Tag Archives: Bird

Solving Garden Mysteries

Dateline:  May 30, 2014*

In recent days I heard the hammering of a bird outside the computer room window which faces the front of the property.  I really didn’t think much of it. Red-bellied Woodpeckers bang incessantly around here, with the males often using the gutters of my house to sound bigger and more virile to the local ladies. Nesting season is well underway and I even hear the Pileated Woodpeckers hammering in the distance. They’ve used snags on my property in the past to raise their young.

While out and about on a morning walk around the lot, I heard an odd sound…the call of a bird, unknown to me,  hidden somewhere in the landscape.  I peered under branches of the wax myrtle where the sound seemed to be coming from, but the shrubbery is lush with leaves these days, providing great hiding spots for nests and new fledglings.  I came up empty.

My thought was to try to figure out what bird it was, but I wasn’t really sure where to start.  I’m helpless at trying to translate the “chirps” and “pee-whees” written in my bird field guide and my bird language skills in imitation  is non-existent.  I thought of going to The Cornell Lab of Ornithology Website to listen to bird after bird after bird, but didn’t seem a very efficient method.  My birder friends who all can bird by sound would know in an instant but aren’t close enough to give a quick emergency “I hear it NOW” type of phone call…all are at least 30 minutes or more away.  I wouldn’t count on the bird hanging out to wait for them.

The bird identification was placed on the back burner, while other interesting critters and flowers jumped higher on the research list.  It is May, after all, one of the busiest times in my garden.

Ut oh, what is THIS??

I was again in the front yard and decided to check the Live Oak tree (Quercus virginiana) to see if anyone had set up a new nest there.  The mockingbirds are nesting just about everywhere and this tree is a favorite for them.  I was a little taken aback when I looked.  At eye level was a whole section of holes in the bark.

Is it YOU?

I imagined all sorts of damaging insects envisioning an attack akin to the Emerald Ash Borer up north.   That night I was taking the dogs out for the final trip before bed and I spotted an unusual insect on the door jam.  I got the dogs in, grabbed my camera and took some photos of what turns out to be a Long-horned Beetle (Eburia distincta).  Now the preferred host for this boring beetle is cypress, but there are also notations that it may use some hardwoods.  Could this be the holey oak culprit?

As I mumbled “holy moley”, I took my photos of the oak and beetle friend and emailed them to Eleanor Foerste who is Emeritus Faculty, UF IFAS Extension. I was a little concerned by her immediate response that started off with “OMG!” and ended with “I will also send to our forester, … for her ideas”.

Cooperative Extension Services is a gold mine of information through a partnership of United States Department of Agriculture with a state land-grant university to “provide useful, practical, and research-based information to agricultural producers, small business owners, youth, consumers, and others in rural areas and communities of all sizes.”  In Florida they have a network of local offices at the county-level that teach Master Gardener Courses as well as numerous other educational programs.  Our county even has a daily walk-in plant clinic where you can bring in soil to have pH tested or a leaf or root showing some damage and they will analyze it to try to figure out the problem.

Back to my garden mystery…

Eleanor’s emailed response posed a couple of questions: (1) “How high up on the trunk is this happening?” and (2) “Can you hold a cup to your ear and the tree like a stethoscope (like the old telephone game with cup and string?) and hear any chewing inside?”

Eleanor, who prior to retirement taught the Florida Master Naturalist program, noted that “Yes, longhorn beetles will chew but typically on weak trees.”

It looks like swiss cheese

I quickly replied that it was about eye level (5 ft.) limited to about a foot vertically and only about 1/2 way around. “It looks like a wide hole-y ribbon got tied around.” I mentioned that I didn’t see any damage anywhere else on the tree.  I also said that I would find a cup and give a listen  (with thoughts of what the neighbors would be mumbling about me for THIS activity).

close up

A gloom and doom attitude began to take over, but that was quickly alleviated when Eleanor sent another email just minutes later “Not sapsucker damage???”

Sapsucker?  Our area has sapsuckers?  How the heck have I missed them all these years????  I opened my browser to the Cornell site for the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (Sphyrapicus varius) and immediately clicked on the “typical voice” button.

Yes! Sapsuckers make this type of pattern in their quest for food

THAT’S IT!  Well, I’ll be…two mysteries solved at the same time.  The birdie I heard days before matched perfectly with the sound!  Since Florida is listed as winter (non-breeding) on the range map, I suppose my friend was tanking up on sap for the summer trip up north.  Jumping for joy, now I will wait the long months and hope that I get to see it on the return.

