Creating a wildlife haven one plant at a time

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Winter Withdraws & Signs of Spring

February is the month that eases us into the splendors of spring. We've had a break in our chilly weather and as the mercury jumps up and down in the thermometer, I am reminded that winter will soon be over. The birds know it too.  Sitting diligently at my desk gazing out at the bright blue sky I hear them singing. It  makes me contemplate whether or not this is a sign that birds enjoy warm, sunny days as much as I do. After all, I don't hear their magnificent performances on cold, gloomy days. Do you?

Bulbs and blooms are already sticking their heads out of the soil, eager to feel the sun's rays on their petals. On such warm days, pollinators are emerging and are intent on visiting.

Although winter was slow to start, it now yearns to end. Ironically, this was the year that I embraced the dormant season and discovered a new found beauty in the still of the garden. Perhaps its brevity just made it all the more treasured.

It is the quiet awakening of the garden that thrills each day with a new arrival. The blueberry shrubs are putting on buds that get plumper by the day. Soon, they will burst open to welcome the bees' services.

blueberry buds
The tease of spring is inducing the Jane magnolia to open, but so far she is playing it safe, perhaps knowing that launching too early may not be a good idea.

It won't be long now, and the earliest butterflies will emerge and brave the elements to tour the garden in search of the sunshine yellow blooms of the Carolina Jessamine, which are at present barely peaking out.

Preparing for a brilliant show, the resilient coral honeysuckle is on the cusp of greeting the first hummers with its flaming flowers. Most certainly encouraging them to remain in our neck of the woods and find a nesting spot up in the tall trees of the nearby forest.

At the edge of the woods, the oakleaf hydrangea are budding with excitement. As are the big leaf magnolia.  These florae are much more cautious, and it will be some weeks until these beauties begin to leaf out.

But despite the excitement of spring, winter is withdrawing with its own sense of loveliness. The turkey tail fungi, once a riot of browns, blues and purples has lightened to a pale cream.

More fungi blooms, fading with grace.

Mostly devoured by the birds and squirrels, the remains of the Sycamore achenes dangle like forgotten ornaments against the crisp blue sky.

Whilst the Echinacea purpurea have been demolished by visiting birds throughout the winter chill, they still stand tall charged with the hopes of the next generation to provide for the pollinators.

If the witch hazel is the winter cheering squad, committed to keeping the party going, then the bluebird's early house hunting, is a sure sign that spring is just around the bend.

Monday, February 8, 2016

Winter is the Best Time for Backyard Birding

Watching birds is one of my favorite ways to spend time outdoors during the winter months. When the trees stand stark and the temperatures drop, studying birds is much easier. I no longer have to search out the birds to view their behavior, they come to me. Winter is certainly the hottest time for birding action in our garden.

Tufted Titmouse

Once the insects have withdrawn for the winter. After the fruits and berries have been devoured from the trees and shrubs. When the seeds from native perennials, grasses and forbs are scarce, birds flock to the feeders.

Winter, especially February, can be a harsh time for birds. Supplementing wild food sources with backyard bird feeders will bring these special visitors closer to your home and may help them survive the harshest season.

Ruby-crowned kinglet
Offering several styles of feeders, each with a different type of seed, berry or fruit will attract a larger variety of birds. Project Feeder Watch has assembled a helpful list of common feeder birds by region and what they like to eat. 

Northern Cardinal (female) and White-throated Sparrow

Early morning conversations at the feeders provide, not only great photo opportunities, but loads of entertainment. Song birds are especially busy in the early hours, filling up with high energy seeds after an arctic night. Birds store energy as fat and can only stock 16 to 24 hours of energy at a time. This is why early mornings and just before dark are the busiest feeding times. Often, birds have to wait patiently in line for a turn at the bustling buffet.

Eastern Bluebird and White-throated Sparrow

And then there are some birds, like the red-bellied woodpecker, who just fly in and take command.

Red-bellied Woodpecker

Winter is an excellent time to observe birds that don't normally frequent backyard feeders. I've noticed that bluebirds become braver and find the gusto to dash in and mingle with other song birds when temperatures are frigid.

Eastern Bluebird

You can learn more about the special feeding needs of bluebirds in winter here.

Eastern Bluebird (male)

Robins are a common sight on lawns tugging at earthworms, but have you ever seen one visiting your feeder? Surprisingly, they are attracted to several different feeders including suet and hulled sunflower seeds. Try putting up a fruit or meal worm station and see if they come.

American Robin

Some birds will collect seeds during summer and fall hiding them for times when food is more limited. I often observe woodpeckers caching sunflower seeds in tree cavities. They can only hope that other birds or animals don't find their stash.

Red-bellied Woodpecker

Birds have extremely high metabolisms, and cold weather increases their caloric needs. The body temperature of birds, which ranges from 104 to 113 degrees Fahrenheit, determines how high their metabolism is. In winter, birds need to produce more heat to stay warm.

