On one of my outings this year, I encountered a Great Blue Heron. Often one sees a heron standing still and regal, elegantly waiting for the moment to strike at an unsuspecting victim in the water at its feet. Not this one. It stood on the edge of the Goffle Brook, opening and closing its mouth. I took my photos, as I usually do, in the heat of the moment and while the constant mouth movements did seem a bit unusual, I didn’t think too much about it until after I got home and took a look at the photos.
Once I had the photos on a computer where I could zoom in, I took a really good look at the Heron’s mouth. And that was when I noticed how weird its tongue looked. Usually we think of tongues like our own, a relatively smooth, flat muscle. Not the Heron’s tongue. While the tip was long and thin, the farther back into the bird’s mouth it went, the more grooved and angled it seemed to become. Besides the angles, it had more than one section that was raised, with curves and edges going in several directions. I found the irregular shape interesting and began to wonder why it was formed in such a way. So I decided to do a little research into why a Heron’s tongue is shaped the way it is.
It turns out that not only do birds have tongues that are very different from those of a human, they actually can have very different types of tongues from other birds. The type of tongue a bird has, just like the type of bill or beak, is directly related to what they eat and how they eat it. Nectar collectors like hummingbirds have tongues that differ from woodpeckers or fish eating birds. This is because birds do not have teeth, and therefore their tongues need to take on extra functions that a human tongue would not. Another big difference from human tongues is that most bird’s tongues are not involved in their vocalization or sound making. However, birds do have taste buds, though far fewer than humans. The exact amount of taste buds differs greatly by bird species.
Many fishing birds have tongues with hooks or spikes to help contain their captured fish. But a Heron’s tongue is different from other fish eating birds, like Cormorants or Pelicans, because it also eats amphibians, reptiles, insects and small mammals. Unlike woodpeckers and other birds with long tongues, Herons’ tongues are attached below the mandible bone and are more limited in the their movement. However, this is to their advantage, as it allows more room in their mouth for them to swallow large items. Herons swallow fish and other food whole, and sometimes they regurgitate up to a dozen fish when they are feeding young. So what they need is a tongue that won’t get in the way. Their tongues are shaped not only to allow fish to be swallowed whole, but also to be turned in the bird’s mouth and eaten head first. So now when I see the pink on the inside of a bird’s mouth, I think I will pay a bit more attention. Bird tongues turned out to be much more complicated and interesting than I expected and they can tell the bird watcher a lot about a species, if you know what to look for.
I have said it before, but I will say it again, juvenile birds are so weird. With both the disheveled appearance of their developing adult plumage and their equally awkward behavior, it is little wonder many people’s first reaction upon seeing a juvenile is to assume the bird is sick.
In my backyard I have become accustom to certain juveniles. House Sparrow juveniles, for example, are almost a constant throughout the summer. However, last summer I received a few visits from a juvenile Northern Cardinal and I must say, seeing it in person made such an impression.
I think part of the shock has to do with my impression of adult Northern Cardinals. An elegant, almost aristocratic bird, the Northern Cardinal never seems to have a feather out of place. Male and female alike seem to treat the feeder and their fellow birds with disinterested disdain.
So perhaps it is the elegance of the adults that created such a strong contrast between them and their gawky juvenile. When it first landed, it made quite an entrance. Instead of a graceful decent, it more or less plopped out of the air. Once on the ground it began to wander. Like most toddlers, its attitude was one of wonder, as it explored everything with great interest and curiosity. Every other bird in the area was of particular interest, no doubt because they might be convinced to feed this pitiful little guy, so he didn’t have to fend for himself.
I say guy, but the sex of my juvenile could not be determined by appearance. Juvenile Northern Cardinals are similar in appearance to a female, but they are a duller brown throughout. The only hints of the Northern Cardinal’s famous red can be seen with some red tinting at the breast and tail. During its first visit it’s plumage looked particularly bedraggled. However, it visited more than once over the course of the summer, so I was able to see the progression from the scruffy youth toward the sophisticated adult. If you think about it, it was looking pretty good, considering that it was born naked except for a few tufts of grayish-brown down.
If you only bird watch in your own backyard you can really miss some of nature’s most interesting creatures. And you don’t really need to go that far to see them. There are so many beautiful birds that live in our neighborhoods, if not directly in our yard. One perfect example is the Common Yellowthroat.
