We had around two feet of snow last Tuesday and most of it is still on the ground. The daytime temperatures are hovering between 30 and 40°F which isn’t helping to melt it. Today is the official first day of spring but outside, you would never know it. It’s more like ‘Hello spring, where are you?’ to me. Crocuses, Hellebores and Snowdrops were completely buried under. My little cold frame looks more like a little igloo in the garden.
It’s not only me that was fooled by nature, the Robins have already made an appearance despite the snow. The American Goldfinches have started to drop their winter coats. We try to help them by providing food and water when there isn’t much out there for them besides endless snow.
I had sown some lettuce seeds inside the cold frame a couple of weeks ago because I wasn’t expecting to get this much snow around now. I’ll dig my way in there tomorrow to see how they are doing.
Though it doesn’t look like spring outside, a new cycle of life, a new season, has already begun inside the house. This is the time I usually start tomato, pepper, eggplant, Swiss chard and kale seedlings. The first three need to be done around 6 to 8 weeks before the last frost so they can have enough time to grow, bear fruits and ripen. As for the Swiss chard and kale, they like cold weather anyway so I can put them out in the garden early.
Next, is prepping tropical plants in the basement for their summer outdoors. Spring should come around the corner and stay within a few weeks. But who knows? We had snow in April.
Snow is still on the ground, a residue of the snowfall a few days ago. It’s very peaceful watching snow falling and the quietness afterward as the snow absorbs sound pretty well. Though it was too cold to go outside, a joyful moment was still there.
We hang bird feeders along the patio roof during winter which makes it much easier for us to refill them and we can bird watch when circumstance stops us from doing anything else. It’s also easier for us to patrol and protect the feeders from European Starlings and House Sparrows. The down side is we have to sweep bird droppings and whatever else they’ve dropped off the ground underneath. In spring, after we move the feeders back to the garden, we use soap and water to clean the remaining effluent off the fence. But it’s worth the effort. We can observe our avian friends closely and they can also take shelter in the woodpile under the roof from predators too large to squeeze in.
These are some of what we enjoyed a few days ago.
There are others that are more elusive like the Carolina wren, the Pileated Woodpecker and the Northern Flicker. Clearly not wanting the publicity with being caught on camera.
It’s still a little cold out, not freezing though close enough. But it’s warm enough for birds to migrate back to this area. The ones that take residence year round and group together for winter survival start to de-group now. They all sing to make their territory known, and to attract females. This time of year they usually sing at their loudest.
A few of them have already settled, built nests and some of them have laid eggs. Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia sialis) have taken one of the nest boxes and produced four eggs a couple of weeks ago. American Robins (Turdusmigratorius) settled in the rhododendron in the front, also with four eggs. A pair of Tree Swallows (Tachycineta bicolor) is in the middle of building their nest. The Chickadees (Parus atricapillus) are still choosing. Baltimore Orioles (Icterus galbula) should come back soon since the cherry trees have started to blossom.
All in all we have a very loud garden and it seems a non-stop chorus, except when the hawks come by. And, these are some of the louder singers:
Still more to come, some migrating birds have not yet arrived.
Winter temperature has finally matched the season and there is not much of anything out there. Snow has not yet paid a visit. The birds have picked most of the seeds off the buds I left in intact for them: Echinacea, Black-eyed Susan, Goldenrod… So now they enjoy the additional food we put out for them. On cold days they can enjoy a heated birdbath too.
We remove the feeders every night to prevent unwanted guests like raccoons and skunks. A raccoon can empty a feeder in one sitting. Once we had suet feeder removed and carried over to a neighbor’s yard. We suspected a raccoon. The only animal around here that is big enough to carry a suet feeder off and has ‘thumbs’ to open the cage. Any morning that we can’t put out the feeders (when we have to go to work) or when we put them out a little late, there will be birds lined up on the pool fence outside the patio… waiting.
It’s as though they are saying ‘What’s wrong with these humans? Don’t they know what time it is.’ As soon as we put the feeders out and turn our backs, they land on them, at the head of the line, the Chickadees and Downey Woodpeckers. We try to keep them healthy and well-fed during winter so they will stay and patrol our garden in spring and summer.
These are the locals that stay with us year round:
As much as the American Goldfinch (Carduelis tristis) like Nyger seeds, we’d rather feed them with sunflower seeds in winter. The feeder is hung under the patio roof and the Nyger seeds make a big mess under the feeder.
I have a hard time differentiating a male House Finch (Carpodacusmexicanus) from a male Purple Finch (Carpodacus purpureus). But House Finches are more common in my area and this one has less of a red plume on the breast to be a Purple Finch.
