People often ask us how many years songbirds can live. Sometimes it is hard to know for sure…is the Northern Cardinal you see at your feeder this year the exact same bird as the one you saw last year? Unless there is something distinctive about the look or actions of the bird, it’s hard to tell. The bird banding we do on our property is beginning to give us some data about this question, however. Shortly after noon today Bill arrived in the sunporch with a bird in hand and he (Bill) was grinning from ear to ear. “You know what’s special about this Black-capped Chickadee?” he asked me. Although I thought most of the Black-caps had already traveled to their more northern breeding grounds, I could not spot anything out of the ordinary about this little guy. So I admitted I had no clue.
Bill grins at an old friend (c) Jan Runyan
Bill announced, “We banded him on the very first day we ever banded here—December 10, 2010!” So that little bird is at least 5 years old…more if he was born before 2010! Although our place will not be his (or her?) summer home, it felt great to know that he had survived so long and that our feeders were part of his migration path…again. UPDATE: Shortly after 3 on the same day, Bill again arrived in the sunporch with the same grin and a different bird. He was holding a Tufted Titmouse, all pecks and bites and tough-guy yelling (the bird, not Bill). We had also banded him on the first day we ever banded here, Dec. 10, 2010. This male is the first bird listed on the page of size 1B bands, so he might even have been the very first bird ever banded here! He is at least 5 years old, if not more. Titmice don’t migrate so he is one that we have been hearing year-round. And judging by the number of other Titmice we hear nearby, he is doing quite well at finding mates and providing new generations.
Jan with a Tufted Titmouse who shares their yard (c) Bill Beatty
Jan and I spent the weekend at the “Wild Edibles Festival” in Hillsboro, WV. We saw many wonderful plants and saw and heard a multitude of birds. However, the most exciting discovery was a colony of native Spotted Ladybugs (Coleomegilla maculate). In recent years the introduced Asian Ladybug (Harmonia axyridis) has displaced many of our native species making this find especially significant. Jan shot the video below. Hundreds of Spotted Ladybugs were flying from their hidden underground hibernation chamber to unknown locations to begin feeding on aphids and other insect pests. This was a rare find and everyone was taking photos and videos.
I went on a hike through the West Liberty University woodlands. It’s a great place for anyone who wants to gather their thoughts without people distractions so I knew I would be alone. As I hiked I began counting bird songs. There were many familiar voices and one new for me, at least for this year: a Louisiana waterthrush.
Louisiana Waterthrush (c) Bill Beatty
My physical work, while I counted bird songs, was to cut a new trail for two classes I’ll be teaching in the near future: a spring nature hike with my college students and a wildflowers and weeds class for the Master Naturalist series. As I progressed, an eastern garter snake caught my eye and refused to move far enough to avoid an imminent collision with my weed cutter. I caught the snake and gently tossed it a short safe distance away. Old friends greeted me as I continued: Virginia Spring Beauties, Bloodroot, Sharp-leaved Hepatica and others.
Virginia Spring Beauty (c) Bill Beatty
After my work was finished I sat on a fallen oak branch overlooking a stream. In a quiet pool there were water striders gliding and chasing across the surface guarding unmarked territories.
Common Water Strider (c) Bill Beatty
A thought suddenly caught me off guard and I was unexpectedly face-to-face with my mortality. The same giant, gnarled, dead, dry branch I sat on was the very same branch I had sat under 40+ years earlier. Then the tree had been very much alive and massive. Today the tree exists as fodder for bacteria, fungi and many kinds of invertebrates…and as a comfortable seat for a tired explorer. I sat back watching clouds, avoiding intellectual distractions and thinking things from my heart.
That bird vanished! I was sitting in my favorite place at the bird-feeder window. My eyes were drawn by the movement of the dark gray back of a junco under the hopper feeder near the house. Before my eyes could focus on the familiar shape, it was GONE! It didn’t fly away suddenly. Not caught by a diving hawk. Not even time for my eye to blink. Just VANISHED – like magic! Couldn’t have been a junco! I was starting to tell Bill about the bird that wasn’t there when I glimpsed it again a foot to the right in the grass. Again, before I could focus and analyze the shape – it wasn’t there!
Searching around I noticed a slight wiggle of the matted grass just to the right. Then a half-seen dark gray shape, not quite perceived before it vanished. More shaking of the tangled grass. Maybe a form. Movement closer to the house. More shaking. Another grass patch trembled even nearer. Then nothing. My eyes quickly scanned the nearby lawn, back and forth, feeder to house, hoping my peripheral vision could catch more action telling me where it had gone. But nothing. It was gone.
With Bill’s help, I put together the clues and then smiled knowing I had been lucky enough to see (sort of) a rare sight: the seed-gathering of a Northern Short-tailed Shrew.