The Common Yellowthroat is found in open fields and marshes, usually near water. Within that range they are highly adaptable. Their choice of habitat is probably greatly affected by their diet of insects, which is also a reason why you won’t see these little guys visiting your feeders.
Fairly small at five inches, they stick to vines, reeds and bushes with heavy vegetation, making them more difficult to spot. They also hop around fairly quickly. According to The Birds of New Jersey, Common Yellowthroats are one of the most common breeding birds in the state, spending their summers here. You couldn’t prove it by me. Another book described them as “secretive,” which I think is an accurate description, and goes a long way to explain my relatively few sightings. I always feel extra pleased when I am able to spot, identify and photograph one of these little guys before he disappears from view. Most advice seems to agree that learning to recognize the call of the Common Yellowthroat is your best approach to more successful spotting. If you would like to hear its “witchety-witchety-witchety song” you can hear some clips here: https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Common_Yellowthroat/sounds
If you can get a clear visual, identification is usually a no-brainer. Their backs are what the field guides describe as an “olive brown,” but what I would refer to as a mustard brown. They have a relatively large patch of bright yellow on their throat and breast, which terminates into a white belly. The male has one feature which distinguishes him very easily from his female counterpart, and most other birds his size, a black mask across his eyes, outlined in white. Imagine the lone ranger in bird form. If you can see a Common Yellowthroat in profile, you will probably notice his thin pointed black beak.
The Common Yellowthroat have a lot of time over the summer to hop around in the bushes looking for insects. They spend less than a month caring for their three to five babies, with the female incubating the nest for eleven to twelve days and the pair feeding their young for about ten days. This fairly quick turnover allows the Common Yellowthroat to have two broods each breeding season. That being said, their young remain dependent on their parents longer than is the case with most warblers.
So next time you are on a walk, and you hear a rustle in the reeds, keep an eye out for the masked ranger of the marsh, the Common Yellowthroat!
Baltimore Orioles are one of bird-watching most prized songbirds, beloved for their song and bright, distinctive coloring. Baltimore Orioles are very common throughout New Jersey, though they are less likely to be seen in the Pine Barrens. Besides those birds that decide to reside in the Garden State all summer, the best times to see these beauties is actually in the spring and fall, when their numbers increase with the migration. The earliest sightings are usually mid-April. Typically they have migrated completely by late September, heading south to winter in the much warmer climates provided by Central and South America.
Baltimore Orioles are easy to spot and even easier to identify. As one of the northeast’s only orange birds, they are difficult to confuse with anything else. Both sexes are the same size, growing to be between seven and eight inches. However, it is only in size that the sexes are similar. The male Baltimore Oriole displays his orange coloring on his belly, across his shoulders and the underside of his tail. Though limited to certain areas, the orange appears brighter and more startling because it contrasts so strongly with his black head, back and wings. He has white wing bars and white flashes can be seen on this wings while he is in flight.
The female Baltimore Oriole has more orange plumage than the male, with an orange head. The tint of her orange feathers is slightly duller than her male counterpart, but only just. Only her wings and back are gray-black, or olive with white wing bars. She looks very similar to female Orchard Orioles or Hooded Orioles, but their plumage is more yellow than orange. If you have time to study them beyond the dazzle of their feathers, you will notice that the Baltimore Orioles have dark, penetrating eyes, a pointed gray bill and gray-black legs and feet.
Baltimore Orioles like to live on the edge of deciduous woodlands, and don’t mind being close to human habitation. They choose to build the nests high up in the tallest trees. Their nests are very interesting, being a sock-like sack that dangles down from a branch. They make it by weaving plant fibers together. For images of an Oriole nest being built, visit: https://www.nephotographyguild.com/2016/03/baltimore-oriole-nest/
Once the nest is ready for their four or five blue eggs, the male leaves the female to incubate for twelve to fourteen days. Once the eggs hatch, he returns and they feed the new babies together for the next two weeks. As they grow, the juveniles will take on the plumage of a female, with the males not growing their adult plumage until they are in the second or third year.
A Baltimore Oriole’s diet is widely varied. They eat insects, but also like fruit and nectar. They will come to feeders for fruit, nectar and suet. Jam/jelly feeders is another favorite. They definitely have a sweet tooth. As they grow, the adults will not be shy about bringing their fledglings along to feeders, so as the summer progresses you might have an opportunity to see the whole family.
