Thursday, January 30, 2014

A Snowy Snowbird...

A female Dark-eyed Junco (Junco hyemalis) lives up to her nickname of snowbird...

A beautiful female Dark-eyed Junco (Junco hyemalis) sits on a branch in the snow. He light grey and brown feathers contrast nicely with the white of the snow.
A female Dark-eyed Junco (Junco hyemalis) in the snow.
With rosy-pink bills, gray cloaks, and bright white feathers on their bellies, Dark-eyed Juncos are distinctive and pretty birds. They have sweet-sounding calls too. When a small flock surrounds you in the snow, their high-pitched tinkling sounds carry well through the whiteness...and if you're fanciful, might make you think of snow fairies ringing out tiny bells...really!

A dark-eyed junco sits on a branch with snow accumulating. The bird is head on, looking straight into the camera.
Our little snowbird gives me the once over as she listens to the camera shutter click. 
Birds are so aware of everything going on around them that it's almost impossible to escape detection.  

When I was photographing this Dark-eyed Junco, "you're a snowy little snowbird" went through my mind, and I wondered where the nickname snowbird came from. It's easy enough to figure out why the nickname arose...the birds arrive in our area when snow starts to fly, so snowbird fits, but I was interested in when the name came about. That evening, I accessed the online version of Birds of America by John James Audubon (click here for the book). I wondered if Audubon had an entry for Dark-eyed Juncos, and found one, but he didn't call them juncos, he referred to them as "Common Snow-birds!" I always assumed snowbird was a modern moniker, so it was fun to learn the name was old, and it was the name Audubon used to describe juncos:
"Although the Snow-Birds live in little families, consisting of twenty, thirty, or more individuals, they seem always inclined to keep up a certain degree of etiquette among themselves, and will not suffer one of their kind, or indeed any other bird, to come into immediate contact with them. To prevent intrusions of this kind, when a stranger comes too near, their little bills are instantly opened, their wings are extended, their eyes are seen to sparkle, and they emit a repelling sound peculiar to themselves on such occasions." (click here for the text)
I wondered how much earlier the name snowbird had been used and found a quick answer in Wikipedia. No surprise, Linnaeus described the bird in his 1758 Systema naturae as Fringilla hyemalis. What interested me, however, was his source had been Mark Catesby, whom I knew was a natural historian and bird artist from colonial American times. My knowledge of Catesby related only to several of his beautiful bird paintings, so I bought a few books on him to learn more (I learned a lot, but all of that will have to wait for another post). Catesby's "Snow Bird" appears in volume one of his book The Natural History of Carolina, Florida, and the Bahama Islands (v1 first published in 1732, but this scan is from the 1771 edition):

A scan of Catesby's original text. I love seeing and reading the old font.
Catesby's description of the snowbird is in volume one of "The Natural History of Carolina, Florida, and the Bahama Islands." 
I love seeing the old text. The version of the book I bought is a simple copy of the original, and the quality isn't perfect, but it's fun reading his original words in the archaic font.

From Catesby's biographies, I learned John Lawson preceded him, and Catesby valued his work, so I wondered if Lawson mentioned the bird in his writings. In Lawson's book published in 1709, A New Voyage to Carolina; Containing the Exact Description and Natural History of That Country (click here for an online version), he called Dark-eyed Juncos "Snow-Birds" too:
The Snow-Birds are most numerous in the North Parts of America, where there are great Snows. They visit us sometimes in Carolina, when the Weather is harder than ordinary. (Click here for online text, page 146.) the name is old. Where did Lawson hear the name? Did he coin it or had earlier settlers used it? Did the Native Americans refer to the bird as snowbird in their tongue? I don't know. When all is said and done, it's an old name (as are most of the bird names), and I imagine those of us who only see juncos in the winter will continue to call them snowbirds for a long time!

A Dark-eyed Junco sits on a branch in a tree as snow falls all around.
You can see a bit of the white on the tail feathers (retrices) that flash white when a junco flies up from the ground. This flash of white on the tail is an easy way to identify these birds from a distance. It's what I always watch for in the autumn when I'm waiting for these birds to return to our yard from their summer breeding grounds up north. The white flash gives them away every time! 

