Tree Swallows

In this blog I often focus on those birds we are likely to see at our backyard feeders, but today I would like to talk about the Tree Swallow. Though by no means uncommon throughout the state of New Jersey, it is unlikely that Tree Swallows will come to your feeders or nest in boxes in dense populated, suburban areas. You might have better luck if you live in a more rural area, especially if you live near a source of still water, such as a small pond or marsh. We usually see Tree Swallows when we visit our favorite marshes in the Meadowlands or the Celery Farms.

Migrating up from Mexico starting in mid-March, the majority of the population has usually arrived by mid-April. You really cannot mistake them for another bird. Their most distinguishing feature, especially from other Swallows, is their vibrant plumage. Their upper feathers are a shiny blue that can seem opalescent in direct sunlight. Their downy white bellies provide a stark contrast to the blue. The female is often duller than her male counterpart, while the juvenile is a gray-brown with a gray breast band around its white belly.

They are about the same size as most songbirds, growing to be between five and six inches. Besides their plumage, you can also recognize them by their pointed wings and notched or forked tails. They have black feet, a small black beak and large black eyes, which almost appear too large for their heads.

You will also know them by their overactive behavior. While Swallows do perch more often than a Hummingbird, they are still a very energetic and active bird, usually swooping and flying in a show of constant activity. There movements are usually accompanied by a series of chirps and chatters directed toward their fellow Tree Swallows. While they do settle on branches or the tops of bird boxes, you will most often see them flying back and forth across open fields or water. They spend most of their time hunting for insects, which make up their entire diet.

Tree Swallows nest in cavities and have really adapted well to bird-boxes, such as bluebird houses. Other man-made cavities they can nest in include PVC pipe houses, sometimes found in marshes. In nature they look for tree cavities and often use abandoned Woodpecker holes. Once they have found their home, Tree Swallows like to line their nests with dropped feathers and they have been known to travel long distances to collect features to pad their nest with.

House Wrens

Regular readers of this blog will probably have realized by now that I am not a bird watcher who focuses on the pretty birds. What I enjoy about bird watching is the challenge of seeing new and different birds. And that often includes common backyard birds that are less likely to hang out at a bird feeder.

Under those circumstances, the House Wren has become one of my favorite birds. Tiny and relatively fast moving, it is difficult to catch a glimpse of a House Wren. Even harder to get a decent photograph. Over time I have begun to shamelessly court the House Wren with special bird houses. I was lucky enough last summer to have a pair of House Wrens settle in one of my bird houses and raise four little ones. You can read about it in my post A Family of Wrens https://tailsofatwitcher.com/2019/08/08/a-family-of-wrens/). But despite these successes, the House Wren is still fairly challenging to capture in photos, making the chase all that much more exhilarating.

At five inches, House wrens are very small. They are also fairly dull and camouflaged being a muted brown with some lighter brown markings, which you will only see if it sits still long enough for you to get a good look. They have rounder bodies, short legs (with disproportionately long toes) and short wings. Besides its small size, its long curved beak and habit of perching with its tail erect are two if its most distinguishing features.

A common summer resident of the whole Garden State, House Wrens usually return from wintering in Mexico around mid-April and you will begin to hear their songs as the males search for mates in May. You can often spot House Wrens foraging for insects to eat among the leaves. Their diet consists of only insects and invertebrates, including snails.

House Wrens prefer to nest in a cavity and have two broods a year, of between four and six tan eggs. The pair are truly a team, with both the male and female incubating and feeding the young. House Wrens are also very territorial and will destroy the nests and eggs of other House Wrens or other birds that are too near their nesting ground. One of the facts I love about House Wrens is that the male will build more than one nest. He then lets his mate choose the nest she prefers and then she helps him to finish up the building. One of the first House Wrens I had the opportunity to observe was making a nest in a neighboring porch ceiling. He was no dummy! He was prepping several nests, but no one ever said they needed to be in different locations. He selected three identical roof beams in a row, and he prepped them all without having to fly all over the place. Once his lady picked her favorite, they used material from the other two partial nests to finish off their renovations.

One of the magical things about the House Wren is its song. So loud and clear and beautiful. According the Cornell Lab All About Birds website, the House Wren’s songs “are a long, jumbled bubbling introduced by abrupt churrs and scolds and made up of 12-16 recognizable syllables.” If you would like to hear one for yourself, you can visit their website and listen to several clips, https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/House_Wren/sounds.