Just listening in the garden can help you learn more about what is using your habitat than by sight alone.  I’ll add the sapsucker to my Florida bird life list, with an annotation “heard, but not seen”.

So, leave the phone and the radio inside and take in the sounds of Mother Nature…and tell me what you hear in your own beautiful wildlife garden.

Update 2017: I’m pleased to report that I finally got to see the sapsuckers in the flesh and much to my delight, they spend a lot of time visiting my trees so I now see them often.

*This tale was originally published by Loret T. Setters on May 30, 2014 at the defunct national blog beautifulwildlifegarden[dot]com. Click the date to view reader comments.

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This Bird’s a Lone Wolf

An Eastern Phoebe has been visiting and perching in the Florida native Sycamore (Platanus occidentalis) lately so I am republishing my lost article from 2012 on this interesting bird.

Dateline:  November 30, 2012*

Likely you all know the adage “Birds of a Feather Flock Together” and when you see robins eating in a field, swallows roosting in a tree or geese in flight, there is no denying it. Enter the Eastern Phoebe (Sayornis phoebe), who seems to say, “Not me baby! I vant to be alone” using its best Greta Garbo voice.

Rarely do we see a pair of phoebes. Mostly it is a lone bird, perched on a fence or low tree branch with few leaves, studying the air or groundcover below on the hunt for something tasty and I don’t mean greens, berries or seeds. The phoebe’s diet consists primary of insects. Since they are flycatchers, they’re unlikely to come to feeders. They are a part of the Tryannidae family.

It really seems to like the new fence as a perch

I watched my most recent visitor as (s)he sat on the 4-1/2 foot wooden fence. ZOOM…down into the native grasses, which are mixed with pennywort and frogfruit. SNATCH…picked up some critter and return to its same perch. REPEAT.

It also is happy perching on the PVC pole that the Coral Honeysuckle vine crawls up

Prior to the installation of this new fence, the phoebe used to hang out in the front using the flagpole or the small shed as a perch. Last spring I was excited to see it entering and exiting the open eaves of this shed, thinking it was looking for a nesting place. Sad to say that Florida seems to be outside the breeding range, it is a winter holdover here. On the other hand, team member Ellen Sousa has spoken about how her lawn area provides the perfect hunting ground for meals which is likely why she has had breeding pairs nest at her place in the northeast on a regular basis. I’m a little jealous.

Some say the Phoebe has drab colors, but in the sunlight the yellow tone to its breast becomes very apparent

Flying insects make up the majority of the Eastern Phoebe’s diet. Common prey includes wasps, beetles, dragonflies, butterflies and moths, flies, midges, and cicadas; they also eat spiders, ticks, and millipedes, as well as occasional small fruits or seeds. At my place, the beetles and/or spider wasps in the grasses seem to be the main focus for this guy. Although last night he was hawking critters in flight.

It was happier on a branch in the oak when it was hawking, rather than gleaning

California has a similar species, the black phoebe that was spoken about here at Beautiful Wildlife Garden by former team member Chris McLaughlin.

I hope when it was staring at me it wasn’t thinking I would make a good meal

So, to birdscape for this bird, provide a nice medium height fenceline or similar perch, a low-growing meadow-type area and don’t use any pesticides which might kill their food. They want their dinner tartare. You’ll soon hear the familiar peep or fee-bee as it patiently waits to soar down and dine.

*This tale was originally published by Loret T. Setters on November 30, 2012 at the defunct national blog beautifulwildlifegarden[dot]com. Click the date to view reader comments.

Hard to Swallow? Hardly!

National Bird Day was yesterday and as luck would have it the tree swallows returned to my neck of the woods even though the morning temperatures were below freezing. I will take this opportunity to republish one of my lost articles from a few years back.

Dateline:  January 5, 2013*

Hundreds of tree swallows leave the Bayberry

Carol Duke of Massachusetts,  fellow writer at the former Native Plants and Wildlife Gardens blog provides an awe-inspiring poetic and photographic tribute to the spring return and nesting habits of the Tree Swallow (Tachycineta bicolor). In Florida, we provide the winter, non-breeding area for this interesting bird thus seeing a different side of behavior.

A group of tree swallows are known collectively as a “stand” of swallows.  Our winter residents hardly sit, let alone stand.  Nearly constant in flight, they soar, snagging meals of insects “on the wing”. A few years back I did a short video while they flew round and round and round.

This week the tree swallows returned to my area and I wondered aloud why they didn’t tire of flying, as I stood, camera in hand, waiting for a photo opportunity.  It was not to happen.  I recall beautiful photos of swallows, but I’m thinking that the majority of those were taken when they are nesting, standing and protecting nest boxes or feeding their young.

