Category Archives: Bird Spotlights

Why I Decided to Volunteer at a Wildlife Rescue Clinic

I stumbled across a Time Off Community Support Grant Program application form at work one day and was surprised to learn that I could apply for a one-week grant of paid time off to support the community in which I work; this an important part of my company’s commitment to their employees and the community.

I perused the application to see what kind of information was requested and immediately started researching various local organizations that I might want to use my grant to volunteer with. And it didn’t take long before I answered that question: Wildlife Rescue Inc. of New Mexico! Why? Because they also have an intensive volunteer program to help injured or sick BIRDS!

I knew immediately that dedicating one week of service to this organization would dramatically improve my ability to care for the birds in our certified wildlife habitat. It would also give me a chance to volunteer for a cause I am passionate about and give back to my community. It seemed like a Win-Win situation so I submitted my application.

That was several weeks ago and am still waiting to hear the Board’s decision. In the meantime, I took a tour of the wildlife clinic (located at the Rio Grande Nature Center) a few weeks ago and began the open-book exam required for handling birds. I also attended the first training session just yesterday. With some other 100 individuals (of all ages), I spent 5 hours at the clinic learning about how the clinic operates and meeting some of their education birds. 

Just look at these amazing pictures.  These beautiful birds were all rescued by the organization, but are not releasable into the wild due to some permanent injury.  Because the organization has a permit to hold birds for education purposes, these birds live at the clinic and are used for educating the public about co-existing with local wildlife and what to do if an animal or bird is injured or sick.

I was impressed by the complexity of the organization and all that goes on behind the scenes to protect our local wildlife and birds!  More importantly, I was impressed to learn that this organization is 100% supported by volunteers.  There are no paid staff. (Wow!)

I’m waiting to hear the results of my open-book exam and am hoping I pass with flying colors because next Saturday I will attend the hands-on training session at the clinic. I can’t wait!

And, I’m curious, as a bird-lover, where do YOU volunteer and what’s been YOUR experience?

 

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Winter Love: The White-Winged Dove

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Known for its blue “eye shadow”, bright orange eyes, and iridescent face, this dove has become a familiar sight across the southern United States.

In our backyard, this beauty is a sight for sore eyes!  I’ve only ever seen one or two at a time, and usually during the winter months.  I think this one found us because of our birdbath and solar pump.  Did you know?  Birds can hear the sound of moving water?

In flight, its subdued white-edged wings become flashing crescents, worthy of the bird’s name.

Ordinarily found in desert habitats in the Southwest, this dove often visits backyards, particularly those with feeders and birdbaths.  (See what I mean about the birdbaths?)

Individuals wander widely and irregularly across the continent after the breeding season is over, explaining the occasional lone dove at higher elevations.  That’s our dove… the lone dove at our high elevation (7600′ in altitude).

Interesting Fact: Male and female doves mate for life and are very good companions for each other.  I’m hoping ours finds a mate.

The Siskins have Arrived!

Signaling the arrival of winter, Pine Siskins are a “winter finch” that live in the pine forests of Canada during the summer months and migrate south during the winter in search of pinecones, seeds and berries.  Well, they arrived in droves at our house in New Mexico this month!

 These gorgeous birds are easily spotted in our backyard clinging to the ends of conifer branches, even upside down, to feed at cones.

This year we have one in particular that is larger than the rest of them. After a little online research I learned that these birds have a tendency to become considerably more plump through accumulation of fat with the onset of winter temperatures. Did you know? Each bird can pack enough seeds into its expandable esophagus to sustain itself for an extra five hours overnight, especially when temperatures are below zero degrees. (Yeah, I found this little tidbit difficult to swallow too. Lol).

Pine Siskins prefer coniferous or mixed coniferous and deciduous forests with open canopies (which explains why they like our place!) and they are opportunistic and adaptable in their search for food. They’ll forage in weedy fields, scrubby thickets, or backyards and gardens. They’ll also flock around feeders, especially thistle feeders, in woodlands and suburbs.

