Birds

A Bird Garden that’s Water-efficient
By Nancy Collins

Smart gardeners are realizing that it’s a lot less expensive to work with nature than against it; such as by messing it up with lots of artificial fertilizer, synthetic soil additives, and huge amounts of water. It’s a great way to attract birds too!

A case-in-point is what’s called a “dry garden”. Any home with a sometimes-muddy place in the yard should have one.

A dry garden is neither “dry” nor a “garden” in the traditional sense. It can be any size, almost any shape, and will attract birds like crazy. It’s basically a ditch or hole in the ground (at a low place, so water runs into it). Most of the hole is filled with gravel. The top of the dry garden, however, is highly organic, native topsoil. Decorative rocks are often added too.

Birds are attracted to it because it stays moist and cool when compared to “normal” ground. It won’t be muddy, however, because the water (usually from a gutter or downspout) goes down into the gravel and is slowly absorbed into the natural groundwater. You can plant almost anything in the dry garden, just so it helps birds by either providing food or shelter.


bird_on_treeWinter Roosts for Birds
by Nancy Collins

Which birds seek roosts in bad weather?
Answer: Any bird that wants to stay alive.

In rainy, windy or cold weather, and at night, birds seek the shelter of roosts. Even birds that are usually territorial. When natural roosts aren’t around, birds will roost under your house’s eaves, in a brushpile you’ve built, or in a man-made roost box. It doesn’t need to be fancy. Here in Texas, where it doesn’t get terribly cold, a birdhouse can serve as a roost box, just so it doesn’t face north. It’s not uncommon to have a dozen or more birds crammed together in a roost, sharing body heat. Many birds do this sort of thing but there are a few species (ducks, bobwhite, owls etc.) that don’t.

In addition to putting up roost boxes and building brushpiles, consider planting some evergreens around your yard too (in north Texas, wax myrtle, yaupon holly, burford holly, Mary Nell holly and juniper are good). Without a safe, dry, cozy roost for winter shelter, a bird probably won’t make it to Spring.


CedarWaxwing2Winter Bird Alert
by Nancy Collins

Well-mannered, berry-feasting gluttons

If you’ve ever witnessed a feeding frenzy of Cedar Waxwings, you know exactly what we’re talking about.

Cedar Waxwings are in north Texas all winter; arriving in late fall and not leaving until very late in the spring – when the berries up north are ripening. When they eat berries, they EAT! A large flock (perhaps a hundred or more) will perch on nearby branches. No fussing or squabbling as with most other birds. They’ll politely pass a berry along – from one to another – until one of them decides to eat it. Eventually they all get full, and without a fuss, leave. The shrub or tree they were feasting on, however, has not a single berry left.

The 7-or 8-inch bird has a very dapper appearance, with a crest sort of like a Cardinal, The back and wings are varying degrees of tan, and the underside is yellowish. The tip of the tail is bright yellow, as if it were dipped in dye. The most distinguishing mark, however, is the black band or “mask” at the eyes.

CedarWaxwing1Cedar Waxwings rarely eat seeds, so I often specify these plants in my north Texas designs to attract them: Juniper, Mexican Plum, Agarita, Beautyberry, Roughleaf Dogwood and various kinds of Holly. Like most birds, they also like to clean their food, and bathe, in a shallow birdbath.



“Urban” Birds
By Nancy Collins

Facts about the “urban birds” you see every day

Birds are everywhere in north Texas. They may not always be the prettiest, best-behaved species. After all, different kinds of birds prefer different environments, which explains what are often called “urban birds” in environments of concrete, exhaust fumes, loud noises and garbage.

Grackles
Actually, there are three species of grackles; but they all look pretty much the same, and they don’t care what you call them. About 20 years ago, Denton had no Grackles. They gradually expanded their range northward from the gulf coast, adapting well to living in built-up urban areas as the natural vegetation was covered by development.

Since Grackles are bigger than most other birds, they tend to frighten songbirds away. They aren’t very picky about what they eat (stale fries, garbage etc.), so they fit right in to an urban environment.

Pigeons
What we call pigeons are closely related to Mourning Doves. They’re correctly called “rock pigeons” or “rock doves” and are a major food source for city-dwelling hawks and falcons. According to fossil records their ancestors have been on earth about 310,000 years, and were domesticated about 5000 years go. The species was brought to this continent, for some unknown reason, by European settlers in the early 1600s.

