Tarnished gold

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Photo by Dan

Feeding birds in one’s yard makes for excellent photo opportunities. The birds come in close, and are distracted by the food, so you can sneak in and get some great up-close shots, providing you don’t mind having the feeders in the background. Sometimes, if you anticipate where the birds are going to land, you can get some good photos of them coming in and waiting their turns for the feeders, too. Between Dan and myself, I have quite a few pictures of birds at feeders. Many don’t make it up to the blog, for various reasons. A few do, however, particularly ones of new birds, or interesting behaviours or observations.

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Photo by Dan

Today’s post falls into the latter, sort of. We had a cold snap roll in, and along with the four inches of snow it brought, the temperatures have dropped to about -10 oC (14 oF). It’s the sort of weather that drives birds to feeders in droves. We’ve had some 20+ Blue Jays visiting the platform feeders regularly, a dozen American Tree Sparrows, and the regular chickadees, nuthatches, and Hairy Woodpeckers. Also the above American Goldfinches. Back in the fall I bought a nyger sock for the finches, partially because it was cheap (it was $10, filled, while the traditional tubes were $12, empty), but also because the tube that we had, hand-me-downed from my mom, had accidentally gotten stepped on at some point in our settling-in process, and we needed something to replace it.

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I’d never tried a sock feeder before, but had read positive things about them, one being that they can serve more birds than a tube can, since the tube has a limited number of openings to draw seed through, but a sock can be perched on from any angle and seed taken from anywhere. Right now all we have are goldfinches coming to the yard, but pretty much any finch interested in nyger seed may use the feeder, since finches in general are acrobats when it comes to eating, able to hang upside down from a branch (or nyger sock) to access seeds. Because of the way the feeder was hung next to a branch, though, we also spotted an American Tree Sparrow perched and reaching over to grab a few seeds from it. I didn’t get photos of him, which is too bad.

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Masses of goldfinches aren’t especially unusual, as we can probably expect to see them at the feeders anytime we have a bit of inclement weather this winter, but these were the first real feeding frenzies of the season. I’m thinking I may go out and get a second sock, since even though more can cram on a sock than a tube, there were still more birds perched on the branches than there were on the feeder. Goldfinches are a squabbly bunch, a bit territorial once they’ve picked out a good feeding spot, reluctant to let another get too close in case they try to usurp it. You see that with Common Redpolls, too, the other finch that regularly comes around in large flocks. Pine Siskins are another species that favours nyger, but tend not to visit in quite the numbers that the other two do. We had siskins flying over the house in late fall but haven’t heard any lately. They were forecasted to leave the province for locales further south by the Ontario Field Ornithologists‘ resident Finch Forecaster, Ron Pittaway, so we may not get many, or any at all. Redpolls should show up, though, and Dan heard one in the yard today. It hasn’t made a visit to the feeder yet, however.

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Goldfinches at this time of year are often mistaken for a different species of bird. Most people think of the bright gold-and-black male when they think goldfinch, but in the fall the males moult out all their bright feathers and adopt the drab plumage of the females for the winter. It’s better camouflage than the flashy colours, and while the yellow really attracts the attention of the girls, there’s no advantage to being bright at this time of year. You can still tell the males from the females if you look carefully. Males will often retain some of the brighter yellow around their face and throats, but failing that, they will have crisp black wings, while females will generally have brown-black wings. You can also tell age – adults have relatively white wingbars (sometimes tinged brown), while those of birds hatched this summer will be mostly brownish. Hatch-year males won’t show all that yellow around the face, only the adults will (it’s “left over” from their summer breeding plumage), which is another indicator of age/sex class. Of course, like with anything, there will always be intermediates that you may not be sure about. Most of the birds coming to our feeder today seemed to be adult males, though many were sort of intermediate. Only one I was definitively sure was a young bird, shown above.

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Photo by Dan

Although we have goldfinches in our yards year-round, they are a migratory species. The birds we have at our feeders right now aren’t the ones that will be breeding here next summer, but short of banding studies where you can mark individuals, it’s difficult to tell the difference. They’re short-distance migrants, moving just far enough south for it to feel warm compared to where they came from. Being regular feeder-visitors, they are perhaps able to get by a bit further north than they would naturally go, since their foraging is supplemented by artificial food sources (the source is artificial, not the food). However, don’t worry about your food running out or removing your feeders if you’re gone for a while – birds are resourceful, and they’ll just move on to the next feeder or food source, or head on further south if there’s not enough where they are.

