The Color Orange in the Bird World

The color orange could never be accused of subtly. A warm color, bright and vivid, orange takes on many cultural associations. The color of road work signs and traffic cones, it promotes visibility and denotes danger. There is a reason prison jumpsuits and hunting camouflage are orange. But it also makes us think of sunny days and sweet fruit. Around this time of year, it also makes us think of pumpkins and Halloween.

Coloring in the bird world is thought to have evolved to both encourage mating and promote survival through camouflage. Females of many species are duller in color to protect them from predators and promote the survival of the species. Along the same lines, the males of many species have developed very bright coloring to attract females to mate with them. Feather colors are created one of two ways, through pigment or light refraction from the physical structure of the feathers. Some multicolored birds have both occurring at the same time.

It is easy to see that orange occurring in the bird world is also about visibility. While we often associate the brightest feathers with exotic habitats, we can still find evidence of orange in our own backyards. The Baltimore Oriole serves as the primary example. While the male is much brighter, both the male and female Baltimore Orioles are primarily orange. Orange may be a color that attracts them to more than just prospective mates, as they are also known to eat oranges and be attracted to orange-colored feeders.

An orange belly is a prominent feature of another backyard regular, the American Robin. Though not as bright a shade of orange as found on the Baltimore Oriole, the rusty-orange of the Robin certainly attracts the eye. Female Robins often have paler bellies than their mates, but both males and females demand attention. The Robin’s rusty belly not only differentiates it from other Thrushes, but is its most distinctive feature.

The Barn Swallow demonstrates still another shade of orange found in plumage. He sports a peachy orange belly, reminiscent of a creamiscle, which contrasts with the darker blue of his back and wings.

Thinking about birds in relation to their color allows for a new perspective. Understanding the purpose of their coloring allows us to appreciate it for more than just aesthetic beauty. Nature has certainly provides us with a wide and varied palette to enjoy.

Additional Sources:

https://www.sciencenewsforstudents.org/blog/eureka-lab/mates-or-survival-which-explains-bird%E2%80%99s-color

Autumn in the Celery Farms

The Autumn is one of my favorite times to visit the Celery Farms. The air is usually crisp, the temperate is usually perfect for a leisurely stroll, and if you hit it just right, the trees around the lake just explode with color.

Taking advantage of a rare weekday off, I headed to the Celery Farms mid-morning and had it more to myself than I usually do. The weather and light couldn’t have been more perfect. I had all the time in the world, so I sat on benches, went up every platform and even made a second loop on the trail.

Waterfowl was the main attraction. There were all kinds of birds taking advantage of the water. Most prominent due to their size, were four Muted Swans, whose pure white was such a stunning contrast to the palette of colors behind them.

Canada Geese and Mallards were present, as they usually are, but with the aid of my telephoto lens I noticed that some of the ducks looked different, and their bills seemed longer. Once I got a good look at the male, I confirmed it, Northern Shovellers. It was really amazing I was able to see them at all, or their fronts at any rate. As soon as they got a breath of air, they were right back in the water, butts in the air. I can tell you, one duck butt looks much like the next.

Another smaller bird was also in the water. Swimming solo, it was so small my camera had trouble focusing on it. The largest challenge to photographing it was that it kept submerging and would pop up somewhere just beyond where I expected it to be. Quite the little swimmer. My photos didn’t come out as clear as I would have liked, but I am fairly certain it was a Pied-Billed Grebe.

Besides the water birds, I was able to spot several others as I made my way around the trail. One Robin even decided to pose for me, changing the position of his head back and forth like a supermodel in front of a lovely Autumn leaf backdrop. A Red-Bellied Woodpecker was likewise inclined.

While sitting on one of the platforms, a very fluffy and slightly frazzled looking Sparrow (Song Sparrow I think) was so intent of getting all the berries on the floor that he came right up by me. I couldn’t even photograph him with my lens, he was too close. We hung out together for quite a while. He wasn’t phased by my presence in the slightest. You could almost hear his inner monologue, “…eat the berries…there’s a berry! Eat the berry…need some more berries…there’s a berry!” as he zigzagged along the platform floor.

