Saturday, February 28, 2009

Observing a woodpecker’s tail and toes

Our sweet female Downy Woodpecker was outside our family room window in the crabapple tree this morning. Unfortunately, all the crabapples are now gone...they were devoured during the big snowfall a couple of weeks ago. To entice the birds back to the window, I added a small feeder with a mix of black oil sunflower seeds, peanuts, and safflower seeds. The chickadees, always being the first to check out a new feeder, showed up today, and the female downy who hangs with the chickadees followed shortly after.

Mrs. Downy studies the sunflower seed feeder...

Beak Bit
Why are woodpeckers’ tails so strong?
Woodpeckers have unique tail feathers. If you watch a woodpecker climbing up a tree (they rarely climb down), you will notice he uses his tail feathers as a prop for support. Have you ever seen a chickadee doing that, or any other perching bird? It’s because woodpeckers have very stiff, pointed tail feathers, and their lower vertebrae and supporting muscles are much bigger and stronger than those of perching birds.

This photo shows the stiff, pointy tail feathers
so unlike those found in perching birds.

I love the tail action in this photo. It clearly
shows how a woodpecker uses its tail as a prop
to help support its weight as it clings to a tree.

The woodpecker's strong, supporting tail works in conjunction with its toes, which are also quite unique. Perching birds have three toes forward and one toe back, but woodpeckers have two toes forward and two toes back, an adaptation that enables them to cling to the bark of trees very well. Without the combination of toes and tail feathers, a woodpecker would not be able to hollow out a hole in a tree for a nest, dig behind bark for insects to eat, or drum on a tree with its bill to create that beautiful woodland sound (which is another unique adaptation that would make a nice Beak Bit post in the future...).

Look at that cute little bill. We will
definitely have to learn more about it.

Mourning Doves are susceptible to frostbite.

While reading about how chickadees, titmice and other winter birds fight the cold, and how ducks and swans can survive in icy water, I read that some birds don’t do as well in cold. Mourning Doves have only recently expanded their range northward (in the last century). As a result, they are not quite as cold tolerant as the mighty chickadees, cardinals, titmice and other winter favorites. During extreme cold, Mourning Doves suffer and can lose toes to frostbite. 

Larry captured this dove doing what looks like the "Ack! It's cold" dance!

Cold, cold on my feet! Why do I stay in this icy town all winter? 

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Red on a Sunflower

My cousin, Enita, sent me this photo. Isn't it a sight for sore eyes? I'm so growing lots of sunflowers this summer. 

Hey! I'm trying to eat. 
Could you point that thing somewhere else?

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Our little Downy Woodpeckers...

This morning as I was getting ready for work I stopped a moment to look out the back window into the branches of the Ash tree. I was looking for the little Downy Woodpeckers that so frequently move through the branches, gleaning insects from behind bark or nabbing a sunflower seed from the feeder to either eat or hide in a crack in the bark. I saw the male first. So cute. The red at the back of his head flashing as he efficiently worked up the branches. Slightly up and to the left, I saw his mate, also working the bark and moving up the tree. I wondered where their roosting cavity was and if they had started looking for a nesting cavity. I hope they have a nice little brood this spring and their nestlings survive.

The male downy moving through the Ash tree.

It was so nice to just take a few minutes to sit and watch these two little birds working their way around the tree looking for food. I don’t know what it is about them, but whenever I see the downies in the Ash I feel a wave of happiness. Likewise, when they are missing, a touch of disappointment creeps in. Thank goodness they never seem to tire of our tree or the sunflower seeds in the feeder and are there more often than not when I look out the window for them!

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

A pair of Mute Swans on a local pond

Relatively new to our neighborhood is a pair of Mute Swans. Amy and Bill (whose birds, Rico and Kip, were featured in an earlier post, Hatched in the USA!) told me about a small pond just outside of downtown Mason that has become home for the pair. They regularly fly between this pond and the Proctor & Gamble pond, but nest here.