This seems to be as clear a shot as I’m going to get of these birds

The very next day I sort of got an answer.  It was a dull day, cold by Florida standards as the daily high never got above 61F.  I had the fireplace going as I prepared to watch an afternoon of football.

The shrub was black with birds

Cleaning up the dishes from a late breakfast the sky seemed to darken through the kitchen skylight.  Now we weren’t expecting rain and as I glanced out the window…one that doesn’t overlook the pond…I was stunned by the arrival of HUNDREDS of tree swallows landing in the Southern Bayberry a.k.a. Wax Myrtle shrubs which are growing as a natural barrier along the fence.

Though it would seem an exaggeration, I kid you not regarding the numbers.  Now, two days later under 80F skies, I was greeted again by “the swarm” and here is a 15 second video of the event.

There were HUNDREDS of birds flying and landing. They would barely rest for a moment before taking flight again, en masse, only to return seconds later.  The birds bump into each other with their landing techniques and the chatter is deafening.  Perhaps not oddly, they returned around the same time of day, 11 a.m.  They must know about “elevenses”.

They came in a blur and left in a blur

The main diet of the tree swallow is insects, but they also can be enticed to some berries, with plant materials making up about 20% of their diet. Appropriately enough, they landed in the female shrubs that represent the majority of those along that particular side of the property and produce the fruit.  I guess they were hankering for the waxy blue-colored berries of the Southern Bayberry (Myrica cerifera).  It could also be that due to the time of year insects aren’t as plentiful and that’s when the need to eat plants comes in.

A few things that I have learned about swallows is that they are cavity nesters.  If you are in their breeding range, to entice them to take up residence consider providing a nest box if you don’t have available tree snags.  Some have encountered problems with them competing with bluebirds for the nest boxes as related by fellow blogger Donna Donabella.  In some ways by not being in their breeding range, I’m lucky.  My bluebirds have free reign of the nest box I provide and when I see the size of the gang these tree swallows come up with, my bluebirds wouldn’t stand a chance.

I’m stilled stunned by just how many tree swallows will try to squeeze on one branch

Obviously a nice clear photo of the lovely iridescent birds is not in my future, given their winter habits.  I’ll be happy with the memory of my encounter.  Experiencing a gang of birds in some ways is just as rewarding as watching newborn nestlings.  So, as many of you await the spring return of the tree swallow, consider how we all get different views of the habits of our amazing creatures depending on our location in their world.  Provide for them appropriately and remember that avoidance of pesticide use is key in attracting our insect eating birds.

A few of the 2018 gang watch their flock mates in the Wax Myrtle from the wire above

*This tale was originally published by Loret T. Setters on January 5, 2013 at the defunct national blog beautifulwildlifegarden[dot]com. Click the date to view reader comments.

Being Green in the Wildlife Garden

Dateline: May 17, 2013*

As I do every morning, I was walking around the property enjoying nature at its best.  I took my normal route past the Rusty Lyonia, Pawpaws and Dwarf Oaks, among others and headed down the bank of the pond into the section that dries up during Florida dry season.  I checked two small temporary pools created from recent rains and watched the tadpoles dance with the diving beetles.

Poised to catch a meal

As I turned my attention to the main section of pond, I was surprised to see a Green Heron (Butorides virescens) standing on the side, poised to grab a meal.  He seemed unfazed with my presence, unlike his compatriots the blue or white herons, which fly off the moment I open the door to the house some 150 feet way.  Not the first time I have met up with a green heron in my pond, but it is an unusual and welcome occurrence.

They stand very still

I watched and photographed as birdy moved stealthily around the perimeter, snagging mosquitofish (Gambusia holbrooki) along the way.  As I walked, we seemed to move in unison, always at exact opposite positions along the pond edge.  He was diligent and obviously very hungry as we spent about 45 minutes doing our opposing dance.  I climbed up the bank at one point and wandered to another part of the yard.

Quick to grab their prey

When I returned, I noticed that the green heron had climbed aboard the tussock (island) at one end of my pond.  When the tussock first appeared, I had visions of wildlife making it a home and my new bird friend made the picture painted in my mind a reality.

Green Heron on the Tussock, my dream vision

Green Herons, small by most heron standards, are “one of the few birds that uses bait to attract fish, it drops such things as bread crusts, insects, and twigs onto the water.”   Fish is the primary diet along with frogs, insects and other invertebrates. They are vocal when they fly in or fly off.

