Fun with feeder birds

Last year, I got my first bird-feeder and put it out for the winter. It took some time for birds to show up at first, but once they did, there was no going back! This winter, the birds have returned to it much more quickly! The last few weeks, there have been lots of visitors.

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male Dark-eyed Junco

The Dark-eyed Juncos have discovered the tray to perch on and have started feeding on it. Last year, they never flew up and only fed on the fallen seeds on the ground below. Unlike the chickadees who are quickly in and out, the juncos seem to spend quite a bit of time at the feeder, sitting on the tray and eating seeds. I worry sometimes it makes them more vulnerable to potential predators, especially after I had a hawk flyover the backyard a few weeks ago.

I’m not sure if its the same junco every time, but there is a male junco who seems quite dominant. He has chased off other birds that land on, or approach, the feeder, including other juncos. He becomes quite vocal when other birds approach. In my observations, it seems the other juncos defer to him. I wonder about the flock dynamics of juncos and if they recognise an alpha male, who is allowed to spend more time on the feeder.

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male Dark-eyed Junco
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The Pine Siskins!

Last weekend, Pine Siskins visited my feeder for the first time! I’d literally just said the day before, “I wish I could see a Pine Siskin, I’ve never seen them before” and felt that I should have by now! At least four visited my feeder at once and they were quite gregarious! They took over the space and the Dark-eyed Juncos that had been feeding there before seemed quite perturbed by being pushed out although they seem content to share with the chickadees. From reading Sibley and other sources, it seems Pine Siskins commonly monopolise feeders from other birds.

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A Dark-eyed Junco and a Chesnut-backed Chickadee share the feeder peacefully

The Pine Siskins have returned a couple of times since, and even managed to share some of the space with others a couple of times. The same day the Pine Siskins showed up, I also had a Downy Woodpecker land at the feeder for the first time! I can say I’d always dreamed of having a woodpecker at my feeder, but I never expected one to come to my tube feeder! Sadly, I did not manage a photograph in time, but it will always be in my memory!

It was quite the exciting the day in the world of backyard birding. Its so much fun to see these little surprises and also to get to know the more frequent visitors. Watching birds at my feeder taught me how to identify the flight pattern of the Chestnut-backed Chickadee and the little horn-like call of the Red-breasted Nuthatch.

Which brings me to my favourite feeder-visitor (the Red-breasted Nuthatch), who darts quickly in and out, typically shoo-ing away any other bird, no matter how much bigger they might be. Nothing seems to daunt these tiny nuthatches. They seem to spend the shortest time at the feeder, quickly grabbing a seed and returning to the safety of their favourite tree.

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Last, my favourite feeder bird, the Red-breasted Nuthatch

First time feasters at my new backyard bird feeder

On Friday afternoon, I walked into the backyard and saw something surprising and exciting – birds at my bird feeder for the first time! After nearly two months of patiently waiting, they had finally found my feeder! I was so excited I sat down and watched them for the next hour. Let’s go back to the start…

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A Dark-eyed Junco sings from a snowy perch.

It was a cold, mid-December Saturday after a week of unusual snowfall in Victoria. I had recently been perusing the pages of various backyard birding books. One in particular (Best-Ever Backyard Birding Tips: Hundreds of Easy Ways to Attract the Birds You Love to Watch by Debborah L. Martin) had got me thinking about bird feeders. It seemed suddenly not only plausible to keep up with the maintenance I had once thought too much, but also perfect for the birds given the weather. I always worried before about the cons of bird feeding: it would feel like cheating, it would spread disease and attract mice and I’d rather just get to see them by chance.

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A Chestnut-backed Chickadee silhouette in the snow.

…and then I went birding for a year, read birding books and saw other feeders out and about and how cool it was to watch. So, after careful research on bird feeder care, what type of feeder and seed to get and how to position it in a safe, attractive spot, I went out and purchased my first bird feeder.

The first day I put it out in December, I watched and waited. I sprinkled some seeds on the ground to try to attract birds’ attention. A couple of Dark-eyed Juncos and Spotted Towhees took advantage of the fallen seeds, leaving little prints in the snow, but no one else came.

