Monday, November 04, 2013

Bluebird Real Estate

  Flocks of Bluebirds flying south on a beautiful late October day checking out the Real Estate.
 Check List:
Newly cleaned Bluebird houses. Check!
Freshly mowed pastures. Check!
Telephone wires to perch from. Check!
Loads of bugs for dining. Check!
Ponds with running water. Check!

We will definitely be back next Spring!

Monday, January 28, 2013

Redpolls: aka Little Snowbirds

Redpolll Watercolor by Sally Wickham © 2013

As January draws to a close, I can feel the patterns of the dark and cold season settling in on me.  Today, snow has fallen softly and steadily all day.  The town snow plow went roaring and scraping by.  The UPS guy called to say that he couldn’t make it up the hill.  The mail man made it but I agreed that it was okay to deliver the package tomorrow.  Each day is new but the  repetition of winter activities duplicating day after day could easily become ennui.  My winter schedule, however,  fits me well;  up late in the morning, breakfast of steel cut oats with fruit and nuts;  feed and water the hens, collect the eggs;  bring in wood; sweep the snow and wood crumbs off the porch; go for a ski, a walk or a snowshoe depending on the conditions,  and oh, yes, feed the wild birds.

Every year I stock my feeders with black oil sunflower seeds in order to keep the chickadees, finches and blue jays near the house. Last winter followed an incredible season for wild apples and Bohemian Waxwings came in large numbers.  They were not interested in sunflower seeds but scattered under the apple trees to devour the rotting harvest.  The mast year for apples was followed by a meager crop and it was disappointing to realize that the roving waxwings would not grace our backyard this year.

A charm of Common Redpolls

But then, erratic migrants from the arctic, the Common Redpolls appeared.  They arrived in a swarm-- frosty finch-like birds that seemed to be everywhere.   Whenever I open the door, it signals a mass exodus into the apple and the birch trees which quiver with their chirping.  

This was a new bird that I had not seen here before. At first I thought they were finches, but no, their streakiness reminded me more of sparrows.  Their bills are small and pointed and there is a black spot on the necks.   I saw the red spot on the heads of all the birds.   Some of the group (the males) have streaks of red on their breasts.  They were definitely Redpolls. 

I guess that is one of the things I like best about the season of snow and dark and cold.  During the peaceful monotony of winter days in Vermont, there are always surprises like the irregular winter visitors—the Redpolls—who descend into my backyard in Vermont to escape the colder climes of the arctic.  

We hope that you will also visit for more nature notes and sketches on this and similar topics.  

I love the way that Neltjie Blanchan describes the arrival of the Redpolls and it is included here for your enjoyment.     LL

"When the arctic cold becomes too cruel for even the snowbirds and crossbills to withstand, flocks of the sociable little redpolls flying southward are the merest specks in the sullen, gray sky, when they can be seen at all.  So high do they keep that often they must pass above our heads without our knowing it.  First we see a quantity of tiny dots, like a shake of pepper, in the cloud above, then the specks grow larger and larger, and finally the birds seem to drop from the sky upon some tall tree that they completely covera veritable cloudburst of birds.  Without pausing to rest after the long journey, down they flutter into the weedy pastures with much cheerful twittering, to feed upon whatever seeds may be protruding through the snow.  Every action of a flock seems to be concerted, as if some rigid disciplinarian had drilled them, and yet no leader can be distinguished in the merry company.  When one flies, all fly; where one feeds, all feed, and by some subtle telepathy all rise at the identical instant from their feeding ground and cheerfully twitter in concert where they all alight at once." 

Quote from BIRD NEIGHBORS. An introductory acquaintance with one hundred and fifty birds commonly found in the gardens, meadows, and woods about our homes.  By Neltjie Blanchan New York, Doubleday, Page & Co.  1902   pp222-223. 


Sunday, April 22, 2012

Make Way for Mallards!

