Birds

All posts tagged Birds

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.

By Lori Athey, Habitat Outreach Coordinator

What are birds eating right now in your backyard habitat?  If you have trees or shrubs in your yard that hold fruit all winter, American Robins, Cedar Waxwings, Eastern Bluebirds, and even European Starlings are probably enjoying whatever fruits that are remaining. 

Winterberry is a native shrub that holds its fruit all winter, or at least until hungry birds eat it.  Eastern Bluebirds, American Robins, and Hermit Thrush are species that will be attracted to this in your landscape.  Photo by Lori Athey.

Winterberry is a native shrub that holds its fruit all winter, or at least until hungry birds eat it. Eastern Bluebirds, American Robins, and Hermit Thrush are species that will be attracted to this in your landscape. Photo by Lori Athey.

If you haven’t yet cut back your asters, coreopsis, and coneflowers, seed-eating birds will be pecking at the old flowerheads and on the ground beneath for fallen seeds.  When there is extended snow-cover, it is especially important for birds to be able to access seeds on old flower-heads above the snow, since they can’t get to the ones on the ground.  American Goldfinches are famous for this type of behavior, but others that can be found doing this in the yard include Dark-eyed Juncos, Field Sparrows, American Tree Sparrows and Pine Siskins.

Standing stalks of seed bearing plants like Purple Coneflower provide food for a number of bird species such as American Goldfinches.  Photo by Lori Athey.

Standing stalks of seed bearing plants like Purple Coneflower provide food for a number of bird species such as American Goldfinches. Photo by Lori Athey.

How do you provide food for birds that do not eat seeds or fruits?  Lately, I have seen birds digging through the fallen leaves in my landscape beds.  Did you know that leaf litter is full of insects, spiders, and other goodies that your birds can eat in winter? In addition, toads, fireflys, some butterflies, and other beneficial insects winter in those leaves.  Often, flocks of American Robin, Common Grackle, Northern Flicker, Carolina Wren, Eastern Towhee and other sparrow species can be seen digging through leaf-litter for protein-packed overwintering insects and spiders.  

Consider leaving leaf litter on your flower beds not only as mulch, but to provide habitat for insects, spiders, crustaceans, snails and other small organisms that birds will seek out.  Photo by Lori Athey.

Consider leaving leaf litter on your flower beds not only as mulch, but to provide habitat for insects, spiders, crustaceans, snails and other small organisms that birds will seek out. Photo by Lori Athey.

So next year, rake those fallen leaves into your landscaped beds for the wildlife. Forget about shredding them –that kills beneficial insects and takes away that nice warm blanket that toads and others crave for their winter rest. Delay cutting back your seed bearing perennials until spring. And yes, add more fruiting shrubs and seeding wildflowers to your landscape next year for the birds too –you can get them all at the Delaware Nature Society Native Plant Sale, May 1-4.

 

Some plants to consider for providing late-winter bird food:

Chokeberry (Aronia species)

American Holly (Ilex opaca)

Winterberry Holly (Ilex verticillata)

Bayberry (Morella species) – Yellow-rumped Warblers love it!

Virginia Rose (Rosa virginiana)

Pines (Pine species) – (Red-breasted Nuthatches seek out pine nuts)

Cone flowers & Black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia species)

Purple Coneflowers (Echinacea purpurea NOT doubles)

Tickseed & Coreopsis (Coreopsis species)

Story and Photos by Joe Sebastiani, Seasonal Programs Team Leader

February can be boring as an outdoor enthusiast.  This year, it is especially true, with winter tightly gripping our region, and at least once a week we get slapped with another winter storm.  After a while, I start to lose enthusiasm for hiking on ice-crusted snow with face-numbing wind chills and frozen fingers and toes.  I can give you something to look forward to this week, however….the Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC).  Starting this Friday, February 14th, and running through Monday, February 17th, the Great Backyard Bird Count wants your bird observations.

Search for wintering ducks like the fish-eating Common Merganser during the GBBC this weekend.  Look for these birds on any body of open water, even small creeks like the Red Clay Creek.

Search for wintering ducks like the fish-eating Common Merganser during the GBBC this weekend. Look for these birds on any body of open water, even small creeks like the Red Clay Creek.

The GBBC is run by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, National Audubon Society, and Bird Studies Canada.  The purpose of the count is to take a snapshot of bird populations around the world during mid-winter when birds are not migrating, during the leanest of times.  You can enter your sightings from anywhere during the 4-day period, whether it is your backyard, a park, wildlife refuge, the middle of a city, or while you are on vacation in Africa.  Anywhere in the world counts.

If you are birding in your yard during the GBBC, you probably will have lots of White-throated Sparrows coming to the feeders.

If you are birding in your yard during the GBBC, you probably will have lots of White-throated Sparrows coming to the feeders.

Participating is fun!  At the minimum, take a look at the birds in your yard, local park, neighborhood, or wherever you are for 15 minutes, and report what you see to the Great Backyard Bird Count website or eBird.  Either way, the data is going to the same place.  Each year, the data is used to track trends in bird populations on a global scale and is one of the biggest citizen science efforts anywhere where YOU provide the data.

Join the Delaware Nature Society on one of our field trips, this Friday February 14 through Monday February 17.  We will search the state of Delaware for as many species as we can find for the GBBC.

Join the Delaware Nature Society on one of our field trips, this Friday February 14 through Monday February 17. We will search the state of Delaware for as many species as we can find for the GBBC.

