The Bird Garden Blog

Here are some of the older “Birdman” columns from Saturday's Times and Transcript, they appear in the Life and Times section of Moncton’s newspaper. Also pictures from blog followers, customers and friends; along with reviews of new birding products and answers to frequently asked questions.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

The Family Paridae

Two or three of my all time favourite birds are in the Paridae family, if this doesn’t ring any bells don’t worry, I had to look it up too. You don’t have to have the scientific names of every bird memorized to be what everyone seems to term an “avid birder”. On the off chance you ever need that information it readily available, all my field guides include them and of course there’s Wiki.

Our representatives of this family are the Black-capped Chickadee, Boreal Chickadee and (recently) Tufted Titmouse, I say two or three of my favourite birds because I’ve yet to meet a Tufted Titmouse but from what I see I’m sure I would love to have one at my feeders.

I don’t think I’ve met more than a handful of (grumpy) people who don’t include the Black-capped Chickadee in their most liked birds, being our provincial bird I think it’s required on your New Brunswick citizenship application.

These tiny acrobats are at home spending much of their day upside down gleaning insects from tree branches and making frequent trips to the sunflower feeder. Any day now we’ll hear more of their territorial fee bee call, as the days lengthen even more the urge to set up territory will go into overdrive. As spring approaches you’ll have fewer visits to the feeders as Black-capped Chickadee have a rather large 10 acre territory, so most feeder yards will be lucky to have even one pair through the breeding season. That their diet changes from 50% seeds in winter to 10% in summer also accounts for a decrease in feeder activity. For now though, chickadees are likely one of the most numerous species at the feeders, enjoying black-oil sunflower, hulled sunflower, suet and occasionally other seeds, they can also be seen hammering open rather large pupae and hovering around window sills and under eaves for spiders and their eggs.

They’ll excavate their own cavity for nesting, or take a man made nest box, with inside dimensions from 3x3 to 5x5 inches and a hole as small as 1 ⅛ inches. Since they’ll readily take a box also used by Tree Swallows and Eastern Bluebirds, I tend to make my holes 1 ½ inches to allow the larger species while still thwarting the dreaded starling. This increases the odds of getting a bird nesting in your yard. The small hole is a good idea if you live in an area with House Sparrows or want to place the chickadee house on the edge of the woods where squirrels would likely take it over. In this case I use the metal predator guards with a 1 ⅛ inch opening to keep the squirrel from enlarging the hole.

The Boreal Chickadee is a close cousin to the Black-capped, but not seen nearly as often. The occasional feeder operator is lucky enough to host a one, but most sightings are made in a spruce forest sending beginners and non birders running for a field guide. Noting the brown chickadee I’ve had some folks mistake this for the Chestnut-backed Chickadee, but a quick check of the range maps and a look at the Boreal’s picture usually confirm what they saw. If you’re on a mission to add this bird to your list, you’d be wise to learn the song, you’ll recognize it right away as a chickadee but it’s more nasal and harsh, with the emphasis on a different syllable.

A very hardy permanent resident, this tiny bird stays put year round as far north as the tree line, but a true Canuck they rarely venture across the border into the US, you pretty much have to come here to see one. Which may help explain the relative lack of information when compared to it’s more common relative. The Boreal is often left out of beginner guides, and when I checked the usual on line sources the information is so scarce I thought all the white space on the page was a computer error. I even noticed a mistake on my favourite website,, hosted by Cornell University. So I guess nobody’s perfect. Check it out, if you notice the mistake, drop me a line.

This bird will nest in the same box as the Black-capped (but I can only recall 2 reports locally), and also excavate their own cavity. They also stash food for winter, the seeds are usually from spruce, but mostly it’s insect larvae that get stored. I wonder what happens to these if the bird doesn’t retrieve them? I’d be scratching my head if I came across a hollow tree full of larvae from a variety of species.

I remember getting numerous reports of Tufted Titmice years ago and I always thought they were actually seeing waxwings (especially when there were flocks of them), but never say never, the Tufted Titmouse has been expanding it’s range and is now in New Brunswick, hopefully I’ll live long enough to host one in my own yard.