Watercolor by Sally Wickham © 2012

Mallards provide a wonderful way to introduce a child to bird watching.  Their habitat includes ponds, lakes, vernal pools; almost any body of water provides a place to see these ducks.   And their range assures that no matter where you are, you are likely to see a Mallard.  Mallards are friendly and frequently nest in public places.  The loud quacking of the female is sure to please the tots.  It is also a plus that children do not have to use binoculars to observe  a Mallard.

Shallow waters provide feeding grounds for Mallards where they spend their time dunking for aquatic vegetation and occasionally upending themselves in their never-ending search for food.  These antics result in their being called “dabblers” or “up-enders.”  Either way, they are a delight to watch for children of all ages. 
Always a common bird, the Mallard’s fame has spread through generations of children and their parents since 1941 when author/illustrator  Robert McCloskey first published Make Way for Ducklings.     In case you missed it, the story begins with Mr. and Mrs. Mallard flying around Boston  looking for a place to raise their family.  Nothing quite suits Mrs. Mallard and the story continues from there.  The memorable part of the book for me is when Mrs. Mallard (who has molted after hatching her ducklings and can not fly) walks her brood of eight across town from an island in the Charles River to the Boston Public Garden.  Here in Vermont I often see a similar group of mallards  leaving one pond and trekking to another and I remember the days of reading this book to my own children and to many of my students. 

Imagine the fun that you can have with your children, your grandchildren, or friends of any age quacking like ducks and repeating the rhyming names of the eight ducklingsJack, Kack, Lack, Mack, Nack, Ouack, Pack and Quack. 

Quack  Quack  Quack                             N-joy the book and C U @ the pond!

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Eastern Bluebird

 Watercolors of Eastern Bluebird and Nest    Sally Wickham © 2012 

2011 was my big year.  It was the first time that a pair of Eastern Bluebirds raised a family in one of our bluebird houses. 

I remember the day in 2010 when we bought the bird house at Dandelion Acres, a local garden shop in Bethel, Vermont.  My husband warned me, “This is the last bluebird house that we’re buying.”  He said that because our yard was littered with failures.  The bluebirds would come and sit on a box and fly around and get our hopes up.  Then they would leave.   I began to wonder if bluebirds were just plain mean. 

In 2010, a pair of bluebirds fought off the competition, built a nest and laid four very light blue eggs in the new nest box.  Then, we never saw them again.  When fall came, I carefully lifted the nest and the eggs out of the box and placed them under a small glass dome.  It was proof that we must have done something right.

It is my theory that what was right was something different about this bluebird box—it had an oval hole and was built by Ralph W. Hein, director of the Bluebird Recovery Program in Vermont.  But the placement of bluebird boxes is also important. 
 Bluebird nest boxes should be placed on a pipe because that protects the bluebirds from predators that could climb up a wooden post.  Some people believe they should face south;  others have had success facing in other directions.  The boxes should be paired with another nest box.   Habitat and monitoring of the nest boxes are also vital to success.  

Hubby and I both agreed that we should get a few more of these bluebird boxes.  This spring I tried unsuccessfully to call Ralph W. Hein.  I have recently found out that he was in the hospital and is now at home but his health is not good.  Fortunately I remembered an article about him in our local paper and provide that link to increase your knowledge of a man who loved and understood the Eastern Bluebird.

4/19/2012            Ralph W. Hein  died at his home on  11 April  2012 at the age of  86.

Randolph Herald

July 21, 2005 Edition

Reprinted with permission from The Herald of Randolph, Vermont  05060

 Bluebirds’ Best Friend

By Gus Howe Johnson

Without bluebirds and other songbirds, we’d be in insects up to our armpits. 

Ralph Hein of Royalton, director of the Bluebird Recovery Program in Vermont, is a big fan of the friendly, useful bluebird. 

"Bluebirds are native ground feeders that are pleasant to have around—all they want is a house," said Hein. "They are cavity nesters and want a hole, or cave, to live in, and nesting boxes work perfectly." 

