Sunday, January 30, 2011


The southern third of Ohio is a unique location when it comes to vultures, as we can boast being home to two species of North American vultures - the Turkey Vulture and the Black Vulture (TUVU and BLVU for short). We are at the very northern-most edge of the Black Vulture's range, and while Turkey Vultures are common breeders throughout Ohio, wintering TUVUs are most frequently found on the lower third of the state.

I knew that a predictable location to find Black Vultures was at the lodge in Hocking Hills State Park, but I had never noticed them in Athens County until a little over a month ago.

Would it freak you out to see this sight in your neighborhood?

As I was driving in to work one snowy morning in December, I noticed some vultures at a deer carcass alongside the road. It took another day or two for me to realize that they were BLACK Vultures, and that there was not one carcass, but two - one on each side of the road. They feasted on the two carcasses for quite a few days, and I thought they might disperse once they were finished with them.

Insert your best Lurch "You rang?" imitation here.

Well, they stayed even after they picked those deer bones clean. Some days I can drive by the spot and see nary a vulture, but other days they look like they are thinking of taking over the neighborhood. I don't know what folks who live on this street think about the vultures choosing this as a roosting and congregating area, but I imagine they are not too pleased with it.

Unfortunately, vultures get a bad rap for their seemingly filthy habit of eating carrion (somebody has to pick up the garbage, though, right?), and in the case of Black Vultures, they are not liked by farmers as they have been known to pick off newborn calves, lambs, and pigs (although information from the Birds of North American Online website suggests that they eat live prey only "occasionally.")

I try to appreciate all birds for their unique characteristics, but will admit that I'm more drawn to those who fall into the "cute" category. Neither the Turkey Vulture nor the Black Vulture really fall into that category for me. Especially when I see them lined up on the roof of someone's house, or the fence surrounding someone's swimming pool - then they start to look a little... creepy (sorry!).

The main house these Black Vultures have chosen to congregate on is currently unoccupied. I'm not sure if it's on the market right now or not (I haven't seen a "for sale" sign in the yard for many months), but if it is, this could definitely have a negative effect on the property value!

As evening sets in, these Black Vultures almost appear to be saluting the sun.

Another thing going against them is a problem that you have with any bird: whitewash. Of course, that's just a colloquial way of saying "That bird done pooped all over my roof/car/insert other personal object here!" The larger the bird, the larger the excrement. And never mind if you are one of the birds who happens to be roosting below someone else who has to go.

Whitewash, on wings. It took me a few minutes to figure out that this was poo and not some kind of variation in plumage.

Whitewash, on roof. Nothing says "Welcome to the neighborhood!" like a poopy roof!

Across the road from this house there's a large tree that's also acting as a roosting area, and it's been host to both Black AND Turkey Vultures.

In fact, while I was out taking these pictures, the Turkey Vultures started circling overhead.

Turkey Vulture overhead in flight

I wish that I had a similar photo of the Black Vulture in flight to show for comparison, but right now I don't. The silvery-white all along the length of the wing (as well as in the tail) when seen from below is a key field mark when telling TUVUs apart from BLVUs. Black Vultures have white-ish coloring only at the very tips of their wings, which is illustrated in this BLVU that is taking flight:

Interestingly, Black Vultures are quite dependent on Turkey Vultures. TUVUs are well known for their keen sense of smell, but this is a trait not shared by the Black Vulture. Thus, BLVUs rely on TUVUs to find the carrion, and then they will muscle their way in and take over the carcass. Black Vultures fly higher in the sky than Turkey Vultures so that they can keep track of where the TUVUs are and follow them quickly to a food source. When examining range maps of the two species, it is obvious that the Black Vultures only live in areas where Turkey Vultures also exhibit a year-round presence.

I will be interested to observe how long the Black Vultures stay around this part of town. There is another well-known part of town where vultures (probably both species) stage spectacular flights in the morning and in the evening, but I haven't seen the birds in that area for a while. Yet one more item to put on my radar for "further observation."