There are several other species of Wren in Eastern North America, including the Carolina Wren which is a common wren in New Jersey. But discussing the similarities and differences of these varieties could be an entire post on its own.

Felt Birdhouse Update

House for rent. Spacious one bedroom, roof recently bloomed. Dragonfly on the roof at no extra cost!

April 1st was a sunny, mild day in New Jersey. As the sun was shining through my window, I decided that the day had finally come to hang my felt birdhouse outside and see:

1. If any birds decided to reside in it

2. Could this seemly delicate wool birdhouse actually hold up to the elements and prove to be a viable bird house option?

Only time will tell! According to the weather forecast, it should have a day or two of dry weather before April’s showers return and the true test begins.

I do sincerely hope that it will last, and not just because I spent over $50 on this thing! It is very cute and it has perked up the yard, just by being there. One interesting thing I did notice already, because the felt is so light, it does sway in the breeze quite a lot. Hopefully that won’t be too much of a deterrent for potential renters. If no one shows any interest in the house by next week, I may relocate it to somewhere a little less exposed to the wind.

I am sure you are all as anxious as I am to see if I have any takers. I will keep you posted on any developments!

Bird Watching in the Days of Social Distance

As so many of us are entering into our fourth week of self quarantine because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the struggle to maintain some sense of normality and sanity continues. As many of us work from home, or try to work from home, and so many others are faced with unemployment during the crisis, it is important that we continue to experience the calming effects of nature and the outdoors. And this we can do right in our own backyards and gardens. Just walking outside your door to do some yard work in the sunshine and fresh air can help to ease some of the tension and anxiety, even if just for a short amount of time. You should think of your yard as your sanctuary. This is especially true now that many of the parks in northern New Jersey have been closed to the public. Those of us who are used to traveling to the birds must now be content with seeing only those birds that come to visit us.

March did not come in like a lion this year, but it demonstrated variable and unpredictable tendencies that fluctuated between lion and lamb all month. Thus far April seems to be more accepting that spring has arrived. In our house we know that spring has arrived when we start to be awoken daily by the hammering of a Woodpecker on the outside of our house. I am not sure if it is the same Woodpecker every year, or even every morning, but our vinyl cedar shake shading seems to really have a special attraction, which is lacking in the dozens of trees in a 3 yard radius.

Watching the feeders right now is like a reunion. All our summer favorites have returned from their winter abodes and are getting settled back in. And those winter residents that never left us seem to be venturing out a bit more than they do in the winter, taking advantage of the change in the weather to begin bulking up. Even if we cannot see them all, we can most certainly hear them. With so many birds in the neighborhood establishing their territorial boundaries, searching for mates and seeming to be generally happy that the sun is somewhat shining, the neighborhood is alive with bird song.

Just a few days ago I decided to put my finch feeder back out on the post and see if I could attract New Jersey’s state bird, the goldfinch. In less than twenty-four hours I had success. The males were still molting into their bright yellow summer outfits, but they came none the less. I have been very pleased with the variety of birds I have seen this early in April. This includes some less frequent visitors, such as a curious Carolina Wren and a chatty Brown-headed Cowbird. Even one Dark-Eyed Junco is still kicking around. He seemed unconvinced that winter has left for good, but I think he is alone in that thinking.

Besides being as hungry as ever, they also seem to have that nesting bug. Both of my nest boxes are already humming with activity as two pairs of House Sparrows do their part to increase the population.

So try to take a few minutes each day to go outside and take it all in. The world hasn’t ended and life is going to carry on just as it always has. We will be able to get out to our nature preserves and parks soon, so just hang in there and take quarantine one day at a time.

Common Grackles

The Grackle is one of the most beautiful birds you will ever welcome into your yard. The feature that really makes them stunning to watch is their opalescence, a colorful sheen that reflects off of their feathers.

A large black bird, the Common Grackle can be up to 13 inches, making it one of the largest birds to visit your feeder. In keeping with its plumage, the Common Grackle has a black bill, as well as black legs. Its head is actually blue-black and rest of the body is more of a plum-black or bronzed. One of my bird books indicated that bronzed-backed and purple-backed birds are two different subspecies of Common Grackle. No other books make reference to this. I believe that bronzed is the most likely type to be found in New Jersey. The female resembles the male, being only slightly duller in color and slightly smaller in size.

