Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Just passing through

Birding is a constant reminder of the shifting seasons. In September, we started to see more of the "winter birds" that frequent our backyard -- cardinals, finches, chickadees, and woodpeckers, most of all. We had already said goodbye to the beautiful Indigo Buntings, with regret. Now the hummingbirds seem to have left as well.

But the past few weeks have been the height of warbler season. Like smart tourists, warblers pass through Indiana on their way somewhere else. They eat insects, not seeds, so I'm not expecting them at my feeders, but in the spring and fall there are brief periods in which the woods are full of them. Some stay high in the treetops and are difficult to see without a birding scope, but others will come down to forage in the shrubs.

Saturday and Sunday, we floated quietly along the shore of Lake Monroe, tracking a little group of warblers as they hunted for bugs in the exposed tree roots. The pictures aren't perfect -- just try steadying a telephoto lens in a rocking canoe sometime!--but good enough for the moment. The picture at the top of this entry is a female Blackburnian Warbler. The male, when he's in breeding plumage in the spring, is even more striking, with a bright orange throat -- but I'll have to wait until spring to look for that.

This one is a Bay-Breasted Warbler. Note the pale pinkish-red along the sides. We saw several of these, all travelling together along the shore. There was also a Carolina Wren with the group for awhile. None of these birds seemed to mind us being so near, as long as we stayed in the canoe just off shore.

A couple of weekends ago we saw a Northern Parula, another warbler, at Lake Greenwood. We had been looking for a green heron, but hey! this was a great find. Part of the excitement of birding is that we never know what we'll see. I can't wait for next time!

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Hummingbird season

It's time for hummingbirds! This is the height of fall hummingbird activity in our area. They're stopping by our back yards and gardens to fuel up before making the long journey to Mexico and other southern areas, where they winter.

The photo above was taken in my butterfly bed, and shows a hummingbird on a Tithonia flower. (The bird is either a female or a first-year male; the ruby throat appears after a male's first winter.) They're also visited cardinal climber flowers, zinnias, and our snowball bush. All the books advise planting red petunias and other trumpet-shaped flowers, but I've seen them visit a wide variety of flowers. This is the first year I've planted Tithonia, and I had intended it to draw butterflies, but the hummers were an unexpected bonus.

We have 3 feeders, spread out so that one very territorial male can't monopolize them all. We occasionally see a mid-air encounter near one of the feeders, involving spread tail feathers and lots of chattering. We keep the feeders up through the end of October. Although most hummers will have migrated south by then, there could be a few stragglers who will need the extra fuel. There is a common myth that keeping feeders up too long will discourage hummingbirds from migrating -- this is not true! They hang around just as long as they need to, and will migrate when they're ready.

I stopped writing this blog when we went on vacation, and it's been hard to get back in the groove. Over the next few posts, I hope to write about some of the birds we went looking for last month.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Learning to spin

This is one of those "occasional asides on other topics" that I gave myself permission to post. As an archivist, I have a fondness for anything old--including traditional skills. I like to write with quills and dip pens, I've made my own paper, and now I've learned to spin wool into yarn.

I've been a knitter off and on for many years, but yarn always came from the store, in neat packages dyed to pretty colors and ready to use. But for the past 3 weeks I've been taking a spinning class at Yarns Unlimited in Bloomington, Indiana. This was the first time I had ever held a fleece in my hands -- wool "in the grease," right off the sheep. It's rough, greasy with lanolin, full of burrs and little plant bits, matted and pretty dirty. How this becomes yarn soft enough to wear is still a bit of a mystery.

Before you can spin, you have to prepare the wool. Sometimes it's washed before spinning; ours wasn't, but we did card, or comb, it, pulling the fibers straight and opening up the matted parts -- this removes much of the dirt, burrs, etc. Back when spinning your own was the only way to get yarn, young girls got this job. It's not as difficult as it sounds, and it doesn't take all that long.