Snow fairies ringing out tiny bells...
As for my description of a junco's call likened to snow fairies with bells...I learned it's not original. Thoreau and Bent thought so too. Thoreau writes about juncos many times in his musings. He either refers to them as "slate-colored snow birds," or he uses Linnaeus' scientific name of F. hyemalis or just hyemalis. He liked to use the word "jingle" to describe their call (jingle like a fairy bell?). Here are a few references:
"March 23, 1852: I heard this forenoon a pleasant jingling note from the slate colored snow bird on the oaks in the sun on Minot's hill-side."  (Click here for a free ebook link to the quote.)
"March 28, 1853: The woods ring with the cheerful jingle of the F. hyemalis."   (Click here for a free ebook link to the quote.)
"April 1, 1854: ...I hear the jingle of the hyemalis from within the house, sounding like a trill." (Click here for a free ebook link to the quote.)  
I also like Thoreau's description of a snowbird:
"The straight edge of slate on their breasts contrasts remarkably with the white from beneath; the short, light-colored bill is also very conspicuous amid the dark slate: and when they fly from you, the two white feathers in their tails are very distinct at a good distance. They are very lively, pursuing each other from bush to bush." (Click here for a free ebook link to the quote.)
...and Arthur Bent, who I enjoy reading because he and his contributors provide colorful descriptions and histories of birds, reported a woman interpreted a snowbird's bell-like tinkling as that of a woodland sprite. From Bent's Life Histories of North American Birds (1968) on the Birds by Bent site (click here for the electronic version of the book, and here for the Dark-eyed Junco page):
"In notes she sent Mr. Bent, Mrs. Lawrence comments on "the lovely tinkling chorus by the juncos in early spring, as if a myriad of woodland sprites were shaking little bells in an intensive competition," and she syllabizes three variations of the junco song as follows: tilililililili, tililili-tililili, and tuituituitililili."

Females (like the one above) have lovely light grey feathers on top with light brown feathers mixed in on the head, shoulders and flanks. Males have pure charcoal or slate gray coats that look debonair. Their darker color accentuates the transition between the gray and white feathers on their bellies, which is very striking.  

By fluffing a bird can puff up feathers to keep the cold out. When fully puffed up, birds look like balls of fluff!
A Dark-eyed Junco puffs up against the cold while she breaks open a sunflower seed. 

...about Mark Catesby
Catesby's contributions to science are immense, and he was famous in his day--even Lewis and Clark knew of his work and used his book on their travels, but not many people know about him today. He was one of the first to paint America's birds, plants, reptiles and mammals (John White in 1585 was the first, click here to read about him), and Catesby was innovative because he was the first to paint them in their habitats--very exciting and interesting for his time. Europeans wanted to know what the flora and fauna in American looked like, and Catesby provided a glimpse. He was the go-to source until Alexander Wilson's American Ornithology (published between 1808 - 1814) and John James Audubon's Birds of America (published between 1827-1838) came along. Why does everyone know Audubon, but almost no one remembers Catesby? Possibly because Catesby published his work before binomial nomenclature (the two-part Latin or scientific naming system used by Linnaeus) was in use. Over time, scientists who didn't use binomial nomenclature in their work fell out of favor. On top of that, Catesby's books were very rare (only 180 copies of his book were printed) and he was a general naturalist studying and painting all of nature. Scientists were moving toward specialization, so over time, specialists considered his work old school, and it was forgotten. Audubon's work was extensive, expressive, and specialized, so he became the go-to source for ornithology (but it took about 100 years for that to happen!).                     more tidbit on Catesby before I go. Catesby is one of the first to write about bird migration. At the time, people still thought birds hibernated in caves or in the muck of ponds during the winter, but in 1725 Catesby wrote that after listening to bobolinks (he called them Rice Birds because they loved to eat rice) flying over his boat for three nights running, when it occurred to him they were probably flying seasonally to follow the rice crop (in v1 of The Natural History of Carolina, Florida, and the Bahama Islands--click here for the original text).