If you want to attract these beauties to your backyard:

  • Clear snow and ice away from feeders to provide open ground so they can forage on seeds dropped beneath the feeders
  • Clear snow under shrubs and near the house on the south and east sides to give them a place to seek shelter
  • Place feeders near sheltered areas to prevent wind exposure while providing protection against predators (like hawks)
  • Attract birds with thistle or near, along with other small seeds such as millet or hulled sunflower seeds
  • Watch for them around whole sunflower seed feeders
  • They will occasionally eat suet

Pine Siskins are one of my favorite birds to watch, and especially because they spread their wings wide to intimidate other siskins at feeders. They don’t realize this, but in doing so, they show off beautiful subtle yellow edgings on their wings and tails. It’s just gorgeous to see.

And Pine Siskin can survive more than 9 years in the wild. (Nice!)

 

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This is No Ordinary Junco

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Leucistic Junco 1I thought for sure I was looking at a new bird species, another one to add to my Life List!  But as I thumbed through my field guides and checked out photos online, I couldn’t identify this one. It was the size of a junco. It had the white stripes on its tail feathers, like a junco. And it foraged for food on the ground just like all the other juncos. After closer examination, I determined that it was indeed a junco, just no ordinary junco.

Leucistic Junco 2Leucistic birds are normal bird species that are missing some of the pigment in their feathers. Unlike albino birds, which have all or partially white plumage, leucistic birds have extra-pale plumage. While related to albinism, Leucism is the condition of the normal pigmentation being diluted rather than lacking in pigmentation altogether.  Birds with this condition have plumage that is lighter than normal, but not pure white.

Yes, this was my bird! It looked like a common junco everywhere, except the head had extra-pale plumage, making it almost unrecognizable.

A genetic mutation that prevents pigment, Leucism is especially noticeable on birds with black or brown feathers, as in the case of this junco. Notice the bleached splotches on this one’s face.

Unfortunately, leucistic birds may have a more difficult time in the wild as they may be more visible to predators and less attractive to potential mates. (Awe.)

Leucism is rare in birds so I considered this a special find, and while I worried for her upon reading about her potential challenges, I take great joy in knowing that she thinks she’s just fine. She’s been happily flitting about in my backyard for several weeks now and doesn’t seem to be bothered by her condition. Seems like she doesn’t even notice. And, I’m certainly not going to tell her.

Here, Leucy! You’ll like these sunflower seeds. Come n’ get em!   (Yep, I named her Leucy).

 

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Beautiful Blues of the West – The Western Scrub Jay

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One of my favorite birds on out mountain in New Mexico and roughly 11 inches in length, the Western Scrub Jay is the ONLY ONE OF TWO large blue birds without a crest in the western United States, the other being a Pinon Jay.  Sporting a gorgeous blue head, wings, tail and breast band, they have a brownish patch on their back along with a dull white chin, breast, and belly.  They also have a remarkably long tail.

Tijeras Scrub Jayb  Tijeras Jay 3  Field Pic 1 NM Blue Jay 6  NM Blue Jay 5  NM Blue Jay 4  DSC_1705  NM Blue Jay 3  DSC_1755 (2)  DSC_0019 (2)

 

These birds are found in pinon-juniper woodland and also backyards, pastures, and orchards. They are usually observed at lower and drier habitats than Steller’s Jays, although not always.  In fact, recently, I’ve seen more of the Western Scrub Jays than the Steller’s Jay at our little slice of heaven up at 7600 feet in altitude.

Scrub Jays store their food by burying it for later consumption and are believed to be a significant distributor of oaks and pines as a result of not returning to eat the seeds they previously buried.

Interesting Fact: Scrub Jays, upon finding a dead jay, will appear to have a “funeral” by screeching over the body and attracting other jays.

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Keeping an Eye out for this Threatened Song Bird

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As I prepared for my trip back to our little slice of heaven in New Mexico, I decided to scout out a few new birding sites to visit while I’m there. It wasn’t long before I stumbled across the Gray Vireo Recovery Plan by the New Mexico Dept. of Game & Fish. Interestingly, between 2007 and 2009 there was great interest in this sweet little songbird because it is considered a threatened species.

The Gray Vireo (featured above courtesy of NM Dept. of Game & Fish) is typically found in the dry foothills and bajadas west of the Great Plains in New Mexico, and is associated with juniper, pinon pine, and oak trees – all of which are highly abundant on our property. Unfortunately, the distribution of this species is patchy at best, with 80% of the known sites found in twelve main areas in the state. As of 2006, observations estimated only 418 Gray Vireo territories, placing this bird on the threatened species list. Primary threats include vulnerability due to its small population sizes and habitats, specifically from the alteration of nesting trees and brood parasitism by cowbirds.  Additionally, Loggerhead Shrikes have been suggested as a potential predator, with other specifies praying on eggs or nestlings, including snakes, Western Scrub-Jays, Mexican jays, Northern mockingbirds, chipmunks, and coyotes.

