Late Winter Birds

The late winter garden is a palette of muted colors marked with skeletal trees and shrubs. The evergreens, big and small, contribute welcomed dots of green, plus there are others who offer various reds to the garden environment. The tidiness of a pruned, simplified landscape has a certain appeal, but it’s also easier to bird watch in this season of leafless trees and mostly dormant plant life.

Here in Central Texas, bird colors span the rainbow: Blue Jays, Cardinals, Red-winged Black birds, Gold finches and other color-tagged critters. Along with the showy birds, there are birds whose understated plumage blends well with the winter environment, like this winter visitor, a Yellow-rumped Warbler, Setophaga coronata. Her dabs of sunny yellow are surely highlights in her feathers, but most of her colors and markings are warm and subtle, making her sometimes hard to spot in a tree. But at the suet feeder–which she loves–she is more easily observed and admired.

A beakful of suet is a yummy thing!

As she digs into the suet cake, she doesn’t realize that the sticky stuff…sticks—and stays!

A year-round native resident, this Carolina Wren, Thryothorus ludovicianus, echoes winter browns and tans in his patterned plumage. He may not wear loud colors, but he sings with volume and gloriously for his territory and family; wrens are tiny birds with mighty voices. Wren song is the first birdsong I hear each morning throughout the year.

He posed with a strand of freezer-burned tendril of Star Jasmine vine, appearing as a weird appendage attached to the wren.

As he sung at the end of a day, he hopped along the fence, eventually creating distance from the plant part.

Wrens bop right and left in time with their chirps, tails flicked, eyes watchful.

A significantly less pretty bird and certainly a much larger bird than the two above, this Turkey Vulture, Cathartes aura, perched for a while in my SIL’s backyard tree. Turkey Vultures are common in the southern U.S. and throughout Central and South America. They soar majestically with the breeze and low to the ground looking for carrion. Though I see them all the time in the air, I’ve never seen one perched in nearby trees. It sat for a time and I wondered if there was something dead in my SIL’s back garden.

Dead squirrel? Opossum? Rat? Who knows what lunch was for this huge bird.

Turkey Vultures are scavengers and important links in a healthy ecosystem as they clean up the dead. Gentle creatures, they’re only interested in a nice meal of carcass; they are not predators. I was tickled to observe this one so close, but it eventually took flight, spreading impressive wings wide, circling over my garden as it gained altitude, moving along to find its next meal.

I appreciate the quiet of winter. I look forward to pruning last year’s growth and its revelation of the “bones” of the garden. I am witness to both successes and failures in the garden and of plants that I’ve chosen to create it. As with a muted landscape, even in a plainly colored bird, there is still much beauty in a darling face or in the pattern of the plumage, when hues are neutral and soft. That said, after many freezes this year and as March approaches, I’m eager for spring and daily observe signs of its arrival.

The Eyes Have It

A pair of Carolina WrensThryothorus ludovicianus, live near my garden and most days, I see at least one of the pair.  Often, I observe both wrens in the garden as they flit through underbrush picking plant lice from limbs and hop through leaf matter, tossing bits–hither and thither–in their endless search for yummy insects and spiders.  More delightful–and easier to observe–I’m witness to their landing on the sunflower or suet feeders, both placed outside the big kitchen window.  The Carolinas snatch tasty morsels, then zoom to safety on a low branch to enjoy their chosen treat.  These gregarious little wrens are (almost) effortless photographic catches, as they perch on fences, or on the multitudes of spots where they survey the landscape, watching for predators and planning the flight path to their next adventure–or meal.

I snapped this shot a few weeks ago as this adult rested on my back fence, looking this way and that, chirping all the while.  As I watched him or her (going forward, wrens will be “its,” as I can’t tell gender), something looked amiss.

Once I downloaded the photos, it was clear that the wren’s right eye was closed, or mostly so.

For this spunky Carolina Wren (they’re all spunky–that’s a descriptor of Carolina Wrens), one of the eyes has it, and one, apparently, doesn’t.