Their close relatives, White-winged Doves and Eurasian Collared Doves, are also adept at fitting into the urban environment. Until a few years ago, they were never seen in north Texas.

Starlings
Like Kudzu vine and Dutch Elm disease, Starlings didn’t appear naturally in this hemisphere. An eccentric Shakespeare enthusiast released about 100 Starlings in New York in the 1890s. He thought it was a clever idea to bring to the “New World” every species mentioned in Shakespeare’s writings. Now we have over 200 million of them.

In Europe, from whence they came, Starlings are actually decreasing in number.

House sparrows
House sparrows aren’t really sparrows. What we call a house sparrow is really a weaver-finch, and was imported from England in 1850, to combat a plague of insects in Brooklyn. Galveston also imported some in 1860. By 1880, they were everywhere in the city, and their nests had clogged up that city’s water system.

North Texas hosts several species of true sparrows (Chipping Sparrow, Fox Sparrow, White-throated Sparrow etc.) which are actually quite attractive, and all migrate northward for the summer.

Cowbirds
This bird is being slandered for adapting too well. Instead of building its own nest and nurturing its own nestlings, Cowbirds lay eggs in nests of other species, who incubate and raise them unknowingly.

Why? For centuries they followed nomadic herds of buffalo (they attracted lots of insects) since that’s where the food was. They simply couldn’t stay in one place (like on a nest) for very long, so they adapted.

“blackbirds” & Crows
In normal usage, any bird that’s mostly black and somewhat aggressive is a “blackbird”. Often a large flock of “blackbirds” may occupy a single roost, and wear out their welcome rapidly with the noise and droppings. Actually such a flock may contain three or four kinds of birds with one dominant species; mostly Grackles or mostly Cowbirds. But there may be some Red-winged Blackbirds, Brewer’s Blackbirds or Bob-o-links mixed in. They’re all “icterids” and they’re “birds of a feather”.

There may be a number of Crows too, although they aren’t technically icterids. (We’ve reached the point where you don’t really care, haven’t we?)

Vultures
The vulture (most numerous here is the Turkey Vulture) has an awful reputation, but it’s one of my favorite birds since they soar so gracefully on their 6-foot wingspans. Old movies incorrectly refer to them as buzzards. Vultures clearly fill an ecological niche as they search for “less-than-fresh” food.

Hundreds of them roost overnight on a cell tower where Mayhill Rd., State School and Colorado come together. If you’re lucky enough to see one up close, check out the featherless head and neck. It’s evolved that way so it doesn’t get ”food” on itself that can harbor bugs or weigh it down.


A Bird Garden that’s Water-efficient
By Nancy Collins

Smart gardeners are realizing that it’s a lot less expensive to work with nature than against it; such as by messing it up with lots of artificial fertilizer, synthetic soil additives, and huge amounts of water. It’s a great way to attract birds too!

A case-in-point is what’s called a “dry garden”. Any home with a sometimes-muddy place in the yard should have one.

A dry garden is neither “dry” nor a “garden” in the traditional sense. It can be any size, almost any shape, and will attract birds like crazy. It’s basically a ditch or hole in the ground (at a low place, so water runs into it). Most of the hole is filled with gravel. The top of the dry garden, however, is highly organic, native topsoil. Decorative rocks are often added too.

Birds are attracted to it because it stays moist and cool when compared to “normal” ground. It won’t be muddy, however, because the water (usually from a gutter or downspout) goes down into the gravel and is slowly absorbed into the natural groundwater. You can plant almost anything in the dry garden, just so it helps birds by either providing food or shelter.


The Saga of the Brush Pile (and the birds)
By Nancy Collins & Owen Yost

A few years ago, trying to rediscover our youth, we spent all of a rather long day wielding pruning shears and saws. No shrub or tree in the entire yard was safe. Needless to say, we left a trail of dead branches and assorted cuttings behind as we let things “fall where they may”. We’d read all sorts of stuff about the evils of adding prunings to the landfill, and the sensibility of recycling green things on-site. So we just hauled the brush to an out-of-the-way corner of our yard, hoping somehow they would compost rapidly and magically turn into garden soil.
They didn’t. Instead we had a 5-foot tall pile of brush that is now totally brown. (It’s now 6 feet tall).

It wasn’t going to disappear, so we thought of a “controlled burn”. After all, it was all dead, dry wood and would burn away to nothing. It would work, if only open fires didn’t create pollution, and weren’t illegal in Denton.

