Today's installment is a quick check to see if your windows are ready for special visitors. In this case I'm not talking about the serious issue of bird strikes (but if you are having problems with this please review these excellent strike-prevention posts by Julie Zickefoose and David Sibley.) Instead, I'm talking about how to be ready when neat birds show up outside your windows, either to visit feeders, water, or habitat near your abode.
Some steps are probably obvious, but nonetheless here's what I do during the winter feeding season.
1) Remove window screens. Viewing and especially photographing birds through screenless windows is ideal. Shooting through the glass this way is good, and opening the window, even if only wide enough for the camera lens, is ideal.
2) Wash your windows. It is amazing how grimy the outside of my windows get, and my sliding glass door gets really smudged from kid height down. Clean glass = better viewing & photography.
3) If there is a bird that you really want to photograph, start by shooting through the glass. If the bird sticks around you can always try to open the window later. If you flush the bird away by opening a window you should then build a time machine, go back in time prior to your unfortunate window-opening decision, and photograph the bird through the glass first before attempting to open the window.
4) If you have the opportunity, turn off the indoor lights to cut glare from the inside of the glass. You will also then be hidden in what amounts to an apartment/condo/home-sized photo blind.
5) If the bird's position and your indoor arrangements permit, shoot with your lens close to the glass (or even touching your shade hood to the window), as perpendicular to the glass surface as possible.
6) If it is really cold out and you open your window, warm indoor air escaping can cause image-blurring heat distortion. If you are in a small room such as a bedroom, close the door to reduce airflow. Otherwise, time your shots and/or shoot many pictures to try to get some sharp images amongst the blurry ones.
Here are some of my favorite shots taken from inside my house.
Male American Goldfinch, photographed out my sliding glass door. Water brings in lots of great birds- here I opened the door and sat on the living room floor to photograph birds hitting my Bird Spa.
Once I caught a glimpse of some strange movement out in my dripper bath and noted this American Kestrel having a splash. This time I photographed the small falcon through the sliding door glass, not wanting to scare away the bird.
In April of 2005 hundreds of Bohemian Waxwings choked the trees in my back yard, waiting for a turn at my water features. Here we see some shoulder-to-shoulder waxwing drinking along the rail on my back porch, shot through my kitchen window.
This past January, an immature Northern Shrike made an appearance (and apparently had a meal to judge by the blood on its breast feathers) in my back yard. It flew up to the ornamental cherry tree that shades the back porch, sitting up high and only offering belly views from the first floor. But much to my delight, the view out of the second-floor office window was eye-to-eye. After snapping a few images through the glass I quietly eased the window open enough for my lens to get unobstructed views in the cherry tree. When the shrike flew over to a nearby cottonwood I opened the window all the way and carefully leaned out a little to shoot again from the elevated position.
In December our yard was blessed with a two-day visit by a flock of redpolls. Since this thistle feeder is off to the side of our back porch I leaned out the sliding door just enough for some record shots like this before getting a more serious photo blind setup in place out back.
Ernie Allison is a
nature writer with a particular interest in birds. He is dedicated to using his
writing skills to bring awareness to conservation issues concerning birds. To
help further this mission, he writes for the hummingbird
feeder provider, birdfeeders.com.
When I tell people about my bird feeding hobby, I get a lot
of different responses. Some people go off about how much they love nature too.
Others ask, confused, “aren’t bird feeders actually bad for the environment?
Birds ate just fine before people fed them, right? Do they really need you?”
Of course, the short answer to this last question is no.
Birds do not NEED people to put feeders up for them. But that in no way means
that bird feeders are bad for the environment. In fact, if done correctly, your
bird feeding hobby can definitely enhance the natural environment around you.
The reason that people think that bird feeders are bad for
birds and the environment is because of a select few practices that are, in
fact, harmful. By feeding birds product with refined sugars and preservatives
and failing to maintain feeders in a hygienic manner, yes, you can harm the
birds. If the right practices are followed however, you can turn your yard into
a nature paradise that neither you nor the birds will want to leave.
With the big Scotts Miracle-Gro lawsuit all over the news, a
lot of people are wondering if their bird food is safe. As is made apparent by
the Scotts case, it is difficult to know. But you can be intentional in your
choices and make sure you are providing the healthiest food possible. Here are
some ways how:
Look at the ingredients in your birdseed
Research what the native birds in your area eat
and provide only those items
Buy grains separately and in bulk and mix them
yourself. This eliminates unnecessary ingredients, reduces the risk that
pesticides and other harmful chemicals have been added, and can be cheaper in
the long run.