Today I want to take a little time to focus on a non-feathered inhabitant of New Jersey’s many nature parks, the Painted Turtle. A common northeastern reptile, I encounter Painted Turtles on many of my excursions, as I am sure do most nature lovers. I am very fond of these colorful little guys, with their often grumpy faces and knowing eyes.
The Painted Turtle is one of the most common turtles in North America, being found from the Atlantic to the Pacific. In New Jersey they are most active between April and September. Because of their wide range, there are actually four types of painted turtles: Eastern, Midland, Western, and Southern. Therefore, the turtles that I see here in New Jersey are most likely of the Eastern variety.
As its name implies, the Painted Turtle is very colorful. Its black or dark brown skin is striped with a series of horizontal red and yellow streaks. The stripes reappear on the turtle’s butt. Its similarly dark brown shell is edged in red flashes. All together these markings make the Painted Turtle very recognizable. If you are on the lookout for a Painted Turtle, don’t be looking for anything too big. They typically don’t grow larger than seven inches. Generally the females do grow larger than the males, but not to the degree that you could identify the genders by size alone. Usually, they will not grow beyond the means of their habitat, basing their size on the available food in the area.
Known as a “pond turtle,” Painted Turtles adapt to almost any body of still water. They are commonly found in ponds, marshes, beaver ponds and slow moving streams, however they prefer bodies of water with muddy bottoms and vegetation. The presence of water is key, as they are very active swimmers. Besides swimming, their other favorite activity is basking in the sun. If you approach a pond quietly, you are almost guaranteed to see at least one basking turtle, with its neck and back legs outstretched to their limits, balancing on a rock or log and soaking up the rays. But be ready for the “kerplunk” that inevitably follows. The minute the turtle senses your presence it will pop back into the water for safety.
Breeding season for the Painted Turtle begins in early spring. At that time males can be observed leaving their ponds and habitats and sometimes crossing a lot of terrain, in search of a female. Once they have mated, the female nests between May and June. She will typically build her nest within a few yards of the body of water she calls home, but some females have been known to travel greater distances to find the ideal nesting area.
Painted Turtles can lay anywhere between two and eight eggs, however five or six is typical. Once laid, the eggs will incubate for up to eighty days, usually hatching in late summer. The hatchlings, who look like miniature adults, will remain in the nest until the following spring. And who would blame them? It is a dangerous world for a little turtle. Painted Turtle nests are commonly raided by skunks, raccoons, foxes, snakes and other small mammals that eat the eggs. Once hatched, the juveniles are still in danger. They have been known to be eaten by large fish, snapping turtles, herons, crows and raccoons. Humans also cause some casualties both with vehicles and lawn mowers.
The young Painted Turtle’s best strategy for survival is to get bigger, and those that survive the early days do just that. While adult Painted Turtles are omnivores and eat a combination of meat and vegetation, the young Painted Turtles’ diet is a concentration of meat protein. With the nutrients present in the meat, they are able to double in size in their first year out of the nest. Once they grow larger, their diet will become more varied. Adult turtles eat beetles and other bugs/insects, algae and small fish. If they survive their first few years, Painted Turtles can be in for a long life. They have been known to live between twenty and forty years in the wild. They reach sexual maturity and begin breeding around ten years old.
Found throughout the state of New Jersey in great numbers, it is little wonder that the American Goldfinch was officially declared the New Jersey state bird on June 27, 1935. Not only are they found around the state, many of the Goldfinch stay around all winter. However, in northern New Jersey we usually only see them in spring and summer as many of the state’s population migrate further south with the cold weather, in search of larger sources of food. At one time the population was noticed to decline as the House Sparrow population increased, but today the numbers have stabilized and the species is not considered under threat.
At five inches, the American Goldfinch is an inch smaller than most sparrows. But what it lacks in size, it makes up for in color. We all know this iconic bright yellow bird. The male has a black patch at the front of his head, as well as black wings and a tail. The wings have small bars of white, and a small patch of white is sometimes visible on its belly, right where the tail connects to its body. The female is just duller in color all around. The classic example of bird species where the vibrant male plumage is in contrast with a female of mellower coloring. The female’s yellow is just duller, almost grayer than her male counterpart. The black and white of her wings is also a bit more drab and she lacks the black on her head.
The male American Goldfinch does experience one of natures more drastic molts. After the conclusion of the mating season, the males lose their bright luster and appear much more muted, almost indistinguishable from the females. He does not even retain his black forehead plumage. His transformation in early spring, back into the brighter version of himself can sometimes seem even more extreme. During this process the males often look ill or strange, with patches or tufts of white scattered among the brighter yellow feathers.