Goodness! Our habitat is home to all of these at any given time.

But habitat alteration remains the primary threat and includes juniper control, firewood collection, removal of trees to facilitate oil/gas production… and fires!

Now, I’m immediately reminded of the 18,000 acres lost to the Dog Head fire in June. Yikes!

A follow up to this initiative was published in 2008 with a consensus indicating that “Gray Vireos might still be locally common, and even numerous in limited areas, but we should not underestimate current and future threats in occupied habitats.”

The Audubon Society of New Mexico also regards the Gray Vireo as “climate threatened.”

In the meantime, this sweet songster is known to arrive in New Mexico in April for breeding, and breeds through August before migrating to its wintering grounds in September. Since it’s now just early August, I’m keeping my eyes peeled for one of these beauties.  While they may be regarded as a “drab summer resident” because of their dull gray coloring, they are noted for their vibrant personality and song.  It would be exciting to spot one of these songbirds in my backyard.  I might even have to make a call to the NM Dept. of Game & Fish and report it.

Wish me luck!

 

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The Ugly Duckling of Cardinals

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Seeing this sweet girl for the first time nearly broke my heart! I just froze as I watched her eat at my feeder, trying to figure out what had happened to her. Poor girl.

Convinced she was ill and had some sort of disease, I started my online research for an answer, only to discover that this phenomenon is somewhat of a mystery.

I’ve seen three theories about these bald cardinals:

  1. The birds have mites that they can’t reach on their own heads, and the mites are chewing the feathers away
  2. The birds are molting and new feathers will grow back before winter sets in
  3. Poor nutrition, usually from a threatened habitat making food sources scare, has caused feather loss

DSC_0078bI’m hoping it’s theory #2, which makes sense to me. Once a feather has grown to full size, it is no longer connected to the blood supply.  So, each bird must get a new set of feathers every year; this is what they call molting.

I’ve only seen this one cardinal effected by this phenomenon, but I’ve read that it can also happen among blue jays and the common grackle. And apparently, it’s only adults and a small percentage of the species that experience this condition.  It also just happens to show up in the summer.

Weird, right?

And sad, when you think that the female whose lost her feathers may have difficulty attracting a mate. But I did the happy dance for her last night when I saw a striking male feed her, which I assumed was part of his mating ritual.  She may be the ugly duckling of cardinals, but he still thinks she’s fine.

You go girl!

 

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Where Did My Hummingbirds Go?

As I watch my fellow birders post their most gorgeous hummingbird pictures on Facebook, I’m disappointed that I haven’t seen any in my backyard in Houston, Texas. This is a surprise especially because hummingbirds are the second largest bird family in the world, with 18 of the world’s 320 species right here in the United States.  In Texas, birdwatchers can regularly view 9 hummingbird species along with 6 more that visit the state infrequently.  So, why haven’t I seen them yet in my yard?

Here’s why…

The SPRING MIGRATION can be hard on hummingbirds as they move north from their winter homes in southern Mexico and Central America. Stops along the way may be for only a few minutes, or a few days at locations with abundant food supplies. First arrivals in the spring can be seen in Texas, Louisiana, and other sites along the Gulf Coast in late January to mid-March.

Well, that explains a lot! I wasn’t ready for hummingbirds that early in the year, so they didn’t stop at my house for food. I didn’t have any out for them. Sigh. My loss.

The FALL MIGRATION takes place in August and September, when hummingbirds are moving south to refuel in the early morning so they can travel midday and forage again in the later afternoon.

So, I missed the spring migration, and I’m early for the summer activity. Hmm.  I’m in between the seasons here in Houston.  And, that gives me time to gear up in supplies and be ready for the migration peak in September.  In fact, I remember last year seeing a few stragglers well into October.

And, they may be a little early this year, as my husband and I spent a few days in Rio Rancho, New Mexico last week and the hummingbird feeders strategically placed throughout the resort we stayed at were well attended!

