The little hummingbird that could

I went out for a walk a couple weeks ago and paused at the top of the hill to enjoy the view when I saw a hummingbird zipping up high into the air and back down again, landing in the top branches of a small tree. Male Anna’s Hummingbirds display a similar sort of behaviour when attracting a mate; they zip up high into the sky and emit a very loud ‘Squeak!’ before zooming down and around in a great swoop and hovering in the air momentarily, their wings flapping so furiously they are a blur. Then they display their fabulously bright gorget at females to entice them (see photo below).

the bright pink iridescent gorget of the Anna’s Hummingbird – sometimes I like to think they’re showing it off just for me…

My hummer was showing this type of behaviour, and a couple of weeks ago in September, I watched two of them aggressively chasing one another around an apple tree. Its a bit early for mating behaviour (they mate as early as December), but I thought of another reason why they might be feeling extra-aggressive right now. Because, yes, small though they are, hummingbirds are aggressive, territorial birds. My theory? Here in Victoria, we have a good population of resident Anna’s Hummingbirds that stay here through the winter, but there are still some migratory birds among their number. I think our resident birds are defending their territories from the migratory population moving through.

the fierce Anna’s Hummingbird looking a little ragged, but maybe its just the wind?

And it is not only other hummingbirds that Anna’s Hummingbirds will move to boost from their area. The first thing I noticed about this little hummingbird was that he looked a little bit ragged. The second thing I noticed was how he zipped around madly each time another bird dared to land in his tree. He brazenly chased away a Hermit Thrush out of his tree soon after the unfortunate thrush decided to try landing there. He squeaked and zoomed and soon the thrush flew off to find a tree with a less noisy neighbour.

The Hermit Thrush who didn’t last long in the hummer’s tree

Not long after my hummer landed back on the top of his tree, presumably feeling quite satisfied and proud of his deeds, a Dark-eyed Junco dared to swoop in and pop a perch on the opposite side of the branches. It wasn’t long at all before the hummer chased him off, too, though he was a tad more stubborn than the thrush had been and eventually moved off to a nearby rock. Once more, my hummer was victorious, and he found a little bit of peace and quiet while no one else decided to invade his perfect tree. This just goes to show that the smallest birds can sometimes be the toughest, too.

The Dark-eyed Junco who was not afraid of the hummingbird
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The Dark-eyed Junco, 0-1 after his defeat.
Zipping back to resume his perch after playing defense
The victorious, the proud, the Anna’s Hummingbird

Summer’s ended, now comes the rain

Although summer took its time in showing up this year, once it started, it was long, hot and dry. In just the last two weeks, temperatures have gone from 30 to 14. Fall has officially arrived with the first rainfall finally arriving after more than 50 consecutive days without rain. Before I know it, we’ll be getting October storms of wind and rain whipping through, but for now it makes for a nice change.

As I change from wearing shorts to pants, fall migration is already underway. I’m sad to see my favourite summer birds, namely the swallows and warblers (hmm and the Turkey Vultures…its so hard to choose) leaving, but excited for the different birds that may cross my path. I’m gearing up for possibly meeting some new birds, but also my old winter friends. Especially all the ducks! I just love ducks…

Osprey at the nest back in April on one of my few visits

Looking back over my summer, though, I didn’t get out as much as I would have liked. I’m sad to say I didn’t go see my local Osprey nest more than a couple of times and I have no idea if they successfully mated or raised young this year. I think it was a by-product of being stuck working more than 40 hours most weeks and not getting reliable weekends off. Another stalling factor was my camera being out of commission for a couple of weeks getting repaired because I love photographing the osprey.

my Dark-eyed Junco momma…

I am not sure if my biggest disappointment is the Osprey nest I hardly visited or if the failure of my backyard nest is. Yes, the Dark-eyed Junco momma I watched building her nest for days back in June was unfortunately brought back to my door by none other than Amber…for the rest of the day, I watched another junco (presumably her mate) calling and calling, presumably for his lost mate. It broke my heart a little. No baby juncos and one more native bird gone.

White-crowned Sparrow (non-breeding)

It was a different kind of summer than all the nest-watching I got in last year. I met a lot of new birds out east as well as a few around here, and I got more confident at some of my identification skills. I learned the calls of the Golden-crowned Sparrow (“oh dear me”), the White-crowned Sparrow (“Oh Sweet Canada Canada Canada”), the Common Yellowthroat (“witchity-witchity-witchity-wit” – the one I kept hearing but did not know which bird it belonged to for ages!), found a Wilson’s Warbler all on my own and learned how to differentiate the song of the Black-headed Grosbeak from an American Robin. Steady progress.

The more I bird, the more I realize I am much better at birding by sound than sight. I don’t have the best eyesight, but I am usually able to learn songs and calls and be able to remember who it belongs to (as long as I can actually find the bird when I hear it to match it up).

Black-headed Grosbeak I spotted by its song
Common Yellowthroat, small and likes to hide in the bushes!
Savannah Sparrow I think I now feel confident identifying

So, I am still getting better and learning lots! I’ve come a long way from the early days. This week, I’ve seen my first American Pipit and Northern Harrier I was able to identify. I’m still learning, and looking back, this summer wasn’t as big a loss as it could have been despite the setbacks. I even got away on a couple of nice trips.

