Sunday, December 25, 2011

Breakfast with Mrs. Claus

Everybody loves breakfast at a diner, so no one is surprised when Mrs. Claus drops in with a basket of candy canes to give away. It's Christmas Eve morning and the place is packed so my friend Debbie and I gladly share a booth with Mrs. Claus and her friend. She has an appointment to greet the passengers when the train arrives at the Kirkwood Station in an hour.

After eggs sunny-side-up with rye bread toast, we and I head down the block to the recycling center. Debbie does more about recycling than anyone I know. Her back seat was loaded with clean food and beverage cups. All these go into the styrofoam recycling container—the first available in St. Louis County. The next recycling bin accepts strings of Christmas lights

Kirkwood's recycling center is named after local leader and photographer Francis Scheidegger, an early proponent of lightening the load of trash on the planet. For half a century, Scheidegger's studio was just up the stairs from our breakfast stop.

Other posts about Kirkwood, Missouri:
Whooo's Awake? Me Too!
When Animals Attack--Plastic


Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Christmas Bird Counts on TV

I had a chance to talk about Christmas Bird Counts on local TV today. Dan Zarlenga, of Missouri Department of Conservation, set up the interview with John Fuller of KPLR-TV Channel 11 in Saint Louis MO. I had a blast! The broadcasters and staff could not have been nicer. I hope it will motivate a few more people to volunteer their time with Christmas Bird Counts.

More posts about Christmas Bird Counts:
CBC Chartbuster

Register Online for CBC
Weldon Spring CBC
Bird Encounters

Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Very Very Late Ruby-throat

I strolled around the turrets of Hogwarts Castle, enjoying the sweeping views of tropical foliage. From the ravine below, a hummingbird came into view. It was large--something along the lines of a Violet Sabrewing. I reached out and held the bird. It seemed to be in some kind of transitional plumage: purple, mixed with buff and green. Then I was startled by sounds of an uproar coming from Hogwarts. A group of boys rode some kind of magical escalator, screaming with laughter. The bird vanished. Beautiful singing of pygmies (or Solomon Islanders) woke me. That's because my alarm plays CDs; this morning, it's Deep Forest's controversial 1993 album, Deep Forest.

Wondering what I had eaten the night before to produce such a vivid dream, I finished up my morning chores and headed to work without a moment to spare. As I headed for the gate Tuesday, Nov.15, an unmistakable silhouette  popped up into the sweet gum tree--a hummingbird! I ran back to the house for my binoculars. Like my dream bird, the hummer had vanished and I headed for work.

I posted my report of the hummingbird on MObirds, the listserve of the Audubon Society of Missouri. I also contacted my friends Lanny Chambers and Margy Terpstra. Margy lives nearby. She and her husband are wild bird photographers. They have a wealth of subjects in their beautiful, wildlife-friendly yard. Lanny is a hummingbird bander who has visited my yard many times chasing fall hummers. He also holds the record for the only Allen's Hummingbird in the state--banded in his own yard!

I didn't return up till after dark on Tuesday. Wednesday morning the temperature on my back porch was 33 ° F. The bird bath had a skin of ice, but I caught a brief view of a dark bird at the nectar feeder. Surely this is some rare stray! Wed. evening that I saw the bird again, and was shocked to see that it looked exactly like a male Ruby-throated Hummingbird! Ruby-throats are the only hummer normally present in our area, but they should be gone by October 10 or so. Males migrate earlier than females and juveniles. I don't remember ever seeing one after mid-September.

I didn't get to study the bird long before the light was gone. That's when I checked my email to find Margy's wonderful photos of Lanny examining the bird in hand. It was indeed a male Ruby-throat. It may not be the latest Ruby-throat ever, but it's likely to be the latest confirmed record. As you can see in the photos, he is a worn individual. His weight was good however, and Lanny saw no reason that the bird would have trouble migrating to his winter home in southern Mexico or even Panama.

I spotted the bird again Thursday and Friday mornings and evenings, still visiting the last of my Big blue sage (Salvia guaranitica) and Mexican bush sage (S. leucantha). The sages and the bird had weathered near-freezing temperatures for 3 nights. Saturday we warmed up to 60°, but I didn't see the bird. Let's hope that soon he'll be rubbing shoulders with Violet Sabrewings. Thanks to Margy Terpstra for the use of her photos and to Lanny Chambers for enabling us to play a role in the study of hummingbird migration.