About then, I saw a rabbit poke its head of the brush pile, and duck back in when he (she?) saw me. Then, being quite still for several minutes, I saw half a dozen mockingbirds (or did I see one mockingbird six times?) fly into the brush pile with beaksfull of who-knows-what. A noisy little wren guarded a home there too. There were probably lots of other little birds and rabbits in there as well.

No way could we burn the brush pile.

Since then we’ve seen phoebes, chickadees, juncos and several birds I didn’t recognize go into, or leave, the brush pile. Once a roadrunner sat on top of it for a few hours, probably hunting down lizards.

The brush pile (actually, what’s inside it) is now something to be proud of. If we had it to do over again, we might contain it more decoratively, but certainly wouldn’t get rid of it. Every yard should have one, if only to provide a mini bird-sanctuary. Here’s how:

A brushpile is, basically, just a pile of woody branches. Ideally, the first foot or so should be made of woody branches 3 to 6” in diameter, criss-crossed to leave lots of empty spaces. Above this, pile woody trimmings randomly leaving plenty of nooks and crannies for birds to find. It works best if you exclude small stuff like leaves and grass clippings.


Uncommonly Interesting
By Claire Curry

The word “common” is not terribly inspiring. It brings to mind abundant hordes and annoying swarms, or something everyday like grass or grackles. Let’s consider the ever-present Common Grackle. They are truly very pretty birds, if you stop to look at them, with metallic purple heads and bronze metallic coloring on their bodies. It’s hilarious to watch the males puff up their feathers and screech out otherworldly noises to impress the females. They are extremely adaptable and have managed to thrive with the ever-expanding human presence.

There are many birds and other creatures graced (or cursed) by this pedestrian adjective. Some are named for their perceived abundance, to distinguish them from supposedly less-common relatives, or for widespread ranges. All, like the Common Grackle, are more unique than the name implies!

Common Nighthawks are indeed common, here in Wise County . They are named for their widespread range. A summertime resident in our area, the nighthawk eats a variety of flying insects including beetles, grasshoppers, moths, flies, and mosquitoes. They usually nest on gravelly open ground, hiding two very-camouflaged eggs. The young are cute fuzzballs that can fly after about three weeks. Bullbat is a colloquial name for these insect-eaters, which are related to Chuck-will’s-widows and our next bird, the Common Poorwill.

Unlike the Common Nighthawk, Common Poorwills are not common in Wise County . I’ve never heard one here, but they are said to be common to uncommon summer residents in more western parts of Texas (and have been recorded here). According to Lives of North American Birds by Kenn Kaufman, this was the first bird known to enter a state of torpor in cold weather. It can remain torpid, with lowered body temperature, heartbeat, and breathing rate, for days to weeks during periods of bad weather and low food availability.

The Common Yellowthroat is quite a looker. Males are boldly colored with a sharp black mask bordered by white, a brilliant yellow throat, and shades of green and yellow on the rest of the body. Females lack the mask and have more subdued green and yellow coloration. These charming little warblers come through Wise County during spring and fall migration.

Now for some bugs. The widely distributed Common Green Darner is a common dragonfly in our area. They are big fellows and will eat anything from other dragonflies (including other darners) to mosquitoes to butterflies to wasps. According to John C. Abbott’s Dragonflies and Damselflies of Texas and the South-Central United States, they are one of the few North American dragonflies that migrate.

The Common Buckeye is an abundant but delightful butterfly that frequents our area. The adults are quite beautiful, with black-and-blue eyespots and orange stripes on their rich brown wings. The caterpillars, whose diet includes plantain, snapdragon, loosestrife, and toadflax, are spiny black and white with yellow and orange markings. There’s nothing common about this lovely lep’s appearance!

Our uncommonly interesting birds and insects are not as ordinary as their names might imply. Ignore their names and check them out, because you never know what delights nature will send your way!


Many Ways to Build a Nest
by Claire Curry

A hummingbird nest is many things.  It’s the spot where the mother hummingbird is tied to for over a month; it is home for her growing young hummers; it is a natural wonder that cradles the tiny eggs but stretches as the young grow; and quite often it is that bump on a branch that looks so commonplace you may pass it by without a second glance.