I’m not sure why they call it the “Tufted” Titmouse, I know you’re going to say because it has a tuft on top of it’s head, but that doesn’t differentiate it from all the other titmice, they’re all “tufted”, although all my guides call it a crest, so maybe I’m missing something.

They visit the feeders in much the same way as the chickadee, taking one seed at a time, they also nest in old woodpecker nests or a nest box, but Tufted Titmice don’t excavate their own cavity.

Again, the key to first seeing this bird is learning the songs, they have a chickadee like call but also a loud peter, peter, peter song. It’s always a good idea to learn the most common birds songs, if you know the Black-capped’s repertoire, you’ll recognize the difference when you hear a Boreal or Titmouse.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

The rest of New Brunswick's woodpeckers

Last week I talked about the four most common species of woodpeckers in New Brunswick, this week I’ll finish the other five that for most of us aren’t as common.

Although the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker breeds extensively in New Brunswick, it’s not reported all that frequently. I see the odd one around the yard, sipping sap from a small hole it drilled in my maple, I hear them more often now that I’ve learned their drum; unlike our other woodpeckers it stalls part way through and picks up again at the end. Reports do spike in breeding season when they find a resonant spot on your eave, stove pipe or metal ladder. They’re early risers and if one is drumming on your windowsill at the crack of dawn, it’s hard not to notice.

They don’t frequent feeders either but every now and then one will discover the sweet offerings we put out for hummingbirds or orioles. If you do get one hanging off a small hummingbird feeder you may want to get the larger version meant for orioles so less gets spilled while he’s feeding. Don’t forget to try some grape jelly either, the sweeter the better. They sometimes visit the suet feeders, but I wouldn’t run out and buy some just for sapsuckers, in 20 years I’ve only seen 2 on my suet feeders.

The Yellow-bellied Sapsucker is considered a keystone species, that is they are vital for the maintenance of a community. There are 35 species of birds that benefit from the sap and the insects that are attracted to the sap wells. It’s not coincidence that the our sapsucker arrives a couple weeks before the our hummingbirds, they have some time to set up house keeping, get some trees tapped and the sap running in time for the hummers arrival. Researchers have noted hummingbirds chasing off other larger species, they don’t however, chase away the sapsucker, so the relationship may be mutually beneficial. Although the hummingbird eats a lot compared to it’s body weight (The heaviest hummer weighs less than one loonie and lightest less than a penny or it would take 14 small hummingbirds to equal one Downy Woodpecker), it’s very little compared to the amount of sap a larger species would rob.

I hear suggestions to get your hummingbird feeders out early in the spring so the first arriving birds will have something to eat, and while I’m all for it, the truth is these birds have been arriving before most New Brunswick flowers bloom long, long before anyone ever thought about the small red nectar feeders.

The Yellow-bellied Sapsucker is our most migratory woodpecker, the only one who doesn’t even appear on the NB winter list (going back to 1996) and that makes sense, there’s not much sap running here in January.

The Black-backed Woodpecker and Three-toed Woodpecker are the only North American land birds with only three toes, the true rear toe is missing and the outer front toe that faces backwards in all woodpeckers is the only rear toe on these two species. (In the other woodpeckers it’s usually two forward and two backwards, but the outer rear toe can rotate to the side as the bird climbs, the inner hind toe is often hidden by the leg, so if you only see three toes it doesn’t necessarily mean it a three toed woodpecker.)

Although not commonly reported this woodpecker of the boreal forest can be found across New Brunswick, (I saw my first in Moncton city limits). Look for it anywhere there are dead or dying conifers as it feeds by flaking off the bark eventually removing all the bark from a snag. One of the favourite foods is the larvae of the white-spotted sawyer beetle, this insect can detect the light given off by a forest fire and moves in shortly after to deposit eggs in the dying trees, this in turn draws the woodpeckers. One reference states a Black-backed eats more than 13,500 larvae annually, that’s 40 of these fat juicy grubs daily.

The Black-backed is mid sized, with an all black back, the primary flight feathers are spotted white, the sides are barred black and white, white belly and yellow cap on males.

The Three-toed Woodpecker is less common than the other three toed woodpecker, he has similar feeding habits but will more readily feed on the sapsucker wells. Slightly smaller, it has white bars on the back, more barring on the sides, white speckles on the head and the males also have a yellow cap.

