Morning walk and signs of spring

Even though it looked like a storm was brewing in the distance, Bill and I took advantage of the warmer temps to go for a morning walk.

view of Short Hills

View of our neighbor’s barn further down the valley with the Short Hills in the distance

clouds over mountains

Clouds hanging over Garden Mountain

Walking along the edge of the woods, I was able to get this photo of a male cardinal that watched us curiously from a distance. The beauty of these exquisite birds is even more evident when seen in stark contrast against the bare limbs of the trees on a gray day like today.

Male northern cardinal

With the lengthening days, subtle changes are taking place everywhere. Wearying of winter, I was looking for signs that spring is on its way. The first thing I noticed was the swelling buds on the trees. As the days become warmer, the trees take up water in order to swell the buds and get the leaf-making process underway for the new growing season. The swelling is caused by the pressure of the sap pushing its way to the limb’s extremities.

buds on tree limbs

The buds on the tulip poplars are swelling, and I also noticed that the seed cones have opened and dropped most of their seeds. The viable ones will germinate once the ground warms up enough.

Tulip flowers

On the way back, I saw one of my favorite birds, a White-breasted Nuthatch. This dapper guy didn’t mind pausing his search for insects long enough to pose while I snapped a picture. Despite its wide distribution throughout North America, little is known about the specie’s breeding biology, in part, because they prefer to breed in natural holes in large, old trees, so their nests are often difficult to examine.

white-breasted nuthatch

I came back from the walk feeling encouraged about the signs of spring. All in all, it hasn’t been a bad winter; still, I long for the sounds of birds singing in the morning, the warmth of the sun, and all the wondrous activity of the season of renewal.

“Winter is on my head, but eternal spring is in my heart.”
Victor Hugo

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Complex calls of the chickadees and titmice

Many birds fly south in winter to escape the cold and scarcity of food, but Black-capped Chickadees and Tufted Titmice, members of the family Paridae, are year-round residents. In Virginia, after the breeding season ends, chickadees and titmice form loose winter foraging flocks with other species that often include White-breasted Nuthatches, Downy Woodpeckers, and Brown Creepers. The “follower” species travel with the chickadees and titmice because these two “leader” species are excellent food-finders and alert sentinels that help to create a safer feeding environment for the flock.

Downy Woodpeckers and Black-capped Chickadees often show up at the feeder together

Downy Woodpeckers (left) and other species that forage with Black-capped Chickadees (right) rely on the chickadee’s ability to find food and spot predators.

These parids share a unique call system to communicate with flockmates — a nasal, mechanical chick-a-dee call. According to an article in American Scientist (Sept-Oct 2012), the chick-a-dee call is one of the most complex signaling systems documented in non-human animal species. The calls are used to communicate information on identity and recognition of other flocks, the finding of food, contact with flock members, and predator alarms. Amazingly, subtle variations of the call even communicate information about the size and risk of potential predators. According to Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the more “dee” notes in a chickadee-dee-dee call, the higher the threat level. The call also serves as a rallying call to summon others to mob and harass the predator.

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Tufted titmice (left) use a variation of the chickadee call, a scratchy “tsee-day-day-day”.

The parids are intelligent, adaptive, resourceful, and curious. They are often the first birds at the feeder in the morning and are entertaining to watch as they interact with other birds. Especially in the drab days of winter, the cheery chickadee-dee-dee call is music to our ears.

Looking at the World From a Different Perspective

This morning I watched a white-breasted nuthatch creeping headfirst down the trunk of an oak tree. These are remarkably people-tolerant birds, and even though I stood only about fifteen feet away, he remained intent on foraging, issuing a repeated loud, nasal “yank” as he hitched his way around the trunk. As I edged closer, he paused momentarily. With his long, curved claws tightly clamped onto the bark, he twisted his head at a 90-degree angle to get a better look at me. This engaging “pose” is the one most often captured by photographers.