Some less common sightings for me on this particular walk were a female Ruby-Crowned Kinglet and a female Magnolia Warbler. I think both the decreased vegetation and my meandering pace helped me spot them, and both birds stayed in place long enough for a few nice shots.

A deer crossed my path as well. It wouldn’t be a day at the Celery Farms, no matter what season, if you didn’t see at least one deer.

A Morning in Cuyahoga Valley National Park

I happen to have a friend who lives in Ohio, which means that I have the pleasure of visiting Cuyahoga Valley National Park once or twice a year. A 47 acre park, Cuyahoga Valley has many lovely nature trails and waterfalls. I have had the opportunity to explore many of them on my various visits. However, my absolute favorite is without a doubt the Towpath trail through the Beaver Marsh. Although I have never seen a beaver here, this spot is always alive with activity. Previously I have visited in the early spring and winter but this year I had the opportunity to check out the Beaver Marsh in the midst of summer.

The Towpath starts off as many do, a large even dirt path, fairly wide. This towpath is a big favorite among bikers and the morning air was filled with the friendly “tink-tink” of bicycle bells, followed by barks of “on your left!” As you would expect, the towpath follows a stream of water on one side, never particularly deep, but it provides a source of flowing fresh water for the animals that live here. Not very far from the Ira Trailhead parking lot is the remnants of a lock. Just a bit further along the Marsh opens up on both sides of a lovely boardwalk and viewing platform. This is where most of the action is.

On this particular visit I was spoiled by nature. I had decided to take an early morning hike before driving back to New Jersey, so I headed out to the park around 9am. It was a beautiful, sunny morning and a refreshing walk seemed like the perfect compliment to a lovely and relaxing weekend with friends. I was pretty content, birds or no birds.

Before I even walked far enough down the trail to see the lock, I noticed a lone female Wood Duck, standing on a log. I was pretty excited because this was the closest Wood Duck I have had the opportunity to photograph, most of them tending to shy away from paths toward more secluded sections of water. I snapped some photos of her standing on her log and continued along my way, even more perky.

Little did I know, Cuyahoga had much more in store for me. I decided to divert from the trail and have a closer look at the lock, which is when I noticed my second great surprise. A Great Blue Heron, perched in a tree. It didn’t seem remotely bothered by my presence but just kept on preening and scratching its head. It seemed particularly itching and I had to wait a while before it settled down for me to get some full body photos.

Next I walked out onto the boardwalk and was dazzled by the purple flowers growing in the marsh. Everything was green and purple. White water lilies with glowing yellow centers dotted the water. The air above the water was buzzing with activity as a colony of Tree Swallows flew overhead, swooping down on unsuspecting insects. A pretty gluttonous Song Sparrow landed on a bush full of berries. It hopped from branch to branch scoffing down the blue-purples spheres with great vigor. The only evidence of his over indulgence was some berry remnants stuck to the outside of his beak. The Marsh viewing area was pretty crowded, so I didn’t hang around too long, hoping to get ahead of the crowd and check the Marsh out on my way back to the car.

As I made my way from the Marsh, the stream went back to a small meandering vein flowing ever so slightly. Another Wood Duck appeared, this one slowing swimming against the meager current. This duck struck me odd. It felt different from the first Wood Duck I had just seen, but it took me a moment to put my finger on it. While the plumage was similar in coloring, the eyes were different. This ducks eyes were blood red. What I had before me was a male Wood Duck showing his non-breeding plumage. Like several other types of ducks, the male Wood Duck molts his green head feathers after he has successfully attracted a mate. Presumably the brown head allows for better camouflage during the rest of the year.

Only a bit further downstream I encountered still more Wood Ducks. This time it was three juveniles hanging out together. They were still a little fuzzy, a telling sign of their age and their overall behavior seemed more hesitant. They swam for a bit before setting on a log together.