The 80-year-old, three-time cancer survivor has been told to stay active but not do any heavy lifting, and he dedicates his time to educating people about meeting the needs of bluebirds. 

With a colorful career including 20 years teaching school in New Jersey, Hein moved to Vermont 30 years ago and has been advocating for the bluebird for 10. The Bluebird Recovery Program is a nonprofit corporation so he can apply for grants to continue offering his presentation, a K-8 grade science education program, which includes 44 schools right now. He hopes to provide students with the knowledge needed to establish bluebird trails in rural areas such as school athletic fields, wood lots and other open areas. 

"This is a great science project, especially for middle school," said Hein. "I assume kids know nothing about bluebirds, I show them a video, answer their questions and put up six houses on the school grounds, at no cost to the school." 

All he asks in return is that the students check the houses and monitor bluebird activity, recording their findings every nine days, to know when fledglings leave the nest. "If we know when they fledge, we can clean out the house as soon as possible and the mother can build a new nest," Hein said. "Bluebirds can have as many as three broods in the same house, one after another." 

House Design
The grant money he is able to collect covers fuel to travel to schools as well as materials to build the bluebird houses. 

"There’s a specific way to build a bluebird house that benefits the bluebird the most," Hein said. "I like to show students a ‘wrong’ house and then a ‘right’ house so they understand what’s important." Elements of a good bluebird house include an oval entry hole, with room for mother and father to feed the babies from outside without getting them wet. When the babies get wet, often they will freeze to death when night temperatures drop below freezing. 

The house does not need extra drain holes in the base, or ventilation holes in the sides, and some bluebird houses have "excessive holes" in them. 

"I also like to put on a metal roof to keep the sun and heavy rain from bowing the roof," Hein said. Copper or steel roofs can last 12-15 years. The bottom of the house shouldn’t be too deep, about 3.5 inches is sufficient for a bluebird nest. This design is approved by Audubon, so Hein, a life member of the Bluebird Recovery Program of Minneapolis, mounts a nameplate on each house stating it is Audubon approved. 

Locating the nest box is also important. It should not be on a building or fence post or predators like snakes or cats can eat the eggs. They should be about 4.5-5 feet off the ground, out in open areas, about 40-50 feet away from a building, he said. 

"I recommend two houses paired 25 feet apart," Hein said. "In the first week of March the bluebirds choose their houses, and the third week in March the tree swallow will move into the other, this reduces competition." Hein mounts his birdhouses on a five-foot pipe, and uses a piece of 30-inch rebar, sunk into the ground, as a support, with the pipe slid onto the rebar. He has even started painting the houses blue, since he’s noticed that bluebirds tend to prefer sitting on blue objects such as a Ford tractor and blue fence post.

One of the problems the bluebird faces is that there are a number of programs within Vermont that support predator birds, and raptors like hawks and falcons feed on songbirds.
"By supporting the bluebird, we’re furnishing food for hawks, owls, etc," Hein said. This wouldn’t be a problem except that he feels the bluebirds are getting overlooked. Grants that fund his activities have been increasingly more difficult to obtain. 

"I’d like people to be more aware of the little things they can do to support the environment," Hein said. "Everyone wants to be listed as conservation minded, and this is as grassroots as you can get." 

Of the 500-550 bluebird houses he’s put up in Vermont recently, he suspects only 17 or so have nests in them right now, due to various disturbances. 

"We are losing three million acres each year to logging, houses, school athletic fields, etc.," Hein said. "If people incorporated bluebird houses as they made environmental changes, the bluebirds would still have a home." 

His worries include the steadily increasing mercury level in insects, which kills the bluebirds when they eat them, as well as lawn insecticides that last as long as three months. Additional concerns include global warming, which has caused the bluebirds to fly north sooner so they get caught in snow and ice; and the toll from predator programs.
"I’d like to educate people to be more aware of the declining bluebird numbers," Hein said. "Cats, environmental changes, insecticides that kill earthworms, everything has a domino effect."

