Tag Archives: bird watching

Pothole Bathing

pothole bathrobin bathWe have two areas in our yard where birds in the neighborhood can get freshened up on a dusty day. In front, there is a large stone birdbath. In the rear, we have a small pond with a very shallow stream of water running over a ledge. Many birds land by the pond and walk over to the ledge for a quick rinse. By far, however, the all-time favorite bathing spot is the pothole in the street in front of our house. Every time it rains and water collects in the hole, a variety of birds come – some solo, some in small groups – to bathe. Maybe the hole is the perfect depth and width to attract them, or maybe they just like muddy rainwater, whatever the reason, it attracts more visitors than the birdbath and the pond.grackle bath

Identifying the Red Tail

Are they red-tailed hawks?

Are they red-tailed hawks?

The  red feathers are starting to fan out

The red feathers are starting to fan out

Notice the distinctive red tail feathers

Notice the distinctive red tail feathers

I have trouble identifying hawks because they all seem to look so similar. Looking for clues to a raptor’s identity — by zeroing in on features such as size, shape, coloring, stripes on the feathers or behavior — doesn’t always help me figure out what I’ve seen. Factor in distance or poor lighting and it’s even more difficult; if the hawk is a fledgling or a juvenile, “fuh-gedda-boud-dit!” The young ones are almost impossible for me to distinguish. Despite my difficulty ID’ing hawks, there is one type that is not too difficult to determine from the rear.

The red-tailed hawk is aptly named for its distinctively colored reddish tail feathers. Like many other hawks, the body and wings are brown and the breast is lightly speckled, but the color of the tail really stands out. It’s especially noticeable when the feathers are fanned in flight.

About a month ago, I saw two hawks perched high in a tree. I was uncertain about their identity, although I assumed they were red-tailed hawks because they are so common in my area. Once the hawks began to fly though, the red-brown tail was clearly evident. When you are out and about, look for the red tail to identify the red-tailed hawk.

Blue Jays Back


bluejay pic
As I sit at the laptop and type, I am listening to a cacophony of blue jay calls in the backyard. Lately, I’ve been noticing groups of blue jays banding together in sound and purpose just about everywhere. Blue jays have always been one of the staple backyard birds of my New Jersey upbringing. I have a vague remembrance of my father being dive-bombed by a blue jay as he mowed the lawn – perhaps he ventured too close to a nest. During the last year, blue jays seemed noticeably absent. I would glimpse an occasional lone jay but, for the most part, the usual crowd at our feeders included sparrows and finches, eating their seeds without verbal interference from blue jays.

After experiencing firsthand some of the effects of Hurricane Sandy last year, I wasn’t surprised when I read recently about the impact the storm had on birds, mostly because of storm damage to either the bird’s habitat or food sources. An article from the National Wildlife Federation specifically mentions blue jays as one of the species that flew south in search of food after the storm. Based on my own casual observations, I think they’ve now returned back to the north!

A Circle in the Sky

A circle formation of flying birds

A circle formation of flying birds

A raptor (bottom right) was close by

A raptor (bottom right) was close by

A few fuzzy close ups of the raptor that I couldn't identify

A few fuzzy close ups of the raptor that I couldn’t identify

While near the Raritan River the other day, I noticed a circle in the sky that was moving rapidly. The circle was actually a large group of birds. The shape kept getting formed and reformed, over and over, while the birds moved westward.

I’ve seen flocks of european starlings before, flying in patterns in the air then landing en masse before taking off again, but this was different. The birds were very high up in the sky and they did not land. The pattern the birds made remained circular until they went out of sight.

What I didn’t see right away was the raptor in their proximity. The more I watched, it seemed that the formation of the circle was a way for the flock to protect and defend themselves from the threat. Although it looked like the raptor was after the group of birds, I suppose the birds could have been harassing the raptor too (like an angry mob). I’m guessing that the birds were starlings, although it could have been some other type of bird that flies together during migration. I couldn’t identify the raptor either because it was too far away.

