Blue-Violet Iris Interior

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Backyard Birding

Abundant moss crop.
Several years ago, after struggling for more than two decades to grow a lawn in the dry shade beneath the conifers in our backyard and producing only moss in abundance, my family decided to start working with nature instead of against it. Out went the lawn, in went a mix of shrubs and ferns, and the moss was allowed to flourish freely at last. One thing we told the landscape designer when putting together the plan for our new backyard was that we wanted to attract birds in general and hummingbirds in particular. It's only been a few short years, but the reconfiguring of the dank and gloomy space below the conifers has been reborn as a woodland paradise for birds on our suburban backyard lot.

This birdbath is the focal point of our yard.

Vine maples shelter the far corners of the yard.

The view toward the back gate, where heavenly bamboo (nandina) and a massive rhododendron flourish.

A group of Douglas-firs rises high above our yard and those adjacent to us.

A song sparrow at Mr. Gorgeous' house.
I like birds. This should be no big surprise, since I like all animals, but I like how birds are so good at doing whatever it is that they do within their niche. I also like how easily they can enter our human spaces and live alongside us in a way larger animals can't. I like noticing the difference between the birds that can be found at Mr. Gorgeous' house, just a few miles away, and the ones that can here. One thing that makes me happy is that even though I live in a suburban development, enough of the native conifers have been left behind that we get birds found, according to the bird book, in "coniferous forest," unlike many of the birds at Mr. Gorgeous' house, which attracts birds more common to "hedgerows," "wood margins," and "suburbs." I also like that we attract birds solely on the strength of our plants and our birdbaths; feeders, in our experience, inevitably attract rats. But despite not putting out seed, the number and variety of birds that visit our yard year round has boomed. (Please note that you can--and should--click on any of these photos to enlarge them.)

One of the things that makes our yard to attractive to birds is the amount of cover it supplies.

Birds of all kinds take shelter in the cedar trees around the birdbath to wait their turn and then preen their feathers when they're done.

Rather than picking up fallen leaves in autumn, we use a blower to distribute them around the unplanted margins of the yard. These heaps of leaves are a very popular wintertime hunting ground for many birds! 

The mixture of cover and open spaces, of moss and duff, attracts multiple kinds of birds. 

We've planted seven Oregon grape bushes (mahonias) that bloom in winter,
much to the delight of the hummingbirds.

The resulting berries that ripen in early summer provide a feast for birds like the robins.

In the summer, the resplendent yellow wax bell adds beauty to the yard and food for the hummers.

We augment the hardy fuchsias, wax bells, mahonias, and other hummingbird-friendly plants with a profusion of summertime annuals that we distribute in pots on the back deck.

The single most common visitor to our yard is the Oregon junco. In winter, they come in great flocks, often at the same time every day. During the breeding season, they arrive in pairs. There is seldom a time when there isn't a junco in the yard or at least in earshot! Like most of the birds we see, they are relatively drab in appearance, but they are spirited, social little birds that hop over the moss hunting for insects, squabble over who gets to use which birdbath with whom, and flit between the sheltering trees with sudden flashes of their dramatic black and white tail feathers.

An Oregon junco.

In addition to the pedestal birdbath that is the focal point of our yard, we also have this dish on the deck that is a popular bathing spot for small birds like the juncos.

A male junco pauses during his bath to fluff out all his feathers.

I never get tired of watching birds bathe!

Papa Junco watching over his baby.
A few weeks ago, I was treated to an unexpected surprise. My dog spooked a little rustling something in the heart of a thick shrub and out ran, to my utter delight, a baby junco! A tiny scrap of a thing, it was tremendously fast and surprisingly well-camouflaged. The dog, fortunately, didn't notice the sprinting little morsel. With the help of my 100 mm lens, I was able to get the picture below without getting too close. The parents were always in the trees above it or on the ground nearby, making a constant "chk chk chk" sound. At first I was concerned that this was a nestling that had fallen from its nest in a windstorm two days before, but after reading up on junco breeding behavior, I discovered that juncos typically nest on or near the ground (perhaps under our deck) and that the nestlings leave the nest four days before they fledge. Indeed, when I saw the baby junco the next day, it had already sprouted new, more mature feathers. I took the dog out on a leash for some days afterward, but didn't see it again for several weeks. I was delighted, then, when once again there was a rustling in the same shrub as the dog and I walked by and the little fledgling flitted up into the vine maple overhead! Once again, all the adult juncos rushed to the scene to look after the little one, CHK! CHK! CHK!-ing with alarm, and one of the adult juncos positioned himself on the branch between me and the baby. I had my camera with me, so I was able to grab a shot and then leave them in peace. The dog is once again going out on a leash (she finally noticed the rustle in the bushes and tried to pounce) because we want this little junco to grow up and be part of the big, bustling flock visiting our yard this winter!

