets of water on its back.

Meanwhile, a House Finch had moved into the pool.

You want warblers?  Here's a Black-and-White Warbler drinking from the rivulets between the pieces of bark.

And a Northern Parula enjoying a cool shower.

On a recent weekend, the spa also hosted a Chestnut-sided Warbler and a Bay-breasted Warbler.

Of course, when I say ALL birds need water, I mean ALL birds:

Suddenly, there were no other birds to be seen.  But once the Cooper's Hawk left, The Spa reopened for business:

So, folks, if you want to see lots of birds in your yard, use moving, cascading, pooling water.  You'll love the results and you'll be entertained for hours on end by the birds in your own version of The Spa.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Yellow Faces and Stinky Places

Hague Dairy - you can smell it before you get there!
There's a Yellow-headed Blackbird in there somewhere!
Birding takes me into all sorts of places.  For every state park, wildlife refuge, and county recreation facility there is a manure-filled pasture, trash-littered roadside creek, or steaming city dump that must be visited.  You see, birds don't care if a place is ugly or if it smells worse than my Aunt Ruth's outhouse.  They go where the food is, and we - the dedicated and somewhat crazed group of true birders - go where the birds go.  And so it was this week that I found myself at Hague Dairy, one of my favorite birding spots in Alachua County and one of the foulest smelling places in Florida.

The word had gone out that a terrific local birder (who happens to be about one-fifth my age) had found two Yellow-headed Blackbirds at the dairy among a flock of grackles, Brown-headed Cowbirds, and European Starlings.  I haven't seen a Yellow-headed Blackbird since since 2005, and it has been longer than that since I've seen one in Alachua County.  Another birder had also found a Bronzed Cowbird, another locally rare goody.  So the Big Red Van made one of its shorter birding runs just a couple of miles down the road to the rural town of Hague and its dairy research facility run by the University of Florida.  There are days when you can smell it well before you actually enter the property.  But it is a rare day when the place isn't teeming with birds.

Yellow-headed Blackbird
The Yellow-headed Blackbird turned out to be fairly easy.  I pulled into the parking lot, went into the office to sign in, came out, and there was one of the birds on an overhead wire.  Before I could snap a photo it flew into a nearby field where it began eating from the cattle food trough.  As you can tell from the photo above, it was too far away for my little camera, so I went back to the car, grabbed my scope, attached my iPhone and waited patiently.  Soon the little beauty stuck its head up.  I focused on the right bird ... and waited some more because its head was down.  Then it popped up and I started snapping.  You can see the results on the left.  Actually, this is the first time I've seen that much yellow on this species, so I was really happy to see it and get a picture.  Success!  Now, on to the Bronzed Cowbird which proved to be not so easy.

Would the real Bronzed Cowbird please identify yourself?
Searching for the one odd bird in a flock of somewhat similar birds is a true exercise in patience.  Imagine staring at a small bowl of identically-shaped rice looking for the one that has one mark that makes it different from the rest.  Now imagine that the rice is constantly moving so you don't know if the piece you're looking at is new to you or the same grain of rice you've examined four previous times.  So you just grind on until you find the gem.  Look at the photo of the birds on the wire at right.  To locate the Bronzed Cowbird, I had to find the one with the red eye.  And every couple of minutes a flock of 30-40 new birds would fly in and land on the wires while some of the ones already there would take off.  Occasionally a raptor would fly over and the whole flock - hundreds of birds - would soar into the air and then land again on the wires.  Each time, I had to start over and methodically work my way through each bird, trying to see its eye with my scope.  And of course there were separate flocks on the ground by the feeding troughs, in the pastures, and on other sets of wires.  Unfortunately, a long and patient search yielded only Brown-headed Cowbirds, Common and Boat-tailed Grackles, House Sparrows, European Starlings, and lots of Rock Pigeons.  But there was more dairy to be seen!

White Ibises with one immature.
Next I headed back to twin pools that constitute a remarkable assault on the senses.  To the best of my knowledge, they fill these things with a mixture of liquids and dung.  They let the liquid evaporate, then haul out the remaining mud to make their own organic fertilizers.  On a good day, the pools are rancid.  On the other hand, sparrows love this stuff.  I even had a Clay-colored Sparrow in there once.  White Ibises love it too, and there is almost always a flock of them hanging out in the area.  I took my bins and stared into the  ... well ... stuff ... hoping to find something good.  However, there were only Palm Warblers and House Sparrows down there.  I guess it was too early for the migrant sparrows.  I also found a House Wren nearby, but he was camera shy, so no picture.  I also sorted through another bunch of cowbirds, but there were no red eyes.

Next I walked out to what we like to call "The Lagoon."  It's another, much larger pool of foul stuff.  I don't know what they do here.  It seems to remain a lake at all times, never being allowed to dry out.  When the liquid levels are low and the season is right, shorebirds LOVE this spot.  Today there was nothing except an alligator that must have no self respect, what with swimming in that waste.  He followed me around as I walked the edges, perhaps hoping that I would come in for a swim.  It would have been a race to see which would kill me first, the gator or the "water".  No thanks.

The walk around The Lagoon produced one unidentified empidonax flycatcher, a couple of Indigo Buntings, a Red-shouldered Hawk, a few vultures, and an Eastern Phoebe feeding in a pasture.  A spot where I have found Painted Buntings in the past has been mowed to the ground, so I don't expect to see one there this year.  Yet another flock of cowbirds held no red eyes among them. I resigned myself to failure on the cowbird front and decided to leave.  Still, hours later the scent of cow manure lingered as if it had gotten ingrained in my nostrils.
I have no clue what this is.  Any guesses?

Swimming in the Swill

An Eastern Phoebe
House Sparrows keeping an eye on me