There are two tradtional ways to spin: with a drop-spindle, which looks like a child's top, and with a wheel. A drop-spindle is totally manual -- you spin it with one hand and feed the yarn into it with the other. It shows you how spinning works in slow motion, and it's portable -- but very slow. Using a spinning wheel requires that you keep your feet and hands both moving, doing different things, at the same time. The first week, I really struggled to get the hang of it. But switching to a wheel with a double treadle made a huge difference for me, and now I'm totally addicted!

I took the wheel (on loan for the class) out to the garden for awhile, and hubby took this photo. Spinning can be soothing and peaceful; the soft rhythmic sounds of the wheel and the feel of wool moving through your fingers are oddly satisfying. The wheel I had the best success with was the Louet, shown here. It looks more like a piece of modern art than a spinning wheel, but it's easy to learn on.

I made one bobbin of grey-brown yarn, from the fleece shown at the top of this post, and one of white. The white was from a Romney sheep. Neither was dyed. Yarn from the two bobbins was plied, or twisted, together to make 2-ply yarn. In my handspun, you can clearly see the yarn from each bobbin.

The yarn will be a bit softer after it's washed, but it is a rough yarn. I'm still a beginner at this, and my yarn is kind of bumpy and too thin in spots. But to me it's beautiful. I'll probably knit a hat with it. And I'm on the lookout for a used wheel, because now I've just gotta keep spinning!

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Growing fast

Wow. I always thought our babies grew up fast, but they can't compare to baby birds. The wrens in our birdhouse are now five little balls of fluff with voracious appetites. Last week they could barely hold up their heads, and it was impossible to distinguish individual birds except by counting the beaks.

Now we can see why the parents are so busy, constantly bringing worms and insects back to the nest. The babies are so hungry that sometimes, one little beak can be seen poking out of the entrance hole. "M-o-o-o-o-m, hurry up!" I imagine him calling.

I actually got caught taking the top photo by the ever-vigilant parents. I chose a moment to check on the nest when the parents were away, but they returned while I was still up on the ladder-- and oh, boy, did I ever get a scolding! Both parents were hopping from branch to branch, chattering and screeching at me. Chastened, I got out of there fast.

The garden is in full bloom now, and visited by birds, bees, butterflies, and even dragonflies and an occasional toad. The goldfinch in the photo below is perched on one of the sunflowers in the butterfly bed. All too soon we'll see the end of the gardening season. It will be some comfort to watch the birds plucking the seeds from the sunflowers, coneflowers and zinnias-- but let's not think about that just yet!

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Baby wrens

Mr. Lonelyhearts is lonely no more. The little house wren we've been watching in our backyard as he sang next to all our birdhouses and stuffed twigs into each one (a kind of birdie hope chest) has finally made it. Not only did he get a date, but he has married (for the moment), settled down and is raising a family. It's difficult to count the babies. Two little beaks can be seen on the left; in this picture they're closed. They have feathers, so they are a few days old, or perhaps a week.

We opened the roof of the house to take this picture. It's OK to do this if you're quick. The parents resumed bringing food in to the nest as soon as we were out of the way.

Both parents are helping to feed the little guys, coming and going in an endless relay. They also clean the nest, carrying away the poop sacs so that parasites don't endanger the health of the babies. (Been there, changed those diapers!) I won't be able to check on them again until Saturday, but I'm thinking about them often.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Engage silent drive!

I love our canoe. There aren't too many kinds of boats in which you can sneak up on a heron, but we're lucky enough to have one of the best. We have two travel modes. There's Full Steam Ahead, in which my mate-4-life, sitting in the back, applies full power to a kayak paddle (blade on each end), so he can easily alternate strokes. I sit in the front seat and pretend my paddling helps, while my expensive, can't-live-without-it digital camera sits wrapped in a towel in my LAP, for heaven's sake! We make a bit of splashy noise in this mode, but I have never yet dropped the camera.

But we have the most fun when we travel in Silent Mode, paddling very slowly through the shallows, looking for birds, snakes, turtles, flowers -- anything interesting. We usually manage to see something new, or learn something, or at least come up with a new question.

This past weekend we went exploring in a flooded area of Lake Monroe, gliding through "islands" of swamped trees. We watched herons and tracked songbirds through the trees at the edge of the water.