The American Goldfinch eat a wide variety of seeds, as well as some berries, flowers and the occasional insect. They will visit seed feeders, but if you want to be sure that they find you, you can fill a feeder with exclusively Nyjer seeds. Nyjer attracts finches the same way that catnip calls to cats. It really works. Nyjer seeds come from the African yellow daisy, and they are so appealing to the finches because of their high oil content. Unfortunately, the Nyjer seeds are more expensive than the average backyard bird mix.
If you do succeed to attract New Jersey’s mascot to your feeders, be prepared for some of the most wimpy behavior you have ever seen. Goldfinch are not just flighty or shy, they are the most hesitant bird I have even seen. Often coming to my yard in groups of three to seven, they will slowly hop from branch to lower branch, calling to each other in their high-pitched squeaks. I swear the squeaks have a questioning inflection. “Is it safe?” “Is it safe?” They leap frog their way down the trees until the group finally convinces one bird (often a female, which I find interesting) to go the distance and land on the feeder. Once the guinea pig passes the test, the others will tentatively make their way over, often one at a time. But the slightest motion from an observer, or another bird, and they are all off like a shot, back up to the top of the tree, to start the process all over again.
If you are looking for the American Goldfinch beyond your own backyard, you can frequently find them in fields with high grass and weeds. They are also fond of open woodland. Gardens with lots of sunflower type plants are another good spot to look. Outside of the breeding season, they can be found in groups of up to twenty.
The American Goldfinch is known to be late to nest, waiting until late August or sometimes even in early September before they nest. The females usually build their cup-shaped nest in the fork of a tree branch and, like the hummingbird, they use spider silk and caterpillar webbing on the outside of the nest as binding. Due to their late start, the American Goldfinch only have one brood. Each brood consists of between four to six blue eggs, which the female incubates. The male will return to the nest periodically to feed her, but she sometimes has to call him and beg for him to return. Once the eggs hatch, the male assists with the feeding of the young. From year to year they will select different mates and are not monogamous.
The name Rose-Breasted Grosbeak doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue. But it is fairly logical. Grosbeak, a name applied to a group of birds, refers to their larger, seed crushing bill. The Rose-Breasted refers to the red patch that can be seen on the chest of the males.
The Rose-Breasted Grosbeak is a very common resident of northern New Jersey in the summers. I have never seen a Rose-Breasted Grosbeak in New Jersey myself, probably because they are much less common in urban and populated areas. But I have been lucky enough to observe them regularly in New York. If you are looking for them in New Jersey, they begin to arrive in late April, with the population peaking by the middle of May. They can be seen throughout the southern portion of the state as they start to migrate south in September.
Seven or eight inches in size, making it just a bit smaller than a Cardinal, the male Rose-Breasted Grosbeak is a black and white bird with a red patch on his throat and upper chest. His head, back and wings are black, with white stripes on his wings being the only exception. Most of his belly, below his rosy red patch, is white, with small black speckles. The female Rose-Breasted Grosbeak only resembles her mate in size. Being mostly brown and white with a white stripe along her eyes. With only a quick glance, the female Rose-Breasted Grosbeak can be misidentified as a sparrow, some varieties of female finches or sometimes a female Red-Winged Blackbird.
The Rose-Breasted Grosbeak likes open deciduous forests, but whether in the forest or your own backyard, you might easily mistake the Rose-Breasted Grosbeak’s whistling song with that of an American Robin. Both the males and the females sing, but the males are louder and easier to hear. You can hear for yourself at: https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Rose-breasted_Grosbeak/sounds The male is known to sing while he incubates the nest, as well as using his song to attract a mate and call to his fellow Grosbeaks.
The Rose-Breasted Grosbeaks nest in a cup style nest, built of loose twigs, which they build together. Each breeding season they have either one or two broods of 3-5 eggs. Their eggs are blue-green with brown markings, another similarity to the American Robin. The pair incubate and feed their young together, the female only leaving the first nest and fledgelings to the male if they plan to have a second brood.
While their “Grosbeaks” allow them to crush seeds, the Rose-Breasted Grosbeaks have a varied diet. They eat fruit and insects, as well as seeds. They have even been known to eat flowers. They glean from the ground and by hover, but the females are more likely to hover searching for food than their mates. And they will happily visit feeders, with very little sign of shyness or hesitation.