Birds like variety, and different birds have
different diets. By providing suet, syrups and nectars, native plants, and a
variety of seeds, you can attract the most birds and provide them a
Feeding the birds is not limited to the bird feeder
industry. You can install native plants and landscape your yard in ways that
attract birds. Nectar-producing flowers and berry-bearing bushes can attract
all sorts of wonderful critters to your lawn. It also promotes a healthier
Look into what plants are native to your area, and what
species are attracted to them. If you plan right, you can ensure that you’ll
have visitors year-round.
Birds are also attracted to an area based on what it looks
like. Feeders should be semi-visible, but birds should also feel safe and
unexposed when visiting them. This means that large trees and areas with lots
of shrubbery may attract certain species more. If you have issues with hawks
and other predators waiting around your feeders for their own snacks, then
consider taking the feeder down for a week and moving it to a new location.
If your feeder frequently has a large number of visitors, it
is important to make sure that it doesn’t become a breeding ground for disease.
Here are some tips on proper feeder maintenance:
Clean your seed feeders at least once a week,
removing any droppings and half-eaten food.
Rinse out your hummingbird feeder with hot water
every time you refill it. Wash it completely every couple weeks.
Provide a bird bath with fresh running water. Be
sure to clean it often, and if you leave it out for winter, be sure to provide
a water heater. Birds won’t always be able to tell if water has frozen over and
may get hurt.
If you see an increasing number of sick birds in
your yard, take the feeders down for a week or two. Clean everything thoroughly
before replacing it.
So why Bird Feeding?
Now that I’ve shared some tips for bird feeding, I want to
talk about why you would take this up as a hobby in the first place.
Personally, it is my connection with nature. I like to sit in my back yard and
watch the feeders. Sometimes there are birds, sometimes there aren’t. Sometimes
I can see evidence that there were visitors in my absence.
I also do see it as a contribution to nature. Though birds
can certainly survive without us, there is no doubt that humans have messed
with their natural habitat. Providing food is a small gesture of gratefulness
and apology. It does make things easier on them, especially during migration
The “nature” contribution doesn’t just concern the birds
though. Plants benefit from their presence, and insect life is positively
affected as well. Attracting a variety of birds with a variety of plants
promotes biodiversity. Since I started researching native plants, my yard has
become much more pleasing to the eye. Even the plants that were already there
are flourishing more thanks to my efforts.
And of course, there are the photo opportunities. While I am
no nature photographer, I do enjoy the challenge of getting pictures of my
avian friends. I now keep a camera near the back window, and am learning very
well how to tell when a bird is about to fly off (usually my photos are taken
right after these signs are shown. I’ll get quicker eventually).
These are the reasons I love bird feeding, and do not
subscribe to any theories that it’s bad for the birds. Of course, if I chose to
be lazy with it and not make deliberate choices, it could be. But that’s how
most of our hobbies are, isn’t it?
A couple of weeks ago, I extolled the virtues of my back yard brush pile. I find myself surveilling the structure nearly every day breakfast, and last week was tickled to see a Red Fox effortlessly hop my 5-foot fence as I enjoyed toast and coffee. It was clearly well-practiced at the ambush, probably hoping for a distracted squirrel, careless bird, or lingering mouse but on this morning the critters at the pile took shelter and the fox moved on after showing off its balancing prowess by strolling along the top of the fence by way of departure. Curious to learn more about what besides birds may be visiting my brush pile, I deployed a motion-activated trail camera to keep 24-hour vigil when I wasn't watching for myself out the kitchen window.
In the short time I've been keeping track, I've found the fox to visit almost every day, at about any time though not yet mid-day. I'll bet it has come away successful at least once and so keeps trying, though I've yet to capture a capture on my trail cam.
Hmmm, why is this squirrel in a hurry to be elsewhere??
Oh, that's why..
The fox knows when the gig is up, though, and breaks off the chase (though no doubt remembers the details to adjust its strategy the next time.)
Maybe a dawn raid?
Pre-dawn might be good for mice...
Besides the fox, I've seen a few other night visitors. One, though unwelcome, triggered two interesting frames...
One night this fat cat swung by the pile. I've never seen it during the day, but it underscores the benefit of the brush pile as nearby cover for feeding birds. It also forces an errant cat to approach from the open ground in front of the brush pile, denying it the element of surprise. Now what is the cat looking up at on this brisk night?
