The Great Backyard Bird Count 2019

The 22nd annual Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC) started Friday, February 15, through Monday, February 18, 2019. Visit the official website at birdcount.org for more information or The Audubon Society but continue here for the event highlights:

I love feeding and observing what happens right outside my window
I love feeding and observing what happens right outside my window

A citizen science event that engages bird watchers of all ages in counting birds to create a real-time snapshot of bird populations, the GBBC is a great activity for kids and adults. Participants are asked to count birds for as little as 15 minutes (or as long as they wish) on one or more days of the four-day event and report their sightings online at birdcount.org. Anyone can take part in the Great Backyard Bird Count, from beginning bird watchers to experts, and you can participate from your backyard, balcony, or anywhere in the world. Sounds easy… and no stress? Just count your bird sightings for 15 minutes and you have contributed to the backyard bird statistics that scientist use for their research.

Falcon
Falcon

Citizen Science is trendy now for good reason. People feel empowered when they can contribute to the data base that scientists from all over the world can use in their studies of bird migrations. And what better research than backyard bird behaviors and numbers? This part of the natural world is very visible and of interest to many people.

Bird feeding in winter
Bird feeding in winter

Observe Birds that Visit Your Feeders

We are a nation of “bird feeders”! More than 52 million Americans feed wild birds or other wildlife around their homes according to The Bird Watching Daily.  Some statistics:  “Two-thirds are women, and nearly 60 percent were between the ages of 45 and 64. On average, participants had been feeding birds for 18 years”. Wanting to bring nature, therapy, education, and beauty to their backyard, many bird feeders are passionate about birds and spend big bucks on this multi-million industry. Suet, nectar feeding, bird feeders, houses, and baths can be added to this list along with the more mundane birdseed.

Red headed woodpecker in my bird feeder
Red Bellied Woodpecker in my bird feeder

Another important fact on The Bird Watching Daily: “Participation in the wild-bird-feeding hobby” they write, “may be an excellent catalyst for engagement in greater levels of outdoor recreation and greater stewardship of the natural world.” Amen! We need more outdoor appreciation and engagement of our natural world in this digital age. Go to my post on Extreme Weather Strategies for Feeding Birds. I include tips on winter feeding and recipes for suet.

You might be luck enough to spot a snowy owl!
You might be lucky enough to spot a snowy owl!

How to Count The Birds

  • Count birds anywhere you want. Inside observing your bird feeder, or outside on a hike or a park stroll for at least 15 minutes. Keep track of the numbers and species and the time length.
  • Make an estimate of how many birds you saw of each species. Flocks of birds are tough, but use your best guess.
  • Enter your list online at BirdCount.0rg, after first establishing an account. You can start recording your bird sightings at midnight local time on the first day of the count from anywhere in the world.
Turkey vultures are the ugly but necessary scavengers of the animal world
Turkey vultures are the ugly but necessary scavengers of the animal world
  • When you enter your information, you will see a list of birds that could be in your area in February. If the bird you see is unusual, there is a checklist of “rare species” that you can use. Compiled by local bird experts, bird lists should be comprehensive. But if you enter a species of an unusual bird, you get a message asking you to confirm the report and another check box will come up.
    Ducks count too!
    Ducks count too!

    All of these unusual sightings go to a volunteer in the area who reviews these reports and who might even contact you to get more details. Adding photos is especially important for unusual species.

Cardinal
Cardinal

Why?

Bird populations are always shifting and changing and in 2014, Snowy Owl sightings spiked in the northeast and mid-Atlantic, which were recorded on the GBBC. Like a bellwether, climate changes such as warming weather also shows up in these bird counts. More southerly birds are migrating further north, or birds are changing their routes, shortening or completely cancelling their journey as a result of changing temperatures.

Barn Owl
Barn Owl

Some birds, such as winter finches, appear in large numbers during some years but not other species. Scientists can learn from the different patterns exhibited from year to year.

Eastern Screech Owl
Eastern Screech Owl

An estimated 163,763 bird watchers from more than 130 countries participated in the GBBC in 2016, with the U.S. the top participant followed by Canada and India. To see the summary of results for 2016, go to GBBC Summary for 2016 and see the top sighted birds. Even if you can’t identify all your birds that you have observed, if you look at these lists and photos, you are sure to spot your birds. And if you participate, you are adding to the vast trove of data needed to study bird populations around the world.