One of the new kids on the block!

I headed over to the pond today at lunch. It was cold. Very cold. So cold that the pond was skimmed with ice and only a 4-5 foot circle of water was open for the pair, but they didn't seem to mind. I did, however! By then end of the shoot my fingers were painfully numb and my face was burning.

Oh, look at me! I'm warm, dry, and gorgeous
even though I'm floating in an icy bath...

Beak Bits
I just learned that my cousins, Marianne and Paula, who are also bird lovers, are using Red and the Peanut to help their kids learn about birds, so this post goes out to Marianne, Paula and their kids in Chicago and Detroit! To help everyone learn new things about birds (including myself), I'm adding a section called "Beak Bits" that will introduce little bite-sized bits of bird science.

If a swan is floating in icy water, why doesn't it freeze?
Swans and ducks are lucky. Their feet come equipped with a network of arteries and veins lying very close to each other called a rete mirabile. In Latin, the term means "wonderful net," and it is! Fresh, hot blood flowing from the heart to the feet in arteries (up to 106 degrees F) enters the feet and immediately warms the cold blood returning in veins. Heat is exchanged because the arteries and veins are so close to each other. The warm blood essentially reheats the cold blood preventing body heat from being lost, so the foot never gets cold enough to freeze. Pretty nifty...

Feathers do an important job too, especially the fluffy down feathers on the swan's chest and belly. Feathers, like hair, do not contain blood vessels so body heat is not lost into the environment. Feathers trap warm air near the skin keeping body heat in. There's also a layer of fat in the dermis (just beneath the skin) that provides insulation and can be used for energy during very cold weather (to produce heat) and when food is in short supply.

The gorgeous bird has no problem plunging
its head into the icy water to find its lunch.

The water beads up on his feathers and drips right off.
Through preening, birds spread oil from a gland
near the tail over their feathers to create a waterproof barrier.

...and for dessert, I think I'll just poke around in the ice
a little, because my bill doesn't get cold either!

See you later alligator!

There will be a test next Tuesday...

Not! Learning about birds is fun...
no need to stress over a test.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Titmice and chickadees cache food for winter survival

Several people asked me today if I had figured out why a group of titmice or chickadees is called a "banditry" (from yesterday's post). I wasn’t able to find anything in my books or on the Internet, so I don’t really know, but if I were to guess, it might be because these two little birds stash seeds in a food cache all autumn to prepare for food shortages in the winter ahead. In a previous post, I talked about the birds in our area that stash food. These birds have larger spatial memories than non-caching birds, and the extra brain cells (beefed up during the autumn) help them keep track of the seeds they hide. In our area, food-caching birds are White-breasted Nuthatches, Blue Jays, Tufted Titmice and chickadees.

A pencil sketch of a Carolina Chickadee sitting on a pine bough (by Kelly Riccetti)
A pencil sketch I did of my favorite bird, a Carolina Chickadee.
In the autumn, the chickadees and titmice step up their food gathering behavior, so maybe their constant trips to the feeder (or any other food source) appear to be “stealing” as they zoom in, grab a seed, and then fly off without eating it. Maybe this thievery earned them the description of a "banditry" of chickadees or titmice. Who knows...

...or maybe it's just because they appear to wear masks! 

Sunday, February 22, 2009

I think this Tufted Titmouse is getting tired of the snow and cold...

This does not look like a happy face. It looks like a 
“Please make it go away now thank you very much” face.

Today I didn't hear our Tufted Titmouse call out "Peter, Peter, Peter" at all, so I decided he was fed up with the cold and the snow. There was no other explanation. Feeling sorry for the thing, I hopped on the Internet to see if I could learn anything new about them. I found a few interesting tid bits on the site:
  • Most Tufted Titmice live their entire life within a few kilometers of their birthplace.
  • They only occur in areas where rainfall is greater than 24 inches per year, and are more common where rainfall exceeds 32 inches per year.
  • In Cherokee legend, they are regarded as messengers.
  • A group of titmice are collectively known as a "banditry" and a "dissimulation" of titmice.
A banditry? A dissimulation? How can that be?

