Archive | November 2018


       BACKYARD SECRET – In winter, we are more likely to see groups of cardinals than at any time of year.  When several cardinals are seen flying about or feeding together, we commonly call such a group a flock.  Everyone understands this term.    However, some bird enthusiasts employ far more imaginative words when referring to gatherings of cardinals.  These names include a Vatican, radiance, deck, conclave and college. If you tried out one or more of these fanciful terms on your friends, do you think they would know you were referring to a bunch of cardinals?


      Sometimes backyard bird enthusiasts spot birds the field guides say should not be seen in Georgia during the winter.  If you see such a bird, what should you do?

       The worst thing you can do is assume you have misidentified the bird.  Even though the odds of seeing such a bird are slim, it is always possible a bird that should be wintering in the Caribbean Islands, Central or South America remained behind.

       Since your sighting might be a new state seasonal record, you should document your sighting.  With that in mind, try to photograph of the bird.  Far too often folks try to take a picture through a window.  In most cases, such photos are not focus.  However, you can enhance your chances of taking a crisp photo of the bird by placing the lens of your camera up against the window glass.  In many cases, whether or not a bird sighting is accepted is based on photographic evidence.

       Also, make detailed notes of the sighting.  Record arrival and departure dates, behavior, food eaten, and the like.  Also, record the bird’s plumage pattern and colors, as well as its bill characteristics.  If possible, also make a sketch of the bird.  It is also important to record or describe any vocalizations.

       Here is a short list of some of the birds that need to be documented when seen in winter.

       The sighting of any thrush other than the hermit thrush needs to be verified.  Very few winter records of other thrushes have been accepted for states east of the Mississippi River.

       In spite of the fact there have been a number of winter sightings of the eastern wood pewee have been received, none have ever been accepted by state record committees.

       The Georgia Ornithological Society has never accepted any winter sightings of Epidonax flycatchers (e.g. Acadian, yellow-bellied, and least).  If you find what you believe is one of these small flycatchers, your sighting will only be confirmed if you hear the bird calling.

       Several years ago, I was a member of a group of birders participating in the Lake Blackshear Christmas Bird Count that found what we were certain was an Epidonax flycatcher.  Our sighting was not affirmed because the bird remained silent.

       Although eastern kingbirds are common summer residents in the Peach State, there is only one accepted winter sighting of the bird in North America.

       Years ago, an eastern kingbird was reported on the Piedmont National Wildlife Refuge/Rum Creek Wildlife Management Area.  Sadly, the two folks that spotted the bird did not take a picture of this rare winter resident.  Consequently, this remarkable sighting was turned down.

       In spite of the fact that yellow-throated vireos occasionally winter in south Florida, to date, nobody that has seen this bird in winter has provided enough corroborating evidence to have this species listed as a winter resident in Georgia.

       I hope that you will be lucky enough to have a truly rare bird magically appear in your backyard this winter.  If you do, make every effort to document your sighting.  Your sighting might rewrite the record book.


     Most ornithologists believe there are somewhere between 9,000 and 10,000 species of birds in the world.  Out of all of these species, only 270 actually use tools.  Remarkably, the brown-headed nuthatch is the only North American bird that regularly uses tools.

       The tool most often employed by the bird is a bark scale.  The bird uses scales as a pry bars.  Holding a scale in its long, slender beak, red-breasted nuthatches insert this primitive tool under a scale firmly attached to a tree.  It then tries to pry the stubborn scale loose from several directions trying to uncover hidden foods such as caterpillars, spiders, cockroaches, and other invertebrates.

       More often than not, if a nuthatch is successful in dislodging a scale, it will immediately drop the scale held tightly in its beak.  However, at times, a bird will use the same scale to wedge loose three to four scales before discarding the slender tool.  Those observers lucky enough to witness the remarkable behavior have reported brown-headed nuthatches will use up to three tools during a feeding event. 

       I should note that, in addition to bark scales, nuthatches have also been seen employing pine needles and twigs as tools.

       Both adult and young nuthatches use tools to obtain food.  However, as far as we know, young nuthatches only employ tools during the first few months after they fledge.

       It appears that this tiny nuthatch engages in this behavior most often while looking for food in longleaf pine trees.  This could be because the birds can more easily remove the flaky scales found on the trunks of these trees than the scales covering other trees.  Who knows?

       At any rate, be on the lookout for this behavior in your backyard.  Since we know so little about this fascinating behavior, anything you see in your backyard could enhance our knowledge of the behavior of this energetic, feisty backyard resident.


After what seemed like an endless series of rainy/misty days during which the temperature hovered in the 40s and low 50s, I was convinced I would not see another monarch this year.  However, much to my surprise after the rain finally moved out, and the nighttime temperature plummeted to 31˚F, I was surprised to see a monarch nectaring at the blossoms on a butterfly  bush in my backyard this morning (November 16).  When I saw the butterfly, the air temperature was 51˚F. 