I’m surprised to see this female Northern Cardinal (Cardinaliscardinalis) on the suet feeder. Most Cardinals prefer a tray feeder or a feeder with a horizontal bar that they can hop on.
It’s always fun to watch a White-breasted Nuthatch (Sittacarolinensis) walking up and down a tree trunk or a post or eating upside down.
There are more locals than these shown above but they are either camera shy like the Eastern Bluebird or know they are not welcome like the Blue Jay, House Sparrow and European Starling. I don’t know if the migrating birds from further North like the Common Redpoll and Pine siskin will be here this year since it has been so warm. But for them too, the welcome mat is always out.
Most migrating birds are back and that provides a dawn to dusk symphony in the garden. Spring seems to be the season the birds sing the loudest; need to declare territory and for the males to show the ladies that he can sing. After observing them for years, I can tell now when they will be back. The Baltimore Oriole (Icterus galbula) will be back when the cherry trees start to bud. The Rose-breasted Grosbeak (Pheucticus ludovicianus) will be passing through at the same time. They summer further north. Hummingbirds will come when the columbine starts to bloom. Tree Swallows are here as soon as the insects are flying about.
Nature’s impeccable timing.
I was sick last week so gardening in the sun was off limits. Setting up a blind to take bird photos was too much work when my head felt like it would explode any minute. But sitting around doing nothing would have made me even sicker, that’s when the light bulb came on.
iPhone, little tripod for phone, remote control…..should work…..and it did. I just sat there 30 feet away clicking the remote control, capturing the birds activity up close without interrupting them.
Winter hit us very hard this year. We already have more than two feet of snow on the ground and, as I’m writing this blog, it’s snowing outside. The temperature has also dropped down below zero for a couple of nights and hanging below 20ºF most days. As much as it is harsh for us, it’s much more difficult for our winged friends. We depend on them to handle garden pest control and they have been doing a great job. It’s only fair for us to provide some comfort for them when food and fresh water is hard to find.
Since we provide food, water and roosting places, when the winter gets really bad our yard gets very busy. This year is even busier since the Pine Siskin are here. They would come around once every few years when their food is hard to find in the sub-arctic boreal area. There are so many of them that we have to fill the main feeders in the garden three times a week in order to keep up with their appetite.
We leave the feeders in the garden but remove the ones on the patio every evening so as not to draw in skunks and raccoons. Every morning I see the birds line up on the fence waiting for us to put the feeders back. It’s a wonderful sight.
I wonder if this male American Goldfinch (Carduelis tristis) knows something that I don’t. He’s starting to molt and getting his black patch on the head back. The male Finch shed their winter down when spring comes and turn bright canary yellow in summer. Several of the finches have developed some bright color and black head patches now. Either they are fooled by the temperature swing or spring is just around the corner.
Pine siskin (Carduelis pinus), American Goldfinch, Eastern Bluebird and Black-capped chickadee sharing a feeder.
We have plenty of Downy woodpeckers (Picoides pubesceus) and they are not as wary of us as the other woodpeckers. The Red-bellied and Northern flicker woodpecker are very camera shy. The Pileated woodpeckers (Dryocopus pileatus) have never come to the feeder. The one above was pecking on the maple tree in the front yard.
These five Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia sialis) were waiting for their turn at the feeder. We see them more and more in winter. We assume that either we have plenty of food and shelter to offer or they were born here and feel comfortable being in the yard instead of migrating south. By religiously monitoring the nest boxes, we managed to raise one to two broods every year.
Nothing wrong with this male Northern cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis). It was so cold that he alternately tucked one foot in while feeding. Many of the birds either do this or just sit on both legs to keep them warm like the Song sparrow (Melospiza melodia) below.
House finch (Carpodacus mexicanus) waiting his turn while a Pine siskin defends his space from a landing Chickadee.
Some photos are not much in focus since they were taken through two panes of glass. Sitting in the blind wasn’t an option when the temperature was below 20ºF.
Today is the official first day of winter and it has been snowing lightly on and off all day. It’s very peaceful and quiet outside, the only sound the birds singing. The birds are the only bright colors in the garden at this time and without them it’s a plain brown and gray everywhere we look. We couldn’t fill the feeders fast enough but we’re not complaining. Here’s my first day of winter outside:
There’s nothing to do in the garden at this time aside from filling the feeders, cleaning and filling birdbaths, and stalking birds with the camera. So, I spend time in the house trimming tropical plants, reading and listening to the music. This time of year the radio stations seem to put Beethoven’s Symphony #9 and Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker on almost everyday, so far, twice today on our local station. I don’t mind at all especially the Symphony#9 which I always turn up really loud. For some reason this symphony always sounds so much better loud. A friend once told me that Beethoven composed this piece when he was nearly deaf so he needed to feel the music. I don’t know if that’s really true but when I listened to it at Carnegie Hall I could feel the vibration. The same goes for Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana. When not listening to the radio, our outside chorale is equally good to me. Herewith some of the Avian Chorus’s members:
Though nothing is flowering in the garden, flowering continues in the basement and on the windowsill. Nothing soothes my mood like the scent of jasmine and they are still blooming.