After the group of juvenile Wood Ducks the Towpath leaves the stream behind for a bit and is wooded on both sides. The air was punctuated by the calls of Catbirds and Blue Jays, but it was a different kind of wings that attracted me. Several moths and butterflies fluttered around, feeding off the nectar of various plants that grew along the side of the path. An Eastern Tiger Swallowtail was so focused on nectar extraction that it stopped moving its wings long enough for me to get some nice photographs. A rare opportunity as butterflies, like hummingbirds, seem unable to hold themselves still but are just bursting with energy and the need for flight.

Speaking of hummingbirds, I also managed to spot and take a few photographs of the Hummingbird Moth, a fascinating creature. As you might expect, the Hummingbird Moth behaves similarly to the Hummingbird, fluttering its wings to hover in the air over a flower from which it drinks with its extended tongue-like proboscis. There are many varieties of Hummingbird Moths in the United States and it was really great to see one in action up close.

At this point in my walk I turned around and headed back to the boardwalk. As I had hoped, the crowds had all moved on and the space was pretty empty. I settled down along the rail at a good vantage point and scanned the water. Snapping turtles are among the wildlife I have seen here before, and I could hear frogs, so I was trying to notice any and all movement. A pair of Wood Ducks slowly swam among the lily-pads, searching for a nice snack under the leaves. In the relative silence, the buzzing of blue dragonflies created an audible current in the air. One of the dragonflies met a sad end and became dinner for a hungry female Red-winged Blackbird. The water lilies also humming with bees, busy pollinating. The fish were remaining pretty still, trying not to attract any attention as they waited just below the surface. Only their bubbles gave them away. A lone fluffy flycatcher sat on the branch of a dead tree, waiting for the next insect to come within reach.

All too soon my time was up and I need to head back to my car and get on the road. It had been a great morning, so it was only with a tinge of regret that I pulled myself away from the railing and headed back to the towpath. But Cuyahoga Valley had one last surprise. Just beyond the lock and almost back to the parking lot, I noticed a Green Heron, slowly and deliberately making its way through the mud. Shorter than the Great Blue Heron by almost thirty inches, the Green Heron’s size also helps it to blend in more subtly into its habitat. With that final sighting I headed back to my car, already thinking about when my next trip to Ohio would be.

If you are interested to learn more about Beaver Marsh, visit: https://www.nps.gov/cuva/planyourvisit/the-beaver-marsh.htm

Bird Feeders Are Not All Created Equal

Bird feeders are not all created equal. Any squirrel will tell you this. I have been through many, many feeders at this point, but even the better made, better quality feeders will fail eventually. This is especially true for those made of plastic. Any plastic, even good plastic, will eventually perish when exposed to the extreme cold of winter. There are those people who bring their feeders in during the winter. But you are possibly hurting the birds to save a feeder. Summer feeding is much less important to bird survival. They have other sources of food and they can forage more easily. In winter, especially in snow, that is much more difficult. And remember, many fledglings were taught that your feeder was a food source. They will expect that to remain the case through their first winter. If you want to bring your feeders in, start to wean the birds of their dependence in the late summer and early autumn. Fill your feeders less often, or with less seed. If you have multiple feeders, remove one at a time and allow the birds to adjust.

There are a variety of different bird feeders out there, and sometimes it is difficult to know what you want to buy. Seed feeders probably come in the largest variety of both shapes and materials. There are two important things to keep in mind when purchasing a seed feeder. #1 there is no such thing as a feeder that keeps out squirrels. It is definitely true that some feeders are more squirrel resistant than others. But the squirrels have all summer to figure out how to break into your feeders, and you can be sure, no matter how long it takes, one day one lucky squirrel will break the code. #2 the size of the access holes or slits in the feeder, and their corresponding perches are directly related to what birds will be able to use your feeder. Many cylindrical feeders are designed with smaller birds in mind. Larger birds, such as Cardinals, Blue Jays and Grackles, have a difficult time accessing food directly from these feeders They can’t balance and they often can’t get their beaks into the holes. That doesn’t mean they won’t come around. They may glean on the ground below your feeders, eating the seed that falls or they may rock your feeders to spill additional food. There are a variety of different bird feeders out there, and sometimes it is difficult to know what you want to buy.