We spent a long time following songbirds. One bird that I didn't recognize was heavily streaked with brown and white, with an orangey throat. It turned out to be a female red-wing blackbird--a very common bird after all. But at least next time I see it, I'll know it immediately.

We saw a couple of other unfamiliar birds. One tiny black and white bird was very elusive. I have several pictures of big green leaves, with a beak or a tail sticking out one side or the other.

We saw prothonotary warblers for the first time ever. [This is a correction--I had earlier identified this bird as a pine warbler, but pine warblers have white wing bars.] These energetic little yellow birds were difficult to keep up with, but fun to watch as they flitted from branch to branch. The bird in this photo has caught a caterpiller. (I wish they'd eat something that wasn't supposed to turn into a butterfly!)

Photographing birds and nature is an obsession for me. I'm not sure why, but I just have to take pictures. I'm not a great photographer--in fact, it's very frustrating for me. I have terrible eyesight and find it difficult to focus my camera. I lack patience with manuals and can't figure out my own light meter...in fact, taking pictures is so frustrating that next weekend, I'm going to do as much of it as I can. Go figure.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Water Lines

Water, water, water. It's clear to everyone by now that Indiana, though hit hard by flooding in some areas, got off easy, and it's hard to imagine the situation in Iowa.

We've been canoeing around Lake Monroe whenever we get a sunny weekend. The lake is at 548.73 feet this week, with a level of 538 feet being normal. Last weekend, when these pictures were taken, the level was 550.79 feet. (As my mate4life has carefully explained to me, the lake levels refer to feet above sea level and not the depth of the lake -- thank goodness!)

The businesses around the lake have suffered, as several weeks of boat rentals, cabin rentals, camping and so on were lost to the flooding. You'd have a hard time cooking anything on the grill in the photo! But a few weeks ago, we canoed right over top of it and couldn't even tell it was there.

The high water has left a brown strip of dead foliage all around the lake. Herons can be seen hanging around in areas that would normally be woods, while the sand bars they usually occupy are no longer in shallow water. I don't know if the fishing for them is better or worse.

My garden, too, would like to see a little more sun. The bee balm has mildew on its leaves and some of the shorter rudbeckia flowers look beaten up. The forecast calls for sun tomorrow. Shabbat Shalom!

Thursday, June 12, 2008

High water

The water's been very high at Lake Monroe, near Bloomington, for the past few weeks. On the first of June, we took our canoe out for a little exploring. It was really strange, paddling around through the trees, where normally we would be walking. At one point the road leading down to a launch site was under water, and as we paddled across it we could see the yellow no-passing line beneath us. Recent heavy rains have made the water even higher. Last weekend, after the storms had stopped, we went back to explore more of the lake.

We saw: several turtles basking on logs, 2 small snakes, 1 eastern box turtle, 2 lizards, a red fox squirrel, a chipmunk, lots of yellow swallowtail butterflies, 2 baltimore orioles, 1 yellow warbler, a great blue heron, 2 families of Canada geese and their goslings, and 1 unlucky catfish. The catfish is a long story--we freed him from a fishing line tied to a tree, and then, realizing that he had been hooked on purpose and not by accident, fled the area for fear of running into the person who had set the line!

Fishing is not a kind sport--and sometimes it is not friendly to other wildlife, either. We untangled quite a bit of fishing line from trees, as it endangers the birds who get caught in it, and collected lead sinkers left behind. We also pulled plastic bobbers out of the trees; these I'm stringing together as a kind of trophy.

Southern Indiana has been hit hard by recent storms and flooding. Homes have been damaged, even destroyed. The full extent of the damage is just now being assessed. We haven't heard much yet about the impact on wildlife; I suppose that will become evident over a longer time.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Saving the Monarchs

Monarch butterflies are one of the most easily recognized and beloved butterflies we see. Everyone knows the bright orange and black markings of the monarch. It's hard to imagine a world without them-- but it could happen. Monarchs, like all butterflies, are threatened by the loss of habitat that happens when development turns meadows and fields into condos and shopping malls. Host plants are mowed down, and pesticides and herbicides are lethal. Monarchs are in particular danger because the plants they depend on, milkweed, are disappearing in the wild.

