Birds

All posts tagged Birds

By Ian Stewart

Delaware Nature Society has over 200 nest boxes spread around the properties we own or help manage which we installed to provide nest sites for a variety of birds. Every summer these boxes are monitored by a team of volunteers who track over 100 nesting attempts by 5-6 bird species (and we are always looking for more people to help with this – please get in touch if you’d like to get involved!). You’d be wrong to think the boxes stand idle throughout the winter however – it’s just that most of the action now takes place at night!

Several birds often roost in them during the winter, including Screech Owls, Eastern Bluebirds and some woodpeckers, which they probably do to protect them from the elements such as wind and rain. It is likely several degrees warmer inside a nest box than outside of it and for a small bird on a very cold night this could be the difference between life and death. Bluebirds take this a little further and are famous for ‘bundling’, where several birds squeeze into the same box for the night, probably keeping each other warm with their body heat.

A male bluebird entering a nest box

A male bluebird entering a nest box in winter

This year we’re making a special effort to check our boxes during the winter too. Sometimes it’s obvious that birds have been roosting in our boxes as they leave their droppings behind. The droppings in the photo below were almost certainly from a bluebird that has been eating Oriental Bittersweet. Bluebirds usually eat insects but at this time of year these are hard to find so they switch their diet to berries, and this exotic invasive vine is one of the few local plants that still has berries on it in February. You can help bluebirds in winter by planting berry-producing native bushes and shrubs such as Winterberry, Viburnums and Hollies. We will be following these boxes all through the year to see if bluebirds end up nesting in the same boxes that were used in winter.

Bluebird droppings inside a nest box

Bluebird droppings show they have been using this nest box

It’s also worth checking nest boxes in winter for less-desirable occupants. About 10% of our nest boxes are occupied by white-footed or deer mice during the winter. These nocturnal mice build fluffy nests inside boxes and sleep in them during the day. We always dump out mice and their nests during the winter, which may seem unkind but if left in place their urine and feces can damage boxes or carry disease, and birds won’t use boxes already occupied by mice. If you do this yourself, don’t use your hands to dislodge mice and their nests in case you pick up any disease or get bitten, but instead gently ease out the box contents with a stout stick.

Two deer mice fast asleep in this box

Two deer mice fast asleep in this box

This box at Coverdale Farm Preserve contained a furry nest with no fewer than 15 uneaten hickory nuts, which was interesting as this is not a common tree at the Preserve. These had probably been stored in the box by a Flying Squirrel, a nocturnal mammal which does not hibernate and requires food all winter. The squirrel cached the nuts here to provide a food supply for later in the winter, so to be sure the little guy wouldn’t go hungry we left the nuts below the box.

Hickory nuts cached in this nest box by a flying squirrel

Hickory nuts cached in this nest box by a flying squirrel

So just because you never see anything going inside your nest boxes in winter, don’t assume they aren’t being used!

Ian Stewart, Ornithologist

Many visitors to Ashland Nature Center have been enjoying our newest attraction – a bird blind! The bird blind overlooks a cluster of bird feeders along Wildflower Brook and is the perfect place to view birds and other wildlife up close.

These excited campers look out from inside the bird blind. The blind was conceived by Joe Sebastiani and built by our ‘Dream Team’. Photo by Joe Sebastiani

These excited campers look out from inside the bird blind. The blind was conceived by Joe Sebastiani and built by our ‘Dream Team’. Photo by Joe Sebastiani

As long as you sit quietly you can watch dozens of birds come to the feeders, bathe in the brook, or just hang out in the trees nearby, and since they are so close you don’t even need binoculars. This makes blinds an excellent way to get children interested in nature since even youngsters can enjoy watching the birds going back and forth. Having said that, just a basic pair of binoculars lets you see a lot more details of the different birds like their beak shapes and feather colors so try borrowing a pair from the visitor center if you don’t have your own. Blinds are also excellent opportunities for photographers as the nearness of the birds means you don’t need an expensive camera with a super-zoom lens – all you need is patience! If you’re lucky you may also see a Red Squirrel visiting from the nearby hemlocks or perhaps a cute little Eastern Chipmunk, both of which are uncommon mammals in the Piedmont. Imagine how memorable it would be this winter to watch a Red Squirrel searching for food in the snow while you’re sheltered inside the blind!