In overall appearance I think that Common Grackles are actually very dinosaur-like. I think it has something to do with their eyes and the slope of their neck to their feet. They remind me of a Velociraptor. Very predatory. Their eyes are another startling feature. Unlike their feathers, their large yellow eyes are unnerving rather than beautiful. Apparently they are not born with yellow eyes. Young Common Grackles start out with brown eyes which grow more yellow as they age.

They have a varied diet that includes insects, seeds, invertebrates, eggs, nestlings, fish, small vertebrates, fruit, grain and nuts. They will gratefully partake at the seed or suet feeder. They also have strong muscles that help them to open their mouths with focus, a tool which they employ to pry open spaces and get at insects and other small prey.

The Common Grackle is present in New Jersey year-round, but is much more common in the summer than the winter. In the winter they are more likely to be found near farmland where they have an easier time finding food. Grackles often flock in large groups that can include up to 75 pairs. Their winter or migration flocks, which often include other species such as starlings and blackbirds, have been known to number in the tens of thousands.

The American Robin

Robins are a very controversial bird in my household. My husband is from the United Kingdom and to him a Robin is a very different bird. The Robin Red Breast of Europe is a much smaller bird than the American Robin, measuring about the same size as a Chickadee. They are tiny and cute and they are the United Kingdom’s unofficial Christmas card bird, much like Cardinals are on many holiday cards in the United States. For more information and images of a European Robin, you can visit: https://www.rspb.org.uk/birds-and-wildlife/wildlife-guides/bird-a-z/robin/

Since we live in America, we will ignore my husband’s protests that this huge, gawky bird ISN’T a “real” Robin, and now focus on the American Robin in all its glory. As Apollo is the bringer of the sun, the Robin is given credit for being the bringer of Spring each year. When you start to see Robins, winter is nearly over. This is particularly funny as in most of the United States at least some of the Robin population doesn’t migrate. Others, particular those living in Canada, do migrate South toward Central America.

The American Robin is actually in the Thrush family. He stands much taller than his European doppelganger, between nine and eleven inches. Robins are commonly seen in parks, forests and backyards, although they are not seed eaters so they will not be attracted to most feeders. Their diet is mostly worms and other invertebrates with some berries or fruit. One of their many well-known poses is to stand still and cock their heads. This cocking of the head is usually attributed to listening for worm vibrations. Actually their eyes are set too far back in their heads and they must turn their heads at a cocked angle to see. They don’t listen for their prey at all.

Some people might disagree, but you can tell the males and females apart. Both have the tell-tale red/orange chest but the male’s chest is much fuller and more vibrant. The male has a gray back and dark gray/black cap on his head. Look for the white around his eye and the streaks of white on his neck. The female is a bit duller all around and her head is lighter gray. Besides their childish behavior, the juveniles are easily distinguished by their speckled chest, usually framed by some orangy feathers around the edge.

Robins usually have two broods, of three to five eggs. These eggs are almost as familiar to us as the Robin itself, a light blue egg sometimes with brown speckles. They are in fact the origin of the color “Robin’s Egg Blue.” Perhaps they and their color are so familiar to us because their hatched remnants can often be found in yards and on porches. In nature Robins typically build their mud and grass lined nests in trees or shrubs. However, they also like porch or roof beams, and exposed foundations, making them a common, if uninvited tenant of human dwellings. This can at times prove difficult as they are very territorial. When protecting their nest they know no fear and have been known to swoop down out of their nests with a single warning cry, not unlike a plane appearing out of the clouds in a WWII movie. My parents had a Robin settle in their porch one summer. After the eggs were laid she (females usually incubate while the males feed the first set of hatchlings) was very touchy. My father is a really early riser, and likes to have his coffee on the porch in the fresh air. That summer, forever marked as the summer of the Robin in my mind, was a summer of early mornings for all of us, as the Robin dive-bombed at my father almost every morning, usually resulting in spilled coffee and a string of obscenities piercing the pure morning stillness. I will give him credit. He let her hatch and raiser her babies before he removed the nest. But you can be sure, no nest of any kind has been allowed in that particular corner since. Any sign of nesting activity and up the ladder he goes.

Feathers

As I spend more time both bird-watching and reflecting on my experiences, I seem to fall further and further down the rabbit hole. There really is so much to learn about our feathered friends. Like what exactly are feathers, and how do they work?

All birds have feathers. The possession of feathers is one of the features that defines an animal as a bird. Feathers make up about 6-9 percent of a birds weight (on average). Birds have a lot of feathers. For example, swans have about 25,000. Plumage refers to a group or assemblage of feathers.

