Birding and photography go hand-in-hand. Binoculars and a camera are essential tools for me to hone my dual hobbies. I heard the Red-winged Blackbird singing before I spotted it in this dead tree with its tangle of branches. I have always considered the blackbird’s song a harbinger of springtime. To hear its melodious song in January was music to my ears. Of course, it was a warm afternoon in Florida, not Virginia or Ohio. A look through the bins confirmed the pair of Eastern Bluebirds that sat silently behind the blackbird.
I knew full well that the photo would produce only silhouettes since I was shooting into the southern sky with the sun an hour from setting. The crisscross of dead limbs immediately brought to mind the Walter Scott quote of “Oh what tangled web we weave when we first practice to deceive.”
Well, there is no deceit on my part with this photograph. “A Tangled Web” is my Photo of the Week.
I know I’m getting old. I have a birthday soon to prove it.
I thought I just wrote about what November would bring us, and here it is done and gone already. How can that be? I think I have some answers, all of them as lovely as the month itself.
Given the last two winters, we began this November with more than a little trepidation. We had good reasons for our collective unease.
Would we be blasted with another surprise snow in the middle of the month like last year? Could we even begin to hope that November would be half as beautiful as October was?
As you happily know, November gave her best to replicate October’s stunning weather here in Ohio’s Amish country. The eleventh month wasn’t quite as bright and pretty as October, but she sure tried hard.
Even with standard time returning and the daylight hours growing fewer by the day, November was a welcome, pleasant surprise. It exceeded all expectations.
Overall, the month turned out to be a much better than average November if only measured by weather. November charmed me with its hospitality, a welcome relief from the state of affairs on the national and international political front.
It’s not too many Novembers in Ohio that you see a father and his young son walking along a sidewalk in short sleeves mid-month. Last year they would have been bundled up throwing snowballs.
Municipalities, stores, and homeowners took advantage of the decent days to put up their holiday decorations. It beat trying to hang banners and Christmas lights in blizzard-like conditions.
In some locales, Christmas decorations and Halloween displays stood side by side. I wasn’t going to judge. I just enjoyed the intended spirit each reflected, even if the timing was a little off.
The horses and cattle had to be enjoying the extended stay in the open pastures. Frequent November rains made the grass as fresh as after April showers. In fact, folks were mowing their lawns this November on the same day they were plowing out their driveways last year.
I took advantage of the excellent weather, too. I cleaned and readied my multiple bird feeders. I was hardly inside when I spotted a few infrequent Pine Siskins on the cylinder feeder by the kitchen window. They feasted on the cracked sunflower hearts.
With my firewood supply tenuous, I had three pickup loads of split and seasoned hardwoods delivered. Over the space of three days, my wife and I had it all neatly stacked behind the garden shed. Remember, I said I was getting older soon.
November’s brisk winds made regular appearances. That was good news for those who hadn’t yet raked their leaves. Their eastern neighbors may have a different viewpoint on that, however.
We had days of rain and drizzle. We had clear blue-sky days, too. And we had those days of cloudy one minute and sunny the next. None required a snow shovel.
Driving around the November countryside, the landscape seemed wider, more open. Perhaps that was due to the leafless trees affording a three-dimensional illusion, no special glasses needed.
This November frequently offered amazing sunrises and sunsets for all to enjoy. Sometimes they lingered for the longest time. Mostly, though, you had to look sharp, or you would miss the colorful show, just like the month itself.
Like Thanksgiving, November has come and gone. Bring on December and hope that it learned a little kindness from its closest sibling.
Though the air was still cold, the morning sun was shining brightly. This male Eastern Bluebird took full advantage of it, too. As it waited on a chance at the peanut butter suet feeder in our backyard, the beautiful bird soaked in the sunshine’s warmth.
The sun and the bird together brought morning sunshine to me. “Morning sunshine” is my Photo of the Week.
At our house, winter is for the birds. Well, so are spring, summer and fall. We feed the birds that frequent our backyard year-round.
My wife and I enjoy watching the various bird species that visit at the assortment of feeders we put out for our feathered friends. Consider it our preferred entertainment.
The birds also take advantage of the little garden pond near the feeders. The water runs down the small waterfalls all year for the birds to bathe and drink. That’s especially important in the winter when most water sources often freeze.
But it’s the feeders that the birds flock to, excuse the pun, especially when the temperatures are extreme and the ground covered with snow. Natural food sources are often limited.
The feeders help out the birds and bring color and fun activity to our backyard. To meet the various needs of species big and small, a variety of feed stocks an assortment of feeders.