A Purple Finch occupies every port of this popular feeder! Photo by Hank Davis

A Purple Finch occupies every port of this popular feeder!
Photo by Hank Davis

The blind looks out over several types of feeders stocked with different seed mixes and suet cakes which each attract different species of birds. This variety adds a fascinating insight into how different birds feed – some birds like House Finches and Goldfinches perch happily at the feeders and chomp away until they are done while others like Chickadees and Tufted Titmice zoom in and grab one seed before carrying it away to a nearby tree and hammering it open. Woodpeckers and Nuthatches have a remarkable ability to hang upside down on suet cake cages and peck away at the contents while bigger birds like Blue Jays can’t perch very well and prefer to grab whole nuts from table-top feeders.

This Carolina Chickadee feeds on a hanging-dish type feeder. Check out its leg – it’s banded! Photo by Hank Davis

This Carolina Chickadee feeds on a hanging-dish type feeder. Check out its leg – it’s banded!
Photo by Hank Davis

Visiting Ashland’s bird blind will inspire you to buy your own bird feeder or give one to somebody else (they make great Christmas presents for anyone regardless of where they live in the city or countryside). Just hang them from a tree or pole at least a meter from a window (to minimize window strikes) and see which birds you attract. It is probably best to fill them with black oil sunflower seeds since this will attract many birds although some species prefer millet or nyger (thistle). Wild Birds Unlimited in Hockessin is a great local specialty store for bird food and feeders though most supermarkets also sell seed and suet cakes.

This male Downy Woodpecker is hammering away on a suet cake! Photo by Hank Davis

This male Downy Woodpecker is hammering away on a suet cake! Photo by Hank Davis

For me, watching birds at feeders is both entertaining and soothing and a bird blind stocked with several feeders is the sum of human happiness, as well as a relaxing way to connect people of all ages with nature. Next time you have a free hour or so come and hang out at the Ashland bird blind and see what I mean!

By Derek Stoner, Seasonal Program Team Leader

A young Two-toed Sloth nestles on its mother as she hangs upside down in a tree at our lunch stop. Photo by trip participant Rod Ellingsworth.

A young Two-toed Sloth nestles on its mother as she hangs upside down in a tree at our lunch stop. Photo by trip participant Rod Ellingsworth.

The Delaware Nature Society led a trip to Costa Rica recently, journeying from coast-to-coast in this verdant Central American country for twelve days in late October and early November of 2015.  The group, led by Derek Stoner and Judy Montgomery, began our adventure in the capital city of San Jose.  Aboard a tour bus with 20 participants, two trip leaders, a tour manager (Jose Saenz of Collette Travel) and our jovial bus driver Juan Carlos, we quickly exited the big city and headed into the wilds.  Here is the first installment in a series of five posts detailing our discoveries…

How often do you get to have lunch with a sloth?  After a delicious meal at Restaurant Ceibo, we turned our attention to the riot of wildlife that surrounded the building.  Right beside our tour bus, four different Two-toed Sloths could be observed in classic sloth-pose:  hanging leisurely upside-down and half-asleep.  A female with a young baby stole the show, as the youngster (showing very pale blonde hair on its head) changed positions on the nursing female.

Blue Jean Frogs, a species of poison dart frog named for its blue legs on a bright red body, clamber around the base of a Kapok (Ceibo) tree. Photo by trip participant Rod Ellingsworth.

Blue Jean Frogs, a type of poison dart frog named for its blue legs on a bright red body, clamber around the base of a Kapok (Ceibo) tree. Photo by trip participant Rod Ellingsworth.

Soon we loaded up in the bus and continued our day’s journey towards to Caribbean coast.  At the end of a dusty, bumpy road we came to the “boat ramp” which consisted of an eroded bank plunging into the crocodile-inhabited waters of the Tortuguero River.  Jumping aboard with our luggage into a 40-foot long, shallow-draft boat, we held onto the sides of the vessel as we rocketed down the narrow channel of the river.

A Basilisk lizard lounges along the Tortuguero River in Costa Rica. Photo by Derek Stoner.

A Basilisk lizard lounges along the Tortuguero River in Costa Rica. Photo by Derek Stoner.

Along the high banks of the river, we spied droopy-eyed Brahma cattle– the type of bovine that thrives in the heat and humidity of the tropics.  Around one bend we came across a large American Crocodile (12+ feet long) hauled out on the sunny sandbar.   Cattle Egrets, Little Blue Herons, Great Egrets, and other wading birds flushed and swirled away as our boat encroached on their zone of comfort.