Short and stocky

I gave him some words of warning, advising that I would be VERY annoyed if he ate my new turtle friends and he seemed to stick with the fare of the day, fish.  I hoped that he would snag one of the bluegills or large mouth bass that reside in the depths of the water so I could have that Kodak moment of a wading bird with a fish in his mouth.  It was not to be.  Without warning, my green heron friend flew off leaving me with a good feeling that I am not viewed as a threat to the wildlife friends who come to visit my native plant gardening paradise.

Green Heron is truly a beautiful bird

*This is an update of a tale was originally published by Loret T. Setters on  May 17, 2013 at the defunct national blog beautifulwildlifegarden[dot]com. Click the date to view reader comments.

When Birds Recycle

Dateline: February 3, 2012*

Mourning Dove (Zenaida macroura) found and used this nest in a Live Oak tree

I was out and about on Sunday, cleaning up after the dogs and looking for wildlife of interest. January is not always the best time of year to find things, but Florida has experienced a relatively warm winter and spring is in the air so we have our fair share of resident wildlife meandering around. I spotted a Saltmarsh Caterpillar (Estigmene acrea) and a Pinewoods Treefrog (Hyla femoralis). I passed by the young live oak and was leaning down under some branches when I heard the sharp whistle of a Mourning Dove (Zenaida macroura) taking flight. The sound created by their flapping wings during takeoff is unmistakable. I nearly jumped out of my skin I was so startled. Heck, I was close enough to feel a breeze in my ear.

I stopped and leaned under this live oak tree

I often see the Mourning Doves, which are native to all of North America, high up in the trees, hanging out on power lines and down pecking around the bottom of the pond in a section that is exposed during the current dry season. They are fond of the areas alongside the driveway which has a lot of Cranesbill (Geranium carolinianum) growing, a plant native to most of North America. Cranesbill provides an excellent source of natural, non-toxic bird seed, if you avoid use of chemicals in your yard. Be wary if you use a weed and feed, as this plant is on many chemical company hit lists to be killed for some unknown reason.

Doves like a view from power wires

I’d never really seen the Mourning Doves low in the trees before, so I glanced at where the bird may have been perched and noticed two bright white eggs, sitting up in a nest. I laughed because now I understood why the bird was at my ear height.

Two perfect eggs

I’m not sure whom the doves’ real estate agent was, but I’m hoping they got a good buy on this nest. It is a “resale” home that was constructed by Mockingbirds (Mimus polyglottos) last year. The Mockingbirds didn’t have much luck with this location. I have a picture of four eggs one day, and none a day or two later. Victims of some raccoon, hawk or snake’s breakfast, I suppose…or perhaps all three met for elevenses.

Pop (?) keeping those eggs warm!

I looked up the Mourning Dove nesting behavior and found that they lay 2 white eggs in a loosely made nest of sticks and twigs placed in low bushes and tall trees, more rarely on the ground. As you can see in the photo, there are two eggs, soooooo…MISSION ACCOMPLISHED. Now, was this a lazy dove? Since Mockingbirds also make nests of loose sticks and twigs I’m attributing the reuse by the dove as being smart and eco-friendly, you know…wanting to recycle…no unnecessary development.

I’ve often been conflicted about whether to remove a bird nest after the miracle of birth has taken place and they leave. I know as I monitor my bluebirds, I need to remove the nest a day after they fledge as it is extremely dirty and can harbor parasites. Bluebird parents will come back a week or two later and quickly build a new nest for a second or third brood if there is enough time left in the season. I’m more inclined to leave the nest of Mockingbirds. I have witnessed them reuse the same nest on more than one occasion. On the other side of the coin, I’ve also had wasps take over a previously used nest, in a less than convenient location. Decisions, decisions.

Cranesbill, also called Wild Geranium are great natives to attract doves.

Mourning Doves are the most hunted migratory game bird (think squab) in North America although they are also protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Since they are granivorous , they eat agricultural crops such as corn, millet, wheat and even peanuts. For a native plant diet, they exist on a variety of grasses, spurges (Croton spp.), goosefoots, lambsquarter (Chenopodium album), saltbushes (Atriplex spp.), Sunflowers (Helianthus spp.), Ragweed (Ambrosia spp.), Pokeweed (Phytolacca americana), Pricklypoppy (Argemone spp.), Pigweeds (Amaranthus spp), Smartweeds (Polygonum spp.), hemp (Cannabis sativa) (my kinda bird), Purslanes (Brassica spp.), Pines (Pinus spp.) and my favorite, Wild Geranium (G. carolinianum), as stated above. Get those meadows planted but if you include Cannabis make sure you have bail money.