For most birds feathers come out of distinct tracts, like fingernail cuticles or a hair follicle. Feathers are a bit like fingernails or teeth. When they are growing they are alive, but once they are finished forming they are no longer alive. What makes feathers different is that they are not regularly renewing. Rather they are replaced all at once, usually on an annual basis, in a process known as molting. Molting also allows for seasonal coloring to be developed both for breeding and camouflage purposes. Most birds molt after they breed, but before they migrate.

Besides being a key component for flying, feathers also provide a water and sun barrier for birds. They help birds regulate their temperate and protect them from injury. Tail feathers act as rudders in the air, in the water and on the ground. But not all feathers on a bird serve the same function.

The two major types of feathers are contour feathers and down feathers. Contour (flight) feathers usually include all feathers that are visible on an adult birds back, tail and wings. Down (semi plume) feathers are hidden in the underparts of adult birds. Most baby birds are hatched with only down feathers. Other types of feathers that are only present on some birds include powder down and facial bristles, but for the purposes of keeping this simple, I am going to focus on contour and down.

Contour feathers have two parts, a spine or quill and a vane on each side. Each vane is made up of a series of barbs that form at about a 45 degree angle from the spine. The barbs in turn have a series of hooked barbules generating from them more or less perpendicular to them. The barbules for each barb hook together, creating a knit or mess pattern. The barbules can become unhooked, but are easily re-hooked by stroking the feather from bottom to tip. It is this action which we call preening.

Down feathers have a spine as well, and their barbs also project. However, they are almost perpendicular to the spine and the absence of hooks on the barbules helps to create a more fluffy structure. Their major function is insulation. Some contour feathers have barbules without hooks toward the bottom, creating a downy insulation without a full down feather.

Spring Has Sprung and the Babies Have Come!

Spring is a time of rejuvenation, when we think about new growth and new life. In the bird watching calendar, spring ushers in a whirlwind of behavior as birds find a mate, and then frantically prepare a nest for the little ones that are soon to follow. By May every yard, garden and park is alive with the sounds of tiny little chirps and the sights of fuzzy, fluffy young birds venturing out into the world.

It is important to remember that as we enjoy the new arrivals, we must also respect their space and give them room to grow up safely. Some of their parents, particularly the geese, swans and ducks will be sure to let you know what they consider a safe distance with some aggressive hissing and perhaps even a snap of the jaw or slap of the wing if you aren’t careful.

Other parents signal their displeasure by attempting to distract your attention. They will hover near your face and in many cases, actively avoid approaching the nest for fear of giving away its location (as if the hungry cheeps emitting for the birdhouse or nest weren’t evidence enough of its contents). Be sure to back off if you notice the parents hesitant to approach. Those babies are hungry and they can’t eat if their parents are unwilling to go to them.

If you really want to be in on all the action, they do make cameras that can be discretely placed in nest boxes. This piece of tech will allow you to fully enjoy nature without giving the new parents a coronary while they try to keep you away. You can find tons of different cameras online, but here is an article to get you started if you are interested: https://nestwatch.org/learn/all-about-birdhouses/installing-a-nest-box-camera/

Not all baby birds are the same. When I say baby, what I am actually referring to is hatchlings. Hatchlings are young birds, just out of the egg and not yet to the stage where they can be considered juveniles. Some hatchlings, such as those born to Sparrows, Robins, Blue Jays and many song birds are often born with no feathers. Bald and defenseless, their beaks often look much too big for the rest of them! As their feathers develop they can often give the appearance of being wet, their feathers looking slicked down. These hatchlings are also called nestlings, because of their nest-bound state. They are completely dependent on their parents for food.

Other hatchlings, hatch ready to roam. They are born with downy protective feathers which do not often resemble their parents, but do help them as they walk and swim shortly after their debut in the world. The species with hatchlings like this tend to live in more open environments like beaches or lakes. The parents teach them how to find food, rather than bring it to them directly. Ducks, swans, geese, and chickens fall under this category.

Once any of the hatchlings begin to leave the nest, or in the case of the roaming hatchlings, wander away from their parents protection, they have graduated to the next growth stage and are considered a juvenile. It is now that they begin to resemble their parents in coloring, although they don’t always look exactly like their parents overnight, a situation which causes much confusion in the bird identification world. Juvenile birds offer enough material to be the topic of their own dedicated post, so I won’t go into more detail here.