You might also like these posts:

Mexican Sage is a Hummer Magnet
Hole in One!
Rootin' Tootin' Rufous

Sunday, October 16, 2011

We Love Squirrels

I knew that all St. Louisans were bird watchers--specifically, Redbird watchers, but who knew they were squirrel watchers too? The yard art pictured above was created by one of my neighbors. It features "The Rally Squirrel" warming up before the big game. For those of you who are not from 'round here, or for those Americans who live under a rock, I have embedded video of the Rally Squirrel's moment of fame (posted by Andrewbeginning, Oct. 6, 2011).

Moaning about the economy has been replaced with chatter about the Rally Squirrel in my hometown. Of course, I had to have a St. Louis Cardinal's Rally Squirrel t-shirt. I found one at the grocery store. I've gotten so many compliments on it, I'm going to buy all my clothes at there from now on. It's so convenient--right next to the produce section.

Some years ago, I attended a lecture at the Missouri Botanical Garden, presented by Roger Swain. Swain was the science editor at Horticulture magazine, author of books about gardening, as well as a very entertaining host of the public broadcasting show, The Victory Garden, for 15 or so years. Swain discussed growing fruit in the home garden as well as nuts. That prompted a question from the audience about squirrels. Really, until recent sporting events, I thought everyone, particularly gardeners and bird watchers, hated squirrels. Swain answered with a story about a neighbor who--how can I put this politely--culled squirrels to protect her backyard nut crop. Another hand popped up immediately. "I'm an animal control officer in St. Louis, and I have successfully prosecuted a man who shot the squirrels in his yard for animal cruelty." Roger regarded the man through his spectacles for a beat, then announced, "If anyone in this audience is arrested for killing a squirrel, I will go your bail!" The audience exploded in laughter. (If you'd like to verify this anecdote, it's repeated in Bill Adler, jr.'s Outwitting Squirrels: 101 Cunning Stratagems to Reduce Dramatically the Egregious Misappropriation of Seed from Your Birdfeeder by Squirrels, 1996.)

The squirrel in the video was reportedly trapped, along with his buddies, at the stadium, then released in Castlewood State Park. A man who spotted my t-shirt told me that they trapped all the squirrels, but then let one go in the stadium again--just for luck. This is the kind of urban legend I love.

Perhaps it's a good thing they choose a large area like Castlewood's 1818 acres. Yesterday while walking the dog at a nearby college campus, I spotted a Red-tailed Hawk, sitting on the ground. As I approached, he took off, and I could just see a bushy, gray tail dragging behind. It seems from the Cardinal's performance against the Brewers (as I post this), the Rally Squirrel was spared once again.

Sunday, October 2, 2011


We could call it a "kettle," if they were hawks--a pretty good description of a flock where the individuals seems to boil from the top to the bottom over and over again. In that sense, I watched a kettle of Common Nighthawks over the dog park on September 20. I estimated at least 60 in the flock, but it could easily have been twice that. The kettle gradually moved west, the birds whirling and flashing like flakes in a snow globe. The birds never dropped as low as the tree tops, while below, a flock of migrating Green Darner dragonflies roiled in their own version of a kettle, 6 to 15 feet above ground. The Crossley ID Guide (Richard Crossley, 2011) mentions that they are often found along wooded streams, and the dog park is within sight of the Meramec River.

Nighthawks are not even close to being hawks, but they hunt on the wing, that is, they "hawk" for insects, and are most active in twilight. My dad used to call them "bullbats." If you use the word "bull" to mean "large or strong," they certainly would be large, strong bats, if they were bats. He told me they liked to hang around the lights at the ballpark and sometimes along the street. I used to see them in those places too as a kid, but I see fewer and fewer of them now flying erratically over towns. The Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior, by David Sibley (2001), notes that Common Nighthawk populations have declined throughout their breeding range (p. 352). The breeding range covers most of the Canada and the US (excluding south and central California, Alaska, and areas near or north of the arctic circle), and the western portion of Mexico (excluding Baja California). Factors contributing to the decline include the use of insecticides, and the loss of open areas that they need for hunting and mating displays (Sibley).

Nighthawks don't build nests, laying their eggs on the ground in open, rocky areas. They have adapted to using flat roofs covered with gravel, but as these become less common and roofs insulated with smooth PVC coatings become the norm, nighthawks have lost an important resource. In her book 101 Ways to Help Birds, Laura Erickson (2006) discusses ways to accommodate nighthawk nesting sites (p. 169) by providing pads with gravel in shaded areas of flat roofs.