...about the Mark Catesby books I bought
I bought all of the books on Amazon, and found them all helpful. Here is a quick review of each:

The Natural History of Carolina, Florida, and the Bahama Islands: containing the figures of birds, beasts, fishes, serpents, insects, and plants: with their descriptions in English and French: v1 and v2 (1771)  (Eighteenth Century Collections Online Print Editions ECCO). This book is a photocopy of Catesby's original book. It is wonderful for the text, but it is not the highest quality reproduction. In areas you can't read the text, but I still love it because I enjoy seeing the original font. Don't look to this book for representations of his artwork, however. The paintings are basically black silhouettes copied on a photocopier).

Catesby's Birds of Colonial America; edited by Alan Feduccia (The University of North Carolina Press), 1985. I love this book because the reproductions of Catesby's birds are wonderful. The book starts with 20 full-color plates and the rest of the paintings are fine black and white reproductions. Feduccia eliminated the French descriptions, and lightly edited the text for modern usage. He also includes editor's notes on each bird with the bird's modern name (common and scientific), descriptions, historical context, and reference's to Lawson's birds too. This book focuses on the birds from Catesby's original books.

Empire's Nature, Mark Catesby's New World Vision; by Amy R.W. Meyers and Margaret Beck Pritchard (The University of North Carolina Press), 1998. A lot of information is in this book, and it's presented in a collection of essays by several contributors. I'm learning a lot and am enjoying the book...only half-way through!

The Curious Mister Catesby, a film by Cynthia Neal and David Elliott, 2007
When I ordered this title, I thought it was a book, so I was surprised to see it was a video. I'm glad it was a video because I really enjoyed watching it, and I learned a lot (I've watched it several times).

...and if you don't want to buy volume 1 and 2 of Catesby's Natural History, free online versions are available with high-quality scans:

Click here for an online version of the 1771 edition of the book.
Click here for an online scan of the painting of Catesby's snowbird in volume one.

...whew! What a rambly post this was, but worth it. There is so much to say on these subjects...more to come on Catesby!

Saturday, January 25, 2014

For beauty in winter, look to the birds...

A Carolina Chickadee perched in a bare tree amid plummeting temperatures and snow flurries embodies winter's beauty...

A head-on photo of a Carolina Chickadee (Poecile carolinesis) in the snow. The cold doesn't seem to bother this tough little winter bird!
A Carolina Chickadee (Poecile carolinensis) in the snow. 
Chickadees are fluffy little balls of beauty. They are spritely and chipper and their flank and belly feathers, washed in soft winter whites, creams, and buffs, are a subtle complement to the season. Coal-black caps and bibs contrast dramatically with their white cheeks, creating a target that draws the eye in...almost like an X marking the spot. It's good design! ...and it's welcome beauty in winter.

In a snowstorm, a chickadee looks up at the snowflakes. It holds on tightly to a branch as it braces against the cold arctic breeze.
A chickadee looks up as snowflakes whip past on a strong arctic breeze. The chickadee takes it all in stride with nary a feather out of place...impeccably dressed in a classic winter palette. 

chickadee in the winter
While cold winds rage, a chickadee will still sing out its happy and cheerful song. The sound of those sweet notes cutting through cold and gray days is soothing and hopeful, and its magic adds to the bird's charm and beauty. I never tire of hearing a chickadee's sassy chatter. I bet if they did a scientific study, researchers would find a chickadee's call lowers cortisol levels in humans...Chiggy Therapy (sign me up)! 

Beauty in winter is not hard to find when you look to the birds.

...a tiny tilt of the head amplifies the cute ratio of this bird. Chiggy...are you playing with us? If you are, don't stop! 

The Polar Vortex
...what a winter this has been! Rick just told me they are forecasting 17 below zero Monday night. So far, our birds seem to be weathering this arctic blast very well, but we haven't hit 17 below yet. We are worried about our Carolina Wrens. In our area, Carolina Wrens are susceptible to extreme cold and may not survive. These southern wrens have expanded their range north, so they are not equipped to survive long arctic snaps like we are having now. As I was writing this, however, our little Carolina Wren appeared outside the window as if he wanted to put my heart at ease. He sang out his happy song and seems to be faring well in the sub-zero temps we have endured so far. I hope he can weather the incredible cold headed our way.

