Friday, January 1, 2016

Winter visitors

For gardeners, winter can be a slow period. Fortunately for those of us who are also bird lovers, winter is the prime season for viewing both common year round birds as well as winter-only visitors. Here are a few of the regular visitors to my garden this time of year. One could easily add more but I had to stop somewhere.

Winter is the time the American goldfinches show up. As is the case for many birds, the males are more brightly colored. For this bird, the males also sport the distinctive black spot on their forehead. Goldfinches love nyjer or thistle seed, which you can stock in either the appropriate tube feeder or in a mesh thistle sock. One good thing here is that squirrels are not interested in nyjer seed as it's too tiny. Goldfinches are such avaricious feeders that they'll keep feeding while you're a mere 10' away!

Our most consistent hummingbird in the Bay Area is the brightly colored Anna's hummingbird. When the sun reflects just right on their heads and throats bird lovers are treated to striking rose-pink colors. Larger than our other Bay Area hummer (Allen's), and more colorful, these guys will often hang around the entire year in milder zones. And of course we are treated to the male's unique courtship rituals and territorial squabbles with other males.

I often hear Bewick's Wrens before I spot them. A friend has described their call as the 'sound of a doorbell buzzer', a sort of "zzzztt, zzzztt" sound. They're easily ID'd by the upright tails and the overall coloring. They're a bit shy so it may take awhile to spot them.

Everybody knows this little fellow, the Chestnut-backed chickadee. So fast that you don't actually see it fly from a nearby tree to a bird feeder and then back, these birds are highly social and fearless. Many an experienced (and patient) birder has reported training them to eat seed out of their hands. And they have that lovely call -- chicka-dee-dee, chicka-dee-dee. They live year round here and are common sights at bird feeders.

Downy woodpecker. These guys are always such a treat when they come calling. They're after insects beneath the bark of trees (thus the hammering to excavate). They tend to show up in winter and if you have a suet feeder, that's their favorite non-insect food. Not all that big, a modest 7" in length, they can be a bit elusive and irregular in their visiting habits.

For perhaps the most common bird at people's feeders, the House finch sure is a colorful and pretty bird. Not fussy about what they eat, they prefer seeds of all kinds, they are quick to come to feeders once the chow's been put out. More industrious than you might think, they're experts at finding all manner of foods.

I'm lucky to have Northern flickers in my neighborhood. They're a fairly large bird and are distinctively patterned. Once you've ID'd this handsome guy you won't forget him. He's fond of insects, meaning you'll see him on the ground hunting worms and other nutritious insects.

Oaktits get my vote for the best combination of humorous looks and deadly efficiency. They're expert seed crackers, holding, say, a sunflower seed between its toes then hammering away at it with its beak. Just as fast as chickadees, they don't linger at feeders, zipping over to snatch a seed and then zooming back to the safety of a branch. Ounce for ounce one tough little character!

Perhaps our most frequent city hawk, Red-tails are both fearless hunters and surprisingly patient. They'll sometimes sit in a tree for 5-10 minutes at a time, surveying the scene. One of our larger hawks, with a body up to 25" and a wingspan approaching six feet, red-tails are simply magnificent birds. They show up in November and usually hang around till February, though they have been known to stay longer.

Ahh, the lowly sparrow. There are of course many kinds of sparrows around these parts and it's fun to try to ID which is which. Seed eaters like the finches they are comfortable hanging out with, sparrows live here year round. Once you take a closer look (and put out of your mind that they're common), they're actually pretty birds.

Swainson's Thrush. These guys are more common than you might think but the combination of the way their plumage blends into tree branches and their shy nature means we don't always notice them. They're known for their pretty song so sometimes you hear them first.

This may look a bit like a goldfinch of some sort but it's actually a Yellow-rumped warbler. Their superficial resemblance to goldfinches, especially as they flit by, means that we don't always realize that it's this cute warbler coming to our hummingbird feeders for a drink. As usual, males are more colorful than the females. They're usually around just for the winter.
Below is a handsome fellow indeed, the Northern Mockingbird. I'm lucky to have a family of them return to my street each year. They're especially recognizable in flight, where their white wing patches flash in the sun. They're primarily fruit eaters and I always see them on my neighbor's Persimmon tree, helping themselves. Once you've had mockingbirds you never forget. The males are famous, or infamous depending on your POV, for their amazingly varied - and LOUD - calls, which typically start at dusk. Which means they can still be 'singing' at 10 pm. Loudly. They come by their name honestly, being able to mimic (or mock) nearly every sound they hear. And if Endurance Singing were ever an Olympic sport, mockingbirds would take home the Gold. Many a human I'm sure has been tempted to open their window at 11 pm and yell "She's (female mockingbird) not listening. Shut the hell up!"

Perhaps America's most iconic bird (sorry bald eagle), the American robin is a familiar winter and spring sight. They too love worms and insects so you'll see them on the ground hunting for anything that wiggles.

Love 'em or hate 'em, Scrub jays aren't going anywhere so we may as well enjoy their brilliant blue foliage. Jays belong to the Corvidae family, a group of birds that include crows, ravens, jays, magpies and nutcrackers. Members of this family are exceedingly smart birds, even able to learn how to use tools. I put out unshelled peanuts on my kitchen ledge every morning and sometimes I see one or more jays sitting in the tree watching me, waiting on breakfast.

No mistaking this iconic bird, the Cedar Waxwing. Okay, here's a trick question: why is this not a representative photo of this species? And the simple answer is that they always travel in flocks. That can be as few as a half dozen or as many as 100. They're very social birds and are of course berry eaters. I have a holly tree next door and they find those berries irresistible. They don't seem to mind the old joke "Who was that masked bandit."

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