Owls In the Family… part two… Eastern Screech-owls

In 1974 I received my Master Personal Bird Banding Permit.  I chose to research the breeding biology of Eastern Screech-owls (EASO).  For the next 28 years I was knee-deep in Screech-owls.

I began organizing Screech-owl counts associated with the Wheeling, WV, Christmas Bird Counts.  Every year that we counted, we had the highest EASO number in North America.

Later I began a trapping program using bal-chatri traps.  Through this I learned much about the secretive EASOs and also about myself:  I developed an awareness of nature in a new and peaceful way.  I became accustomed to being outside alone in what some would call horrible, unwelcoming weather.  It showed me how absolutely wonderful it was to be comfortable in creation in all circumstances.  Nothing compares to the quiet of cold, cold temperatures, treacherous roads and early morning hours.  It’s a quiet that few ever experience.  While everyone else was in bed, I was alone, outside, learning to be in touch with the very essence of life. I would gaze into the starlit sky and think about how I fit into the universe.  Then a Screech-owl would arrive and I would think about trapping Screech-owls.

Screech owl (Otus asio) and white pine tree H

Eastern Screech-owl called out from hiding in the boughs of a white pine tree. (photo (c) Bill Beatty)

Thinking back on my EASO research, I believe the alone times trapping owls in the winter along remote gravel-dirt roads were my favorite times.  I remember one night in particular.  The night was cold, about 20 degrees, with 4 inches of snow on the ground.  The snow was fresh and still covered the branches of the trees and bushes.  Before going about my business of trapping an owl, my mind studied the patterns and images in the dark, snow-covered branches.  If I looked for mountains, I saw them.  Thinking of animals, I found distorted shapes of animals — perhaps a long snake with contrasting black and white stripes running the length of its body — maybe a small squirrel-shaped stub of broken branch with a massive tail composed of a thick tangle of snow-covered wild grape vines.  There were partial faces, some friendly, but most contorted and fearful, as if ravenously protecting the forest from all unwelcome intruders.  I  valued these alone times immensely.  If I had been with someone we would have talked about a multitude of things, not allowing my mind to pause and glory in the wonder of the universe.  So often while alone in wild places I never noticed the cold, wind, rain and other elements that keep most people in the superficial comfort and apparent safety of their homes, but I was always sharply aware of the marvels of Nature that surrounded me.

Shortly after I began trapping EASOs I discovered something quite amazing about these little owls.  The first few times I wanted to set a trap I would first make Screech-owl calls until I heard a response from a distant EASO.  Then I would put the trap in a visible spot off the edge of the road and continue to call as I hid behind the car.  Soon the owl came closer and onto the trap.

But soon I discovered that all my careful hiding and trying making the owl think no one was there was totally unnecessary.  I found I could just stand in the open when I called the owl in.  We could easily see each other.  Most of the time the owl perched on a tree branch and watched me as I set the trap just below.  Before I could even get back to the car I would hear a “THUMP” as the owl hit the trap.

Sometimes an EASO even hit the trap while it was still in my hands.  The first time that happened, the shock seemed to stop my heart.  The owls were much more interested in getting the food from the trap than they were worried about my presence.

In 1988 my approach to EASO studies changed significantly.  The West Virginia Department of Natural Resources Wildlife Divisions Non-game Program awarded me a grant which allowed me to study EASOs in nesting boxes.  With the money I  bought climbing equipment to make it possible for me to “easily” get up to the nesting boxes.  The state constructed 30 EASO nesting/roosting boxes per my specifications.  West Liberty State College granted me permission to mount boxes in their 154 acre arboretum and in a wooded area on campus.  I also placed boxes in the 14 acres behind my house.  Two years later I left my job at the Brooks Nature Center in Oglebay Park.  I had enjoyed  working there but I wanted to be in the field more and still make a living at what I loved.  Working at the Brooks Center, I had been limited to mostly night-time owl work.  Now I was able to spend daytime with the owls.  Although the surveys continued, most of the trapping ended.