Three things make this sighting especially notable. First, these shrews are primarily carnivorous, so seeing them gathering seeds is uncommon. Then, they commonly forage for a few hours after sunset or on a cloudy day. So spotting my feeder shrew just after noon on a sunny day was remarkable. Finally, actually seeing a shrew at all is extremely rare since most of their food (insects, earthworms, voles, snails, other shrews, salamanders and mice) can be obtained underground or at least under the cover of vegetation. They work hard to remain hidden and to avoid becoming food themselves.
I smiled and wished him (or her) well, knowing that just as it gathers seeds from our feeders, some of our birds gather shrews…hawks are part of the food pyramid of Nature, too.
Short-tailed Shrew (Blarina brevicauda) (c) Bill Beatty
View the comments to see another great shrew story by Gwen.
American Goldfinch males are starting to look at bit like clowns!
Splotches of black feathers on the head…a bright yellow feather here and there among the tan. Did they lose at paintball?
Am Goldfinch male showing spring molt (c) Jan Runyan
Am Goldfinch male showing spring molt (c) Jan Runyan
Am Goldfinch female (c) Jan Runyan
After last summer’s breeding, all Goldfinches gradually lost and replaced all their feathers. The new male feathers were not the bright “gold” of breeding season, but a more “understated” look similar to females– “basic plumage” in human words.
American Goldfinch showing new pin feathers (Photo (c) Jan Runyan)
Now, in response to complex hormonal changes triggered by seasonal changes, one-by-one the body feathers (not tail or flight feathers) are being replaced. So going through these gradual changes, the males have some pretty strange looks before all of their breeding “gold” returns. (See photo with tiny “pin feathers” just beginning to grow.)
In the past 3 days we have banded 40+ Goldfinches…none in their full breeding plumage. It won’t be too long, though, until our Goldfinches are back in all their gilded glory. This is just the beginning!
Am Goldfinch in breeding plumage (c) Bill Beatty
3 Am Goldfinches in breeding plumage (c) Bill Beatty
If you want to see month by month pictures of the male Goldfinch’s year, check out:
American Goldfinches on thistle feeder (c) Bill Beatty
So far this year Jan and I have banded 198 birds. Soon the American Goldfinches will begin moving through our area en masse. Some will eventually nest nearby while most will nest farther north all the way into Canada. Although I can’t be sure, I expect to band 500+ (in 2013 we banded 543 and in 2014 the number was 557). We have already noticed the males getting their new, bright yellow/black-capped spring plumage. Soon their migration will begin and, weather permitting, we will be able to trap the goldfinches visiting our feeders. Other seed eaters will also be caught and a few strict insect eaters will hit our mist nets and be banded, too. But it will be the goldfinches that will highlight our spring banding season.
Eastern Chipmunk (c) Bill Beatty
Jan claims that “SPRING IS HERE!” and I am inclined to agree. Today is the first day we’ve seen chipmunks this year. Two were salvaging sunflower seeds from under the bird feeders and climbing the squirrel feeder tree to snack on some dried corn.
While most of us are tiredly digging out from the most recent blanket of snow and watching the ice retreat from our driveways again, Nature is smugly telling us that Spring is Here! Driving by the remnants of last summer’s cornfield on a nearby farm, we counted 60 Wild Turkeys foraging through the stubble. With the window down, we could hear the male gobblers “gobble-obble-obble-obble-obble”ing to each other and watched them asserting themselves, jockeying for position in the pecking order to impress the best hen. At our bird-feeders we are noticing a subtle change in the plumage of some birds. The male American Goldfinches are beginning to show a feather of bright gold here and there. The heads of the Male House Finches are slowly turning redder, as if they are embarrassed at eating so much of our seed. For two days we noticed one male Goldfinch with a molted feather sticking wildly askew from his head…molted but not yet dropped. And American Robins…I know some of them remain all winter, but somehow they have stayed hidden…until now. In the sugar bush where harvesters of the transparent liquid which will become delicious golden maple syrup have been sitting idle, bemoaning the continued cold of the “endless” winter, they will soon discover they can’t keep up with the flow as this week’s 50 degree days coax the sap to rise in the Maple trees.
As a bird bander and Project FeederWatch counter I am watching our cold weather friends with new thoughts. When will I see the first migrating bird making a rest stop at our feeders? Is this the last day I will see American Tree Sparrows? How long will the Dark-eyed Juncos stay this year? When will our winter Goldfinches leave and the first wave of migrating beauties hit the mist nets? How could it be that late with the sun still so high…dinner is really going to be late today.
Wild Turkeys (Photo (c) Jan Runyan)
Perhaps the most telling sign of Spring is that my inner urge to plan this year’s garden has now become an undeniable compulsion. While I watch the feeders I must also be scanning seed catalogs. Writing down numbers of birds will alternate with drawing plans for plant placement in the soil which has still been alive, deep down, all winter. But now the life energy will push to the surface and foster food and “weeds” alike to support the summer activities of Nature. SPRING IS HERE!