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I was nearly ready to give up on my backyard feeding when suddenly the chickadees found my feeder on Friday! After another good snowfall earlier last week, things were thawing out. Maybe that’s what finally attracted the birds to my feeder.

I knew once the Chestnut-backed Chickadees showed up, everyone else would follow! At first, the chickadees monopolized the feeder, quickly flying in and out. Over time, they seemed more comfortable and spent more time on the feeder. They would often wait in line on nearby branches for the feeder to become available.

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Chestnut-backed Chickadees were, not surprisingly, first at my feeder! Perhaps this one is loudly telling everyone else where the good food is at.

Soon enough, my second visitor was the Red-breasted Nuthatch. At first, he seemed shyer and more sensitive to disturbances and was very quick about visiting the feeder, but boy was I wrong! I read that they tend to rule the feeders, being small and mighty, kicking everyone else off! By day two, I was definitely seeing such behavior from him. He’d buzz in, chirping loudly, sometimes aggressively chasing away the chickadees before landing in for his mealtime.

Aside from the stars of my show so far, I’ve also had lots of beautiful Dark-eyed Juncos feeding off the seeds spilled onto the ground, as well as a lone Song Sparrow. Oh, and the squirrels of course…they like to come clean up the area after the birds have about finished.

Now that I have my feeder, I don’t regret it for a moment! I still worry over spreading disease and attracting predators, but I take appropriate steps to prevent both. I am so excited to see what other birds come to visit and to continue watching my regulars, too! I’ve already noticed much I had missed about them before, like the flight pattern of the chickadee. The best surprise yet? Happening to spot two Varied Thrush in the backyard because I was watching my feeder. I probably would never have seen them had I not been looking that way already!

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While watching my feeder, I spotted two Varied Thrush in the backyard! I’d heard them before and identified them by their distinct sound, but could never spot them to confirm. Guess I definitely know they are back there now and I feel so lucky to have these beautiful Pacific Northwest natives in my own yard!

Frosty mornings & lessons in winter birding

While I am a lover of summer time, we are lucky here in Victoria when it comes to winter birding! Quite a few resident birds stay here throughout the year while many others head down from the north to enjoy our mild winter.

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Lingering frost on a crisp winter’s morning.

Now that I’ve been through my first winter of birding, I know easily who the visitors are now and who I can expect to see. In the winter, I look forward to seeing lots of lovely seabirds and ducks come south to our region. From Harlequin Ducks to Surf Scoters and American Wigeons, they are all a joy to watch. I wonder if, for them, coming south is like a welcome vacation from the cold?

Meanwhile, resident birds get cozy in the cold with many of them forming flocks, like robins and chickadees. In fact, little chickadees are often the ringleaders of mixed species flocks, which will also include nuthatches, creepers and even the occasional woodpecker.

Its not a bad idea to flock together in the winter – flocking helps them stay warm, find food and keep alert for danger. There’s safety in numbers and the raptors need a meal in the winter, too.

 

I have been enjoying the visitors and residents alike this winter. There will always be something special to me about birding in the winter here. Not only did I learn a lot about birding last winter, but it also helped heal the hole left in my heart after the loss of my beloved cat.  Winter can be a tough time at its best, and last year, birding made it all much better. Remember to treat yourself with kindness and take time for the things you love most in life.

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This Cooper’s Hawk was perched high above a small inlet where mallards, wigeons and goldeneyes paddled and dabbled in the water.

Back home in BC and observing some familiar backyard birds

Even though I love travelling and its often energizing and inspiring to me, I also love returning home. Besides those comforts of home, its good to be back near the ocean again, to be around familiar birds again and, of course, to see little Amber again.

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Amber in a favored spot, likely watching the birds, too.

Though not technically in my backyard, before I left, I had been watching the osprey closely. They were appearing to have begun settling in and were spending more time at the nest despite some unwelcome visitors, including a third osprey and bald eagles.

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Osprey, the sea-hawk (male), keeping watch over the area. He stayed here for a long time, possibly keeping watch out for that third osprey or other threats.