Photo by David Brezinski - USFWS (public domain)

Photo by David Brezinski – USFWS (public domain)

By scaling down the tree headfirst in its search for food, more like a squirrel than a bird, the nuthatch has a unique perspective on the world. This topsy-turvy foraging style enables them to find insects that other birds like the brown creeper and downy woodpecker that search the same trees “right side up” might miss.

This time of year, nuthatches join mixed species foraging flocks led by black-capped chickadees or tufted titmice. These species are excellent food-finders so it makes food easier to find for the nuthatches, and foraging in flocks allows more birds to watch for predators.

In Virginia, the white-breasted nuthatch is a year-round resident and mated pairs stay together throughout the non-breeding season, often foraging for food together. The male shows dominance over the female at the feeders, but will pass seeds to her to cache. The two are quite industrious, returning over and over and dashing off in different directions to stash the seeds in bark crevices for future use.

Nuthatches are endearing to watch as they meticulously scale the trees in their search for food. Watching them, I am reminded of a poem by author/poet Maurice Thompson:

The busy nuthatch climbs his tree
Around the great bole spirally,
Peeping into wrinkles gray,
Under ruffled lichens gay,
Lazily piping one sharp note
From his silver mailed throat.

winter bird feeding – to feed or not to feed?

It’s always been more or less conventional wisdom that feeding wild birds in winter ups their survival rate because their normal sources of food – seeds and insects – are greatly diminished. But is this wisdom correct? Some challenge this thinking, saying that feeding the birds makes them overly dependent on human handouts and weakens their ability to find food on their own. So what’s a bird-lover to do?

These questions aren’t easily answered, but a three-year study of black-capped chickadees by the University of Wisconsin found that during harsh winters, survival rates were higher when chickadees have both feeder and natural food options; where winters were more moderate, there were no significant differences in survival rates.

Since the late 1800s, many species including tufted titmice, northern cardinals, and white-breasted nuthatches have been expanding their range northward (following the settlers), some making it as far as southern Canada. Evidence bears out that bird feeding played a role in that expansion. Clearly, in these colder climates, supplemental feeding can be important, if not critical, to bird survival.

Nuthatches visit both suet and seed feeders

Tufted titmice are also regular visitors to our feeders

While it would seem “free” food would be irresistible to birds, some of our Virginia resident species, such as mockingbirds and phoebes, tend to shy away from seed feeders, choosing natural food sources instead.

This mockingbird is warning intruders to stay out of his winter food territory. He is protecting several berry bushes nearby.

These species, however, don’t shun feeders altogether. Phoebes have been known to visit mealworm feeders and mockingbirds occasionally come to suet feeders; however, I’ve never had either species come to my feeders. How about you? What atypical visitors have you seen at your feeders?

It’s true that feeders can put birds at risk by increasing their exposure to predators like cats and hawks. But it’s also true that birds that visit feeders eat more in less time than they would in the wild, giving them more time to watch for predators. In addition, birds that frequent feeders where they know cats are nearby keep a watchful eye for the felines and send out the danger signal to other birds when any predator is spotted. You can minimize the risk by keeping cats indoors or placing feeders where they are inaccessible to cats.

Feeders can also cause bird collisions with windows because they lure birds closer to houses and other buildings. One way to minimize collisions is to add tape or decals to your windows so birds won’t fly into them. Distance also plays a role, so place feeders far enough from windows so there is less chance that startled or frightened birds will fly into them.

If you choose to feed the birds this winter, remember that they will be relying on you when the weather turns harsh. The consequences can be disastrous if you suddenly stop, so once you start filling the feeders, continue through until winter’s end. If you are away over the holidays, ask a friend or neighbor to fill your feeders while you’re gone.

What am I going to do? Although I don’t start supplemental feeding until the first snow or hard frost (usually around mid-November), I’m going to feed the birds, as I always do. During periods of heavy snow, ice, or extreme cold, birds have a difficult time finding food and bird feeders can mean the difference between life and death. For me, it’s a no-brainer.