Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Winged Wednesday - Backyard Birding Basics

Wisconsin is one of the nation's hot spots for birding. The flyways for migratory birds along the Mississippi and the Great Lakes, as well as some fabulous lakes and wetlands bring many species through the state. If you are just getting into birds, here are a few tips to help you get started in your own backyard.


Indigo Bunting checks out our tube feeder.

Find a decent bird book you can use. A good guide will help you identify the birds you already have. I recommend something fairly small, perhaps one which doesn't have all of the species (you are unlikely to encounter all of North America's vast area of birds in your lawn), and make sure it has some really clear pictures. I strong recommend Stan Tekiela's Birds of... books. These field guides are broken down by state, are compact, and organized by color which makes finding the birds a snap.

Set reasonable expectations. Read through your guide and understand the birds and habitats. If there's no water nearby then you are unlikely to see much waterfowl; if there are few mature tress in your neighborhood then birds like Woodpeckers will be harder to come by. Knowing these things may drive your decision making on the next steps.

Feed the birds. Feeding solutions vary widely. You will need to decide what kind of feeder you want to use and what type of food to provide. Black oil sunflower is a pretty good catch all seed and can be fed from a variety of feeders.(See other posts on feeding the birds)


The American Goldfinch loves Coneflower and Black Eyed Susan.

Water the birds. Birds need water to bathe and drink. If you decide to setup a bird bath be sure to keep it clean. This can be a trying ask when keeping up with algae or messy birds. You may also decide you want to heat the bird bath during the winter.

Shelter the birds. There are a host of different bird houses which can be purchased to fit the needs of different species. Evergreens and woody shrubs also provide good cover for nesting or roosting birds. (Read more about bird houses.)

Landscape for the birds. Trees like Oaks which produce acorns can be very attractive to birds like Blue Jays, Woodpeckers, and Chickadees. Trees and shrubs with fruit like Hawthorns or Serviceberry may be attractive to Waxwings, Robins, or Gray Catbirds. Native wildflowers may attract Finches, Sparrows, and Hummingbirds. ((See our favorite plants for attracting birds)

Pace yourself. You don't need to all of these things at once, and some of things may simply take time. Trees don't mature overnight, and even after putting up a feeder it may take time for the birds to recognize that it's there. Be patient and enjoy.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

First Flowers of Spring 2014 - False Indigo, Blue Lupine, and Columbine

After three years, our great backyard experiment is really starting to pay off. We started off the spring with cool, rainy weather, and we finally saw warmer weather in mid-May. The first plants to add color to the yard were the Serviceberries and the Eastern Redbud. These flowering trees and shrubs are regularly the first to bloom and add a splash of color. The Wood Violets also flowered, but while the ornamental trees and violets flowered, the garden plants grew tall and green.


Our Redbud seemed to be particularly pink this year.

We've had a recent warm streak, which brought with it semi-regular rain showers and thunder storms. With the warm weather and rain, the plants have grown. Yard maintenance has been relatively difficult to keep up with. The benefit has been each time I head out to weed, mow, trim, mulch or prune, I find something new has flowered.

Columbine has grown wild behind our air conditioner since we moved in. Last year, we put down some Columbine seed near the existing plant in a previously unused flower bed. Two additional Columbines now grow with showy red flowers.


The Columbine which prefers to grow behind the air conditioner.

The flower bed in the front has its first Lupines. Last spring, we planted a half dozen Lupine plugs, but only two of the six came back after the long, cold winter. (We've seen similar results with the Little Blue Stems planted in the same bed.) We've added two more Lupines to the bed for now and noticed that some may have seeded themselves as some really little guys are also popping up.


I would have been very sad if none of the Lupine had come back. This one is a fighter.

After multiple years of rabbits chewing back the False Indigo, the fence has paid off, and we have some tall, attractive purple flowers in the main garden. So far, we have 3 of 5 flowering, and the Bumble Bees seem to e enjoying them.


A small victory!

These plants are well ahead of the other plants in the garden. It will still be awhile before the Purple Coneflower, Black Eyed Susans, or Butterfly Milkweed flower. The Columbine, Lupine, and Indigo add visual interest to the yard by providing dashes of red, blue, and purple. They also provide a food source for pollinators. We have seen Cabbage White Butterflies, Eastern Tiger Swallowtails, Bumble Bees, Honey Bees, and Large Carpenter Bees, and it's just the start of June. We're hoping to be able to report a record year for pollinators this year, and we'll be trying to focus on capturing each visitor digitally.

How are your gardens doing this spring? Anything growing particularly well?

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Winged Wednesday - Catching the Flycatchers

When getting started with backyard birding, you may find that it's easy to attract your first dozen or species by putting up a bird feeder. You may be able to increase the number or frequency by planting certain plants such as Cardinal Flower, Purple Coneflower, or Blue Stem grasses. The birds which can be most difficult to catch a glimpse of are the ones which you can manipulate less easily. Many birds have a diet filled with insects and small invertebrates. In an earlier post, we previewed some of the Thrushes you may encounter in your backyard. This post will focus on Flycatchers.


Eastern Phoebe came buy right after both our yard and our neighbor's yard was mowed.

Flycatchers are birds which specialize in catching flying insects in flight. Often they rely on a technique called hawking. Flycatchers may be found sitting on perches such as fence posts, shrubs, tree limbs, or wires. These energetic birds may bob a bit while perched. They make short flights out to catch insects before returning to their perch.

Common Flycatchers in the Midwest include: Eastern Phoebes, Cedar Waxwings, Eastern Kingbirds, Eastern Wood Peewees, and the Least Flycatcher. Birds like the Eastern Phoebe or the Least Flycatcher may be attracted your neighborhood if there is ample vegetation which provides a woody understory. Cedar Waxwings are often attracted to lawns which have trees or shrubs that fruit such as Pagoda Dogwood, Serviceberry, or the Cockspur or Washington Hawthorns. Kingbirds tend to be more prevalent in rural areas; I can remember seeing them on fence posts while growing up Central Illinois.


Unsure if it's the same Phoebe, but this was from the first time we saw one in the yard which was in 2013.

There are other things you can do as well to attract these birds. Remember that native vegetation supports native insect life, and native insects support native birds. You can also leave the grass of your lawn a little longer, as this will also increase your lawn's insect population. You may also find that after mowing when the insects are all stirred up is exactly when these birds will come to visit.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Winged Wednesday - The Neighborhood Owls

We usually start to hear them in the late fall and then throughout the winter. We are certain that they must nest in the Spruces up the street from us each winter. Our Beagle doesn't seem to like walking this way when they are hooting during the winter. On very rare occasion we have caught a glimpse of them in the night.

Our local Great Horned Owls have generally been fairly elusive despite being incredibly vocal. This past week while working in the garden, the local American Crows were quite raucous. Initially I ignored them assuming that it wasn't anything interesting, but after over an hour of the noise, I decided to investigate. They cawed at a large brown lump in our neighbor's tree, so I concluded I should get a camera to improve my viewing.

The brown lump appeared to be two young Great Horned Owls attempting to get some shut eye.




The Owls managed to outlast Crows but took off when our neighbor's mowing service arrived.

Great Horned Owls are large native raptors which are distributed widely. Like other animals who do well in backyards, they are pretty adaptable, and their diet consists of a variety of small mammals and even Skunk. During the winter our owls duet together, and generally we've found them to be welcome company.