A second later, the cat is looking nearly straight up. Right under the numerals 3/5 at top center (which means frame 3 of 5 in the sequence), note a gray blur that isn't there in the first frame- click to enlarge both cat pics and you'll see it. I believe this is a wingtip of an owl flushed by the cat and if so, the worst photo I've ever acquired of a strigiform.
Squirrels have the daytime clean-up concession, but at night sometimes a Raccoon will see what spilled seed is left to mop up. Cylindrical baffles like the one visible on the left pole keep both grounded, leaving the feeders to those that can fly in (though I'm sure the fox could jump up if desired.)
Earlier this fall, I had an ash tree that needed some pruning back. One cut led to another, and soon I had a daunting pile of limbs, branches, and twigs to deal with. I lopped the bigger stuff into campfire wood (local use only, wouldn't want to inadvertently spread Emerald Ash Borers...) and chopped a bunch of the leftovers up into mulch using my chipper/shredder. But in a perfect blend of putting off work while helping birds, I heaped the rest into a pile behind my feeder array.
My winter brush pile, providing cover near my feeder array and keeping the photo opps coming!
A brush pile gives birds a place to stage as they come out to feed and offers a quick retreat from predators such as accipiters- the National Wildlife Federation includes this as an idea to create cover for improving backyard wildlife habitat. Some species of birds just don't like to be out in the open, and having the brush pile around increases the chance of seeing these skulkers. I have a big permanent brush pile beyond the more manicured part of my yard for birds to roost or take cover in, but in the winter feeding season I plan to maintain the smaller pile by the feeders, with my photo blind set up nearby to take advantage of the birds that visit. So far this fall I have already reaped the dividend of a couple of new yard birds and some fun photos- thanks, brush pile!!
I love raptors, and Sharp-shinned Hawks like this youngster always liven up my day when they patrol the feeders. This guy was playing the waiting game with birds in the brush and in my spruces, completely intent on their scuttling deep in the cover and trying to figure out how to successfully get at them. A brush pile gives small birds cover from predators, but a sharpie won't shy at following birds right into the brush pile or thick spruce boughs if it thinks it has a chance.
Eurasian Collared-Doves scatter up instead of into cover. This can be a bad move when an experienced Cooper's Hawk is sharing their airspace, as evidenced by this adult enjoying a plump exotic columbid dinner atop a neighboring building. Don't worry- despite the intentions of my Super Cooper Troopers I've still got plenty of EuroDos around.
Junco diversity in the west is pretty sweet. I've had all of the Dark-eyed Junco subspecies in my yard, and having a brush pile increases their numbers and length of their stay. Here a Pink-sided Junco looks for stray seeds in frosty thyme, a few hops away from shelter under the tangle of branches.
My favorite junco, a spanking White-winged Junco, makes an appearance in the brush pile late last month.
As I scrambled to unobtrusively switch off my focus limiter, the White-winged Junco hopped towards me, unaware or uncaring as I snapped away from my photo blind just a few meters away.
Last weekend on a lazy morning I scanned the brush pile from our kitchen window after an overnight basting of snow. Much to my surprise and delight, a big white-bellied immature Harris's Sparrow was working in and out of the branches with the mix of more common birds.
As some of my birding buddies from across the pond might say, What a Stonker!!
I usually photograph birds on an opportunistic basis, toting my camera with me on outings and grabbing images as the chances present themselves. When I find a good photo opp I'll tarry to get the most out of it, and if conditions are great an extended photo frenzy may even result. But in this blog installment I'd like to mention that it can also be fun and productive to plan shoots right down to the perch you want to photograph birds on.
I'm just back from 3 weeks in Northwest Wisconsin, where I was treated to birds I rarely see in Colorado. A few will serve well as examples of photographic subjects captured in a more considered way.