I perused bird sites for any information on eye diseases in wrens, specifically wondering if wrens are vulnerable to the same eye disease that House Finches and American Goldfinches suffer.  I haven’t found any information that suggests that particular connection, and finches and wrens aren’t related species of birds, except that they’re both, well, birds.

Ahem.

As I’ve observed backyard bird business over the last few weeks, I’ve paid special attention to the wrens, and with some good luck (and clean windows), have taken some closer shots of the currently one-eye bird.

The right eye is completely closed.

 

For comparison, this shot of the mate shows a darling adult wren with two healthy eyes.

In the last two weeks, it appeared that the wren’s eye improved.

The eye is clearly swollen, but you can see a bit of wary eyeball peeking through the lids.

In this photo, taken a few days after the one above, the wren in on the ground below the suet feeder and the eye looks better.

Again, up on the suet feeder.

Injury or disease?  It’s impossible for me to say.  Except when the wren turns its head where I can clearly see the injured eye and identify the disfigured wren, I haven’t observed any difference in behavior of one wren from another:  they both fly normally, work, with verve, through the garden for insects and other snacks, and alight gracefully on the feeders for sunflower seeds or suet.  Perhaps the injured wren looks around more readily and nervously than the other, but I’m not sure that’s the case as Carolina wrens are busy birds who aren’t still or placid in their routine behavior.  As I anthropomorphize the wren situation, I wonder if the mate assists the impaired partner, who obviously has limitations of sight, or, is the disabled bird on its own for food?   Has the semi-blind bird learned to compensate for its eye problem by faster flying or furtive movements?  Is the eye healing, or is this a permanent situation? Should I fashion a tiny, wren eye patch and offer it as a gift, and would the wren accept it?

 

While it seemed like the wren’s eye was improving, in this distance shot of a few days ago, the eye looks closed again.

The mate landed on the branch just after I took the photo and the couple perched for a time, enjoying one another’s company for several minutes before flitting to a different tree in the distance.

The wren on the left is the one with the bum eye.

I assume this is the same pair who raised two chicks last spring and what a sweet show that was. I’m sorry for the wren’s injury, but there’s nothing I can do to help the bird–it’s wild, and by all appearances, has adapted to its eye problem.  Its actions seem wren-normal and it’s clearly able to feed and fly, and those two skills are the foundations of a healthy bird life.  But I do hope the little bird will enjoy restored vision, and will continue its wren ways, and further, that this couple can successfully raise another clutch of Carolina Wren cuties in spring.

I’ll be keeping my eye out for them.

 

Sometimes They Land in Trees: Wildlife Wednesday, January 2018

Happy 2018 and welcome  to the first Wildlife Wednesday celebration of this new year.  Winter arrived in Austin in the last several days with an ice-numbing grip of below freezing temperatures.

I heard that snort and saw those eyes a’rolling!  I understand that compared to much of continental North America, my goose-bump inspired whining won’t win much sympathy, but darn it, it’s cold!  Truthfully, I’m just fine-n-dandy with the hard freeze, in great hopes that every mosquito in Texas is dead, dead, dead (not likely, though).  Also, with the frigid temps, my autumnally hued and interminably foliaged trees have finally let loose their leaves.

In the last couple of days, Red oak leaves blanketed the entirety of my back garden.

Maybe now I’ll be better able to observe the variety of birds who visit my garden, as the winter avian Texans (especially the tiny ones) prefer to flit among the bare limbs, in search of whatever they search for.  With the leaves as camouflage, that’s been hard to do.

This shot was taken on Sunday, just before the temperatures plummeted and the tree dumped most (but not all!) its leaves.

That said, for most of this past month, critter watching has mostly involved the birds at the feeders, with the random pitter-patting of maddening mammals and the skulking about of bothersome marsupials.

I’m tickled at the early appearance of two examples of the stunning American GoldfinchSpinus tristis.  American Goldfinches usually show up later in winter, so it’s a treat to see them now.

This handsome fella is wearing his non-breeding colors.

Do you need something?

Pretty boy!

In addition to that obvious and gorgeous adult male, is this female or juvenile male.