Not seen in February in my state of Maryland, the ruby throated hummingbird could be seen in California
Not seen in February in my state of Maryland, the ruby-throated hummingbird could be seen in California at this time of year
I love observing and photographing Peacocks, but like chickens, they are a domesticated bird
I love observing and photographing Peacocks, but like chickens, they are a domesticated bird

Extreme Weather Strategies for Birds

Birds at my triple tube feeder
Cardinals cluster on a snowy day

Birds have many strategies to survive without our help but as a concerned birder, I like to think that my feeding them nutritious food tips the balance in their favor during extreme weather.  Mortality during extremely cold weather is much greater for birds and it has been proven that bird survival improves with ready access to backyard feeders.

Hawks prey on birds at feeders

Predation of birds will occur at your feeders and is the way nature happens. Hawks and other prey birds have to kill and eat one to three other birds or rodents a day to survive. Your best strategy is to provide cover such as hedges or shrubs near your feeders so that feeding birds have somewhere to shelter if a hawk comes hunting.

Sometimes you just see a streak plunging through the sky when a hawk appears and all the songbirds scatter for cover. Flocks of crows will also descend on my feeders and empty them out. If I see them I let my dogs out to chase them away. The same for squirrels…. I don’t mind squirrels raiding the feeders once in a while and my dogs make sure they keep their visits to a minimum.

Cardinals are regular visitors

Top Three Strategies

Shelter

Evergreen trees provide the best place for a roosting bird to hide from predators. An alternative to planting coniferous trees is building a brush pile of repurposed branches and debris from your yard.  Gather branches, moss, and other yard debris pile them up in a sheltered corner. Birds like to hide and settle in these brushy havens.  I have a meadow with towering spent goldenrod and other wildflowers that over the course of the winter tends to flop over and create hidden pockets for animals to find sanctuary in.

Thickets of goldenrod in my meadow create pockets for birds to take shelter 

Re-purpose your old Christmas tree as an instant shelter. Put up old plywood sheets as a windbreak. Keep up old birdhouses/nesting boxes over the winter which allows birds a safe haven from weather also. Empty the old nesting materials and place old cotton, scraps of fabric and yarn into the cavity.

I have reused an old planter as a smorgasbord with pine cones smeared with peanut butter, wool for nests, and millet branches
I have reused an old planter as a smorgasbord with pine cones smeared with peanut butter, wool for nests, broom seeds, and millet branches

Placing your feeders close to shelter, evergreen and deciduous, allows birds to perch and zoom in on the feeder when it is safe.

A fluffed up Bluebird is perching in a nearby tree close to my feeders

Birds in extreme cold puff up their feathers in order to trap more air in them, which is then warmed by their body heat and keeps them warmer.

Fluffy Cardinal perched in a tree overhanging my feeder

Fresh Water

Birds more than any other time of year need fresh water in the winter. It is a precious commodity and if you provide it, birds will take advantage. The cheapest way is to buy a heated dog bowl. Simple but effective.

My pond is almost frozen but the waterfall is still running and I find birds hopping in the running water.

The birds can still access water in my waterfall

I also have a pond de-icer to keep a ring of water free around the unit. An alternative is to buy a bird bath heater to keep the ice away in your bird bath. Even if you put out a bowl of water, in this weather, the water freezes very quickly, and a heater is a must have.

Place a rock in your bird bath for birds to perch on

Set the Table with High Fat Food

If done right, feeding birds can be very beneficial, both for the bird and bird watching friends. Make sure your seed is high and dry. A hopper or tube feeder keeps the food dry and free flowing. I use a high capacity triple tube feeder to lessen my trips to fill it up. Peanut feeders, suet feeders, and platform feeders are all options to increase your odds of attracting the largest variety. Think fatty things! After cutting fat off of a chuck steak, I placed the chunks on a platform feeder and it was gone in a few days. Meat scraps, meal worms, peanuts, suet, and peanut butter are all healthy options for a high fat diet.

Homemade suet- see my recipe below

Also, don’t forget to have clean, bleached (one part bleach to nine parts water) bird feeders ready to go when your old ones get all soggy from precipitation. Scatter seed at the edge of woods, under hedges, and in brambles to encourage shy birds to eat, especially in snow covered areas.  Some birds won’t venture to feeders and compete with others.

High fat smorgasbord- meal worms, sunflower seeds, beef fat, and sunflower seeds
A starling on a suet cage
Woodpeckers use their long pointed beaks to dig out suet

Suet is easy to prepare and you can add lots of types of seeds and berries to improve over bought varieties.

