Sunday, August 26, 2012

Black-headed Grosbeak


The Black-headed Grosbeak (Pheucticus melanocephalus) in the Cardinal family is one of our summer birds.  They breed in all of the western U.S. states and southern British Columbia, but spend their winters in Mexico.  Males are handsome devils, with orange breast and neck, black mask and a tortoise shell pattern on the wings and back.


Melanocephalus literally means "black headed" in Greek, but this refers specifically to the male's coloring.  Female and juvenile Black-headed Grosbeaks have paler buff undersides and white eyebrow stripes.  A thick bill is designed for cracking open seeds. They also like insects, spiders, fruits and berries.  They are one of the few birds that can feed on the Monarch Butterfly in their Mexican wintering grounds.  Monarchs accumulate noxious chemicals in their bodies from their milkweed diet that most birds avoid.


Locally, these birds can be attracted to feeders with suet, safflower seed, apple slices and peanuts.  They prefer a forest edge habitat that includes broad-leaved trees and shrubs.  I never see them venturing into open areas.  To make them feel at ease, place feeders near cover where they can easily escape.  Above, a female feeds suet to a juvenile.  I often see baby birds of all sorts begging from adults at the feeders.  In the right photo, one male is flaring his tail.  Is this a confrontation display towards the other male?


Black-headed Grosbeaks also prefer habitat near lakes, streams and wetlands.  Be sure to provide sources of water in you wildlife garden.  Even a small birdbath seems to attract them.


These juveniles, born this season, are already enjoying a good bath on a warm summer day.  With a bit of yellow under-wing showing in the right photo, I think this could be a young male.  If they are nesting in the yard, they are keeping it a secret from me.  The Red Alders in the small, wooded wetland across the road may be more to their liking.


A scruffy look and incomplete wing feathers are signs of a juvenile bird.  I am seeing mostly juveniles at the BirdCam birdbath station.


Is this another confrontation?  This time I think the other bird is a baby Starling.  It's something about the bill, but I could be wrong.  It doesn't surprise me to see aggression, even in a baby Starling.  No, I don't like them.

UPDATE:  Dan Huber suggests the Grosbeak is feeding a Cowbird chick in the photo.  This is interesting because it is well known that Cowbirds don't raise their own young.  They lay their eggs in other birds' nests.  This makes the photo more fascinating for me.  I do see Brown-headed Cowbirds in the yard, but not often, and I have never seen a youngster.  I see them more frequently driving to work through the open Skagit Valley farm lands.  Thank you Dan for this information.


Bold and colorful, this male Black-headed Grosbeak, photographed in July, is in prime breeding condition.  These large, stocky finch-like birds are some of the rewards for maintaining a wildlife garden.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

BirdCam Weekend


Dies caniculares, the dog days of summer have provided warm, sultry temperatures to South Fidalgo Island.  After a week of hot weather, the weekend brought overcast skies and a cool down.  Activity at the two BirdCam stations brings the usual late summer pattern.  A lot of juveniles are making their debuts while summer and year-around residents are looking a bit past their prime.  In the morning twilight, an oregonus Spotted Towhee male enjoys some suet for breakfast at BirdCam Two.  In early morning and evening, I would hear calls that resembled a coach's whistle coming from the trees.  I finally figured out it was one of the Spotted Towhee's vocalizations.


A group of Chestnut-backed Chickadees is called a banditry.  These little guys are bold and energetic and their visits come with a lot of chatter.  I get dozens of them in the Madrona trees where they forage for spiders and insects.


The Black-headed Grosbeak is our only member of the Cardinal family.  The name actually describes the male's plumage.  I am seeing females and juveniles at both BirdCam stations every day, but no adult males have appeared recently.  These are common summer birds here that spend their winters in Mexico.


Identified by a gimpy toe on the right foot, we have seen this Steller's Jay here before.  These Corvids are active, intelligent birds that don't miss a thing in their territory.  I am certain they have peanut radar.  When I hear hawks calling from the Douglas Firs, I am not fooled one bit.  I know it's a Steller's Jay performing one of its tricks.


Northern Flickers are year-around residents of South Fidalgo Island.  They have been drumming on the house all weekend.  In the spring they drum on the metal cap of my fireplace chimney to attract mates.  This time of year, I think they do it because it's fun.  They cause no damage, as far as I can tell, and the noises tell me they are comfortable visiting the yard.  The red mustache mark identifies a red-shafted male.  Our yellow-shafted males and red/yellow hybrids have a black mustache.


I have been using pepper suet in the feeders, and this has solved my Eastern Gray Squirrel problem.  Unfortunately, the European Starlings are not repelled by it.  They can come in swarms and polish off a cake in a few hours.  My only recourse is to leave the feeder empty for a few days until they move on.  This juvenile is as greedy and rapacious as the adults.  No, I don't like them.


On the other hand, the Northwestern Crow is a delight, and a bird I never expected to catch at a BirdCam station.  But then, why not?  Another crafty Corvid, they have successfully learned to coexist with humans.  Having evolved alongside people, they maintain a special connection with us.  In the book, In the Company of Crows and Ravens, UW researchers beautifully describe this amazing relationship.


Another Red-shafted Northern Flicker, this time a female, is accompanied by a European Starling adult.


A Black-headed Grosbeak joins the Northern Flicker.  Both are birds of the forest edge habitat.


Groups of Chestnut-backed Chickadees like this are not always congenial.  I have caught them scrapping in BirdCam photos.  They will even take on much bigger birds, like the Starlings, if they have to.  Go Chickadee!

Species List

Monday, August 13, 2012

Narcissus at the BirdCam


The BirdCam catches a Townsend's Chipmunk (Tamias townsendii) getting a drink at the birdbath station.  He pauses to admire his reflection in the water evoking the story of Narcissus from Greek Mythology.

Caravaggio [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
When Narcissus saw his reflection in a pool, he fell in love with it.  He lingered there admiring his own image until he died.


My little friend is not as vain as the guy in the Greek legend, but he seems to enjoy having his picture taken.  Their photos have been captured at the BirdCam stations several times.  Townsend's Chipmunks are year-around residents on South Fidalgo and are active through the winter here.  Where winters are colder, they will hibernate in their underground burrows.

Oregon State University provides some tips for attracting them to the wildlife garden.  Give them a source of water, some brush piles, rock piles, rotten logs and dense plantings for cover.  They enjoy berries, Salal fruits, conifer seeds, maple seeds and the same high quality seeds we provide in bird feeders.  Because of their habit of burying seeds, they are effective tree planters.  These charming visitors are fearless little guys.  If they feel safe, they will come right up to people to get what they want.


Townsend's Chipmunks were first described by Europeans during the Lewis and Clark Expedition.  The species is named for John Kirk Townsend, a nineteenth century ornithologist and wildlife explorer.  There are several species that bear his name including Townsend's Mole and Townsend's Warbler.