Starlings

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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.

 

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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.

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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.

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Photos by NB Hunter. © All Rights Reserved.

 

 

Bird Feeder Survey – 14January2016

Winter weather isn’t always conducive to outdoor photography. There are times when cheating, i.e. setting up beside the wood stove and observing wildlife over bait, is the more rewarding (and sane) thing to do. Mindful of that reality, but wanting to work with the special effects of snow, I decided to create a photographic record of the wild visitors to my “bird” feeders this winter. My goal is to present each visiting species, bird or mammal, popular or unpopular, in an aesthetically pleasing way.

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European Starling

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White-throated Sparrow

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“Stubby” the tailless, three-legged Red Squirrel!

Photos by NB Hunter. © All Rights Reserved.

 

 

Songbirds Raising Kids!

Good wildlife photographers invariably capture spectacular images of the large predatory birds – eagles, osprey, herons and the like – caring for their young. I appreciate great photography but sometimes it drives me crazy! I don’t have those shots! I’m just beginning to tackle the challenge and to date my inventory is limited to the more common songbirds that can be reached with a little stealth, some patience and a modest telephoto lens. To paraphrase John Gierach, my favorite fishing author, when asked why he spends so much time catching small trout on a fly rod: “catching small trout all day long is a lousy job, but somebody’s gotta do it”.

My featured species in this post are the European Starling (Sturnus vulgaris), Chipping Sparrow (Spizella passerina), Common Grackle (Quiscalus quiscula), Baltimore Oriole (Icterus galbula), Gray Catbird (Dumetella carolinensis) and Tree Swallow (Tachycineta bicolor). Images aside, I’ve learned much and laughed often on these shoots and hope others have a similar experience.

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European Starling feeding an insect to one of its young (at least three in all)

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Chipping Sparrow on a garden fence, prepared to feed young birds, invisible in the dense raspberry bushes below

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Adult Grackle about to feed a fledgling with cracked corn gathered from a nearby feeder (1 of 2)

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Fledgling and adult Grackle; the adult has closed its nictitating membrane, an eyelid that lubricates and protects the eye, to prevent injury from the sharp beak of the fledgling as food is inserted into its mouth

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Adult male Baltimore Oriole with an insect morsel for its fledged young below

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Immature Baltimore Oriole

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Adult Catbird about to feed fledged young

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Fledgling Catbird

I’ll finish with the photos that I took this morning. A combination of sun, ground fog and heavy dew got me moving early. I was hoping to see the resident White-tailed Deer fawns, but knew that I’d return with something on my memory card even if they couldn’t be found.

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I usually check nest boxes from a distance while I’m walking and noticed a head sticking out of one that appeared to be a young Tree Swallow. I got comfortable in the tall grass and weeds and watched. The young swallow in the opening – now nearly the size of its parents – appeared to be restless and about to leave the nest. I thought I could see the tip of a second beak at times, evidence that a sibling had the same urge and perhaps was trying to expedite things. I took many photos as the bird moved back and forth in the opening of the box, as though it would decide to go for it, then have second thoughts. A parent was perched 100 feet away and 30 feet up, in the top of a spruce tree, seemingly ignoring all of us.

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Young Tree Swallow about to fledge

After a half hour of deliberation, the youngster chirped and bolted, just like that. In the blink of an eye, it was out and airborne. It hung up and thrashed briefly in the tall grass in front of the box (the last photo), then soared up, up and away. After sitting for days on end in a cramped, stuffy nest box, and having no tutorial or pre-flight orientation, it just flew. What an amazing feat of nature. Oh, as soon as it soared, the parents swooped in to drive me away. I left, but returned an hour later and found an empty box.

As you might have guessed by now, the fledgling caught me off-guard, flew right at me at point-blank range, and the perfect shot will have to wait.

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Fledgling Tree Swallow a few feet from its nest box, airborne for the first time

Photos by NB Hunter. © All Rights Reserved.

March Robins

Is there anyone in North America who is not familiar with the American Robin? This member of the thrush family is one of our most common birds, rivaling the European Starling and Red-winged Blackbird in abundance. Depending on the season, it can be seen throughout the continental U.S. and in Canada and Alaska. So, why bother to photograph and post a species so familiar to so many?

The sight of a robin methodically working across a summer lawn, hopping, stopping and cocking its head before spearing a worm was, for the longest time, the extent of my knowledge of the diet and feeding habits of robins. A rural, outdoor lifestyle in the snow belt changed that. I discovered that some robins don’t migrate in winter. Those that do migrate arrive, like the Red-winged Blackbirds, as “harbingers of spring”, perhaps weeks before ground feeding becomes an option. This is a case of the early bird not getting the worm, not under several inches of snow in frozen ground. So, what do large numbers of robins feed on in the off-season?

In March, flocks of migrating robins are seen in brushy fields, forest edges, backyards – places where the fruit of shrubs and small trees has persisted through the winter. This might include native vines and shrubs like wild grapes  and the sumacs, or cultivated trees like certain cultivars of flowering crabapple.

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American Robin feeding on the persistent fruit of a native shrub, Staghorn Sumac,
in March

A close friend and former colleague has thickets of Staghorn Sumac growing behind his house and barn, just beyond the managed portion of the property. Dozens of robins, as well as starlings and other species, descend on these large, wild shrubs every March and devour the persistent fruits in a few days time.

I spent a couple of hours watching this spectacle, learning and laughing as I tried to capture the acrobatic feeding behavior of 15 to 20 American Robins and European Starlings. The March Robins photo gallery tells the story of that experience.

All photos by NB Hunter