Saturday, January 31, 2009

I wonder if they dipped into their winter food stores this week…

There are several types of birds who stash food in the autumn, preparing for the harsh winter ahead. These birds have larger spatial memories than non-caching birds, which help them keep track of the position of objects in space. In our area, food-caching birds are White-breasted Nuthatches, Blue Jays, Tufted Titmice and chickadees.

In autumn nuthatches harvest and store hundreds of 
seeds throughout their territory using each hiding place 
only once. They hide seeds behind bark, in cracks and 
crevices of tree trunks, or in knotholes. Sometimes, they 
even cover the seeds with moss or lichens.

By spreading their food around, a behavior that’s called 
scatter-hoarding, food-caching birds help guarantee 
their survival by making it less likely their entire 
food stash will be raided by other birds. 

Blue Jays harvest several thousand acorns each fall 
and bury them in the ground. Any acorns the Blue Jays 
don’t eat sprout into saplings, so squirrels aren’t 
the only ones important to seed dispersal.

To read more about seed-caching birds, get Secret Lives of Common Birds, Enjoying Bird Behavior Through the Seasons, by Marie Read. This book has a lot of interesting bird behavior tid-bits and very beautiful photos.

Friday, January 30, 2009

…and for dessert, I’ll have the crabapples too!

After the Northern Cardinal (from a previous entry) left the crabapple tree, this little chickadee flew in for a taste.

If you look closely under his right foot, you can see evidence 
of the 17-year Cicadas that visited us early in the summer. 

In an article written by Matthew St. George, called Cicadas to emerge in Cincinnati are soon to make their music, we learn:
These bugs are offspring of the Brood XIV cicadas, which emerged in 1991, said Dan Balser, a specialist with the Ohio Department of Natural Resources Division of Forestry. Broods are groups of cicadas that emerge during the same year after the soil temperature reaches 65. "Each brood is known for a specific geographic region," Balser said. "The cicadas are on a 17-year life cycle and spread all over the eastern part of the United States." Cicadas don't bite people or carry diseases. They do, however, damage trees, especially young ones.

But our Chiggy doesn’t seem to care about 
the damage, he’s just enjoying the crabapple.

Unlike the cardinal, he is eating the pulp. Chickadees are quite the little scavengers and are not picky eaters at all in winter. In an interesting article written by By Nancy Bazilchuk called Resourceful Chickadees Triumph Over Winter, she writes:
Some researchers have found chickadees pecking the fat off a dead deer's body. They'll monopolize suet feeders, clean out your bird feeder, and strip hemlock cones. They feed on maple sap icicles -- the ones that form on the end of a snapped sugar maple twig in spring. The average chickadee needs to eat food that's comparable in energy value to 250 sunflower seeds a day.

…no wonder he’s not wasting the pulp!

...a Cooper's Hawk is in the ice house.

Matty and I are housebound again today, so Rick (The Spotter) came home to say hi and pick up an extra hard drive. As he swept through the kitchen, he spotted a juvenile Cooper’s Hawk on the willow and grabbed the camera. I told him because of all his recent spotting activity I was changing his name from The Spotter to just "Spot." Spot is shorter and easier to write and will save me time with the blog (he just smiled, the joy of being a blog character). 

The Cooper’s Hawk, looking regal, surrounded by ice. 

The willow branches are drooping more than usual, and several branches have snapped. It doesn’t look like the ice will clear anytime soon, and more snow is on the way for Monday (more snow days from school? Matty will be happy).

Thursday, January 29, 2009

I know there's a seed in here somewhere...

Red really seems to like the fruit, but if you notice, he’s leaving the skin and pulp behind and going for the seeds inside.

Cardinals and grosbeaks have bills strong enough to crack hard seed shells and tend to ignore the pulp and skin.

On Tuesday, this guy perched right outside my living room window in the crabapple tree. Unfortunately, there were not many crabapples this year due to the horrible ice storm that killed most of the blossoms last year. Yesterday, another ice storm swept through, encasing the few remaining crabapples in ice. Luckily he noticed them Tuesday!

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Red-bellied Woodpecker Vigorously Defends his Territory

My neighborhood White-breasted Nuthatches, Downy Woodpeckers and Red-bellied Woodpeckers have claimed this feeder as their own. Maybe because it’s so close to the tree they feel it’s an extension of the tree, and therefore, theirs. I don’t know, but I stock it everyday with them in mind, always including a mixture of peanuts and black-oil sunflower seeds. Today, as I looked out the window, a starling tried to squeeze in on the feeder action, and the red-bellied would have none of it.

