The Life of a Cardinal

Disclaimer: This is another post about yard birds. And the yard birds in question are cardinals.

NOCA on nest.JPG

Mama Pam

Our yard has a Northern Cardinal nest in the bushes along the edge of our back yard. The kids enjoy watching the pair, named Jim and Pam (as are all male and female cardinals anywhere, respectively). Even Alice, who is 21 months old, can proclaim “Jim!” when the male lands on the bird bath.

These birds have had a hell of a time in the month we have lived with them. It all started with the grosbeaks, who were here for three days but fiercely bullied all comers away from the feeders. This was good news with regard to our House Sparrows (who also have a colony of two nests on our front porch that have blown down three times between them), but it seriously strained the abilities of our Jim and Pam.

HOUW.JPG

House Wren

Throw in a House Wren (unnamed) whose territory seems to overlap entirely with that of the cardinals and will chase away any and all birds who get too close to him, and you have quite the stressful situation.

NOCA nestlings

Cardinal Nest

To top it all off, in investigating the nest while the parents were both away I noticed that one of their dear brood seems to be a cowbird. The young’un in the back of the nest may be decrying this, or it may just be begging for another helping of arthropod. In any case, Jim and Pam are raising a child of their own as well as a foster child in this hellacious suburban wildlife environment, and they are dealing with it admirably…

Raccoon

Oh snap.

While at the neighborhood park this past weekend, Jaime, the kids, and I discovered three raccoon babies all doing various raccoon-y things in different corners of the park. For the first time, I broke into the “animals are wild, they aren’t pets like Emma the Dog, etc, etc.” speech with Walter. This seemed to go over well. Until the next evening when one of them showed up in the cedar trees alongside our house. The kids lost their minds.

We tried to restrain Walter and Alice from running up to the raccoon while simultaneously encouraging them to observe the wildlife. Then it dawned on me what the little beast was really up to. A red blur flashed into the cedars at the same instant.

Raccoon and NOCA 1

Jim the Cardinal sizes up the threat

Jim had exactly the same thought as I did. He zoomed in from out of nowhere to let the raccoon (bottom right) know that he was there (top left). Jim stood his ground for a few moments, trying to decide how much the raccoon actually knew.

NOCA Nest

Secret Nest Location

This photo is immediately to the right of the one above it. The cardinal nest is midway up the vegetation directly in front of the utility pole. For a minute, it seemed like the clumsy young raccoon was just going to blunder into traffic, and it actually fell out of the cedar tree and landed on its head. But then it did a 180 and headed right for the bushes.

Raccpon and NOCA 2

The action builds

At this point, it was obvious that the raccoon knew there was something good to be had, but it couldn’t quite figure out where. This is when Jim really sprang into action. He flew down to the raccoon’s level and unleashed a devastating series of “chip chip chips” in its general direction. For a moment I thought he might go full Killdeer and feign injury to draw the predator away, but he was honest about his status as defender of the nest, and with erect crest he continued to hop around issuing warning calls.

Raccoon and NOCA 3

The plan is working

The plan worked to perfection. The raccoon became much more interested in the bright red thingy making noise, and it followed Jim far into the neighboring yard and out of sight. It did not come back.

Jim and Pam meanwhile earned a well-deserved break, and within minutes of the all clear they were both leisurely eating back at the feeders.

GRCA

Gray Catbird

Or least they were until the catbirds ran them off. What a life to be a cardinal in this day and age.

Advertisements

The End of a Yard List

I haven’t posted in a while because I have moved. I am still in Fort Wayne, but as of yesterday Grosbeak Gardens has officially ended its run as the location of my yard list among many other things. Because it was so awesome of a home (with some more background on that here), I feel as though a Greatest Hits list of yard birds is in order. All photos below were taken in my old yard.

First, the namesake:

RBGR

Rose-breasted Grosbeak

Rose-breasted Grosbeaks were the only grosbeak ever in the yard, but they made an annual appearance, and they were a hit with all members of the household.