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Dan commented this evening after taking Raven out to pee that he can’t help but keep envisioning some poor goldfinch sitting on a branch somewhere, shivering its tail feathers off, and he just doesn’t know how they do it. Staying warm in the winter is definitely a challenge. Right now the temperature outside is -17.5 oC (0.5 oF), and still dropping. Even bundled up to my max, with my long johns and down jacket and a couple sweaters and two pairs of socks, I would still freeze if I just sat still outside all night. So Dan’s question is a valid one – just how do the little birds do it?

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They actually employ a few strategies to make it through cold winter nights. The first is in the form of adding extra insulation by fluffing up all their feathers. In doing so they trap air against their skin. Air is an excellent insulator, and is the premise behind the functionality of a down jacket – down works so well because it traps air in all the tiny little gaps between the fluffy feather barbs. Fluffing their feathers is a bird’s equivalent of throwing on an extra coat.

The second is an evolutionary adaptation. The arteries and veins that go down to their feet run side-by-side down the leg. The feet, exposed to the ambient temperatures as they are, can get quite cold. As the blood from the body flows through the artery down to the feet, the blood that’s in the feet runs back to the body in the vein right beside it. The heat in the arterial blood gets transferred to the heat in the venous blood, so that the venous blood is warm when it reenters the body, and the arterial blood is cold when it reaches the feet. Often, in very cold temperatures, the blood in the feet may be only just above freezing – just enough to keep the tissues in the feet from freezing and developing gangrene. There are no muscles in the feet, only tendons and bone (the muscles that control the toes are located up on the thigh and are protected by feathers), so keeping the feet warm isn’t as important, as long as they don’t freeze. By reducing the temperature of the blood servicing the feet the bird is able to avoid unwanted heat loss through their uninsulated skin.

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And finally, they seek out sheltered spots, out of the wind and snow, to spend the night. This could be tucked up in the protection of some evergreen branches, or against a trunk, or in a shrub beside a snowbank. Some birds might use tree cavities or bird boxes. By minimizing their exposure to wind and other weather they can reduce the amount of heat lost. As well, birds that huddle up against a tree trunk or other solid object can benefit from the small amount of infrared radiation (heat) the tree or object builds up during the day and then releases overnight (you’ll sometimes see rings of melted snow around the base of a tree trunk, which are caused by this infrared radiation). They stuff themselves with seeds during the day so that they have a huge store of energy available for overnight. They spend the night shivering, which can burn off as much as 7 to 15% of their body weight – so it’s imperative that they put on that equivalent during their foraging during the day. This is like a 150 lb person burning off 15 lbs overnight while they sleep – and so having to pack on 15 lbs of fat during the day to accommodate for it (otherwise you’d get real thin real quick). Although we think of shivering as a bad thing, it is an animal’s normal way of generating extra heat in cold conditions, since they can’t just curl up by the fire or pull up another duvet. Birds really are amazing critters, surviving in conditions we would consider unimaginable.

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The birdfeeders are hung just outside the windows where we can see them easily from indoors. The cats like to sit on the windowsill and watch, as well. The buzzing activity at the nyger feeder caught Merlin’s attention, and he sat and watched them for a while as they darted in and out, squabbling and scattering and coming back again. We don’t let them out to wander, so this will probably be as close as Merlin will ever get to a bird (at least, I hope so), but he seemed content to just birdwatch.

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Today at Kingsford

American Goldfinch and Black-capped Chickadee

I’ve had a busy few days! I was back in Toronto for a couple of them, for a semi-annual post-surgery doctor’s appointment. I’m now five years post-surgery, and they’ve finally graduated me to annual follow-ups. (For those who are curious, the surgery was to correct a potentially life-threatening condition where I had spontaneous tissue growth in my trachea, and required removal of that section of airway. It was a very formative experience in my life, and has put a lot of things in perspective and influenced me in a lot of ways. I’m appreciative of being able to breathe these days, but the follow-up appointments are still a bit of a pain.)