Dark-eyed Juncos prefer to scratch at cracked corn on the ground. Northern Cardinals are more versatile, feeding on the ground, from hopper feeders and will even perch on the oil sunflower feeders.
The faithful American Goldfinches prefer the chipped sunflower seeds from the tube feeder by the kitchen window. Eastern Bluebirds will join them.
Several kinds of woodpeckers visit the suet feeder, filled with peanut butter suet cakes. The sturdy wood and wire contraption hangs from a limb of the sugar maple tree that dominates the backyard.
We are fortunate to have nearly all of the kinds of woodpeckers that live in Ohio, Downey, Hairy, Red-bellied, Redheaded, and even Pileated. We’re particularly grateful for the latter.
Pileated Woodpeckers, Ohio’s largest woodpecker, are giant, usually secretive birds that often live and feed deep inside dense woodlots. We’re glad the ones that visit our backyard are an exception.
For the last couple of years, a pair of these incredible birds has regularly visited our backyard suet feeders. We live in the country. Nearly 200 trees and shrubs populate our little slice of land. The small grove apparently is enough to satisfy the Pileateds.
The desire to dine at our free buffet must overcome their instinct to be reclusive. Often we know when they are coming. Their harsh call warns all other birds that the big boy and girl have arrived, and to make way. The others regularly oblige.
As big as they are, the Pileated Woodpeckers don’t seem that aggressive toward the other birds. Surprisingly, it’s the opposite. The smaller woodpeckers, Black-capped Chickadees, Tufted Titmice, and White-breasted Nuthatches play it safe until the Pileateds retreat.
I’m pleased that the big birds feel safe coming to our feeder every season. With the maple tree dense with leaves, the birds can easily hide. The huge woodpeckers even bring their fledglings to the feeder in the summer.
Without the leaves in the winter, the Pileateds are much easier to see. They always arrive from the south, usually landing on the same limb. They shinny down the big branch and flop over to the heavy-duty feeder.
Both the male and female are striking in their size, shape and coloration, a vivid red and contrasting white and black. Their thick, chisel-like bills taper to narrow, blunt points.
My wife and I are grateful for all of the beautiful birds that visit us, whether it’s once or daily. The Pileateds, however, are a most revered treasure.
I was contemplating long and hard about what to do for my last Photo of the Week post for 2014. I thought about picking out the best photo I could find to cap off the year. When I looked out the window yesterday morning, I changed my mind. The small flock of Eastern Bluebirds that frequents the peanut butter suet feeder in my backyard had arrived. So had the bright sunshine, more a rarity in northeast Ohio than the secretive bluebirds.
I grabbed my camera and was fortunate to capture this stunning male sitting atop the feeder, basking in the morning’s sun rays. The sun illuminated the already beautiful bird all the more. I found the iridescent tail feathers incredible. I searched no more.
Out of the corner of my eye, I caught a familiar blue flash. A male Eastern Bluebird had landed awkwardly on the wooden framed feeder that held peanut butter suet cakes.
That same scene had been repeated in my backyard many times over the years. Intended for woodpeckers, chickadees, nuthatches and titmice, Eastern Bluebirds and other avian species have also enjoyed the rich protein offerings.
The first time I observed the bluebirds attack the suet, I took special notice. Eastern Bluebirds dine on protein-rich insects and their larvae. Suet apparently helped fill the void when insects, or berries for that matter, were unavailable in Ohio’s cold season, which this year has lasted much too long.
In the springtime, the male bluebirds burst into an iridescent, radiant blue that glows in the morning sun. They are in their flamboyant mating plumage, brilliant on head, back, wings and tail feathers. Their orange breasts contrast nicely with the showy blue. A splash of white on their wing shoulders and a snowy fringe along the birds’ bottom feathers nicely accent the flashy ensemble.
Even the more subdued and shyer females could hold their own in a bird beauty contest. Their dullness, of course, is for natural protection from predators. Bluebirds are beautiful to say the least, and their cheery chatter and lyrical calls only enhance their artistry.
Bluebirds are not designed to cling to a typical suet feeder the way woodpeckers do by bracing themselves with their firm tail feathers. I marvel every time I see the bluebirds lunching at the suet.
The bluebirds often land atop the wood-framed feeder with wire mesh sides designed for easy access to the nutritious food. They perilously cling to the sides or bottom brace of the feeder, flapping their wings wildly as they peck at the soft suet. Since they keep returning over and over, day after day, to the suet, I have to assume that they aren’t expending more energy than is gained in the tricky process.