So go out and enjoy all of nature’s newest arrivals, but remember, respect their space so they can grow up to be healthy, beautiful birds.

Additional Sources:

https://www.audubon.org/news/birdist-rule-57-its-summer-watch-out-juveniles

Birds in Iceland

We were fortunate enough to visit Iceland for a few days in 2016. While at the time I was not yet totally immersed in my new hobby of bird watching, we did snap a few bird photos that I thought it would be fun to share. According to our guidebook (The Rough Guide to Iceland 2010), Iceland is home to over three hundred species of birds.

These photos were all taken on our first full day in Iceland, the only time we visited ocean coastline on our visit. We were just north of the airport, on the peninsula visiting the Garðskagi lighthouse. The tide was out, so we decided to walk along the beach. That was were we saw a few of the local feathered inhabitants.

One of the species we saw, sitting among the sea-smoothed pebbles and the seaweed was the Eider or Common Eider. There are four different varieties of Eider, but the Common Eider is the largest, making it the largest duck found in Europe. They can grow to be up to 28 inches long. The birds we saw were all female and some of them had fuzzy new chicks nearby. Fairly dull and brown, I think their most interesting feature is the shape of their bill which Collins Bird Guide refers to as “wedge-shaped.” Eiders or Æðarfugl as they are called in Icelandic, like salt or brackish water were they hunt crustaceans and mollusks.

We also spotted another common coastal bird, the Sanderling. Known to migrate to the arctic for the breeding season, they are not year-round residents of this island nation. When we observed them, they were poking around in the seaweed, looking for something tasty to eat. Eventually they wandered further down the beach.

It was the third species we encountered which made the greatest impression. The Arctic Tern, or Kria as they are known in Iceland were everywhere. According to our guidebook, summer is when “flat, open places around the coast are utilized by colossal numbers of ground-nesting Arctic Terns.” We drove right though one such Tern Colony and I was able to video our slow journey as we waited for each bird to leave the ground.

I know that my visit to Iceland was not nearly as bird-filled as it could have been. It is still one of my my greatest regrets that we did not take a puffin boat tour while we were there. Maybe one day I will have an opportunity to go back. The second time around I would spend more time on the coast and in the countryside.

Besides my Iceland guidebook which I listed earlier, I also referenced Collins Bird Guide: The Most Complete Guide to the Birds of Britain and Europe 2009.

Cedar Waxwings

Cedar Waxwings are one of my favorite birds to spot in the wild. While they are considered common in New Jersey, their movements are considered “erratic.” This is due to their nomadic search for a specific type of food, berries. Because of this wandering existence, it is difficult to predict the Cedar Waxwings’ movements or to find them in the same place more than once. They do summer in Northern New Jersey and can be found in the southern half of the state year-round. They are present in much of the Northern United States year-round.

According to my field guides, late autumn into the winter months is the best time to spot them. The lack of leaves makes a visual easier to accomplish. In the winter they will flock, sometimes as many as 100 together, making it even easier to spot them. That being said, they like to perch on the tops of tall trees, making a close-up view tricky.

While some might claim that the Cedar Waxwings lack conventional beauty, I wouldn’t call them ugly. Distinguished or noble might be the best characteristics to use when describing them. They measure in at about 7 ½ inches, as compared to their larger relation the Bohemian Waxwing who measures 8 ¼ inches. Both the females and males look alike. They are mostly brown-gray in color, with hints of yellow, flashes of white and a black mask on their faces. They have a crest on their head, giving them a silhouette not dissimilar to a Northern Cardinal. But it is the tips of their tails and wings that make them really special. The tips of their tails are a shiny yellow, and the tips of their wings have a similarly shiny red. Earlier observers believed that the tips on their wings looked as if they had been dipped in wax, leading to their common name Waxwing. These waxy wing tips only appear after a few years and some believe they may be used to signal the bird’s age to its fellows.

Cedar Waxwings live in wooded spaces. They usually nest a bit later than most birds, in July and August (at least in New Jersey). They usually have only one brood a year, which consists of 4-6 eggs that are pale blue with markings. The female incubates the eggs, but both the male and female feed their young together.

One key to understanding the Cedar Waxwing is grasping just how dedicated they are to the pursuit of berries. While they do eat insects, and will eat primarily bugs during the spring, Waxwings are really all about the fruit and sweet berries. They begin feeding their young berries after only a few days. One of the ways they display to their mates is by feeding each other berries. Their unswayed berry fixation has given them a reputation for gluttony among bird watchers.