Sunday, December 12, 2010

A Feeder Day

Today's a day for watching the backyard feeders; it's chilly out (though not too cold) and damp, gray and overcast, a bit breezy. Neh, I think I'll stay in and drink plenty of tea (OK, that's a British thing!). So just how much birding can you do if you fill up the feeders and wait to see what turns up? Well, my day started with the feeders at home and thoughts running through my head that I really wasn't sure how much money I wanted to continue to spend on feeding the 45 or so House Sparrows that dominate our yard!

With nothing much else to look at for a while, I started pondering this female House Sparrow (photo above). House Sparrows are actually quite attractive if you can think beyond bright colors for a moment and look at the intricacies of more subtle feather markings. The pale 'tramlines' or 'braces' down the back, the dark-centered greater coverts and tertials with their neat pale fringes... It's all rather attractive and all classic female House Sparrow; but then suddenly we find ourselves moving into one of the most important parts of bird identification and recognition, which is - know your common birds! Stare at your regular feeder birds from every angle, from every which way until you know them standing on your head - then you'll be ready when the oddball shows up. Common birds may be our bread and butter birding, but pretty much all of us get fired up when something unusual turns up - and it chose our feeder too! Take another look - another much closer look at the bird above and check it out in your bird guide. Are those narrow, dark streaks on the sides? Isn't that tail shape a little weird - a little too long, a little too forked and pointed? Should a female House Sparrow be slightly rusty on the median wing coverts like that? And is that subtle streaking I see on the crown? Is that right for House Sparrow?

OK, I gotta go to work now, so scroll to the end of this post for another picture of this same bird!

Meanwhile, at work......

Another location, another feeder! The most obvious thing about feeders is that they attract birds; and if we are honest, that's why we feed them, so that we can see lots of them and see them well. Birds don't need garden feeders, but it's a nice way to help them along a little during the tougher times of year. Birds were around an aweful long time and did jolly well before feeders were invented, so don't feel that you have to feed the birds, but know that they certainly appreciate it if you do!

So, feeders attract birds; they attract birds in higher than usual concentrations - as will any rich food source, at least temporarily until the food is used up. And of course, as is so often the way in nature, there's a plus and minus at play here. First the pluses - for the birds, extra food. For us, a great opportunity to see birds close up and personal and to study them so that we may understand them better (or simply to appreciate them of course). New World sparrows give many people much grief and ripping up of field guides and swearing that we'll never look at another little brown job again! At present, up to 14 Fox Sparrows are at the Northwood Center feeders (see above photo), giving a great opportunity to study this beautiful species that is just a winter visitor here in New Jersey. And you can hear them singing too, which is wonderful. You can also see them side-by-side at feeders with other sparrows such as White-crowned, White-throated and Song Sparrows, giving a great opportunity to get to know them and understand how to identify them. Last Thursday, a single American Tree Sparrow also stopped in at the Northwood feeders so you need to be ever vigilant, whenever you can find the time.

And the down side?

Well, as I said, feeders attract birds and this fabulous male Sharp-shinned Hawk is a bird! Sharpies eat birds; just birds; and male Sharpies are not very big, so they mostly eat those little ones that come to our feeders. This, with our human emotions added to the fray, is sad of course - even wrong in some people's minds. But we must remember that it is the natural way of things and Sharpies survive by being smart. Indeed most things survive by being smarter than their lunch - hey, even I'm smarter than a tub of peanut butter (probably anyway)!! But remember that, in the natural world, other forces are at play; the most important being that Sharp-shinned Hawks are not going to eat all of your yard birds - if they did, they would die out; it's a nice simple system. So we can either choose to enjoy Sharpies for those brief moments when we get fabulous views like the one above (which was right at the Northwood feeders today), or we can simply make it tough for them so that they go elsewhere. Hang your feeders where the predators can't get a good flight line through, make sure there is plenty of cover for the songbirds to hide in between feeding boughts; all that kind of thing.

And as a double whammy - this young Red-tailed Hawk has been watching both me and the feeders while I've been typing this blog post - but I suspect he's got his eye on one of the squirrels if he can just work out how to do it!

Now, back to the bird in my yard this morning...

Well, when it turns its head, it's much more obvious that we are not dealing with a House Sparrow! The pale malar line running down from the base of the bill, white patch on the side of the neck and yellowish tinge to the supercilium all combine to tell us that this is a Dickcissel. This species largely winters in northern South America but odd birds do turn up in the winter at New Jersey feeders from time to time - so keep an eye out! [All photos by Mike Crewe]

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