The first case features a family of Great Crested Flycatchers who were nesting near my cabin in a bluebird house (despite the nearby availability of a box I made to Great Crested Flycatcher specs but what can you do?) The nesting box was along the lake shore, out in the open about 10 yards or so from more wooded terrain. I noticed the parents steadily bringing in food, flying from the woods to the house without offering decent photo possibilities. Of course I didn't want to obstruct the feeding schedule despite my interest in getting good shots of the birds, so I implemented a plan that would keep the birds and me happy. Step one was to pick a nice, weathered old aspen branch from the woods and prop it up about 2/3 of the way from the woods to the house. This only took a couple of minutes and as I was walking back to my cabin a bug-bearing parent had already decided to use the perch to stage on- a great sign! Step two was to set up my pop-up blind so that I had good range, good light, and a nice backdrop. This also took just a few minutes (the blind is basically just a folding camp chair with cammo material and netting suspended on spring steel hoops over it.) Within minutes of zipping in the parents were right back on their feeding schedule and my GCFL photography commenced. It was pretty cool seeing the variety of insect prey the parents produced and the frequency of their feeding visits- those things are darned effective hunters!
Great Crested Flycatcher with skipper butterfly (anyone know the species?), Burnett County, Wisconsin, June 2012.
Great Crested Flycatcher about to feed chicks the skipper butterfly, Burnett County, Wisconsin, June 2012.
Great Crested Flycatcher, Burnett County, Wisconsin, June 2012.
Great Crested Flycatcher with fish fly, Burnett County, Wisconsin, June 2012.
The second case involved my desire to photograph some of the great birds coming to the feeders by the main cabin. I'd watch the birds come in whenever we were eating- the set-up is the lawn right outside the windows where the dining room table sits (hey, I'm from a birding family!) The problem is that shooting birds on feeders leaves a little something to be desired. So I pounded a two-foot length of iron pipe into the yard near the feeders as a foundation and then wired a few interesting branches to it. Once again I deployed my blind to be close and have good light, and waited on the birds. Some would use the perches but many flew straight to the feeding tray- eye on the prize, I guess. So I set the tray on the ground under the perches- bingo! Now many of the birds I was interested in would sit on a branch to figure out the new configuration. Interestingly, most would soon drop down and feed anyway so I didn't feel as though I was depriving them too much. When I was done with a session I'd put the tray back on the post where it normally resided. Here are some of the results. Enjoy!
Baltimore Oriole, Burnett County, Wisconsin, June 2012. The perch, a jelly bowl on a tray feeder, leaves much to be desired...
Baltimore Oriole, Burnett County, Wisconsin, June 2012. Here the distracting jelly feeder is just a few feet out of the frame below the perch I set up (but that can be our little secret!)
Male Purple Finch, Burnett County, Wisconsin, June 2012.
Male Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Burnett County, Wisconsin, June 2012.
Red-breasted Nuthatch, Burnett County, Wisconsin, June 2012. I like to use interesting branches for perching setups like this one of rotten paper birch.
White-breasted Nuthatch, Burnett County, Wisconsin, June 2012. I find nuthatches to be vexing photo targets most of the time, but both species were very interested in fully cheking out the perches I set up before they resumed their swift single sunflower seed-snatching behavior.
Male Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Burnett County, Wisconsin, June 2012. As you might guess, I moved the hummingbird feeder to my set-up perches and soon enough this male took over, loitering atop the highest spot a few feet above the feeder.
I'm up in the north woods of Wisconsin on a family vacation. I've been coming up to a lake place nestled in 100 acres of woods here for 40 or so years, first as a youngster experiencing the benefits of messing around on the lake and in the woods, and now bringing along my own youngster to season him a bit away from big city life. I love to be among many old friends like nesting Common Loons, singing Whip-poor-wills, and twittering American Woodcocks but it can be a bit tricky to come up with something new on the birding front after so many years visiting here. This summer a strange inspiration struck me after I saw a few Turkey Vultures sailing by on the wind. I got to thinking of how cool vultures are but also how I don't really see them much "in action", especially in wooded lanscapes. I wondered if I could successfully attract some ala Bill Thompson III.
I didn't have similar access to years' worth of freezer-burned meat so in true science teacher fashion I kept a garbage bag, gloves, and twine in the car and kept my eyes peeled for suitable vulture vittles on trips to town. Soon enough I spied an unfortunate raccoon, just a touch bloated and fly-blown, which I bagged and tied to the roof rack (I learned years ago to secure deceased biological specimens somewhere on the exterior of vehicles after a nicely antlered but still slightly meaty white-tailed deer head that I found on a bracingly cold CBC gradually developed a strongly disagreeable aroma as it thawed, quite to the dismay of the owner of the spiffy car.)
