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Psyching for the Winter PDF Print E-mail
Written by Terry Spraque   
Oct 02, 2014 at 03:00 AM

 

   PSYCHING UP FOR THE WINTER AHEAD 

                              Thursday, October 02, 2014                                      


If you are like most of us who feed birds during the winter months, you never really stopped the practice, but continued right through the summer, in an effort to attract a few of the backyard residents. Summer feeding is a delightful experience, and one summer we had a pair of brown thrashers who had nested nearby become regular guests, along with catbirds, chickadees, and a host of others. Right now, there are juvenile downy and hairy woodpeckers feeding on our suet cakes and peanuts.
 
For those who do put away their bird feeders for the summer, it is time to think about the feeder arrangement for the coming winter. Psychologically, we begin to think about birdfeeding with the arrival of autumn, and cooler weather. It is a good time to begin, if you are among those who closed things down for the summer months. Right now, many of the permanent residents are scouting around looking for areas to sustain them through the three lean months of the year. If your feeder is up and running., chances are, local birds will establish your set-up as one of many feeding areas that they will visit through the winter.
 
It is not necessary to worry if birds “need” our help. Birdfeeding, in recent, years, has gone far beyond the premise that birds need our help. They don’t need our help, and never did. We initiate a bird feeding program because we want to have these colourful guests around our premises during the bleak days of winter, pure and simple, and there’s nothing wrong with that. There is absolutely nothing to suggest that offering food to birds does anything to their migratory habits or contributes to a dependency on us for food. All old wives’ tales.
 
To improve your chances of enjoying a wide variety of birds this winter, a wide variety of feeders should be used, to appeal to varied tastes. The single feeder on a pole in the middle of the yard filled with budget feed from a big box store isn’t going to cut it. You need a variety of feeders, and a willingness to invest some money in quality feeds, and then have a little fun with your set-up, experimenting with placement of feeders, and mixing up your own concoctions, and seeing which attracts what. During the peak season, we routinely have close to 25 feeders in operation, ranging from large platform style feeders to small tubular style feeders and a variety of novelty feeders designed for suet, peanuts and kitchen leftovers. It’s a lot of fun to see birds dash from feeder to feeder as the whim strikes them. And, that’s the whole point of putting up feeders.
 
The biggest mistake operators of bird feeders do after they have set up their operation, is search about for the cheapest bird feed they can find. And cheap is what they usually end up with as blue jays and chickadees come for the first day to get the sprinkling of sunflower seed the so-called mixture has to offer, leaving the house sparrows and pigeons to quarrel over the remaining questionable seeds. Seed mills and bird specialty stores are by far the best sources of your bird feed. One must ignore the entrepreneurs who are out there with their flashy packaging interested in little more than reaping a huge profit from the escalating interest of attracting birds to the backyard. Feed mills and nature shops are in the business of catering to birders. They know for a mixture to be worth its money, it must be black with both the black oil and striped variety of sunflower seeds, as that is the number one choice for the majority of your guests. If the mixture also contains peanuts, then you can be content in the knowledge that you have just purchased a high quality feed, and this will be reflected in a greater variety of birds at your feeder.
 
Of course, depending on a mixed bird feed is only an option. Not everyone has the same species at their feeders. Many bird feeder operators purchase the ingredients separately – sunflower seed for one feeder, peanuts for another, etc., based on their clientele and what their favourite choices might be. A popular item, available at feed mills, is ground corn. Very inexpensive,  it is ideal as a scratch feed to scatter on the ground. The mourning doves and other ground feeding birds will love you for it.
 
Above all, have fun with your set up in the coming months. We have most of our feeders within sight of my office window where I can see them as I sit at my computer. When I am working on a column, or my new book, and my thought processes grind to a halt, I can always look out my window and depend on the feathered activity out there to provide the necessary prime to get me started again.

 

Places To Bird and See Nature PDF Print E-mail
Written by Terry Spraque   
Oct 01, 2014 at 03:00 AM
 STALKING THE ABANDONED FIELDS (FOR BIRDS)
 
This field, north of Castleton, is a good example of an abandoned meadow, in this case, one which is a very important part of the Rice Lake Tallgrass Prairie.  Photo by Terry Sprague No doubt you have noticed as you have been driving the back roads this past month, birds flitting around in grassy meadows and darting from bush to bush. This month we check out the “little brown jobs,” the sparrows. They are passing through right now, and one good area to flush out a few for observation and identity, is an abandoned weedy field (photo by Terry Sprague) or a roadside ditch.
 