Baby Oregon junco!

Oregon junco fledgling.

Chickadees are another small bird that abounds year-round, flitting from conifer to conifer, dangling like animated Christmas ornaments, constantly chirping to one another, and regularly descending on the yard, individually during the breeding season and en masse in the winter, to use the birdbath and explore the culinary options of the lower reaches. We see three different chickadee varieties: the traditional black-capped chickadee, the chestnut-backed chickadee, and, very occasionally, the mountain chickadee. They all flock together and on one memorable occasion, we had three different kinds of chickadees in the birdbath at the same time! Chestnut-backed chickadees are the most abundant of the three. They are even more petite than the black-capped variety and, as their name implies, have lovely reddish-brown backs.

A chestnut-backed chickadee.

They may be small, but chickadees can really fling water around during bath time!

Another frequent small bird visitor is the red-breasted nuthatch. During the winter, they, too, join the large flock of mixed birds that visits our yard daily. During the breeding season, they will show up solo. Very small, they cling to the bark of the conifers, crawling up, down, and around to find insects.

A rather moist red-breasted nuthatch with its beautiful blue-gray back and distinctive eye stripe.

This is the best action shot out of all the bird photos I took for this blogpost--I highly recommend clicking on this photo to enlarge it to better see the detail!

Most of the other small birds that visit the yard, especially the warblers, do so primarily in winter, though I did see a couple lemon-lime Wilson's warblers with their little black skullcaps in the yard the other day. These birds include bushtits, golden-crowned kinglets, ruby-crowned kinglets, Townsend's warblers, and black-throated blue warblers. A few other smaller birds that visit the yard but don't travel with larger flocks are fox sparrows, house wrens, winter wrens, and Bewick's wrens.

When it comes to larger birds, one of the most frequently seen, especially in the spring and summer, is the robin. I've long found robins rather tedious, the bird equivalent of the dandelion, and have never forgiven them for starting up their relentless territorial chirping at 3:30 in the morning. During these last few days of watching and photographing them, however, I've developed more of a fondness for them. It's hard to tell one robin from another, so I don't know if I'm seeing the same male and female pair or several different ones, but the male robin(s) tends to be much bolder. Having quickly determined I was not a threat, the male robin will no longer interrupt his bath when I come out of the house, cross the deck, and take my seat in a chair less than ten feet away. The female robin, however, is much more cautious. She has progressed to the point where she will bathe, but only after considering me for a long time and frequently breaking off her ablutions to make sure I'm still behaving myself. The robins, it should be noted, are the splashiest bathers. If the birdbath is suddenly nearly empty, it means the robins have been there! Several other thrushes we see occasionally are the nondescript-but-cool-because-they-are-rarely-seen Townsend's solitaire and one of our favorite winter-time visitors, the handsome varied thrush.

The cocky male robin.


The robin couple's youngster must have been sheltering in the bushes below because when this crow landed in the tree on the other side of the fence, both robins started dive-bombing it. You can see the male robin to the left coming in for another attack.

The more timid female robin. She is identified by her more subtle coloring.

Of course, if there IS a bird that is truly analogous to a weed, it's the European starling. We see a few more than we used to, but they aren't regular visitors--they seem to prefer to feed on grassy lawns and other more open expanses. One did come by while I was staking out the birdbath, much to the male robin's annoyance. They had a tiff about it. The starling emerged victorious and the robin had to wait his turn.

Look out!

I have to admit, the iridescence that seems so oily from a distance is rather striking up close.

I've long liked the raucous Steller's jays with their black crests, blue forehead stripes, black-barred blue plumage, and those screeching calls. They are extremely suspicious, though, and are therefore hard to photograph. Unless, of course, you have peanuts! Our neighbors put out peanuts for the jays and they have grown so bold as to come to the window requesting their peanut ration. If you come too close while they are grabbing and stashing their peanuts, though, they are off like a flash!

I got this picture of a jay during peanut distribution at the neighbors'.

Here's a Steller's jay hop-hop-hopping along the fence in our own yard.

Unlike a lot of people, I love crows. I love how smart they are, how quickly they learn and disseminate knowledge, how (unlike the jays) they are excellent at assessing risk, and how clever they are in solving problems. I also like their total, inky blackness. We do have one issue with the crows: they like to use our birdbath to soak food to soften it for their babies. They have gotten quite clever about it and will look into the house to see if we are watching before dropping anything in and will fly away if they see us. We got fairly strict about not letting them soak food after the time we found the partial remains of a dead rodent and Cheez-its in the birdbath, but we've relented recently because the crows are trying to be good parents and we support that. I was super thrilled this spring to see a juvenile crow (told by its clumsy behavior and blue iris) approach the birdbath with a piece of food and demonstrate that its parents had taught it well: it looked at the house to see if anyone was visible before putting the food in. (It didn't see me reclining on the couch.) Good work, crows! 