What can one person do to help?! Last year my mate4life and I planted a new flower bed, a butterfly garden. I did some research and came up with a list of plants that are good sources of nectar. Word must have spread, because we had many beautiful butterfly visitors to the flower beds. The photo above shows a monarch on one of my lantanas, taken last Sept.

This year, I am taking the butterfly bed a step further --planting host plants, where monarchs and perhaps other species can lay their eggs. Milkweed plants support the emerging lavae and adult monarchs.

There is an organization called Monarch Watch that helps people start butterfly gardens and certifies back yard butterfly gardens as Monarch Waystations: http://www.monarchwatch.org I'm preparing our back yard garden to meet the requirements of a Waystation.

Nectar plants in our flower beds:
Lantana (planted as annuals every year, not hardy in Indiana.)
Rudbeckia (perennial variety)
Galliardia (Blanket flower)
Echinacea (purple coneflower)
Bee Balm
Zinnias (important to include single flowers like Pinwheel Zinnias--bees need them, and hummingbirds like them!)
Catmint (purple flowers, looks like salvia)
Joe Pye Weed (native species, very good nectar plant--and besides, I love the name!)

Milkweed host plants: so far, 3 swamp milkweed plants (Asclepias incarnata) and 2 butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa). Monarch Watch says 10 plants or more is ideal, so this weekend's task is to add some more plants. You can do this more cheaply with seeds, but it is not so easy, and I think my chances of success are very low.

So far this spring, we've had Tiger Swallowtails, an American Lady, a yellow sulphur, and a small blue butterfly that was too quick for me to identify. We'll keep watching, and planting, for more butterflies.

Further reading:
Brock, Jim, and Kenn Kaufman. Butterflies of North America (Kaufman Focus Guides), 2003.
"Butterfly Blues: Rescuing Rare Beauties," National Wildlife. June/July, 2008.
Marent, Thomas. Butterfly: A Photographic Portrait. Dorling-Kindersley, 2008.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Empty nest

I thought I would write about butterflies next, but there is a robin update. The baby robins have grown up and gone off to college. We didn't see them fledge, but after examining the nest and the area around it I'm pretty confident that they made it out on their own without mishap. The nest is intact and undisturbed.

This nest is a work of real beauty. I'm amazed at the carefully molded mud layer pressed against the grass outer layer. It's hard to photograph even now that I'm free to get up close, because it's so well hidden.

It's best to leave it undisturbed. I've read that birds may come back and reuse it for the 2nd brood of the season, building a new layer on top of the old nest first. I've never seen this myself.

Other birds have been carrying nesting material around the yard, so we know there's a lot going on in the nearby bushes and trees, mostly out of sight.

Mr. Lonelyhearts, the little house wren, is still trying to get a date. He's been singing and putting twigs into the birdhouses, but we still don't see a mate.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Nesting update


Baby robins! We see three tiny beaks in our robin's nest. One looks bigger than the others, but this may be because of its position in the nest. Other (fuzzier) pictures show them all about the same size.

All day the parent robins gather worms and bugs from our back yard and ferry them to the nest. The lawn and especially the flower beds seem to offer a birdie buffet. When they're not feeding the nestlings, the parents are often standing guard in a nearby tree or on the fence. They chase away blue jays who wander into the area. The jays may only be after the peanuts at the feeder, but our robins are taking no chances, since jays are known to eat eggs or prey on nestlings.

We're watching our little house wren with some puzzlement. Will he ever get a date? He's put some sticks into all 3 of our birdhouses, and last weekend we saw him fly to each house in turn, perch on the top, and sing. ("Oh, what a beeea-u-tiful nest; I made it just for you-ooo...") But we haven't seen a mate. Last year we had wrens nesting in 2 our of birdhouses, and we saw the pairs together. But we're not sure whether we have a pair, or a lonely bachelor.