Back at our lake place that evening I put the coon in a clearing well away from any buildings or roads and deployed a couple of trail cams to keep electronic eyes on the proceedings. I didn't know what to expect for turnout in terms of response speed or numbers but I was pleasantly surprised by both. The cams showed that by 8:45 the next morning a committee of at least eleven Turkey Vultures had gathered for their turn at the carcass, and by the middle of the next day there wasn't much beyond fur and bones left. There didn't seem to be much (if any) evidence of conflict and I wonder how they decide who has feeding precedence?
It was a pretty fun experiment and I've got my eyes peeled for more vulture food- perhaps next time I'll try putting the roadkill in more dense woods to see how that affects the vultures' detection abilities. Here are a few stills from my Reconyx HC500 and three video clips strung together from my Scoutguard SG565 showing some of the proceedings- hope you enjoy them!
In the summer of 1981, when my husband and I moved into our house in Duluth, Minnesota, Evening Grosbeaks instantly became woven into the fabric of my daily life. They were the first birds I heard calling in the trees as we lugged boxes and furniture into the house, and the first birds to visit our bird feeders—even before the first chickadees showed up. Day after day throughout the following decade, Evening Grosbeak calls provided a lively and cheerful background soundtrack for our lives, indoors and out.
Their numbers dropped in summer, rose in winter, and were huge during spring and fall migrations, but season after season, year after year throughout the 80s, Evening Grosbeaks were virtually always present in my yard. I had better luck with them than many people because my box elder trees attracted flocks flying overhead, but just about anyone in Duluth with platform feeders offering sunflower seeds had Evening Grosbeaks at least sometimes.
By the early 90s, grosbeak numbers seemed to be declining. I grew concerned, even mentioning my apprehensiveness in my first book in 1993. I thought it was part of a disturbing pattern in Duluth—during this same period, my neighborhood lost a lot of nesting birds, and the huge waves of migrating warblers and thrushes in my backyard dwindled. Friends of mine who lived in Duluth for several decades before I did also noticed the disappearance of many local nesting species—birds which have not returned. Duluth's Christmas Bird Count data was tricky to analyze because the count circle changed in 1979, so the pre-1979 count historical dataset is separate from that post-1979, and the graphs of the datasets are on different scales. Pre-1979, the highest average Duluth count was 20 EVGR per party hour.
The highest average number of EVGR per party hour post-1979 was slightly less than 6.5—a third less than in the earlier period. So the following graph is on a different scale than the previous one. The smaller per-party average is almost certainly an artifact of the increasing numbers of CBC parties during the 70s and 80s. Evening Grosbeak flocks can be localized within a city, but when fewer parties participated, they would naturally have headed to the best feeders, so the number of grosbeaks counted wouldn't increase nearly as significantly as the number of parties did.
Evening Grosbeaks were counted on every single Duluth CBC from 1979 until 2002, when not one was found. There were a handful in subsequent years, but 2011/12 has now been the third year in a row that they weren’t found at all on Duluth’s Christmas Bird Count.
The pattern of Christmas Bird Count data for all of Minnesota shows a very steep climb in Evening Grosbeak numbers peaking in the mid-60s. (Notice that the higest years, statewide, averaged about 5.25 EVGR per party hour.)
Why the rise in the middle, and why the drop? Did the population really increase in the 60s, or was the increase an artifact of the increasing numbers of birders and count circles in the northern third of the state during the 60s? It's impossible to know. I've talked to people in their 80s and 90s who grew up in Duluth and remember lots of grosbeaks throughout their childhoods. That's anecdotal, though it may be significant in light of the absence of better data. But the rise and fall could also be due to the decades-long but irregular cycles of spruce budworm populations, a major component of the diet fed to nestlings. All we know for certain is that the decrease since the 80s is real, and has been found throughout both the United States (first graph) and Canada (second graph).
These Christmas Bird Count graphs show an intriguing biennial rhythm, probably due to the cyclical nature of the seeds grosbeaks feed on. Evening Grosbeaks were not known in the Eastern states until the late 1800s; their sudden appearance there may have been due to ornamental tree plantings (box elder wasn't native to the East), the increase in popularity of bird feeding, or unknown factors.