Rose-Breasted Grosbeak

Eleanor

The first one showed up around Mother’s Day of 2013, and her name was Eleanor. She showed up daily for about two weeks and became a minor celebrity.

front-yard-owl-12-17-2016

Owlbert

Other named visitors included Owlbert the Barred Owl, shown here perched in our front ash tree right around Christmas last year. He (or she) was at least two owls who were very vocal every winter and spring we lived in the house. I last heard Owlbert the night before we moved, which was a relief since there was no trace of him for a few weeks after I recorded Great Horned Owl in his favorite spruce trees earlier in the year.

Northern Cardinal

Jim

We also had Jim the cardinal. Any and every male cardinal was Jim. Our high count of Jims was eight at one time. Jim and his wife Pam nested in our magnolia tree the first summer we lived in the house. Pam laid three eggs, two of which hatched, and one of which fledged.

rbnu2

Rested-bread Nuthatch

We also had a troupe of Rested-bread Nuthatches, of which Walter was quite fond because I got so excited when they showed up for two consecutive winters. The high count was three at once last fall, and the birds at my feeders who would stash seeds in my neighbor’s carport roof represented my green ticks in 2015, 2016, and 2017.

Scarlet Tanager

Scarlet Tanager

One spring morning in 2014 I woke up to the song of a Scarlet Tanager directly out my bedroom window. I ran outside to chase it down the street as it hopped from tree to tree eating wasps. This was probably my favorite one-timer yard bird.

Cape May Warbler

Cape May Warbler

Also in 2014 was a flock of Cape May Warblers foraging in the spruces. I was watching football, and movement caught my eye. I found three of these birds, which were traveling through Indiana very late in October. I saw some again in the spruces last year, and those two sightings are my only two for the county.

Swainson's Thrush

Swainson’s Thrush

Swainson’s Thrushes also stopped by a few times to check in. One morning after a storm there was a fallout of Swainsons in the neighborhood, with individuals running in the street and eating out of the leaf litter in the gutters like robins.

Yard NOPA

Northern Parula

Once when I was grilling in the back yard an aggressively territorial Northern Parula came by to inspect. I was deemed unworthy, and it did not come back.

#117 Least Flycatcher

Least Flycatcher

Also in the one-hit wonder category was a Least Flycatcher who appeared soon after we moved in.

bwha

Broad-winged Hawk

In the same vein was Broad-winged Hawk, although in this case the one-hit was a kettle of about 200 birds swirling overhead.

Sandhill Cranes

Sandhill Cranes

Sandhill Cranes also played the flyover card, but only a couple times a year and never consistently. Some times they showed up in March, other times in December or January. They always evoked great happiness with their bugling, however. Unfortunately, I never had a Whooping Crane mixed in.

Final stats for the yard are 72 species observed, with the first being a Jim on April 30, 2013 and the last new species being an Eastern Phoebe on March 25, 2017. I had eight warbler species, four woodpeckers, three flycatchers, two owls, four hawks, three wrens, three thrushes, and two chickadees. The ‘best’ yard bird was probably Yellow-billed Cuckoo, the ‘worst’ definitely House Sparrow, most surprising the flyover Double-crested Cormorants, and my personal favorite Scarlet Tanager (my spark bird after all). Owlbert was the biggest celebrity, with my neighborhood association dubbing him the unofficial mascot for a time. The most obvious birds that I never saw in my yard were Eastern Bluebird despite that they were all over my neighborhood, Red-winged Blackbird, or Killdeer in at least a flyover fashion.

My new yard, which as of now is unnamed, is already playing catch up. But after three days it boasts 11 species, and I am looking forward to seeing what ends up on the list.

Feederwatching

Steady rain all weekend made it so that the birding was effectively feederwatching. First, the highlight:

RBNU.JPG

Red-breasted Nuthatch

For the second year in a row, my feeder has hosted a Red-breasted Nuthatch. Or in this case, three Red-breasted Nuthatches, which is a pretty neat trick.

RBNU 2.JPG

Red-breasted Nuthatch

Helping more than my one meager feeder filled with sunflower seeds to attract these stellar irruptive visitors is the row of 50 foot spruce trees along the edge of our backyard. I do what I can.

Combo.JPG

Combo!

Feederwatchig is a technique I am not ashamed of, especially when it is the only way to get two species of nuthatch in the same shot. It also provides some interesting drama as you observe the power struggles between the same individual birds over the course of a couple of days.