The Red-bellied Woodpecker is one of those species that was named when the ornithologists shot first and made identifications later. Dead, on it’s back, the red on the belly is visible; alive and on a tree trunk it’s not so noticeable. Every few years this woodpecker will move into our area for the winter, like the other woodpeckers that come to feeders they enjoy the suet, but this one will take sunflower more readily and truly loves peanuts in the shell. When they are around I have a spike in peanut in the shell feeders and I always say, this feeder won’t magically attract a Red-bellied to your yard, but if you get one, it’ll be going to this feeder.

One winter we had one who made it his mission to fill a hollowed out apple tree with sunflower seeds. He made constant trips from the feeder to the tree to drop the seed in and seemingly listen for it to hit bottom, perhaps judging his progress. Unfortunately for him, a red squirrel was making it his mission to remove the seeds as fast as they were being cached.

This guy stayed all winter into spring and even started his mating call and drum, but after having no success on the girl front, he moved on. There were several females in New Brunswick that winter, but I didn’t hear of any of them hooking up.

While a lot of woodpeckers have red on their heads, there is only one Red-headed Woodpecker. They are entirely red from the shoulders up to the beak, the black is all black and the white is all white, making this one striking individual. Now considered our most rare woodpecker, (by me at least, as I still don’t have it on my New Brunswick list), it used to breed here.

The same winter we hosted the Red-bellied there was one down the road in Riverside-Albert, I didn’t bother to go see it, we had one on PEI when I was younger and thought if I’d already seen it, then it mustn’t be very rare. I should have gone, as the sightings are getting fewer and farther away.

Woodpeckers of New Brunswick

When a birder comes by and asks what birds I have around today, I run through the list of what I can remember seeing recently and I usually say, “...and both woodpeckers.” I hear others saying that too, we’re referring to the common feeder visitors, the Downy and Hairy but we really should be more specific. Did you know there are nine species of woodpeckers quite possible in New Brunswick?

Undoubtedly the Downy Woodpecker the most familiar, the friendly little bird frequents feeders and often stays put at the feeder while you approach very close. On several occasions I’ve been startled when I picked up a feeder not noticing one on the opposite side. It’s our smallest woodpecker, weighing about the same as three loonies, so theoretically my wife could have ten of them in the bottom of her purse at any time and not notice. Very similar to the Hairy in appearance, they have black backs checked with white, black and white striped heads and the outer tail feathers are white, on the Downy they typically have black spots, but the easiest way to tell them apart is the bill length when compared to the head. The bill of a Downy is about half the depth of the head while the Hairy’s is about equal. So if you’re taking pictures and want to be able to differentiate, try to get a full on side shot, sometimes when they are looking directly into the camera they’re harder to tell apart and if they are looking on an angle a Hairy may even look like a Downy. The males of both species have a bright red patch on the backs of their heads.

The Hairy is quite bit larger, it can weigh up to 13 loonies, (so my wife would notice ten of these in her purse), they are dominant at feeders but in nature the two feed on different parts of the tree, the Downy’s smaller size allowing it access, even feeding on weed stems and the Hairy’s heavier bill allows him to dig a little deeper.

My next most common woodpecker is all the way to the other end of the scale, I see the Pileated almost every day. They are in my area and make their presence known with their call, drum or noisy foraging that sounds very much like a carvers mallet and chisel. Our only crested woodpecker, they resemble Woody, except where he’s blue they’re black. The gentlemen have a red mustache while the ladies sport black ones.

I’ve never had one on feeders, (some people have) but I see them routinely on my dead trees and fruit, it’s favourite seems to be alternate leaf dogwood, wild cherry and grapes. He can be quite the acrobat, hanging vicariously off small suet cages, grape vines and saplings. I’ve seen them bend a cherry sapling horizontal, (they weigh 50 loonies or 17 Downy Woodpeckers) hang upside-down and strip the fruit. Even the way they take the fruit in their beak and toss it back into their mouth is interesting to watch.

The Pileated will nest in urban areas if there are large enough trees to excavate a nest, there are nests on the Crawley Farm Road, right in Moncton and several others are reported foraging on dead trees in the city.