As their main course, the bluebirds and other songbirds regularly down chipped sunflower hearts that are offered at other feeders. They apparently use the peanut butter suet as dessert, and then wash it all down with occasional visits to the little waterfalls of the garden pond.
A half dozen pairs of Eastern Bluebirds frequent my feeders, shrubs and trees in the yard. If they choose to inhabit some of the bluebird houses erected around the property, I rejoice and stay vigilant. It’s a never-ending battle with the pesky House Sparrows to keep the bluebirds nesting.
In the spring, I check the boxes regularly. If I find a finely structured nest of soft grasses and pine needles, I know the bluebirds have won the battle. If the nest is disheveled and constructed with a junkyard of materials, I pitch it in hopes of discouraging the House Sparrows.
Often the bluebirds will perch in the large sugar maple in our backyard above the dangling suet feeder. After just a few bites of suet on this chilly April morn, this male bluebird instead took wing and swooped low across the wide stretch of open, freshly plowed farm fields, making a beeline for my Amish neighbors.
Were they using a different feed? Was the bluebird nesting in one of their boxes? The answers were really insignificant. What did matter was that the bluebirds were thriving for all to enjoy.
Watching that bluebird arch across those fields in the morning sunshine couldn’t have made me happier.
Marcella Hawkins of Glenmont, Ohio has a passion for Eastern Bluebirds. That passion became productively evident Feb. 23 at the Ohio Society of Bluebirds (OSB) annual conference in Wooster, Ohio. Hawkins is the executive director of OSB.
From the record number of people who attended the conference held Feb. 23, Hawkins is not alone. More than 300 bluebird enthusiasts participated in the all day event, held at the Shisler Conference Center on the campus of the Ohio Agricultural and Research Development Center.
The day was filled with exhibits, vendors, speakers and presentations, with only a few breaks. Experts and amateurs alike shared their research and experiences regarding some aspect of bluebirds, their predators and habitats.
Darlene Sillick, a conservationist and birder from Powell, Ohio, related her years of experiences with the Ohio Wildlife Center with owls. She explained that owls could turn their head 270 degrees because they have 14 vertebrate, twice the number of humans.
Sillick said owls depend on their keen sense of hearing and large eyes to track prey. She shared that it is the force of the owl’s talons that kills its prey.
Sillick introduced Matthew Wiese of Dublin, Ohio. Wiese, 17, did a nest box project on Safari Golf Club for his Eagle Scout badge. Wiese said he put in a total of 319 volunteer hours in planning, mapping and checking the numerous bluebird boxes he installed. He also learned to band the hatchlings in several of the boxes.
Roger Downer of Wooster, a retired entomologist from the OARDC, gave a presentation on moths. He said the important connection between moths and bluebirds are the caterpillars that serve as a food source for the bluebirds. Those that survive become moths, which other birds also use as food.
Chuck Jakubchak of Strongsville, Ohio gave a pep rally style presentation about how birds know when to migrate. In the case of Eastern Bluebirds, he proposed three scenarios. He said studies show that some bluebirds migrate to the southeastern states with habitat similar to what they have in Ohio. Others only partially migrate, going to warmer but closer states where they compete for food with non-migrating birds.
Jakubchak said the bluebirds seen in Ohio during the winter are non-migrating.
“They stay put, perhaps because they have had a successful breeding history,” he said. “But we really don’t know for sure, other than the fact that they choose to stay.”
Jason Martin of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in Ithaca, N.Y., spoke on the importance of documenting Eastern Bluebirds by monitoring their nesting boxes. He invited participants to join his project, Nest Watch, by keeping track of what is happening inside the nesting boxes.
“Inside the boxes,” Martin said, “is where the action is.” The Nest Watch project began in 1960 and has progressed to online reporting of nesting activity from around the country.
Greg Miller of Sugarcreek, Ohio closed out the session with a spellbinding account of his Big Year experience. He especially focused on the time he spent as the bird consultant on the set of the movie, The Big Year. He told personal accounts of meeting the movie producers and stars, including Jack Black, who played Miller in the movie.
Allen and Nina Bower of Britton, Mich., received OBS’s Blue Feather Award for their effort in spreading the importance of proper nest boxes for Eastern Bluebirds. The group’s Wildlife Conservation Award went to Charlie Zepp of Dublin. Zepp has built more than 6,000 bluebird boxes with wood he gathered from refuge bins at construction sites.
After announcing several winners of donated raffle prizes, Hawkins thanked the volunteers and sponsors of the conference, which was free of charge for those who had preregistered.