Click here to go to the Great Backyard Bird Count data page that details the Carolina Wren's shifting range. The last die-off was back in 1977-78. It took 10 years for the Carolina Wren's population to restore to current numbers. That was also the winter we lost all of our Bobwhites.

Click here for an article in The Nature Conservancy that lists other animals at risk from the arctic temperatures riding in on the Polar Vortex.

...on the brighter side, the extreme cold of the polar vortex might wipe out emerald ash borer larvae. Click here to read an article about it. To read about the dangers of the invasive emerald ash borer to native ash trees, click here.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Hello Mr. Cooper...

I came home for lunch today and found this male Cooper's Hawk (Accipiter cooperii) perched outside my kitchen window. I photographed him through glass and a screen...and it was dark and snowy, so the photos aren't the best, but you can still see the beauty in him. It's always a shock to look out the window and see this fierce fellow looking back...

A Cooper's Hawk (Accipiter cooperii) sits outside our kitchen window. His rusty chest and belly and dark blue gray head and shoulders let you know he's an adult.
Adult male Cooper's Hawk (Accipiter cooperii) outside our kitchen window. Even the gloom of a steel-gray winter's afternoon can't dull his rusty red chest and belly feathers. His dark blue-gray head and shoulders add to his beautiful coloring. 

Adult male Cooper's Hawk from the front. He sits regally while snowflakes fall all around.
See you later, Mr. Cooper! 

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Black, orange and white...striking in the snow!

As snowflakes tumbled, drifted and fell, sticking to anything that didn't move (including me), I kept my camera lens trained on an American Tree Sparrow as he picked seeds from withered and dried goldenrod flower heads. It was quiet and lovely, with just the sweet calls of American Tree Sparrows, Dark-eyed Juncos, White-crowned Sparrows and Carolina Chickadees around me. As I watched the American Tree Sparrow through the lens, a sudden flash of orange burst through the background. What? I quickly looked up from my camera, and there in front of me sat a handsome and regal male Eastern Towhee...

Eastern Towhee (Pipilo erythrophthalmus) in the winter.
An Eastern Towhee (Pipilo erythrophthalmus) looks dashing in the snow. His deep black, rufous, and bright white plumage are especially striking with snowflakes falling all around him.
Eastern Towhees are year-round birds in our area, but we don't normally see them in our backyard. Towhees really aren't suburban birds. They like the deep leaf litter found in shrubby forest edges or open woodlands, and while some come to feeders, most shy away from humans. So I was excited and happy to see this beautiful bird. I've been adding bushes and brushy areas to our yard for years trying to create the perfect "birdy" habitat. Maybe it's starting to work. The towhee was foraging in a tangle of weeds, grasses and shrubs under our weeping willow tree. Ideal habitat for the bird...

A male Eastern (Rufous-sided) Towhee looks stately as snowflakes all around him.
An Eastern Towhee faces into the wind and falling snowflakes. 

A towhee sitting on a snow-covered branch while snowflakes fall all around has puffed up his feathers for insulation. He's warm and comfortable!
It looks like this fella took a nip of snow from the small accumulation beside him, but the visible ice crystals on his face really resulted from rooting for seeds just a moment earlier in snow-covered weeds on the ground. 

Eastern Towhees like to scrabble and scuffle in the leaf litter on the ground, so it was nice to see him come up to less snow-covered branches to pose for the camera! :-)

Rufous-sided Towhee was the previous name for this bird. The rusty orange-red sides attest for that!
I have to admit. I still let "Rufous-sided" Towhee slip when naming this bird. I learned the bird as a Rufous-sided Towhee as a teen and can't seem to shake it. The name was changed in 1995 to Eastern Towhee...could someone please tell my brain that?