I thought I would dedicate today’s post to woodpeckers. I do not intend to focus on just one species of woodpeckers, but actually look at how to differentiate common in New Jersey woodpeckers from one another. According to Birds of New Jersey: A Field Guide, there are six woodpecker species that are commonly found in the State of New Jersey: the Red-Headed Woodpecker, the Red-Bellied Woodpecker, the Pileated Woodpecker, the Hairy Woodpecker, the Downy Woodpecker and the Northern Flicker. I would add the Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker, a common winter resident of New Jersey. These are the seven woodpeckers that you are most likely to encounter in New Jersey.
I am not saying that you will never see another species of woodpecker in the state. As with any bird species, there are anomalies due to weather conditions, wind currents, etc. which take a bird from its normal pattern. There have been isolated sightings of uncommon woodpeckers within New Jersey, including a Red-Cockaded Woodpecker, sighted in Hoboken around 1860 and an American Three-Toed Woodpecker, seen in West Englewood in 1918. Indeed, there have been sixteen sightings of the Black-Backed Woodpecker in New Jersey, occurring in various counties, north and south. Although, it must be pointed out that several of those sightings were of the same bird, by different observers.
I must start my descriptions by clarifying that I have not seen all seven of these woodpeckers personally. I have never seen a Pileated Woodpecker. Therefore with this species, I will rely on my trusty field guides. The key distinguishing feature of the Pileated Woodpecker is its size. They measure about sixteen or seventeen inches, making them not just New Jersey’s, but also North America’s largest woodpecker. The only other woodpecker to come close is the Northern Flicker, measuring between twelve and thirteen inches. For comparison, most of the other woodpeckers discussed in this post measure about nine inches. The physical appearance of the Pileated Woodpecker is also distinct. Most of their bodies are black, with white and red markings on their head. The red is very prominent, creating a bright crest across the top of the bird’s head. The crest also gives the Pileated Woodpecker’s head a triangular appearance. Despite their size, the Pileated Woodpecker is relatively shy and tends to choose habitats that include large woodlands, which may be why I have never encountered one in the flesh. In New Jersey they tend to concentrate in the northern part of the state, especially toward the west and along the border with Pennsylvania. Being such a large bird, their presence in trees is much more obvious than some of their fellow woodpeckers, as they make very large oval holes in which to nest. To get a look at the Pileated Woodpecker, I suggest you visit: https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Pileated_Woodpecker/id
The Red-Headed Woodpecker is probably the closest in appearance to the Pileated Woodpecker, but that really is not saying much. The similarity arises because the Red-Headed Woodpecker also has a mostly black back. However, the Red- Headed Woodpecker is both much smaller, measuring about nine inches, but he also has a round head, without even the hint of a crest. The Red-Headed Woodpecker also is not nearly as black as the Pileated Woodpecker. Despite his black wings, his snow white belly and wing tips are very prominent. Of course, as you can probably guess from its name, the Red-Headed Woodpecker’s most distinct feature is its completely red head. It almost appears as if someone dipped its head in paint up to the neck. The Red-Headed Woodpecker’s bill is not as good at excavating holes in trees as its fellow woodpeckers, so it is more likely to be found in dead or decaying branches. If it can, it will sometimes just take over the abandoned nest of one of its fellow woodpeckers. Because if the need for decaying trees, the Red-Headed Woodpecker tends to be seen on the edges of forest or in more open woodland than the Pileated Woodpecker. The Red-Headed Woodpecker is another bird I haven’t seen many of. The pictures included here are of Red-Headed Woodpeckers I spotted in Maryland, as I have never been lucky enough to see any in New Jersey, despite their presence. For better photos you can visit: https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Red-headed_Woodpecker/id
In my opinion the Red-Bellied Woodpecker is most often confused with the Red-Headed Woodpecker because it too has a red head. Unlike the Red-Headed Woodpecker, the red of the Red-Bellied Woodpecker is not nearly as prominent. Imagine a mohawk or mullet and you will start to get the idea. The red plumage starts at the forehead and goes across the top of the head, between the eyes, and terminates at the back of the neck. The shade of red is also different. It is a brighter, lighter red, as compared to the almost blood red shade found on the Red-Headed Woodpecker. Another difference, which I think is easily the most identifiable feature of the Red-Bellied Woodpecker, is the pattern of black and white on its wings. While other woodpeckers have spots or speckles, the Red-Bellied Woodpecker has what can only be described as zigzags or stripes. One guide calls it “Zebra-backed.” When its wings are at rest, the white sections of their plumage connect to form lines rather than a random pattern. In person it is quite dazzling. The one thing that you will probably not notice about the Red-Bellied Woodpecker is his “red” belly. I think the people who give birds their common names were reaching a bit with this one! The Red-Bellied Woodpecker has a stripe of colored feathers in the middle of its belly, which can be seen against the rest of its white belly if you look very closely. More tan than red, it sometimes has a tinge of rust color to it. The Red-Bellied Woodpecker is common throughout woodland habitats and can be seen in New Jersey year-round. Not only is it a resident bird, but the Red-Bellied Woodpecker will often return to the same tree year after year, creating a new nest hole below the nest from the previous year. Not great news for the tree, but a nice way to keep track of a particular breeding pair.
