by Peter Tango
February 17, 2011
We're getting ready for the annual Great Backyard Bird Count here in the Chesapeake Bay region! The Great Backyard Bird Count, taking place Feb. 18-21, creates a real-time snapshot of where all the birds are across North America. Bay Program monitoring coordinator and expert backyard birder Peter Tango helps us get into the bird-counting spirit with his two-part blog series on birding at his home in Deale, Maryland. Read part one of his blog entry to get caught up with his story.
Back to our yard. Regardless of bird name concerns, we use a bird bath with a heater to keep fresh water open on even the coldest days. Fresh water is a precious resource when it’s freezing cold and you are surrounded by salt water. This little pool brings in gorgeous flocks of bluebirds, our resident mockingbird, an occasional robin and small groups of spastic starlings – that can never seem to figure out if they want a bath, a drink, a walk in the water or a place to evacuate themselves. In the end they generally seem to do all of those things before quickly flying away. A squirrel even stops by for a drink sometimes. He’s the trouble maker, leaning on the heater to take a drink and sometimes popping it out of the water. Needless to say, the bird bath needs daily attention.
The transition from autumn to winter birds around the yard is magical. Ospreys leave, filtering south on northern breezes from late summer into autumn. The same breezes finally dive down out of the arctic and bring us wonderful flocks of northern-summering birds such as black ducks, hooded mergansers, then tundra swans. The “hoodies” mow through the creek, working together in search of small fish – the often abundant silversides and mummichogs of our shallow shoreline habitat. The tundra swans love to feed in the creek, sharing the water with mallards, the seasonal black ducks and the mixture of resident and migratory geese.
All that is fun to watch until the creek freezes over. Then it gets amusing as gulls, swans, ducks and geese track the thawing edge of the water daily. Some will inevitably sit upon the ice, seemingly waiting for it to thaw beneath them so they can get the best eats right there instead of where the crowds of birds are sharing the water. It’s kind of cute.
When the nasty weather hits, it usually gets really interesting at the feeders. Ground-feeding birds may be cut off from their food sources, forcing them to range out further from their typical hideaways. Twice I have encountered my favorite sparrow around our feeders: the chubby, rusty and gray, plump and cuddly fox sparrow. In the first case it was during the 12-20 inch storm that rocked Maryland in 1996; the second case was during 2010, when Maryland was buried under the blanket of three significant snowstorms. In each case, fox sparrows showed up at the home feeding station and for a few days and fed heavily on seed we provided. As the snow disappeared, so did the sparrows, presumably returning to their hideaways and preferred secluded dining spots.
Fox sparrows weren’t the only interesting visitors during those storms, though. We had an amazing diversity of sparrows at our feeders when feet of snow covered the Bay area. In a typical winter, we see good numbers of white-throated sparrows, and a token song sparrow or two around our feeding stations. During the storms last year, however, there were chipping sparrows, field sparrows, tree sparrows, white-throated sparrows and song sparrows along with the fox sparrows. The trick to identifying them is no trick at all, but rather being ready for likely but nonetheless surprising arrivals at the feeders. Studying bird guides (multiple guides if you have them) for identification clues and tips helps when you look out the window and think something looks different.
A common error I hear is people looking at birds in their yards and saying, “Oh yes, we have tons of purple finches.” Chances are they are not purple finches, but rather the non-native house finches that are now common, hungry visitors at the feeder. Might you get purple finches? I look all the time. Last winter, again during the snowstorms, a single female purple finch stood out like a sore thumb among the house finches. The plumage patterns on the face are distinctly different in the two species. I was tickled inside to see the real deal.
Yet another surprise showed up last year during the storms. Among the grayish little birds that are picking at the thistle seed are goldfinches and female house finches. But then there appeared a goldfinch-like bird, except it had stripes on its flanks and belly. Ohhhhhhh yeah, I know this one. I use to spend time in the Adirondacks and Catskill Mountains of New York, and pine siskins are a bit more common there than here. During irruption years coupled with the bad weather, the birds may range farther south in greater numbers. And there outside the house was a pine siskin among the LGJs (little gray jobs) flitting and feeding. Shortly after the really cold weather hit this winter, pine siskins once again arrived at our feeders, vying with the goldfinches for their share of thistle seed. Growing up a good part of my life north of the Mason-Dixon line, I feel a sense of home from my youth when my familiar northern feathered friends visit me now in the south.
