Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Closing Out the Old Year With a New Toy

On this final day of 2013 (how is that possible?), I made a quick stop at Southford Falls State Park to try out an extremely generous holiday gift: an upgraded telephoto lens for my camera. It's a strange and exciting change. Things are now a little closer (300mm instead of 200mm) and a little clearer (vibration reduction technology is amazing).

So on this cold, overcast day, and from a distance that would have been too far just a week ago, I'll let this handsome Song Sparrow in what I'm pretty sure is a Red Osier Dogwood (Cornus sericea) close out the year:

Here's to another year of interesting sights and exciting events. Happy new year!

(And thank you, Grandpa!)

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Feeder Bird Behavior

About a week ago, when we were getting all that wonderful snow, I took some videos of our window feeder and the tons of birds that were visiting. I'm sure a lot of people reading this are used to watching birds at feeders, but it's still pretty novel for me. I just get totally engrossed with these creatures' behaviors at our little feeder.

Things I've learned from watching these birds come and go: Titmouses have huge personal space issues. They will not share the feeder, and they just barrel other birds out of the way when they decide to come in for a landing. Chickadees also don't share space well, but they seem pretty polite about the whole process; one bird will usually be waiting in the trees and ready to fly in as soon as whoever's already eating flies off (and a chickadee and titmouse on totally opposite ends of the feeder is sometimes OK). Things I still haven't figured out: How in the world do these birds avoid mid-air collisions when two or three of them try to come in at once?

I think my favorite part of this video is at 0:57, when two titmouses somehow both end up on the feeder and just raise their crests for a few seconds like, "well, what do we do now?" (The titmouses later in the video aren't so hesitant to tell other birds to clear out.)

Not shown: The amazing Carolina Wren who camped out inside the feeder that afternoon for several minutes, just chowing down (I didn't even know wrens ate seeds) and not caring at all about the other birds, even when a titmouse landed practically on its back. This snow storm also brought our first Song Sparrow visitor to the feeder, which was really lovely to see.

When I took this next video, I learned a few things about birds and closeness to my phone. (I used my phone to take these videos.) The nuthatch cared not at all about the big black box floating in front of its face, and the chickadees didn't seem to mind too much either. The House Finch wasn't too enthused about the idea and left just to be safe. The titmouses, though, were all freaked out. Don't go to the feeder, there's a monster there! I guess titmouses' personal space issues extend to strange objects, too. (I just love how much the nuthatch doesn't care, though.)

The bird activity has slowed down a bit now that the snow is melting. (It'll be all gone in the next day or two, and we've got rain on the way....) I'm glad I made this recording of the birds at their craziest, and I wanted to post these videos before I forget what winter's like.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Red-shouldered Hawk

I was about to do some laundry today when I looked out the window and saw an adult Red-shouldered Hawk in our yard. Well, I was going that way anyway (we have to walk around the back of our house to get to the laundry machines), so I brought along my camera just in case....

And surprisingly, the hawk didn't fly off as soon as I showed up outside!

I tromped through the snow on the path, my bulky laundry bag over my shoulder, and the hawk shifted and turned her back to me but stayed put:

(I don't actually know whether this bird is male or female, but "she" just sounds right.)

I've often admired Red-shouldered Hawks -- they're frequent winter residents in our neighborhood -- but this is the first time I've gotten to see one so close. I absolutely love the rusty feathery cape across her back.... And really, yard visitors don't get much cooler than this.

Thanks for the visit (and the patience!), lovely creature. Happy hunting, and I'll see you around!

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

First Snow

We had our first real snow of the winter today. :) I love it when the trees in our yard get all delicate and feathery:

And when endlessly layered webs of these transformed branches fill our windows' views:

The birds managed to work through an entire (small) feeders-worth of seed today. But that's perfectly fine with me. The birds get food, and I get to see them up close in the snow. Hello, Mr. House Finch, have I really never posted a picture of your species on this blog before? Well, you picked a nice setting for your first portrait:

Hooray for snow. :)

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Gray Day Window Birds

The past few days have been generally gray and cold, but the avian activity in our yard just keeps speeding up. The chickadees and titmouses make traffic jams when two or three of them try to come to our small window feeder at once (we definitely need to get another one of these things soon). When the process goes smoothly we can stand for minutes and see visits from bird after bird after bird.... It's basically non-stop action around here!

Usually the chickadees and titmouses just fly in, take one seed, and fly off. A few of these birds, though, are kind of picky, and they'll toss away three or four seeds before they find one they actually want. (The sound of sunflower seeds pinging off our window is pretty common by now.) So now there are seeds on the rooftop below the feeder, but the birds don't let these seeds go to waste! This past Thursday, I discovered that I could sit with my camera sticking through the open window and get right at eye-level with these rooftop birds.

Hello, Black-capped Chickadee, finding anything good?