Move on, mister, these seeds and nuts are mine!

Be gone, seed thief, or I will pull out a feather (and he did!).

I mean business, and I’m bigger than you…now!

Red-bellied Woodpeckers have several threat displays, such as raising the feathers on their neck and crown, or, as shown above, spreading out their wings and tail to appear larger to the intruder.

…not until the starling was long gone did the red-bellied feel calm enough to go back up to his icy treetop, knowing his feeder was safe.

Monday, January 26, 2009

From the gruesome to the exquisite...

After posting the death of the poor little vole, I thought I'd better post something a little more upbeat (although, the hawk, I'm sure, was quite in raptures). This beautiful photo of an Eastern Bluebird Larry took this weekend is perfect! The blue is so intense... 

It was quite chilly this weekend, which shows in his puffed-up feathers. I wonder what he was looking at, because his gaze is as intense as his color!

Red-shouldered Hawk Stops for Breakfast

A gruesome sight greeted Matty as he walked into the kitchen this morning. A Red-shouldered Hawk flew across the yard and swooped down on a little grey vole. With the vole dangling from his talons, he flew to the willow tree to eat him.

As I was getting ready, I heard Matty shout from the other room, “Mom, come quick! You’ve got to get a picture of this!!” There was no time for setup, so we just shot the photo through the back door glass, hoping for the best. Thanks to Matty’s sharp eye, we see the other side of nature, just as important, just not as cute.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

An American Tree Sparrow Lands Just Outside my Kitchen Window

Three American Tree Sparrows are always hopping around my backyard, scratching at the seeds on the ground, and looking cute in their rusty caps. They are such sweet, polite birds and are one of my favorites. This afternoon, as I was looking out my kitchen window, one dropped in to eat thistle at one of my finch feeders. This was a first and I was excited! He came back again and again. I grabbed my camera, but didn’t have much hope of capturing an image because I had to shoot through glass and screen, but it worked. The photos are a bit hazy, but they clearly show his rusty cap and his yellow and black beak.

Earlier I had been reading an article on American Tree Sparrows by Jim McCormac in the latest issue of Birdwatcher’s Digest (Vol. 31 No. 3, Jan/Feb 2009), so this little guy couldn’t have chosen a better time to pose for me. He’s so cute in these pics. It was snowing heavily at the time, and you can even see the little snowflakes on his head. Since American Tree Sparrows are winter visitors from up north, I’m sure he didn’t mind!

In McCormac’s article, he explains that the American Tree Sparrow’s breeding grounds are way north in Churchill, Manitoba, which means this little fellow will have to travel almost 2000 miles to get back home in the spring (totally amazing--makes me love them more). He also talks about the tree sparrows’ taste for weed seeds and recommends planting Goldenrod, coneflowers (I already have), and Little Bluestem grass. So now I have another batch of native plants to add to my gardening for the birds list.

To carry the weed-seed thing a little further, in this month’s Birds and Blooms (January 2009), George Harrison writes on the American Tree Sparrow,
A century ago, Professor F. E. L. Beal wrote that in the state of Iowa alone, American Tree Sparrows consumed 875 tons of weed seeds annually. Since then, farmers have considered the American Tree Sparrow and other members of its tribe to be valuable economic allies.
One researcher found that in an 18-inch square of weeds, tree sparrows were so thorough consuming the weed seeds, they missed only 6 seeds, leaving 1,130 half seed shells in their wake. These little guys are like weed seed vacuums. So not only are they cute, they are necessary and valuable, especially when growing foods organically.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Walking the Banks of the Little Miami River Turns into an Archeological Study

This morning, Matty and I decided to go to the Little Miami River at the Peters Cartridge Factory for a winter hike. It’s only about 10 minutes from our house, and we go birding there a lot. It was a bit cold at 28 degrees, but we had on down coats and pants and were very warm. The river, frozen at the edges, was incredibly beautiful.