Full.JPG

A not atypical situation

 

Each bird has its own unique way of using the food source, and species seem to dominate and yield to others in not quite truly hierarchical fashion. To start, there are three main styles of bird feedering:

The Traditionalists fly in, eat some seeds for a while, then fly away to go do other bird things. Adherents to this style include Northern Cardinal, House Sparrow, and Blue Jay.

The Gluttons fly in and stay put eating as much as they can until they are forced off. American Goldfinch, House Finch, and Mourning Dove are Gluttons.

The Dart-and-Runners fly in, take a single bite, and fly away to finish or stash it somewhere else. Time on the feeder is minimized to the greatest extent possible, and practitioners include Carolina Chickadee, Tufted Titmouse, and both White- and Red-breasted Nuthatches.

This is only part of the story, though. Each species also seems to have an unspoken relationship with all of the others.

house-battle

The struggle is real

We will start at the top of the food chain.

Blue Jays have a bad reputation, but in my yard they have only shown aggression to raptors. They don’t get pushed around by anybody, but they also don’t push others around. They also aren’t very frequent visitors to the feeder, so that may be why.

Northern Cardinals, on the other hand, are the usual owners of the joint. They will not be moved by anyone, plus they show extreme aggression toward House Sparrows. They will tolerate other birds only until they get too close, and then anything is fair.

House Sparrows are despised by all, and for good reason. They will swarm in numbers making their presence impossible to oust from the feeders, plus they are aggressive to most other manner of bird. When I was observing, the most frequent target was House Finch.

House Finches didn’t take it lying down, though. These birds will not start a fight, but they will fight back if pushed.

Tufted Titmice for the most part seemed to attack each other.

Meanwhile, Carolina Chickadees were the most peaceful species. In addition to showing no aggression, they also were infrequently if ever targets of bullying themselves.

White-breasted Nuthatches don’t pick on anyone, and they also don’t stick around long enough to get picked on themselves. Their strategy is to fly in, perch on the pole or baffle, and wait for an opening. Then they seize the opportunity.

Red-breasted Nuthatches operate largely in the same way, but instead of hanging around close by, they will fly in from literally out of nowhere to grab an empty seat at the table. They are also ridiculously tolerant of close approaches by humans. At one point I stood a foot away from the feeder and they still came and went as usual.

And finally, American Goldfinches come in big groups, hang upside-down, eat forever, and generally have a good time. All species seem to like them except House Sparrows.

Of course, birds are not the only ones using the feeders.

Dare to Dream.JPG

Dare to dream

My set-up is largely mammal-proof (see: raccoons), but the furry ones have lofty goals.

Being a Better Beginner, Part 1: Finding Birds

I decided to write this series of posts based on recent observations of several new beginning birders appearing in the online circles that I frequent (this is a good thing!). I know that there is plenty of material out there about how to be a better birder, but I feel like I can offer a unique perspective as someone who is definitely not an expert but has at least some knowledge of the hobby (yes, it’s a hobby), got into birds at an older age than many, and can remember my frustrations and pitfalls of newbiehood. So I offer my advice on being a better beginner, knowing that I myself am still a beginner in many ways.

To begin, I offer you my origin story:
My obsession started out with a tiny point-and-shoot camera that my uncle sent to me for my 20th birthday. Wanting to make good use of it, I set out onto the campus of Ohio State in Columbus, looking for things to take pictures of. A Northern Cardinal (still just “cardinal” to me then) landed in a tree near me, and I fired away! Awesome! Then I saw an American Goldfinch (just “goldfinch”) and nearly flipped out. TWO colorful birds? Wow, that was pretty amazing! I immediately decided to take as many pictures of as many cool animals as I could. Anything was fair game, but I realized there were many more birds than I even knew about. As my list grew to 10 then 20 then 30 species of birds, I realized that it was game on. I would find ALL of the birds and take their pictures. I got a field guide, started adding exotic birds like House Finch and Song Sparrow to my life list, and never looked back.

