Hummingbird Reminder

It's the time of year when I get hummingbird questions so I thought I would do a quick reminder about hummingbird nectar. Here is the recipe:

4 parts water 1 part table sugar (not honey, not corn syrup, not Splenda, not Stevia, no artificial sweetner)

Don't bother with red dye, it's not needed, could be harmful (we don't know for certain but it's best to err on the side of caution). Your feeder should be red enough to get the hummingbirds' attention.

Mix until the sugar is dissolved. One thing that I do is add in a little hot water from our tea kettle to the sugar, just enough to dissolve it. Once it's dissolved I add in cool water so the nectar won't be too hot and can go right in the feeder. You can make a big batch and store the excess in your refrigerator for up to two weeks.

Remember to keep the nectar in the feeder fresh. If you feeder is in direct sun, change the nectar every two days. If it's in the shade, change it every five days. If the nectar looks cloudy or if you see black on the inside of the feeder or around the feeder points--clean the feeder and change the nectar. A clean feeder is essential.

If the idea of keeping a feeder clean is daunting, use flowers to attract hummingbirds instead.


Altimira Oriole At Black Oil Sunflower Feeder

Orioles are not birds that one typically associate with being seed eaters but this Altimira oriole at Bentsen Rio Grande State Park certainly seemed to dig them.  Most of us think of orioles as nectar, fruit and jelly feeder birds but I've seen them sample seed and suet when Baltimore orioles arrive up in Minnesota and Wisconsin in early spring during a cold snap.  This bird had ample access to a suet log (at least until a chachalaca took over the feeder).

I didn't think orioles had a beak strong enough to crack open sunflower shells but I suspect that this bird found a few hulled sunflowers left behind by started red-winged blackbirds.  Interesting feeding behavior to witness.

Speaking of Altimira orioles, does anyone else think their nests resemble a certain anatomical feature on a 70ish year old man?


Random Catbird

This gray catbird has taken to the suet plugs at the feeder in a big way. It's one of two catbirds (presumably a pair) that have decided the peanut suet dough in the woodpecker log is the best thing ever.  Hope they bring their fledglings too.

Warblers Eating Honey

I'm in a quandary with my beehives and my love of birds.

On my way out to the Horicon Marsh Bird Festival, I stopped at Mr. Neil's for a quick check of our new beehives and some birding.  The warblers have arrived and the cool weather has forced those who arrive early in migration to search for alternate sources of food.  Yellow-rumped warblers like these would prefer insects.  Far too cool and far too few available, so the enterprising early migrants explored the bird feeders.

Despite the fact that Baltimore orioles are in the area and singing, none came to the feeders.  Yellow-rumps gladly took advantage of the grape jelly.

The warblers even jockeyed for position at the suet feeder among the four species of woodpecker that normally feed here.

Pine warblers are also hitting the feeders.  Whereas the yellow-rumps go for the suet and jelly, the pine goes for sunflower hearts.  It will also go for the suet, but seems content to eat the seeds.

While I was working around the garage, I noticed Neil's groundskeeper Hans had put out some old bee frames.  We do this so the bees from active hives will fly in and clean out the old honey.  These frames were from the hives that died over the winter.  The bees found it.  While I was working around the garage, I noticed warbles hanging out in the area.  At first, I thought the warblers were after the live bees and even said allowed, "I know you're desperate for insects, but you're far too small for eating bees."

Then, right about dusk when the honeybees were all tucked in their hives for the day, I noticed the warblers on the frames, pecking at them.  The light was dim but thanks to the auto timer on my Nikon D40 I was able to digiscope a Nashville warbler and a yellow-rumped warbler on the frames.

Based on the holes in the frame it looked like the warblers were going for dead bees.  Some of the frames had capped larvae that never hatched, so I figured the warblers were after the protein of old squishy non-hatched larvae.  We had more frames of dead larvae and honey in the garage so I set more out.  I figured the warblers could clean out the larvae and the bees could clean out the honey and help get a head start on their hives for the season.

The next morning when I went out for some birding, I checked the frames, they were covered in warblers.  Above are two yellow-rumped warblers and one Nashville warbler.  These were a small cross-section of about two dozen warblers waiting in line to feed off of my old beehive frames.  There were at least four species in the flock, the above two and pine warblers and orange-crowned.  I didn't get photos of the other two species, but got plenty of shots of the feeding frenzy.

Here are four warblers on one frame.  As I took pictures and watched them feed, it became clear that old bee larvae was not the only sustenance they were after.  They were very certainly eating honey.  I had a moment of panic...should birds be eating honey?  Honeybees are a fairly new species to North America, they came over with the early settlers.  Warblers did not evolve with honeybees.  Could they safely process honey and still migrate?