The holes or slits on seed feeders are a really important consideration all around. Some feeders only have a few openings, while other have many. The question you need to answer before selecting a feeder is, do I want more birds, or do I want to buy bird seed less often? There is really no right or wrong answer. Seed feeders with slits are the most expensive as seeds can easily be spilled or knocked. The summer I used a slit feeder, I filled it only about half as much as I filled my other feeders, simply because it was so often empty merely hours after I filled it.

Materials used to make seed feeders is another large consideration. They can be found in wood, various grades of plastic and metal. Often a feeder will have a combination of materials. I have remained on the cheaper end of the spectrum, often buying “good” plastic feeders and I have been fairly happy. I have also used several feeders that have come free with my bird poles, most of which have been totally crap. One was so flimsy I put it up in the morning, had to throw it out when I got home from work…totally ripped to shreds by the squirrels. I was honestly not surprised in the least. So thicker plastic is better. But it is important to keep in mind that hard plastic also runs the risk of cracking if it falls to the ground (squirrel or high wind), especially after a season of two of weathering has made it more brittle.

Besides my many plastic feeders, I did inherit a lovely wooden feeder, which remains my favorite. However, I have stopped using this feeder because its weight (especially when holding a whole squirrel) was having a very negative effect on my feeder pole, bending it down and tipping it to one side. In a sturdy tree I have no doubt I would have fared better. The large ledge on this feeder was both a positive attribute and a negative. The larger birds really loved this feeder, but the ledge also made life much easier for squirrels and chipmunks to not only get at the seed, but to sit on the ledge and eat themselves silly. I went through a lot more seed when I used this feeder, and that, along with the damage to the bird pole, is why I retired it to my basement.

I have also had the opportunity to watch several metal feeders in action. Most metal seed feeders have a cylindrical, chicken wire style body, with a series of rectangular or triangular openings. They usually have a ledge at their base and the top usually unscrews to allow filling. These types are really popular among both the smaller birds (sparrows, finches, chickadees) and woodpeckers, nuthatches, cardinals etc. The larger tree climbing birds, such as the woodpeckers and nuthatches are really able to hook into the holes, balance and peck, similar to their natural stance on a tree. One major drawback with metal is weather exposure. If you have a very windy rain storm your seed will get wet. As wet seed can grow mold and potentially make birds sick, I always try to dump out my feeders after a very wet storm, so that the seeds don’t have time to mold and harm the birds.

I think, considering all the pros and cons, metal feeders are really the way to go. They withstand the elements better. They are less likely to be damaged from falls. They are no more difficult to fill than other feeders. They represent the best balance of durability and lightweight. Some manufacturers try to add metal components to plastic feeders, which sometimes serves to make them stronger, but I still think all metal is the best move.

Before we can completely move away from the topic of seed feeders, we must also consider finch feeders. Like the popular girls at school, everyone wants to catch the attention of finches to their gardens. And because the finches are so special, they get their own special seeds and their own designated feeders. This is because nyjer seeds, the finch food of choice, are much thinner than most other bird seeds. They tend to slip out of normal feeders. As a result finch feeders have most of the same qualities as all other seed feeders, with the exception that they all have much smaller holes. If you aren’t sure you can attract finches, you might want to start with a finch sock. Inexpensively found where most bird feeders are sold, the “socks” are thin cloth bags with very small vent holes. They are usually refillable, with a drawstring top. While they are very inexpensive, I have found they do not withstand the elements. Especially if you do attract a lot of finches, expect to replace your sock once or even twice a season (at least). Being such thin material, they are very easily torn. Once you have a hole, you are done, because those thin nyjer seeds just spill out and the finches rarely, if ever, will go looking on the ground. If you decide to graduate from a sock to a more substantial feeder, you will find a variety of metal and plastic finch feeders, all identified specifically as finch feeders due to those smaller openings. Like with all seed feeders, if you want longevity, go with metal.