A mixed group of vultures soaring in the evening sky.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

FeederWatch record smashed

Ahhhh, yet another great weekend of feeder watching has come and gone. There's lots of snow on the ground, and there were lots of birds at the feeders. I was very excited to finally hit a new record for total number of species observed during the 2-day count period. Up until now, 18 species has been the number to beat, but 2 surprise birds on Sunday took it up to 19, and then 20. I've watched the species diversity at our feeders climb slowly year by year, with 15 being the high number during the '05-'06 season, and that figure was reached only once at that. The extra 2 species of woodpeckers this year has certainly contributed to this rise in diversity, and also semi-regular appearances of Common Grackles. I've recorded over 15 species 4 times already this season, and there are still a number of harsh weeks of winter weather yet to go. March usually proves to be a record-setting time, due to a combination of the beginning of spring migration and one last bout of horrible weather conditions. Given that knowledge, I will continue to watch with interest over the next few months as to what may show up.

Species #19, Pine Siskin - I've been waiting for this one to show up for months. I only saw 1 individual, and time will tell if more of them will come visit over the next few days and weeks.

Species #20, Brown-headed Cowbird - a most unusual visitor at our feeders this time of year. They are more common in our yard during spring and summer.

Interestingly, the Cowbird was mixed into a large flock of other blackbirds. Yes, the Common Grackles showed up again. I'm not sure what's going on with these birds this year, but they have been frequenting my feeders, and also my neighbor's feeders about a mile down the road. Whatever the reason may be, I'll take it - they are such stunning birds!

Common Grackle sampling one of my freshly-made suet cakes. Have you figured out yet that I like making food for my birds?

Their dark coloring shows up nicely against the backdrop of beech bark.

Ha! I caught this one mid-scratch.

I was fortunate to get some good shots of both Downy (on the left) and Hairy (on the right) Woodpeckers to use as comparisons between the two. I'll be using these images in my upcoming "Backyard Birding" presentation next week.

How could I pass up sharing a photo of this blazing red beauty? That flaming 'do is like a fiery beacon.

Oh look, another birdie tongue shot! I love it when a shot like this happens.

While we're on the subject of woodpeckers, dare I tell you that there were TWO Pileated Woodpeckers around our feeders this morning? A female and a male. I could hardly contain my excitement. Could this mean that baby Pileateds are in the offing for us? I can only dream...

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The weekend birder

After a weekend of intense nature play, whether it be birding, botanizing, or simply investigating what's going on in my back yard, the reality of going back to work can often be a shock to my system. The world that I was so deeply immersed in for a day or two seems like a distant memory after plunging back into the world of customer service and problem solving that is my day job. This is not to say that I don't like my job, but there are times when making that transition can be difficult and almost painful. A little bit of my own Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, I suppose.

Was it a dream that I saw more Rough-legged Hawks in one day than I'll probably ever see again in a year? Was it my imagination that I watched them soar and hover, glide and hang, showing off their magnificent hunting prowess? Raptors that were tiny blips in my binoculars, invisible to the naked eye, became clear within the focus of a borrowed spotting scope*. Will I be able to retain the memory of these beauties, so that if perchance I see one again I will be able to identify it? Yes, I and my birding friends watched these hawks steer with their wings and stall with their tails, their heads constantly in motion, scanning the ground below for prey. Yes, I pondered the fact that we needed high-powered magnification devices to be able to see them well from afar, to make out their field marks and their coloring, all the while knowing that the eyesight of these avian masterpieces was probably far better than any of our scopes.

Light-morph Rough-legged Hawk hunting over open field near the Wilds in Cumberland, Ohio. Black "wrist" patches are the diagnostic field mark of this raptor.

The wind and the cold of the day was real - yes, I remember that. And we all stood outside and endured it, dashing from one location to the next, hopping in and out of our cars, all for the chance to see something as wonderful as a Bald Eagle, for the faintest hope of seeing a Golden Eagle. Being that it was my second Bald Eagle sighting in a week, it made up for missing out on the Golden. Sweet little Bluebirds brightened the dreary landscape, of that I am sure. Later, a Northern Shrike echoed the slate gray sky. How gratifying that the last bird seen on this trip was an addition to my life list, a wonderful way to close out the day.

Birders braving the cold - hardy souls, every one of them. A total of 120 such hardy souls gathered together on this day.

Birding Saturday morphed into Birding Sunday when I awoke to fill the feeders and stood outside for thirty-plus minutes, listening to the birds wake up. The songs of Tufted Titmice and Eastern Towhees rang clear and strong, and White-breasted Nuthatches surrounded me on all sides. It had the faintest feel of a summer dawn chorus, and reminded me that I should get up early more often. A Carolina Wren approached me cautiously, curiously, wanting to sample the bird dough that I had just put out, but not quite trusting enough to come to it while I was standing so close at hand.