This house shows the largest nest of the 3, and so we think they'll nest here, if they nest in our yard at all. The nest is bigger than it was last week, but we're still not sure what they're up to. House wren nests are practically all twigs -- and if you ask me, they could use a few lessons in interior decorating. But the mama wrens seem to like it, and I guess that's what counts.


I have no idea where these little guys are nesting, but we think it must be nearby. I enjoyed watching this chickadee pulling fibers out of my planter--he worked at it for several minutes, and then flew off with a beakful of them. Later, I watched as the pair pulled little vine bits off the brush pile. Chickadees are cavity nesters, so they'll excavate a hole in a tree, or nest in a birdhouse. (Pick ours! Pick ours!)

Visitors of note this weekend included a grey catbird and -- to my utter astonishment -- a cedar waxwing. Butterflies have started appearing too -- and they will be the focus of my next post.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

A bird bonanza

Our back yard is full of birds! I am too tired to write much, and besides, the pictures are the most fun. So here is a photo album of visitors to our back yard. Please excuse the awkward placement & uneven sizing.

Female (L) and male (R) Rose-Breasted Grosbeaks. The photo of the female was taken a couple of weeks ago, but they are abundant in the yard.

This weekend we saw 3 Baltimore Orioles (L) and one vibrant Indigo Bunting (R).

Although others in our area have reported seeing Indigo Buntings, we were still a little surprised to see them this early. They usually begin visiting our yard in late May or early June. I love them just for their color. Buntings belong to the finch family and visit the thistle feeders along with Goldfinches.

Of all our back yard birds, I think I love woodpeckers the most. We had downy and hairy woodpeckers over the weekend. After this female Hairy Woodpecker (L) had eaten, she packed her beak with suet and flew away with it. Babies?

The most exciting visitor we saw
recently was the red-headed woodpecker.
It's been a long time since I was able to admire the rich colors of this bird in person. Male and female look alike, so we're not sure which this is. This bird, too, was taking suet away.

By the way, woodpeckers like both plain and flavored suet. But the kind with lots of seeds in it is less useful -- they pick the suet out and leave the seeds. We use plain in one feeder and "Peanut Butter and Jelly," which has peanuts and berries in it, in the other.

That's the back yard bird news. Next time, I'll give a nesting update.

Monday, April 28, 2008


I hadn't seen our back yard for 2 weeks and on Saturday was amazed at the glorious color. The crabapple trees, the dogwood, and the lilacs were all blooming, and everywhere there was the most beautiful green I've ever seen. It's been a very long winter.

House wrens are building in one of our birdhouses. All afternoon we watched as twigs were stuffed through the entrance hole. Sometimes the wren would go back up onto the roof of the house and try again from a different angle. Sometimes, he'd lose the twig altogether. We still don't know if we'll have eggs in the birdhouse. A male house wren will fill several cavities with twigs, and then take the female around for a real estate inspection. She picks out the one she likes, and adds a soft lining of feathers or moss to the nest. We're waiting along with the male to see whether our house will be approved!

In the kids' old playhouse (left) is a robin's nest, the one I wrote about April 7. If you look closely at the photo below, you can see her sitting on the nest. I took this photo with a 300 mm lens from about 25 feet away to avoid disturbing her. She was absolutely motionless and difficult to spot. This nest is fairly close to our back door, and to one of my flower beds. We're trying not to startle the robin, but she seems undisturbed as I work on the bed.

Some interesting birds came to the yard this weekend. Rose-breasted grosbeaks (below) were everywhere. They nest farther north, but pass through Indiana in the spring and fall.

We had 1 oriole, who took some nectar from our young pink dogwood tree. This bird is a rarity in our yard and visited only briefly. My photos were taken from some distance and are not quite as good as I'd like - but I feel lucky to have photos at all. It's gratifying to know that he found nectar in our little tree.

My only disappointment this weekend was that, in spite of 3 feeders, vibrant pink crabapple blossoms, and lots of welcoming hummer- thoughts, we still haven't seen any hummingbirds in the yard. Hurry up, guys! (Please?)