Using the nest boxes, I was able to monitor the owls’ nests and behavior during breeding season and their roosting activities the rest of the year.  Without injuring or disturbing the owls, I was able to watch and photograph many details of EASO life.

female eastern screech owl (Otus asio) incubating eggs

Eastern Screech-owl incubating 5 eggs (photo (c) Bill Beatty)

egg 1day old

Eastern Screech-owl egg hatching and the same owl 24 hours later (photos (c) Bill Beatty)

5 two week old screech owls (Otus asio)

Two-week-old Eastern Screech-owls – one of these 5 owls is the owl hatching from the egg in the above photo, but I do not know which one (photo (c) Bill Beatty)

For many years I held a Federal Bird Rehabilitation Permit specifically for EASOs.  It allowed me legally to keep and work with injured EASOs until the time they could be released back into the wild.  Most adult injuries were car-related as the owls seem to be attracted to small mammals crossing roadways.  The adult owls were ferocious and capable of significant scratches from their thin, but sturdy, sharp talons.  To me, the worst injury was a talon under a fingernail or cuticle.  This was painful and healed slowly.  The baby owls also had attitude, but they didn’t have the strength or determination to back it up.

My children sometimes argued over who got to care for a young or injured owl.  My son, Josh, was too young to care for an owl by himself, so he sometimes helped me.  Julie and Kelly were old enough to be assigned the duties of feeding, exercising, and cleaning the cage of a particular owl, most often a young one.

easo nest box

Gray phase Eastern Screech-owl looking from an owl box and red phase Eastern Screech-owl ‘apparently’ sleeping/roosting in a nesting box. (photos (c) Bill Beatty)

One day I received a call from a lady in Washington, PA.  She had been walking in the early morning and saw something unusual which she described as, “A pure white pile of feathers that moved.”

Upon closer examination she saw it was a baby bird unlike any she had ever seen.  “It’s bigger, has tiny white feathers covering the body, and long claws on the toes,” she said.  I suggested it might be a baby owl.

Once she knew I had permits to keep owls until they could be released, she was happy to bring the bird to me.  It was a baby EASO.  Unlike most other birds, newly-hatched EASOs have feathers covering their tiny bodies.  Attempts to stand the little owl upright caused it to wobble back and forth, then lean to one side, and finally fall over.  I guessed it was two days old.  My family just adored this tiny baby.  All other owls we had kept had been much older by at least by a week.  (For baby birds, a week is a very long time.  They change and grow up very quickly.)  Everyone wanted to be part of this tiny one’s care, but I decided I would be its primary caregiver for the first week.  Even so, when I fed or did anything with the baby, the entire family was present.  Although the baby owl didn’t realize it, it had five doting parents.

I had always been adamant that we not name the owls we cared for because they would eventually be released.  This little guy was different.  Secretly, he came to be called, “Archie.”  When I first heard the whispered references to “Archie,” I scowled (a little) but said nothing.  Soon it was all out in the open and ARCHIE was a major topic of conversation.  Unlike the other owls we had cared for, Archie had strongly imprinted on our family, and three young members of our family were strongly imprinted on Archie.  After school, I could usually find my children lying on the floor surrounding the tiny feather ball, just watching and laughing, gently touching his soft feathers.

Archie liked having the top of his head lightly scratched, leaning in to get more.  But he didn’t like our hands anywhere near his toes and feet.  He would become wide-eyed, dance a bit, clack his beak, and backup, with a look that seemed to say, “I don’t like that.  You should know better!”  Foot sensitivity seems to be typical for owls — other owls we cared for had sometimes reacted hostilely when their feet were bothered, too.

Within 10 days of Archie’s arrival, he could easily have been mistaken for any other EASO his age if not for his uncharacteristic behavior.  The door of his cage in the house  was kept open and usually he would just sit on top of the cage.  It was decided that Julie, my oldest child, would be Archie’s main caretaker, with Kelly’s help when necessary.  Josh became the official Archie observer.  Soon it was commonplace to see Archie on Julie’s shoulder being chauffeured around the house and yard.  Archie spent more time in Julie’s bedroom than at his cage, and so did Kelly.   I often saw all three kids playing outside with Archie perched nearby on a picnic table, on a low branch of a cherry tree, or even on a bicycle handlebar.   Archie followed their every move as they played and ran around the yard.  One day when we were all outside with Archie on the ground among us, a cat ran in and went right for Archie.  All five of us lunged for the cat.  It finally managed to escape with only a bruise or two and some well-deserved reprimands.