Matt Riccetti takes a break during a winter hike along the Little Miami River (2009)
Matthew Riccetti along the Little Miami River
Kelly Riccetti at the Little Miami River (near the Peter's Cartridge Factory)...snow, snow snow!
Kelly Riccetti along the Little Miami River. The snow-covered trees and ice along the river were so pretty.
We heard a Pileated Woodpecker (we usually see him on the other side of the trail heading towards Morrow), cardinals, chickadees, Blue Jays, and at one point a very curious and friendly Carolina Wren kept us company. The highlight of our birding was a possible, but unconfirmed Golden-crowned Kinglet. Two tiny birds were chattering above us and hung around for about a minute, but they were constantly moving in and out of branches and we couldn’t get a clear look through the binocs. Their shape and sound was that of a kinglet…but we’re not listing it.

Over the years, we’ve hiked along the patch of the Little Miami River in front of the Peter’s Cartridge Factory looking for old railroad nails, discarded coal nuggets, and other rusty old things left over from the railway and munitions factory that used to run there, but this hike ended up being special because it turned into an archeological study of Ohio’s rich paving brick history, which flourished in Ohio from the 1880's until the 1930's. Here are a few of the bricks we stumbled upon.

Tiger Steel Brick
This was the first brick we saw. If you look closely, you can see "Tiger Steel" stamped into the brick. 

Tiger Steel Brick
We soon came to another. This one lodged in the silt. It was so weathered and chipped, we knew it was old. Matty admired the patina and the algae growing on it. 

We learned Tiger Steel bricks were made at a plant in Cincinnati and were used all over the United States and in Europe. They were made with Olive Hill Fire clay, which was famous for making premium refractory bricks able to withstand extremely high temps and therefore used in furnaces and steel plants, and in our case, in the huge furnace of the Peters Cartridge Factory. With a chimney this large, the fires must have been pretty hot.

The tile detailing on the smokestack at the Peter's Cartridge Factory
The huge smoke stack at the Peters Cartridge Factory is a work of art. The munitions manufacturer began operations around 1880 and produced shotgun shells and rifle and pistol cartridges.

After accidentally finding the first two bricks, we started looking closely and found more and more from many different manufacturers.

Metropolitan Canton, OH Block
It took us a while to figure out what this one said. We thought it was Metropolitan Cantono Block, but when we started to research, we realized it was Canton, O (for Canton, Ohio). 

We learned these were not refractory bricks, but paving bricks used to make roads. The Metropolitan Paving Brick Company began in 1890 as the Royal Brick Company and was critical in helping Canton, Ohio become the "paving brick capital of the world." In 1893 there were enough pavers produced annually to pave nearly 600 miles of road and were used to build the Lincoln Tunnel and the Queens midtown tunnel in New York City.

Brecon Brick
This brick reads Brecon. The only reference we could find to Brecon bricks was from the silica mines in Brecon Beacons National Park in South Wales. The bricks produced there were also refractory bricks made from pure silica that could stand the intense temperatures of industrial furnaces, so it makes sense they could have been  used at the cartridge factory. 

XX Crown brick from the H-W Crown Refractories
It took us quite a while to figure this one out, but finally, it was clear. This is an XX Crown brick from the H-W Crown Refractories. It is a refractory brick made of silica for the crowns of beehive ovens, again suitable as a liner for furnaces with very high temperatures. These bricks were manufactured in Pittsburgh, PA.

Trimble Block Brick
Next we found this Trimble Block brick. It was from the Trimble Brick company in Trimble, Ohio, and was a paver brick from around 1904. 

Carlyle Paving Brick
It looks like Oarlvle, but it actually spells Carlyle. The Carlyle Paving Brick company was in Portsmouth, Ohio. While researching Carlyle, we found a digitized online book on the clay-working industry in the US and read, in 1907 Ohio produced 264,571,000 brick valued at $2,672,600, being the leading State, and far outranking all others.

Corundite Refractories at Zoar, near the Great Dover Dam in Dover, Ohio
The last brick we came to was unreadable, but we decided to do a pencil rubbing on one of our journal pages and bring it home to study. After a lot of guesswork, it finally became clear...Corundites with a date that appears to be 1890.
Sure enough. We found reference to the Corundite Refractories at Zoar, near the Great Dover Dam in Dover, Ohio. Another brick used for intense heat in the huge furnaces at the powder factory. There is much too much to post in one blog entry, so as we learn more about the bricks and the companies that made them, we will post little stories. We also found a blue and white porcelain shard in a wild rose pattern. The porcelain mark is hand-stamped on the back with USA and what looks like Rose. It looks like a vintage pattern. Hopefully we’ll be able to solve that mystery too. Matty and I need to research the Peters Cartridge Factory to learn a little more about it, and maybe that will help us understand what was up with all the bricks on the bank of the Little Miami.

