Mob

No, there isn’t a mob in my garden; no large group of kangaroos have arrived for March in my garden. But there are lots of Cedar Waxwings.  Lots and lots and lots.

A migratory bird that winters in Central Texas, the Cedar Waxwing, Bombycilla cedrorum, is gregarious, always as a part of a group, rarely seen alone.  In the last few days, I’ve had more of these birds visit en masse than ever before.

I usually hear them before I see them as they’re rapid, high flyers, and they whistle while they work.

Typically, I see dozens at a time, flying from treetop to treetop in flocks of 10 to 30, vocalizing with their signature shrill calls, flitting in to settle along the branches of my trees,  and maybe, contemplating a dip in the pond. As a group, they’ll swoop down to take the bath and also grab a drink while they’re at it.

Recently, their numbers are in the hundreds and they’re certainly making their presence known:  garden feature-hopping, whistling as they go.

 

This little group (fella at the left notwithstanding–he’s telling the others how it’s done) are head-down, front-facing as they drink from the bog.

And this group, not wanting to follow along with the crowd, strike a similar, but different pose:  head-down and tail-facing.

I wonder if this waxwing is engaging its partners in conversation as to whether front-facing or back-facing is best.

 

Cedar Waxwings are stunning birds.  Soft and elegant tan-to-grey colors their back and wing feathers, morphing to butter yellow bellies.  Dramatic black masks which are rimmed in white, accessorize their jaunty faces.   Atop their lovely heads is a crest, but often it lies flat.

The name ‘waxwing’ comes from the brilliant red tips at the ends the secondary flight feathers, which may be related to attracting mates.  Not all waxwings have these red tips.

The tips of the tail feathers are bright yellow, a well-appointed echo of the yellow belly.

When I first downloaded the photos of these merry birds, I noticed that this individual,

…appears to have orange, rather than yellow, tail feather tips.  If you click on the Cornell Lab of Ornithology link at the beginning of the post, under “Cool Facts” there is a mention that starting during the 1960s, it’s been observed that some birds in Canada and the United States sport orange, rather than yellow, tips on the tails.  Apparently, if a waxwing eats berries from a certain non-native honeysuckle during growth of the tail feathers, the tip will be orange.  Cedar Waxwings winter here and southward, but they breed and raise chicks in the far north of the U.S. and well into Canada, so this orange-tipped Cedar Waxwing must have come across the honeysuckle berry at some point during its adolescence.

Photos don’t adequately capture the exuberance and energy of these flighty birds as they whoosh to the pond from the trees and flap in the water with verve.  Always on the move, they regularly change places and positions with one another, chatting all the while. 

Back and forth they go–tree to pond, pond to tree–eventually settling together along limbs, sociably fluffing and drying with their comrades.  

Then, at some signal I’m not privy to, they dart away with wings aflutter and calls sharp.  Sometimes they circle round again, not having had quite enough of my garden’s offerings, but often, they fly away–as a mob–to their next adventure.

Cedar Waxwings enjoy perching in the trees.  They like to preen and look pretty, and it’s a good time to get a quiet shot of these beauties.  Catching one alone?  That’s a real feat.

Eating fruit almost exclusively, when they decide that it’s time to for a meal, a group of Cedar Waxwings will strip a tree or shrub of berries in a matter of an hour or two.  In my own garden, they eat the berries of the native Possumhaw holly, Ilex decidua and the non-native Burford holly, Ilex cornuta.  I’ve never witnessed it, but many folks in Austin (and elsewhere, I’m told) report seeing drunk Cedar Waxwings after consuming overripe berries.  Tipsy birds might seem comedic, but in fact, waxwings can die because of fermented berries.

Here’s another, less dire, but still obnoxious, result of the berry diet.  Do you see it?

And in this photo.

And in this photo.

These rocks are not polka-dotted, they’re bird poop-dotted, as is a good portion of my back patio and several walkways in my neighborhood.

Perhaps when I’m out, I should don a hat.

Despite the less-than-appreciated output of these birds, I’m thrilled at their visits in winter and early spring. Their high-pitched calls from the sky, their penchant for companionship wherever they go, plus their gorgeous good looks, brings cheer my heart and a smile to my face.

The Crown

Americans profess a certain pride in living without royalty.   We drool and gossip about entertainment favorites, whose only claim to fame is that they’re famous, but, gosh darn it, we don’t need royalty.

But here in North America, there are some who don crowns and in a few cases they live in, or visit, our gardens–like this fella:

Taking a bath, enjoying the great outdoors.

What’s that little smudge of rust on top of your head?  Maybe it needs cleaning?

