While social gatherings of the human sort are still not an option, we’ve been lucky to host a succession of very charming avian guests in the garden lately.
This week seems to be goldfinch week out there, with beautiful singing and frequent flashes of saffron in the foliage … and at the fountain.
The recklessness of some of the flying manoeuvres I’ve witnessed today lead me to believe that a new generation of goldfinches have come to play. You know when you have to duck to avoid finch/human contact that you have some L-plated flyers in the ‘hood.
Junior goldfinch taking a breather.
A few years ago we only had house finches coming to the garden. About five years ago the goldfinches finally arrived, but the house finches disappeared. I thought they might be fundamentally incompatible, but last year and this year, both kinds of finches seem to be happy in the garden, along with a gang of feisty siskins.
Male House Finch feeds a nesting Female.
Fierce little siskin bossing Norman the Nuthatch about at the feeder.
This week’s warmer weather inspired me to set up the mister at the bird bath. First customer was a rather excited female Anna’s hummingbird.
Hummingbirds don’t normally frequent the bird bath as they get all the liquid they need to drink from nectar, and the water in it is too deep for them to bathe in. For bathing they prefer either a mist or a shallow water receptacle, like the leaf I noticed a hummingbird bathing in last year.
Birds like the white crowned sparrow below, however, are very, very happy with a regular bird bath — as long as it’s kept nice and clean, with fresh water added daily.
Our hummingbirds also seem to enjoy the fountain, where they can dart under the falling water for a quick feather refresh.
The goldfinches are also big fountain fans for some reason.
Freshly bathed and ready to impress some lady goldfinches.
I hope that you’re also managing to spend some time with feathered friends.
Last week’s local newspaper, the Vancouver Sun, featured a story Backyard Birding Takes Flight about the delight that people stuck at home are finding in getting to know their avian neighbours, and the joy of discovery to be found within their own neighbourhoods. I do hope this is something we’ll take forward with us long after the COVID-19 situation has passed. You will notice that Norman the Nuthatch and one of my Steller’s Jay photos are featured in the article, and I am quoted in it.
Treat yourself this weekend to just a few minutes of bird watching. You don’t have to go far at all and you can maintain your social distance. Tomorrow, May 9, offers the chance to do that and be part of a world wide community of bird enthusiasts contributing to science for the Global Big Day of bird observing and counting. You can spend all day doing it, or ten minutes. If you want to add your findings to the overall count, you’ll need an eBirds account. It’s totally free to sign up and participate.
I can honestly say that thing that calms me down the fastest in these days of specific and generalized anxiety is to just stop what I’m doing, step outside and look around to see what the birds are doing. Sometimes a minute does it, sometimes a whole hour is required. Often there seems to be nothing of interest going on, but there always is if you just take a few deep breaths and wait. Common birds doing their normal amazing things, and occasionally a rarer bird. Either way it’s time well spent.
Swainson’s Thrush in the garden last week — only the second one I’ve ever seen.
The Downy Woodpecker is the smallest of all the North American woodpeckers, a compact and handsome little bird, often found in urban backyards.
The male wears a jaunty red cap, while the female restricts her fashion palette to a crisp and dapper black and white.
They are firm believers in the saying “good things come in small packages.”
I was out walking the dog a few mornings ago and heard what sounded like a small jackhammer. A bit rude to be working on a construction project so early, I thought.
But, getting closer to the hammering, I realized the source was the top of a Hydro pole. I then assumed that it was the usual suspect — the amorous male Northern Flicker looking to impress the ladies.
I stared at the pole for quite a while without being able to spot the percussionist. It took my camera lens finally pick him out — a tiny, but talented, male downy woodpecker.
He was exploring the whole T-bar of the pole, testing here and there to find the best reverb. And he’d found the sweet spot for sure, making a noise that echoed richly around the neighbourhood.
So impressive did he sound — he finally attracted a female Northern Flicker to his perch.
They both looked at each other as if they’d arrived on a blind date . . . and both parties had stretched the truth in their dating profiles.
You can see Mr. Downy trying to look inconspicuous on the far right.
After an awkward moment or two, the downy made a quiet exit stage right — off in search of his true love.
Here’s the actual object of his affections, taking a little spa time at our bird bath. I’m hoping they’ve sorted the confusion out now and that we can look forward to some even littler downies later in the season.