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Garden experiments

The seeds I planted April 1 sprouted -- but, as you can see from the photo, not all sprouts are equal. The pots on the left and in the back are Burpee, and the pot on the right is Fredonia. The Burpee seeds sprouted right away, even though they date from 2005, but the other brand was slow to germinate and the seedlings are weaker. This is hardly, of course, a scientific experiment. YMMV -- your mileage may vary!

I've been thinking about planting some heirloom varieties of flowers. The term "heirloom variety" has no legal meaning, but is defined differently by different seed companies. In general, it is a variety that is open-pollinated, dates from some time ago (defined differently), and can be grown next year from saved seeds -- the very opposite of the popular F1 hybrids you see in all the greenhouses.

But I hesitate to put all my hopes on untried varieties. What if they don't grow, or what if I have a whole bed of zinnias that the butterflies don't like?

While I'm working all this out, and waiting for the sun to come out, I'm planting some test seedlings. I seem to have acquired a bunch of different brands of seeds (it's an addiction, don't ask) and so I'm starting some seeds from each one. Let's see what happens!

Monday, April 7, 2008

Busy robins

In southern Indiana, it's finally spring. Sunny and in the 60s, perfect weather for gardening. I started clearing the dead foliage from the flower beds, and my mate-4-life mowed the grass for the first time this season. We use a push-mower (no gas), so we can't let it get very long.

There are quite a few robins who hang out in our yard. They hop through the back yard, flicking the leaves aside with their bills and digging worms or bugs out from underneath.

One robin was building a nest somewhere nearby, and kept returning to the back yard for dead grass and plant matter left from last year. The robin in the photo above has a mouthful of old plant fluff and grass; the robin below has strands of grass. Both photos were taken on Sunday in our back yard.

According to my handy reference sources, female robins build the nest in layers: 1-a foundation layer of grass, leaves, and twigs; 2- the mud layer, pressed into a bowl shape on top of the grass layer; and 3-the soft inner lining. Our robins were working on that first layer over the weekend. Robins lay 3-4 blue eggs, and they usually raise 2 broods in one season. They stick with their mate for the season, but not for life.

I think I know where these robins are building, though I haven't been able to spot the nest yet. We put out nesting material in net bags and also on the ground. Feathers, straw, short (3") bits of string or yarn, dog hair, bits of wool -- all make good nesting material. Some we gather from around the house, and some we buy from the local birdwatcher's store. I think it would be cool to find some of my old yarn in a robin's nest. But it looks as though we're producing good nesting material just by not raking the lawn!

Tuesday, April 1, 2008


I know spring is supposed to be wet and cold, but I've really had it up to here with this one. The cold can be very energy-sapping. But I think I've got to plant something or burst!

The most important flowers in my garden are the zinnias. I devote one raised bed to them, and stick them in other spots as well. Butterflies and bees love them, and hummingbirds, too. After the flowers are spent, the goldfinches perch on the stems and tear into the seed heads. So they're a real crowd-pleaser. But some varieties don't produce much nectar and so they won't be very attractive to butterflies or hummingbirds.

Last year, I found these to be successful and attractive: Burpee's Pinwheel Mix, Burpee's Giant Flowered Mix. I also planted a cactus-flowered variety that didn't do as well. In previous years, I've planted Cut & Come Again with success.

Usually, zinnias work best if they're direct-seeded in the garden, but tonight I planted some in newspaper pots. And, because a bored gardener is a dangerous thing, let's have a little contest. I planted 1 pot with Thumbelina Zinnia seeds from Fredonia, a brand I've never tried before, and 2 of the pots with Burpee Thumbelina Zinnias -- but they're seeds from 2005. I guess that's to even the field.

The whole brand thing is a disturbing issue that leads into murky territory -- but that's a story for another time. For now, I'm putting my little pots in the window and hoping, hoping, for a real spring.

Monday, March 31, 2008

She's back.....

.....but without her mate. The female pileated woodpecker (March 26 post) came back Sunday for a brief visit to one of the suet feeders, but the male wasn't with her. What does this mean? Well, it probably means that they are nesting, but taking turns on the eggs. (In this photo, taken in January, the male is on the right. He has red moustaches along the side of his face, but they're hard to see here.)