Nevertheless, I am hoping to get out more during the fall, especially with migration, and not miss out as much as I did this summer! A new job with regular hours and weekends should help my efforts. I’ve been working on learning gulls and raptors, and had the chance to spot shorebirds this summer, too. Please feel free to correct my IDs below if you have other thoughts! Its not always easy trying to totally self-teach myself birds, but there is also great satisfaction in finding and identifying them on your own…

Western Sandpiper (breeding) – rufous on crown and scapulars, spotted breast, seen in June
Western Sandpiper (non-breeding) – I think? seen in August
Least Sandpipers with greenish legs distinguishing them, seen in August
Glaucous-winged Gull with pink legs and grey wingtips

With fall, the birds are stocking up on high-calorie food like berries, preparing to migrate while others build up caches of food for the winter. Its strange that I am more excited for winter than I ever used to be since becoming a birder. With La Nina this year, its shaping up to be another cold and snowy one (well, for Victoria, anyway…), but the winter ducks and putting up my feeder again will make it easier to bear! For now, I say goodbye to summer and one of my favourite summer birds, the Purple Martin….

Purple Martin

Notes on backyard birding with a surprise

The other morning, I found something exciting in my backyard just outside my window. I first noticed a bird flying around under the porch and around one of the posts. Then, I saw the nest – a Dark-eyed Junco nest!

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a Dark-eyed Junco nest under the porch

The day before, I’d sat watching the junco in the garden calling out chip notes as she moved from perch to perch. At the time, I didn’t notice the nest or it wasn’t there yet. After I noticed the nest, I watched the junco work on building it; flying over to a brush pile and collecting bits of grass in her beak.

I think she must be a female because, according to Cornell, the females build the nest and chooses the site. With a 12 to 13 day incubation period, I’ll have to keep my eyes out in a few days.

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Dark-eyed Junco building a nest

She never flew straight to the nest from the brush pile, but hopped onto nearby perches and branches as if scoping out the territory and ensuring it was safe to approach her nest. This pattern of work continued many times throughout the morning. I am so excited to have a nest in my yard – I am hoping it is successful, but we will have to wait and see! I can’t wait to watch and see what happens. I haven’t seen her since, but that’s because she is busy sitting on her nest. This story is to be continued…

One successful nester (or rather nest-ee?) is the Brown-headed Cowbird, who was also out in my yard that morning. This is the first one I’ve seen in my yard yet, which means some other bird has worked hard this spring to raise this juvenile cowbird, possibly in place of one of their own. In order to save energy for other pursuits, Brown-headed Cowbirds engage in nest parasitism – they lay eggs in other birds’ nests, sometimes displacing an original egg to do so.

Not long after, I looked up to see a bird land on a wire, a Chipping Sparrow, and mere moments later, a male bird flew over and they mated. It was a quick affair, but I somehow got a couple of photos of them in the act. I’m not sure how creepy that is yet, but its neat to think there might be some Chipping Sparrow chicks somewhere in my yard soon, too!

 

Nothing really beats the joy of birding in your own backyard. Watching the residents year-round and the migrants arrive and leave again. Finding a nest is just a plus. Looking out the window and wondering who is that bird I see back there? After all, isn’t it how we all got started birding really?

Spring is a busy time for birds with hunting, singing and nest-building to do!

Besides more sunshine and flowers, spring has brought other exciting things, too! I’ve had some lovely times out birding given the chance. Its been nice fitting in some adventures out and about on sunny or rainy days.

I saw my first Orange-crowned Warbler of the season, an absolute joy to see! Something about them brings a smile to my face watching them: with their yellow feathers and their lovely, cheery song! I listened to a pair of warblers sing to (or with?) each other in the trees. I wonder if it was a mating call or something else. Regardless, they’ve got to be one of my favourite birds to watch and I felt so lucky to see them!

Orange-crowned Warbler
Orange-crowned Warbler (the orange crown is just barely visible in this photo)

Just out of the corner of my eye, I spotted something that caught my eye in the trees – a bushtit’s nest! The Bushtit was flitting to and from the nest, from a small opening at the top. Bushtits build hanging nests from tree branches out of plant material and spiderwebs to make it stretch down. The breeding pair sleeps in the nest each night along with other male adults who help build the nest! Seems like this nest would be quite cozy. See photos below…to avoid disturbing the nest (as I never want to displace or reveal a breeding pair), I only took photos from afar behind the cover of a cypress tree nearby.

Its not just Bushtits working on raising young… I spied a Dark-eyed Junco between branches gathering nesting materials, her beak full of grass and moss. While Bushtits work together on nests, momma Juncos do it all on their own! Again, I watched carefully so as not to disturb her hard work.

Everyone else is busy, too. Song Sparrows have been particularly noisy lately belting out their variety of songs. While they tend to spend more of their time foraging in the brush on the ground, Spotted Towhees are out singing on their perches, too. Speaking of noisy birds, not many are noisier than the Bewick’s Wren.