"What?" he says. "Please check that again." 

It does seem strange to call a group of these little cuties a banditry. In Webster’s a bandit is defined as an outlaw who lives by plunder, especially a member of a band of marauders! ...and dissimulation is even worse. It means to conceal one's true feelings or intentions, but Titmice just don't seem that sneaky to me.

"I think you underestimate my sneakiness."

This fellow doesn't seem to be concealing anything. 
He’s clearly crying out to the heavens “enough 
with the white stuff falling on my face already!”

I’m sure there’s a logical explanation for these 
strange names (and I'm sure someone out there 
knows it!), but I think a group of titmice should 
just be called a Collection of Cuties.

Since titmice and chickadees are in the same family, I wondered if chickadees had the same moniker, and sure enough, they are just a bunch of little marauders sneaking around in the woods too!

Thanks for the photos Larry! They are awesome!

A perfect weekend at Jenny Wiley State Park

Last autumn we took a little weekend trip to the mountains of Kentucky. Our destination was Jenny Wiley State Park deep in the Appalachians of eastern KY. Mountain hiking is not for the faint of heart…or knees! It was hard work. We were there in late October and practically had the park to ourselves. The remote location let us experience deep woodlands without the interference of other people. With over 13.5 miles of trails, there’s a lot to see, and these aren’t city trails of paved cement. They are dirt paths that rim the mountain, and if you’re not careful, you could actually get hurt!

Matthew Riccetti and Rick Riccetti hiking at Jenny Wiley State Park in 2009.
Matty and Rick on a rock outcropping.

Matthew Riccetti and Rick Riccetti hiking at Jenny Wiley State Park in 2009.
Matty and I taking a quick rest after our first morning hike.

Jenny Wiley State Park is a bird-lover’s paradise. I talked to the receptionist while we were there and she said during spring migration the place really comes to life. Speakers and experienced birders provide talks and field walks on the neo-tropical migrants stopping off on their way north, and extra attention is given to the warblers nesting in the park. Apparently American Redstarts nest all along Cabin Road and are a big attraction. She said you can even find Cerulean Warblers fairly easily.

Matthew Riccetti holding a beautiful autumn-colored leaf at Jenny Wiley State Park.
The scenery is wonder spring 
migrants like to stop off or nest here!

Looks like a sapsucker has been here...

This spring, I think we're going to head down for the spring migration. It will be interesting to see the change in the park. I wonder if as the temps rise, the solitude of the place changes.

Having the trails to ourselves was really nice. 

If you go, make sure you bring your camera. 
Photo ops are everywhere...and be sure to grab a map!

Friday, February 20, 2009

Learning more about banding birds in Ohio

Last night I went to my first ever Cincinnati Bird club meeting…and it was wonderful! Dave Russell from Miami University lectured on his work at the university and the banding stations at the Avian Research and Education Institute (AREI) and the Miami University Bird Observatory (MUBO) located in Hueston Woods. Dave is one of less than 100 bird banding trainers in North America and one of only five in Ohio.

It was an awesome presentation, and I’m definitely going to look into it. Matty is also interested. AREI makes banding training and migration research available to high school and college students (adults are welcome too). This summer Matty becomes a 9th grader, so we're in. I hope we can volunteer and learn how to do a little banding or at least watch a banding station in action and help out a bit. A lot of the research obtained from banding is used to help with conservation.  Click here for more information on AREI.

I agree Red, you'd look hot with a nifty little 
AREI bracelet, and Lady Red would definitely dig it!