Linking to Skywatch Friday.

Reblog: The Song Sparrow’s Friend (or Foe?)

Note: The sparrow is back! I’m reblogging this post from last year because, for the past few mornings, our song sparrow (or his next of kin) has once again been greeting our arrivals and departures with song. April 2, 2014

Our heralding song sparrow

Our heralding song sparrow

Song sparrow on top of the car mirror

Song sparrow on top of the car mirror

Sparrow hanging out on top of the Jeep

Sparrow hanging out on top of the Jeep

Why do birds sing?
A song sparrow with a personality has recently made our front yard its territory. The bird seems to intentionally serenade us as it stands guard on the overhead wires. With a trilly song, it heralds our arrivals to and departures from the house.

This sparrow has also begun a love (or hate?) affair with our Jeep’s side mirror. It will sit on top of the mirror and then scoot down to look at its reflection, back and forth. When the Jeep is gone, our other car’s mirror attracts the bird’s attention instead. The sparrow’s preference, however, is definitely the Jeep; the abundance of “white stuff” coating the top and sides of the Jeep’s mirror is proof positive. This has been going on for almost two weeks.

These antics are cute and entertaining, but I started to wonder what was actually going on with this sparrow. Are his tweets a welcoming song, or was this bird threatening us to keep our distance? Is the car mirror a newfound friend, or is it an avian enemy to be chased away? Is the sparrow’s song a joyful, sweet symphony, or a warning message to a potential foe?

When I had a parakeet, we mounted a small mirror in the bird’s cage to keep it company. Perhaps our sparrow’s reflection in the car mirror is perceived as a friend or a potential mate to be won over. On the other hand, maybe all the commotion is because the sparrow feels threatened by an imaginary rival in the mirror.

I began searching online to find out reasons why birds sing. The All About Birds website states that birds may sing to attract a mate and to defend their territory. Male birds seem to sing one way to attract a female, but sing in a different, aggressive manner toward male competition, according to a study referenced on the UCSB website. An ASU Biology post mentions that birds sing as a form of communication with other birds. For example, there is a specific bird call to declare sources of food and another to warn about nearby predators.

Many people have problems with birds banging into the windows of their home, over and over again. While some of this is accidental, often a bird sees its own reflection in a window and thinks another bird is infringing on its territory. Although our sparrow’s reaction to its reflection in the car mirror didn’t appear like an aggressive behavior to me, it could have been having the same type of territorial response. I also found out that interactions between a bird and a car mirror aren’t unique to our situation. There are plenty of videos on YouTube about birds attacking car mirrors! (This video in particular made me chuckle.)

Since we don’t know if our sparrow is a boy or a girl and we aren’t experts in song sparrow body language or vocalizations, there’s no way to determine what is really going on in our front yard. I’d like to believe that the song sparrow is serenading us as a result of overflowing birdy joy, but the verdict is inconclusive. Our car’s mirror, and my family, may be the song sparrow’s friend (or foe), but we’ll never know for sure.

An Out of the Ordinary Jersey Bird

American Kestrel perched in a tree

American Kestrel perched in a tree

kestrel on line flying kestrel kestrel hoveringToday, I had the opportunity to see a bird that’s considered out of the ordinary for my state. Although common elsewhere, the American Kestrel is considered a Species of Special Concern in New Jersey, most likely due to shrinking areas of grassland needed for its habitat.

The kestrel that I saw flew fairly close to where I was walking. It landed in a tree and then moved to a few different branches before perching on a nearby wire. Moments later, it was in the air. It hovered in place while beating its wings, before suddenly diving down. It’s amazing how it can stay in one spot, despite the wind. The kestrel put on quite a display searching for food before I lost track of it. I couldn’t tell if it succeeded in catching anything or not.