Julie Kelly and Archie Jul 1987 at West Liberty

Julie and Kelly with Archie (photo (c) Bill Beatty)

We decided that Archie needed a safer place to stay while outside.  I attached a roomy wood duck box to a porch support that faced out into the yard.  The box was low enough to allow us to reach it, but high enough to keep daytime marauding cats and dogs at bay.  The box had a flat roof so Archie could either sit in the entry hole or stand on the roof top.  Most of the time, he sat in the opening contentedly watching the other birds, visitors, and family activities.

12-year-old girl with 2-week-old screech owl (Otus asio)

Kelly with Archie (photo (c) Bill Beatty)

Archie was fed commercially formulated food known as “predatory bird diet” for about 3 weeks.  Then I announced it was time to introduce him to live mice for food to help him be ready to feed himself when he learned to fly.  In a period of 24 hours, we discovered two shocking things about Archie.  When I placed him on the floor and put a live mouse in front of him, instead of intently watching the mouse, clawing at it, or  pouncing on it like other owls did, Archie became wide-eyed, turned, and ran to the nearest corner of the room.  There he remained, cowering.  Archie was afraid of mice!  After supper that same day, we took Archie into the backyard for a flying lesson, as was our standard procedure.  The usual method was to toss an owl gently into the air.  Our rehab owls would spread their wings and gracelessly glide a short distance to  land awkwardly in the soft grass.  After repeating this process several times a day for three or four days, the owls made great progress in learning to fly.  When Archie, on the other hand, was gently tossed into the air, he opened his wings, and, in a panic, flew straight into the ground.  After several more attempts resulted in nose-dives straight into the ground I thought, “Archie is afraid of heights.  Now what?” Now we knew we had an owl who was afraid of mice and afraid of heights.

7 year old boy with 2-week-old screech owl (Otus asio)

Josh with Archie (photo (c) Bill Beatty)

His vulnerability made this young owl all the more endearing.  Another discovery that really surprised me was the range of foods he would eat.  One evening during supper, Archie was perched on a nearby cage while we were busily eating and talking about the events of the day.  One of the kids accidentally dropped a piece of a beet on the floor.  Archie jumped from the cage, ran over, picked up the beet, and swallowed it.

Archie likes beets!” Kelly said excitedly.

All of a sudden another small piece of beet was on the floor and Archie ate it, too.  “That’s enough,” I reprimanded.  “He may eat beets, but that doesn’t mean they are good for him.”

“Well, if beets aren’t good for us, why do we have to eat them?” Josh asked, thinking he had found a chink in the family rule that everyone ate anything we grew in the garden.

“Archie is not an us,” I answered, but someone quickly rebuked me:  “Archie IS one of us!”

The beet incident sparked a discussion which brought up a point that everyone needed to remember:  Archie, like every other owl we had helped, would one day be released back into the wild.  That sobering truth calmed everyone and we resumed eating.  Later we discovered that Archie would also eat green beans and watermelon.

Unfortunately Archie was not making good progress toward becoming releasable.  We were quickly approaching the 90 day point at which time, according to my rehabilitation permit, “Any owl not rehabilitated within 90 days is to be destroyed.”

Did Archie fit into this category?  Well, Archie had never been injured, so he wasn’t being rehabilitated from some kind of injury that prevented him from surviving in the wild.  So did that sentence apply to him?   I had never believed in keeping owls as pets, so I knew he would eventually need to be released when he had learned the skills to survive.  I didn’t want my children to view Archie as a pet and be emotionally crushed when the time came to release him.  I thought of this dilemma daily as we continued his survival skill training.

After a time, Archie would eat a dead mouse if it was offered in pieces.  Of course, it was my job to slice up the mouse.  Eventually, he learned to tear a dead mouse apart by himself, but he still ran away at the sight of a live mouse.  One morning I made a unilateral decision concerning Archie’s hunting skills.  Each morning before work I  placed Archie outside in the wood duck box.  Most days when I returned, he was just as I left him, comfortably sitting peering from the box.  I decided that this day would be different.  It was time for Archie to learn to deal with living prey.  One of my live traps had captured a short-tailed shrew, so I put the shrew in the bottom of the outdoor box, pushed Archie inside, and nailed a square piece of paneling over the entrance.  I told my wife what I had done and then left for work.  When I returned home that evening and saw the box with the covered entry hole, I remembered that this was Archie’s living prey day.   I put my ear near the box and even tapped the box several times.  There was no sound at all.  I was a bit concerned as I pried out the nails to remove the board.  The instant I removed the cover, a feathered ball of orange shot from the box as if fired from a cannon — it was Archie.  I picked him up and lifted him so he could sit in the entry hole, but he kept jumping to the ground.  I was certain he had eaten the shrew, but when I opened the front of the box, the shrew was running around inside, alive and well.