The farm where I spent my youth cultivating fields, harvesting crops and bringing the cows in from pasture, has been abandoned now for more than 20 years. Fields that grew corn for ensilage are now thick with red cedars. Another field we popularly referred to as “the flat” and which I have not so fond memories of picking tomatoes for a local canning factory, is now thick with white ash saplings. Others such as “the back sandy loam,” and the “Latta hill field” have escaped the ravages of invasive trees, but have accumulated dense thatch due to two decades of neglect, resulting in tangles of timothy, brome, and something we always referred to as “wire grass.”
 
While a bitter disappointment to my family who sweated for several decades to improve the farm, the change in habitat has opened up new opportunities for wildlife that never before occurred here. In one field, where killdeers and vesper sparrows used to cavort in the furrows ahead of the plow, the succession of red cedars has provided nesting habitat for clay-colored sparrows. The vesper sparrows, in general, are long gone from the farm, but new opportunities have paved the way for myriads of birds never before seen during our days on the farm.
 
It was in one such field in 1996, that two Henslow’s sparrows remained for a week or more, exploring the neglected field of brome grass that had provided potential breeding habitat for these reclusive birds who like thick thatch for them to hide in during the nesting season. Clay-colored sparrow colonies on our old farm have exploded, and woodcocks and ruffed grouse now happily nest in the wooded areas where our cows sometimes pastured.
 
Lemoine Point Conservation Area in Kingston, although much of it is wooded or reforested, this abandoned field remains near the Norman Rogers Airport. We need more meadows like this for birds such as bobolinks, vesper sparrows and meadowlarks. Photo by Louisa IeloWith small farms disappearing at an increasing rate, these abandoned and neglected fields (photo by Terry Sprague) provide plenty of birding opportunities, particularly at this time of the year. At first glance, the fields appear to be deserted, but a walk through the grassy growths will soon flush swarms of migrating sparrows as they feed on a bountiful crop of seeds from weeds and grasses. If you have access to such habitat, now is a good time to penetrate the depths of neglected farms and you may be amazed at what you will find. Make certain, however, that you obtain the permission of the landowner before you do so, and exercise caution if it is during the hunting season, as these areas are often popular destinations for upland game hunters as well.
 
It is encouraging in this age of wanting to reforest every bit of open space that we see, that interest is growing in wanting to preserve open spaces for those birds which require them, such as many of the sparrow species, meadowlarks, bobolinks, etc.
 
Good luck with the sparrows! There are more than a dozen sparrow species, commonly recognized as such, that you could possibly bump into during your exploration of a weedy field. With lots of young of the year with the, they will be a challenge. A good field guide and lots of patience will be required to sort them all out.
Last Updated ( Sep 30, 2014 at 08:49 AM )
What Birds To Expect This Month PDF Print E-mail
Written by Terry Spraque   
Oct 01, 2014 at 03:00 AM


WHAT BIRDS ARE IN PRINCE EDWARD COUNTY & THE BAY OF QUINTE REGION THIS MONTH

                                                        *   O C T O B E R  *   

No, these are not sparrows. These are yellow-rumped warblers in drab autumn plumage.   Photo by Ian Dickinson of Belleville September was a month for fall warblers; October is the month for sparrows. Any walk along a roadside or across a weedy meadow this month will often flush countless numbers of them as they feed upon the ripening seeds heads of weeds. We may find CHIPPING SPARROWS, VESPER SPARROWS, WHITE-THROATED SPARROWS, WHITE-CROWNED SPARROWS,  FIELD SPARROWS and SONG SPARROWS. With them may be DARK-EYED JUNCOS or newly arrived AMERICAN TREE SPARROWS from the far north. Most will not be in full song and will confuse many an observer with their abrupt call notes.
 
October usually brings the first killing frost, forcing many insectivorous birds such as warblers, vireos and swallows to take their departure. One exception will be the YELLOW-RUMPED WARBLER (photo by Ian Dickinson of Belleville) which may persist in small numbers into early November, some even wintering in the Bay of Quinte region. These amazing little warblers switch from an insect diet, to spiders in October when insects are few, to red cedar berries and other fruits when the winter snows start to fall.
 