The coloring–both dark and light–are muted in this bird.

Wonderful wing bars!

Sweet face!

American Goldfinches belong to the same Family and Order as the House Finch, and House Finch eye disease, Mycoplasmal conjunctivitis, which I wrote about here, also affects American Goldfinch populations.  Fortunately, the two Americans who noshed at my feeder appeared free of the disease, the good news of which I reported on Project FeederWatch.  I still see a female House Finch with one infected eye which is completely closed due to the infection.  She feeds by searching for seeds on the ground, but she struggles to land when she flies and is vulnerable to predators with only one good eye.  All other House Finches who are in my garden–and there are quite a few– appear healthy.   The House FinchHaemorhous mexicanus, is a year-round resident, becoming more active as winter settles in.  Most bird feeders are designed with multiple perching stations, and birds share the stations with varying degrees of camaraderie.  Here, the House Finch clan dominates, with a red-accented male perching at the left and the more drab females completing the feeder trio.

Hey birds, over here!

Another duo feeding a the food bar is a second male House Finch sharing a meal with a Black-crested TitmouseBaeolophus atricristatus.

I’m not sure if the Black-crested is a male or female, but I’m confident that the House Finch is a young male.

The House Finch  poses nicely, the Black-crested snarfs seeds.

A Northern CardinalCardinalis cardinalis,  couple nests each year in a neighbor’s shrubbery,  but make daily forays into my garden to feed and bathe.    No photo this month of the scarlet feathered male, but the female is a head-turner in her own right!

A common Texas wintering songbird is the Orange-crowned WarblerOreothlypis celata, and I’m fortunate to have at least one who is regularly visiting.

Song birds love suet and it’s a good thing to feed them in winter.  I can’t provide suet for 7 or 8 months because Austin’s warm climate causes the suet to turn rancid quickly.  It’s a perfect winter/early spring food though and provides fat, which birds need.

This little Orange-crowned also enjoys the occaisional bath in the pond bog.

About to take the plunge!

I provide a commercial suet for my avian friends, but there are many recipes for homemade suet.  Check out these recipes if you’re so inclined

Facing the camera!

The pair of  Carolina WrensThryothorus ludovicianus, also visit more than just the feeders.   A favorite perch is a metal sculpture where each of the pair takes turns surveying the landscape.

Check out my profile!

The 360 degree view requires a look-see at the backside!

This favorite perching place is just below a little house built for the wrens, which they’ve inspected, but haven’t yet used for chick rearing.  Fingers-crossed that this spring, they’ll decide the neighborhood is worthy of their chicks.

Wrens forage on the ground, scavenging for insects and small seeds; they also enjoy the suet.

Eyeing something in the fallen leaves!

 

Finally, a bird who lands in a tree!  

Giving me the stink-eye is this immature Cooper’s HawkAccipiter cooperii. He/she had scattered the neighborhood doves, with no meal as a reward, and was resting in a neighbor’s tree, no doubt annoyed with missing lunch.  The beauty loped off just after this shot.  Cooper’s Hawks are year-round residents here, but easier to observe once winter’s  chill render some trees bare.

There are always plenty of squirrels (stealing birdseed and digging in plant containers) who become meals for neighborhood raptors, though perhaps not as often as some might wish.  This squirrel was safe on the ground and near the house, munching away at fallen sunflower seeds and generally behaving well.

Eastern Fox Squirrel (Sciurus niger)

The Virginia OpossumDidelphis virginiana, is still around too, sometimes mosying through the garden during daylight, but not sleeping in the owl house–for now.

There are no Eastern Screech Owls in the owl house either, nor have I heard the adults’ signature trill at night.  I’m concerned that no couple is interested in the owl real estate in my garden and if there are no takers, that will be disappointing.  There’s still time for some owl action and owls are remarkably elusive; I won’t begin the no-owls-in-my-garden lamentation just yet.

So begins another year of garden wildlife drama.  Let’s celebrate lots of life in the garden during 2018. Please share your wildlife stories and remember to leave your link when you comment.

Good wildlife gardening to you!