As I watched them I noticed that they tugged and chipped at wax foundation too.  Is that safe?  I've seen honeybees that have built comb out in the open on a bare branch, I remember seeing some abandon ones in Arizona and Texas...perhaps warblers have had exposure to this.

The air was so cold and their food scarce, I didn't want to take this source of food away if they were still trying to load up for their journey north.  I couldn't find anything about it on the Internet other than not using honey as a means to make nectar.  I wanted to plant myself in front of the frames all day long see how many species of warbler would come in but I had to go.

I also noted that as the sun got higher in the sky and our honeybees became more active, the bees didn't tolerate the warblers in close proximity and chased them off.  A few warblers still came in for the bounty but not four on a frame like at dawn.

I'm not sure if this is a good thing but if the warblers figured honey out, no doubt other birds will and I don't know if they should.  We already had one casualty of a tufted titmouse getting covered in honey while it explored some of our dead beehives.  I'm going to have to seek out an avian nutritionist to find out if this is a safe thing to offer birds.  If it is, this may be a new way to enjoy birds and bees and a new product to offer at bird stores.

Siskins Are Moving

I went out to Mr. Neil's yesterday to deal with some of our beehives that died over the winter (it was a hard winter, lots of beekeepers lost hives, it's part of the hobby). While walking around outside, I could hear titmice singing territory song and then I heard a golden-crowned kinglet.

I looked out the window and among the goldfinches noticed someone a little streaky.

It was a pine siskin!  Some winters, we get tons and tons of siskins that show up, but this winter we didn't see very many pine siskins at all. I was glad to see this one siskin and thought it strange that it was alone--you generally get a buttload of siskins, not just one or two.

I looked out the window five minutes later and the number of siskins outnumbered the goldfinches.  I went outside and the trees were full of them, their chipping and trilling took over the chorus of other birds.  Here's a link to what they sound like--does that sound familiar?  Have you heard that in your yard?

I think this is definitely a sign that spring is on its way--even up there in the northern states (finally).  Between the kinglet and the large siskin flock, these are birds moving north.  Can red-winged blackbirds be far behind for me?  Watch for these finches at your feeder, you'll notice them from goldfinches by their extreme streaky plumage.  They love Nyjer (aka thistle) and above the birds are eating sunflower seeds.

My Great Backyard Bird Count 2011

The Great Backyard Bird Count was over the weekend and normally for bird county things I like to do it at Mr. Neil's because he gets better birds at his home than I do.  But I never cease to be amazed at what I can attract with some sensible bird feeding choices out of my very urban apartment.

My first day on the count wasn't all that.  Oh sure, I had these lovely house finches, but I didn't see any of the hoped for winter birds for my hood like robins, Cooper's hawks or chickadees--not that I don't appreciate that pretty pink of male house finches (I love you boys, really I do).

I was starting to think that all I was going to get on my Wingscapes Camera and on the count were non native species like the above starlings until that blue jay photobombed them.  Even the house finches are somewhat non native (western species introduced to New York in the 1940s and they gradually worked their way east). But then, Saturday morning I noticed that my news alerts were saying my town was under a Winter Storm Warning.

And snow hit like crazy on Sunday. I had to laugh when I was filling out the form on the Great Backyard Bird Count site.  You had to fill in out much snow you had.  I was trying to calculate what we had because we had 61 inches on the ground, but last week we hit 45 degrees and some melted.  Fortunately, the highest total was 24 inches or above.  Even with the melt, we had at least 30 inches. Then 12 more fell on Sunday.

This is from one of the beaches off of Lake Calhoun...where's the horizon???  The frozen lake and the sky were the same color!  It was a bleak horizon on Sunday.  Fortunately, that changed the game for how many birds that came to my apartment window.

The chickadees and downy woodpeckers came back in spades.  They had to fight their way through some pigeons and starlings, but these hard urban residents were able to hold their own.

Everybody was digging the peanut suet. I have some in a suet log that's outside of the view of the camera, but I slathered some on the wall and sprinkled a few chunks on my window ledge.  In the above photo, the female cardinal has a huge chunk of suet in her beak and the white-breasted nuthatch was working on the patch of suet I stuck to the wall.

I had to chuckle at some of the photos the Wingscapes camera picked up. This house finch was trying to beat the starlings to the last remnants of the suet on the wall.  I didn't even know they would go for suet.

All in all, we had 14 species show up which isn't bad for how urban an area our apartment is located in.