It’s a crown–an Orange-crown!

The Orange-crowned WarblerOreothlypis celata, is a migrating bird who winters here in Central Texas.  Each winter, I enjoy the charm of a few of these busy, quiet but occasionally chirping, little warblers.  This winter, I’ve identified two regulars to my garden, though the female is the more frequent visitor.  How can I tell the difference?  It’s hard with this warbler, as both genders’ coloring is similar–a muted greenish-yellow.  According  to Cornell Lab and Audubon Society, there are four subspecies of Orange-crown, differing in color, size, and molting patterns.  In reading the descriptions of where each type of warbler lives, I’m guessing that it’s the western Orange-crowns, the lutescens, who winter here, as the other breeds either sport more grey, drab plumage or are found only in certain areas.  My Orange-crowns are yellow-green, all the time, except for the male and his unsparkly orange crown, which appears when he’s excited, irritated–or taking a bath.

Orange-crown Warblers rummage through trees and shrubs, and fluff plant detritus along the ground in search of variety of small insects, spiders, and any source of protein smaller than they are.  As Automatic Gardener demonstrates on a recent post, they’ll also visit a hummingbird feeder if given an opportunity.  Each fall, winter, and early spring, Orange-crowns visit at my suet feeder; this year, it’s been the female enjoying suet snacks.

We all like fat, I guess.

I see her almost daily at the suet, nipping at sunflower seeds fallen to the ground, or in the garden, working the shrubbery.

I haven’t seen the male in a while, perhaps he headed further south, or maybe he visits a different garden?  Was he offended at my catching him at his bath?

Stop looking at me, lady!

Orange-crowned Warblers are early arrivals during fall migration and hang out in my garden through May.  They breed in far north Canada, so they have a long way to go from my Central Texas garden to the neighborhoods where they raise their families.  In late summer, after the chicks have fledged, Orange-crowns embark on the big trip southward to their wintering spots.  Like other migrating birds, their seasonal treks amaze me:  tiny birds who travel thousands of miles, back and forth over continents and sometimes large bodies of water, and that’s normal life for them.  How can I not appreciate and admire that?

So it goes with birds.

Orange-crowned Warblers, crowned, or not, are royalty in my eyes.

 

Bird Feeders: Widlife Wednesday, February 2019

This is a bird feeder.

Left, American Goldfinch (Spinus tristis); right, House Finch (Haemorhous mexicanus)

This is also a bird feeder.

Lesser Goldfinch (Spinus psaltria)

The first feeder, purchased at Wild Birds Unlimited, is filled with black oiled sunflowers, and many birds, not just the two in the photo, love the seeds.  It’s a popular dining establishment in my back garden.  The second feeder is courtesy of two native plants (Frostweed, Verbesina virginica, and Plateau goldeneye, Viguiera dentata), both of which bloomed during summer and autumn, and have since been rendered dormant by a couple of light freezes.  I’ve pruned neither this winter because these plants, and others in my garden, are currently providing meals, cover, and (eventually) nesting material for a number of bird species.

In the past 50-70 years, the paradigm for home garden beauty has been the swath of green turf, augmented with hedged, tidy, and typically non-native, evergreen shrubs lining the foundation of a home. Additionally, spots of decorative flowers, dictated by season, are popped into designated beds.  At the end of a season, those flowers are unceremoniously ripped out and replaced by a new batch of bloomers.  The bedding flowers, often sterile, are cultivars which are mass-produced for their beauty to the human eye, rather than for any importance to pollinators, birds, and other endemic wildlife.  This garden model is high maintenance, requiring frequent irrigation and chemical intervention to feed the thirsty and hungry plants. Herbicides and pesticides often partner with the chosen plants because problematic insects thrive in landscapes which rely on non-native plants. This garden mode certainly enjoys a kind of beauty:  it’s neat, with colors and textures that are controlled, expected, and predictable.

But I find this–a native plant, post-freeze, crinkly of leaves and tawny in color, providing a wintering American Goldfinch food and cover–an exemplar of garden beauty.

I know many people prefer the neat hedge, loud bedding colors, and trim lawn over the bare bramble of limbs, “dead” foliage, and spiky seed heads that define native plants in winter.  But wildlife–birds, insects, reptiles, and mammals–require native seeds and decaying plant material that nature provides; it’s a process that is part of the seasonal norm and is how living, self-sustaining environments evolved.  The symbiotic relationship between a plant and its animal or insect mark both biological balance and eternal beauty.