In addition to that, which had me away from home for two days (Toronto’s no longer just around the corner anymore!), Blackburnian’s mom was up to visit, and I’ve also been rather occupied with the new puppy. We’ve been working on housetraining her, and between that and following her around removing things from her mouth, she’s been requiring a lot of my attention (this doesn’t surprise me, but nonetheless does take up a lot of my time). We took her in to the vet today for her first shots and general vet check. She’s in great health, and was a little angel for the vet, had her nails clipped and got her vaccination without even a whimper, nevermind a fuss. We finally decided to name her Raven, after mulling it over for several days (and the only reason we settled on that now was because we needed to give the vet’s office a name). It seemed appropriate on several levels, the most superficial of course being that she’s black, and we have ravens here (whereas we didn’t back in Toronto).

So with all the goings-on I haven’t had time to formulate a full blog post, though I have a few subjects lined up that will hopefully go up over the next couple days. In the meantime, I’ve been watching the birds at our feeders. The above photo is from a few days ago. I set out the feeder a couple weeks ago, and for a while it sat full of seed, but unvisited. After a bit a chickadee found it, and has been visiting it regularly since. I was pretty pleased to have some bird traffic, but not unsurprised to see that the chickadee was the first to arrive. Perhaps a week or so later, I saw this goldfinch join him at the feeder. In fact, there were two goldfinches, apparently both females; I have never been so excited to see a goldfinch. Admittedly, it was just a matter of time till they showed up, but I was still pleased.

American Goldfinch male and fledglings

Today I noticed a male visiting the feeder. He was in heavy moult, and looking a little ratty in the rainy weather. With him were two recently-fledged juveniles, still tagging along after daddy begging for food. It was fairly obvious that they were fledglings, for one because they would sit beside him fluttering their wings like crazy, and for two because they were chirping and chirping away. It was all the noise they were making that first drew my attention to the window. Dad was quiet, so far as I could tell. It’s about the right time for young goldfinches to be leaving the nest, birds whose eggs were laid back at the beginning of August.

American Goldfinch male and fledglings

Dad spent a lot of time ignoring the youngsters, content to pick through the sunflower seeds while they cheeped away nearby. Eventually they figured out that he wasn’t going to offer them any food, and started poking around on their own. The one on the left figured the feeder out pretty quickly, the one on the right was a little slower to pick up on it. That didn’t stop Lefty from begging from Dad as soon as he happened to look his way, however. Isn’t that sort of what human teenagers do?

American Goldfinch male and fledglings

Righty, still hoping for a handout, Lefty munching away happily on a seed. Besides just their behaviour, however, it’s also obvious they’re young birds for another reason. Although Dad’s wings are looking pretty worn down these days, the tips to his feathers are a crisp white. Mom’s wings would also show white edging. Baby’s feathers, however, have a tan or buff edging to them. This is especially clear in the wing-bars. They’ll retain that colour throughout the winter, so you can pick out the adults from the young-of-the-year when watching the goldfinches at your feeders this winter.

A birding interlude

Pine Warbler

I’ve been very busy this week, it feels like I’ve barely been home. I returned to my parents’ on Monday, and remained there till Wednesday morning, whereupon I headed out for a dentist appointment. Fortunately this was just to have some routine x-rays done and a couple other similarly benign procedures, so it wasn’t a terrible trip. Then yesterday Blackburnian and I headed off to his mom’s place for the afternoon and stayed overnight to do some mothing. We returned home late this morning, and I’ve spent most of the morning photographing and subsequently editing the photos of the moths we got. I’ll have some catching up to do this weekend on various projects, tasks and chores that were put on hold while I’ve been away this week.

I’ve been trying to contribute to I and the Bird on a regular basis, but realized when the deadline came up for this edition that I hadn’t actually posted anything about birds since before the previous edition (which are semi-monthly). This is a little strange considering how birds are my primary interest, but I suspect part of it has just been a lack of good photos or notable observations. I haven’t had a lot of chance to just go out and stalk some birds – either the weather’s been not-so-hot or I’ve been busy trying to complete a survey and couldn’t dawdle with the camera.