Hairy Woodpeckers (above), and Downy Woodpeckers (below) represent the hardest two woodpeckers to distinguish, from each other. They both appear almost identical, especially at a quick glance. Both have black wings, with white splotches and a white stripe down the middle. Their bellies, also white, are often very fluffy or downy looking. Their heads, like several other woodpeckers, have stripes of white and black. The largest bands of black being across their eyes, and over the top of the their heads, from their beak to the nape of their necks. The males of both species sport a small, bright red patch on the back of their heads. So how does one tell these two apart? The honest answer is that sometimes it is very difficult to do so. Looking back at photos for this article, I sometimes struggled to distinguish between them. It is even more difficult as the Hairy Woodpeckers send their smaller fledglings out into the world, who are sometimes about the same size as an adult Downy Woodpecker.
But there are a few characteristics that you might be able to use, if the bird will sit still long enough, or if you have a photograph to examine. The first, and most obvious is their size. The Hairy Woodpecker is similar in size to many of the other woodpeckers discussed in this post, usually measuring about nine inches. The adult Downy Woodpecker is more petite, growing to about six inches, about the same size as a House Sparrow. The Downy Woodpecker also has black spots along the side of its tail, something the Hairy Woodpecker does not have. The beak of the Hairy Woodpecker is also longer than that of the Downy Woodpecker.
As I mentioned above, I am including the Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker because it is commonly found throughout the state during the winter months. Arguably the winter is the best time of year to look for woodpeckers, when the leaves are off the trees and visibility in the forest is much better. The Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker has many features similar to one or the other of its fellow woodpeckers, however the combination of all of these features makes its appearance rather unique. Smaller than the Pileated Woodpecker, it shares the red crest. On closer inspection, the red crest of the Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker is not as long as that of the Pileated. Besides the crest, their faces are very similar with a mix of black and white lines running across the face from the beak to the back of the head. But at the neck, the similarities to the Pileated Woodpecker end. The back and wings are much more like those of the Hairy or Downy Woodpeckers, black with speckles of white. Here too there is some slight differences. The Hairy and Downy Woodpeckers both have black wings with distinct white splotches, well defined. Almost as it someone had taken a paintbrush, pressed down and then lifted the brush straight off its back. The Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker’s back is much more mixed and blurred. More like someone ran a white dry-brush over the top of its black back. The reverse effect seems to be the case for its belly, mostly white, but for a smudging of black. A resident of deciduous forests, the Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker can be found in New Jersey roughly between October and April. You need to keep your eyes peeled for them though, they are fairly quiet and often manage to avoid detection. The few photos I am sharing here are of the only Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker that I have ever seen, spotted in early spring on one of the wooded trails at Garret Mountain Reservation.
The Northern Flicker is probably most different from all other woodpeckers. Some field guides do not even group the Northern Flicker with the other woodpeckers. The second largest of the woodpeckers who call New Jersey home, the Northern Flicker is colored very differently from it fellows. A brown or dark tan body contrasts with the white and black of the others. The Northern Flicker has both round, black spots on its belly and black splotches (irregular in shape) on its back. The black splotches on the wings form a dizzying pattern similar to that found on the Red-Bellied Woodpecker’s wings. There is also a black section on the bird’s breast, almost like a necklace. The Northern Flicker’s head and face are fairly plain, having some gray on the top of its head, a small splash of red at the nape of the neck and, in the case of the males, a black, triangular “mustache” on either cheek. However, appearances are not the only way that one can easily distinguish the Northern Flicker from other woodpeckers. The Northern Flicker is also the only woodpecker that can be seen feeding from the ground regularly. This is because the Northern Flicker likes to eat ants and beetles, rather than the insects more commonly found in trees. So they spend a lot of time wandering slowly on their feet, along the ground searching for ant holes.
