Splash of Winter Color

Red-bellied Woodpecker - Melanerpes carolinus

A male Red-bellied Woodpecker (The red on the male’s cap is complete and unbroken, while the female has a tan strip at the top of her head). I have a lot of photos of Red-bellied Woodpeckers, but this is one of the few that shows their namesake trait. Most of the time, the subtle red splash on the belly is quite inconspicuous.

More snow yesterday. Just a couple of inches, but we’ve had a seemingly endless stream of “just a couple of inches” in the last two months.  It’s now late February, and after a long winter, and I’m ready for spring birding to begin.

I’m just ready for COLOR.  Birding in South Dakota in winter is often as gray, dreary, and plain as the weather and our sloppy, gloppy streets.  Bird species diversity is low and those birds that do stick around for the winter are, in general, of the black-and-white variety.  I’ve had more Pine Siskins at my feeders than I’ve ever had, and the little bit of yellow they have is a welcome contrast to the gray gloom.  However, the other most common birds at my feeders are Black-capped Chickadees, Dark-eyed Juncos,  and House Sparrows, none of which have much color.

My favorite “yard bird” is one that’s become quite reliable, both in winter and summer.  They’re striking not only for the bright splash of color, but for their size, as they’re generally the largest bird we get in the winter….Red-bellied Woodpeckers. We live in a house we built 12 years ago, and tree cover in the neighborhood landscaping is still maturing.  Red-bellied Woodpeckers need mature trees for nesting and foraging, but fortunately, we live across the street from the Big Sioux Recreation Area, a State Park with ample riparian forest habitat. The male and female pair that visit our yard clearly spend most of their time in the Park.  When I see them come to our yard, they’re almost always flying in from the Park, and they head back to the Park when they’re done feeding.

When they first came to our yard, they were pretty shy.  The feeders are close to the windows of a sunroom that looks out into our back yard, and the woodpeckers would often spook and fly away if I was moving around in the house. Fortunately over the years they’ve become accustomed not only to our presence, but to that of our two spaniels! One suet feeder sits on a hook off our deck, and the male will often continue to sit and feed at the suet feeder, even when I let the dogs out on the deck. The female is a little shyer, but still stays around the yard much more frequently than she used to.

A wonderful visitor, at any time of the year.

Red-bellied Woodpecker - Melanerpes carolinus

My favorite Red-bellied Woodpecker photo, this is of a male from the Big Sioux Recreation Area, the park across the street from our house.

The return of Clyde

Cooper's Hawk - Accipiter cooperii

“Clyde” the Cooper’s Hawk, giving me the evil eye for daring to question his presence in my back yard. Perhaps it’s not me, perhaps he’s upset for another reason. He had just attempted to catch a House Sparrow at my feeders, and failed. Given the remains of feathers I’m increasingly finding in my yard this winter, it’s clear that he also succeeds quite a bit.

It almost seems like a horrible nightmare, looking back on our life one year ago.  We were living a happy, blissful life in the suburbs when he appeared.   “Clyde” terrorized our back yard, suddenly appearing when you least expected him, wreaking havoc and sewing fear. We had nightmares of a lifetime of Clyde appearances, fearing the phantom menace that would dominate our very existence.  However we were lucky (or so we thought).  We thought we had escaped the horrors of Clyde when he disappeared as suddenly he initially appeared, granting us many months of Clyde-free bliss. We thought we’d never again have to worry about Clyde.

We were wrong.

Clyde.  Is.  BACK.

Clyde made his reappearance on Thanksgiving Day.  A peaceful Thanksgiving dinner was interrupted by the sudden flurry of activity in the back yard, with songbirds scattering and fleeing for their lives while Clyde came roaring through the yard, looking for an easy meal.  Clyde (so named when he first appeared in our yard last year) is a Cooper’s Hawk, and he does what Cooper’s Hawks do…chase and eat birds.  We’ve had a bumper crop of House Sparrows this year (never a good thing), as well as a large number of American Goldfinches feeding on our big thistle feeder.  Throw in the ever-present Dark-eyed Juncos, the similarly common Black-capped Chickadees, and periodic visits by Downy Woodpeckers, Hairy Woodpeckers, Red-bellied Woodpeckers, Blue Jays, and White-breasted Nuthatches, and Clyde has a veritable buffet of birds from which to choose.

On Thanksgiving day, it was a beautiful male Northern Cardinal that he appeared to key in on.  The first sighting was when a flash of red flew up from the feeders, hovered a moment by the sun room window as it desperately sought escape, and then bolted for cover in the trees in the back of the yard.  Clyde gave it a good try, darting towards the Cardinal by the window (and nearly crashing into it himself), but on that occasion, the prey was the winner.  That’s not always the case.  Clyde is a pretty damned good bird hunter.  Ever since Thanksgiving, there’s been plenty of evidence of his successes, with little piles of feathers generally all that’s left after he’s consumed his catch.