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Big Blue in living color…

…whenever I see a beautiful bird (and they all are beautiful), I want to paint or draw it, but when I put paintbrush to paper, sometimes my excitement and love for the bird shows up in extraneous color, as in this representation of Big Blue:

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Sounds of Summer

Last week when I was filling a feeder at the very back of our yard, I heard the call of a returning Red-winged Blackbird. My heart skipped a quick beat, and I had to stop and listen twice to make sure I had heard what I thought I had heard. It was gray and dreary, my fingers hurt from the nip of cold through my leather gloves, and I was mucking through the mud in lovely red boots, so for me, the call was out of place.

For me, the Red-winged Blackbird’s call means summer. As a kid, I can remember baking out in the sun while playing wiffle ball or looking for crawdads under rocks in the creek and hearing that wonderful bird sound always around us. At the time, I didn’t know it was the call of a Red-winged Blackbird. To me it was just one of the early sounds of summer, and I liked it. To this day, the red wing’s call makes me happy. It can evoke the feeling of summer heat and summer freedom…open space, blue sky, and water.

One day last summer, Rick, Matty and I headed up to the Spring Valley Wildlife Area. It was blazing hot…the kind of heat that just absorbs into your skin and makes you feel good. Walking across the boardwalk through the marsh, male Red-winged Blackbirds were scattered throughout the reeds, heads thrown back, singing into the heat. That exact moment was so beautiful it is branded in my mind. I had Matty and Rick with me, the sun was warm, and my childhood sounds of summer were all around me, melting past and present together.

Last week, when the red wing sang briefly in my back yard, anticipation of summer and the nostalgia it often brings spiked in my heart. As a coincidence, that night, while doing his homework, Matty had to define the word nostalgia and come up with its antonym. He decided nostalgia was longing for the past, and its antonym would be longing for the future. After a few moments, the word “anticipation” popped in his head. I had to chuckle…with a Red-winged Blackbird in spring at my house, you can’t have one without the other!

The Great Blue heronry continues to grow.

I ran up to the rookery today at lunch out of curiosity. I didn’t think any herons would be there because it was the middle of the day and the herons aren’t sitting on eggs yet, and sure enough, only one bird was there, and he was only there briefly. I assume that I'll know when eggs have been laid because then one of the parents will remain in the nest at all times. A Tufted Titmouse was active and singing Peter, Peter, Peter heartily, but no action in the rookery. On my way back to the office, I saw a Peregrine Falcon sitting on a wire. First time I’ve seen one there. I asked Bill and Larry if they had seen him, and Bill confirmed one is hanging around the office. Yeah!

Beautiful blue lunchtime sky, but no beautiful blue herons!

This evening, I headed over to the heronry at 4:45, a little earlier than usual, but I hoped many of the herons would have returned for the evening already…and they had! The number of occupied nests has definitely increased since my trip last week, and the herons are talking a lot more than last time too. There are at least 13 more occupied nests. Unfortunately, I could only stay for about 30 minutes, which wasn’t enough time to watch all of them come home, but progress is definitely happening! On the 13th, the 7 nesting couples were centered in one large tree. Today, enough new birds had arrived that they had pushed out to two surrounding trees.

Eleven newly occupied nests are in the tree behind 
the original tree, and another is in a tree to the right of it.

I just listened and watched, and that was very nice. If I can fit in the time, I’d love to spend a couple of hours just observing and writing about colony behavior. I could see several different types of courtship displays today: 

One of three couples preening each other.

This couple kept walking around each other in the nest.

This heron was stroking his mate along 
the neck and back with this head and bill. 

I also witnessed one small property skirmish with some pretty cool threat displays, including a sharp bark followed by snapping the bill together several times:

He would bark and then snap his bill together 
several times. Even though I am quite far 
from the rookery, the bark was loud.

Monday, February 16, 2009

I miss our little rubies and emeralds...