While I have been spending all this time trying to point out the differences between these woodpeckers, they do have a lot of obvious similarities. Most of these woodpeckers, with the exception of the Northern Flicker and probably the Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker, will visit a suet feeder. Downy, Hairy and Red-Bellied Woodpeckers are all commonly seen at my feeders. In fact, I have had a Red-Bellied Woodpecker get into my seed feeders as well on several occasions. While they may differ on which bugs and insects they prefer, they all have long barbed tongues, which help them to get into tiny spaces and pull out insects. They also all nest in tree cavities, of varying sizes. So next time you hear that distinct “knock, knock, knock” of a woodpecker on a tree, take a look up and try to see if you can figure out which kind of woodpecker is making all the racket!
What is it about hummingbirds that fascinates us? And by us I don’t just mean bird lovers and bird watchers, I mean the population at large. Everyone with more than a square foot of outside space is trying to lure hummingbirds to their little patch of green. You don’t have to look hard to see the bright red plastic feeders, usually full of their red nectar. Perhaps the great attraction of the hummingbird is that they are indeed so elusive. Even when they do come to one’s feeder, they are there and gone in a flash, and unlike Speedy Gonzales, they don’t leave a trail of dust in their wake. We are just left wondering if we did actually see that flash of movement, or did we imagine it?
But not everyone has to wonder. My parents have had a lot of luck with hummingbirds up on the southeastern edge of Lake Ontario. They have been feeding them for almost ten years. They have armies of hummingbirds come to their feeders, easily fifteen to twenty different birds through the course of the day. And to be honest, they didn’t have instant success. There were a few years of persistence before they got to where they are now. The hummingbirds frequent their feeders. Often there is more than one bird at a time. They also sit, and sip for extended periods of time. Sometimes they just sit to hangout. One of their regulars, a male who has been dubbed “Chubby” just sits on the pole above the feeder, checking out who else is around. My mother actually bought him a swing. Honest, there is someone out there marketing swings specifically for hummingbirds. I have a sneaking suspicion this may be the same company that decided trees need faces. Chubby doesn’t actually use the swing. I think he thinks hummingbird swings are silly too.
Despite how easy my parents make it look, attracting hummingbirds is very hard work. Timing is key. Getting the feeder outside by mid-May when the birds are returning from the south is the best way to attract them. Location of your feeder is also important, not just for attracting the birds, but also for helping to keep them healthy. Putting their sugar water in the sun can greatly shorten its longevity, and drinking bad sugar water/nectar can really harm the little guys. But who are these elusive, tiny little birds? Lets take a closer look at the Ruby-Throated Hummingbird.
The Ruby-Throated Hummingbird is one of the smallest birds in the world. It usually measures between three to three and a half inches and weighs only about two or three grams (that is 0.105822 ounces). Despite their small size, or perhaps because of it, they flap their wings (at least) between fifty and sixty times per second. Their hearts beat 1,260 times a minute and they breathe 250 times a minute. It is their amazing wing speed that allows them to not only hover, but navigate directly up, down and backwards. With all that movement, it is hard to imagine a hummingbird stationary. It seems we always think of them in some partially-blurred fashion. But they do sit down.
When they are stationary, you will be better able to appreciate their bright green backs. The green, which has a bluish or aqua tint in some lights, is in greatest contract against their white bellies. The female’s belly is often a more pure white than the males, who often have a smoky gray-white coloring to their breasts. The male also differs from the female because he has a dark, almost black patch across his throat that shines bright red in sunlight. Both sexes have a long, needle-like bill, almost perfectly straight. It’s length allows them to access the nectar in many of the tubular flowers that they love so much. Besides eating nectar they also eat insects. They also sometimes snack on the tree sap that is oozes from freshly made woodpecker holes.
Hummingbirds do not sing. But that does not mean that you will not hear one approach. As their name implies, the speed of their wings creates a hum, almost like that of a bee. They also do communicate with each other through a series of chatters, squeaks and often high-pitched chirps. These sounds are most often heard at my parents’ when they are competing for the feeder. They seem highly territorial and possessive, and often spend more time chasing each other away from the feeder than they actually send eating out of it.