For three seasons the Northern Flicker is plentiful, this one migrates in winter, but spring and fall they pass through in large numbers. In mid to late April you’ll see them on bare areas, in ditches and cleaning up any fruit that may be left on trees. During breeding season they’re very conspicuous, although not showing up at feeders very often, you’ll see them eating fruit and picking up ants on the lawn, which by the way, ranks as the number one ID question I get asked… “I have a bird that looks like a woodpecker, but he’s hopping around on the lawn---tan bird, black spots, red on back of head and black bib” or something like that (males have a mustache). They’re larger than the Hairy, about the size of a Mourning Dove, (they weigh 23 loonies).

If you don’t see flickers very often, try to learn their call, it’s similar to the Pileated but higher and longer, they’ll get on top of a light pole and call all day when they’re trying to define their territory.

I’ll finish up our other five woodpecker species next week.

Cameras for birders.

I’ve just been asked what camera and lenses I’d recommend for bird/nature photography. I’ve been toying with the idea of upgrading myself and have only recently began looking into the possibilities. I’ve been spending a lot of time on BirdingNewBrunswick admiring the photos of friends old and new and I’m getting the urge to give it another try, when I see photos of this quality from (mostly) ordinary folks I start to think that I may be able to do the same myself. I know it’s not all about the equipment, there are some magazine quality photos of birds I have yet to locate, let alone get pictures of, but I’d like to be able to get decent pictures of some of the birds I see around.

I just posed the question in BirdingNewBrunswick’s Q&A Forum, I suspect you’ll get a lot better advise from the people who are actually using the latest equipment. (There’s already some great advice in response to my initial inquiry and other questions are being asked and answered.)

I have a great old camera with multiple lenses and huge flash, but it’s 35 mm and I haven’t even had it out of the bag in 15 years. I thought I should try selling it and put the money towards a new digital, I went on eBay and there were several of the same model up for auction. There is one lot with two cameras the same as mine, plus 5 other cameras with all the accessories you could ask for, the bidding is nearly closed and the highest is $25. For the entire lot. I’d likely get more for my equipment if I dumped it out and sold the bag empty, at least that has some use left in it.

I bought the camera in the 80’s with birding in mind, but after hundreds of dollars and very few nice pictures to show for my effort I bought a digital camera. Now at least I could check my picture immediately and possibly take another with different camera settings if need be. With film I took several, as many as I could afford, and had to wait a week to see your results. For me it was common to have no good pictures in the lot, especially when I was trying out some of the cheaper telephoto lenses.

I’ve long ago given up the idea of huge telephoto lenses and opted for blinds, car window mounts, and planning my bird feeder locations so I can approach without disrupting the birds. I found out later that this isn’t such a bad idea as less distance between you and the subject means you’ll be shooting through less “atmosphere” and end up with better pictures.

With the new digital at least it didn’t cost anything to try, but I soon found out that the delay between pressing the button and taking the picture was a little too long for some bird species. If I wanted a picture of a goldfinch, no problem, they sit contentedly on the feeder until they are full or get knocked of by a flock mate. If I wanted a picture of chickadee, I’d have to watch for him approaching out of one eye and press the button before I thought he’d land on the feeder because if I waited until he landed he’d have his seed and be gone before the camera fired. I have tons of empty bird feeder shots or of a totally blurred gray streak exiting the frame. My inquiry was for bird/nature photography, if your wanting to take pictures of flowers, trees, mushrooms, lakes, rivers, moose... then I have the camera for you. If you want birds, dragonflies or butterflies than you better get something a little newer, (mine’s over 10 years old, they’ve fixed that problem).

A few years ago I was leaning towards a very high quality spotting scope for digiscoping, that is attaching a digital camera to a spotting scope to act as a telephoto lens, but from talking to others who’ve gone this route, I think the money would be much better spent on a long lens. Even with the best scope, the picture quality isn’t what you can get with today’s lenses, and you have to constantly be removing your camera if you want to use your scope on it’s own for spotting, then reattach the camera if you want a picture. I still like digiscoping occasionally, you can reach out and get a picture good enough to identify and document. I still just hold the camera up to the eyepiece with my fist, the same can be done with one barrel of your binoculars to increase the power, although it would be hard not to shake without the aid of a tripod.