Out the door I went after lunch, down the road to help a friend with his work at banding his feeder birds*. We recorded data that will contribute to his ongoing research, and I got to learn about aging and sexing Goldfinches, the proper way to release a bird, and how cranky birds can get when they get caught in a mist net, among other things.

The crankiest of them all still seems like a figment of my imagination. Her high-pitched squeals of displeasure echo in my mind, a sound I'll not soon forget.

Getting toes untangled. Who's foot could this be?

One unhappy Pileated Woodpecker, cursing the net that caught her

One thing I already knew to be true, without anyone having to teach it to me - the experience of a bird in the hand is priceless, no matter how fleeting.

American Goldfinch and Dark-eyed Junco being held in "photographer's pose."

* My heartfelt thanks go out to Julie Z. for letting me use her extra scope whilst birding at the Wilds, and to Bob P. for letting me observe and participate in his weekly banding effort. And thanks to ALL of my birding friends who are helping nature become a bigger and better part of my life.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Bird haiku

Tree dripping crimson
Stately, beautiful

Grackles clot the sky
They chatter
Creaky garden gates

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Treats for the birds

During my six years of feeding birds in my "yard", things have rarely stayed the same from year to year. We've tried different types of feeders, different configurations of the feeders, and different types of food offered in the feeders. This year, for example, I left behind the "deluxe" seed blend and started offering just straight black-oil sunflower seeds. The cost per pound was only about 10 cents more, so it seemed like a no-brainer. I really think there is much less waste now that the "filler" seeds like millet and milo aren't getting tossed to the ground in favor of the sunflower seeds that they really wanted all along. I don't think there will be any turning back.

Silly me, I had always thought that the Goldfinches were attracted to those tiny filler seeds that I mentioned above, but now I've learned from experience that they love sunflower seeds almost as much as they love nyjer/thistle seed. Here they are lined up to get to the tube feeder that's (half) full of sunflower seeds.

I think of the food that we offer as being in two categories: standard fare, and treats. The standard fare is all of the seed that we offer (sunflower, safflower and nyjer) and suet cakes, while the treats consist of whole raw peanuts in the shell and homemade bird dough. Standard fare is offered to our birds year round, while treats only make an appearance during the winter months. (Let us not forget that there is sugar water offered for the hummingbirds during the summer months, too.)

In regards to the treats, the peanuts are most loved by the Titmice and the Blue Jays. Interestingly, though, the Jays are only interested in the peanuts when there's snow on the ground. Otherwise, the Titmice have the peanuts all to themselves. The occasional White-breasted Nuthatch or Red-bellied Woodpecker will enjoy a peanut every once in a while, too, but not like the Titmice!

The nut's as big as his head!

And then there's the bird dough. Some folks call it Zick dough, due to the fact that Julie Zickefoose helped to make it madly popular through the powers of the internets, but she admits that having the dough named after her makes her feel "a little squeamy." (Julie, is that a cross between "squeamish" and "squirmy"?) To that end, I've just started calling it bird dough. There is a back story to the current iteration of the bird dough recipe, and I really encourage you to read it HERE on Julie's blog. It describes the nutritional rationale behind the recipe, and how it came to be. If this is something you think you would like to make for your birds, please take the time to read Julie's post about it.

So would you like to know the recipe? (Warren and Lisa, I know you've been waiting for this.) Since I make so much of it in the winter, I keep the recipe pinned up to the refrigerator (along with a reminder of the proportions for bleach water for cleaning the feeders!) The recipe goes something like this:

Actually, I've already started to modify the recipe a little from what I have written here, kicking up the peanut butter to 1-1/2 cups and decreasing the lard to 1/2 cup. Also, I've increased the chick starter to 2-1/2 cups, decreasing the cornmeal to 1/2 cup.

The ingredients corralled on the counter. Some assembly required.

This is the new star of the show: chick starter (the unmedicated variety only, please). This helps make the dough a little more nutritious. Available at feed stores (I got mine at Tractor Supply, only $8 for a 20-pound bag).

It's funny how I often think of other types of food as I make up these batches of dough. The chick starter reminds of Grape Nuts cereal (probably has about as much flavor as Grape Nuts, too!), and the dough as it's coming together in the bowl reminds me of no-bake cookie mix (minus the chocolate, of course):

I've taken to buying 40-ounce jars of el-cheapo peanut butter to put in this stuff, and the jars make great holding containers for the finished product. One great thing about this dough: no refrigeration required. I just keep jars of it sitting on the sideboard by our patio door, in close proximity to the feeders.