I found my first hummingbird nest only when I heard the female hummer fly away.  I looked up and saw a suspicious lump on the oak branch above my head.  I used a mirror to look in it and found two tiny eggs.  We enjoyed watching the young hummers grow from the almost naked hatching state to fully-feathered fledglings.

The hummingbird nest was an intricate marvel, made with plant fluff bound together by spiderwebs and flecked with lichen on the outside.  The spiderweb binding allowed the nest to expand as the young grew larger.  Many other bird nests are not so elaborate, but still serve their purpose.

A Killdeer nest is made in a minimalist style quite unlike that of a hummingbird nest.  It’s usually a scrape in the ground that just provides a depression in which the four eggs rest.  With the nest looking so much like the rest of the ground, the four camouflaged eggs can be nearly impossible to spot.

Many songbirds build the archetypical bird nests we often picture.  Mockingbirds, for example, use sticks to make a cup that is lined with small rootlets and fine grass.  Cardinal nests are similar but are made with more grass and leaves than sticks.  The beautiful Painted Bunting also builds a cup nest, but it is smaller and more tightly woven than a cardinal nest.

Several species of swallows use mud to construct their nests.  Barn Swallows often irritate homeowners by pasting sticky mud on porches for their nests, while Cliff Swallows frequently use bridges and overpasses to shelter and support their pottery-like globes.

Despite all the effort that they put into each nest, many of our common birds simply abandon it forever after they are done raising a brood.  They build a new nest to raise each new brood.  A few will reuse the old nesting material for the new nest.  We have watched Blue-gray Gnatcatchers take apart their original nests and carry the fluff off to parts unknown for a new nest under construction.

Some species do reuse the nest each year.  For example, Red-tailed Hawks are great nest recyclers.  Great Blue Herons, too, will lay their eggs in the previous year’s nest, although they may add more sticks to it.  A few songbirds (including phoebes, robins, and swallows) will sometimes refurbish their old nests for reuse.

Birds have amazingly diverse ways to shelter their eggs and nestlings, varying from massive stick fortresses to undetectable scrapes on the ground.  Keep your eyes peeled for bird nests– nature will always surprise you!


How to Birdwatch in your own backyard
By Nancy Collins

One of the best places to watch birds is your own yard. It can be done in your spare moments of time, takes almost no planning, and can be as productive as an hour or two in the woods.

Focus on common birds
Look for the kinds of birds that are common in your yard. In my yard, I’d look for chickadees, titmice, blue jays and cardinals. I know I’ll see them. Then, if I happen to see something like a Painted Bunting, Brown Thrasher or hummingbird, I really get excited!

Stay still
As I’m sure you know, most birds fly away at the least disturbance. So pick a spot in the shade or behind a window, and wait patiently. Even a glint off a water-bottle can spook a bird. A cell phone ring certainly will.

Dress appropriately
If the birds can possible see you, dress in a muted, earth-tone color. One fellow birdwatcher wears the same color shirt every time – not a bad idea assuming you wash it!

Focus on the edges
Constantly inspect areas like the hedge at the edge of your lot, where tree branches arch over a lawn, and the edge of the shadow of big trees. Birds want to scan a large area without being seen themselves.

Provide varied food
Different bird species like different things, so offer a good variety of food in a variety of feeders. Like peanuts for Blue Jays, safflower for House Finches, black-oil sunflower for cardinals, nectar for hummingbirds and no-melt suet for the woodpeckers. Make sure the food’s fresh! Maybe some corn, too, to keep squirrels busy.

Provide water
Water has a lot of “bird-appeal” anywhere in the U.S. but especially in Texas – where it gets HOT! Water here can mean life or death in a very short time. Since most birds are terrible swimmers, a birdbath should have a depth of no more than 2 inches – any more and many birds will simply go elsewhere. Keep the water clean too!

Remove cats
If a cat is around (no matter how well-mannered he is) birds will leave. If it’s your cat, keep him in the house.

Observe now, look up later
For as long as the bird is in sight, look at the bird, not a reference book. Mentally note things like overall size, bill shape, markings and what it’s eating. Repeat these clues out loud if you can. When he flies away, you have plenty of time to look in your book.

Use binoculars sparingly
I’ve found that binoculars can be a disadvantage when birdwatching in a small area (like your yard). Instead, train your eyes to take in the entire scene, picking up any movement. Once you see a bird, you can go for a closer look with binoculars.

Follow these guidelines and I bet you’ll see birds you’ve never seen before – in the comfort of your own north Texas yard!

