Winter Birding Brings Nature to All

Published in the Waitsburg Times, February 6th, 2020.

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Growing up a hunter, my mother and I agreed rarely in our views of humans interacting with our ecosystem, save for our thoughts on habitat conservation and a deep appreciation for nature’s beauty and songbirds. Sitting together by the back-porch door of her Appalachian home, sipping a warm beverage as a light snow falls through the naked deciduous forest, marveling over visitors to her bird feeders is something I have dearly missed since leaving home.

This is a simple example of the power that songbirds have on society as a whole. They may seem common, but are extraordinary in their natural abilities and habits. Equally extraordinary is their ability to bridge the gaps among cultures, ages, and social differences, connecting us with our natural world, inspiring artists, developing ornithologists and arousing wonder in young and old.

Birds represent spiritual and religious symbolism among many nations. They stand at the helm of conservation movements and non-profit organizations. They represent sports teams. Racheal Carson’s incredibly motivating Silent Spring touted the detrimental effects to songbirds from rampant DDT application in the 1950s, swaying her readership to pursue environmental legislation which eventually led to the formation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Songbirds serve as our most common connection to nature and can be admired by anyone, virtually anywhere and at any time, like today, right now, outside your kitchen window or patio door, from a city block or a secluded cabin.

Some of the typical species to the Waitsburg area in winter include the house finch, cedar waxwing, red-winged blackbird, house sparrow, Oregon junco, American robin, brown creeper, red-breasted nuthatch, golden-crowned kinglet, northern flicker, and the list continues. The cedar waxwing is the masked species I enjoy the most as it descends from its montane habitat to overwinter in the foothills and valley floor.

One of the most fascinating aspects of songbirds is their plumage that changes with the seasons. The brilliant spring and summer colors, like the sunflower yellow of the gold finch, are shed for calmer winter plumage suited for survival. Songbirds can tough out incredibly cold temperatures by fluffing up their feathers, creating an insulating layer around their small bodies. Some species grow additional plumage to serve this purpose when molting during late summer or early fall.

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⇑⇑ A sneaky wren grabs a seed from beneath a flock of voracious gold finches as a female cardinal awaits her turn. Photo courtesy of Carolyn Phillips. ⇑⇑

Feeding and metabolic strategies support songbirds through the winter as well. They generally maintain an active body temperature at about 106 degrees Fahrenheit, and may slow their metabolism to reduce body temperature and conserve energy as they sleep. Like other animals, songbirds store fat to fuel their metabolism and insulate their bodies. Some species will store as much as 10 percent of their body mass as fat during winter.

Additionally, songbirds seek strategic roosting areas like natural tree cavities, dense grasses and evergreens or shrubs. While a common practice to remove birdhouses outside of the nesting season, Birds and Blooms recommends leaving them up over winter to provide safe, warm roosting opportunities. Specific roosting houses are available on the retail market as well.

Similar to birdhouses, hanging bird feeders is the most common method of “backyard birding”. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s 2016 census, over 65 million Americans have hung a bird feeder at some point, if not consistently. In winter, high-fat food sources including black oil sunflower, safflower, and suet cakes packed with seeds are what birds seek. But beware of “economy” seed mixes as birds largely discard the filler millet, milo, corn, etcetera, to get at the fattier sunflower seeds.

Would you like to see a specific species frequent your feeder? You may want to consider separating food sources or feeding stations. This will allow species to hone in on their favored items or feeding methods rather than jockey for space at a crowded feeder or avoid the feeder entirely. Additional information on different types of bird feeders and setting up feeding stations can be found online at https://www.fws.gov/birds/bird-enthusiasts/backyard/bird-feeding.php.

What about the birdbath? Having a water source in winter is important to songbirds. This is less critical in our banana-belt area of Washington, but when the temperature dips below freezing, birdbaths are well attended. A wide range of birdbath heaters can be found at Amazon.com. It need not be spendy, just reliable, and they actually make excellent holiday or birthday gifts for the birder in your family.

 

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⇑⇑ Eastern bluebirds flock to the birdbath on a frigid, Virginia afternoon. Photo Courtesy of Carolyn Phillips. ⇑⇑

With the above in mind, feeder and birdbath placement for birding from the comfort of home is important, particularly for photography. Place the feeders where you and the birds can access them easily in all weather. Maintain a good line of sight to the feeder and place it an appropriate distance from the house to provide the desired photo effect (or to ensure that those of us with failing vision can still identify the species). Maybe you have a spot inside to set up a tripod and train the camera to the feeder. This will allow you to capitalize on quick opportunities when that special bird shows up. This can also contribute significantly to photo quality and clarity, as will clean windows.

