Wildlife Wednesday: Birds, Birds, Birds–And Some Other Stuff, Too

I wrote in the last installment of  Wildlife Wednesday that the bulk of migrating birds seemed to have skipped right over my garden.  Well, I was wrong–they’ve arrived for rest, water and insects throughout April and it’s been a parade of colorful feathers most days. Today is the first Wednesday of the month, the day wildlife gardeners celebrate those who require our gardens for their survival.

Gardening for wildlife is fun and an important step toward mitigating the damage to the natural environment caused by urbanization and industrialization. Attracting wildlife to the garden is a simple process, if a few basic principles are followed: providing water, cover (in the form of shrubs and trees), shelter for young, and practicing sustainable gardening methods, including utilizing native plants, limiting or eliminating chemicals, and pruning well after migration in spring and fall, leaving nutritious seeds for mammals and birds, and protection for young.  Check out the National Wildlife Federation for more information on the how-tos of wildlife gardening and start your own wildlife friendly garden–you won’t regret it.

Besides the migrants, there was plenty of other “stuff” in the garden, like this little spider, lying in wait to catch-n-munch a bee or fly that might have the misfortune of landing on this Zexmenia bloom, Wedelia acapulcensis var. hispida.

 

That spider would have snatched a meal if it had instead been loitering on this Zexmenia bloom, complete with native bee ready for the eating.

There are plenty of other native bees, as well as honeybees and butterflies in the garden now, and lots in bloom for them to eat, but this syrphid fly was a pleasure to photograph as it rested after nectaring at a non-native poppy and some native Shrubby blue sage, Salvia ballotiflora.

 

Pollinators and the predators are great, but in my garden this past month, the migrating birds took center stage so, let’s talk birds, shall we? Aside from the year-round resident avians, Texas lies along a major north-south migration route.  During spring and autumn migration, birders flock (yuk-yuk!) to Texas to catch glimpses and glean photos of the many birds of the Americas as they make their way through Texas.  Though the Gulf of Mexico coastline outshines the birding here, Central Texas has some birding game to brag about.

At the beginning of April, I was still enjoying visits from the Yellow-Rumped warblersSetophaga coronata, 

…and the Orange-crowned Warblers, Oreothlypis celata.

I haven’t seen either for a while and I’ll bet those cuties have headed north and their daily visits to my garden are now ended.  I was glad to host these winter Texans from November into early April.

I’ve seen this handsome charmer on a number of occasions, but these were the best shots I managed:

I’m fairly sure he’s a Lincoln’s Sparrow, Melospiza lincolnii.  Another visited about the same time last year and was camera shy.  These birds are winter Texans, not showy, but subtle and elegant in color and form. They hop along the ground, looking for seeds, in the cutest way imaginable.  I’m still seeing one or two, several times each week, but they’re headed to other parts of North America and will soon be gone from my garden.

Early one morning I squealed with delight when I walked by a window and spotted this “lifer” in the back garden, eyeing my pond:

The Black-throated Green WarblerSetophaga virens,  winters primarily in Central America, migrating through the eastern half of the US, finally arriving in Canada to breed and raise young.  Canada is a nice place to grow up, I hear.

And yes, you might have noticed the term “lifer” that I slipped into above. That’s a term that real birders use when they’ve seen a bird species for the first time. I’m loathed to use that term because if I do, it means I’m a birder, and I’m trying desperately to avoid that label.

How am I doing so far??

Another new bird for me is this beautiful Blue-headed VireoVireo solitarius. 

Not the best of photos because it was taken at a distance and from inside my house (sometimes that method of photo-taking works, sometimes it doesn’t), this bird’s colors and markings are striking. He’s quick and skittish and has visited a number of times, or perhaps, it’s been visits from several. The vireo and the Black-throated Green share an almost identical wintering, migrating, and breeding geographic pattern.

The bee hunters are back and gobbling up my honeybees and probably, some native bees as well.  I first noticed this attractive female Summer Tanager, Piranga rubra, in the tree under which my honeybee hives, Buzz and Woody, reside.

I love to watch these birds hunt.

Like most predators, they’re smart: note her bright eyes as she searches for her next buzzy snack.

Tanagers catch bees (and wasps and other flying insects) on the wing, take their prey to a tree, bash (ooh!) the hapless critters on a branch, remove the stingers and gulp their meal. These beauties breed in Texas, as well as much of the southern part of the US, though I’ve only seen them in April and May, and coincidentally, since I started beekeeping.

Ahem.

I next caught a quick look-see and shot of a juvenile male, though he didn’t stick around long.

And just this past weekend, an eye-popping adult male graced my garden.