While growing wildflowers, and native trees, shrubs, and perennials never entirely disappeared from home garden practices, the native plants movement has enjoyed a renaissance in recent decades.  This back-to-native plants movement has bolstered wildlife in urban areas.  As urban areas encroach into and limit wild spaces, native plant additions to home and commercial gardens serve as a respite for wildlife.  Yes, non-native plants can provide food, but fauna benefits most when the flora it evolved alongside is present.

Not a great photo, but I like the stair step of the three male Lesser Goldfinches.  They and several buddies were all over this collection of dormant Frostweed and Plateau goldeneye.

While it may look “messy” to the human eye, dormant plants, with their prickly sticks and complex seeds, are a boon to birds.  I don’t prune my garden messy until late in winter, the exact wacking-back dependent on the unique the weather pattern of a particular winter-into-spring.  I also pay close attention to whether there are any birds feeding at the plants.  Once the plants are bird-free and days have lengthened and warmed, pruning time in my garden has arrived.

Both the American and Lesser Goldfinches are migrants who overwinter here in Austin, Zone 8b.  They travel in groups from available seeds source to available seed source, in a sort of avian progressive meal train.  Flocks will flit and nosh in my garden one day, and be gone to another gardening establishment the next.  Some stick around to snip insects from the trees and shrubs, bathe in the pond’s bog or bird baths, and eat seeds, either from the feeder or the plants.

Other wintering birds, like this Orange-crowned WarblerOreothlypis celata,  are daily visitors to a variety of plants in my garden.  This female (I think!) enjoys the seed from a dormant Frostweed.  During the blooming seasons, it serves as a rich buffet for many kinds of pollinators; in winter the seedheads splay on strong limbs, high enough to protect tiny bird diners.

The Orange-crowned also regularly stops at the suet feeder.  Purchased suet (like mine) or the homemade kind is nutritious for birds in winter, as it provides needed fat.

It’s not only migratory birds who enjoy plants or suet, but also residents.  The year-rounders, like this Carolina ChickadeePoecile carolinensis, regularly partake of the suet offering.  In my warm climate, I only hang the suet feeder from late October to April, or at the latest, early May.  Central Texas summers are far too hot for suet–it becomes rancid quickly.

I’m not against feeding birds, but I aim to plant at least some of what they’ve been eating for millenia, and pair that with supplementary sources.  I’m pleased to offer both.

Achieving a wildlife friendly garden doesn’t require radical changes, nor does it have to be all wild. With relatively simple modifications, gardeners can easily transform their gardens to wildlife habitats;  even a formal garden can serve as a wildlife habitat, with some thoughtful plant choices and particular plant practices.   Choosing native plants (when available) over introduced species, and leaving plants to their natural state are key drivers to the goal of a wildscape.   Birds and mammals nibble from natives and utilize limbs and leaves for nesting and cover, so deadheading and over-pruning should be limited.  Available water sources, some leaves and limbs left in discreet areas to decay naturally over time, and eliminating chemicals from the garden are all equal good wildlife gardening for restoring a healthy ecosystem for our wild brethren–and ourselves.  The National Wildlife Federation and your local Native Plant Society are great resources in the how-tos of creating a wildlife habitat.

Roughly 40% of Americans feed birds and we do it for a variety of reasons.  Those who study birds suggest that for people, feeding birds is a simple and satisfying way to connect with the natural world.  Audubon Society and Cornell Lab of Ornithology both suggest that bird lovers exercise caution in what they feed birds and where feeders are placed.  Development of aggressive behaviors, deformities caused by poor nutrition, diseases passed through contaminated feeders, and dependence on humans as food sources are all serious concerns in the long-range interests for birds.  Because the plight of birds is precarious, certainly for some more than others, it’s wise to learn about the birds who live in or travel through your region, and then make appropriate food choices.  For interesting information about how feeding birds impacts their populations, read these two articles, one by the Audubon Society  and the other by Cornell Lab.

All that said, it is fun to watch birds and part of the watching is the feeding.

“Three little finches, sittin’ on a feeder….”  Okay, it doesn’t quite have the same ring as the original ditty.

Share, and share alike! Three wintering male American Goldfinches dine with a resident female House Finch.

For myself, it was a love of Texas native plants that led to an appreciation of the wildlife that followed those plants.

If you plant them, they will come. 

Minor tweaks to the traditional 20th century better-living-through-chemicals garden practices will change your garden, your perspective on your part of the Earth, and will lead to new learning and adventures in the garden.

I like birds, so much so that I’ve added a section to my menu bar which will link you, dear reader, to past (and future!) articles about birds in my garden.  Enjoy!

What’s in your wild February garden?  Please leave a link to your Wildlife Wednesday post when you comment, and happy wildlife gardening!