Besides their beautiful, haphazard flight, male nighthawks have an intriguing display. I heard it "in the wild" only once. I was sitting on the front stoop of a shop, enjoying a traditional St. Louis treat, a "concrete," when I heard it. Nighthawks had been flying overheard, calling with nasal, off-key notes, "beans...beans..." when I heard a sound that shouldn't have come from a bird. Greg Budney, audio curator of the Macaulay Library at Cornell, describes it as similar to "a truck roaring by, that suddenly disappears." Somewhere along the city street, a male nighthawk dove between the buidlings, creating that roar as wind passed through the long flight feathers. Perhaps he planned his display to take advantage of the echoes in the urban "canyon."

At the end of the recording below, you hear this mechanical sound. If you have 2 minutes, check out the video from Cornell's Lab of Ornithology which I embedded below it. Thanks to Bill Bouton for his great photo of a Common Nighthawk above, taken in northern California, and to Don Jones who recorded the species in New Jersey, and the Cornell Lab, all of whom licensed their work with Creative Commons.

You might also like:
Crossley ID Guide   
Macaulay Library of Animal Sounds
Mysterious Sounds of the Night

Friday, September 30, 2011

Back to the Blogosphere

It's been almost 4 weeks since my last post, so a few words of explanation might be in order. It's been perfect storm of obstacles to getting online: minor accidents that befell a family member (everyone's OK now), a snafu that left me without phone or internet service for a week, deadlines at work, a reunion, and living with amazingly energetic puppy. Blogging is sort of like taking an online course, with the topics chosen by me. I missed reading blogs, conversing with bloggers and other readers, and writing. Hopefully, things are returning to the usual pace and I'll have a chance to post regularly. Thanks for staying with me!

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Last Kite of the Season

Mississippi Kite's keystone-shaped tail shows in this silhouette composite photo by George Thomas
I may have seen my last Mississippi Kite of the year yesterday. My puppy Chunk and I visited Emmenegger Nature Park, climbing the trail along the bluffs above the Meramec River and paused at one of the glades. Chunk investigated the scents along and under the limestone rocks. I scanned the wide valley below with my binoculars. The landscape is urban, with remnants of oak-hickory woods on the hills. Floating over the former site of the Chrysler plant, a beautiful male Mississippi Kite sailed on the warm, still air. The open glade afforded me a rare view of the kite from above. Contrasting with the dark grey body, I could see the white head and secondaries—the flight feathers close to the body along the trailing edge of the wing. The creative image above is by George Thomas, and the beautiful one below is by MRHSfan. Thanks for licensing your photos with Creative Commons, George and MRHSfan!

adult male Mississippi Kite, photo by MRHSfan
I see Mississippi Kites almost daily in my area, starting in early May. They can be hard to spot early in the season. They tend to be silent and avoid being conspicuous as soon as they begin nesting. A friend who has a nest nearby said she often sees them flying low—under the radar, so to speak—as they approach the nest.

By August, the young are in flight and I occasionally hear them call. It's a strange sound—imagine a flycatcher impersonating a Broad-winged Hawk's two-note whistle. Click the play button to hear the recording below, also Creative Commons. Kites show up predictably at favorite perches around the neighborhood; always on dead snags atop mature trees. About 3 weeks ago I saw a group of 6 kites, including at least 2 juveniles, in a half-dead oak. Not far away, I could hear a 7th bird calling. Sometimes 2 or 3 will circle overhead. Are these local birds or the first migrants? I wish I knew.

When I first started birding seriously, in the early 90s, I saw my life Mississippi Kites in Webster Groves. Birders at that time said Webster was about as far north as they were found in summer, but now they breed up into Iowa.

They are predominantly insect eaters, so they must head south in fall. Conventional wisdom says that all the kites will be gone from Missouri by the end of the first week of September, but curiously, the first are record of Mississippi Kite was in autumn, on September 22, 1956 (Birds of the St. Louis Area; Where and When to Find Them, Webster Groves Nature Study Society, 1995). They migrate through Texas, along the east coast of Mexico, through Central and northwestern South America. Their non-breeding range is Bolivia, western Brazil, Paraguay, and northern Argentina. See this range map on the Cornell U website. Check out this spectacular video of a flock of kites migrating through Soberanía National Park in Panama, taken by Dave Jackson in April, 2007.