Eastern Bluebird (female)

Some birds, such as the Carolina Chickadee, will go into nocturnal torpor, which lowers their body temperature, heart rate and breathing to conserve energy. This practice can save as much as 20% of their energy.

Carolina Chickadee

Some song birds wear a much different coat in winter, than during breeding season, making them much less flashy. Take the American Goldfinch, who dresses down for winter in a drab olive cloak. A stark contrast to his bright canary yellow in summer.

American Goldfinch

Like mammals, some birds will grow more feathers for winter to keep warm. The American Goldfinch has 1,000 more feathers in winter than summer. Smart bird!

Birds use their feathers to stay warm. You may observe birds perched on tree limbs, fences or in shrubs looking plump and pudgy. By puffing up their feathers, they trap in air allowing their body heat to warm up the air between their feathers and body, providing an additional layer of insulation against the cold.


Birds will also sleep with their bill under their wing feathers to breathe in the warm air.

Hairy Woodpecker

Constant shivering increases their body temperature (thermogenosis). This produces heat at 5 times their normal rate.

Hermit Thrush

Now, you may be wondering about their exposed feet. Birds' feet are bones covered in a rough skin, which unlike humans' feet, contains very little water. The blood vessels in their legs are also designed to keep their feet warm. Arteries keep warm blood flowing from the heart down to their legs.

Pine Warbler

Dehydration is actually a bigger threat to birds than starvation in winter. Providing a heated bird bath will attract lots of birds to your garden when fewer non-frozen water sources exist. In addition to drinking, water is needed for preening feathers. Without proper preening, feathers won't stay in position and aligned, causing gaps where heat can escape, thus lowering the birds body temperature.

American Robin

Backyard birders and feeder watchers like me can help document the diversity of birds in your area this weekend (February 12-15, 2016) by participating in the Great Backyard Bird Count. This citizen-science project helps document birds in rural, urban and natural areas. For more information on this engaging and educational event click here.

Downy Woodpecker
With a little effort you can attract a diverse group of birds to your garden when little else is happening. Simply meeting birds' food, water and shelter needs can make winter your top birding season too.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers and their Feeding Holes

The only completely migratory woodpecker in the Eastern U.S., the yellow-bellied sapsucker (Sphyrapicus varius), is one of my favorite winter visitors to our woods. I've written about them before, which you can read here. But, today I'm focusing on their feeding holes.

Male yellow-bellied sapsucker taking a quick peek at what I'm doing

This fairly shy bird is more often heard than seen, but a walk through our forest reveals all the signs of its presence. Rings of closely spaced holes band trees, especially the maples and hickories. These holes are often mistaken for insect damage; however, insect damage will have fewer, smaller holes that are more randomly placed. This tree has been a repeat customer for these industrious woodpeckers.

Sapsuckers bore two types of holes into trees. Round holes extend deep into the xylem, where the sapsuckers lick up sap that is moving up into the branches.

yellow-bellied sapsucker sapwells

After the trees leaf out, shallow, square holes, that penetrate the phloem, ooze sap that they lap up with their short brushy tongues. These shallow holes must continually be maintained for sap to flow.

a close look at the holes created by sapsuckers

Phloem tree sap has a similar content to flower nectar. Other animals, who like this free-flowing sap are also attracted to these holes such as chipmunks, bats, hummingbirds, orioles, warblers, nuthatches and butterflies. Conversely, in early spring you may see yellow-bellied sapsuckers visiting your hummingbird or oriole nectar feeders.

New holes are made in the same, horizontal line as older holes or a new line directly above the old one. This makes for an unmistakable pattern.

This tree has been a favorite of this male sapsucker this winter. See how well he blends in with the bark. His mottled feathers against the tree trunk look like shadows and dappled sunlight. It is only when he lifts his head revealing a flashy bright red head or when he clings to the side of the trunk that he is more noticeable. Of course the drilling will give him away every time.

Sapsuckers will use many species of trees and woody plants, but they prefer trees with higher sugar content such as paper/yellow birch, hickory and sugar/red maple. They are often seen in the Southeast in hickory/pine/oak forests.

The main source of food for yellow-bellied sapsuckers, however, isn't sap, but insects such as beetles, ants, moths and dragonflies. However, when they visit our garden during the winter months, insects are not always readily available. They will eat  fruit and berries if they can find them and when those are scarce they go for the sap.

Not everyone appreciates these active birds, but I enjoy having them around. It is relatively rare for a tree to die from numerous rows of wells. I have yet to see it happen in our woods and we have many that are decorated with their artistic drilling. Besides, the death of a tree is part of the dynamic nature of woodland habitats.

These vibrant woodpeckers will be leaving us in spring to make their journey to their breeding ground in the northern U.S. and Canada. Hummingbirds often follow their migration using sapsucker holes as a source of nectar and protein when blooms are sparse.