Incidentally, my very first blog post, written in spring 2014 was about a Downy Woodpecker. You can read it here: Downy Woodpecker Drama
Two big things to take away from the 2014 story:
Keep your cat indoors
Donate to your local wildlife rescue centre. Nesting season is always an extra busy time for these volunteer run organizations, especially as they try to work through the Covid-19 complications, so help them out if you can. The organization that saved the downy in 2014 (and countless other birds and other wildlife before and since) is Wildlife Rescue BC.
The Squirrel Buster bird feeder is an ingenious contraption. When anything heavier than a small bird (say, a squirrel for example) lands on the perch to get at the food, their own weight causes little doors to close on all the seed ports. Northern Flickers are also, technically, too heavy to use this feeder but, even though they have a couple of other food options to chose from, they clearly take this a personal affront.
Luckily they have their secret weapon, the mindbogglingly long tongue they keep neatly wrapped around their brain and ready for instant deployment. All woodpeckers have very long tongues, usually with barbed ends for catching prey, but the Northern Flicker has the longest of all of them, and their tongue tip is flattened and comes with extra sticky saliva for collecting the ants that they find so delicious.
So, back to the Squirrel Buster conundrum.
This male Flicker (you can tell by the red “sideburns”) has figured out that by hanging from the perch he can j-u-s-t get his tongue into the the gap at the bottom of the closing door. I was a bit worried he’d get his tongue stuck and we’d have a difficult conversation with the Wildlife Rescue team, but it seems he’s done this before.
Not only did he get the food out quite handily, he managed to also pick up the bits that fell out of the feeder and landed on his belly. This is where the really impressive gymnastics come in.
I’m pretty sure I saw these two, taking a break from digging up ants, exchanging bird feeder foiling tips on my dog walk the other day.
And, just in case you think it’s only the males who have figured this out, here’s a female I saw doing it in back February, so perhaps she passed on the technique to her mate.
Speaking of ingenuity I’ve been scanning the internet for COVID-19 mask making patterns, as it seems that medical advice here in North America is now pivoting in favour of mask-wearing for all to help “flatten the curve”.
So, just in case you’re also thinking about making your own mask, I’ve looked at a few and made a couple of versions for when someone from our family needs to go out for groceries. The one I like best is this one from the University of Minnesota. It seems to have a good fit, and it has a pouch to put replaceable home-made filters in (suggestions for filter material you can find about the house are included in the instructions.)
I realize that I’m incredibly lucky to have a garden I can escape into, even if we’re confined to home.
It’s like having a cabin with an outside deck on the cruise ship of pandemic life.
The least I can do, in gratitude for my good fortune, is to share some of the things going on out there.
I hope to be posting every other day, about birds, or crows, or ravens . . . but some days I (like many of you) feel just a bit too discombobulated to construct a sentence, so bear with me if there are gaps.
Newly returned pine siskin enjoying the bird bath.
Now that it’s officially spring, I took the bold move of finally removing the bird bath heater. Call me crazy! We may even go hog wild and get the small fountain out of winter mothballs too.
I keep thinking that the Steller’s Jays have moved on permanently, but then, when I’m reconciled to their absence, back they come. It’s not hard to know when they’ve arrived, what with the shrieking calls and flashes of electric blue — my cue to stop listening to the radio and rush outside and enjoy them before they move on again.
The finches, House and Gold, are providing a more melodic garden sound track with an almost constant chorus of song.
Mr and Mrs House Finch
The bushtits are back, but often in groups of only two, now that nesting season has arrived.
Female bushtit with her pale gold eyes.
And those bushtits are still using their clever little claws for holding their food like a the world’s smallest burrito.
I have been doing my Feederwatch bird count each week, even though sometimes it’s hard to settle down and do it. I have to say, I highly recommend it as a mental health strategy. Even if you don’t have a garden, you just need to pick a spot with some birds (even if it’s just a few crows or pigeons), register, and do a count when you feel like it. It doesn’t have to be every week — just when you can.
Often when I go out there to count it’s as if the birds know and they all scarper.
But I’ve learned that if you are quiet enough and just sit for a few minutes, you will find that there’s always a bird somewhere out there.
Often it’s just one modest brown song sparrow scuffling ever so softly through the shadowy leaf litter.
Or a finch, outlined against the sun on a high branch, gathering a long breath for the next musical recitation.
I suspect there may be a metaphor to be sifted out of that word litter . . .