A crow drops a piece of bread in the birdbath. Being an experienced adult, it picked the morsel back up and flew away when it saw that I had seen it.

We also get a number of "fly-over" birds that enter our yard's airspace but don't necessarily land. The most dramatic of these is the bald eagle. There is a pair that I believe is based by a small lake about a mile from my house and they have flown over the yard and perched in nearby trees enough times that I feel justified in including them! Their distinctive call helps me track them when they are in the area; our yard is so surrounded by trees that it's hard to see out.

This pair is perching in a tree approximately 200 feet from the yard as the eagle flies.

I looked up while on the deck the other day and saw this Cooper's hawk circling overhead.

Tree swallows swoop and dart through and above the tops of the conifers.

While they may visit nearly as often as the chickadees and the robins, the most spectacular flier of them all, the hummingbird, never ceases to be extraordinary. We've seen black-chinned and rufous hummingbirds, but most of our hummingbird visitors are Anna's hummingbirds. While we don't put out feeders, we've planted with hummingbirds in mind, from the winter-blooming mahonias and the summer-blooming waxbell to the fuchsias, salvias, and other bright, hummingbird-friendly annuals we put in pots on the deck and patio. Our yard is popular enough in the summer that it can become contested territory. These tiny birds are quite doughty and will dive at each other with a buzz and clack in order to say who has dibs on the bounty. The winner will usually assume a discrete perch--often on one of the cedars, or perhaps in the vine maples or atop the Stewartia tree--and sing. Their screechy little songs never fail to amuse me: I think they sound like tiny singing hinges. My best hummingbird photos can be seen here, but here are a few others:

A hummingbird approaches the waxbell.

This photo was taken just days ago as a hummer explored our new batch of annuals.

What prompted me to start working on this blogpost in the first place was the sighting of new bird. I love seeing new birds and am well-versed enough with the contents of my beloved "Birds of North America" that I can usually make a quick ID. On this occasion, however, I couldn't pin the bird's identity down. I knew it was a member of the woodpecker family and that it wasn't one of our regulars--red-shafted flickers, downy woodpeckers--or the more rarely seen but utterly distinctive pileated woodpecker. I'd gotten a glimpse of one while at the stable and my mother had seen one in the yard, but our combined intelligence--red head, black and white body--didn't seem to match any of the woodpeckers native to our area. I was extremely excited, therefore, when I happened to look up from my book while reading at the kitchen table and see the bird in question in the birdbath. I had my camera next to me just in case something interesting cropped up in the yard (you don't get the photos unless you always have your camera handy) so I was able to snap half a dozen photos. By googling "woodpecker red head red chest," I was able to make the positive ID: a red-breasted sapsucker. It's unlikely that I would have been able to identify it from the bird book even with my photographs: you can see why in the photo of the book page I've included. For one, it's way down in the corner. And two, it shows the yellow-bellied northern subspecies. The ones that live here have grayish-white bellies with only the tiniest hint of yellow. I've seen and photographed the red-bellied sapsucker several times now and am extremely excited to add it to the list of birds that visit our yard!

The bird book totally let me down on this one. Thank goodness for the internet!

Hop! The red-bellied sapsucker jumps into the bath.

Splash! I like that you can see the sapsucker has covered its eye with its clear third eyelid.

You can see how this subspecies of the sapsucker has just the tiniest touch of yellow where the red of the chest meets the grayish belly.

What a handsome bird!

Speaking of handsome... I consider the red-breasted sapsucker (see above), the red-shafted flicker (which declined to be photographed for this post), the varied thrush (who is currently out of town), the hummingbirds (of course), and the rufous-sided towhees to be the most attractive birds that visit our yard. The juncos have a certain handsome, if muted, charm, but the rufous-sided towhees are downright dapper. We've had a pair that nested somewhere nearby this year--my parents witnessed the parents courting in the yard this spring--and I can hear them calling to each other all the time, but they proved very hard to photograph! My mother was lucky enough to see one of the adults feeding their fledgling on the patio right outside the kitchen window one morning, but they dipped in and out of the yard like quicksilver whenever I was outside. I spent hours sitting out in the yard with my camera at ready, silently willing one of the towhees to land in the yard long enough for me to photograph it, but I had no luck. I finally caught a lucky break: I looked out of my upstairs study window the other evening and saw that there was a towhee in the yard. I ran downstairs, grabbed my camera, and approached the glass door, trying to spot the towhee. What I saw was a robin in the birdbath, but no towhee. I had my camera set on the three-photos-per-second action setting, so when the towhee did appear, I started shooting continuously. Here's what I got:

I had grown very frustrated that the best rufous-sided towhee image I had was of this one in the cherry trees on the other side of the fence.