In reality, I like having Clyde around.  I know some people (my wife included) aren’t fond of attracting birds, only to see them serve as prey for predators that attracted to their presence. For me, it’s fascinating watching their interaction, and regardless of whether I have a bird feeder up or not, Clyde is going to hunt and eat birds, and the songbirds that serve as his prey are going to be hunted and eaten.  Circle of life, something which certainly adds to the birding experience in a dreadful, cold, snowy South Dakota winter.

Where have my songbirds gone?

Cooper's Hawk - Accipiter cooperii

“Clyde”, the very fat Cooper’s Hawk who has slowly been consuming all birds in the neighborhood.

What shows up at your feeders is so unpredictable.  In winter, I always expect Dark-eyed Juncos foraging on the ground below my feeders.  Many winters, they’re about the only bird it seems I ever see, in my yard or elsewhere.  Not this year, where they’ve been scarce in my yard.  That’s been made up for with many more American Goldfinches than normal.  I have one very tall tube feeder, and most of the winter it’s been very crowded, with most perches full and other Goldfinches waiting in the nearby tree for an open spot.  It’s been a good year for Chickadees, Downy Woodpeckers, and I have at least two (a male and a female) gorgeous Red-bellied Woodpeckers who are quite regular at my suet. Despite the lack of Dark-eyed Juncos, it’s been a fairly “birdy” winter in my yard.

That “birdiness” level has been slowly declining all winter though.  Simple attrition from a snowy winter would probably explain it, but in my yard, there’s another obvious factor.  That factor is Clyde.  Clyde is the Cooper’s Hawk that has been frequenting my yard, and buzzing my feeders all winter long.  Why “Clyde”?  I dunno.  It starts with a C.  He looks like a “Clyde”.  Very workman-like and efficient, very “blue-collar”. Comes in regularly every day, punches the clock, does his thing, kills a bird or two…just the same hum-drum “Clyde” kind of a life for a Cooper’s Hawk.

My wife is not fond of Clyde.  My wife does not appreciate the “nature” occurring in the yard. Clyde isn’t exactly subtle when he buzzes the yard and grabs a songbird.  He’s also getting quite bold. Last week I opened the front door, and Clyde was sitting on the front step, munching on a goldfinch.  Normally, you’d expect a wild bird to immediately bolt.  Not Clyde.  Clyde looked up at me, paused a second, before seemingly sighing and reluctantly flying off with his breakfast, clearly put out that I had interrupted him.I do have one concern about Clyde.  He appears to be gaining weight at an alarming clip.  He’s had a well-fed winter in my yard!  It’s showing on his waist line, as he is one FAT Cooper’s Hawk!

Unlike my wife, I do think it’s very cool to have Clyde around. With the Big Sioux Recreation Area and a lot of forested habitat right across the street, Clyde may end up sticking around the area permanently.

Man vs. Bird – Cherry Battle Royale, 2015

We’ve built our house 8 years ago.  While my wife did most of the heavy lifting in terms of planning the inside, I was excited to have a completely blank canvas on which to landscape.  Of course, I had birds on my mind while I landscaped, putting a focus on plants that provided a nice mix of cover and food.

It wasn’t ALL just about the birds, however.  My wife likes roses…hence, I had to have roses somewhere.  For me, I was looking forward to having a garden, as well as having some fruit trees.  I planted a number of serviceberry (Juneberry) shrubs, and while I knew they were edible, the primary reason I planted them was to attract fruit-eating birds.  Cherries, however, are for me!  Cherry pie is, as I’m sure you know, the most perfect food ever created.  I bought 4 cherry trees, 2 dwarf sour (pie) cherries, and 2 full-size Montmorency cherries (the main sour pie cherry).

The trees were quite small when I bought them, and for the first 3 or 4 years, there were only a few cherries.  As they started to get big enough for the expectation of perhaps SOME kind of cherry harvest, we had a big windstorm take down one of the full-size cherries.  Down to 1 Montmorency, and 2 dwarf cherry trees!  About 4 years ago, the trees were still relatively small, but I was able to gather a very modest harvest.  By VERY modest, I mean enough to make 1 cherry pie, and about 2 jars of jam.  That year, given the relatively small number of cherries, the birds probably ate more cherries than I was able to harvest.  Still, it was a success!  Real cherries from my yard!  I anticipated greater harvests as the trees matured!

The last few years have resulted in no cherry pie.  No cherry jam.  No cherry cobbler.  In other words…no cherries, or at least not enough to bother picking.  The problem? We live in South Dakota!  We are always subject to some late, hard freeze or frost. In 2 years, we had extremely warm March weather and the cherries bloomed very early.  That was followed by colder weather that presumably killed the blooms.  Another year it was just a very late, hard freeze that likely did the blooms in.  What would 2015 bring?

