Bird Bio

Bird Bio: Blue Grosbeak

 Male Blue Grosbeak

Male Blue Grosbeak

 Female Blue Grosbeak.

Female Blue Grosbeak.

Now that fall migration is underway there will be many opportunities to see lots of different birds passing back through TN on their way to Central and South America.  The Blue Grosbeak is one of those birds and while not rare one usually has to put in a little leg work to find.  Unlike the Rose-breasted Grosbeak that regularly visits feeders in the spring and sporadically in the fall, the Blue Grosbeak rarely visits feeders.  In fact, we’ve only had a handful of reports of Blue Grosbeaks at feeders over the course of my 23 years at the store.  This is curious to me because both Grosbeaks seem to share similar food preferences. 

The Blue Grosbeak is about 7 ½” in length, a Cardinal sized bird. The male is a deep blue, similar to the Indigo Bunting, with a thick conical bill (slightly narrower than a Rose-breasted’s), and has broad, rusty brown wing bars.  They are commonly seen in or adjacent to scrubby fields and meadows.  Fields that have not been cut are more likely to produce these beautiful birds.  I have seen them on the Harpeth River Greenway, Hidden Lakes Park, and Gossett Tract. 

The female could easily be mistaken for a female cowbird.  Look closely for the soft brown plumage above and lighter brown below, with 2 buff wing bars.

Have the binoculars at the ready because the next 8 weeks will be full of nice surprises if you get out and look a little harder.  And in your own yard a good clean and consistently available water source can produce some very interesting visitors.

Next week more on hummingbirds and the hummingbird celebration taking place at The Warner Park Nature Center August 25th.

Bird Bio: Cliff Swallow

If you’re a paddler or fisherman and spend time on local rivers and lakes you have probably seen and experienced the Cliff Swallow.  This bird arrives in middle-TN in early spring from March to early April from its winter home in Southern South America.   

The Cliff Swallow is about 5.5” in length with a wingspan of roughly 13”.  Like other swallows they are aerial specialists catching their main food source, flying insects, on the wing.  It is similar to the Barn Swallow in appearance. The difference is the Cliff Swallow has a squared tail as opposed to a notched tail, and has a tawny, buff colored rump and a white patch on the forehead.  It has a chestnut face with bluish black head.  You must see one through binoculars to appreciate the beautiful color contrasts and details.

Once a western U.S. bird only its range has increased from Alaska to New England and south into Mexico.  The reason may be that they have continued to adapt to man-made structures like bridges and buildings for nest building.  Cliff Swallows are colony nesters with most colonies numbering between 100 and 200 nests.  Both male and female construct distinctive, gourd shaped-mud nests.  The mud is shaped into pellets and one by one set in place.  Nest building takes from 5-14 days but in many cases birds return to nest-sites and repair the year previous nest.    Nests are placed on a vertical wall, usually just under an overhang and usually over water.    The male and female tend to the nestlings, which fledge when about 24 days old.

Side Notes:

  •        Some of you are seeing Bluebirds nesting for a third time.  Usually by mid-August a third nesting will be completed, although I have seen a few times Bluebirds fledge in the first week of September. We stock live mealworms year round in case your Bluebirds need a little assistance.  Currently we distribute mealworms in styro cups, however, if you have a suitable container at home (like a reusable plastic container)we can fill it for you.  Just bring it with you and we can add the desired amount.  The less need for styro the better.
  •        We are hearing from some of you hummingbirds are beginning to increase in number and frequency at feeders.  Be patient if you haven’t seen much activity yet.  This will change soon.  We hear all too frequently that people are leaving nectar in their feeders far too long.

IMPORTANT!  Nectar is only good in the feeder for 3 to 4 days, less if the feeder gets a lot of sun.  You will not get much activity if the nectar is hot and spoiling. 

