Category Archives: Birds

Birdsong

by Melanie and Jim

We’re fortunate to have an extensive paved trail system in our area. The trails connect with broad sidewalks in many places, giving both safe recreation and transportation space for walkers, runners, and bikers.

This morning we went for a walk in our neighborhood, looping away from our house to the west, then northward around a pond, and back in on a deer trail behind the house. The birds make a joyful noise this time of year, attracting mates and defending nests. Redwinged blackbirds trill, wrens chatter, and the red-bellied woodpecker repeats its hoarse, cough-like call.  We hear birds we can’t see, and even the birds we see, we can’t always identify.

Today’s first notable bird-spotting was a male Eastern Bluebird. They like areas that are mostly open. It was perched on a small tree, but it flew away before Jim could capture it with the camera. Beyond that, above the tall trees, floated a red-tailed hawk.

Jim especially hoped to photograph a meadowlark today. We often see them in the grassy areas, but they don’t stay still very long for photos. Instead we saw a speckled bird (little brown jobbie?) a bit smaller than a robin. Any ideas for identifying this one?

On the way back toward the house in an area more thickly wooded, we both heard a mystery-bird. High in the trees, we couldn’t see it. We kept moving toward the sound until we found the correct tree. The song tripped my memory and I said, “It’s an oriole.” Why I was so certain, I don’t know, as we don’t enjoy orioles around here much. But that gave us a color to look for. The bright orange of these birds would make it easier to spot. Finally Jim saw it and was able to get a couple of good photos. Handsome fellow, isn’t it?

I remember long ago hearing a radio talk show. The hosts were visiting with a caller who talked about birding outings, and how they sometimes would have blind people join their group. The radio hosts were surprised that blind people could identify birds. In fact, often the call is the easiest way to “spot” them.

One last note, if you aren’t aware of the great website All About Birds, you should take a look. It’s like having the best bird book ever, including audio recordings to boot.

… And An Old Friend

by Melanie and Jim

One morning in February we had an unexpected visitor. A great horned owl perched behind our house, fending off harassing crows with its dignified, quiet pose. Though we’ve lived in this house for almost 15 years, we’d never known a great horned to stop here before.

As excited as we were, we also were a bit concerned. I’d read that great horned owls and barred owls don’t share habitat. If the great horned was here, did that mean we’d no longer welcome our old friends, the barred owls? There was no need for concern. The next day, the great horned owl was nowhere to be seen. Within a couple of days, we heard barred owls in the woods again.

On March 2 I opened the garage door to ready trash for pickup. As I did so, I heard a barred owl. It was close and sounded like it was across the street. I stepped out into the cool morning air, sky brightening but still dark before sunrise. The owl loudly called again as I searched for it, and I realized it was behind the house rather than in front. The echo had fooled me. I hurried to the side yard in time to see one land in the neighbor’s tree.

I ran in to tell Jim, and he was able to see it, too, through the window. Well, no need to worry about the great horned owls chasing the barreds out of the neighborhood. We had one a few feet from our house.

The bigger treat came later that day, as the sun was low in the sky. A bird called again, just behind the house. “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you?” came the characteristic hoot. (Listen to the recordings at All About Birds. Check the “Various hoots” first.)

We looked in the direction of the call. There on a branch, about 30 feet from the house, was this beautiful bird.

Barred Owl. Iowa, March 2, 2017. Photo by Jim Ruebush.

Jim also got a few seconds of video.

Since then we’ve heard these wonderful birds nearby several times. We’re fortunate to share our yard and close green space with them, and with the occasional unexpected visitor.

An Unusual Visitor

by Melanie and Jim

This morning as we readied for an errand, we heard a great commotion rise up behind the house. Crows, screaming bloody murder, shrieked in alarm. I thought there were several, maybe dozens of them, the cries were so loud. But when Jim looked, he saw only two. Two angry crows, screaming at something between and below them.

There are a number of cats that roam the neighborhood. Sometimes we hear squirrels or blue jays yelling at a wandering cat, but usually not crows. Even if there were a cat, the crows were high enough in the tree that a cat wouldn’t threaten them. It seemed unlikely that a cat was the cause. Still they continued cawing and screeching.

A tree blocked our view, so we moved to another window. Jim thought he saw another bird on a branch below them. Cooper’s Hawks occasionally visit our yard. They eat small birds and mammals. Once we watched as a Cooper’s dropped onto a squirrel, latched its talons tightly in, and flew away with it. With that risk, the little birds go silent and scarce when a hawk is around.

Binoculars showed the cause for alarm more clearly. It wasn’t just “another bird.” It was an owl. Since we moved to this house 15 years ago, we’ve been visited by barred owls. They aren’t as frequent as they used to be, but we still open the door to the screened porch in almost any weather to hear them calling to each other.

A shift to yet another window gave an even better view.