The author. NANCY COLLINS is a Master Naturalist, a Denton resident and co-owner of Denton’s Wild Bird Center (www.WildBird.com/Denton ) She is also active in wildlife rehabilitation.


Diverse Ducks
By Claire Curry

After the glorious rain we recently received, my mom and I went birding this weekend on the grasslands. The sun was shining and the temperature was just right—not too chilly. One stop we made was at Unit 68, where Dan’s Pond harbored several ducks. I counted 17 Gadwalls and five Green-winged Teal on the pond.

I am not very familiar with ducks, so identifying them, especially the females, is occasionally a challenge for me. It also doesn’t help that I usually don’t get to spend much time watching them. In wet years it seems like they are spread out over many ponds and hard to find. In dry years there’s no place to find them! I just have trouble with ducks.

However, I am starting to better acquaint myself with ducks. This year I have been going to a small lake almost every day at lunchtime. It’s always covered with waterbirds! Most of the ducks on the lake are Gadwalls, but I usually also see a few tiny Green-winged Teal and the huge-beaked Northern Shovelers near the edges. Lately there have been several elegant Northern Pintails foraging nearby, too. American Coots are as abundant as the Gadwalls at this lake. However, their duck-like habits notwithstanding, coots are in a different family (with rails, gallinules, and moorhens).

All the ducks I mentioned above are commonly called dabbling ducks. They feed by tipping forward or putting their heads into shallow water. Some foods eaten by dabbling ducks include seeds, plant foliage, small fish, and invertebrates such as insects, crustaceans, and mollusks.

Once in a while I see a “bay duck” on the lake, but I think it’s too shallow for them to come often. The ones I have seen there are a Canvasback, a Ring-necked Duck, and one or two Lesser Scaup. The bay ducks, also known as diving ducks, dive for their food in deeper water. Despite their different feeding habits, diving ducks eat similar foods as their dabbling cousins. They will occasionally dabble, too.

Mergansers are another group of ducks. They have slim, sharply serrated beaks that are handy for holding fish. The only merganser I’ve seen in Wise County is the Hooded Merganser, although Common and Red-breasted Mergansers have also been recorded. The male Hooded Merganser is quite dapper with black and white patterning, a large round crest, and rich reddish flanks.

Most of our ducks are winter visitors only. However, Wood Ducks live here year-round and breed in wooded areas. Some people put up large nestboxes for this cavity-nesting species. The Blue-winged Teal is also a potential breeding species here, but mostly only migrates through our area.

So, where do the ducks go in the summer? Many go to the prairie potholes of the Great Plains . These glacially-created wetlands vary from seasonal puddles to larger, more permanent bodies of water, but all are filled with abundant plant and animal life: perfect for raising broods of ducklings.

I’ve been enjoying seeing my daily ducks at the lake. Over the next few months many will head north to raise their young. Hopefully some will come back to visit again. As they journey through our area, keep your eyes out for ducks, coots, and whatever else is swimming among them. You never know what wonders you will find!


Hummingbirds Return Soon!
By Claire Curry

Spring is springing! The trees are greening, a few wildflowers are blooming, and the early spring birds have returned. In the last few weeks we have seen and heard Purple Martin, Barn Swallow, Northern Rough-winged Swallow, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, White-eyed Vireo, and Black-and-white Warbler. In the last two weeks of March and the beginning of April, the hummingbirds should arrive too!

Depending on where you live in the county, you will get either Black-chinned Hummingbird (west), Ruby-throated Hummingbird (east), or both. I live right in the middle and usually get Black-chins all summer, but Ruby-throats also show up during spring and fall migration. Some of my neighbors only a few miles away get Ruby-throats all summer.

Male Black-chinned Hummingbirds are graced with a black chin bordered below by a broad iridescent purple-blue band. Male Ruby-throats have a glittering iridescent red gorget that shimmers from gold and orange to dull red depending on the light. Females of both species are green above and off-white below. Immature birds are similar to females, but may show flecks of adult throat color.

Hummingbird courtship is an exciting affair. Males of our two species do a pendulum display in which they dive up and down in a U shape. The observing female often perches hidden from view. The male will also do an up-close and personal display where he buzzes back and forth rapidly in front of the female. The sound of this display alone is quite impressive. I once heard it and thought an angry wasp was nearby, until I saw the source of the sound.