For having the same black and rufous-colored plumage of an American Robin, it's amazing how different the birds look. Even from a distance the silhouette of the towhee clearly marks it as a different bird, and when you throw in the tail bobbing, spreading and flicking a towhee is so famous for, there's no question...

Towhee tails are very long for a bird in the finch family, and are even more noticeable because of how they bob and flick the tails all the time.
...the famous tail bobbing of an Eastern Towhee! 

Friday, January 3, 2014

American Tree Sparrows blew in with the snow...

...finally our American Tree Sparrows have arrived for the winter! They always seem to ride in on the night winds of the first big snow in January, so when I looked out the kitchen window yesterday morning, I had my fingers crossed. Sure enough...the little sparrows were under the feeders searching out seeds. I cracked the window so I could hear their pretty, twittery calls. It only took colder temps and five inches of snow to lure them in...

A sweet American Tree Sparrow (Spizella arborea) pulls seed from brush in our backyard. 
American Tree Sparrows are birds from the far north, so they are well adapted to our cold winters. This spring our little flock will pick up and head back home, flying over 2,000 miles to reach their breeding grounds in Manitoba, so we have to enjoy them while we can. I'm thankful we have a little flock that stays with us each winter. Their cheery calls and warm, beautiful colors always brighten up the gray that can descend during winter. I just checked the thermometer and it's 4 degrees Fahrenheit. These little fellas should feel right at home!

The chocolate brown of the sweet American Tree Sparrow is pretty against the white of the snow. Here he's pecking at spent goldenrod seeds.
American Tree Sparrows eat the seeds at my feeders, but they also scour the yard looking for weed seeds and spent flower heads. I know they love the purple coneflowers that I have all over, especially those mixed into the weed patch I've created in part of my yard. They go for Goldenrod too...and almost any plant packed with seeds.

...a weed seed eating demon!  
In the January 2009 issue of Birds and Blooms magazine, George Harrison mentioned that over a hundred years ago, a Professor F.E.L Beal reported that in Iowa, American Tree Sparrows consumed 875 tons of weed seeds annually, and farmers considered these little birds economic allies. (These angelic looking birds are weed-seed-eating demons!) ID these birds, look for a rusty cap, a two-toned yellow and black bill, and the dark spot (stickpin) in the chest. These sparrows resemble Chipping Sparrows, but they leave our area in the winter.
The two-toned yellow and black bill, and the stickpin in the center of his chest are two identifying field marks of the American Tree Sparrow...not to mention his jaunty rusty cap!

Head-on view of an American Tree Sparrow on golden rod in the snow.
...a pretty bird in beautiful snow! I can never resist head-on shots of the winter birds.

...the beautiful warm colors of these arctic birds also help them blend into dried and dead winter foliage.
The warm chocolate browns, caramels, and rusty oranges are beautiful against the white snow. 

Don't clean your yard up in the fall...birds like it messy!
I always leave flower heads, weedy areas, and brushy areas for the birds in winter. The little sparrows can't resist these wild pockets in a suburban yard. I've let a section of my yard "go wild" with goldenrod, black-eyed susans, purple coneflowers, and grasses and I can always find something interesting hiding out in the brush...

American Tree Sparrow in the weeds.
An American Tree Sparrow hangs out in the wild weed patch. I never cut down flower heads and weedy areas in the fall. I leave them as is for the birds, who eat seeds and wintering insects in them all winter long. In our yard, the American Tree Sparrows, Dark-eyed Juncos, White-throated and White-crowned Sparrows, American Goldfinch, and Carolina Chickadees really love the uncut grasses in the weed patch. 

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

A Northern Cardinal eating red honeysuckle berries in the snow...sustenance or an "ecological trap?"