Shorebirds, however, will still be passing through, and while Prince Edward County does have some suitable areas where shorebirds may be viewed, the best viewing stations are at nearby Presqu’ile Provincial Park. Here you may spot some of the earlier migrants still lingering about, together with GOLDEN PLOVER, BLACK-BELLIED PLOVER, DUNLIN, and possibly RED PHALAROPE and RED-NECKED PHALAROPE. Lower water every fall has provided some favourable feeding locations though in our area, especially at Prince Edward Point. Another good area to keep watch on is the mouth of the Outlet River where more than a dozen species can be tallied.
 
This is also the season for hawks, and points of land such as Prince Edward Point, Point Petre and Salmon Point, as well as the dunes area of Sandbanks Provincial Park, can offer some excellent viewing opportunities as this family of birds makes its way along the shoreline of the county. Large numbers of SHARP-SHINNED HAWKS, COOPER’S HAWKS, NORTHERN GOSHAWKS, RED-SHOULDERED HAWKS, and RED-TAILED HAWKS may be seen if conditions are right. This is also the month when we might see the arrival from the north of the ROUGH-LEGGED HAWK.
 
Actually there will be quite a few birds arriving from breeding grounds far to the north of us in search of more profitable feeding areas. In addition to the AMERICAN TREE SPARROWS, we may also see a few SNOW BUNTINGS, as well as PINE SISKINS as they pass through the area.
 
Often referred to as “whistlers”, the whistling of wings over the water is a common sound as common goldeneyes begin to appear.  Photo Derek Dafoe of MarmoraSome northern ducks will be showing up too this month including both GREATER and  LESSER SCAUP, LONG-TAILED DUCK (formerly oldsquaw), COMMON GOLDENEYE (Photo by Derek Dafoe of Marmora) and BUFFLEHEAD.
 
There will be lots of movement in the shrubs and wooded areas as numbers of AMERICAN ROBINS, EASTERN BLUEBIRDS, VEERYS, GREY-CHEEKED THRUSHES, SWAINSON’S THRUSHES, HERMIT THRUSHES and WOOD THRUSHES exploit these areas for available food as they work their way south. Owls like SCREECH and GREAT HORNED may be heard calling at night. GOLDEN-CROWNED and RUBY-CROWNED KINGLETS will still be passing through this month as well as WINTER WRENS and a few other species.
 
Bird feeders in operation this month will start attracting numbers of BLACK-CAPPED CHICKADEES, BLUE JAYS and WHITE-BREASTED NUTHATCHES as these species shuffle about in search of feeding areas that will sustain them through the three lean months of the year. RUBY-THROATED HUMMINGBIRDS may continue to linger into the 2nd week of October; hence, the importance of leaving the hummingbird feeder up until all signs of hesitating individuals are gone. The late departing females and young of the year will appreciate the extra offerings as cold and frosty nights deprive them of insect food. Pay particular attention to your hummingbird clientele for any hummingbird vagrants such as the rare RUFOUS HUMMINGBIRD. And when out in the field, keep your eyes peeled for other vagrants that may appear.
 
While October is a month when the majority of birds passing through offer nothing more than a few unidentifiable call-notes, others like the WHITE-THROATED SPARROW, EASTERN PHOEBE, SONG SPARROWS, FOX SPARROWS and RUBY-CROWNED KINGLETS return for an encore, delighting us with a few spirited renditions of their spring songs.
 
October is one of the more pleasant and colourful months as these birds flit among the reddening foliage of staghorn sumac and yellowing leaves of prickly ash in search of insects lured out by warm, sunny days. The short call notes and flashes of yellow from lingering YELLOW-RUMPED WARBLERS are familiar sights and sounds at this time of the year, but are firm reminders that once November rolls around, much cooler weather and dwindling food sources are not far behind.
 
Keep checking the QUINTE AREA BIRD REPORT for daily updates on the birds of our area.
 
Good birding this month!