Guide books describe the American Kestrel as a raptor of the falcon family, similar in size to a mourning dove or a jay. They are very attractive-looking; the colored patterns on the underside of the kestrel reminded me of a common flicker.

An American Kestrel in central New Jersey was certainly an out of the ordinary sight for me.

Signs of Spring

Trying to get the female cardinal to take notice

It’s spring, time to get the female cardinal to take notice

The male cardinal fanning his tail feathers

First a little singing, then fanning the tail feathers

The attentive female cardinal

The attentive female cardinal takes it all in

There are a few scattered piles of unmelted snow in the dark corners of my backyard, but some telltale signs of spring have come. The daffodils started poking out of the ground and, a few days ago, the spring peepers began calling from the boggy area down the road. I thought the birds would still be waiting for warmer weather, but the cardinals have already abandoned all thoughts of winter and progressed straight into the spring mating season.

I heard the male cardinal tweeting repeatedly the other day, so much so that I stopped what I was doing to look outside. From the top of a small tree, the male cardinal was loudly carrying on. The reason for all the ruckus? A female cardinal was perched nearby in an adjacent tree. After he finished his serenade, he flew over closer to the female and began chipping and strutting about, fanning his tail feathers and putting on quite a show. She played cool though, sitting very still and seemingly not giving him a glance. Today, I noticed the cardinal pair checking out the site of last year’s nest, so I suppose his display won her over. Spring is here!

Linking to “Signs of Spring” at the Outdoor Blogger Network.

The Stealth Move

This backyard hawk caused a downy woodpecker to make some stealthy moves

This backyard hawk caused a downy woodpecker to make some stealthy moves

The woodpecker flattened itself against the tree branch

The woodpecker flattened itself against the tree branch

What a trick! Hiding behind the branch out of the hawk's sight

What a trick! Hiding behind the branch out of the hawk’s sight

Every once in a while a hawk visits our backyard; today it came twice and caused one of our backyard birds to resort to a stealthy move for its survival.

The first raptor visit was early this morning when I was in the kitchen. Through the window, I saw the hawk perch low in the walnut tree next to our bird feeders. I wanted to take a photo through the sliding glass door, but the hawk flew off just as I returned from down the hall with my camera. Later this afternoon, I was outside in the backyard, with my camera, when the hawk returned a second time.

Normally, when a hawk is nearby, the backyard birds flee into the hidden areas of the bushes or pine trees and there is silence. All chirping ceases. This afternoon, the hawk appeared so suddenly it seemed to take the birds by surprise. They weren’t able to resort to their normal safety routines.

The female cardinal didn’t flee and hide. Instead, it stayed completely frozen in place on a tree branch, not moving whatsoever. The tufted titmouse was a little bit braver. It made a short, sudden warning call and then immediately dropped into the pine branches out of sight. The mourning doves stayed still in the same position they had been sitting in previously. The downy woodpecker, however, was the stealthy one. First, he froze on the tree branch. He didn’t move his head to the right or to the left, but you could tell he was aware of the danger. Then, he pressed his body down as close as possible to the branch. His final move was to swiftly rotate around to the underside of the tree branch to get out of the hawk’s direct line of sight. The woodpecker stayed completely still in that position, keeping the branch between himself and the hawk, until the hawk finally flew away. Once the danger was gone, the woodpecker moved back around to the top of the branch and started to eat some suet. The other birds also resumed their activities like nothing had happened.

Noisy Ravens in New Jersey

Blackbirds, crows, ravens – I never thought much about them before. If I happened to come across a small, dark bird, I called it a blackbird. Anything slightly larger was identified as a crow. The common raven was a more mysterious bird to me, reserved for the legends of nevermore. This past summer, however, I came to realize that ravens were in our midst.

A noisy raven

A noisy raven

At first, I never actually saw a raven; I just heard something loud and unusual. It was such a strange noise that, when I heard it, I stopped washing the dishes so I could listen. It was more like a croak or a growl or a honking, definitely not the caw-caw-caw call of a crow. I dismissed the noise that day, attributing it to either the kids in my neighborhood or a stray cat spooking around outside.