Public Can Help
Last year Hein built 2,000 bluebird houses, which can be purchased for $25 each including the rebar support post. This is nearly half the price of commercial nest boxes, he said. "Ask your hardware store or supplier to stock some bluebird houses, and if you have an open space, put one up," Hein said. "On a good year three broods of bluebirds, at five eggs each, can account for 15 new bluebirds, and the babies will come back to where they were born, if there’s a house for them. 

"Did you know that a baby bluebird will fly 300 feet the first time—it’s the only bird I know that can fly right out of the nest." 

Insisting he’s not a professional bird man, Hein just asks people to appreciate the bluebird and look out for them. 

The article can also be accessed by clicking on  the following link:



Six bluebird nest boxes crafted by Ralph W. Hein.



Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Sally's Wild Garden

Dark-eyed Junco  Watercolor  Sally Wickham © 2012

You know you want to or maybe you know you don’t.   What is it that you do or don’t want to do?  Stop mowing your lawn!  Let it grow tall and grassy.  Allow the weeds to take over.  Let the whole weedy patch go to seed and perhaps next fall, you, like Sally, my artist friend, fellow birdworder, and nearest neighbor will be rewarded. 

It was just before the early snows came last October when Sal called to tell me that a flock of Dark-eyed Juncos were flitting about her yard.  Of course, I sallied forth to get my first look of the season at the little gray and white birds with pink bills that always remind me of bowling balls.  (I think because they are so round.)  Everything that a junco needs is there in Sally’s yard—Food, Water, and Cover.   They use the tall stalks left in the wild garden, the evergreens and the shrubbery around the buildings to perch and hide as they search for seeds on the ground. 

Sally’s dream to reintroduce weedy seedy native plants as part of her landscaping has taken root and grown.  She is now in the process of expanding the garden and including a boggy area to increase daily bird attendance.  It was not for economy of effort that Sally began her wild garden several years ago.  It was quite the opposite.  There is work involved.   Sal has to “stake out” the wild part to prevent an over-zealous guy and his lawnmower  from reclaiming it back to groomed and green.  She removes grass and unwanted plants from around the favored ones.  She researches plants, shrubs and trees that songbirds find pleasing.  In order to maintain its wildness, Sally must  dig, plant, divide, and transplant. 

Sally has an artist’s eye and a plan that complements their home.  The mowed part of the lawn, the wild garden, the outbuildings, pond, and surrounding areas make it a bird friendly habitat.  The area is attractive and alive with birds and bees and butterflies.  But the best part is being the neighbor who only has to sit on the deck and enjoy the view.  

Link for more information about Weed Gardens and How to Create Your Own

An article related to this topic appears in 
BirdWatcher's Digest  March/April 2012 
The Weed Garden by David R Thompson

Looking out on Sally's Wild Garden on a beautiful day last summer

 Dark-eyed Junco of the slate-colored variety takes a break from looking for seeds and rests on a flower stalk. 

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Sunday, January 29, 2012

Flue Jay or Darling Starling?

European Starling Watercolor    © 2012  Sally Della Wickham

The European Starling is an eye-catching bird.  When viewed from afar it is black but in the sunshine  glints with a metallic sheen of  purple or green.   In the winter and spring it is covered with a dazzling array of speckles that reminds me of stars in  the night sky.  Although they may have been named for their resemblance to a four pointed star when in flight, I prefer to think it is because of their resemblance to a starry starry night.  

Last summer, a  starling fell from the sky and into my flue.  That brave bird did not utter a single cry  for help but the  thumping/thrashing sound of numerous  attempts to  escape disturbed me while I sat drinking my coffee at the kitchen table.  I checked the wood stove.  Nothing there.  Then, I checked the clean out door and sure enough, the sounds came from directly behind the door.  After rescue, I snapped the bird’s  picture while it glared at me from a pair of  extra large leather gloves.   Later in the summer a group of five or six starlings perched on the utility wire near the vegetable garden.  I wondered if our rescue bird was among them while I enjoyed listening to their  lengthy repertoire.  