Therefore, I was extremely excited when the towhee hopped up on the birdbath while the robin was bathing... 

...and absolutely beside myself when my camera caught their confrontation! (The robin won.)

This post was originally going to be about identifying the sapsucker, but during the course of its writing, as I took advantage of some decent weather to stake out the birdbath and photograph the common visitors to our yard, my purpose underwent a shift. I so enjoyed photographing the birds that I think I'm going to purchase a telephoto lens. My 100 mm macro lens can produce great pictures if I'm within ten feet of the birds, but there are lots of birds, like the jays and the flickers, who won't let you come within ten feet! I've become so accustomed to the high quality of my macro images that the degraded image quality of those taken more than 10 feet away is a real frustration for me.

But the project became more than just about the photographs. During the hours I spent out in the yard, camera in hand, I found myself becoming immersed in a different world than the one I know: the world of the birds. I used my ears to follow the progress of the towhees as the pair called back and forth to each other every few seconds, to track which conifer was being explored by the chickadees, to gauge if there were any crows or jays or flickers nearby, and to identify all the sounds of the robins. I also became very enamored with the busy, gregarious juncos and was quite flattered that they seemed to become rather enamored with me. They were able to quickly determine that I meant no harm and I think they were rather intrigued by the sound of my camera shutter when shooting in action mode, a rapid click-click-click not so different from their chk-chk-chk. The male junco(s) had become increasingly bold about investigating me: one deliberately hopped across the duff toward me as it hunted until it came within about four feet. On another occasion, after his bath, the junco opted (which they never do!) to fly over to the camellia next to me to shake the water off its feathers. Again, it was no more than four feet away! I love that I've gained their trust: I consider that the ultimate compliment from a wild animal. I only hope that my dog's interest in their youngster hasn't set back our relationship!

A junco (with a bug in its beak) comes over to check me out.

There were pleasures to be observed beyond just those related to birds. I got to see a ladybug at work and photograph it eating an aphid, to take pictures of bristly caterpillars and a magpie moth and a flying insect with burgundy compound eyes. I also watched as bumblebees took the same route, one after another, to the flowering hebe by the birdbath, a route that included an impractical zigzag through one of the mahonias. I can only assume I was actually watching the results of the directional dance of bees at work, something I'd only read about. In other words, I immersed myself in the coniferous suburban backyard ecosystem. As I wrote in my last post, I love the concept of the ecosystem, but I don't often think of where I live as being one; ecosystems are out in the wild, not at home. But the backyard proves to be a full and vibrant world, equally inhabited by the birds and other critters as it is by humans.

So, in total, I've counted visits by thirty-three different birds to our yard (including, once, years ago, a merlin that caught a mouse on our back lawn). I would consider roughly twenty-five of these species to be regular visitors, at least on a seasonal basis. Over the course of four days, I photographed twelve of these species and saw several others. This is nothing compared to the senior author of the bird book, who has, it says, seen 193 species on his 2.5 acre suburban Maryland yard, but there's only a small number of species that can possibly be found in the coniferous suburbs west of the Cascade Mountains in the Pacific Northwest. I think we're doing a pretty good job of attracting most of them!

Our lush and abundant moss.

Before we redesigned our yard, we only saw crows, robins, jays, flickers, juncos, and chickadees on a semi-regular basis. Now that we are working with the moss instead of against it, our yard has turned into a bird's paradise. Wrens like to hunt in the viburnums lining the stone patio, the varied thrushes toss about the piles of fallen leaves against the fence, the flickers and towhees hunt in the open fringes of the yard, the warblers flit through the hydrangeas and the cedars, bushtits swing in chirping acrobatic troupes through the vine maples, the hummingbirds sing from the Stewartia and feed from the fuchsias, the robins gobble berries and empty the birdbath with their splashing, chickadees call to one another from the Douglas-firs, the crows stop by for a drink and maybe to soak a piece of bread, the jays jeer from the neighbors' cherry trees, a loud "kwah!" announces the arrival of the sapsucker while the sound of claws on bark indicates the presence of a downy woodpecker, the juncos hop and dart and flutter and bounce over every inch of the yard, and, high above, the chittering swallows draw cursive paths of flight across the sky. I'm excited to see and photograph ever one of them.

Don't miss my follow-up post with more photos here!