You might also enjoy:
Why do People Think Bird Watchers Are Nerds?
Fragrant Sumac in the Winner's Circle
Urban Birding, Texas Style

Sunday, August 28, 2011

High Praise from a Prairie Vole

When Chunk and I take our walk through the neighborhoods and down to the park, I sometimes keep count of the number of species we see: 12-22 birds (depending on how long the walk; highest number in spring), and usually only 2 mammals— Eastern Gray Squirrel (always), and either Eastern Cottontail or Eastern Chipmunk. Chunk is more of a mammal-watcher than a bird-watcher and recently he's been pushing the mammal species total upward.

At first, I assumed these holes were the entrances to chipmunk tunnels, but they were too small: only 1 1/4 to 1 3/4 inches (3.17-4.45 cm) in width. There were many on them too on the gentle slope by the cemetery fence; I knew there couldn't be that many chipmunks in the small area. Then I spotted one. It looked like a small, grey mouse, with a rounded head. As you can see from my one-handed snapshot above, Chunk didn't wait to see it—he dove right in! Never fear, my fellow critter-lovers, I didn't let him catch one.

I suspected voles, so first I checked Mark Elbroch's Mammal Tracks & Sign; A Guide to North American Species, 2003. This is really a fascinating book, filled with photos, though some of the mammal signs are, well, unattractive. Elbroch confirmed that the holes were within the range of voles.

The pathways through the dry grass and winter creeper seemed significant signs too.
Prairie Vole, photo from Wikimedia Commons, by US National Park Service
Next I checked Mammals of North America, by Bowers, Bowers, and Kaufman. Judging by the range maps and the dry habitat, these are most likely Prairie Voles (Microtus ochrogaster). Both sources mention the runways between tunnel entrances. I realize now that these little guys are to blame for the disruptions in my front garden of glade and prairie wildflowers and grasses. Since they are a prairie species, I'll take their presence as a compliment.

Mammal watchers might also enjoy:
Mountain Lion, St. Louis
What are ya usin' for bait?
Charismatic Megafauna
Walk on the Wild Side 

Sunday, August 21, 2011

A Bird Bath for Hummingbirds

Anna's Hummingbird photo by randomtruth
On a particularly anxious day some years ago, I glanced out the kitchen window, looking at the viburnum leaves, covered with with rain drops. Movement caught my eye—a hummingbird, diving chest first into the droplets, flailing her wings and splashing around in the microliters of water on the leaf. Because I'm a human and humans always look for meaning—especially when they're really stressed—I read a message in this brief, extraordinary scene: "Things will work out fine." And they did.

Hummers get plenty of liquid as they lap up nectar from a trumpet creeper bloom or from your feeder, so they don't need to drink from a bird bath as a Mourning Dove or Cedar Waxwing might. However hummingbird banders tell me that the feathers are often sticky with nectar, both natural and artificial, so they do need to bathe to keep their feathers in top condition. Hummers can bathe in a rain shower, or you can try to attract them with water by…
Providing a mist fountain. I use a connector with shut-off valves so I can have two hose lines. 
After I finish watering the container plants, I completely shut off the water. Then I open the valve on the line that leads to the mister. 
This little device will run a long time on the residual water pressure within the hose. 

An easier method is to hose down some large leaves. 

I hope you have a chance to see a hummer take a "leaf bath." If you do, and I'd love to see your photo!

For those of you keeping track, here in the Midwest, Anna's Hummingbird, seen in the photo above, is not one of our normal birds. In fact, there are only 5 records for the state of Missouri, most recently in 1997—the only record in my area. Thanks, Josh Uffman, for compiling, organizing, and sharing the state records. 

The charming photo of an adult male Anna's is by randomtruth, and I'd like to thank him for sharing his photo with a Creative Commons license. Be sure to check out his blog, The Nature of a Man. He wrote a terrific post about Anna's Hummingbird: California Christmas Ornaments.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Juice from a Thousand Flowers

So many hummers! This is my goal! Thanks to Teddy Llovet for the photo.
If you want to attract hummingbirds to your yard, keep in mind that hummers may need up to 1,000 blooms a day. As I mentioned in my previous post, those of use who live in the city or suburbs are going to need nectar feeders! How do I go about filling my hummingbird feeders? Well, I'm glad you asked:
2 cups hot tap water
1/2 cup sugar
That's really all there is to it, but I do have some refinements.