I've really enjoyed the January and February snows. So many beautiful birds visit my feeders during the snowstorms, and Red looks exceptionally pretty against the white, so I haven't started in with that I-can't-wait-for-the-sun-to-take-over thing yet, but this evening, I made the mistake of looking at some pics of summer...warm, lovely summer filled with summer birds and summer flowers, and I started to get...antsy. Not good. It's way too early to start thinking about open windows, warm breezes, and cherry tomatoes plucked right off the vine for lunch.

...but we can start thinking about our little rubies and emeralds, because they are starting to think about us and their Big Fly north:

Photos Rick took of one of our female 
Ruby-throated Hummingbirds

Beginning February 5th, weekly spring migration updates will be posted here every Thursday, from February to June. Get ready to track the migration! Hummingbirds will move north to nest and travel across the continent. Find out how to report your sightings and track the migration on real-time maps.
This is a really fun site. If you haven't tried it out yet, give it a look.

Rare Leucistic Sabiá (Thrush) in Brazil

My cousin, Antonio, lives in São Paulo, Brazil. He just sent me this link to a female SABIÁ (a common Brazilian bird in the thrush family) exhibiting leucistic feathers. As a result, the males are rejecting her, and she can’t find a mate. The reporter also mentions that the white feathers make the bird more susceptible to predation because it has no camouflage.

Click here for a link to a video showing the bird (it’s in Portuguese, but you don’t need to speak the language to understand the meaning of the video).

On the Project FeederWatch site, you can find a nice explanation about plumage variations and the difference between albinism and leucism:
Albinism is a genetic mutation that prevents the production of melanin in the body. Leucism is a genetic mutation that prevents melanin from being deposited normally on feathers. Leucism is rare in birds, and albinism is extremely rare. From 2000-2006, Project FeederWatch participants reported fewer than 1000 leucistic birds. Given that participants report about 5.5 million birds each season, the percentage of leucistic birds is very, very small.

Typically birds with abnormally white feathers do not survive long because they are so much more visible to predators. Those that do survive may have trouble attracting a mate. Consequently, the mutated genes that cause albinism and leucism are less likely to be passed on to a new generation.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

The only way I’m going to get a Pine Siskin in my yard…

…is if I draw one and tie it to a branch with a string!

Oooh…look! A Pine Siskin at Kelly’s house!

So yesterday, after completing my second day of backyard bird counting, I grabbed my colored pencils and drew one.

I always begin my paintings or drawings 
with a very light pencil sketch.

Since I’m using colored pencils for 
this study, the next thing I do is map 
in the darks. I leave the whitest areas blank 
(just like with a watercolor).

Then I start layering in color 
(again, pretty much like a watercolor).

Finally, I start burnishing and 
adding finishing touches. 

Yes, I promise I won’t count this Pine Siskin in the Great Backyard Bird Count going on this weekend!

…I bet I’m going to have to draw that Common Redpoll and the Rufous-sided (I mean Eastern) Towhee also because they certainly aren’t flocking to my yard now!

Saturday, February 14, 2009

White Storks in Southwest Spain

My friend, Ashley, sent me this photo of several White Storks nesting on a rooftop in southwest Spain. He said storks are considered quite lucky and were nesting all over, on church towers, on top of buildings, on telegraph poles, and in tall trees. Stork nests may be used for many years and can grow quite large. Some have been reported over 6 ft wide and about 10 ft deep. What a spectacular site!

I did a bit of research because I knew nothing at all about White Storks. We don’t get them here. I learned storks have found a safe place in Spain where some birds have chosen to remain all year instead of migrating to Africa. These new living arrangements may help boost their numbers because they avoid making the exhausting and even dangerous journey back to Africa.

Across Europe, other birds are still migrating and most spend the winter in Africa south of the Sahara Desert. There are two migration routes at either end of the Mediterranean, the Straits of Gibraltar (these birds winter in West Africa) and Bosporus (these birds winter in southern Africa).

We all know the story of how storks deliver babies, but where did that myth come from? One guess is because storks arrive back in Europe on predictable dates and almost exactly 9 months after the previous mid-summer. Because of this happy myth, storks are considered lucky and are usually well protected.