In a shocking moment of enlightenment I thought, “What have I done?  I put this poor owl through eight hours of its worst nightmare.”  Imagining myself locked in a darkened room for eight hours with a black mamba snake, I regretted what I had done.  More than a week passed before Archie would go into that box again.

Archie never cooperated in our attempted flight training exercises, but eventually he did begin gliding from his box to the ground every day about dusk.  He didn’t seem to mind when Bev scooped him up and brought him inside for the night.  Then he began to leave his box during the day and someone would find him on a nearby tree branch.  Bev called me at work one day and asked, “Archie’s on the neighbor’s porch roof.  What should I do?”

I replied, “Get a ladder and get him down or keep an eye on him and I will get him when I come home.”

Soon I regularly heard, Dad, Archie’s up in the tree,” or “Dad, Archie’s on the roof.”  Each time, I would retrieve him and place him back in the box.  Even though Archie frequently left the comfort of his box for a nearby lofty perch, we never did see him fly.

One day when we were all home, Julie said, “Archie’s out of the box again but I can’t see where he went.”  We all went out to search for him.  Finally, he was spotted high up in an 80-foot Norway spruce tree.

Kelly asked, “How are we going to get him down from there?”

“We aren’t,” I answered.  “He’s on his own.  We are going to have to say our goodbyes from here.”

Josh reacted by crying and yelling in despair over losing his companion.  We all were sad but had to accept the situation.  We were also glad, knowing that he was fulfilling the purpose for which he was created.  He had been with us for two years.  That was the last we would see of Archie.

Except, maybe, for me.  One day while checking owl boxes in the 14-acre woods, I was climbing a tree when a red phase EASO popped its head out and looked at me.

“That’s odd,” I thought, “That’s never happened before.”

Never before had an owl inside the box peered out at me.  As I climbed closer, the owl looked out at me again, then nervously looked around and flew out.  This happened one other time at a different box in the same woods.  Although I couldn’t be one hundred percent sure this owl was Archie, I thought, “Of course, it’s Archie.  He’s always been different.  He’s his own owl.”  I was able to reassure the family that Archie was alive and well, hunting and surviving on his own.

EASOs

Eastern Screech Owls (photos (c) Bill Beatty)

I studied these interesting and secretive birds for 28 years.  I learned many things about them and ended up with more questions to wonder about .  Now I monitor two nest boxes, occasionally do EASO surveys, and very rarely trap an EASO.  Eastern Screech-owls are my favorite bird.

In 2010 Jan and I did a Christmas Bird Count survey from midnight to dawn and found 27 EASOs in part of the count area.  In 2014 we were able to band our first EASO from one of the two nest boxes on our property and Jan was able to experience first-hand the amazingly soft feathers and the feeling of sharpened pins from the talons of an Eastern Screech-owl.

Eastern Screech-owl

Jan holding her first ever Eastern Screech-owl (photo (c) Bill Beatty)

Rainbows, Bluebirds and Buffleheads

MY NEW BOOK HAS JUST BEEN RELEASED!

When I teach, I tell stories about birds I’ve met and many of you have asked me to share my stories in writing.  I also am asked how I could manage to learn so much about birds.  Well, let me tell you a story…..

In Rainbows, Bluebirds and Buffleheads I share my favorite memories and stories about birds and how they changed my life.  You’ll meet the rainbow birds that started it all and some amazing people who helped me when I was a fledgling.  Midnight owl surveys…an avalanche of birds…Ralph-ael…bare-handing birds…pileated prowess…and so much more.

Finally I have answered your requests and am excited to share many of my birding life stories with you.

Enjoy!

6X9 inches 312 pages

Autographed copies are available for $18.95 plus $3.50 shipping.  West Virginia residents add $1.13 sales tax per book.  Not available outside the continental United States.  Mail check or money order to:  Bill Beatty, 540 Genteel Ridge Road, Wellsburg, WV  26070  Please make sure you include your shipping address.