It's a novelty to be close to Dark-eyed Juncos, because these birds don't want to sit on our feeder. They're happy to clean up dropped seeds on the roof, though!

I love the hints of chocolate in this bird's feathers, as well as its utter roundness. (Where's your neck, bird?)

This last bird was here for the Red Cedar berries rather than the sunflower seeds, but she was also especially close. Is this not one of the prettiest female Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers ever?

We've been getting a bunch of Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers in our yard this fall -- more than in previous years, I think -- but they've mostly been juveniles. This adult female is definitely gorgeous, with her sleek black bib and full red head (I took this next picture a couple days later, but I'm pretty sure it's the same bird):

I wish there was a way to know for sure whether this is the same female who stayed here last winter and made sapsicles in our maple tree. Even if it's not, I'm hoping she'll stay around. Sapsuckers aren't as common in Connecticut as some of our other woodpeckers, and I feel really lucky to get to see these creatures so often in our yard.

So go ahead, weather, stay cold and gray! There are plenty of things to see right here.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Snowy Owl! (In Tiny Picture Form)

Owls are awesome. Big white owls from the high arctic are super awesome. Really, Snowy Owls are practically mythical creatures for me. So when multiple Snowy Owls started showing up along Connecticut's coast this past week, I couldn't not go to the beach and try to see one. (I didn't take advantage of the last Snowy Owl invasion, in 2011, and I wasn't going to let the current invasion pass me by!)

I went to Milford Point yesterday morning with my spotting scope in tow. This tool turned out to be absolutely essential, because while no big arctic birds were in range of my binoculars on the beach or in the marsh, the scope picked out a suspicious white and gray shape aaaaallll the way out on a rocky breakwater far offshore. It was tiny and distant, but I watched it turn its round white face and preen under its gray-barred wings. Yay, Snowy Owl!! There was no way my actual camera could reach that far, so I took some blurry photos through the scope with my phone:

Look, an owl! See it? ...How about now?

OK, so yes, it was really far away, but I watched this awesome (tiny) creature for a good long while nonetheless. This was a rare encounter indeed, and even this less-than-perfect view was still extremely exciting. I love that these creatures exist. :) And you never know, maybe I'll get a chance to see another Snowy Owl this winter if they keep showing up and hanging around.

Other big white birds were haunting this beach during my visit, too. Mute Swans are non-native, but they sure are impressive (and I still just cannot get over the color of that marsh grass):

One pair of swans was settled on the beach, and they didn't seem to care when I walked by. Pretty bird:

Their necks are so fuzzy, and so collapsible when it's time to rest:

A male Northern Harrier was hunting along this beach as well. I don't think I've ever seen a male harrier before, and now I understand why they're often described as "ghostly." This bird's gray and white costume fit well with the overall gray day:

All these big white and gray creatures definitely made for an awesome trip to the beach!

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Snow Bunting Storm

It was all gray and wet today, but yesterday was gloriously clear and warm. I couldn't very well pass up the chance to go outside with weather like that! It'd been a while since I was last at the shore, so I headed off to Milford Point for an awesome beach-filled afternoon.

The tide was the lowest I've ever seen it here, and I walked across wide expanses of wet sand under the prettiest blue sky (a sailboat makes the scene even prettier):

Actually, most of the ground I walked on was covered with mussel and oyster shells (and beds of living shellfish, too). It felt very strange to be walking right on the ocean floor:

Mysterious creatures buried in the sand kept spitting jets of water into the air as I walked here. More molluscs, perhaps?

The scenery was undeniably cool, but my favorite part of the visit was a big flock of Snow Buntings (at least 100 birds) that kept flying back and forth across the beach. These little birds are super cute. Of course, they wouldn't come near (or sit still) enough for close up pictures, but their white/black/brown costumes made a cool sight as they blew around the beach in their little chirping flurries:

I've only seen Snow Buntings a couple of times before, and only at the shore in winter. It was cool to see so many of these fancy little winter visitors at once!

Some more familiar winter shore birds were around, too: dozens of American Black Ducks, a flock of Brant, and a couple of Common Loons way out in the water.

These two Red-breasted Mergansers were foraging close to the shore:

They were pretty well synchronized in their underwater hunts, a pair of snorklers floating by:

I couldn't resist taking a picture of this handsome Ring-billed Gull, too:

Then the afternoon got later and the light got redder, and the scenery was awesome in new ways. I love this brilliant marsh grass (with what I'm assuming are high-tide markings):

I'm glad I took advantage of the lovely weather to visit the shore!

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Pileated Woodpecker at Bent of the River

Friday was a lovely (if a bit chilly) late fall day, and I decided it was high time for a woods walk. (How has it been over a month since my last walk in the woods? Not cool! I was feeling some serious woods withdrawal.)

I ventured out to the Bent of the River Audubon sanctuary, where I had a couple of absolutely lovely visits this past summer. The fields are now brown, and the trees are mostly bare, but this place remains wonderful and welcoming.