In comparison to seed feeders, suet feeders are pretty straightforward. Yes there is occasionally a fancy wood and metal suet feeder available, but the basic square metal hinged cage seems to serve just fine. I have inherited several since I started feeding birds and I haven’t needed to throw any away due to damages. The biggest area of concern is where the two halves close. A lack or loss of tension and the suet feeder will pop open easily. Suet feeders are also relatively inexpensive compared to other feeders, so no real worries there. I highly recommend that everyone consider having a suet feeder. The suet is a bit gross at first, but you soon get used to it and you will find they attract a greater variety of birds. Larger birds like suet and can use suet feeders. With a suet feeder I have attracted woodpeckers, red-winged blackbirds, grackles, cardinals and catbirds. I have also seen Baltimore Orieles, nuthatches and other birds drawn to them. Weather is the big drawback with suet. A rainy day and your suet dissolves. I have started checking the weather for the next few days before refilling my suet. Sometimes manufacturers will combine seed feeders with suet feeders, which is a nice way to save space. My wooden seed feeder was a combination feeder and I saw no disadvantages. The birds weren’t bothered by each other, and sometimes they would switch from suet to seed or seed to suet depending on what other birds came to the feeder.

Not unlike finch feeders, hummingbird feeders and Oriole nectar feeders are a bit more specialized. While Oriole feeders tend to hold more nectar and be larger, with larger perches, they are in essence very similar. They are usually a bottle like shape on top with the perch base usually doubling as a threaded lid, when flipped upside down. When right-side up, the base has holes where the birds can reach in to drink the nectar. Depending on the quality of the feeder’s plastic (they are pretty much all plastic) cracks or damage to the thread or seams are your major concern. You will have a sticky mess! Nectar food, often dyed red with food coloring, can be easily made at home with boiled water and sugar. It is important to know that if your feeder is not frequented by a lot of birds (my parents probably have 50-70 hummingbird’s perch in their feeders daily) you need to dump out the nectar every few days, regardless of how much has been consumed. This is particularly true if the nectar is in direct sunlight. Old nectar can harm or even kill hummingbirds. If you are having trouble with ants (or uncles) getting into your nectar, you can buy a smooth ceramic, bell-shaped attachment which goes between your hook and the string of the feeder. Apparently the ants can’t get purchase on the surface, so they cannot crawl down to the feeder.

I have saved jam feeders for last because they are my new favorite. Jam is a favorite among Orioles, and we have also discovered some Catbirds are also big fans. The feeders follow the same basic design as a nectar feeder, upside down jar or holder, with a threaded base that doubles as the lid. Potentially very sticky, but also a lot of fun. The one my parents have has a build in arm which scrapes the jam off the sides of the feeder so that it will drop down for the birds to more easily access.

There are a lot of feeder types out there, and this article is really only just scratching the surface. I have not discussed meal-worm or orange feeders because I don’t personally have much experience with either. My general advice is to test things out before you buy an expensive feeder of any kind. Observe what the birds like, what they seem hesitant of etc. Then you can make more expensive purchases with insider knowledge. The last thing you want to do is buy an expensive feeder the birds don’t like. Another aspect of feeder shopping to consider is that unfortunately a lot of stores seem to be under the impression that there is a feeder season. Yes places like Home Depot, Lowes, and Walmart sell feeders year round, but they often get a greater supply in the spring. So if you are looking to replace a feeder in the winter, there are often slim pickings. If you know what you want, you might be better off online, but I like to look at the feeders in person.