Bill Beatty

Bill Beatty

 

Bluebirds and Blue Birds are not Blue!

Some may think, “If I see an Eastern Bluebird, I certainly see blue.”  Well, yes you do… and no you don’t.  It’s complicated!

Eastern Bluebirds nest on our property. We trap, band and release them. (c) Bill Beatty

My daughter, Julie, was active in Science Fair when she was in school.  In ninth grade her project was “Pigment and Structural Colors in Bird Feathers”.  Most birds’ feathers get their color from chemicals in the foods the birds eat.  Those foods provide different birds with different kinds of pigments in their feathers.  The pigments show color by absorbing some of the colors of the light spectrum and reflecting the other colors…we see the reflected colors.  Northern cardinals reflect red, therefore we see red; American goldfinches reflect yellow, Baltimore orioles reflect orange and so on.  The color blue is different, however.   Bluebirds do not reflect blue, yet we see blue.  There are truly no blue colored birds…anywhere.  The blue we see is not a reflective color from a blue pigment, rather a refractive color.  It’s physics and light playing tricks with our eyes.  For blue birds, instead of the light reflecting off the feathers and showing the color of the pigment, the light enters into the feather  and bends (refracts).  This refracted (not reflected) light is what we see.

Can you identify these ‘not really blue birds’ by their feathers? All are native to the United States. Answers are at the bottom of this page.  Click on the feathers to enlarge and then click again. (c) Bill Beatty

To study this, Julie gathered feathers from different kinds of dead birds we found along roadways.  Certain federal laws forbid collecting birds or any parts of birds, including feathers, but my Bird Banding Permit allowed me to salvage dead birds.   I already had several in our freezer.  With mortar and pestle Julie ground the red feathers of a cardinal with the resulting powder being a red color.  After grinding the feathers of a goldfinch, the powder was yellow.  The color resulting from oriole feathers was orange.  She destroyed the structure of the feathers but the pigments were still there and their respective colors did not change.  This showed that these birds’ colors resulted from the pigments in their feathers.  When she ground the eastern bluebird feathers into a powder, however, the powder was black.  This demonstrated that the bluebird’s color comes from the feather’s structure, not its pigment:  destroy the structure and the blue color disappears.

Every time I see a blue bird I’m thankful that nature has made a way for me to see the blue color that is not really there.  Nature is AMAZING!

For a more detailed explanation of how birds make colorful feathers, see – https://academy.allaboutbirds.org/how-birds-make-colorful-feathers/

Answers: Left-to-right… Bluejay, Blue-winged Teal, Cinnamon Teal, Eastern Bluebird, Mountain Bluebird, Wood Duck, Steller’s Jay

Hail, Hail the Gang’s All Here….Pine Siskins………by Jan Runyan

Raft of Ducks

Band of Jays

Vein, Treasury or Charm of Goldfinches (truly)

Exaltation of Larks

Murmuration of Starlings

Parliament of Owls (political commentary?)

Congress of Ravens (more political commentary?)

Siege of Herons

Ballet of Swans

Banditry of Chickadees

Herd of Wrens (really?)

Descent of Woodpeckers

Slurp of Sapsuckers

Asylum of Loons (yes, really)

Many kinds of birds have a special word to designate their flock, often a word that is appropriate in a subtle (or not so subtle) way. But for the species of bird Bill and I almost always see in flocks, there appears to be no group name. That’s a shame because on our property Pine Siskins are the ultimate flocking birds. There is never just one. If we think we only see one it’s just because we haven’t checked the bushes or trees nearby.

Bander holding Pine Siskin

Pine Siskin (Carduelis pinus) (Photo (c) Bill Beatty)

Siskins have been especially prevalent this late fall and early winter. We hear their rising “eeeeeeep” and chatters in the tops of the spruces along the driveway. We see the flock occupying every small perch in the top of the Black Locust. We futilely try to count the number of tiny black dots as they zip across the open sky. The count sometimes reaches two or three dozen before they are out of sight.

IMG_5400

Pine Siskin’s yellow wing patch (Photo (c) Bill Beatty)

 

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Pine Siskin’s yellow tail flash (Photo (c) Bill Beatty)

But we see the flocking compulsion most when we have the bird banding nets open. Just as they do everything else, Pine Siskins feed together. At times they almost cover our sunflower feeders. And they don’t seem to be net wary at all. So as the flock flies in to feed, many bounce off the nets and a few get caught. After a few moments in a tree or bush, the rest of the flock returns.