Suet Recipe

Peanut Butter Bird Suet

This makes a simple high fat suet cake that you cut up to make any size or shape. I use lard or beef suet for the fat. Lard is easier to find. I also throw in many additions like raisins, sunflower seeds, nuts, etc.   

Ingredients

  • 2 C Crunchy Peanut Butter
  • 2 C Lard or Beef Fat
  • 4 C Oatmeal
  • 4 C Corn Meal
  • 2 C Flour, white of whole wheat
  • 2/3 C Sugar, brown or white

Instructions

  1. Melt lard and peanut butter in a dutch oven. 

  2. Stir in the remaining ingredients. The mixture will be very stiff. 
  3. Spoon into a 9 x13 glass casserole or disposable aluminum pan and spread flat. When hard, cut into squares and you can store any excess in the freezer.
Suet supplies
Melt suet and peanut butter in a large saucepan
Stir in dry ingredients
Spread mixture in pan to harden completely
Put in refrigerator to harden completely and cut into chunks; I added raisins to this batch

These strategies don’t cost you much but on those nights when the wind blows icy cold and the snow swirls around, our feathered friends will be puffed up and cozy in the shelters that we provided, well-nourished and hydrated. To read more about Bird Buffets go to my post Berry Bird Buffet.

Dueling birds

When Not to Kill a Hornworm

Hornworm on a pepper plant leaf

 

Tomato Hornworms are really big green caterpillars that can munch through and devastate your vegetable  garden. Giant brown moths lay pearl-like eggs on your tomato, pepper, or eggplant,  from which the big green monsters will hatch and start to eat voraciously. The juicy grass-green caterpillars can strip a plant overnight and then start demolishing the fruit.

Tomato hornworm on tomato plant

Frass & Defoliation

Most of the time I spot the signs of a hornworm before I see the actual caterpillar. The first things you will notice about a hornworms presence is denuded branches and fruits with huge sections eaten out of them. Hornworms love to eat foliage and since they are such large caterpillars, they have a big appetite which means they poop alot. Another sign is bits of frass (droppings) on the lower leaves or on the ground which are black.

Getting Rid of Hornworms

Handpicking is the best way to get rid of these nasty green monsters, but I avoid touching them. With repulsive juicy caterpillars, gloves are the best option as the caterpillars usually have a death grip on the foliage and they are difficult to pick off. Once free, I stomp on these gross pests. Or feed them to the chickens for a juicy treat!

Beneficials

Beneficials are just that: Insects that are doing their job and preying on other harmful insects that makes your job a bit easier. For example, preying mantis’s will hunt and devour lots of insects that will hurt your ornamentals and vegetables. Leave them alone to do their job!

 

So if you spot these little white worms sprouting out of the hormworm caterpillar, you do nothing as nature has taken care of it for you. These soft white growths are actually the cocoons of a special parasitoid wasp a species of braconid wasp. The adult female wasp uses her ovipositor to lay eggs just under the skin of the unlucky hornworm. As the eggs hatch, the larvae feed on the hornworm’s insides, eating the hornworm alive.

You can see a tiny wasp that just hatched out of a cocoon

Larvae chew their way through the host skin when they mature and make a cocoon. which hatches into a tiny wasp. The wasps are usually dark with four transparent wings and rarely over one-half inch long. Their size and the fact that there are over 15,000 species make them difficult to notice, much less identify. So these tiny wasps are doing you a favor and killing the hornworm caterpillar by using the body as a hatching ground for their young is kind of like ‘meals on wheels’!

This is the moth which lays the eggs on foliage that will hatch into hornworms-from Wikipedia

Each cocoon will hatch a new wasp which will lay eggs in more hornworms that are eating your veggie garden, so leave them alone!

 

See this fascinating video below to see the wasps hatching out of these cocoons.

Hedgehog Haven

An injured Hedgehog at St Tiggywinkles

On a recent trip to the UK, I visited St Tiggywinkles Animal Rescue near London to see the how the European Hedgehog is faring. Found across Western Europe into Scandinavia, reports from the last several years indicates that this native species is declining in much of the UK because of a variety of stressors.

St Tiggywinkles accepts all animals who need care, but the overwhelming majority are hedgehogs

Don’t confuse the native European species Erinaceus europaeus with the domesticated Hedgehog commonly found in pet stores here in the U.S. , a separate species. The European Hedgehog actually lives in tunnels and holes under hedgerows found throughout the UK. And they hibernate through the winter in a sheltered location.