Maybe some of our European bird bloggers have had experience with these storks and can fill us in on their habits!

Friday, February 13, 2009

Happy St. Valentine’s Day from the Great Blue Heron Heronry!

Tonight I went to the heronry at 5:30. When I arrived two herons were flying in with me! It was 51 degrees, but the temperature was dropping rapidly because the sun was beginning to set. All together, there were 21 herons in two trees. In five days, the number of Great Blue Herons at the heronry had gone from 3 to 21, and of those, 7 pairs had definitely formed:

Love is in the branches at the heronry!

If you look at the nests, you can see both mates are standing, letting you know no eggs have been laid. When egg-laying starts, one of each couple will hunker down in the nests to keep the eggs warm. Both the male and the female take turns incubating the eggs. The eggs hatch after about a month. 

There is a chance the number of formed couples may already be larger than 7. As you can see in the photo, several herons are standing in nests by themselves, so their mates might still have been out fishing. As I was driving home, I saw a heron flying low in the sky. I assume he was returning to the rookery, but I didn’t include him in the count, because I didn’t see him in a tree with the colony.

Love was not only in the branches, it was in the bushes right where I was standing. Two little Carolina Wrens were hopping back and forth looking for a nesting site. They kept going in and out of a little cavity formed in the crook of a tree. When I first arrived they were so noisy with their scolding. Clearly I was interrupting their house hunting expedition, but after about 5 minutes, they calmed down and worked around me. They stayed around the entire time I was there.

One half of the happy little Carolina Wren couple...

Squirrel Nutkin on our backyard deck...

Here is a test video of cute Squirrel Nutkin:

Squirrel Nutkin on our Deck from Kelly Riccetti on Vimeo.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

It was a dark and windy night…

Today I drove over to the Cincinnati Nature Center, but when I turned left onto Tealtown Road, a huge ROAD CLOSED sign was blocking the way. During the very windy night, tree branches and electric wires had come down and were blocking the road. Luckily, I had Jill the GPS Girl in my car and pulled her out and plugged her in. She took me down Binnens to Baldwin to Tealtown, and I was able to squeak in from the other direction. Binnens and Baldwin are one-lane roads and go through some very beautiful countryside. It was the first time I had been on those roads, and I was happy for the detour. When I finally arrived at the nature center, it was practically empty, and the visitor’s center was close. I had chosen the nature center for today’s adventure because I wanted to use their research library to follow up on a previous post (Ice Shots…) and find out a bit more about why birds don’t freeze. So many of my friends had asked me, and I knew the basics, fluffing feathers to trap body heat, torpor (lowering body temp to conserve energy), the physical structure of the feet and legs (scales, no sweat glands), and the complex network of blood vessels in the feet of ducks and water birds that act as a heat exchanger, but I wanted to find more technical and detailed information.

Instead, I took a test video of a cute chickadee foraging on the ground:

Chickadee at Cincinnati Nature Center from Kelly Riccetti on Vimeo.

Usually the rainbow appears after a storm, but last night, the rainbow appeared before the winds and storm arrived. It was incredibly bright and Spot-man, of course, noticed it first and yelled for Matty and me to look out the window to check out the intense color:

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Spring is creeping ever nearer...

I just got a nice little message from WordGirl about the mallards in her pond this morning:
The boy ducks were swimming around bobbing their heads, asking the girl ducks if they were interested. The girl ducks were swimming around, ignoring the boy ducks (so far). Spring is coming.
…and here’s a beautiful and interesting photo 
of Lady Mallard from my cousin, R.

As an aside...As I left work today I was not looking forward to dashing across the parking lot in a cold, driving rain, but instead, I stepped out into a warm, spring-like downpour and 60 degrees! It felt good, and I had to remind myself that it is still February. Unfortunately, as I type this, a cold front is barreling towards us with a chance of tornados and severe storms. Sounds like spring...