Males leave the nesting and care of the young to the females and go back to courting other females. The female builds a tiny, well-camouflaged nest made of plant fiber, fluff, and spiderwebs. It is camouflaged with lichens and bits of plant debris and ends up looking remarkably like a bump on the branch.

Two pea-sized white eggs are incubated for about two weeks. Mom feeds the young birds a diet of regurgitated nectar and insects until they fledge at about 20-22 days. As the tiny birds grow from their nearly grub-like hatching state to full-sized hummers, the spiderweb-bound nest stretches to accommodate them.

Adult hummingbirds are best known for their flower-sipping acrobatics, but a large percentage of their diet (perhaps more than half) is minute arthropods. The menu includes thrips, small beetles, mosquitos, gnats, fruit flies, spiders, aphids, ants, and insect eggs. It’s important to allow some bugs in your yard for the hummers to eat.

Hummingbirds seem fearless, attacking anything and everything that gets in their way. Hawks, raccoons, other hummingbirds, people—they all seem fair game for a hummingbird’s oversized wrath. Hummingbirds do have a few predators, though. House cats, frogs, small hawks, spiders, praying mantises, orioles, and flycatchers have all been known to catch hummingbirds.

Keep a close eye on your yard in the next few weeks; I know I will be looking too. You never know which day will bring the first hummingbird of the season!

References:
Baltosser, W. H., and S. M. Russell. Black-chinned Hummingbird (Archilochus alexandri). In The Birds of North America, No. 495 (A. Poole and F. Gill, eds.). Philadelphia, PA: The Birds of North America, Inc., 2000.

Elphick, Chris, John B. Dunning, Jr., and David Allen Sibley, eds. The Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2001.

Kaufman, Kenn. Lives of North American Birds. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1996.

Robinson, T. R., R. R. Sargent, and M. B. Sargent. Ruby-throated Hummingbird (Archilochus colubris). In The Birds of North America, No. 204 (A. Poole and F. Gill, eds.). Washington, D.C.: The Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia, and The American Ornithologists’ Union, 1996.

Terres, John K. The Audubon Society Encyclopedia of North American Birds. Avenel, NJ: Wings Books, 1996.


Black-Bellied Whistling Ducks
By Buddy Cole
Family: Anatidae (Swans,geese,ducks)
Genus & species: Dendrolugna autumnalis
Casual observers would say black-bellied whistling ducks are rare in this area as their normal Texas territory is along the Gulf Coast. Their migration route is to Mexico, Peru and Brazil. But dyed in the feathers birders would say they are just uncommon here as they have been documented, over the years, south of here. These are the first I have ever seen after more than 6 decades of outdoor activity. I was alerted to these by long time friends in rural north Denton County and was able to get close enough for some photos.

This duck is about 20 inches long, give or take an inch or so, has a wingspan of nearly 3 feet and weighs nearly 2 pounds. It’s a little smaller than a mallard. It has a gray head with a dark streak from the crown down the back of the neck, white eye ring, red bill and pink legs and feet. Its breast and back are brown, belly is black as are the trailing edges of wings which have a long, white wing patch. The call is a high pitched whistle.

Whistling ducks were formerly called tree ducks as they do nest in trees but also in boxes and grassy areas on the ground around the waters edge. Up to 16 two inch long white eggs are laid which hatch in about a month with hatchlings leaving the nest within 24 hours. There may be two broods per year. They feed on aquatic plants, seeds and grain. This duck is also unusual because it is nocturnal, coming out of wooded, daytime roosting areas in the afternoon to begin feeding through the night. I photographed these about 5:30 pm on July 24th. The landowners said 2 ducks appeared on July 11th and 2 more joined them about the 24th. As of August 15th they had not been seen since August 4th. This was a rare treat for me.


The Osprey
by Buddy Cole

The Texas winter range of the osprey is usually along the Gulf Coast but they’ve also been on our inland lakes for many years. I usually see them in fall and early winter and again in late winter and early spring.
Their normal spring/summer breeding and nesting range is in the northern U.S. and from Alaska across Canada to Nova Scotia . They are about 2 feet long with a 5 to 6 foot wingspan. The upper body and wings are brown with white underneath. The mostly white head has a dark, mask like stripe around the yellow eyes. It may have a bit of a crest on the back of the head. The dark bill is sharply hooked for tearing food and its claws are curved for sure grasping of prey. In flight the wings have a distinct backward crook at the mid joint and when viewed from underneath there is a dark spot at the joint.