It is the female hummingbird who is responsible for caring for the young. She builds a cup-shaped nest, consisting of plant down on the inside and lichen on the outside (for camouflage). Everything is held together using spider webs. It is in this nest that the female will lay two white and unmarked eggs, about half an inch in size. Then the female incubates the eggs for about two weeks. Once they hatch she proceeds to feed them on her own as well. Each female will have up to two broods a season. Females have been known to return to the same nest over multiple seasons, choosing to clean up and add to an existing nest, rather than starting over from scratch.
Toward the end of August, Ruby-Throated Hummingbirds begin to migrate. They spend their winters in to the southern states, Mexico and Central America, many flying over the Gulf of Mexico to reach their destination. Interestingly, the sexes migrate separately, the males heading south first and returning to the north first, usually around mid-May. So keep an eye out for the Ruby-Throated Hummingbird, they should be arriving right around now.
When you sit in your backyard watching the bird feeders as regularly as I do, occasionally you get lucky and see something really out of the ordinary. I had one such a sighting on a June afternoon. I was reading my book in the yard, keeping an eye on the feeders and my camera on my lap, just in case. I noticed that I had a Carolina Wren on my feeder. While I have had House Wrens and Carolina Wrens in my yard before (just last summer a pair of House Wrens occupied one of my birdhouses) they are still a rare enough visitor to illicit a little extra excitement from me. So I was happily snapping away for quite a while. Long enough to realize that it wasn’t one Carolina Wren visiting my seed feeders, but a pair. They seemed to be visiting the feeder, stocking up and flying off. To feed a baby I assumed, which is a safe guess regarding that type of behavior in June. After a while I thought about the situation in more detail. Wrens had been in my yard before, but never visited the feeder because…suddenly it clicked that they only eat insects. They do not eat seeds or feed them to their nestlings. So what the heck were they doing carting off all my seeds?!
At the rate they kept disappearing and reappearing I decided they couldn’t have been going very far. So I decided to investigate. Very slowly I got up from my chair and slowly skirted my way around the bird feeders, making a very large circle so as not to scare and scatter the other birds eating. From my new vantage point I could see that the Carolina Wrens were landing on a low branch in one of the trees that represents the boundary between our yard and the neighbors’. So very, very slowly and making many long pauses along my way, I slowly advanced toward the branch in question.
Once I made it more or less directly under the tree, the whole picture began to take shape. What I found on the branch was a giant fledgling. Well, giant compared to the Carolina Wrens. It was exhibiting typical fledgling behavior, making lot of noise, moving awkwardly and opening its mouth to indicate that it was hungry. While I was trying to determine exactly what this fledgling was and how it fit into the larger mystery of the Carolina Wrens and my birdseed, one of the wrens landed next to this massive baby and began to feed it the seeds. And it all became clear. Well sort of.
After some research I was able to determine that the fledgling I had seen was a young Brown-headed Cowbird. As I mentioned in my post about them, Brown-headed Cowbirds do not incubate or raise their own chicks. Instead they lay their eggs in the nests of other birds in the hopes that some will survive. Many birds recognize the Cowbird eggs as impostors and either remove the eggs from their nest or destroy the eggs. However, still other species, such as the Wrens that feature in this story, keep the Cowbird eggs and treat the chick as their own.
Of course one could choose to look at this tale with cynicism and negativity. Yes, it is awful to think that the Carolina Wrens eggs likely perished and the pairs was left with this huge demanding impostor. Almost an ugly duckling story, if the ugly duckling had been less sad and much more demanding (which, in reality, as a young swan, he probably would have been). And then there is the obvious question…how dumb are wrens that they think this thing could possibly belong to them? Even as a baby he towered over them both. But what really grabbed at me was that they had figured out to feed him what it was he needed to eat. How many other animals would have realized… “honey he really doesn’t seem into the spiders and the grubs, maybe we should try seeds and see what happens?” How did they know? Instinct? Because if it is instinct, that opens an even greater realm of possibilities. If they have the built in instincts to feed the Cowbird babies, perhaps nature gave them the instincts so that the Cowbirds, rejected from so many nests, would find one species of willing foster parents. So while many bird lovers are bemoaning the fact that the Brown-headed Cowbird kills the eggs of so many different songbird species, maybe they should stop and consider that nature does everything for a reason. The Cowbirds are just as necessary as the Carolina Wrens.