However, while at my parents’ this week I decided to take my camera and go out to track down a couple of warblers I’ve heard singing for a while, despite the rather overcast skies that makes getting good photos near impossible. I headed up to the woodsy area behind the barn where the birds have been singing for a couple weeks. I gave a few good pishes and the birds came right in. The first one to give me a good look was the above Pine Warbler, which flew right to the open branches above my head and, after a minute or two of checking me out, began to sing. He’s an annual resident there, the first warbler to arrive in spring, his musical trill a constant from the huge White Pines in the forest behind the house.

Mourning Warbler

The other warbler was this Mourning Warbler, who was much more reluctant to come forward and be seen. This is the first time I can recall a Mourning being at my parents’. They do breed throughout southern Ontario, but I’ve never encountered them there before. Most of my breeding Mourning experiences date back to when I worked for the Toronto Zoo some eight years ago. Mournings are among my favourite warblers, so I was very pleased to discover that the bird I’d heard last week was still hanging about the same spot this week. I’d expected he was likely just a migrant, present for a few days while he fueled up, but he seems to have actually set up shop back there. I wonder if he has a girl.

Common Yellowthroat

After the dentist appointment I was feeling ravenous, and decided to stop by Tim Horton’s on my way home to grab some lunch. The Tim’s store isn’t a very exciting place to eat, though, so I thought I’d find a spot out on one of the backroads in the countryside somewhere where I could pull over and listen to the birds. The spot I chose was a little dead-end road not far off the highway (I could still hear the roar of the highway traffic, though it was muffled by a lot of trees), where they’d run the end of the road through a small, thick swamp. I parked the car and opened the door, and the first bird I heard was this bright male Common Yellowthroat singing virtually right beside the car. I grabbed my camera and snuck over to where he was singing and pished him in. Like the Pine Warbler, as soon as he’d determined that there was nothing to worry about (which didn’t take him long) he returned to singing from within the thicket, his head thrown back and his chest all puffed out, hormones raging, I’m sure.

Baltimore Oriole

Another colourful bird to come in when I pished was this striking Baltimore Oriole. I don’t often get orioles to show much interest in me, so that was interesting. I also don’t tend to associate orioles with swamps, although they are often in riparian areas. They’re fairly common around here, but are more often heard than seen. It’s funny that such a brilliantly-coloured bird can be so difficult to spot. While at my parents’ I don’t see the male all that often, except when he comes to the oriole nectar feeder my mom has out.

American Goldfinch

And finally, a yellow bird. There were a couple of Yellow Warblers in the swamp with the oriole and yellowthroat, but I wasn’t able to get one to come down close enough for a decent shot. I did, however, get this other yellow bird, a sunny American Goldfinch. There seemed to be a small flock of goldfinches in the area, and they’d always respond when I pished at various points along the road. Goldfinches are late breeders, waiting for the thistles and other plants to go to seed and using the fluff to line their nests and the seeds to feed their young. They often won’t start building nests till late June or early July, when many other birds have already raised and fledged broods of young. So this group of birds I encountered were all still just hanging about, not having established territories yet (although two or three pairs may also nest in the same general area, in a loose colony).

It was nice to do a bit of visual birding where I wasn’t making tallies for each species (as I am for the surveys I’m doing). I find when I’m at my parents’ I’m often caught up in other things and tend to bird by ear, identifying what’s around based on what I’m hearing, but not actually going out to look for the singers.

Easter birds

Red-winged Blackbird

At my parents’ for Easter dinner yesterday, I popped outside for some around-the-house birding while waiting for the turkey to come out of the oven. I decided not to venture further because there’s still quite a bit of snow on the ground, and with the (slightly) warming temperatures it’s quite soft now. Also, the driveway practically requires galoshes to navigate cleanly, and I haven’t unpacked mine from the winter yet.

There was still a fair bit of activity even just around the house, which is where birds congregate due to the presence of the feeders. I had to wait a little while, but I did finally get to see the Red-winged Blackbirds that my mom had reported arrived the other day. They usually come to the seed spread out on the driveway in front of the house, but yesterday they were sticking to the cast-off litter under the feeders in the backyard, possibly because of the seven cars parked in the driveway turnaround surrounding the seed. One also visited the suet a couple of times, which was where I got the best photos of him.