Data from the Breeding Bird Survey extends back only as far as 1966. The same biennial rhythm is evident, and the sad decline is quite clear, both in Minnesota (first graph) and throughout Canada (second graph):
We don't know if the huge drop in numbers was part of an extremely long cycle (perhaps related to spruce budworm outbreaks), if it was a simple matter of returning to a "normal" level after an unexplained but brief population surge, or if this really has been a catastrophic loss. Several factors may have contributed to the drop:
Evening Grosbeaks feed their nestlings insects, including (possibly preferentially in some places) spruce budworm. Controlling spruce budworm has been an important forestry goal for many decades, with heavy use of pesticides over enormous swaths of northern forest. One of the pesticides currently used is Bacillus thuringiensis, which isn't known to harm birds, but regardless of the pesticide used, the loss of larval insects during the nesting season may well be implicated.
Adult and young Evening Grosbeaks feed heavily on maple and, especially, box elder seeds. In recent decades, forest management in huge swaths of northern forests has focused on fast-growing softwood trees for paper and wood products rather than on slower-growing hardwoods such as maple and box elder. This may have reduced another important food source.
Exploitation of "tar sands" has also been implicated in the loss of huge swaths of Canadian forest habitat.
Large numbers of Evening Grosbeaks are killed by cars during winter, when they are drawn to roads to pick up road salt and grit. In a single incident reported in 1981, over 2,000 Evening Grosbeaks were killed along a 16-km stretch of a British Columbia road, with many more dead birds seen off the road that weren't counted (Smith, W. G. 1981. Observations on a large highway kill of Evening Grosbeaks in British Columbia. Syesis 14:163.)
Evening Grosbeaks are killed in much larger than average numbers at windows. Klem in 1989 listed them as the tenth-most frequently reported species killed by collision with building windows.
What can we do individually and collectively to protect Evening Grosbeaks?
Those of us who are lucky enough to get them in our backyards should do everything we can to make our windows bird-safe. The American Bird Conservancy now sells a tape that, applied to the outside of windows, makes them more visible to birds. This tape is predicted to last for about four years. (ABC Bird Tape.)
Driving at the slowest speed that is safe, courteous, and convenient allows us to react more quickly when wildlife is present, and gives birds a better chance of avoiding our car. This at least helps minimize our contribution to the huge numbers of birds killed on highways. (It also saves natural resources!)
Reducing our use of paper, purchasing recycled paper whenever possible, and recycling rather than discarding paper reduces our personal complicity with the forestry practices most harmful to Evening Grosbeaks.
Conserving energy reduces our personal complicity with fossil-fuel extraction that destroys habitat.
Encouraging and supporting research about Evening Grosbeaks, including filling gaps in life history information, will shed more light on what the species' needs are and what may have caused its decline. Knowing whether the drop in numbers is part of a natural cycle, a simple population blip, or a grave conservation issue will be a critical first step if action is to be taken under state or federal endangered species regulations. Membership and contributions to state and regional birding and ornithological societies and to research and conservation organizations (such as the American Bird Conservancy, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and Audubon) can help make a difference.
If you've kept records of numbers and locations over the years, going back through your notes on Evening Grosbeaks and posting the information on eBird will provide valuable data. If you have older birding friends who kept a detailed field notebook during earlier decades, ask them to allow you to post their data on eBird.
By the late 90s, Evening Grosbeaks completely disappeared from my Duluth yard. On a handful of occasions since then, I've had one or, at most, two birds visit for a few minutes and move on, and never more than a single visit per year. Then, this past August, for the first time since the mid-90s, an actual flock of grosbeaks, 16 birds including adult pairs feeding fledglings, showed up and were present every day for six weeks. Much of the time they fed on seeds or loafed in my box elders, but part of the time they visited my feeders and bird bath. I woke to their calls every morning and could hear their comfortable chattering throughout each day. They vanished in mid-September, and I haven't had one in my yard since. But hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul; even as I do my best to follow my own conservation advice, I'll keep hope alive that this splendid bird's disappearance is just a temporary blip.
In the first week of February I was invited to a week of PolarTREC training in Fairbanks, Alaska as an alumni teacher. I was pretty thrilled to be asked, and working with the next cadre of teachers was energizing and inspiring. I had a lot of great trips down memory lane to the summer of 2010 when I spent 5 weeks on the USCGC Healy in the Arctic Ocean and a little time at lunch to sneak out for some birding in the area around our hotel (it was still dark every day when we started and ended our sessions but the aurora came through for everyone!)