So gorgeous! He swooped and then rested, then swooped again.

I hope a few Summer Tanagers will hang around for the duration of the season; I’d be willing to sacrifice a few of my honeybees for their company.

Last week, a (probably) weary migrating female Painted Bunting, Passerina ciris, bathed briefly in my water-pump infused birdbath.

So pretty, but I still hope to see a startlingly beautiful male before the Buntings head just a little north of here to raise their families.  Last year, a pair hung out in my garden for about a week, which you can see here, noshing on the seeds of the early spring blooming Gulf Coast Penstemon, Penstemon tenuis.  Using native plants in your garden is a good way to attract migrating songbirds, as well as to feed the native birds of your region.

This blast of sunshine, a Yellow Warbler, Setophaga petechia, flashed through my garden this past Sunday–I’m so glad I was home to see him!

As a bonus, he stopped and posed for me at the base of the pond.

Playing at being coy, I think!

He’s a gorgeous hunk of avian masculinity and I’m sure he’ll have no trouble finding a mate. Though I suppose all of the male Yellow Warblers are just as pretty, so maybe the competition is tough?  He and his partner(s)  will breed far north of here and if I’m lucky, maybe another will stop and chirp at me in October, as the Yellows make their way back to Central America.

Another lifer (ugh) for me is this female Baltimore Oriole, Icterus galbula, who also visited recently.  Baltimore Orioles are known for the stunning good looks of the male and the birds’ affection for orange slices in the garden. I am thrilled that this lone female spent time in the birdbath.

Though perhaps outclassed by her male counterpart in the looks department, I find her coloring and markings quite lovely.

Enough with the sipping, I’m gonna bathe!

Stay alert!

Where are those stinkin’ cats?!  No worries, Ms. B, they’re in the house–bathe safely!

Yet another bird common to the eastern part of North America, she’s on her way north, but made a quick stop to refresh and I’m pleased my garden was a respite for her.  After her drink and bath, what else would a Baltimore oriole do?  Steal some yummy blackberries, of course!

 

Migration is happening and the birds are moving through–I imagine in the next days, it’ll be the resident birds, and maybe their charming offspring, whose feathery presence will dominate.

For those following the goings-on of the goldfish-snarfing heron,

…I found two of the four goldfish hunkering under a ledge of the bog in the pond since posting about the sushi-loving bird. The lily pads are unfurling in rapid succession and I’ve witnessed the bigger of the two goldfish swimming around, no doubt feeling more confident that hiding under the leaves is a good bet for survival. I’m certain the fish are breathing a gilled sigh of relief.

Migrating or otherwise, did wildlife visit your garden this past month? Please post for May Wildlife Wednesday. Share photos and stories of your garden wildlife to promote and appreciate your region’s natural habitat and diversity. When you comment on my post, please remember to leave a link to your Wildlife Wednesday post so readers can enjoy a variety of garden wildlife observations.

Happy wildlife gardening!

 

Movin’ On: Wildlife Wednesday, April 2017

It’s springtime here in Austin, Texas and there’s plenty to relish, especially regarding the many gifts of nature:  pleasant temperatures, glorious sunshine and well-appointed rainfall, iconic wildflowers and other blooming beauties, and active and abundant urban wildlife. You don’t have to go far–there’s no requirement for lengthy drives into the Hill County or blister-producing hikes–to savor  the benefits of spring pleasures if you plant for wildlife in your own garden space.   When you grow native annuals, perennials and trees, as well as adapted non-native plants, you will reap a blooming bonanza in your garden.  Wildlife of all sorts will come, as they’re granted rest and reprieve, nourishment and protection, most especially during migration and into the breeding season.  Welcome to Wildlife Wednesday where we showcase wildlife and appreciate their place in our own back yards and in the larger world.

This past month I  haven’t observed the variety of migratory birds that I recall from 2016, but there were a few who made brief stops near the pond, or who rested in newly foliaged Red Oaks.  A pretty White-eyed Vireo, Vireo griseus, a lone and stunning Black and White Warbler, Mniotilta varia, a handsome Dark-eyed Junco, Junco hyemalis, and four female Red-winged Blackbirds, Agelaius phoeniceus,(obviously engaged in a girls’ day out), comprise the sum total of spring migratory birds gracing my garden.  With each observance, I either didn’t have my camera ready, or chose to simply marvel at the bird’s presence;  I have no photos of these birds to share.

My avian winter Texans visit the back garden less frequently and I assume that most have moved on to more northern gardens and greenbelts, with the hope of a mate and chicks.   I haven’t seen any Orange-crowned Warblers, Oreothlypis celata in several weeks, but throughout winter and earlier in March, one, or several, were daily garden charmers as they perched on limbs or hunted for insects from spring blooms.

