Dec 20
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Boy Scouts Bird Study merit badge class in conjunction with Christmas Bird Count

Boy Scouts Bird Study merit badge class in conjunction with Christmas Bird Count

It always amazes me that so many kids want to learn about birds. We can only take so many for our class and there is always a waiting list.

What class is that? We just completed our fourth annual Bird Study merit badge class in conjunction with the local Christmas Bird Count. This has been a very fun partnership between the Boy Scouts and the local Amos Butler Audubon.

It was a very snowy day for the class and we were all bundled up for the birding part. But, the snow didn’t deter us from finding our required 20 different species nor did it deter us from having fun.

One of the highlights was a Red-tailed Hawk perched in a tree for all the boys to see it through the spotting scopes.

Another highlight was a very common bird that is not commonly known, Horned Larks. A flock flew overhead making their distinctive flight call, listen here. Horned Larks live in fields and can sometimes be drawn to yards with cracked corn.

Hopefully, some of the boys were inspired to begin the hobby of birding or bird feeding. At minimum, they learned a little bit more about noticing and appreciating birds.

Special thanks to the Rob and Eric Ripma of Nutty Birder for assisting with the class.

Dec 05
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Dark-eyed Junco

Dark-eyed Junco

Every winter the Dark-eyed Junco departs from its northerly breeding grounds of summer and descends upon the lower 48 states. Some western and northeastern states have them year-round where they can be heard singing their pretty trilling song.

For those who only have juncos in winter, we only get to listen to their call and chip notes. Have you ever heard their call notes? Their “tew-tew-tew” call sounds like they are communicating in morse code.

Listen to the call here, http://macaulaylibrary.org/audio/82346

You can listen to the song and chip notes here, http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Dark-eyed_Junco/id

Want to try and attract them to your yard?

Juncos are primarily ground feeders and are drawn to the millet and mixed seeds around the base of feeders or ground-tray feeders. They prefer blends like No-Mess or Deluxe.

They prefer to roost in evergreens at night; but, will also use tall grasses and brush piles. They return to the same roost location regularly, sharing it with other flock mates.

Now is a great time to attract Junco’s so you can listen to them throughout the season.

Mar 29
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Carolina Wren

Carolina Wren

Though the recent snow storm in the Midwest doesn’t reflect it, spring officially sprang last week. Have you been listening to the ever increasing dawn chorus (see March 4 post)? It’s a sign that birds will soon be nesting. Your chickadees and bluebirds may have already started new home selections which means precious, little eggs aren’t far behind. Do you have the right nesting-food resources to help birds thrive?

Foods that nesting birds seek include protein and calcium and are found in a number of WBU offerings such as any of the WBU Plus Blends, Jim’s Birdacious Bark Butter Bits and mealworms.

WBU Plus Blends, compared to other blends, provide a more balanced nutritional offering at feeding stations to meet the needs of nesting birds and increase the frequency of visits to feeders. Not only do they provide much needed supplemental energy for the high demands of the nesting season, but also the added calcium is the perfect ingredient to help strengthen egg shells for nesting birds and an essential building block as baby birds grow.

Bark Butter Bits are high in fat, protein and calcium and are a convenient nugget way to attract a wide variety of birds and know you are providing the desired nutrients for nesting season.

Mealworms are quite a treat for the birds and you. Birds naturally eat insects for the high-protein value, and much of a nestling’s and fledgling’s diet is insects. Offering mealworms provides that stable supplement. Mealworms are not slimy or icky. They’re like a caterpillar without the fur. Besides, you don’t have to touch them. Use a plastic spoon to scoop them into a feeder.

It’s the perfect time to offer nesting foods to help birds thrive, and you get to enjoy attracting them to your yard for a more intimate look while they raise families.

Mar 04
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You head to work early; it’s still dark and cold. It’s too dark and cold to make a logical reason to be up, and already you can hear them – those crazy birds aren’t just awake, they’re already whooping it up with their trills, melodies and crescendos. You are witnessing what is often called the “dawn chorus” – that period of time before the sun shows itself, but when the great outdoors is already filled with beautiful sounds of nature. The birds that you hear are mainly males, doing what male birds do best, protecting/claiming their territory and/or trying to attract a mate.