This stuff really is amazing in that it draws in all KINDS of birds. The only regular birds at our feeders who have shown no interest in it are the Goldfinches. I think it's possible that the dough has helped to boost the woodpecker attendance at our feeders this winter. We had another 5-woodpecker-species weekend this weekend, in fact, and I finally got photos of the Red-bellieds enjoying some dough (I had already gotten photos of the other 4 species at "the dough cup").

Female Red-belly on the left, male on the right

This is the Northern Flicker that fooled no one as my "mystery bird" from a few posts ago.

The dough crumbles nicely, and comes off in both large chunks and in tiny pieces. The large chunks are attractive to Titmice and Blue Jays, both of which love to STUFF THEIR FACES!

Tiny bits are good for tiny birds, like this demure Chickadee.

I don't know what's up with the bird on the left - there's no need to yell like that when someone is eating.

One thing that I really like about the dough is that birds who don't normally get to partake in suet can have a go at this. Examples are Cardinals, Mourning Doves and White-throated Sparrows.

Here's a complete list of the birds who enjoy bird dough at our feeders:
  • Mourning Dove
  • Red-bellied Woodpecker
  • Downy Woodpecker
  • Hairy Woodpecker
  • Pileated Woodpecker
  • Northern Flicker
  • Blue Jay
  • Chickadee
  • Tufted Titmouse
  • White-breasted Nuthatch
  • Carolina Wren
  • White-throated Sparrow
  • Northern Cardinal

Hopefully that list will grow this year to include Juncos and other Sparrows. Hey, I finally got that Pileated to come in, so anything is possible!

Happy Birding, and let me know if you try out the recipe!

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Ringing in the New Year with birds

As cliché as it may sound, I can't believe the first week of 2011 is over. It got off to a great start on January 2nd as I participated in my first-ever Christmas Bird Count. Probably the oldest citizen science project out there, Christmas Bird Counts have been taking place since the year 1900. Isn't that amazing? I keep hearing that birding as a hobby has been gaining in popularity in recent years, but it's obviously been of interest to a lot of people for a long time for such a project to be entering its 111th year.

Counts happen all over the Americas during a period from mid-December to early January. I participated in the Hocking Hills count, where I met up with friends Jim McCormac and Nina Harfmann, and two new birding acquaintances, Peter and Gabe. We had so much fun during the 6-1/2 hours or so that we scoured the hollers of the Hocking Hills.

Nina, Peter, Gabe and Jim. Trust me, there really are 4 people in this picture.

The day just flew by, too. Overall, we tallied 54 species seen and heard for the day. Unfortunately, I missed the 2 Bald Eagles that flew over the parking lot where we all met (I was the last to arrive), but I made up for that today when I saw one fly across the highway.

We were there mainly for the birds, but it's not too hard for me to get distracted by other things, especially when the scenery is so lovely.

I could have taken pictures of frozen puddles forever, but there were birds to be counted!

The sun shines down upon us on this quiet country road. Some spots were very birdy, others were remarkably quiet.

Dilapidated old barns abound, begging to be appreciated for their beauty. Maybe Barn Swallows live here in the summer.

No birding trip with Jim would be complete without a little bit of botany on the side. Myself, Nina and Peter were all in for a special treat when Jim shared with us the endangered Appalachian Filmy Fern, one of only two known colonies of said fern in the state of Ohio. Given its fragile status, we were all sworn to secrecy as to its location. My photos don't do justice to the delicate nature of this fern, which Jim says is merely 1 cell thick. I would be interested in trying to get photos that capture their translucent quality, but I don't want to disturb the site more than necessary.

"Baby" fronds of Appalachian Filmy Fern

It puts me a little in the mind of parsley, this special fern. For more information about the Appalachian Filmy Fern, check out Jim's blog.

Happy Birdy (and ferny) New Year to you!

Wednesday, January 5, 2011


Whew! Setting up my new blog layout took for-EVER! I've been dragging my feet about it for months for the very reason that I knew it would take too long to set it up. Well, finally it's done. Thanks to my sister-in-law, Jenny, for the awesome new header that she designed for me!

While I gather my wits about me after pulling my hair out due to wrangling with code that I don't really understand, here's a photo for you to mull over. Who might this mystery bird be?

Gimme your best guess in the comments. I promise I'll be back with something more substantial soon!