We had a rather ho-hum winter, not all that cold, not all that late, and not all that much snow.  Spring and early summer have been fantastic, with plenty of warm, sunny days, periodic rainfall, and most importantly…no very late, killing frost.  The result of the favorable weather? Ever since about mid- to late-May, you could tell that a massive harvest was possible!  All three cherry trees were just LOADED with blooms, followed by growing and ripening fruit that was so abundant, some of the branches were weighed down and almost touching the ground.

Sour Cherry - Jam

Cherries as far as the eye can see! A couple days harvest shown here, made into jam, another harvest made into pie filling, more in the freezer…a bumper crop in 2015 for both man and birds!

As the first of the cherries started to approach ripeness, the first of the American Robins showed up to start munching.  Then a Gray Catbird. Then several of each species.  Occasionally a small flock of Cedar Waxwings would stop by for a cherry desert. NOOOOOOOOOooooooooooo!!! My first ever bumper crop of cherries…was it going to be all for naught?  Man vs. bird…who was going to win!?!?!!?

Well, thankfully for this bird loving man, BOTH bird and man won!  While the Robins and Catbirds are certainly getting their share, there are more cherries than 5x as many birds could eat.  I’ve picked gallon after gallon of delicious pie cherries, often picking side by side with Robins and Catbirds casually munching away mere feet from where I was picking.

Given South Dakota’s weather, I certainly don’t expect this kind of a harvest to occur every year, but it’s been a perfect harvest in 2015 for both man and beast!

The Ultimate “Yard Bird” for New Mexico Birder

Hoary Redpoll - Acanthis hornemanni

My best yard bird, a Hoary Redpoll that showed up 2 years ago and stuck around for several weeks. A great yard bird, but it doesn’t top Joe Fitzgibbon’s new bird.

Do you have a yard list?  A lot of birders keep a yard list, a tally of the different species they’ve seen or heard in their yard.  With the advent of eBird and the ease of entering bird sightings on my iPhone, iPad, or desktop, it’s awfully easy to keep track of a yard list, or other area list. I really didn’t ever formally keep ANY list, until I started entering bird reports in eBird.  Now I not only know how many species I’ve seen in my yard, but I also know how many I’ve seen in Minnehaha County, South Dakota, and the U.S. as a whole.  A handy tool that made a “lister”  out of a non-lister in myself!

My yard list isn’t all that fantastic. I only have 52 species.  We’ve lived in our house for 8 years now, so 52 species isn’t all that impressive.  It’s a new house, with landscaping I myself put in 8 years ago when we built the house. Without mature landscaping and bigger trees, you do limit the species you can find!  I do have a few nice “yard birds” though.  There’s an active Bald Eagle nest just a mile from my house, and it’s not rare to see one of them soaring overhead. When we first built the house and moved in, it was an incredibly rainy September and there were no other houses built around us yet.  there was a Lesser Yellowlegs in the muddy pools in the backyard.  Nice to get a shorebird in a suburban backyard!  The best yard bird was from 2 winters ago though.  I’d never had Common Redpolls in the yard, and it was a tremendous winter for Redpolls across the region.  I had a group of about a dozen Redpolls regularly visiting when one day, my young son looked out at the feeder and said “what’s the white one”?  It was a Hoary Redpoll, a real rarity, and a bird that really stood out from his “common” cousins. A great yard bird, and one that several folks came over to see.

An even better yard bird happened to land in the back yard of a good birding friend from work.  Alas, it happened before I became a birder and I never saw it, but he had birders flock to his yard from across the region to see the mega-rarity.  A lifetime birder who had never seen a Great Grey Owl, my friend looked out one winter, and lo-and-behold, a Great Grey Owl was perched in his backyard.  Why is this better than my very rare Hoary Redpoll?  Up until my friend’s backyard visitor, the ONLY Great Grey Owl ever seen in South Dakota was a dead one that was found.  His was the first live bird ever seen in the state, and to this day it remains the only Great Grey Owl seen in South Dakota.

The Hoary Redpoll was a nice addition to my yard list, and the Great Grey Owl certainly was a highlight for my friend, but neither can touch the new yard bird from Joe Fitzgibbon in New Mexico.  An avid birder, he had recently made a trip to the Grand Canyon in Arizona to try and spot a California Condor.  He didn’t have any luck.  A little while later, while at home, he saw a very large bird land in his backyard.  It was…you guessed it…a California Condor!! It was the first Condor seen in New Mexico in likely over a century. Not a bad yard bird!  In the pecking order of great yard birds, I’d say Fitzgibbon’s Condor trumps my Hoary Redpoll and my friend’s Great Grey Owl!!

That’s part of the excitement of birding.  You never know what you may find when you venture out on a birding trip.  And on occasion, just a casual glance out the kitchen window might yield the surprise of a lifetime.

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