 

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Pine Siskin in net (Photo (c) Bill Beatty)

Some of the birds eat, but others just perch near their netted brothers and sisters. “I’m here for you,” the free birds seem to say. Some balance on the top string of the net. Others alight on the strings which run the length of the net forming the pockets. A few even grab hold of the netting near a captured friend and just hang there. Sometimes the net sitters will fly over to feed and then return again to sit watch near their buddies.

As the free Pine Siskins remain near the flock members who can’t fly away, it is inevitable that little by little more of the birds hit the net and fall into the pockets. So we also rarely band just one siskin. Sometimes the nets have more than a dozen at one time.

Pine Siskins in mist net (Photo (c) Bill Beatty)

If you are a Pine Siskin, it’s a group thing. Fly together, perch together, eat together, watch over each other, get banded together! Like the three Musketeers, it’s one for all and all for one!

So for loyalty above and beyond just the usual hanging out near each other, I think Pine Siskins deserve to have a special name for their flocks. I have searched the thesaurus extensively to find the word that truly conveys the level of closeness and concern evidenced by these birds. A word that goes beyond “acquaintance”, “familiarity” or “relationship”.  I would like to make two suggestions for consideration by those who are fascinated with birds and who would like to see Pine Siskins get their own appropriate group name:

a Friendship of Pine Siskins                             an Alliance of Pine Siskins

What do you think?

 

 

A Bluebird Brings Happiness…..by Jan

This morning as we were banding, Bill showed me just the head of a bird he was about to band and asked, “What is it?”

IMG_7984

(Photo (c) Jan Runyan)

This is one of the tests a “sub” bander gets from time to time. I could tell it was in the Thrush family, but I had to admit in the dim light of the garage I couldn’t tell which one. Then he revealed the tail. The bold sapphire color made it clear he was holding an Eastern Bluebird.

IMG_7985 tail

(Photo (c) Jan Runyan)

“Male or female?” was his next query. I smiled because that’s not hard to determine.

Then he showed me the back. Yes, the tail and rump were in-your-face azure like a male, but the back and wings….so much brown, so dull like a female.

IMG_7987

(Photo (c) Jan Runyan)

He definitely had me scratching my head over this ID. I felt pretty uneducated until Bill finally said, “I don’t know which it is, either!”

We dove into the bird banders’ guides. The differences they wrote about sounded pretty clear for older birds—maybe this could be a young one? The key seemed to be working pretty well until we came to these two entries for young birds:

“5A Wings, tail, head and back bright blue or, in winter, tinged with brown…..Male*.”

“5B Wings, tail, head and back bright blue, or, in winter, tinged brown…..Female*.”

Yes, the difference is just the word “with” and a comma.

The asterisks took us to a note below: “Some birds may be difficult to sex and should be sexed U if plumage characters are doubtful.”

Eastern Bluebird

Side-by-side seems pretty obvious, but a female by herself can sometimes be confusing.  (Photo (c) Bill Beatty)

I had to smile. We know so much information about birds. Sometimes the color of one tiny feather or subtle wear of feathers can speak volumes about a bird’s age. Sometimes the difference between deep black and brownish-black or between white and buffy-white tells the gender.

But yet there is still so much we don’t know. I am truly glad to live in a world where we don’t have all the answers and where there are still things to be searched for, studied and just plain wondered about. There is also happiness in not knowing…just enjoying the mystery.


 

Post Script: We finally labeled the bird as unknown sex, unknown age, which later caused the software which receives our bird banding data to say the electronic equivalent of, “What?! I don’t think so! Do you want to rethink this entry?”

 

 

Not GOLDFINCHY . . . . . . by Jan Runyan

“That bird doesn’t really look goldfinchy,” said a perplexed Bill.   “But I can’t tell what it is.” Bill had been keeping watch on the mist net near the back feeders as we swam and splashed in the pool with family members. Normally we just band birds in winter, so this was a trial to see what, if anything, we could discover by summer banding. It had been a good way to learn the looks of young birds and to get some practice at skulling—looking at the development of the skull bone as a way to identify hatch-year birds. Cardinals, Song Sparrows, Titmice, occasional Ruby-Throated Hummingbirds, lots of House Finches (banded and transported as part of our homing research), and Goldfinches had graced our nets and each one but the “hummers” left with a tiny numbered band on one leg.