Several days later, I heard the noise again and ran outside to try to locate the source of the sound. I kept this routine going for several weeks – I’d hear the strange noise and look around outside – but I could never figure out where the sound was coming from.

Finally, one day in late August, I heard the noise, ran outside, and saw the creature fly right between our house and the neighbor’s house…a crow, a blackbird, what was that? I wasn’t sure. I had never seen a crow come close to our house before and crows usually don’t fly solo. It was too large to be a blackbird.

I started looking on-line at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology Bird Guide and stumbled upon the raven. After I listened to the recorded bird calls I knew that was it! The bird I’d been hearing for the past month was the common raven. I certainly don’t remember ever hearing a raven in our neighborhood before. By the end of August, the sound of the raven was gone and I haven’t heard it again.

Early this December, the postal carrier delivered our copy of the winter 2012 edition of the New Jersey Audubon magazine. Inside was an article by Rick Radis about a bird that is becoming more common in New Jersey. The article was entitled, “The Return of the Raven”. Here was the proof, in black and white, that the range of the raven really has been expanding in New Jersey and their population has increased. I was quite happy that the strange bird noise I heard this past summer helped me notice something “new” in my New Jersey neighborhood.

What do ravens sound like? Here’s a short clip I recorded at the Raptor Trust:

Heron Reflection

great blue heron exit

I really love reflection shots, so I was happy to see that the theme chosen for this week’s photo challenge is REFLECTIONS.

My contribution was taken last week at a local park. As I was snapping a couple photos of a great blue heron standing statue-still on the edge of the pond, the heron decided it was time for a quick exit.

If you like reflection photos too, check out the other submissions at: Weekly Photo Challenge.

Our Yard has Turned Into a Baby Bird Nursery

Baby robin waiting for food.

Our yard seems to have transformed into a baby bird nursery. Nests in the front yard, nests in the backyard, nests on the side of the house…we’ve seen baby cardinals, baby mourning doves, baby grackles, baby house finches, baby house sparrows, baby robins, and baby song sparrows. A walk around the backyard produces a din of angry chirps and tweets from bird parents telling me to begone or risk being swooped at.

Baby robin soon after leaving the nest.

More food for baby sparrow. It’s funny how some of the baby birds seem much bigger than the parents.

Ma and Pa Robin were the most outspoken. While hatching their four blue eggs next to our front porch, they chirped a warning every time I stepped off the porch steps. Once the babies came, their behavior became more frenzied. They relentlessly chirped and fanned their tail at me as I walked by. If you got too close, you’d have a speeding robin flying toward your head. Fortunately, I have not had actual contact with an angry robin’s beak.

Baby grackle opens wide.

Another meal for baby grackle.

Now that most of the hatching has taken place, baby birds are fluttering about the yard trying out their wings and discovering the world. Adult birds are zipping to and fro watching over their young and bringing worms, butterflies, and other tasties for their nourishment. Two things have amazed me about the bird nursery: 1. Adult birds seem to be able to find food for their babies quite quickly, over and over again; and 2., Birds can chirp pretty loudly despite having a worm hanging out of their beak.

Pretty soon we should be able to walk around our yard without creating a cacophony of angry bird sounds. In the meantime, it’s been fun observing the babies, and their parents, in our backyard bird nursery this spring.

Mockingbird Sings

We have a Northern Mockingbird who frequents the wire outside our house near the willow tree. This bird is very noisy, especially in the morning, but it doesn’t make me angry. Its repertoire of trills, tweets and chirps always makes me laugh; what an incredible range of sounds from one bird. Mockingbirds are appropriately named. If you didn’t know any better you’d think you had a half-dozen different types of birds in your backyard. This mockingbird can even imitate a bluejay (listen at :019 in the video).