Grit is essential component of diet, but why they eat it is unknown. But eat it they do, since they routinely spend some time on my crushed rock driveway. They also like some animal matter, primarily snails. The need for surface water is imperative, so to attract these guys, start planning those ponds.

Snails, such as these native Southern Flatcoils (Polygyra spp.) are a part of a Dove’s diet.

These birds appear to eat fast. They save the food they forage in their crop (that dangly thing at their neck) and digest it later when they settle in to roost. The young are raised on “crop milk,” a unique secretion of the cells of the crop wall provided by both mom and pop.

Mom (?) sees that incubation is continuous

Mourning Doves incubate continuously for 14-15 days, with the male often taking the day shift and the female taking the night shift. They will build where humans frequent and if they feel threatened, parents will use the “nest distraction” technique (fly out of the nest in the hopes you don’t see it) or “broken wing feign” strategy (flapping around on the ground, as if injured). Right now, I need to keep away from that area. I got one photo of the eggs since the opportunity presented itself (glad I keep my point and shoot camera with me). I also got the photo of pop? sitting on the eggs from a distance. Ahhh…the beauty of a zoom camera. Now, “grandmama” will patiently await little heads to appear, but I will do so from across the yard watching through field glasses.

As far as the nest? I’m just curious if the Mockingbirds were savvy enough to downplay the reason they decided to move.

*This tale was originally published by Loret T. Setters on February 3, 2012 at the defunct national blog beautifulwildlifegarden[dot]com. Click the date to view reader comments.

Treetops to Marsh: The White Ibis

Dateline: September 13, 2013*

What’s with all the treetop birds?

I was gabbing on the phone with my sister yesterday afternoon and I wandered out onto the patio. Two lots over is where the wooded areas begin and I noticed some birds coming in for a landing in the treetops.  I didn’t pay too much attention thinking they were the resident Vultures, but then I saw a couple of Egrets land in some trees across the street.
My, that’s a versatile group: Ibis and Hawk and check out that Spanish Moss blowing in the breeze.

I finished talking with my sister and grabbed my field glasses.  I saw that there were several different birds perched in the cypress trees and pine snags, so I grabbed my zoom camera (which has minimal features since it isn’t high end) and snapped a few shots.
Wow, it’s a wading bird convention

Suddenly, more and more birds were flying in along the tree line, landing in a cleared lot across the street from the wooded area.

One flew in, then two at once.  A quartet followed.  Five landed in a tree.

Some landed in the trees overlooking the cleared lot.

I decided that this was something I couldn’t miss and took the short walk down the block.
The adults are white, the juveniles start dark turning white

I was amazed at the number of birds in the clearing, in the trees and many more still flying in.  The majority were White Ibis (Eudocimus albus) but there was a black vulture or two, the egrets and a  Red-shouldered Hawk (Buteo lineatus) all in the mix.
An egret stands tall next to the shorter cousins

I often see ibis fly overhead in large flocks and have even had a stray or two land pond-side, but these massive numbers was an amazing surprise.
Even a vulture joined the pack of mixed juveniles and adults.

The range in the United States is the Atlantic coastline from North Carolina south to and including all of peninsula Florida. Range continues west along the Gulf of Mexico down to the Mexican border where it continues south. The White Ibis migrates slightly further inland in its range.
Occasionally they visit my pond as this one did back in 2010.

The habitat for White Ibis can be freshwater, saltwater and brackish marshes.  I’m not sure what the attraction was in this particular lot but I suppose at this time of year it qualifies as a marsh.  As a cypress swamp it is seasonally to regularly wet and parts are drying out, so I can only imagine that the aquatic delicacies were within easy sight and reach of the flock.  It also is rich with native sedges.
That one was just a youngster, the bill wasn’t even pink yet.

A member of the Ciconiiformes Order, the White ibis will hang out with other members of that Order which include herons and storks.
They like the cypress trees

They feed primarily on crustaceans that they dig up using their long, curved bill as a probe.  In my area that would likely be crawdads.

Other food choices include insects, frogs, snails, snakes, and small fish, all readily available in our area. Flocks of white ibis will move from location to location in search of food so I guess that our block was a quick stop on the over-ground food railroad.

The white ibis is listed as a Species of Special Concern (SSC) in Florida due to habitat destruction. This truly was a fantastic and rewarding encounter and I believe they are secure in my area because most of the surrounding lands are wildlife management or conservation areas.