Goldfinch on Lemon Balm

Larry captured this beautiful image last weekend in the bitter cold, but the goldfinch look so content feeding on the Lemon Balm you’d never know the mercury was dipping so low. Winter gardens can help the birds make it through winter and early spring. Just as petunia seed heads supply juncos with a winter treat, it seems a stand of Lemon Balm is pure delight for a goldfinch on a cold winter morning.

After doing a little research, I found Lemon Balm is a hardy perennial that grows about 2- 3 feet high. The plant has small oval-shaped green leaves and white flowers in summer. It attracts bees, so it’s good for pollination. It can be used in the front of borders or mixed in container plantings (maybe I’ll experiment and combine it with a pot of petunias for a junco/goldfinch bonanza). It is hardy to USDA Zone 4. Lemon Balm grows in average, well-drained moist soil in full sun to partial shade. One thing to think about, however, is Lemon Balm is a member of the mint family and can easily spread and take over a garden. Many gardeners suggest removing the flowers before they go to seed to help keep the plant in bounds, but that won’t do for us at all. We want the flowers to go seed to feed the birds! I’m going to plant a stand this spring in an area I don’t mind being over run with mint.

Lemon Balm helps more than the birds, it’s an herb and can be used in recipes to enhance flavor. Add chopped leaves to soups, stews, salads, poultry and fish dishes. I also saw examples of leaves stuck in between vegetables on kabobs, or fresh leaves used as stuffing for pockets cut in fish or poultry, or a fresh sprig simply placed on a salmon filet before grilling. So feed the birds and feed yourself. Thanks for the photo Larry…and for another gardening-for-the-birds plant!

Friday, January 23, 2009

Blue Figures out the new Peanut Feeder

A couple of weeks ago, I was in my favorite bird store, Mary and Patrick's Wild Bird Center of Mason, when I saw a new peanut feeder. I bought some peanuts in the shell and brought the feeder home, and for 2 weeks it hung there with nothing even giving it the eye, but on Monday, while it was snowing, Blue suddenly figured it out and started nabbing the nuts. Later in the day, I saw a Tufted Titmouse stop by, but he didn’t take a peanut. He just looked at it. The Blue Jays (five in all) would take turns flying in, grabbing a peanut, and then flying out. It was fun to watch.

Blue finally lands on the feeder and takes a look.

He sees it's filled with peanuts in the shell and grabs one.

...but there is no sticking around. 
As soon as he has the peanut, it's lift off!

Throughout the week, the Blue Jays and the squirrels were the biggest customers and were really fun to watch. But...the Tufted Titmouse is hanging around more and more and loves the peanuts! Even a Carolina Wren dropped in for a visit, but he didn't take a nut. The feeder is a really fun addition to the backyard, and we love it. I can't wait until the Red-bellied Woodpeckers start coming to it. 

...let's hope Red figures it out too!

Bip-cam Friday: Don't hate me because I'm beautiful...and have great jewelry.

Bip, our very sweet Cornish Rex cat.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Lunchtime Fieldtrip Thursday: Cincinnati Nature Center

Today I headed over to the Cincinnati Nature Center at about 11:30. When I got out of the car, it felt like spring! It was 48 degrees, much better than last Thursday’s fieldtrip of 10 degrees. I stopped in the Rowe Visitor Center to see if anything exciting had been sighted and a very nice gentleman reported he had seen a Hermit Thrush and a Bald Eagle flying over with a a fish! He had spotted the Hermit Thrush on the trail over by the Raptor, Inc. property, so that's where I headed. Unfortunately, the thrush was no where to be found when I made my way through the woods, but I didn’t care. The trail was beautiful in the sunshine, and the pseudo-spring weather was amazing. The warmth was misleading though, because beneath my feet, snow still remained,

…and it covered the hillsides and branches too, but the moss steady as ever, stayed green and peeped through.

An evergreen vine overhead really made it seem like spring was just around the corner. I don’t know what type of vine it was, but my guess is Trumpeter Honeysuckle. I'll ask the naturalist about it the next time I'm there.