All birders know the feeling of being able to identify some bird, not by seeing all the specific field marks, but by more of a gestalt–it just looks like that kind of bird. And more often than not, if we chase the bird to get a good look, we find we are right. Male American Goldfinches in their brilliant gold and black breeding plumage are some of the most beautiful and easily identifiable birds.

American Goldfinch in mist net

American Goldfinch in mist net (Photo (c) Bill Beatty)

But this bird in the net, while it was a dazzling yellow and about the right size, just did not look “goldfinchy” to Bill. He left the pool-yard, dripping, to retrieve our puzzle.

“So what is it?” I asked when he had the bird in hand. “I don’t know!” This was not the answer I expected. Bill doesn’t know what it is??? I made a towel-wrapped dash through the house to get Peterson’s Warblers and Sibley’s. We had to ID the bird correctly before Bill could band it.

We turned page after warbler page in Sibley’s looking for a warbler-sized bird with plain yellow on the belly from beak to the tip of the tail and a darker “greenish” color on top from the bill to the tip of the tail.

Yellow underside, greenish top

Yellow underside, greenish top (Photo (c) Jan Runyan)

 

 

The flight feathers of the wings and the tail feathers had multiple colors: pale black, yellow and “greenish”.

 

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Wing and tail colors (Photo (c) Jan Runyan)

It was strikingly colorful and plain at the same time.   Looking back and forth between several possibilities, we finally made a preliminary identification as a female Yellow Warbler although we could not see even faint rusty streaks on the breast.

Plain yellow breast (Photo (c) Jan Runyan)

Then I remembered—under-tail coverts! Looking at the color of feathers that cover the base of the tail on the underside of a bird and looking at the color, pattern and shape of tail feathers is one way to differentiate warbler species. And the Peterson Warblers guide has two pages showing all of the possibilities.

Undertail coverts and tail (Photo (c) Jan Runyan)

 

 

Scanning the 52 tail and covert feather options, it was clear that our preliminary identification was, indeed, correct. There wasn’t anything else with undertail coverts that looked like the bird in Bill’s hand.

 

 

 

Yellow Warbler female (Photo (c) Jan Runyan)

So we formally said “Hello” to our female Yellow Warbler—the first Yellow Warbler ever banded on our property, in fact, the first Yellow Warbler Bill or I had ever held or banded.

She got her tiny band, posed for some photos and soon was on her way. And as she departed, she left us a little something which, thankfully, landed just outside the edge of the pool.

Banding a Dinosaur

“If I tell you to…run as fast as you can out to the net and hold the net around the bird until I get there!!  Well, first I’d better give you some background:  On May 5 we decided to end our “winter” mist net bird banding season.  The next morning we left for the WV Wildflower Pilgrimage at Blackwater Falls State Park, followed immediately by a birding trip to Magee Marsh along Lake Erie near Oak Harbor, OH and then on to the Ralph Bell Birding Extravaganza near Waynesburg, PA.  Between Pilgrimage and Magee Marsh, I banded five baby Eastern Bluebirds from one of the nest boxes on our property.  After these trips Jan and I had two and a half weeks off before our next major trip.  While we gardened and did other outdoor jobs, we watched about a dozen House Finches visit the last sunflower seeds remaining in some of our feeders.  For the past five years we have been studying the House Finches’ homing skills by banding and relocating birds to different locations and distances from our home.  I decided to put up a mist net to catch as many of the House Finches as I could.  Ten were trapped, banded and added to the study.  The next day I left the net up thinking, “I’ll be working nearby and can check the net regularly.  By day’s end the seeds will be eaten and, who knows, perhaps we’ll catch something interesting.”  With most of the House Finches gone, it was a slow banding day.  But just after lunch I looked out back towards the net and said to Jan, “If I tell you to…run as fast as you can out to the net and hold the net around the bird until I get there!!”  Out the back door I ran screaming like a banshee toward the bird on the other side of the fence.  The Pileated Woodpecker feeding on a nearby stump flew right into the net and was caught.