The English Hedgerow Trust says, “Hedgerows are a fundamental part of the heritage of the British countryside, defining the nature of the landscape and providing a major shelter and food source for a huge variety of mammals, birds and insects. Hedgerows are effectively a vibrant ecosystem, a huge nature reserve in our small and (over) intensively farmed country.”

Hedgerows provide shelter for small mammals

Hedgerows are not commonly found in the U.S. like they are in Europe. Strips of bustling wildlife habitat for butterflies, birds, and bats, and many small mammals like mice, hedgehogs, and voles, they provide much needed shelter. Zigzagging across the English countryside composed of a variety of trees, vines, and shrubs, hedgerows can be a beehive of activity. A super habitat for wildlife, hedgerows help nature thrive in narrow strips through large fields, I would love to see more of these in the U.S. instead of fences. Providing sheltered routes along which wildlife can move freely across the countryside between fragmented woodlands, hedges also provide windbreaks and prevent soil erosion.

Formal hedgerow

Insectivores, Hedgehogs are very useful in keeping the grub and insect population down in UK gardens. Slugs are one of their favorite food, one reason I would love to have a family living on my property! Attracting Hedgehogs is easy;  encouraging wild areas and planting out native plant species. A source of fresh water like a pond, log/brush piles and  small houses will also help Hedgehogs to stick around and raise a family. Down in population by 30% in just ten years, the UK has established many rescue centers around the region to help with education and assisting distressed Hedgehogs.  And there are lots of Hedgehogs in trouble!

Small wooden houses are used by hedgehogs for shelter in the UK
Hedgehog houses are for sale everywhere in the UK

So Many Hazards

Covered in a coat of sharp pointy spines, the hedgehog will roll up into a ball when threatened by a predator.  Dogs and badgers are the main aggressors of hedgehogs. Smelly and grumpy, they are still appealing because of their snuffly little nose and beady eyes. Weighing up to 2 pounds, I was surprised how large they were, up to 10 inches long.  They are as big as a small dog!

The hedgehog rolls up into a ball when threatened

Many more hedgehogs are killed and maimed by cars which is the main reason that they are brought to the rescue center. Also, hedgehogs hide in compost or brush piles, so people are warned to check their compost before turning it with a pitchfork as it is easy to impale a hedgehog with the tines. Likewise with bonfires, people are warned to check the brush pile before lighting it so that they don’t end up with a roast hedgehog! Open drains are another pitfall and if a hedgehog is caught, the advice is take two pairs of pliers and grasp the spines with these and lift it out gently to safety. String, barbed wire, and wire used in gardens can also become tangled up with the spines and enmesh them so they eventually starve. Garden poisons are commonly found to be ingested by hedgehogs which will kill them quickly. Wood preservatives that are frequently used on fencing can kill a hedgehog as they like to lick the fencing.

A hedgehog apartment

 

An all too common result of car encounters usually blinds and maims Hedgehogs so that cannot be released back into the wild as they wouldn’t survive. Hedgehogs in captivity often display pacing mechanisms to deal with the stress of captivity.

Hedgehog Friendly

Roaming far and wide, over 20 acres a night, in search of mates, nesting sites, and food, Hedgehogs need access to cut through fences and garden boundaries that are artificially set by humans. People are cutting holes in fences and adding tunnels underneath to help the population. Access to water sources is important but pools without ramps to climb out of can become deathtraps. Invertebrates that Hedgehogs feast on likewise are plummeting, so food sources are drying up. But people are setting out pet food at night for the creatures. An estimated 30 million Hedgehogs were roaming the countryside in the 1950’s; less than 1 million are roaming today. One glimmer of hope is that the decline in numbers is leveling off, perhaps due to conservation/education efforts. Go to Hedgehog Street to see what efforts are being used to wage war on Hedgehog declines.

Hedgehogs eat snails and slugs which are a scourge to many a garden

Hedgehog rescue centers are located throughout the UK just like St Tiggywinkles which I visited. Caring for over 10,000 sick, injured and orphaned animals per year just at St Tiggywinkles, these wildlife care centers are at the forefront of conservation and education efforts to stem the decline of Hedgehog numbers.

A raven being cared for at Tiggywinkles

Tiggywinkles even has a parking lot in front for emergency lifegivers to get in quickly with their injured animals. Caring for not just Hedgehogs, but any wild animal in distress, they release any animals that are healthy back to the wild. Others who cannot make it stay at the center for life and are cared for.

The trauma parking at St Tiggywinkles