There were creatures all over the place, but I'll just skip right to my favorite. Pileated Woodpecker!

OK, Pileated Woodpecker butt. Let's try again. Pileated Woodpecker!

:) I think Pileated Woodpeckers are one of the best things around, and I so often see them only as flashes of big black and white wings or hear them hammering in the distance. This lady and I kept crossing paths during my walk, and I'm very glad she decided to stay and work on this tree fairly close to me on our last meeting! This is the first time I've been able to watch one of these awesome creatures for any length of time and at anything resembling closeness. I love her black and white stripes, of course, and that brilliant red crest, but now I have other things to admire, too, like the scale-like pattern on her belly, and the small yellow spot at the base of her beak.

I couldn't very well just walk away with such a (relatively) cooperative Pileated Woodpecker right there, so here are a couple of videos of the lady at work. She has quite the powerful stroke with that beak!


While I was watching this woodpecker, a big Gray Squirrel came ambling down a tree a few feet away from me and looked at me curiously:

On another part of my walk, I came across this rather zealous Eastern Chipmunk:

Birds were foraging all over, too, including a couple of funny little Brown Creepers:

And the fields were filled with sparrows. Hello, handsome Song Sparrow:

There's a lot of gray and brown out there right now, and many cool things to see. I'm definitely adding Bent of the River to my more-frequently-visit list!

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker & Co.

This gorgeous young male Yellow-bellied Sapsucker came through our yard this past Wednesday:

This guy hasn't got the brilliant clean red throat and cap that adult males have, and I think he's missing a black mark on his chest as well, but young or not, this is one handsome bird! I love those scalloped feathers on his chest, and yeah, his belly is kind of yellow... I guess.

Like so many other birds right now, this fellow was here for the Red Cedar's fruit!

Well, add another bird to the list. A Northern Flicker came by to eat these berry-like cones last year, so this Yellow-bellied Sapsucker is the second woodpecker I've seen eating from this Red Cedar. Still, it seems a strange thing for a woodpecker to do! Ah well! Who's going to tell this guy that he should be hammering tree trunks instead of munching berries?

That's right. Eat away!

I had way too much fun admiring this bird. I love the pattern on his back and wings:

And he looked cool in a more typically woodpecker-ish pose as well: (Look, a tiny woodpecker tongue!)

Those grappling-hook feet sure do their job well:

There were two other woodpecker species in these trees at the same time as this Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, but neither of them seemed interested in the cones. A Red-bellied Woodpecker hopped around outside of my camera's reach, and a female Downy Woodpecker (positively petite compared to the other woodpeckers) rested behind a branch:

She came out to forage as well, but she was after tidbits (insects? seeds other birds have secreted away?) hidden in the Red Cedar's bark:

And while not a woodpecker (but similar at least in those large clinging feet), this drowsy White-breasted Nuthatch was also hanging around, all puffed up against the cold:

I'm veering slightly off-theme again now, because I have one other yard bird to share. Yesterday, a curious little Carolina Wren apparently decided to see what all the titmouses were doing at our window feeder, and it ended up exploring the sill:

I have read that Carolina Wrens do sometimes eat sunflower seeds, but this bird either wasn't interested or couldn't quite figure out the source. It wasn't for lack of exploring, though!

You're quite the acrobat, little bird. Also, adorable:

I didn't see any Carolina Wrens in our yard all summer, but a couple of these guys have been hanging out here recently, singing their super loud songs and just basically being awesome. I certainly enjoy having them around, along with the woodpeckers and all the other cool avian visitors that stop by in the fall. :)

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Preparing for Next Year

A few weeks ago, I noticed some strange structures on one of the plants on my porch. Now that leaves are browning and falling off, these weird shapes have become more noticeable:

I'm fairly certain these are katydid eggs! More specifically, I think they might be the eggs of a Greater Angle-wing Katydid, which I see frequently (and hear even more frequently) around here in the summer. How interesting that some female decided to pick this spot to deposit her crazy-looking eggs:

I'm really curious to see the baby katydids that will emerge from these shapes in the spring! (Fortunately for the katydids, this is a deciduous plant that I leave outside all winter, so they'll still get all the same natural temperature and climate exposure as if they were on a native plant actually growing in the ground.) In the meantime, I'll just admire these cool structures.

Also, this is totally unrelated to the katydids, but I can't help sharing another picture. Along with lots of Yellow-rumped Warblers, we've been getting a bunch of kinglets in our yard recently. A Ruby-crowned Kinglet who visited us on Sunday kept hovering just below our gutters before slipping up to get a drink. I couldn't resist taking a quick picture of this bird who was staying so relatively still in midair (if only for a second at a time), when kinglets are so fidgety even perched on a branch:

This kinglet must've been pretty darn still for my camera to get that much sharpness on its head and body. Nice hovering skills, little bird!