       Later on in the day, I spotted a gulf fritillary nectaring at the same bush.

       If that wasn’t enough, shortly thereafter I spotted a cloudless sulphur fluttering at the windows in my sunroom.  The butterfly was obviously roosting on one of the plants my wife and I moved inside the night before.

       My experiences on this chilly November morning galvanized my long-held belief that my backyard wildlife neighbors will never cease to amaze me.  As such when I walk outside each morning, I expect the unexpected.


      The Carolina wren is one of a number of birds that roost in cavities during the winter.  These sites provide the birds with protection from rain, ice, and snow, cold winds, as well as frigid temperatures.

       It is well-known fact Carolina wrens roost during the winter in such locations as potting sheds, livestock barns, garages, hanging baskets, bird nesting boxes as well as tree cavities.  Remarkably, they also use the abandoned papery nests of bald-faced hornets. 

       This odd behavior has been documented in at least two states.  More than 90 years ago a West Virginia naturalist collected a bald-faced hornet nest and hung it in a shed.  Sometime later, he noticed a pair of Carolina wrens had apparently modified the entrance hole of the nest to enable them to easily enter and leave the football-sized nest.  He went on to report Carolina wrens used the hornet nest as a winter roost site for the next five years.

       A researcher in North Carolina reported that, over the course of a decade, he stored abandoned bald-faced hornet nests beneath a porch.  During this period, at least one Carolina wren roosted in the nests each winter.

       To my knowledge, this behavior has not been documented in Georgia.  If you have witnessed Carolina wrens roosting in a hornet nest in the Peach State, I would love to hear from you.


       When the temperatures begin to drop and the woodlands don their multi-colored cloak of yellow, orange, and red, I find myself eagerly awaiting arrival of those birds that make the long trek from the north to winter in my backyard.  Yesterday my wait for the first of these special visitors to arrive ended.  The first bird to show up this year proved to be a white-throated sparrow.

       Although I was not lucky enough to see it, I heard its clear, unmistakable call.  As far as I am concerned, it is arguably the sweetest bird song we Georgians are likely to hear each winter.  Some are convinced this sparrow seems to be saying, “Pure sweet Canada, Canada, Canada.”  However, may others believe it is repeating the phrase, “Old Sam Peabody, Peabody, Peabody.”

       Now that I know white-throated sparrows are here, I hope I will soon catch a glimpse of this distinguished member of the sparrow family.  The white-throated sparrow is a cinch to indentify.  Like many sparrows it displays a gray breast as well as black and white stripes down the length of its head. Likewise, the feathers on its wings, back, and tail colored varying shades of brown.  There are, however, a few field marks that set it apart from its kin.  Adult white-throated sparrows also have snow-white throats.  In addition, bright yellow patches adorn the birds’ lores (the areas located just in front of the eye).

       During the time I host these birds, they spend most of the day on the ground beneath the thick shrubs that border two sides of my yard.  Here they scratch away leaves looking for something to eat.

       When they venture out into my yard, they prefer to feed on the ground.  The birds are especially fond of white millet, which I scatter on the ground.  They will also dine on canary and sunflower seeds, cornbread, and suet.

       Banding studies have found that once whitethroats winter in a yard, they are apt to return to the same location the following year.  In fact, some white-throated sparrows have been known to return the same backyard up to six years in a row.

       I hope that you will be lucky enough to have white-throated sparrows winter in your backyard this winter.  If they find your yard to their liking, you will soon learn why I think they are so special.



       Throughout most of the year, it seems that we have a truce with yellow jackets.  For the most part, these small, yellow, and black wasps will not attack unless we antagonize them in some way or just happen to venture too close to their nests.  However, have you ever wondered why, from late summer into fall, folks seem to be stung more often by yellow jackets than at any other time of the year?  If so, read on. 

       There are a few plausible reasons why the chances of being stung by yellow jackets increases as the days are cooler the foliage transforms from green into a kaleidoscope of color.

       Entomologists tell us yellow jackets are simply more abundant in autumn.  At this time of the year, a yellow jacket nest may contain upwards of 800 individuals.  Faced with this overcrowding, the members of the colony become less tolerant of one another as well as humans and other animals alike.

       Some biologists suggest this behavioral change may also be linked to the insect’s switch from a predominantly protein diet to one rich in carbohydrates.

       Realizing these insects are more apt to sting without provocation at this time of year, we all need to use caution when changing the nectar in our hummingbird feeders or working about our yards.         

       This threat will slowly diminish as the sterile female workers begin dying with the approach of winter.  Interestingly, the only yellow jackets that survive the winter are the queen.