This is just a youngster, a second-year bird, meaning he was hatched last year (as birds’ ages are labeled by calendar year – he won’t truly be a year old till the summer). You can tell because the black feathers on his back and wings are fringed with orangey-brown, a characteristic of young males.

American Goldfinch and Red-winged Blackbird

Behind the blackbird, a couple of American Goldfinches were coming to the nyger feeder. They’ve been mysteriously absent for the last couple of months, only just starting to return recently. I’m not sure where they all went. Normally they spend the winter mobbing the feeders in fairly substantial numbers. The most I’ve seen at a time since mid-winter has been three.

The males, like this guy, are starting to get their brilliant summer yellow plumage. You can see it all beginning to come in around his face. In the middle of winter you can still tell the males from the females despite their relatively drab plumage because some males will retain slightly brighter yellow faces. Also, their wings and tails are a sharp, crisp black, rather than the duller brownish-black that females sport.

European Starling

The starlings have settled in. There’s at least a couple of pairs present now, with the two males often counter-singing to each other from their respective territorial perches. This particular male seems to have chosen the north peak of the house as his nest site of choice. Here he pauses in his singing to check out the activity (me) below. Two starlings, a Blue Jay and a White-breasted Nuthatch are the birds to have discovered the suet dough, so far. The nuthatch takes respectable small pieces, but the other two species really toss it back when they visit the feeder.

Red-shouldered Hawk

While standing out there watching the feeder birds, I glanced up at a crow crossing the the sky, and happened to spot, up high behind it, this Red-shouldered Hawk moving with purpose to the north. It was right at the reach of my (relatively) short 300mm lens, this is a close crop on the original image. There are a pair of Red-shoulders that live in the neighbourhood every year. I’m not sure where they nest, other than that it’s somewhere to the west of my parents’ place. I regularly hear them calling from that direction in the summer.

I recall some years ago there being some concern over decreasing populations in the province, but I think these declines are more limited to the southwestern portion, west and southwest of Toronto. That said, the recent Ontario Breeding Bird Atlas recorded them in quite a number of areas where they hadn’t been 20 years ago. There is some likelihood that this is due in part to new surveys that were implemented for the species by Bird Studies Canada in 1991, contributing a lot more targeted effort than took place in the first atlas. Still, even taking this into consideration, the results of the atlas are encouraging, and probably suggest increasing forest cover in the south of the province as abandoned fields regenerate. They remain an uncommon species in most of my “home range”, and I’m always pleased to see one.

Also on the raptor front, although I wasn’t able to get a photo, I spotted a Turkey Vulture circling over the escarpment, the first of the season. They migrate south for the winter, so are always a welcome sight in the spring. Come summer you can usually see at least one or two over the escarpment where the topography of the cliffs creates great thermals for soaring. During the peak of migration you can have up to a couple dozen.

Common Redpoll

This Common Redpoll has been hanging around the feeders for a little while, she was there earlier in the week as well. She doesn’t seem to be doing too well, although I’m not sure what she might be ill with. She was feeding periodically, and moving around on the ground, but at other times would just sit on the feeder perch or at the top of the birdhouse in the centre of the garden, looking around but otherwise not doing much.

She’s identifiable primarily because she’s always fluffed up into a near-spherical shape. Fluffing like that is a bird’s way of putting on extra layers – when we would go grab an extra sweater, the birds will fluff up their feathers. The amount of fluffing is similar to the number of layers of clothing, as the air pocket trapped under the feathers, which traps warm air close to the body, will increase as the feathers are further raised. None of the other birds were fluffed this much, it wasn’t that cold out. Birds that are sick will usually fluff their feathers as well, I suspect in a similar reaction to our burying under the covers when we have a fever and are suffering chills.

She was too active for me to consider trying to catch her, and she is continuing to eat, so that’s in her favour. However, she was still sitting at the feeder at dusk, one lone redpoll. I hope she gets well.

Common Redpoll