  •        Be careful to not purchase too much seed as we enter the dog days of summer.  Believe it or not the feeding will slow down at your feeders.  Storing a lot of seed in a container for several hot months may result in a mealmoth hatch.  Buying smaller quantities and using it up completely before getting more is a good strategy.
  •        The Wood Thrush Shop offers free at home Squirrel-proofing Consultations.  John and Jamie have been busy making house calls assisting customers frustrated by squirrels.  We know our product and where it works best enabling us to suggest real solutions to your bird feeding problems.  It is in our best interest for you to have squirrel-proof feeding stations.  We’ll make it happen.

Goldfinches Beginning to Nest

While many of our most familiar backyard birds are near the end, or have already concluded, their breeding season, for the American Goldfinch it is just beginning.  Many of you have already seen a reduction in goldfinch numbers at your feeders as they begin to move away from feeders toward nesting areas. Goldfinches typically nest in June and July when certain nest materials, and more of their food sources, become available. 

The goldfinch’s main natural habitats are weedy fields and floodplains, where plants such as thistles and asters are common.  So, if you live close to one of these types of areas you may continue to see good numbers of goldfinches at your feeders.  If you live in a more forested area you will likely see far less goldfinches until they finish nesting.  So, don’t be concerned that something has happened to “your” goldfinches or you’ve done something wrong. They are simply transitioning into their nesting phase and will return to feeders in due time. 

The male and female locate a suitable nest site together. Nests are often near water.  At Hidden Lakes Park on McCrory Ln, which borders the Harpeth River, goldfinch nests are common to see.

The male may bring nest materials but the female builds the nest, usually in a shrub or sapling in a fairly open setting rather than in forest interior. The nest is often built high in a shrub, where two or three vertical branches join; usually shaded by clusters of leaves from above, but often open and visible from below. 

The nest is an open cup of rootlets and plant fibers lined with plant down, woven so tightly that it can hold water. The female bonds the foundation to supporting branches using spider silk, and makes a downy lining often using the fluffy “pappus” material taken from the same types of seedheads that goldfinches feed on. It takes the female about 6 days to build the nest. The finished nest is about 3 inches across on the outside and 2-4.5 inches high.

The female incubates about 95% of the time and takes 10-12 days. The male brings food to the female while she incubates.  The young leave the nest after 11-17 days. Both sexes tend to the young and are fed a regurgitated milky seed pulp.  Insects are rarely part of their diet.

Goldfinches are monogamous per year but commonly change mates between years.  

Bird Bio: Pileated Woodpecker

 Male Pileated Woodpecker

Male Pileated Woodpecker

 Female Pileated Woodpecker

Female Pileated Woodpecker

Migration is in full swing and birdwatching is almost at its peak as neo-tropical migrants are arriving and passing through middle TN.  For daily birdwatching reports to your E-mail you may subscribe to TNBird@freelist.org.

At your feeders you may be seeing the Rose-breasted Grosbeak and the Indigo Bunting.  Keep an eye out for these beautiful birds because their presence at the feeders only lasts for a few weeks.  Usually by mid-May they will have moved on.  Indigo Buntings can be seen all summer long especially in fields and meadows, and in areas along the Harpeth River.  The Harpeth River Greenway is an excellent place to see Indigo’s. There is access to the greenway from the back of the warner parks or from Reese Smith Jr. baseball fields.  Both species are very interested in bird feeders and will go for a variety of feeds including black-oil sunflower, safflower, and millet. 

But this week we are going to profile the Pileated Woodpecker only because I captured some great video of one working an old rotting stump for food.  The normally very shy woodpecker was so intent on extracting ants, beetles and larvae from this stump it did not seem to be concerned that I was close by.

With the probable extinction of the Ivory-billed woodpecker the Pileated Woodpecker is now the largest member of the Picidae family in North America.  This crow sized woodpecker, up to 19” in length, is an impressive bird known for its bright red crest.  In fact, “Pileated” means “crested”.  Males tend to be 10 to 15 percent heavier than females and can be distinguished from females by the red mustache stripes.  Note the red mustache on this male in the video.   On males the red crest extends from the bill to the nape of the neck while on females it is smaller.  They are often heard and not seen in dense wooded areas.  The call is loud, high-pitched and nasal, and is given as a single note or in a series.  