Osprey are mostly fish eaters and are sometimes called fish hawks or fish eagles. They cruise over water at about 75 to 100 feet and when spotting a fish they hover briefly, then dive on folded wings but hit the water feet first grasping the fish. On flapping wings they rise, pausing momentarily to shake off water, and every one I have seen then turns the fish head first in its talons as it heads for a suitable tree or utility pole to start feeding. They apparently turn the fish head first for less wind resistance as they may fly some distance to a perch. The one I have pictured here was about a quarter mile from the waters of Lake Ray Roberts west of the dam.

The nests are fairly large of sticks and limbs high up in trees. In the northern U.S. they may also use man made platforms constructed for their nesting purposes. There are normally two or three eggs which take a month or so to hatch and young leave the nest about two months later. There is one brood per year. Although field guides say they nest in the northern U.S. and fish are their exclusive food, I’ve seen exceptions to both.

Many years ago, at Moss Lake , my partner and I were fishing at the mouth of North Fish Creek on a cold, but sunny winter day when an osprey flew over us carrying a snake in its talons. Alighting on the nest about 75 yards away in a tall dead tree it began to tear the snake and feed the young. We could see the white, fuzzy heads bobbing up and down. Even more amazing, at least to us, the bird came over again later carrying a squirrel! There had been an extended cold spell and even though that day was sunny, but very cold, North Fish Creek was frozen over solid, bank to bank. The cold weather had kept any fish from being near the surface and available to the osprey and desperate for food to feed its young it turned to any food it could gather. Mother Nature does not always do things according to our books. Why in the world would the two of us be out on a lake in very cold weather? Well, haven’t you ever had cabin fever? You can stand just so much of it. Besides you might see something you’ll likely never see again.


hummingbird1 Bird Alert: It’s Time to Put Out Hummingbird Feeders
By Nancy Collins

Hummingbirds have been spotted south of here, on their northward migration. That means it’s time to hang your nectar feeders outside. There aren’t very many birds at first, and the first ones continue moving north, so we recommend that the feeders, initially, be only part full (we fill ours only a third full at first).

About mid-April, the Hummingbirds will start selecting good nesting sites, and staying close. When selecting a good nesting site, a Hummingbird wants good, fresh food nearby, some water, and plenty of small twigs, grasses and lichens for building a nest and raising little ones.

Hummingbirds do not need or want red dye in their nectar – that’s an old fable. Red dye has been proven to cause birth defects in Hummingbirds and (in our heat) it promotes rapid algae growth. Nowadays, most feeders are brightly colored anyway (it’s not just red, any bright color gets their attention).

hummingbird3It’s a good bet Hummingbirds will be looking for feeders when they arrive in Texas. Before they take on the cross-water flight from Central America, one will pork up to a hefty 5 grams – as much as a nickel. The migration of 500 miles takes its toll. On arrival in Texas, it weighs just 2.5 grams – same as a penny. It takes a long time and a lot of nectar to regain a healthy weight.

Now’s the time to start collecting nesting material, too. Set aside pieces of string, yarn and such because birds will want it soon. (Nothing over 3” long though). Save the fur when you groom your dog too – birds love that stuff.


Different types of birdseed attract different birds
By Nancy Collins

Wild birds are finicky eaters. Certain birds prefer certain kinds of food, and avoid others – like humans. So it’s possible to select “who comes to the table” by selecting the seed (or seeds) you offer. Remember that several species only eat insects – they never eat seeds.

Sunflower seed
Sunflower is the most preferred birdseed among north Texas’ birds. Not only is it easy for them to open, but is normally quite nutritious.
Actually there are two kinds of sunflower seeds: Black-oil and Striped. A variation is sold without the seeds’ hulls (which they just drop to the ground anyway), for those who dislike sweeping up decks, balconies, paths and such.
Birds, unlike humans, can instantly tell if a seed is stale or dried out, and will go to someone else’s yard. So avoid any kind of seed that’s been sitting on a shelf or in a warehouse too long. Even if it’s a little cheaper.

Safflower seed

Safflower is a white seed that is disliked by squirrels and Grackles, loved by several species of north Texas songbirds (like House Finch, Titmouse and Cardinal), and is readily eaten by other species if their first choice isn’t available.
It’s not quite as energy-filled as sunflower seeds so may not be a bird’s top pick when they need energy and warmth, like when it’s cold or rainy. I put it in feeders that squirrels are able to reach – one taste and they probably won’t eat there in the future.