There has been one snow storm after another and the official spring date is still more than a month away. Our garden is covered a foot deep in snow crusted with ice. The cold frame we put up last fall has become an igloo at this point. I have no idea what has happened in there since I can’t have access without digging my way in through snow. I’ve left the honey bees alone. The only sign that there are live bees in the hives is the fresh dead bees I found on top of the snow around the garden.
It was very sunny and no wind today so I braved a low 30º F, in my knee-high boots, to stomp around inspecting the garden. As much snow as there is on the ground, there are many signs that spring is not too far away. I always see the arrival of American Robins (Turdusmigratorius) as an indication that spring will be here soon enough. Today was the second time I’ve seen a large flock of Robins come around.
Aside from Robins, the male Northern Cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis) no longer keep to their truce. They seem to keep close to their female companions now and chase other full grown males around the yard. The Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia sialis) are also looking for nesting spots now and no longer just coming to the garden for food.
The American Goldfinches (Carduelis tristis) are starting to shed their winter coats. There are little bits of yellow tipped grey down here and there on the snow, and the birds are beginning to show spring colors in bright yellow blotches.
With a lineage that stretches all the way back to the dinosaurs, I figure the birds know better than I.
I’ve been thinking about joining the Annual Audubon Christmas Bird Count (CBC) every year but never did. Though I have good intentions, if I’m not sure I can fully commit I would rather not do it. This year is the 114th of the Christmas Bird Count which is taking place from December 14, 2013 to January 5, 2014. I envy those who brave the cold and snow to do this bird census.
I decided to do my unofficial Christmas bird observation in the garden today despite the 20 degree temperature. Below are some of the birds that stop long enough for me to get a shot of them, but there were more of the camera shy (Northern Flicker, Carolina Wren) that stayed away until I came back in the house. There were also the usual Northern Cardinal, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Blue Jay, Tufted Titmouse, Chickadee that aren’t bothered by my presence. I spent just 30 minutes behind the camera each time in the garden, my fingers were numb despite having a hat, a jacket and insulated gloves on. That’s why I envy those who commit to do the CBC. Here’s my very short, unofficial Christmas Bird observation in the garden:
Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens) is very common in our garden and they stay with us year round. Once in a while we would see a Hairy Woodpecker (Picoides villosus), a larger relative of the Downy. I haven’t seen any of them this year.
Identifying a sparrow is always fun since there are many types of sparrows around and they look similar. This American Tree Sparrow (Spizellaarborea) is a winter visitor from the North. The easy way to identify this one is a pronounced dark spot on the plain grey breast.
Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia) has plenty of dark brown streaks on the breast and a dark spot in the middle of the breast. I mistake them for Fox Sparrow (Passerella iliaca) many times when I try to identify sparrows. I’ve since learned that the Fox Sparrow is a little larger and their color is more of a rusted brown. I saw two or three Fox Sparrows in early fall but haven’t seen them since.
White-throated Sparrows (Zonotrichia albicollis) are also common in our garden. They are easy to identify because of the white patch under the chin.
I think the White-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis) is a very cool bird. They routinely eat upside down and can do a very fast walk up and down a tree trunk. There are about five or six of them that regularly come to the seed and suet feeders.
We have plenty of Dark-eyed Juncos (Junco hyemalis) as well but we don’t see them much in summer when food is plentiful in the woodland nearby. When it’s very cold out, they puff their feathers up and make themselves look like a black and white ball.
American Goldfinch (Carduelis tristis) are our garden’s permanent residents and plenty of them too. I have difficulty identify male and female in winter since the males shed their canary yellow and black cap starting in early fall.
A Cooper’s Hawk landed on one of the birdhouses but quickly took off when he saw me adjust the lens. I think he’s looking for his flying Christmas gifts.
These are birds that enjoy winter in our garden. We are still waiting for the Pine Siskin (Carduelis pinus) and Common Redpoll (Carduelis flammea) to come down from the tundra for a visit . We hadn’t seen many of them last year but they usually flock down every two or three years. Hopefully, we will see more of them this year.