Now that I'm filling so many feeders, I mix up 6 cups at a time and store it in a juice pitcher in the fridge. I've read that it may be better for the birds to use sugar made from cane, not sugar made from beets, so I look for "cane sugar" on the package. Other than that, I buy what's on sale.

I use a jar funnel on the pitcher when I throw in the sugar. It reduces the mess a bit. Look for this type of funnel with the canning supplies in summer and fall. I put the lid on the pitcher and shake.
Some feeders have a built-in "ant moat." Not this one.
Do you find rafts of ants floating in your nectar feeder? You need an "ant moat." Ants follow a path down the wire/hook/hanger into the nectar, but they can't swim across a water barrier. Look for a feeder that has a "built-in ant moat" that you fill with plain water, or buy a separate moat.
Stand-alone "ant moat." Just fill with water.
Another cool thing about an ant moat with water is that it serves as a bird bath for small birds. I advise against using something called an "ant barrier." Usually it contains chemicals to deter the ants.

Some fallacies about hummingbird nectar:
Not true: You have to boil the water.
If your tap water is safe for you to drink, it will be safe enough for the birds.

Not true: Use commercial nectar, which is red.
Natural nectar is never red, although the flower may be. Don't add artificial dyes to a hummingbird's diet needlessly. Just get a red feeder.

Not true: Honey is more natural than sugar.
Hummingbirds do not raid bee hives. They drink the nectar produced directly by plants. That nectar is sucrose, as is table sugar. Honey is a different type of sugar; mostly glucose and fructose. Even worse, honey can cause harm to the birds as it ferments.

Not true: You should train your hummers to use a more dilute solution by gradually decrease the amount of sugar.
First of all, you can't train "your hummers." Hummingbird banders tell me that most birds stay only a few days in an area before moving on.
This fallacy is based on the assumption that more sugar is bad for the bird. But most hummingbird-pollinated flowers have a 20% solution in their nectar, though some, like trumpet creeper (Campsis radicans) have up to 34%! See the Louisiana Ornithological Society's Newsletter, March 2003, "Sugar Content of Hummingbird Plants in Louisiana Gardens," by Dennis Demcheck here.
For a more thorough discussion of the proper concentration of sugar in a nectar feeder, check this discussion from the HumNet listserve.
PS: I received a comment through Facebook from Sheri Williamson, co-director and founder of Southeastern Arizona Bird Observatory. She suggested using cold tap water, since hot water may contain lead. The only reason I used hot water was to speed up the mixing of the sugar solution, so I can easily switch to cold water. 

You might also enjoy:
They'd Rather Fight Than Switch

Mexican Sage is a Hummer Magnet

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

A Rabble of Ruby-throats?

I love my hummingbird plants, but when I read that hummers may need up to 1,000 blooms a day, I knew I was going to need feeders! A little more investigation into hummingbird calorie requirements at is really instructive—and a bit overwhelming for a gardener.

I recently came across the blog of Susan and Richard Day, Daybreak Blog. Susan is one of the authors of a favorite book, The Wildlife Gardener's Guide to Hummingbirds and Songbirds From the Tropics (Collins, 2003) and Richard is a photographer and leader of photo workshops. A few years ago, I had a chance to tour their property in central Illinois with the St. Louis Chapter of the North American Butterfly Association (NABA). We were really inspired by their work to create and improve wildlife habitat on their farm. I asked Susan many questions about her hummingbird and butterfly gardens and I was glad to see her recent post about "Hummingbird Wars."

I was surprised to though that she was talking not about flowers, but feeders. I have lots of hummingbird-attracting plants—also known as "humplants"—and two feeders, one in the front and one on the kitchen window. As I mentioned in a recent post, Susan Day interviewed Bob Sargent, well-known hummingbird bander and the found of the Hummer/Bird Study Group. His suggestion to those who would like to attract more hummingbirds and solve the problem of one bird guarding a feeder or driving other hummers away from your Cardinal Flower patch is simple: Add more feeders! Susan add 10 more.

I added 5. Naturally, I expected a rambunctious rabble of Ruby-throats the next morning.

Actually, I'm slightly more patient than that. I've had the extra feeders up for two days. So far I think that my feeder collection has made it more fun to watch the hummers because they're so easy to find. I've seen as many as 3 at a time—not unusual in my yard at this time of year even before adding feeders. When I see more than birds sharing a feeder at the nectar station, I'll feel that my experiment has succeeded. More hummingbird posts to come!

Rootin' Tootin' Rufous                

You might also enjoy these posts:
Hole in One!
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