The Pileated Woodpecker’s main food source is insects and when available seasonal berries.  One fall I witnessed a pair of Pileated’s strip every berry off a Dogwood tree in my yard.  They are excellent excavators, as you can see in the video, and are important to other species of birds and animals for that reason.  Other birds and animals eventually take up residence in the abandoned nest sites.  Pileated woodpeckers excavate a new nest site every year and mate for life.

If you live in an area of dense woods you are likely to see these great birds but do not expect them to visit feeders.  Although there are occasions for this bird to visit feeders it is uncommon.  During the spring months while they are on nest is the most likely time to see them take advantage of suet or shelled peanuts.   

Get out there and enjoy some birdwatching this weekend. It will be perfect conditions to get out early and take a walk with the binoculars.    

Bird Bio: Baltimore & Orchard Oriole

Adult male Baltimore Oriole 

Adult male Orchard Oriole

In just a couple of weeks, around mid-April, we will have an opportunity to see Baltimore and Orchard Orioles as they move through mid-TN.  I say move through because we see very few Orioles spending the summer here.  Every spring we are asked by customers if we carry Oriole feeders, and if we can suggest the best ways to attract them.  First let’s look at the profiles of these birds. 

The Baltimore Oriole is a fairly common spring and early fall migrant.  They migrate through TN on the way to their breeding destinations, which tend to be north of TN.  Some of my bird store associates in Iowa and Ohio do a very strong “Oriole” business because they are in the heart of Oriole breeding territory.  Both species of Oriole are insect, fruit and nectar feeders.

The Baltimore is the more familiar of the two and is known for its bold orange and black plumage. Females are olive to brown above and burnt orange-yellow below.  White wing bars are very noticeable. Baltimore’s are about 8” in length, are long tailed, and have sharply pointed beaks.

The Orchard Oriole is slightly smaller.  The male is a rich chestnut color on its underparts and black above.  Females are an olive-green above and yellowish below, much like female Tanagers, but have distinguishable white wing bars.

Over the course of 25 years I have tried various proven methods of attracting Orioles to my yard with little success.  Available information about Orioles suggests orange halves and jelly are the two most common food choices to grab an Orioles attention.   None of my attempts with these offerings ever produced results.

The years I did attract them I did nothing specific to make it happen.  A few times I had multiple male Orioles visiting hummingbird feeders, and other years it has been the moving water source (fountain) that is very popular with all birds.  The times they decided to come to hummingbird feeders were likely a result of a lack of natural food sources they would normally be drawn to during their spring travel. Over the course of the few days Orioles were visiting my hummingbird feeders I also presented orange halves in plain view, because that’s what you always see pictures of them feeding on, but they showed no interest and seemed to be content with the sugar water nectar.

Types of Feeders for Orioles

A simple suet basket is a great feeder because it’s very easy to drop an orange half or bunch of grapes in and hang on a tree or shepherds pole.  The glass dish type feeders we sell for feeding Bluebirds are also good options for nectar, mealworms, and fruit.  We also carry hanging fruit feeders on which the fruit is held with a spike.  As for nectar feeders I think the Aspects brand feeders are most suitable and an orange can be impaled on the hanging rod of the feeder for extra appeal.

These small dish feeders we stock are great for feeding fruit, nectar, jelly or just about anything. 

Suet feeders are great for holding fresh fruit such as apple and orange halves and grapes.

We offer this simple fruit feeder at the shop that works great for apples and oranges.

Aspects feeders are most suitable for orioles. Orange halves can be added to center stem.

There is still time to sign up for the spring birdsong workshop with Richard Connors. For more information and dates read our last blog "Spring Migration" for info. Contact Richard at Rconnorsphoto@aol.com to sign up.