I tend to bird a lot by ear, and I think I am finally able to identify this wren’s song reliably and they are much more common than I had thought! Walking a trail the other day, I heard a rustling on the ground and paused to watch and listen. After a few patient moments, out hopped a Bewick’s Wren with his lunch caught in his beak! At first I thought it was a seed but it turned out to be a fly. I watched him working hard, like a smaller, woodland version of gull dropping a crab on rocks, as he dropped the fly and repeatedly picked it up again. I imagine their down-curved beak helps them peck away at their prey.

Song Sparrow
Spotted Towhee
Bewick’s Wren with a fly in his beak
Bewick’s Wren, fly on the ground
Bewick’s Wren with the fly once more

I had my first-ever sighting of Green-winged Teals at a flood plain! They are just gorgeous and make the most interesting sounds! They were off on the side of the water doing their own thing while Buffleheads, Mallards, Ring-necked Ducks and Northern Shovelers paddled about on the more open waters. Just after spotting the teals, I saw a Killdeer in the grass. Along the edges of the water and among the cattails were quite a few Red-winged Blackbirds.

Green-winged Teals (female left, male right)
Ring-necked Ducks (female left, male right)
Killdeer

One of my most-anticipated spring arrivals just returned last week! Osprey have made their way back north to breed for the northern summer and our local pair have returned to last year’s nest. I went to watch them one afternoon but only saw one of the pair at the nest. She (I believe as she has mottled brown across the chest) was working on re-building and repairing the nest from last year and flew in and out, returning with new branches each time, then carefully placing them just so in the nest. She called out every now and again, I am guessing to stay in communication with her mate and became especially loud when a bald eagle flew far overhead. As predators of young Osprey, I have no doubt she was aware of the eagle’s presence.

It was inspiring to see them back again, like long lost friends, and I hope they raise successful fledglings again this year! I will be watching their progress again over the season and you can be sure there will be updates here like last year! The pair was successful at raising three fledglings last year and I watched them all the way from nest-building through to being awkward chicks to becoming proud juvenile sea-hawks! It is my hope I will get to see it all over again this summer!

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…

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.

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.

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.

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Last week’s snow at dusk.

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.

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.

The Red-breasted Nuthatch: tiny, agile and surprisingly, the king of the feeder as he rules over the other birds. I like his small but powerful attitude.
I cannot get enough of the nuthatch, who I believe is the same one who I’ve seen before living in a tree in the back. In fact, I saw him fly in and back from that very tree. He is difficult to photograph as he doesn’t tend to spend too much time on the feeder and seems to fly away every time I go to take a shot as if knowing he is eluding me.

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.

Dark-eyed Junco feeding on fallen seeds.
Song Sparrow also eating fallen seeds.
This Eastern Grey Squirrel appreciate the seeds, too..

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!

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!

Why I don’t bird competitively: am I a non-traditional birder?

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Steller’s Jay

I am not a competitive person in the traditional sense. I never have been. In fact, I once played on a sports team for a few years that won once every season at best. To be honest, I didn’t really mind, I was only playing for fun (looking back, maybe that was the problem?). When I stopped playing music competitively, I started enjoying it even more. My teachers could never understand why I didn’t want to compete, but I just wanted to play. I’m either missing a gene or I just know how to appreciate things without needing someone to tell me I am “the best”. Must be the same reason I don’t bird competitively or even aim to see “X” number of species in a year…

Dark-eyed Junco

There is something about driving two hours to see a bird just to add it to a list that rubs me the wrong way. For me, birding is a special personal quiet time I spend surrounded by nature. I find it calms my mind and spirit, and it brings me a sense of peace. The world is so loud to me sometimes that I relish the quiet. I recently watched A Birder’s Guide to Everything and the main character says there are three kinds of birders: feeder fillers, listers and watchers. I don’t think I’m any of those.

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Anna’s Hummingbird

What I love about birding is that it gets me outdoors and provides a great opportunity to learn something new. I get so excited when I see a new bird I haven’t learned yet, but I get equally excited to see ones I now know and can identify! Learning something new must be great for my brain and it likewise gives me a great feeling of accomplishment when I finally work out what bird I am looking at.

Call me a non-traditional or not serious birder, but I don’t aim to tick every species off my list or plan to embark on a Big Year anytime soon. To me, these things practically make birding a commercial venture, which to me, completely takes away from the experience.

I am not saying there is something wrong with being a list-fulfiller, we just have different styles. I’m just choosing not to make a special trip to see “rare bird Y” two hours away from me, but instead to enjoy and observe what is around me already wherever I happen to be.

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Anna’s Hummingbird

So I guess I am more of an accidental birder. I don’t always go seeking them out, I just like to observe what I see where I already am. I don’t even own binoculars. I’m sure many other birders would be aghast to hear that, but I enjoy my simple style of peaceful, modest and green bird-watching and that’s all that really matters.

I’d like to encourage you to embrace the idea of green or backyard birding in whatever way works for you. Especially if you are more serious about birding than I am. Take a look around your neighbourhood and you will find more life than you may have thought possible! Put down your smartphone and open your eyes; beauty can be found all around you if you just look for it.