There are certainly many levels of birderhood, and there are many who are content just to see what is at their feeders. This is how I got hooked, as campus was my “yard” back then. It was all I needed at first, because literally every bird was a new bird that had to be identified. But as many feeder watchers surely know, new birds will begin to taper off after a while. That is fine for some people, but for those like me who have to see more, it was frustrating when I hit a wall after getting all the common birds. My field guide said there were tons of ducks and warblers (oh man, how excited I was to learn there were birds called “warblers” and that there were 40ish species!) and I wanted to know why I wasn’t seeing them. The first step in seeing more birds is to find birds, so I offer this advice.

Northern Cardinal

Northern Cardinal – Columbus, 2005. If you want to see more than these guys, take heart!

1. If you aren’t using a field guide, get one. They are the best way to know what is out there and what you are missing. Most will recommend the Sibley Guide, and it is great, but I started with Peterson, and I even see value in getting one of the smaller, less-scientific regional guides if all you want to know is what is out there. Know of course that these smaller guides will only take you so far, and you will need to upgrade to a beefier model once you get your wits about you.

2. Research and begin to understand the timing of birds. This was probably my biggest obstacle as a newbie. Peterson says that ducks and warblers can both be found in the spring in the Midwest, but you must know that “spring” means totally different things to different birds. If you go out in May looking for Common Goldeneyes and Buffleheads, you will be disappointed. Likewise if you are searching for Magnolia Warblers and Scarlet Tanagers in March. This frustrated me to no end. The best resource for timing that I can recommend is the eBird bar charts, which will tell you how often birds are seen in an area every week of the year: http://ebird.org/ebird/GuideMe?cmd=changeLocation

3. Get out of your yard! It’s amazing how many times I visited the same couple of small ponds around campus, frustrated that all I could ever find were Mallards, Canada Geese, and that one lucky time a Blue-Winged Teal. When I finally made the decision one day to drive out to a local reservoir, I was astounded to find Pied-Billed Grebes and a Common Loon easily within my grasp. It was at this point that birding became intentional for me, and not just a hobby I enjoyed while in my every day routine. You must move around to find birds, even if the places around you seem like they should have the birds you’re looking for. Subtle differences in habitat are key to attracting some species over others. Two ponds might appear very similar, but the depth of the water and the invisible food in it will create big differences in the waterfowl that you see.

Common Loon - Columbus, 2006. If you want to see a bird like this rather than a bunch of Canada Geese, go somewhere new.

Common Loon – Columbus, 2006. If you want to see a bird like this rather than a bunch of Canada Geese, go somewhere new.

4. Be patient. If you go looking for something and it isn’t immediately visible, don’t give up. It took me a long time to learn this. Even 15 minutes can change a lot, and something even better than what you expected may appear without warning.

5. Be persistent. Go out weekly at least. Only when you are in the field will you begin to accumulate knowledge about where certain birds will show up, and repeated exposure to a species will help you know what you’re looking at faster and faster. It will also make it easier for you to know right away if something is out of place.

6. Finally, be persistent again. Don’t be jealous or get discouraged from the other birds you see people posting on Facebook; if two hours in your local park didn’t net you anything good, know that it takes time and effort and traveling to eventually stumble across a great bird on your own. But giving up quickly will never get you anything.

In closing, find birds! The next part is identifying them.

Robin Imposters in the Yard

For the uninitiated, this is what an American Robin looks like:

American Robin

American Robin

They are intrinsically very cool birds, and one of a very few species with bold orange going on. They are also voracious predators. But people don’t tend to think much of them because they are so common. However, they must have something enviable about them, because this morning we had three new yard birds who were all doing their best to act like the humble American Robin, Turdus migratorius.

Scarlet Tanager

Scarlet Tanager

There are many, many birds that I would have expected in the yard before a crippling male Scarlet Tanager. And I would have missed out on this guy entirely had he not been doing his Robin impression. Laying in bed, I heard a weird call outside of our bedroom window. At first I didn’t think anything of it. Then I thought how much like a sick Robin it sounded. And it hit me: every field guide I have ever read describes the song of the Scarlet Tanager as “an American Robin with a cold.” That description is dead on. I opened the blinds to see this bird flying away down the street. I ran out of the front door in my pajamas and mercilessly photographed this stunning red gent.