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This owl had ear tufts. It was no barred owl. It was a great horned owl! We’ve never heard nor seen one around here before! I’ve read that barred and great horned owls don’t share habitat, and that the horned owls get first dibs. I don’t know what this means for our barred owl friends, or if we’ll get to enjoy their occasional visits again.

Jim was able to get a few pictures of this beautiful bird. Though they are unfocused, you can clearly see the large ear tufts and hooked beak.

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He took this photo from below. It shows the feathering better.

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As I write this several hours later, the owl is still perched in the same place. The crows gave up pestering and screaming long ago, though they’ve made a few more half-hearted attempts to intimidate.

Baby Starlings | Feeding Frenzy | The Visitor

For two weeks, squawking European Starlings were noisy at the back of our house. We heard them every time we sat on the deck. The Starlings were kind of annoying. There’s nothing pretty to our ears about their vocalizations. They were introduced to N. America in the 19th century by Shakespeare enthusiasts according to All About Birds.

Update 29 May 2016: They appear to have left the nest. No sign of any birds today.

I looked out our bedroom window which is near the deck and about 12 feet above the ground. I spotted the source of the Starling commotion. In a knot hole were three babies peering out patiently waiting for a parent to bring food.

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Finches | House or Purple | Poll

Lots of activity at the feeder recently. These finches are frequent visitors. Which species are they? Make your selection in the poll below the photos.

Bald Eagles | Below Lock and Dam 14

Iowa has an east coast and a west coast since it is bounded by two major rivers. This View From Iowa was about as far east as one can be in the state. We met friends Tom and Sharon in LeClaire along the Mississippi River. Melanie and Sharon did some shopping in a fabric store to stock up on their quilting needs. Jim and Tom visited while sitting in some fancy painted chairs in the front window of the store. We walked down the street for lunch.

After lunch, we drove a short distance along the river to a viewing area below Lock and Dam 14. Bald Eagles congregate there to snatch fish from the water, stunned by their passage over the gates of the dam. Several were soaring above us checking the waters.

Click to embiggen

Click to embiggen

Many thanks to Tom for permission to use his photo above and the one at the end of this post. Very nice work, Tom.

 

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Wild Turkey

The trees created a natural bower, covering the path, dimming the sunlight, dappling the grass below. Ahead of us a single turkey bobbed, leading us, occasionally turning to look over her shoulder. As we stepped into the sunlight, the turkey disappeared, a ghost evaporating from view. Instead, we could see the ancient tombstones rising out of the earth, declaring to all the mortality of mankind…

JJ Audubon

That little story took place several years ago when we visited the grave sites of some of Jim’s ancestors in western Illinois. The turkey in the tale was real, a little eerie, perhaps, but not a phantom. Indeed, wild turkeys are common. Native to North America, they range across the continent, most densely in the eastern half of the country, including Iowa and Illinois.  According to the National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF):

From only 30,000 turkeys in the early 1900s to more than 7 million today, this intriguing species has truly made an awesome comeback.

Around us, we used to see turkeys now and then in our yard. Flocks of a dozen or more would wander in, checking the food supply, before wandering out again. We haven’t seen any for at least a couple of years, since there has been more development around us. According to the NWTF, their numbers have dropped substantially in some states recently due to loss of habitat. Here are some more fun facts about wild turkeys from the NWTF:

Two major characteristics distinguish males from females: spurs and beards. Both sexes have long, powerful legs covered with scales and are born with a small button spur on the back of the leg. Soon after birth, a male’s spur starts growing pointed and curved and can grow to about two inches. Most hen’s spurs do not grow. Gobblers also have beards, which are tufts of filaments, or modified feathers, growing out from the chest. Beards can grow to an average of 9 inches (though they can grow much longer). It must also be noted that 10 to 20 percent of hens have beards. Hens lay a clutch of 10 to 12 eggs during a two-week period, usually laying one egg per day. She will incubate her eggs for about 28 days, occasionally turning and rearranging them until they are ready to hatch. Wild turkeys like open areas for feeding, mating and habitat. They use forested areas as cover from predators and for roosting in trees at night. A varied habitat of both open and covered area is essential for wild turkey survival.

And from my favorite bird site, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology,

* The Wild Turkey and the Muscovy Duck are the only two domesticated birds native to the New World. * In the early 1500s, European explorers brought home Wild Turkeys from Mexico, where native people had domesticated the birds centuries earlier. Turkeys quickly became popular on European menus thanks to their large size and rich taste from their diet of wild nuts. Later, when English colonists settled on the Atlantic Coast, they brought domesticated turkeys with them. * It’s possible to distinguish wandering barnyard turkeys from wild individuals: Domestic turkeys have white tail tips like the original Mexican subspecies, while Wild Turkeys in North America have chestnut-brown tips.

Familiar and unfamiliar calls may be found here. Do you have wild turkeys in your neighborhood?