Songbirds are the tie that binds humans to our natural world, and clearly arouse interest and emotion. The ease of birding at home provides an undeniable opportunity to experience that emotion and wonder from our couch or kitchen table; an especially attractive prospect when the jet stream delivers an arctic blast.

Regardless of how you do it, birding is entertaining, and a great way to knock the edge off of cabin fever. So, are you ready to get your birding on?

SIDEBAR:

Suet cakes can be made at home with a simple Crisco, peanut butter and sunflower seed recipe. Place ingredients in a medium sauce pan and warm. Mix ingredients together, let it cool, shape it in a container or on wax paper. Place in the freezer for 30 minutes to solidify and it’s ready.

  • 1-1/2 cup Crisco
  • 1/2 cup peanut butter
  • 1 cup sunflower seeds.

Palouse Outdoors – The Ebb and Flow

Published in The Waitsburg Times, August 5th 2021

The old cliché phrase “The only thing constant in life is change” was coined by Greek philosopher Heraclitus. This epiphany struck him around 500 B.C. I assume taxes were not a thing at the time, otherwise that little tidbit would likely have been included, as folks like to claim today.

 While Heraclitus was correct, that time is like a flowing river, and you will never step into the same waters twice, there is an ebb and flow to events among the seasons and years – the past approximately 15 months presenting a solid case in point. Coronavirus continues to adapt against human immunity. Extreme heat and drought have struck once again. U.S. Society took another shot at imploding by casting the light off day on racism. Still, life goes on, and these events have calmed slightly.

Life on the homestead may be somewhat sheltered from the bigger picture of society, but notable change remains constant in our little mesocosm. And, because every organism is affected by one another and our environment, this relationship that appears chaotic on the surface works to strike a balance between positive and negative. What that balance looks like and what it means for the future is not always obvious, but tracking changes from year to year is an interesting study, particularly with wildlife – birds, bugs, and blooms being prime examples.

Typically, a handful of rufus hummingbirds visit us each spring and hang around for a week or two until the black chinned hummers swarm in and force them out. This year, however, we only had one rufus drop by and he stayed less than a week. Additionally, we only have a few black chinned hummingbirds, where we typically have more than a dozen. The hatch didn’t seem to go as planned either. Did the smoke and fire last September affect hummingbirds as they migrated south? That could explain fewer birds returning this year.

Continuing with birds, a strange, yet simultaneously familiar cry carried through the alders this spring. A familiar enough sound from the Appalachia of my youth that I didn’t actually give notice until my wife Ali asked if I had heard it – the raspy “mew” of a gray catbird. Catbirds inhabit a large range in the U.S. and southern Canada and are a permanent resident in the eastern hardwoods. Eastern Washington is the western border of their breeding range, and we were lucky enough to have a breeding pair this year.

The gray catbird

What brought the catbirds to our homestead remains a mystery, but likely factors include a combination of thick woody cover and mature trees, green peas being planted around the homestead, and the abundance of yellow grasshoppers that we’ve experienced this year. Broadleaf plants like peas attract insects with their flowers and succulent leaves. Environmental conditions may have been favorable for grasshoppers as well. And what are grasshoppers good for? Bird chicks. Teenage quail and pheasant are beginning to appear in excellent numbers, and the grasshoppers providing forage for rearing broods may have something to do with that this year.

Another exception was the presence of Bullock’s orioles. While one or two orioles always show up on the homestead, they appear transient, offering fleeting glimpses in the yard as they cruise between shrubbery. This year, however, several females remained regularly visible and hatched at least one clutch of chicks. Was it because we have increased berry and fruit-producing plants on the property? Not likely, due to another late April frost wiping out the blossoms from the majority of our fruiting plants. Their presence may tie back to the grasshoppers as an important food source, and the alders towering over the drainage along the property providing nesting habitat.

The Bullock’s oriole – Photo by Kevin Cole

The excitement of increased and varied bird activity was tempered by the extreme June heat. The hottest week of the year coincided with the fledging of many species, taking a toll on fledgling survival. One evening, a sparsely-feathered finch chick struggled to reach a low fork in the crabapple, where it hunkered in the shade behind the trunk. It sat for hours, beak agape, breathing heavily in the 115-degree heat. Many chicks left the nest, helpless to the full sun exposure that week. Nevertheless, a few pulled through and will hopefully return again next year.

Change may be constant and extreme environmental conditions expected on occasion, but when change results in a “new norm”, species – humans included – must adapt and redefine a natural balance. What change did you notice this year? Are we on the forefront of striking a new natural balance with Mother Nature? Only time will tell, but plant flowering records in the Pacific Northwest suggest an earlier bloom trend over the past 100 years. In the meantime, as we adapt to the ebb and flow, I will take a diversity of songbirds warbling around the house as a small consolation.