And now that the count is over, I have to figure out how to deal with another 15 inches of snow dealt to us (no doubt by some vengeance seeking groundhog). I keep reminding myself that this time next month, I may find myself sitting in a cool field of freshly melted snow listening for the "peent" of displaying woodcocks.

Great Backyard Bird Count #gbbc #birding

Here is a friendly neighborhood tree sparrow reminding you that today is the start of the Great Backyard Bird Count.  This is YOUR chance to take 15 minutes day over the next four days to note what birds and how many of each you see.  This is a joint project with Audubon and Cornell Lab.  Please consider taking a moment to help get a cross section of winter birds in your yard.

Even if you do not have a bird feed, this is something you can do.  Maybe you have robins foraging in mud in your yard--that counts.  Maybe you notice a flock of 6 crows fly over your yard--that counts.  Maybe you have pigeons roosting on a neighbor's roof--that counts.

Even the most common birds count.  It helps in the long run to get an idea of prey base for raptors or population trends for common birds.  We especially need a good base on the off chance bird populations may drop in the future.  Fifteen minutes day. That's drinking a cup of coffee to note what's in your yard.  Give it go, won't you?

If you want to follow it on Twitter, I believe the hashtag is #GBBC.

Cowbird Suet?

I found this suet at a Walmart last night.

Periodically,  people email or ask me, "Hey, I've had a suet feeder out, but no bird comes to it.  Why won't they come?"

Most of the time, I picture a yard void of trees, but after finding this suet in a popular shopping destination, I wonder if this might be one of the reasons?  The above suet cake is LOADED with milo.  This is a cheap filler seed that does not attract many birds.  If you live out west and get quail--milo is great.  In the eastern US only a few birds love it: pheasants, turkey, rock pigeons and brown-headed cowbirds.

This was not the only crap block of suet I found, but this was the worst offender I found on the shelf.  It's bad enough that suet cakes are being loaded with cracked corn but milo?  Really?

If you are looking for suet, look at it from the back.  If the label reads that it is a peanut suet and you see lots of corn...that may be a sign that it's not a good brand.  If you see lots of peanut chunks, then that is a good suet.  If you see lots of small, yellow round seeds, this is millet and woodpeckers don't care for that either.

I don't know if I can fault the company that makes the above suet.  I mean, they wouldn't unless they were making some sort of profit.  Is there enough of a profit to be made in a suet cake that is not attractive woodpeckers and ends up sitting in a feeder for along time?  Or maybe more people like to feed cowbirds than I realized?  I am frustrated because this company does make some pretty good, affordable bird seed mixes.  They make regional blends that are good for someone new to bird feeding and they don't know what seed to get.  But that suet...that's lame.

Rainbow Mealworms Is In Dire Need Of A Bird Consultant

Oh, Rainbow Mealworms, why couldn't you have had a birder to take a quick look at this ad before you submitted it for print?  I feel for you, I bet you'll get a few phone calls over this one.

I was thumbing through one of the many bird magazines that find their way into my mailbox when this half page ad caught my attention.  Rainbow Mealworms used a starling as the target bird to attract with their product for a US bird publication.  This is a bit of an advertising blunder when you consider the type of birders who purchases mealworms: bluebird and purple martin enthusiasts.

Mealworms gained a place on wild bird specialty store shelves because bluebirds do not eat seeds and bluebird trail monitors wanted a way to offer them food.  Starlings are one of the birds bluebird and purple martin enthusiasts work to great lengths to avoid since this introduced species will displace so many birds from nesting cavities like bluebirds, purple martins and flickers.  Using a starling in the advertising is somewhat of a smack in the face akin to giving the peace sign backwards in the United Kingdom.  Mealworms are a great addition to any feeding station, regulars like cardinals, chickadees and nuthatches eat them but so do catbirds, orioles and robins.  I've yet to see any US bird feeding enthusiast anxious to attract starlings.

I don't blame the magazine's editorial staff for this one.  Editors have remarkably little control over the ads, especially in this media era when few advertisers are investing in print. Often, the advertisers are submitting their pre designed ads last minute and the ads are put in with very little thought.  A company should do a bit of research before they do their marketing.  I'm sure both the magazine and the company will get some emails over this.  Perhaps some enterprising bluebird or purple martin enthusiast will offer use of their photos of birds eating mealworms in exchange for a few bags of a 1000 Mealworms?

Rainbow Mealworms has had a tough few years.  They are the biggest supplier of mealworms to North America and were one of the reasons for the mealworm shortage in 2008.

Better luck next time, Rainbow Mealworms.