My reference book of choice, for all questions relating to woodpeckers, is
Woodpeckers of North America, by Frances Backhouse (Firefly, 2005). According to Backhouse, pileated woodpeckers mate for life and stay close together all year long in their permanent territory. When they nest, they excavate a cavity in a mature tree and the female lays about 4 eggs. The parents take turns on the nest; they may trade off several times a day, but the males always stay on the nest at night. Woodpecker chicks hatch in 10-14 days. They're naked, blind and pretty helpless, but they double their weight in 24-48 hours. (No wonder it takes both parents to keep them fed!) Pileated chicks leave the nest in about 27 days. After the nesting season is over, those old holes are still useful--the woodpeckers don't reuse them, but about 38 species of birds and animals do.

I've filled the suet feeder favored by the pileateds with peanut & berry-flavored suet, everybody's favorite. I hope someday they'll bring the kids by for dinner. Until then, I'm studying my book, a gift from my own mate-4-life, and enjoying their visits.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

The hummingbirds are coming!

The hummers are coming! Hummingbirds are making their way north from the south where they've spent the winter. You can see their progress on this site:


For the last couple of weeks, they've been in northern Georgia & Alabama. This weekend, they've moved into Tennessee, Arkansas, and North Carolina, and they're not far from Kentucky. They should reach Bloomington, Indiana around April 15, give or take.

It's a long and exhausting journey, and there aren't many nectar plants in bloom just yet. They really benefit from all the feeders people hang from their porches or in flower beds.

Last year, we had many hummingbirds in our yard. They're not shy -- if you stand still near the feeders, they'll buzz around you without paying you much attention. They can be very territorial about feeders, especially the males. Last year, we had one male who chased off every other bird until we put out a second feeder.

In our area, the bird everyone sees is the ruby-throated hummingbird. Mature males have the red throats; females and first-year males are green and white. We make hummingbird nectar as follows: put 1 part white sugar and 4 parts water in a saucepan. Bring to a boil, cool, and fill the feeders. No need to put red coloring in it, but most feeders are made with red plastic, which helps to attract them.

Hummingbirds are attracted to red or orange flowers, especially those with trumpet-shaped flowers, like honeysuckle. In our garden, the hummingbirds were enthusiastic about my zinnia bed. The photo above was taken in my zinnia bed last September. But the red petunias everybody said would attract them were a bust--I never saw a hummingbird near them, and hardly any butterflies.

It looks as though we'll need to put out feeders in about 2 weeks. I can't wait to see them again!

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Signs of Spring

I've never written a blog before, though I've kept a journal for years. I thought it might be fun to put together some of the things I've learned, read, wondered about, gotten mad about, or otherwise encountered. In any case, if you're an actual reader, welcome!

I only see my garden on the weekends. We have 8 bird feeders in the yard, and all week I look forward to watching many types of birds come and go. They perch on the feeders, or in the branches of the pine tree, or on the trunk of our walnut tree. They chase each other through the branches and zoom by the kitchen window. It's like watching a game of musical chairs.

This past weekend, I saw the usual assortment of chickadees, titmice, goldfinches, blue jays, cardinals, house finches, and -- best of all -- woodpeckers. But the big news was the absence of the female pileated woodpecker. For weeks, we've been thrilled to see the male and female coming to the suet feeders together. The male goes to the suet first, while the female waits on the tree trunk below, calling and watching. When he moves up the trunk, she takes his place at the feeder. They may stay for as long as 15 minutes. (And I hang out the kitchen window with the camera for as long as they're here.) But this weekend, he came without her. WHERE IS "MRS. BIG BIRD?" To my ever-hopeful mind, there can be just one explanation: maybe she's on the nest! Pileateds are early nesters-- they can nest as early as February. Last year, the 2 parents and 1 fledgling visited our yard in June. So I can't say for sure, but I imagine her keeping eggs warm somewhere deep in the trees. Perhaps "Mr. Big Bird" is feeding her bits of suet gathered from our feeders. Live long and prosper!