DSC_0188The black-chinned hummingbirds featured here are exceptionally widespread, from deserts to mountain forests. And while many winter along the Gulf Coast, this little guy is a habitat generalist, found in lowland deserts and mountainous forests, in addition to natural habitats and very urbanized areas adorned with tall trees and flowering shrubs and vines.DSC_0196

They can be observed along good stretches of some Southern Arizona and New Mexico rivers, where nests are often spotted every 100 meters or so. In the Southwest, they are most common in canyons and along rivers. In arid areas, you can find them near cottonwood, sycamore, willow, and oak trees. Considered the most adaptable of all hummingbird species, individuals rarely remain longer than one day at a feeder during migration, event when food is scarce.

And, did you know? The oldest known black-chinned hummer was a female, at least 11 years and 2 months old, when it was recaptured and rereleased during banding operations in Texas.

Impressive. Everyone say it together, “Wow.”

 

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Happy as a… Finch?

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Oh he is beautiful, donning his gorgeous red cap and bib, and ready to dine at the finest table in our restaurant! And he is such a good sport about sharing his table after the other seats have all been taken. He isn’t deterred when the yellow-bellied woodpecker takes a seat on the opposite side. He doesn’t flinch when the male cardinal swoops in for a quick nibble. He doesn’t even run off when two white-winged doves land just overhead, obviously trying to intimidate the little fellow into leaving his plate for them.

No, not this guy! He holds his own and dines until he’s had enough. And if he IS booted out of his chair, he waits nearby patiently, only to return after the bully has gone.

And since I don’t have larks at my house, happy as a finch is a perfectly appropriate phrase.

The House Finch is known for eating almost exclusively plant materials, including seeds, buds, and fruit. Wild foods on this guy’s menu include mustard seeds, knotweed, mulberry, cactus, poison oak (really?), sunflower seeds, and of course thistle.

But did you know? The red or yellow color of a male House Finch comes from pigments that it gets in its food. The more pigment in the food, the redder the male.

This is important when pairing up with partners because females prefer to mate with the reddest male they can find.

That explains why the female I’ve seen with this guy rarely leaves his side.  She’s definitely staying by her man!

The House Finch is also highly social and rarely seen alone outside of the breeding season. I haven’t seen flocks of them in my yard, but I’ve noticed a single pair dining together most of the time. They even brought a friend over for dinner the other day. And, males are known to feed females during courtship in a display that begins with the female gently pecking at his bill and fluttering her wings, a ritual I have not yet observed personally. This activity stimulates the male to regurgitate his food for feeding to her.

Also, the House Finch is a more recent bird species to the US and a focal species for the Celebrate Urban Birds! project. Take time to learn about this project and conduct a 10-minute count and record whether or not you see finches. I added my data just this morning! Look for these finches near your home, on nesting platforms, and at your feeders.

Oh, there he is again! Gotta run! Where’s my camera…

 

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Mourning of the Pine Siskin

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One of the pine siskins in our backyard flew into our window and died.

We still get snow at our house in New Mexico in March, and my heart sank as I watched the flakes gently blanket its lifeless body.

It was my fault.

That’s what I get for encouraging them. The birds.

That’s what happens because I want to attract them to my home so I can take pictures of them and study them and draw them into my daily life.

I was suddenly overcome with feelings of guilt and shame. I felt helpless as I stood over the dead bird.  A tear dropped straight down as if to kiss the sweet bird goodbye.

Our backyard birds are just beautiful, and I’ve taken great care to place our feeders close enough to the windows so that if any bird flies into the window it shouldn’t be hard enough to result in their death. But, it does happen on occasion.

This was one such occasion and it broke my heart.

Then, out of nowhere, I got this crazy idea and I blurted out to my husband, “Would it be weird to collect the bird and have it stuffed by a taxidermist? It is such a pretty bird and I could put it out on display here at the cabin.”

Finch Fight 2He gave me that look. The look that indicates he has no response for such an absurd idea.

But I’m not so sure it was an absurd idea.

The pine siskin is in fact a beautiful bird. Yes, they monopolize my thistle feeders.  Yes, they can eat me out of house and home.  But their brown streaked acrobatic flashes of yellow are fascinating to watch as they flutter in between feeders.  And, I’m grateful to have them visit my backyard as they are known to range widely and erratically across the country each winter in response to seed crops.  Only God knows how long they’ll stick around.

A few hours later I headed out into the flurry – snowflakes and birds fluttered alike – and I refilled the feeders. Another oncoming storm meant more birds would be coming and that picked up my spirits . . .  in spite of the day’s loss.


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