Millet
White millet is a very tiny, round seed that, unlike its name, is a beige color. It’s appreciated by almost all ground-feeding birds such as Juncos, true Sparrows and Cardinals. Millet can also attract Robins, Doves, Meadowlarks, Red-winged Blackbirds, Thrashers and Warblers. Birds in north Texas don’t eat red millet.

Thistle, or Nyjer
Nyjer is a small, black seed that’s especially prized by Goldfinches. The best feeders to use for Nyjer permit an even flow of the tiny seeds. They also allow birds to cling to the feeder, which they often do in throngs (Goldfinches are one of the few birds that can eat while upside-down).
Nyjer shouldn’t be confused with prickly thistle, a wild plant birds often use in nestbuilding. It’s also one of the few seeds that won’t last from one year to the next.

Raw nuts
Almost all birds around here go crazy over nuts and nut pieces. Woodpeckers, Titmice and Jays especially. Several kinds of nuts are available such as peanuts, cashews or pieces of pecan. Raw nuts require special feeders which birds tend to remain on for a long time. Nuts are high-energy food, especially good during cold weather, or at breeding time. Try to place a nut feeder where squirrels can’t get to it, for obvious reasons.

Blends
Typically, seed is sold as a blend of several different types of seed. This mimics a bird’s natural diet, and should stem from what the local birds eat (Texas Cardinals, for instance, have different preferences than Ohio’s Cardinals or Georgia’s Cardinals).

Milo, wheat, oats, corn
I hesitate to list these, because north Texas birds hardly ever eat them. These things (and others) are often used as “filler” material by mass marketers to save some money and make the bags heavier. Most birds simply discard this stuff in search of the occasional sunflower seed. A few birds will eat these grains in the wild (off a wheat plant, for instance), but it’s of no value to songbirds after it’s harvested.

Nectar
Nectar is essential to Hummingbirds. It’s best when simulating, as close as possible, the natural nectar of flowers – which means it needs to be well-dissolved, with no food coloring added. Feeders are colorful enough as it is. In the Texas heat, nectar should be changed every few days.

Suet
Suet (a type of animal fat) is often mixed with nuts, seed or berries, and is held in place by a special “cage”. It does a wonderful job of attracting Woodpeckers, Titmice, Jays, Mockingbirds, Flickers, Wrens and Chickadees. A “no-melt” variety of suet will even last on all but the very hottest Texas days, when our birds need its nutritional value the most.

Whatever seed or seeds you offer to the birds, it needs to be unquestionably fresh. To humans it all looks the same; but a wild bird can tell instantly if it’s been sitting on a shelf too long, and will quickly go elsewhere.


Here Come the True Sparrows

By Nancy Collins & Owen Yost

They’re coming! This is the time of year when the true Sparrows fly to north Texas (from Canada ) to spend the winter. Since they’re all mainly ground-feeders, and the ground up north is frozen and snow-covered, they like our relative warmth. And the insects/food they have access to. You’re most likely to see them foraging among “leaf litter” in large flocks. The flocks often include a few other species who tag along. True sparrows don’t mind.

These are the real McCoy (whatever that means). Conversely we’ve all seen what’s usually called sparrows in parking lots, city trees… everywhere. Commonly, they’re house sparrows. They’re not really native sparrows, however. They’re weaver-finches – brought here against their will. ”Passeridae” for the botanic-minded.
White-throated Sparrow, Chipping Sparrow and Lark Sparrow

What’s known as “New World Sparrows” are very attractive, well-behaved little birds. I’ve put pictures of a few here, but there are about a dozen varieties of true sparrows coming to north Texas . One is the Dark-eyed Junco; a type of true sparrow.

Sparrows forage though leaves and other plant debris left on the ground. They’ll scratch and kick through dead leaves uncovering microscopic insects. They also come to platform (tray) feeders with sunflower seeds or a blend containing them.

North America’s true Sparrows are here only in the cooler months, and don’t deserve to be called “just sparrows”. Our delightful little Chipping Sparrows, Lincoln Sparrows, Fox Sparrows, White-throated Sparrows, Harris’ Sparrows, Song Sparrows and such are totally unlike the imported usurper of the name.

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