I saw them mate a few times and hopefully the female will lay eggs soon. I finally learned how to distinguish the male from the female osprey: a female has brown speckling across her breast where the male is fully white. I’d been puzzling over this for some time.

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Osprey in flight

My backyard is full of both familiar and new birds and spring activity. Where months ago, I’d seen a Pileated Woodpecker in a tree in the backyard numerous times, I heard a pecking on the tree and looked up. Instead of a woodpecker, I spotted a little Red-breasted Nuthatch in the very same tree.

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Pileated Woodpecker

I then regularly spotted the nuthatch in the tree. I wonder if perhaps he was using an old nesting cavity from the woodpecker? He seemed to be working hard every day, though, so maybe he was building his own. I love watching these little nuthatches scurry up and down the tree trunks as if gravity didn’t exist.

Its exciting to spot new birds and explore new territory, I also find a great joy in seeing regular visitors and observing their behavior and patterns. I like getting to know the locals.

 

The Bushtit was a new bird for me and was tricky to photograph as she looked very busy out gathering nesting materials before the threaten of looming rain came in the afternoon. I found her challenging to identify because of her rather non-descript, or drab, plumage.

 

Not only birds, but other animals are preparing for and taking care of young as well. I watched this Eastern Gray Squirrel nimbly climb from the ground, up a tree trunk, then across tiny branches across to another tree only to hang upside-down in order to dine on some flowers. She’d seemed to plot out the safest path to her food-source, avoiding exposing herself on open ground for too long. She was very efficient about it, which is not at all surprising considering this invasive species has found great success here.

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Eastern Grey Squirrel foraging in the trees

I am sure spring will bring other interesting wildlife and beauty, birds new and old alike, and greater opportunity to get outdoors with longer and warmer days. There is much to look forward to!

Why you should start winter birding (especially if you are a beginner)

You might think winter is a barren season with little life thriving, but if you take a look around, you will begin to see life everywhere. Despite the shorter days and cold weather, winter birding is becoming a favourite time of mine. While it may seem counter-intuitive, it is a great time for beginners like me. I only started seriously bird-watching this past summer, and I am finding the winter easier. Here’s why:

  • There are fewer species out and about, so it is easier to both spot and identify local birds.
  • One of the best things is the birds are much easier to see perched in the trees on bare branches rather than flowering, green ones in the spring or summertime.
  • Many migrating birds and birds of prey show up in the winter depending on where you live.
  • Its got to be good for your health to get out and about in the fresh air from time to time in the winter!
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Chestnut-backed Chickadee

Just start out in the backyard and take it from there. Local parks, along streams or ponds and nature sanctuaries are all great places to get started. Birds can be found in even the biggest of cities. Look at the Painted Bunting that recently created a huge stir appearing in New York City earlier this month! You’ll never know what you might find until you open your eyes and start looking around.

Many people choose to bring out the bird feeders over the winter. This is especially important if you live in an area where bears will be attracted to the food so it is safer for both them and you if you limit your bird-feeding to the winter. This is very important as bears who successfully get bird food will continue to come back to a reliable food source and this often ends badly for the bear. Besides, food is less plentiful during this time anyway. (Read some useful tips on feeding birds in bear country from the Five Valleys Audubon Society. WildSafeBC also has other great information on tips for limiting bear attractants and more bear safety information.)

Personally, I choose not to feed birds as I prefer watching them in natural habitat rather than drawing them in with food. However, if you do wish to put out bird food (I can understand the appeal), I’d recommend these tips from the Audubon Society. Its important to remember that birds congregating at feeders can sometimes spread disease, so its important to feed right!

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American Robin

I am lucky enough to live in the Pacific Northwest where temperatures don’t plummet very far compared to much of the rest of North America at my latitude or further north. Birds I have been seeing frequently this winter around my backyard or neighbourhood so far include Dark-eyed Juncos, Chestnut-backed Chickadees (pictured top), Stellar’s Jay, American Robins (pictured above), Spotted Towhees, various sparrows and Anna’s Hummingbirds.