In the hopes of finding redpolls to study and photograph I packed a thistle sock and Niger seed to set up a little feeding station in the back of the hotel parking lot. In the week I was there the birds didn't seem to find it but fortunately I came across several flocks of redpolls feeding in birch trees around the neighborhood (once in the birch tree over my thistle sock!) Towards the end of the week I hit a feeder jackpot right next to a sidewalk. I could reach the yard in about a 5-minute dogtrot and so could spend some time with the birds there on lunch break our last three days. I found the redpolls to be very intent on feeding (gotta make feeding time count on short days, I suppose), giving little mind to me even though I was standing near the feeders or trees. Loud noises like diesel trucks would scatter the birds but they very quickly came back to resume their feeding, sometimes right next to me which helped since I only had a 100-300mm zoom with me on the trip.
My main hope prior to the trip was to get at least one identifiable Hoary Redpoll shot as that would be new for my lifer photo list (I saw one in northern Minnesota years ago but only had scope looks and no chance to snap it.) Fortunately, I got over that hurdle quickly and soon was enjoying prolonged studies of Hoaries, Commons, and puzzling birds that I'd be hesitant to confidently ID to either species. For reference beyond my bevvy of field guides I greatly appreciated the 2011 North American Birds photo essay: Redpolls from Nunavut & Greenland visit Ontario.
Here are some redpoll images I like from the trip- feedback on ID (agreement, disagreement, or other points to consider) most welcomed in the comments. Enjoy! -Bill
Male Hoary Redpoll: Very restricted pink on breast, tiny bill (David Sibley says part of this appearance is due to fluffy nasal feathering around base of bill), minimal flank streaking, white undertail coverts, etc.
Male Hoary Redpoll feeding on birch cone. The snow beneath favorite trees had a tan duff of birch cone bits littering the surface.
Hoary Redpoll (female/imm male type?). Note the single dark streak on the undertail coverts- still OK I think (Sibley shows undertail examples from lightly streaked to no streaking.) Richard Crossly aptly describes this bill appearance as "nipped in."
Male Hoary Redpoll. Here the bill looks a bit more stout than the "nipped-in" example above but I found that bill aspect could vary on a single bird depending on the angle and degree of activity, perhaps as bill-base feathers were fluffed out or not?
Female (immature?) or immature male Hoary Redpoll. Younger birds may show more buffy coloration around the face and heavier streaking (per the NAB article mentioned above.)
Male Common Redpoll: Much more extensive pink breast & red on crown, larger looking bill, heavy flank streaking. Common Redpolls were overall in the minority of birds I observed in Fairbanks, perhaps 30-35% (assuming I somewhat ID'd them correctly.) Perahps half of the birds I saw seemed like "good" Hoaries, the rest I was unsure of. Field guide maps seem to show Common Redpolls at nearly their winter northern limit around Fairbanks.
Female / immature male Common Redpoll(?) Bill looks big, heavy flank streaking, really black face, some undertail covert streaking.
Male Common Redpoll: Lots of pink on the breast, bill looks big & siskin-like, back brownish. Undertail coverts look really white from this angle, though!! Intergrade??
Birds to consider... feedback in the comments appreciated!
Bird 1: I saved this as a female or immature male Common Redpoll- has a fair amount of streaking in the undertail coverts and pretty heavy flank streaking but the bill doesn't look that big- maybe just the angle? Is this actually a streaky young Hoary??
Bird 2: Pretty clean-looking undertail coverts, modest flank streaking but brownish-looking back, quite a bit of brown on the breast and face, kind of heavy-looking bill, and pretty black face. What is it? Clean-undertail variant Common??
Bird 3: Hoary-looking bill but pretty dark streaking on the flanks and some undertail streaking, too. Slightly brownish back. OK for 1st-winter Hoary? Or intergrade??
According to the American Bird Conservancy, the number of suspected window-killed birds in North America lies somewhere between 500,000 and 1,000,000,000 annually. That's a pretty broad range, but it illustrates 1) just how difficult it is to accurately determine the full impact window strikes have on bird populations and 2) how far a simple solution would go towards influencing bird populations in a positive way.
The ABC claims the solution is in tape, specifically strips or squares of tape affixed to windows in residential homes so that flying birds are able to avoid them. More about this initiative can be found here, and a video illustrating how the tape should be arranged for the best results.
Whether or not this initiative gains any traction remains to be seen, but clearly, by making these windows more visible flying birds are apt to avoid them. Walking that fine line between what's obviously best for the birds and the aesthetic of the homeowners seems, as ever, to be the biggest issue.
Has anyone out there found a solution for bird strikes that works? Adhesives? Highlighters? Boarded up windows? Let us know in the comments.
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