So here I am with two, once expensive now worthless, cameras, contemplating spending another couple thousand or more by the time I’m finished. I hope this won’t be obsolete in a decade but at the rate things are changing there will likely be something better come along before I pay off my credit card.

Don't forget the millet

If any of you do take my advice and make the switch from mixed seed to black oil sunflower, make sure you accommodate the little guys who scratch around under the feeder for certain parts of the mix. Millet is that little round off-white seed that is usually a large part of any mix. It’s a good seed and will attract a few visitors that the sunflower won’t, but in New Brunswick anyway, it isn’t eaten in the same proportions as it’s supplied in the mix, so it ends up piling up under the feeders and growing in the flower beds. Most of my customers buy between 5 and 10 pounds of millet for every 50 pounds of sunflower, if you’re only feeding sparrows you’ll only go through small amounts, it’s when the Mourning Doves find you that you’ll likely go through more. Some people exclude the doves by feeding inside a wire cage, this is more common of pigeons are part of the group, it’s difficult but not impossible to feed Mourning Doves without attracting their close cousin the Rock Pigeon. A cage with bars spaced around 2 ¾ inches works, but this isn’t available commercially so you’ll have to gear up something yourself.

If you just want sparrows and none of the dove clan, 2 inch mesh works fine, I sometimes do this to give the sparrows their own little haven away from the larger birds. It’s not that the Mourning Doves (I never get pigeons) are aggressive, it’s that they are more skittish than some of the sparrows I attract. If someone was to approach the sparrows for a better look or photo, they’d usually be able to get quite close. If there’s a dozen doves in the group, they take off and the wing whistle that acts as a warning sends everyone racing for cover. So I feed some millet inside a cage and some on open platforms, broadcast more on bare patches of lawn and on the edge of gravel driveway where they can eat seeds and pick up grit in one convenient stop.

I’ll throw some sunflower on the platforms or on the ground too, but I try to keep them separate, one of the first clues I use for identifying birds at feeders is what was it eating? One day we had two birds eating on the ground, in the distance they looked like finch but they were eating millet. After thinking about this a while I got my binoculars and checked more closely, they were actually female or immature Indigo Bunting. If they had been eating on mixed seed, I wouldn’t have been so curious and checked them out closer, they would have moved on and I would never have known that I had hosted such a special bird.

I often have the similar Song Sparrow and female Purple Finch in the yard at the same time, while guests are busy studying them with binoculars and scope, I know that one is a Purple Finch because it’s eating sunflower seeds from a mesh feeder and that one is the Song Sparrow because it’s eating millet from the ground. I know it’s not always the way, there’s always a bird that will prove you wrong and eat the seeds it isn’t supposed to, but knowing what the bird is eating is a great clue to it’s identity.

Feeding millet in the winter will attract quite a few species, mostly sparrows, junco and bunting, but if you continue through to the spring migration you’ll be amazed at the variety of sparrows you’ll get. This is where you want one of those good field guides and your binoculars to get good looks and identify such beauties as the Fox Sparrow, (one of my favourite birds), White-crowned Sparrow, with a little practice you’ll be differentiating the Song from the Savannah with ease.

There are several birds that pop up at millet feeders each winter that would be considered fairly rare, last year a Lark Sparrow visited a downtown Moncton feeder for most of the winter, this year there has been a Field Sparrow (photo) and Eastern Towhee, joining the dozen or so species you’d expect at the millet feeder.

So, it’s not that I don’t agree with feeding millet, it’s just that I don’t think it belongs in a tube feeder or as part of a mix. It’s a relatively inexpensive seed that works best when you control where and how much is offered at once.

This Field Sparrow, photographed by Steeve Miouse, showed up this fall on the Acadian Peninsula. You can see he’s enjoying the millet from the array of mixed seed on the ground.

Black-oil Sunflower attracts the best birds

It’s time again to sing the praises of black oil sunflower, at least if the questions I’ve been receiving are any indication. For those of you who’ve recently started reading this column this may help you attract more birds and avoid some common problems associated with bird feeding. For those who’ve been reading since the beginning, this will be a review, hopefully I’ll add some new tips.