Clinging to the stem of a Yellow bells (Tacoma stans) while surrounded by Giant spiderwort (Tradescantia gigantea).

This one poised to flutter to the bog area of my pond, which is a favorite bathing spot for all the birds in the garden, residents and visitors alike.

Jump!

If you look closely at the following photos, you can spot the smudge of orange, which male Orange-crowns flash in territorial warning when necessary, but which is drab and undramatic when life is simple and there are no threats to manhood, or perhaps I should say, birdhood.

 

I still see Yellow-rumped Warblers, Setophaga coronata, like these two breeding-plumaged boys, preparing for a buddy bath.

The photo isn’t the best, taken early and pre-coffee and through a window, but I was tickled to catch them hanging around. Do you see the difference between the two?

You’ll notice that the one toward the bottom has a yellow throat–he’s an Audubon’s subspecies and typically found in the West.  The other with a white throat, is a Myrtle subspecies and they’re more common in the eastern part of the United States and in Canada.  I have no clue why both were in my back garden, but it was a treat to see and photograph both in the same frame. More proof I suppose that Texas truly is a crossroads for migratory birds.

Too bad those blackberries aren’t ripe.

Butter Butts have been constant companions since November, but will soon be gone, making their way north to the upper mid-West and Canada for summer,  My early mornings won’t be the same without them.

 

One of the last winter Texans to leave for northern lands are the Cedar Waxwings,   Bombycilla cedrorum.  Such beautiful birds, they’re always in a flock, gabbing and preening, and usually situated at the top of trees, where it’s too blustery to get a good photo. Even if I managed something decent, it would be of their butts and who wants to see that?   I was on the phone with a friend when a couple of them dropped in to bathe and drink in the birdbath with the bubbling fountain. I told my friend that I HAD to hang up NOW so I could get some good, close shots of these dandies and she was gracious enough to let me go, forthwith.  She’s understanding about my various idiosyncrasies and I knew she wouldn’t be offended at my hasty hangup.

As I write, I hear their high-pitched keening in the breezes outside, their voices carried into the house, keeping me company.  Soon enough,  that keening will no longer linger in the breeze and will be silent; I’ll realize that they’re gone for summer.

I miss them already.

One day next November, I’ll hear their call again–high-pitched and insistent. I’ll be thrilled that they’ve once again joined me for winter and much of spring.

 

I take pleasure in the typical off-and-on visits from Lesser Goldfinches,                     Spinus psaltria, but they’ve been scarce this year.  I have delighted in several visits from a little band of American GoldfinchesSpinus tristis.  

Mostly, they’ve frequented the birdbaths,

First you see my front,

….then you see my back.

…the bog of the pond,

…or perched prettily in the shrubs and trees.

Until I downloaded this photo, I didn’t realize that there were two other goldfinches at the right edge of the above photo.  Like the Cedar Waxwings and teenage humans, Goldfinches tend to hang out in groups, though they’re quieter than the Waxwings–and the human teenagers.

If you’re fortunate enough to host these birds during their summer breeding, they will nosh at feeders, but prefer native composite (Asteraceae) seeds; flower seeds of the many varieties of sunflowers are finch (of all species) favorites.  The trick for attracting Goldfinches, as well as many other native songbirds, is to let the seeds develop after the bloom period.  Many gardeners want to prune back “spent” blooms because there’s nothing left  for pollinators and we’ve been “educated” that spent blooms are unattractive.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Flower seed heads are attractive and the second round of feeding on a plant comes after the bloom-n-pollination/nectar gathering time: it’s the feeding time for birds, mammals and other insects besides pollinators.  When you see a host of birds eating seeds at plants, it’s a lovely and affirming sight and that nourishing of wildlife is the purpose of plants.

While the migratory birds are movin’ on to their summer breeding sites, I’m left with my resident birds, like this bathing male Northern CardinalCardinalis cardinalis.

Well, that’s not so bad.

 

Blue orchard beesOsmia lignaria, are almost finished with their seasonal contribution to the world and my garden.

The few remaining adults left are packing away their eggs and soon-to-be-larvae. There are plenty blue bee babies cookin’ for next year.

 

My favorite native bees, the Horsefly-like Carpenter bee,  Xylocopa tabaniformis, are out in droves and pollinating up a flower-storm!

Stealing nectar from an Autumn sage (Salvia greggii).

More nectar at a Gulf penstemon (Penstemon tenuis).

Zoom!

Got it!