Pileated Woodpecker on the stump between the house and a mist net. (c) Jan Runyan

SIDEBAR:  The reason Jan had to run to the net was because she was dressed and ready to go; I, on the other hand, was in my underwear and bare feet.  Taking a bird like this out of a mist net can take a while and cause quite a commotion.  Even though our neighbors aren’t all that close, in the past a screaming woodpecker has brought a neighbor to the net to see what we were doing.  Net-tending in my skivvies probably wouldn’t make for good neighbor relations.  

Jan was fast and was able to gather the net around the large bird until I could arrive (dressed) and help extricate him.

(c) Jan Runyan

Bill with Pileated Woodpecker

That Velociraptor look (c) Bill Beatty

Jan’s feathered dinosaur (c) Bill Beatty

This was only the second Pileated Woodpecker I have ever banded and it was Jan’s first.  It took both of us to control the bird for the banding process and photos afterwards.  As we marveled at the bird Jan said, “Doesn’t it just remind you of a tiny dinosaur?”  The Pileated has a remarkably long neck compared to all our other woodpeckers.  The regal head and crest, constantly moving lengthy neck, long-clawed legs and piercing stare reminded me of a miniature, colorful Velociraptor of Jurassic Park fame.  Unlike the first one I had caught and banded which produced a constant series of sharp calls and screams, this bird was very quiet.  The ear protectors I had brought as I hurried to the net were soon removed.  Jan and I were in awe of this creature; studying every detail and taking many photos.  The only photo I didn’t take was a shot of its extended tongue.  Because of the Pileated’s persistently moving, long, powerful neck and head I thought it might injure the bird if I attempted to pull the tongue out to full length.

The Pileated’s long, stiff tail feathers (c) Bill Beatty

The Pileated’s long, sharp claws (c) Bill Beatty

Photos accomplished, it was time to release the “tiny dinosaur”.  Jan coached me on how to use the video feature of her camera to record the occasion, then she opened her hands. Our new friend flew high on the trunk of the nearest Black Locust tree.  The last we saw him, he was hopping his way around to the back side of the trunk.

Later that day, from the mature woodlands behind our house, we could hear the familiar “jungle” bird call of the male Pileated we banded.  Click for the call…

http://www.audubon.org/sites/default/files/PILWOO_2.shortcalls_GAle_1.mp3?uuid=55637eac9a144

Welcome Home My Little Chickadee — by Jan

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

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

American Goldfinch Heaven

We are in the midst of American Goldfinch heaven.

American Goldfinch in Redbud tree (c) Bill Beatty

Every year at this time we are quite busy banding the spring migrants that come through.  Jan and I often refer to our property as “Goldfinch Ridge”.  For about two weeks the goldfinches are by far the most common birds in our mist nets.

Jan removing an American Goldfinch from a mist net. (c) Bill Beatty

However we are delighted at the surprise birds we also catch like yesterday’s (April 25) Ruby-crowned Kinglets , the first we have caught since moving here in 2010.

Ruby-crowned Kinglet (c) Bill Beatty

Since bird banding is weather dependent, when we have high winds and/or rainy days we can’t put out the nets and the birds at our feeders don’t get banded.  So far this spring the weather has cooperated.  Last Thursday, April 23, we trapped and banded 121 new birds.  Ninety-three were American Goldfinches.  As of today we have banded 344 goldfinches.  Our spring banding operations will end soon as we will be traveling to idyllic scenic areas in WV to lead bird walks and wilderness hikes, teach about wildflowers and speak at nature-related events.  As I write this Jan is playing in the gardens planting future meals in the raised beds and sunflowers (future meals for birds) in various places on the property…and keeping a watchful eye on the two mist nets set up to catch the birds migrating through toward their northern breeding grounds.

Return of the “Gold”finches….almost — by Jan

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?

IMG_5002

Am Goldfinch male showing spring molt (c) Jan Runyan

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Am Goldfinch male showing spring molt (c) Jan Runyan

 

AMGO female winter

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.

AMGO head with pin feathers circled

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

Am Goldfinch in breeding plumage (c) Bill Beatty

Three American Goldfinches

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:

http://www.sibleyguides.com/2012/05/the-annual-plumage-cycle-of-a-male-american-goldfinch/

Behold…the American Goldfinches are coming.

American Goldfinches (Spinus tristis) on bird feeder

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.