At this time of year people are buying feeders for first timers and they’re looking for the best feeder to attract the biggest variety of birds. They’re usually surprised when I recommend sunflower, saying they were thinking more of “regular birdseed”, whatever that is. If you have a tube feeder with sunflower only you will get more birds than the same feeder with mixed seed. Most birds will come to the feeder look in the hole and if all they see is the less desirable seed, then they will head over to the neighbours house. Certain birds will rifle through the seed to get the ones they want but that leads to another host of problems with unwanted birds and rodents eating the spilled seed. A platform feeder will attract a lot of birds with mixed seed but what to do with all the seed nobody wants, you likely paid good money for things that our birds won’t eat like, milo, hulled wheat, oats and barley. Even though our birds eat corn, it’s not the favourite of many and usually gets spilled on the ground. It’s also quite expensive when it comes as part of the mix.

Think of your neighbourhood as a smorgasbord, think of mixed seed as the tray full of frozen peas and carrots, think of the black oil sunflower as the tray of lobster tails and imagine where the line up is. I hear people (especially my family) say, “Oh, that’ll do, if they’re hungry enough they’ll eat it.” I don’t know if that’s ever been true, but these days with so many people feeding and so many people who take better care of birds than they do themselves, I don’t think a chickadee would ever “get hungry enough” to eat milo seed. Birds have wings and birds have ears, so when they hear all the noisy birds fighting over your neighbours choice sunflower, they simply fly on over and get in on the action.

I know all mixed seed isn’t created equally, the general rule of thumb is the blacker the mix the better, (As long as the black is from the sunflower). There are two problems with this though, there are still seeds that some birds don’t like and they will end up on the ground. Most of us don’t mind too much as other birds will clean it up, it’s when the clean up crew turns out to be 30 pigeons and they hang out on your roof waiting for the next job to come along that you start having trouble. If you’re getting sparrows and junco eating the millet under your feeder you can put a little millet off by itself somewhere, this way you aren’t depending on the tube feeding birds to spill enough seeds for the ground feeders or maybe they are spilling too much, attracting unwelcome visitors and killing the grass, I like to have more control over how much seed is out at one time. The sparrows and junco will thank you, they’ll be able to eat their millet without getting pooped on from above.

Most people agree with the straight seed over mixed theory, unfortunately not many of them are the ones selling the seed, so when you go into a store and ask for the best seed to attract birds you’ll likely be handed a mix... by the kid who started working there last week. Sometimes stores push mixes because there is much more money to be made, you can add cheap filler and charge as much or more as the higher quality sunflower seed.

I haven’t sold mixed seed for years, and I spend a lot of time not selling it, explaining the benefits of individual seeds in each area. I have many happy converts and I have many people who I catch with a bag of mixed seed hiding under a blanket in their trunk when I carry their sunflower out. They say it’s “just in case.” I smile, nod and wonder if they really needed the $100 feeder to keep pigeons away or if simply stopping the mix would have worked as well.

I keep trying though, especially with first time feeders, you don’t have much time to get them hooked. If they receive a feeder full of mixed seed and all they attract are starlings, pigeons and rodents, they’re not likely to enjoy the experience and continue. If their first birds are chickadee, nuthatch, goldfinch, grosbeak, cardinal (I actually had a customer who’s very first bird was a Northern Cardinal) they’re much more likely to enjoy feeding and make it a lifelong hobby.

What I recommend for first timers is a decent sunflower feeder, whether it be a tube, mesh or hopper, I’ll usually ask the location it’ll be used, not everyone has to worry about pigeons so they’ll have more options. This gets you started, from there you could add some speciality feeders; if you’re liking the finch that are coming and you want to attract more, you could add a nyjer feeder. If you’re liking the woodpecker, chickadee, nuthatch (or want to attract a few birds that don’t usually eat any seeds), you could add a suet feeder. If you like sparrows and doves, add a ground feeder.

These guys all eat sunflower and the majority of our birds prefer it, the best part is, it’s one of the most inexpensive seeds you’ll feed. If you never feed anything else you’ll still enjoy visits from most of our feeder birds.