Rainy Day Gold (Finches!)

Backyard habitats come alive with the songs and colors of migrating birds in May, but a large flock of goldfinches swarming nyjer seed feeders throughout the day tends to dominate the immediate landscape. Goldfinches in their brilliant breeding plumage appear to glow in the poor light of rainy days. By the 14th consecutive day of rain, the radiance of 20 busy finches is most welcome!

At peak feeding times, there are many more birds than feeding stations and the chaotic activity has the look of a large number of humming birds at a sugar-water feeder. Some birds resort to feeding on spilled seed on the ground while others battle for position at the primary source. It’s a game of musical perches, and it seems everyone gains access to food at one point or another.

A shrubby tree like ornamental sand cherry adds critical, backyard habitat for foraging songbirds. It fills the need for strategic perches, which, in turn, provide stationary subjects for observation and photography. In this story, the background is mostly the partially opened flower buds of sand cherry, several days ahead of full bloom.

Occasionally, a member of the flock looks a little odd, with yellow breeding plumage interrupted with gray-green patches. These birds haven’t completed their spring molt.

Females have their own dress code, appearing in yellowish-olive garb rather than the gaudy yellow of males.

I’ll see some of these finches again in the summer, as breeding pairs in natural habitats. Then, they’ll be darting over weedy fields and brush lots, easily identified by their unique song and undulating flight pattern. They’ll be foraging on the tufted seeds of milkweeds and thistles and using the soft, fluffy tufts from the seed to line their nests.

Photos by NB Hunter. © All rights reserved.

Birds in a Blizzard: Backyard Visitors

The blizzard of 2017 arrived on March 14, bringing three feet of blowing snow, frigid temperatures and, eventually, a state of emergency that closed all roads. Not to be denied the opportunity to photograph, I shoveled snow away from the bird feeders every 2-3 hours, replenished the seed mixture and went back inside to observe the phenomenon. Up to 200 birds, half of them a mixed flock of blackbirds, converged on the sites and devoured everything but the spent hulls of sunflower seeds. This went on for three days.

I took many pictures of our common winter visitors during the event – cardinals, juncos, chickadees, doves, woodpeckers, etc.


However, blackbirds were the featured attraction and satisfied my need to capture something extraordinary that conveyed the intensity of the snowstorm and madness at the feeders.


There were a lot of red-winged blackbirds in the mixed flock. Migrating birds had arrived prior to the storm and most food sources and nesting habitats were now buried. They bullied their way on to the feeding sites and hogged most of the food; needless to say, I was happy to see them leave when the weather broke.


Grackles, starlings and rusty blackbirds were also present. After hearing stories from other bird watchers, I learned that the numbers and proportions of species in the mixed flocks varied with location.

GrackleSpp15Mar 17#3231E2c5x7

Wait for it……


Blackbirds in a blizzard!!!


Photos by NB Hunter on March 14, 15 and 16, 2017. ©All Rights Reserved.




So, why feature a European species in consecutive posts, a species considered by many to be an invasive nuisance? I guess because I have the means, opportunity and motive. Even though they number in the millions (all originating from 100 birds released in New York City in the 1890s), this is the first time that I’ve seen starlings at the feeders for any length of time. And, to quote Cornell’s All About Birds fact sheet, “…they’re still dazzling birds when you get a good look”!

The aesthetic appeal of a starling lies in the striking contrast created by white-tipped, black feathers – the winter plumage.




Most of the white spots will be gone by the summer breeding season, a phenomenon referred to as “wear molting”. The spotted feathers aren’t replaced, the white tips simply wear off.


Starlings can be aggressive and sometimes compete with native birds for cavity nest sites. In this instance, they met their match: a Red-bellied Woodpecker fended off three starlings (one above, out of the frame) for feeding rights to a block of suet.


Photos by NB Hunter. © All Rights Reserved.



Spring Colors

A continuous cycle of rainy, cold weather has made it difficult to enjoy the flush of new growth and vibrant colors that define early spring. A welcome exception to these dismal conditions is the presence of goldfinches swarming around the Nyjer seed* feeders. Their bright breeding plumage has a florescent glow in the drizzle and fog.




*Nyjer seed: a trademarked name for the seed of African yellow daisy, grown commercially in African, India, southeast Asia

Photos by NB Hunter. © All Rights Reserved.


Catbirds on Sumac

The young will be fed a steady diet of bugs, caterpillars and other invertebrates.  Adult Gray Catbirds are more opportunistic, even foraging on leftovers from 2014: the persistent fruit of Staghorn Sumac. With daily temperatures dipping into the 30’s and 40’s, insect life is scarce and this native shrub provides an important dietary supplement.

Photos by NB Hunter. © All Rights Reserved.

Wild Turkey Hen

I really enjoy the colorful sights and sounds of songbirds, but don’t often have the unique close encounters that lead to good photos. Recently, I’d grown weary of trying to capture little birds with a little lens, all the while losing a considerable amount of blood to mosquitoes and black flies. Much to my relief, a new avian target and strategy surfaced: a 10 pound bird, less than 15 meters away, shoot-able from the kitchen window!

This bird, an Eastern Wild Turkey hen, is a familiar face. I’ve seen her several times on my nature trail and she’s been scratching around the flower gardens and bird feeders for about a week.

Unlike the cottontail featured in my last post, she has little tolerance for humans. The last time I surprised her on trail, she was nearly 100 meters from me and ran off like she’d been shot at — with a gun. In this photo, it was camera shutter noise that drove her away. I believe she’s nesting within a few hundred meters of the house and hope to see the whole family sometime soon – in late May or early June.

Photos by NB Hunter. © All Rights Reserved.

Shades of Red

I heard a Northern Cardinal singing this morning – a first for 2015. With another foot of snow and another week of subfreezing temperatures in the weather forecast, that was a most welcome sound! The early singing was a response to increasing daylight and perhaps our current heat wave – the temperature was all the way up to 24 degrees F at dawn. The songs, vivid colors, compatibility with humans and human habitats – there are many things to like about cardinals. The value added to a winter landscape is immeasurable.


This is not a scene that would have been familiar to Native Americans and early settlers. One hundred years ago cardinals were recorded in just 2 of the 62 counties in New York state. Now, they are widespread throughout the state and eastern U.S.; they even range into southern Canada. Deep snow is limiting for these ground foragers, as are long cold spells where the average minimum temperature is 5 to 10 degrees F. Countering these limiting factors are human-altered landscapes and the cardinal-friendly habitat associated with them. Abandoned farmland, forest openings and edges, residential plantings of small trees and shrubs, and supplemental feeding (especially sunflower seeds and similar foods) have all contributed to the widespread success of cardinals. Their range expansion has paralleled that of humans.






Photos by NB Hunter. © All Rights Reserved.