But the real excitement came when we began spotting the beautiful Basilisks, a species of large golden-green lizard that is most famous for its ability to skip across the water on its hind legs.  The moniker of “Jesus Christ Lizard” is what makes this species most famous, and the question in our minds was:  Would we get to see these amazing reptiles actually walk on water?

Stay tuned for the answer to that question and more highlights from our Costa Rica adventure…

By Matthew Babbitt, Abbott’s Mill Nature Center Manager

Spring is in full bloom here at Abbott’s Mill Nature Center!  Flowers are blooming, bees are buzzing, birds are chirping, frogs are croaking, and fish are biting.  While spring brings plenty of excitement for nature enthusiasts of all passions, there are a few birds that have arrived here at Abbott’s Mill Nature Center that we hold near and dear to our heart.

The first “birds of spring” that arrived were the largest member of the swallow family, Purple Martins. These birds will spend the winter in South America and then migrate all over North America during their mating season. Adult females have a lighter breast than the adult males, and both take part in building nests and feeding young.

Purple Martins taking a break from chasing insects.  Photo by Matt Babbitt.

Purple Martins taking a break from chasing insects. Photo by Matt Babbitt.

Populations that migrate to the Eastern United States are completely dependent on man-made structures, like the ones pictured above, for nesting. Researchers theorize that this is due to conditioning over many generations, as early writings from European settlers note that Native Americans placed whitened gourds near their crops and dwellings to attract Purple Martins in order to take advantage of their voracious appetite for insects.

Not long after the Purple Martins arrived, their cousins and the most common member of the swallow family, Barn Swallows announced their arrival with flashes of glossy blue wings and their chitter-chattery calls. They winter in Central and South America and then make their way back to North America during their mating season. Barn Swallows are also largely dependent on man-made structures to build their nest upon, which they make out of a mixture of mud and grass. In the communities of Tangier and Smith Island, located in the heart of the Chesapeake Bay, watermen and their families affectionately call these birds “Shanty Birds”, due to the multitude of nests that are built each spring under their crab shanties that sit just above the water on pilings.

Later in the year, the Barn Swallows will be raising their families in mud cup nests attached to the barn, mill, or house here at Abbott's Mill.  Photo by Joe Sebastiani

Later in the year, the Barn Swallows will be raising their families in mud cup nests attached to the barn, mill, or house here at Abbott’s Mill. Photo by Joe Sebastiani

Barn Swallows have the deepest forked tail of the swallow family, and you can catch a glimpse the bright white dots that highlight their tail when it is fully fanned out. Their swooping and diving through the air isn’t for naught, as all members of the swallow family are aerial insectivores, meaning they dine solely on flying insects. The adult male has bolder colorings and a darker throat than the adult female, and soon we will be seeing the pale-yellow beaks of their young.

Finally, just this past week we spotted the first pair of Ruby-throated Hummingbirds fluttering about in the native plant demonstration garden just in front of our Visitor Center. The only hummingbird that breeds in the Eastern United States, this short-footed, fast-flapping bird spends its winters in Central America, sometimes crossing the Gulf of Mexico during its migration. Adult males, like the one pictured below, are easily identified by their eye-catching, iridescent throat. All hummingbirds are uniquely adapted to feeding on the nectar of flowers with elongated beaks and wings that flap up to 53 times per second. Not only are they the smallest species of bird known, but they are also the only species that can both fly backwards and hover in place.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird by Derek Stoner.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird by Derek Stoner.

If you have a hummingbird feeder at home, making your own “nectar” is an easy process. Start by combining mixture of 4 parts water to 1 part sugar in a large pot. Bring the mixture to a boil, with occasional stirring to aid the dissolving process, and then let it cool. Don’t add food coloring or honey to your nectar mixture. It may be harmful to them, and all they want is sugar-water.  Clean your feeder once a week with a weak bleach and water solution to prevent and kill mold.  While hummingbirds will also dine on nature’s nectar, keeping your feeder out until their latest migration period, usually late September to early October, will help ensure your viewing pleasure and a final dose of energy for their long flight south. Additionally, research has found that these fascinating birds even remember where you put your feeder from year to year, so make sure to place your feeder in an optimal viewing area for you and your family and mark the spot when you take it down for the winter.