Swainson's Thrush

Swainson’s Thrush

As I was uploading the Tanager photos to Facebook to try and win over friends to the dark side show how cool birding can be, I saw another weird Robin running around in the back yard with a few others. Quickly lifting the binoculars, it resolved itself to be a Swainson’s Thrush acting like it was some kind of common feeder bird! Swainsons are forest birds, and I have never seen one in broad daylight, let alone a suburban lawn underneath a bird feeder. But that’s exactly where this one was. Isn’t spring migration great?

Gray Catbird

Gray Catbird

The final imposter wasn’t exactly doing a Robin impression, but this Gray Catbird very well could have mimicked the song as it freeloaded in our bird bath. In any case, this was the third new yard bird for the morning, and I would have expected him much sooner than the first two.

I try not to write “these are some birds that I saw in my yard” posts very often unless there is nothing else going on. But with the above birds I hope you didn’t mind bearing with me, although no “these are some birds that I saw in my yard” post is complete without one more:

Northern Cardinal

Northern Cardinal

Sorry, I had to do it.

Birding Fatherhood

Over the weekend, I birded for the first time since Walter has been here. It took a couple of weeks, but things have finally settled down enough to the point where Jaime and I are able to do some of our old things. For me, that meant a trip to Franke Park on Saturday morning.

I missed quite a few passerines on spring migration due to the chaotic changing around of our life, so I was hoping to add at least a few new ticks to the year list, and I succeeded. I ran into a flock of Warblers, Vireos, and Chickadees in the middle of the woods and was able to pick out a few species before some, ahem, gentleman’s unleashed dog came crashing through the underbrush, jumped up on me, and scattered the birds.

#141 Cape May Warbler

#141 Cape May Warbler

This Cape May Warbler was the first year bird of the day for me, bringing my total to 141. I was confused by this species’ fall plumage and couldn’t make up my mind at first, but the presence of the white wing patch as opposed to wing bars sealed the ID.

#143 Black-Throated Green Warbler

#143 Black-Throated Green Warbler

The only other new Warbler for me for the year was this Black-Throated Green, good for year bird #143 (Swainson’s Thrush was #142 and only made a brief appearance for no photo).

Warbler Duo

Warbler Duo

Black-Throated Green was a very popular individual and even spent some time discussing accent colors with this Black-and-White.

Red-Eyed Vireo

Red-Eyed Vireo

Also among the flock was this Red-Eyed Vireo, which at first I didn’t recognize because I am so used to seeing them as little specks calling from the tops of trees. This guy was frolicking under the canopoy, however, and gave me the best look (and photo) of the species that I have ever had.

Red-Tailed Hawk

Red-Tailed Hawk

Not all birds seen were small, however. This Red-Tailed Hawk was basically right next to my car as I was leaving. You can’t see it in the grass, but this fellow was chowing down on a snake.

Since my birding time in the field has been limited as of late, I have spent more time in the backyard, with son in one arm and camera in the other, trying to document some of the birds closer to home. I spent about an hour sitting on our patio a couple of weeks ago documenting the denizens of Grosbeak Gardens:

American Goldfinches

American Goldfinches

House Finch

House Finch

Pam

Pam

White-Breasted Nuthatch

White-Breasted Nuthatch

And a final bird of note was one seen at Metea Park, where Jaime and I were married exactly two years ago on August 6 and went again this year on our anniversary. He was behaving much more like a Goldfinch than a Woodpecker:

Downy Woodpecker

Downy Woodpecker

Sparrow Fest 2013

Instead of going off to some exotic location to single out a specific bird, I went to Eagle Creek here in Indy this morning. I had intentions of bulking up my year list, but since it is still outstandingly cold and most of the water in the reservoir was frozen over, things were pretty slow. It was, however, a great day for sparrows:

#026 White-Throated Sparrow

#026 White-Throated Sparrow

#028 Fox Sparrow

#028 Fox Sparrow

American Tree Sparrow

American Tree Sparrow

Song Sparrow

Song Sparrow

The Fox Sparrow is life bird #183 for me! I also had a few other year birds today: #024 American Goldfinch, #025 American Coot, #027 Northern Shoveler, and #029 Pileated Woodpecker.

Sparrow Party

Sparrow Party

I’ll leave you with a shot of the whole gang together. From left to right: Song Sparrow, Fox Sparrow, American Tree Sparrow, and Northern Cardinal (which you might already know is not a sparrow).