The GBBC has been running since 1998 and is always held in February for 4 consecutive days.  Last year in Delaware, 134 species were found during the Count.  The year with the highest species count was 2009, with 147 species tallied.  I would like to challenge you to get out at least once this coming Monday through Friday to get out somewhere, or at least look at your feeders from the warmth of your home, identify the birds you see, and report them to the GBBC.  I think we can beat 147 species in Delaware and make a real contribution to science together, resulting in a better understanding of the winter patterns of birds around us, benefiting their conservation.

Beautiful species such as this Swamp Sparrow await your discovery during the GBBC.  Get outside, make some observations, and report them for science, and the conservation of birds.

Beautiful species such as this Swamp Sparrow await your discovery during the GBBC. Get outside, make some observations, and report them for science, and the conservation of birds.

If you would like to join the Delaware Nature Society on guided field trips during the GBBC, we have them every day this Friday through Monday.  Visit the Delaware Nature Society website or call (302) 239-2334 ext. 134 to register.

Friday, February 14:

Abbott’s Mill Nature Center, 8am – noon.  Enjoy a pancake breakfast and exploring around the center, Blair’s Pond, and the Issacs-Greene Preserve.  Leader: Jason Beale.  Member/Non-member: $7/$10

Coverdale Farm Preserve, 8am – 11am.  Enjoy a big, hot breakfast and a walk around Coverdale Farm Preserve.  Leaders: Sheila Vincent, Joe Sebastiani, Derek Stoner, and Jim White.  Member/Non-member: $15/$22.

Saturday, February 15:

Sussex County Tour.  Meet at Ashland Nature Center (7am) or Abbott’s Mill Nature Center (8:30am) and travel by van to birding hotspots in Sussex County.  We will look for Snowy Owls, and visit places such as Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge, Cape Henlopen State Park, and Indian River Inlet in search of sea ducks, marsh birds, gulls, and other winter specialties.  Leaders: Jason Beale and Joe Sebastiani.  If you meet at Ashland – Member/Non-member: $25/$35.  If you meet at Abbott’s – Member/Non-member: $15/$25.

Sunday, February 16:

Kent County Tour.  Meet at Ashland Nature Center at 8am and travel by van to bayshore locations including Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge, Little Creek and Ted Harvey Wildlife Areas.  Leader: Bill Stewart.  Member/Non-member: $20/$30.

Monday, February 17:

New Castle County Tour.  Meet at Ashland Nature Center and travel by van to visit areas along the Delaware River from Fox Point State Park to Delaware City to find raptors, rare gulls, ducks, and marsh birds.  Leader: Derek Stoner.  Member/Non-member: $15/$22.

By Joe Sebastiani, Seasonal Program Team Leader

The birding has been truly fantastic over the last few weeks.  Migrant songbirds like warblers, vireos, thrushes, flycatchers along with more hawks than we have ever seen at Ashland have caused lots of excitement, and sore necks from looking up all the time!  Yesterday I led a morning bird walk at Ashland Nature Center and there were so many birds we barely left the parking lot.  Included in our total of 51 species for the morning, were 12 species of warbler, 3 species of vireo, 6 species of thrush, and others like Red-breasted Nuthatch, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, and Ruby-crowned Kinglet.  If you want to see the full list from yesterday, it can be found at ebird.

Hank Davis got good photos of some of the birds we saw at Ashland yesterday morning. This was a nice, bright Blackburnian Warbler.

At the Ashland Hawk Watch, which is open daily through the end of November, we have had some really exciting days recently.  On September 11th, 2,665 raptors flew over.  On the 16th, 6,305 raptors were tallied, which was our single biggest day at the Hawk Watch ever.  On the 19th, 1,195 raptors were counted.  Most of these hawks are Broad-winged Hawks, which migrate through in huge numbers in September, and it is one of the greatest wildlife spectacles to catch in Delaware.  This is a particularly good year for them here.  Full raptor numbers for Ashland Hawk Watch can be found the Hawkcount site.  Come visit the Hawk Watch soon, and help us scan the skies for hawks!

Bay-breasted Warbler is tough to find and yesterday we found two lurking around the Ashland parking lot. Photo by Hank Davis.

There are a lot of free guided bird walk opportunities with the Delaware Nature Society to catch the phenomenon of migration this fall.  Other than the daily Ashland Hawk Watch, here is a list of what you can do…for free…no registration required!  Of course, if you attend, your membership in the Delaware Nature Society is appreciated.  Directions to most of  these sites can be found at www.delawarenaturesociety.org.  Middle Run Natural Area can be found on Possum Hollow Road just before the Tri-state Bird Rescue.

Sundays: Bucktoe Creek Preserve, Kennett Square, PA.  8am.  Year-round.

Mondays: Bucktoe Creek Preserve, Kennett Square, PA.  8am.  Year-round.

Tuesdays: Middle Run Natural Area, Newark, DE.  8am.  September and October.

Thursdays: Abbott’s Mill Nature Center, Milford, DE.  8am.  Through December 20.

Thursdays: Ashland Nature Center, Hockessin, DE.  8am.  September and October.

Saturdays: Burrows Run Preserve, Hockessin, DE.  8am.  September.

 

Black-throated Green Warbler was one of the more common of the 12 warbler species we saw yesterday morning. Photo by Hank Davis.