There are a few theories about why birds sing so vigorously during those per-light hours. For many years, the prevailing theory was that those early hours are typically the coolest and driest hours of the day and this lack of atmospheric variables allowed bird songs to travel the farthest, giving their voices better range, sending a message to other males that they should stay away…and the farther away the better. It was also assumed that females could be attracted from farther distances.

In the 1990s, scientists discovered that this theory had some holes in it. When they studied the range of two sparrow species who participate in the dawn chorus, they found that their songs travelled just as far, if not farther, at noon as in the pre-daylight hours. They conducted their studies on both woodland and grassland sparrow species and found that their results were the same. They found that the individual bird’s songs (believe it or not, each individual bird has a slight, but recognizable song) were more consistent and clear in those pre-dawn hours than at any other time of day, primarily due to lack of wind. So, if you are a male bird trying to attract a mate or stake out your claim to a territory, it’s more important to make sure that your fellow feathered friends or foes know that it’s you singing away than it is to be heard over a long distance.

A completely different theory is that “early bird” singing has little to do with the effects of heat, humidity or wind but has everything to do with proving how strong those sweet, but strong, male birds are. You see, the way to impress the fairer sex (females) and to scare away your competition (other males looking to encroach on your territory), in the bird world, is to be big, strong and vigorous. It is thought that the better you can sing during the most challenging time of the day, the better mate and more challenging competitor you will be. So, if you can sing loud and strong in the early morning, before you have time to warm up and have a good hearty breakfast, the better mate and stronger defender of your territory you will be.

Both theories seem to make sense to me, and I think that a combination of both theories is the genesis of the dawn chorus. In any event, the reason behind the “why” becomes less important to me each and every time I get the privilege and honor of hearing this mysterious, beautiful and wonderful event. I encourage you to set your alarm early this spring, and go outside to experience one of the finest wonders of nature.

Jan 16
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I sometimes question my decision to live and work within the boundaries of a large city.

The need for daily interaction with nature is inescapable for me, and that can be tough in a suburban setting.

That is why I love this time of year when one of my most spine tingling interactions with nature often occurs right outside the window of my home.

It happened last night as I was nodding off into that twilight zone between dreams and reality. Just outside the bedroom window, filtering down from the hillside trees…whooo…whoo-hoo….who..who. Great Horned Owls!

Oh Man! I love it!

I am not sure why this pair has chosen my trees from which to declare their bond to each other, but I hope they are as stirred by each others calls as I am by theirs.

Great Horned Owls will begin nesting in my area in the next few weeks. Courtship is in full swing and apparently I am lucky enough to have a box seat for their musical duet.

Odds are good that you too have a pair of these large and long-lived owls living nearby. Able to thrive in virtually any habitat found in the United States, Canada and Mexico, they are equally at home in wilderness or suburban settings.

So listen as you go to sleep, or bundle up and go outside, you too may be touched by the magical call of your own neighbor…the Great Horned Owl.

And if you are, please consider sharing your experience here.

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To help learn the call of the Great Horned Owl, visit allaboutbirds.org to hear a great audio clip.

Oct 31
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Barred Owl

Barred Owl

Owls at Halloween seem to conjure up thoughts of spookiness. They’ve been used in countless stories to help set the scene of many an eerie, dark night. Even an old southern legend states that if you hear a Great Horned Owl’s call coming from your left side it is forecasting bad luck for you.

How do you think they received such a reputation?

Is it because you don’t hear them coming? Owls’ feathers are especially soft and muffle wind noise. The special comb-like fringes on the leading edge of their wings channels air, allowing soundless flight.

Is it because you can’t sneak up on owls? Their heads can turn around over 270º, allowing them to look almost directly behind themselves.

Is it because their hearing is impeccable? Their ears are located asymmetrically on their head, with the right ear being higher than the left ear. Each ear hears the same sound with a slight difference, creating a form of audible “depth perception” which can be used to track the location and movements of their prey; even in near- to total-darkness.