…the wonderful winter birds were around, Chickadees, Tufted Titmice, White-breasted Nuthatches, Downy Woodpeckers. All their lovely sounds bouncing off the trees and keeping me company.

…and then right before I was getting ready to leave I stopped in the bird blind and saw this happy yellow guy. 

Yesterday at my house, I thought the goldfinches seemed to be getting a little brighter…a little more ready for spring, but then decided I was imagining it. But there is no doubt now. This fellow is definitely a little more yellow than the goldfinches were last week. So maybe spring is just around the corner!

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Teach Me about Birds, Flash Cards in Full Color...revisited!

The little Brown Creeper was such a cool bird I thought it deserved a Teach Me about Birds, Flash Cards in Full Color check, and sure enough, one was in the box! Here is the Brown Creeper flash card from 1968 (my first field guide),

…and even more interesting, on the back of the flash card was the best description ever,
...a small, five-inch, mouse-like bird that climbs up trees in a spiral.
“Mouse-like bird” is such a perfect description. I don’t understand why it’s not in any of the contemporary guides. As I read further, I came across something else new,
Feeds on tiny destructive insects that it finds in the bark of trees. The bird’s pure-white breast may help to reflect light into the darker nooks.
Well that’s cool. None of the current guides talk about the breast reflection thing, so naturally, I started thinking about the white-breasted nuthatch and wondered if they used the same logic with that bird, and sure enough, they did. Here is the flash card,

…and here is the description,
A sturdy, little, 5 to 6 inch, grey tree-trunk acrobat (again a totally cute description). The white breast helps to reflect light into crevices in the bark it searches.
So there we go. Why is this little tidbit missing from today’s guides? Is it no longer valid, or just not deemed important. Whether it’s true or not now, it was in 1968, and that was a pretty good year!

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Song Sparrows Caught on Camera Being Cheerful and Sweet

Larry must have spent a good portion of his weekend tramping through the snow spying on birds, because he has captured another fantastic series of bird portraits. These are all Song Sparrows. The Song Sparrow is a common, year-round resident in most of North America and can usually be found in all our backyards. It is a happy, cheerful little bird with a beautiful song. When I played a clip of his call for Matty, he responded with, “Wow! That’s a cool call,” so it must be true. In the book Music of the Birds, A Celebration of Bird Song, by Lang Elliott (great book), he writes,
The Song Sparrow enlivens each spring with its energetic outbursts. Songs are a variable sequence of notes, including clear whistles and buzzy sounds. Each male has about ten songs in its repertoire and tends to repeat one pattern for several minutes before changing to another.
Ralph Waldo Emerson also was intrigued with the Song Sparrow and in the poem “Each and All” (1867), he wrote,
I thought the Sparrow’s note from heaven, singing at dawn on the alder bough.

We have a several song sparrows in our neighborhood and one in particular nests in my backyard in the huge golden mop cypress bushes. The mama is so sweet and greets me every day. In the spring you can see both the papa and mamma hopping in and out of the massive bushes to feed the nestlings. The papa also has his favorite perches and sings a lot in the wild cherry tree just above the mop and in the hornbeams, just to the left of them.

Male Song Sparrows will sing back and forth to each other if they are near territory boundaries. This is called “countersinging.” In addition, because male Song Sparrows have very large song repertoires, they do “matched countersinging” where the males exchange the same or very similar songs for several minutes before one switches to another song. Lang Elliott reports,
Scientists surmise that such behavior is equivalent to flinging an insult at one’s rival by throwing back its exact same song. In any event, it is a sign of intense interaction.
...hmmm, sounds like a dance off to me!

Random Red Sighting: Who's that pecking at my window?

It started with Gail and Maria and The Red Express, but it seems to be sweeping the Mason/Cincinnati/Centerville area. Kristi just emailed me with another Random Red Sighting. For the past three days, poor Red has been pecking all day at her back window. It’s driving her hubby crazy, but Kristi, being a fellow bird watcher and enthusiast, enjoys Red’s special attention. No doubt the fellow is trying to find the peanuts and is hoping Kristi understands bill tapping and will show him the way.

…and Cindy, with camera in hand, braved the cold and hid in the bushes with branches and leaves taped to her coat and hat as camouflage, and captured Red deep in thought (we think), dreaming of the day he will find the peanuts.