Female Northern Cardinals

I know that I have already written about Northern Cardinals, but I feel that the female Cardinal deserves some special attention. As I mentioned in an earlier post, because of the bright red color of the male Northern Cardinal, the females are often overlooked. But they are really just as interesting to watch and, in my opinion, their subtle hints of red are more striking than the bold display presented by their male counterpart.

The female Cardinal is the same size as the male, 8 ¾ -9 inches. She is a golden brown color with some red highlights on her tail, wings, crest and above her eye. She has a red beak, the same as her male counterpart and she has the same black mask on her face, though usually her mask is smaller and more subtle.

What I love most about the female Cardinals that visit my yard is their sassy attitude. They are just as likely to be aggressive with other birds as a male Cardinal, and there is nothing timid or passive about these ladies. Cardinals are usually one of the larger birds at my feeders and the females have no problem throwing their weight around if need be.

The female Cardinals I have been watching seem more adventurous than the males. The female Cardinals are often balancing on the feeders designed for smaller birds, and figuring out how to perch. Sometimes it takes a few tries, but they usually figure out a good, if awkward, way to balance. The males, either don’t have the patience or maybe have a bit more weight to them making this less likely.

Cardinal couples are monogamous for at least one breeding season, sometimes more. Bird monogamy, and the cheating therein, probably deserves a whole post of its own, and we won’t go into the genetics discussion right now. In one season they will have usually two or three broods. Once the first group have hatched, the male feeds and cares for them while the female goes off to lay and incubate the next clutch.

Charleston

I took a trip to Charleston, South Carolina with my mother late one February. If you like history, you cannot pick a better place to visit. We had a wonderful, warm time. It was just the break we needed.

Due to a basic economy ticket with intense baggage restrictions, I had decided not to travel with my then almost brand new telephoto lens. I had a few moments to regret it, but I have no doubt someday I will find myself back there, camera at the ready.

Of course, just because I wasn’t ready for a photo shoot, doesn’t mean that all the animals stayed away. We spent the day at Fort Sumter, which requires a boat trip that starts at the mouth of the Cooper River and proceeds out into the harbor. The water is brackish and somewhat tidal, so dolphins are very common, as are Seagulls, Cormorants and other waterfowl.

For me, the Brown Pelicans stole the show completely. They are common, at least part of the year, on both coasts of the United States. But I don’t believe I had ever seen one in the wild before this trip. Between 48 and 51 inches, they are so strange and somewhat awkward looking as they stand or float. Yet when they fly, it is with an unexpected grace, sleek and agile.

For me, the dive was the best part of all. There is this large bird, gliding through the air with ease, getting closer to the water with every second and then kurplunk! Forget about grace now. The splash of the biggest belly float you have ever done erupts from the water. Seconds later a pelican pops up and floats along the water’s surface, like a buoy, bobbing in the waves. Totally unphased.

While I was watching the pelicans from a distance, I never dreamed that I would shortly have the opportunity to see one closer up. Following our boat trip, we had decided to meander down the boardwalk in Waterfront Park. They have a pineapple shaped fountain there which my mother was particularly keen to see. The park did offer a lovely vantage from which to gaze out into the harbor.

As we were looking out over the harbor, we noticed the reeds on the water’s edge were moving. There seemed to be a lot of commotion. We stopped to watch, and finally made out the shape of a Pelican, half hopping, half walking through the reeds. It continued toward us at its rambling pace. We halted our walk and leaned on the railing, wondering just how close it would get. Its movements seemed really odd, and for a while we were concerned it was injured or tangled in line or rope. Finally it emerged from the reeds at a close distance, and we got a good look at it. Not injured at all, we were looking at a juvenile Brown Pelican, unsteady and unsure about the world. It [we decided it was a she and named her Frances] rested for a while in the reeds near the boardwalk, close enough for us to get some decent photos with our point and shoot cameras.

I hope one day to have the opportunity to observe Brown Pelicans more closely, perhaps with a longer lens. However, Frances will always be my favorite Pelican.