Is it because they’re awake while we’re asleep? Owls can fly and hunt during the daytime as well as at night. However most of them are best adapted for nocturnal hunting.

Is it because their gaze seems to pierce your soul? Owls’ eyes are unique among birds being located on the front of the head, instead of the side. This not only gives them a very human appearance; but, also enables them to match our level of depth perception.

Whatever you think of owls, I hope you can enjoy them for the amazingly adaptive birds that they are.

Interested in learning more about owls? Click the link for our partner’s site, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, to learn more about the typical owls in your area.

You can also download owl sounds in time for Halloween through their site by clicking here. This is perfect for using as ringtones on a phone.

Have a safe and happy Owloween!

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Jul 11
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Red-cockaded Woodpeckers

After a quick hour of travel to Webb Wildlife Management Area with a bus-load of Wild Birds Unlimited store owners, we step off the bus to low humidity and 82° F. There are no bugs. Is this really the South in summer?

We begin meandering down the gravel lane with clear views through the pine stands on either side of us.

The first bird calling is the Bachmann’s Sparrow. Do you hear its whistle-note followed by a trill reminiscent of a towhee? Look, here it is in the spotting scope.

Do you hear the Northern Bobwhite’s calling to each other? “Bob, bob, WHITE”

Wow! Our target bird for the day! See the woodpeckers with the big white patches on their cheeks? Those are Red-cockaded Woodpeckers. There are three of them at eye-level flaking bark off the pines to find insects. (pictured above)

Just down the lane is a Blue Grosbeak in the grass. What a view!

There’s an Eastern Bluebird perched on the nest box.

On the utility wire above is another “blue” bird, the Indigo Bunting, singing “fire, fire, where, where, here, here, see it see it.”

Oh, look, a Ruby-throated Hummingbird is chasing the Indigo.

Someone found a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher nest. Look in the scope. You can see the babies’ heads pop up when mom and dad come in with caterpillars.

Listen! Do you hear the squeak-toy call of the Brown-headed Nuthatch? There they are. I see them; a foraging family group.

Do you see the Northern Parula? Its throat and chest are yellow but so is its lower bill. See how brilliant the yellow is in the sunlight?

Here comes another group of Red-cockaded Woodpeckers. There are five this time.

Too bad we didn’t see the Mississippi Kites. Oh, wait, there’s one!

What a perfect day for bird watching!

Have you ever had a perfect day outdoors?

Jul 22
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I recently spent the morning with a group of budding naturalists. There were 18 children ages 9-13 taking part in a Junior Master Naturalist day camp program. Our topic was birds and birding. Wow! They were quite eager to learn.

Each child had a copy of Backyard Birds (part of the Peterson Field Guides for Young Naturalists) and a pair of binoculars. After learning about their books and binoculars, we hit the birding trail. What a fabulous time of exploring with our ears and eyes.

We heard and saw the Gray Catbird ‘meowing’ in the thicket. American Goldfinches flew overhead calling out their favorite snack food; ‘potato-chip’. The Eastern Towhee was in the woods telling us to ‘drink-your-tea-he-he.’ The all-blue Indigo Bunting was politely singing his lunch request, ‘pizza-pizza cheese-cheese please-please thank you-thank you.’

We got to see the sparkling red gorget of the Ruby-throated Hummingbird while he perched in the open taking a break from all his foraging and territory protection.

And as many birding hikes are not all about the birds, one of the sharp-eyed, curious kids spotted a fawn quietly bedded down two feet off the trail in extremely dense brush.

All in all, a most successful learning endeavor.

Many people begin sharing their love of nature in their own backyard. Master Naturalist programs for adults and youth are taking that love to a whole new level. These programs are designed to bring together natural resource specialists with learners to foster an understanding of local plants, water, soils and wildlife, and promote volunteer service in local communities. Just do a ‘master naturalist’ Internet search to see if there are programs in your area.

How are you inspiring the next generation to learn about nature?

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