In the fall, conventions of starlings assemble in trees and their gathering is a noisy affair.  They  liven up the tree for a while with their raucous calls until a simultaneous decision is made to leave.  Then, silence-- except for the beating  of their  wings in the air as they take off in solidarity.  Their flight patterns amaze as they become one large shape shifter:   a funneling cloud that brings to mind  a tornado;  then swirling into a whirlwind like a desert sandstorm;  a string stretches out, then paisleys into a cloud-like form, separates and reunites --all the  birds  moving together as one great creature with one like mind in control. 

Now it is January of 2012.  The usual congregation of chickadees, finches and grosbeaks usually at my feeders have not appeared this year. Starlings are here every single day.  When spring arrives  and the bluebirds return, I may not have such a kind heart toward the starlings but for now,  I am grateful for their  company.  

Link to a visual of a murmuration:  

A large gathering of starlings is called a murmuration.  


Saturday, December 31, 2011

Raven: A Bird in Need of Rebranding

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Common Raven  Watercolor  Sally Wickham © 2011

While many birds inspire the imaginations of humans, the Common Raven takes a leading role on the dark side.  Citing instances of the raven’s appearances in prominent literature, it is obvious that they have a public relations problem. 

There are several references to ravens in the bible and not all are negative.  However, one example of a bum rap occurs in the Old Testament in one of the most famous stories;  that of Noah’s Ark.  Apparently when the ark landed on Mount Ararat, Noah released a raven that flew “to and fro” and feasted on carrion floating in the flood waters.  According to  the internet,  Noah was so enraged that he forever cursed the raven.  While the corvid’s diet may be disgusting, its adaptability and non-fussy eating habits have helped it to survive and thrive into the 21st century. 

In 1845, Edgar Allan Poe published the now famous dirge titled “The Raven.”  Although it is not a great poem, it is memorable.  Almost every high school student in America has been subjected to its drum beat rhythm and  its downward spiral into insanity.   This poem clearly libels the raven  by describing them as   “…grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt and ominous creatures.”

The beliefs of farmers are well-regarded but many farmers mistakenly assume that because ravens pluck a few kernels of corn out of their freshly planted fields,  they are bad birds.  A  rebranding campaign could bring farmers into the fold by educating them to the fact that ravens eat bugs, caterpillars, grubs etc that are destructive to their crops.  They help farms, not hurt them. 

Too numerous to mention are the myths about the trickster raven, its links with witches and the devil,  and its associations with death.      But the important word to remember here is myth.  The truth about ravens is that they consistently demonstrate superior intelligence.  It is a fact that their brains are among the largest of the bird world.  Their intellectual prowess has been noted in the areas of problem solving, imitation, insight and communication skills.  Research has confirmed that they are very smart birds and their success as a species verifies these findings.

Even when spoken of as a group, ravens are referred to as an “unkindness.”  An unkindness it is-- just as it is  demeaning for their corvid kin to be  called “a murder of crows.”  And that brings me to another idea for clearing up this negative image.  Television!

A recent television event featured a broadcast about the  intelligence of crows.     If only the Common Raven could get a boost to their reputation like that, they could  shed their undeserved bad name.  People would enjoy seeing ravens soaring on thermals and watching their young play with the toys that they have made.  

Perhaps a name change is in order.  Many successful corporate rebrandings have taken place in the past decade.   Perhaps the name of RAVEN  may be too closely associated with the word “raving” as in “raving mad.”  Every year several birds are renamed for reasons of genetics or something like that.  Ravens have feathers on their wings that resemble fingers.  Perhaps something that sounds like waving would be a suitable name change.  And there you have it--the campaign slogan--