A couple weeks ago, while the snow was still fresh, Rick and I headed over to the Little Miami River to walk in the fluffy whiteness and look for birds. We saw White-breasted Nuthatches, Carolina Chickadees, Downy, Pileated, and Red-bellied Woodpeckers, Golden-crowned Kinglets, White-crowned and White-throated sparrows, Northern Cardinals, Blue Jays, Eastern Bluebirds, and a Red-shouldered hawk. We even saw a solitary Pied-billed Grebe swimming and diving in the river near the Lebanon cut-off bridge. It really was a winter wonderland, and we had the place to ourselves! All the birds were chatty (except the grebe), and they all were busy searching for food to help fuel them through the snowy day and upcoming night. At one point, we stopped and watched a male Northern Cardinal eating bright red berries from the frozen branches of an Asian Honeysuckle bush. If you look at the photo below, you can see berry pulp and skins still plastered to his bill. "At least these invasive bushes are good for something," I said to Rick...

A bright red Northern Cardinal was happy eating the bright red berries on an Asian Honeysuckle bush. 

When I got home, I googled, "Are Asian Honeysuckle berries good for cardinals?" I knew the berries had helped American Robins expand their range to the north, but I didn't know if the berries had helped Northern Cardinals. Along the Little Miami River, Northern Cardinals love the dense thickets that border the trail, and they claim the territory for their nesting sites in the spring, so they seemed to like the plant, but was the plant good for them? The first article to pop up in the search was written by John Carey on the National Wildlife website titled "Nonnative Plants: Ecological Traps; Offering alluring habitat for songbirds, exotic plants may actually decrease the animals' long-term survival fitness" (click here for the article). The article had a Northern Cardinal munching on bright red Asian Bush Honeysuckle berries, much like our little cardinal was doing. Uh...oh...

Asian Honeysuckle berries create an artificial indicator of health
Ecologist Amanda Rodewald of Ohio State University has been researching the affects of invasive honeysuckle on Northern Cardinals. Basically, the berries of Amur honeysuckle and other Asian invasive species might help cardinals get through the winters now, but 70 generations from now? Seems the berries artificially create bright red, healthy-looking males. Females usually chose the most colorful males as mates because bright red plumage indicates the birds have been eating berries packed with nutrients to make them strong and carotenoid pigments that make the feathers red. Asian honeysuckle berries contain plenty of pigments to color the feathers, but they lack the protein and fat the cardinals need to stay healthy and fit. So the bright "dye job" that results from a diet of Asian honeysuckle berries is misleading, and females may choose males that are not the healthiest. As a result, the couple will fledge fewer offspring, which over time could hurt the population.

Asian Honeysuckle bushes are an "ecological trap" for nesting cardinals
In another study, Rodewald uncovered an additional danger to Northern Cardinals. Asian honeysuckle bushes leaf out first among all forest plants. Northern Cardinals are early nesters, so the fittest males nest earlier than other birds by nabbing nests in the dense branches of the green and leafy honeysuckle bushes. Even though these sites appear to be the best, they aren't, and cardinals that nest in honeysuckle have a lower fledge rate than the less-fit cardinals who have to wait to chose "less desirable" sites in native trees and bushes. The earlier nesters fledge 20% fewer young, which means the healthiest birds are not reproducing at a normal rate. Why? Because cardinals nesting early in invasive honeysuckle are about the only birds nesting in the forest at that time, so they become marks for predators because they are easier to find. Rodewald concludes "breeding in honeysuckle seems to flip natural selection. It is a kind of ecological trap." (Check out the entire article for details on Rodewald's research and additional findings by other researchers.)

Eliminating non-native invasive plants from your yard...
I've been battling invasive honeysuckle from my yard for years. It's just about gone now, and I've replaced it with several varieties of native viburnum bushes, Staghorn Sumac, holly bushes, and others. The National Wildlife Federation (NWF) advises trying to eliminate the invasive shrub from your yard. Botanist Bruce Stein, National Wildlife's director of climate change adaptation writes, "While many nonnative plants are fairly benign, others can be ecologically destructive. We need to pick our battles wisely by figuring out which ones we can live with and which, if left unattended, will undermine our ecosystems.”

Click here for a pdf by The Ohio State University titled, "Controlling Non-native Invasive Plants in Ohio Forests: Bush Honeysuckle," for a description of Amur, Morrow, and Tartarian honeysuckle (Lonicera spp.) and recommendations on how to get rid of it.

Click here to learn more about invasive species and how NWF is working to stop their spread.