Song sparrow tightrope walking on the Daphne Odora
To close, I’d like to thank you all for reading my blog, and sometimes writing to let me know it helps a bit.
The fact is that writing the blog helps me a lot too, by giving me something positive to focus on at this crazy time.
So, thanks and stay well, be kind to each other. And to the birds, of course.
Yes, let us drag our minds away from the headlines for a few moments to consider the many amazing things about this rather drab, and somewhat unfortunately named little bird.
And it really is minuscule, weighing in at about 5.3 grams — approximately the weight of one nickel. It’s one of the tiniest songbirds, coloured a modest beige-grey and, with it’s squeaky call, very like a flying mouse.
You can see how really tiny they are when they decide to take a bath. I remember how shocked I was as kid when I saw my aunty’s Yorkshire Terriers soaking wet.
Similar effect with bushtits.
It’s hard to decide what I like most about bushtits, but high on the list has to be their nest making technique. Essentially, they weave an elastic sock out of moss, grass, lichen, leaves, small twigs.
A bushtit nest I found lying on the ground after nesting season a few years ago. It measures about 25 cm (10-inches) from top to bottom.
The ingenious addition of spider web to the construction is what makes them stretchy — a handy feature as both parents, possible extra helpers and, eventually, 5-7 baby bushtits, will all be snuggled in there at one time. The interior is made extra cosy with a lining of downy plant material and feathers, while the outside is camouflaged with the addition of material from nearby foliage.
You can see a bushtit popping his head out of the nest, top left.
Another bushtit bonus: they generally come in bulk. It’s rare to see one by itself as they arrive in the garden like an excited tour group on a very tight schedule. One minute there are zero bushtits, then there are thirty. They’ll crowd the local attractions, tweeting their reviews, before abruptly weaving off en masse to the next stop on the itinerary.
They love suet, but they also like the finch feeder — and I’ve even seen them drink from the hummingbird feeder on occasion.
Another thing for gardeners to love about bushtits — they will eat aphids from your plants! They also enjoy small spiders and other bugs that live on the underside of leaves. Their small size gives them the advantage of being able to hang underneath leaves and access a bug harvest there that’s inaccessible to bigger birds.
One of the very most amazing things that I’ve just recently noticed about bushtits is that they can hold food in their little claws and eat it like a sandwich. I thought my eyes were deceiving me at first, so I spent quite a bit of time trying to get a decent photo. Not so easy, as those feet are so tiny and so fast, but here are a few of my efforts to capture the Bushtit Sandwich Effect.
I’ve not noticed any other of our local birds using such a prehensile-like feeding technique, and I honestly don’t remember seeing bushtits doing this until the last few months, so I sort of wonder if it’s one of those miracles of city bird adaptation.
Still need more amazing facts about bushtits? OK, how about the fact that, despite their tiny size and uniform colour, you can easily tell the males from the females by their eyes? The males have dark, button-like eyes, while the females have light coloured ones — pale gold in our part of the world — giving them that intense “Angry Bird” look I do so love.
Do you sometimes hear a small shrub alive with tweets, and then the bush seems to deconstruct before your eyes into a living Escher-like bird design — and it’s bushtits heading off somewhere else? That’s another thing I love about them. They’re magic.
So, while there are definitely a lot of massively worrying things going on in the world right now, this is a small (tiny, really) reminder that there are still many good and amazing things going on all around us — under leaves, inside mossy sock-nests, or flying around in judgemental little groups.
Sometimes, for your own mental health, you just need to Consider the *#@*!! Bushtit …
I had meant to write another crow update blog post today, but somehow it was a bit hard to focus on pulling the images and words together.
So, instead, here is a small, somewhat random bouquet of things that are helpful for my mental health at this tough time. I hope they help you too.
First, here is Norman the Nuthatch visiting the garden this morning.
It’s just 5 seconds, but I find playing him over and over again kind of restful.
Second, here is Mr. Pants, looking at me from the wires on our morning dog walk.
Crow Therapy is proving to be a lifeline for me at the moment.
Third, in exceptionally good timing we have Luke the Super Emotional Support dog staying with us for the weekend. Triple-strength dog therapy with Geordie and Nina. They take their work very seriously.
Fourth, and last, we need Edgar’s advice …
As an indoor cat he is already a master of both social distancing and extreme cleanliness.
Further advice he would like to share: stay safe, nap frequently, and be very kind to others.