Uh, the pollen and nectar of the white Autumn sage are the other way…

 

Ubiquitous Texan Crescent butterflies, Anthanassa texana, are also making the rounds of blooming bounty.

 

This Pipevine SwallowtailBattus philenor, is battered–but not defeated–in its quest for nutrients from flowers of the Giant spiderwort.  There will be more of these gorgeous and useful insects in my gardens in coming months.

He may display rag-tag wings, but he works the garden diligently and for free!

Whether your garden enjoys migrating or resident critters, did wildlife visit your garden this past month? Please post for April Wildlife Wednesday. Share photos and stories of your garden wildlife to promote and appreciate your region’s natural habitat and diversity. When you comment on my post, please remember to leave a link to your Wildlife Wednesday post so readers can enjoy a variety of garden wildlife observations.

Happy wildlife gardening!

 

A Bird Tail

I adore Grackles.

You ask: what is a Grackle?–double-checking the header on your screen, because you were planning to peruse a gardening blog, but now you think you accidentally clicked on a blog about outer-space aliens.

The Grackle is a type of bird and the kind I know best and chuckle at is the Great-tailed Grackle, Quiscalus mexicanus.  My resident (or recently resident) Grackle is no longer of the great-tailed variety.

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He’s done lost his tail!

Not all the Grackles have lost their tails, but this one has and he appears…unbalanced.

I keep expecting him to topple over because he is so lacking in tail feathers.  Would he topple beak first?  Beak-first, he would be thus impaled by his beak in the soil of the garden or perhaps along one of the cracks in the limestone patio.  But if the toppling came butt-side, well, he’d just look silly, sitting there without his tail feathers, skinny legs splayed and gnarly claws up in the air.

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Where are his tail feathers?  Those fine, fanned feathers probably fell victim to molting which occurs this time of year to many bird species.  (As an aside, when I check out the molting bird photos posted by bird enthusiasts on Facebook’s Birds of Texas group, I’m horrified at the  lack of pulchritude that formerly gorgeous birds, like Northern Cardinals, display. Molting birds are not pretty birds–they may be very nice birds and very interesting birds, but they are not attractive birds.)  For the record, my Northern Cardinals remain gorgeous.

And my Grackle–great-tailed or not–is still attractive, though he does appear molty in other parts of him besides his lack of tail–note his tatty head feathers.   Molting notwithstanding, one can appreciate the beautiful iridescence of his coloring–lovely black,  but so much more in blue and purple sheen.  His bright, discerning eyes suggest intelligence and cunning.

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Grackles are clever birds, adjusting to myriad environments and increasing their range in North America because of their adaptability.  Native to Mexico, they’ve expanded their range throughout the 20th century and into the 21st.  They thrive in urban environments: pooping on cars, careening in front of those same cars along some roads, and squawking, squeaking, and beeping with conviction and importance,  especially in early morning and as they gather in groups just before sundown.   Grackles are omnivores–they’ll eat anything and I really mean anything.  Cheeky birds, they’re also fun to watch. When I still had turf that needed mowing, Grackles always accompanied me as I dutifully completed my chore, because while mowing, I flushed out crickets and other insects for their dining pleasure. Grackles were good companions in that despised homeowner’s responsibility. And there is no better show than watching a Grackle guy wooing a Grackle gal–it’s the stuff of urban legend.

I suppose if observed in flocks, queued-up along utility lines or strutting (and they do strut) around the parking lots of grocery stores, waiting for dropped, or better yet, spilled items, they can be disconcertingly…mob-like.  Grackles are loud and raucous–part of their charm, I think, and they’re big birds, too.  They could be considered slightly intimidating, as they single-mindedly scrounge for seeds, insects, or bits of dropped take-out.  They’re vociferous, but harmless–just always on the make for a snack.

My less-than-great-tailed Great-tailed Grackle will eventually grow his tail again. He’ll look like this one, perched high in my American Sycamore tree in April: sunning, stunning, and regally showing off for the ladies. And look at that great tail!

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Or check out this photo courtesy of Cornell Lab of Ornithology.  This has to be a definitive Great-tailed Grackle photo: a cocky, confident, Grackle-about-town.

© Kaustubh Deshpande, TX, Dallas, May 2009

This guy,

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…who could be the same guy in the Sycamore photo, will once again be a lovely specimen of an avian figure as autumn and winter arrive and when the courting season approaches. The more Grackles, the merrier, or at least funnier and noisier, the garden.

A worthwhile read for an amusing, and sweetly touching, homage to the Great-tailed Grackle, check out this article from Texas Monthly, by John Nova Lomax:  Eight Reasons Grackles Are Awesome

Grackles really are awesome.