As always, I am interested in hearing what you see at your feeder as well as in your travels throughout the Quinte area this spring. You can e-mail me right from this LINK

(Photo credits and descriptions of photos can be seen by "mousing over" each photo. )


 

Last Updated ( Sep 30, 2014 at 08:40 AM )
Surviving the Big Freeze PDF Print E-mail
Written by Terry Spraque   
Oct 01, 2014 at 03:00 AM

 

   SURVIVING THE BIG FREEZE 

                              Wednesday, October 01, 2014                                      

The diagnostic “clucking” of a chipmunk, resonating through wooded areas at this time of the year, is always a sign that winter is on its way. It is an ominous sound and seems to carry a subliminal message regarding the months ahead, quite unlike the loud chips and squeaks we more often associate with this little mammal. Biologists have not yet determined the meaning of the chipmunk’s many calls, but there can be no doubt in my mind that the “chucks” we hear right now mean the fall season is on the wane.
 
Chipmunks started preparing for winter some weeks ago, entering their burrows where they will spend the winter. As anyone who operates a bird feeder knows, a few even remain somewhat active through the winter months, if there is a ready supply of food. The chipmunk is often cited as an example of a hibernator, but how many animals truly hibernate? Not many, I dare say, and certainly not the chipmunk, if we want to get technical about it. True hibernators enter a prolonged state of torpor during the long winter months, when metabolism slows down, and there are very few mammals that do that non-stop through the entire winter. It is far too risky for mammals to sleep the entire winter away; most move around a bit periodically. Even the groundhog has been known to come out of its burrow and look around.
 
The chipmunk does go under a remarkable transformation during its time underground. This perky little mammal whose heart races at a brisk 350 beats per minute, drops into a whisper mode, its heart beating at a modest four beats per minute, barely enough for us to claim it is alive. The body temperature drops from 36 degrees to just three. But every two weeks or so, it wakes up to have a snack of its cached food supply, at which time it will also take advantage of the opportunity to urinate in a special chamber reserved for that occasion. During the time it staggers around with its eyes closed, grabs a bite to eat, then curls up and slumbers on for another 15 days. Come April, though, it springs to life with renewed vigour.
 
The ability of nature’s creatures to survive the winter is an amazing study. We already know that many species of birds routinely migrate south to escape winter’s wrath, but few of us realize that migration is driven more by food requirements than it is by just temperature.  Many frog species, even turtles, burrow into the mud at the bottom of a pond. All of us learned this in public school. But what the text books failed to explain was how these creatures that depend on lungs for breathing, can hold their breath for so long. Actually, they don’t. The lungs are shut down, and since the slower metabolism doesn’t require large amounts of oxygen, they are able to pull in oxygen from the water through their skin. Some frogs, like wood and tree frogs that aren’t terribly water oriented to begin with, simply burrow under the leaves or a log. Their livers produce glucose which is circulated through the body like antifreeze, protecting the vital organs. The wood frog actually allows itself to freeze completely through, gradually thawing in the spring and continuing on its way as though nothing happened.
 
Insects manage in variety of ways, even among families. Praying mantids thoughtfully seal their eggs in insulated capsules. You may have stumbled upon these in fields, attached to stalks, looking much like elongated miniature Coffee Crisp chocolate bars, but without the chocolate. They pack their eggs with cryprotectants such as glycerol or sorbitol, creating a syrupy solution to prevent freezing. Some, like the black swallowtail butterfly survive in the larval state, right in the pupa. Others like the red Admiral butterfly may hunker down somewhere protected in the larval state, or it may migrate as an adult, as do Monarchs. Others winter over in the adult stage and hope for the best. The mourning cloak butterfly is perhaps our best example, and is why we tend to see them ahead of all other butterflies in the spring.
 
Really, we don’t need to worry much about winter survival. Thousands of years of evolution have resulted in a finely tuned system that we, as humans, can only emulate provided the power stays on and our fuel tanks are kept topped up. We can’t helped but stare in awe at something as small as a goldenrod gall fly and marvel at its ability to survive, in at least sufficient numbers to guarantee continuance of the species. When all adults of many insects die, leaving only eggs or larvae, it seems like a risky way of doing business, but one which obviously has proven successful.
 
I have the pleasure of speaking to the Tweed Historical Society on October 15th at which time I will expand on this subject of winter survival. The presentation takes place at 7:00 p.m., at the town’s St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church. The church is located at 55 Victoria Street N., as you enter Tweed on Highway 37 from Belleville.
 

 

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