Up north, where I grew up, I had little problem identifying big, black, crow-like birds. American (Common) crows ruled. When I went to Adirondacks, I had to contend with ravens versus crows. Not too tough for most birders, I would say. In Maryland, around the creek and therefore in the yard, there might be fish crows, there might be American crows. Looking at them is mostly useless; however, listen for their calls and presto! They give themselves away. There is the very nasal call of the fish crow contrasted against the deeper, more guttural call of the American crow. And when they don’t call? Call it “Crow sp.” for “crow – species unknown.” It’s ok to be honest if we don’t know what some bird is and we do the best we can with the identification.
You probably don’t see as many crows as you used to either. When West Nile Virus was introduced into the U.S. in 1999, it swept across our country’s bird community. American crow populations were severely affected by the virus and their numbers took a nose dive. Fish crow populations experienced a lesser but no less significant decline. Most people will remember hearing about dead birds here and there, maybe even encountered some themselves. It wasn’t just crows; it was robins, chickadees, titmice and more. The toll has been large. Why should you care? An introduced pathogen has changed the face of bird communities in our country in our lifetimes. Additionally, mosquitoes had fewer birds to feed on and we warm-blooded humans were a more frequent target. The dead crows preceded and were an indicator of the human epidemic that followed from West Nile Virus. Birds died, but people died too.
Programs like the Christmas Bird Count and Great Backyard Bird Count, with their thousands of volunteers across the country, provide insight into bird community makeup, patterns of bird movements, changes in response to climate shifts, irruptions and species stability and declines. Up until this year, we commonly had small flocks of doves at our feeders. Sure, the overwintering Cooper’s hawk got one now and then. How amazing it can be to watch such a hawk take off from a couple of hundred yards away, gliding low almost skimming across the water, and taking dead aim at the bird feeding station for a potential meal. One day, however, the Cooper’s hawk landed right in front of a squirrel. The squirrel not only stood his ground to protect his food source, he chased the hawk! Cooper’s hawks are generally bigger than squirrels, mind you. Not only did he chase the hawk once, he chased it again until it flew onto a bush. Not satisfied with that result, he chased it completely out of the yard following behind it as it flew across the street. We called him ‘psycho squirrel.’
As for the doves, we have almost none this year. Not coincidently, we have been chasing not one but two neighborhood cats from our yard. The cats now seem to think our bird feeding station is a great part of their daily walk through the neighborhood. Aside from random flights into buildings, windows, cars, trucks and buses, untethered cats are a common issue because they kill thousands of birds each year. Feral cats have reduced or led to extinction of bird species, mammals and even lizards, specifically on islands. Restoration activities on islands across the globe now include efforts to eliminate feral cat populations in order to reintroduce native species that can’t survive the predatory pressure of the cats. Since I haven’t seen more than a sharp-shinned hawk in the yard lately looking for a meal of junco or house finch, the two new cats prowling the neighborhood are the most significant negative change in predator-prey relationships around our area.
I have come to dearly love our town of Deale, its land, its water, its people. But over a decade ago, moving from my homeland of the north to my new homeland in the south, my body ached for spring flocks of warblers I was so accustomed to moving through the woodlands. Along the creekshore, migration is more subtle in some ways, more robust in others, and my senses have adapted and integrated with the new surroundings. As spring gets closer, the tundra swans will sound off more and more, day and night, night and day, they’ll get all fired up into a frenzy and then…silence. They are on their way to their arctic summer home. However, soon after the wing beats of the swans magic liftoff fade in the distance there will be the cries of osprey overhead. White-throated sparrows will bridge the divide, sometimes hanging on until the real warmth of season arrives. Junco’s will go, and most black ducks will leave the creek, except for an occasional hen bird that gets romanced by the grunt-whistle of a male mallard and decides to raise its young here down south. Perhaps we have all been a bit romanced by the calls of the Bay and just can’t leave its shores now either.