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BACKYARD SECRET – REDWINGS DO THE DOUBLE-SCRATCH

       This past week a couple of small flocks of red-winged blackbirds made an appearance at my bird feeding area for the first time this winter.  The birds ignored my seed and suet feeders and fed on the ground.  This provided me with an excellent opportunity to witness them perform the double-scratch.

       This is not a dance step; far from it, it is instead a fascinating foraging behavior. Ornithologists tell us that redwings, sparrows and some other birds use this maneuver to uncover hidden food.

FEMALE RED-WINGED BLACKBIRD

  As I watched the birds from my office window, I saw several of the redwings rapidly hop forward and back…twice.  Ornithologists say that birds exhibiting this behavior use their toes to latch onto plant litter and pull it aside to expose any hidden insects or seeds. 

       If you are lucky enough to see birds demonstrating the double-scratch in your backyard, you will know that they are not dancing but simply trying to locate food.

TENNESSEE WARBLER VISITS FEEDER

        Some birds rarely, if ever, visit our bird feeders. Years can pass by between sightings of such a bird at a Georgia feeder.  However, recently a prothonotary warbler began feeding at a Sumter County feeder. If that is not enough, a Tennessee warbler is now dining at a feeder in Middle Georgia.

       The Tennessee warbler nests throughout Canada’s boreal forests. It then spends the winter from southern Mexico south through Central America to northern South America.  Typically, we only see Tennessee warblers when they migrate south (August –November) and when they fly back to their breeding grounds (April-May).  On a few occasions, the birds have been seen Georgia until the middle of February.

       The habitats occupied by the birds in winter are open woodlands and coffee plantations.  In fact, they are often the birds most commonly seen in coffee plantations.  For this reason, some refer to the Tennessee warbler as the coffee warbler.

       Tennessee warblers feed primarily on critters such as caterpillars, beetles, aphids, spiders and beetles.   However, on migration and during the winter, the birds will eat nectar and fruit.

       During the winter Tennessee warblers often visit platform feeders stocked with plantains and bananas.  However, it is almost unheard of to hear of one visiting a feeder outside of their winter home.

       If you have seen a Tennessee warbler in your backyard, you probably saw it foraging for insects or visiting a birdbath.

       The Middle Georgia bird is regularly feasting on a peanut butter/oatmeal mixture.  It will be interesting to see how long the bird continues to reside in its unusual winter home and whether it will vary its diet.

       In the meantime, we all need to keep our eyes peeled for the appearance of a rare winter visitor making an appearance where it is least expected.  If it does, it may be in your backyard.

      

      

BACKYARD SECRET – YELLOW-BELLIED SAPSUCKERS LOTS OF DIFFERENT KINDS OF SAP

       One of the most common trees found in Georgia backyards is the pecan.  We Georgians do indeed love our pecans.  If you have a pecan tree growing in your yard, it is likely that its bark is tattooed with rows of sapsucker holes. Consequently, it is easy to believe that yellow-bellied sapsuckers dig sap wells primarily in pecan trees.  However, that is not the case. 

       The truth of the matter is that yellow-bellied sapsuckers feed on the sugary sap that collects in sap wells chiseled in more than 1,000 trees and woody vines.  This list includes the likes of hickories, birches, maples, fruit trees, conifers, and many, many others.

 

PROTHONOTARY WARBLER AT A FEEDER

       I know that you have heard the old adage, expect the Unexpected.  I long time ago I realized that this is especially true when it comes to birds.  Recently a birder residing in Americus (Sumter County) also learned this statement is true.  One morning this winter when he looked out his window, he was amazed to see a prothonotary warbler feeding at one of his feeders.  I am sure he could not believe his eyes!

       The prothonotary warbler breeds throughout the state, with the exception of northeast Georgia, however, most nest in the Coastal Plain.  Within this breeding range, it prefers to live close to water.  As such, it nests in swamps, and along the shorelines of rivers and lakes.

       It is Georgia’s only warbler that nests in cavities.  Incidentally, it sometimes builds its nest in nesting boxes erected in backyards located near water. 

       Typically, prothonotary warblers arrive in March and April and leave the Peach State in late summer to winter in the mangrove swamps of found from Central America southward on northern Brazil.

       During the nesting season, prothonotary warblers dine mainly on insects, spiders and the like.  We know comparatively little about the bird’s winter diet.  However, some biologists suggest that this fantastically beautiful warbler possibly supplements its diet with nectar, seeds, and fruit.

       The bird that miraculously appeared at a Sumter County feeder eats safflower seeds offered in a platform feeder.  The bird’s host believes that the fact that his yard is located close to a swamp may have something to do with it selecting to feed in his yard.

       This is an extremely rare occurrence.  I have searched the many volumes in my library that deal with birds, as well as the Internet and found no mention of a prothonotary warbler dining on seeds at a feeder during the winter.  However, I am certain it must have occurred before.

       One of the takeaways from this experience is, because this rare sighting was reported, we now know a little more about this amazing migrant.  Please keep that in mind when you see a rare bird, or observe a bird’s behavior you have never witnessed, report it.  There is always a possibility that you too will add to our understanding of the wild creatures with whom we share the world.  If you do not, as far as the scientific world is concerned, it never happened.

BACKYARD SECRET – THE BLACK WALNUT TREE IS VALUABLE TO WILDLIFE

       I suspect that most of the folks that have a black walnut tree growing in their yards enjoy the tasty nuts the trees bears, its yellow fall foliage, and attractive shape. However, whenever I tell folks that their black walnut tree is also valuable to wildlife, they are pleasantly surprised.

       The tree serves as a host the banded hairstreak butterfly and more than 100 moths including the luna, royal and imperial.

       A number of small mammals eat the nuts including the eastern chipmunk and both gray and fox squirrels.  In fact, black walnuts can comprise up to 10 percent of the fox squirrel’s diet.

       Whenever black walnuts are cracked open by mammals, or crushed by vehicles in driveways or highways, many birds eat the highly nutritious meat.  In fact, black walnut meat is ranked as a choice food for the eastern towhee, cardinal, white-throated sparrow, brown-headed nuthatch, Carolina chickadee, tufted titmouse, blue jay, and woodpeckers (hairy, red-bellied and downy).

RESPONSES TO SAPSUCKERS EATING SEEDS BLOG

        Bloggers have responded to the blog regarding a yellow-bellied sapsucker eating sunflower seeds.  It seems some folks are enjoying success attracting yellow-bellied sapsuckers to their feeders.  With that in mind, I thought that you would like to know what they have to say.

       Nudicale says, “They regularly see yellow bellies feed on manufactured suet. We also have seen them feed on scrub oak logs in which they feed on a peanut butter and oatmeal mixture placed in holes drilled into the logs.”

       Pat Kinser wrote to say that she and her husband watched a male yellow-bellied sapsucker dine on a Brome Nut Feeder eating Clinger’s Charms, a great no waste nut mixture.

       Igrid Sanders responded to the blog by saying, “A yellow-bellied sapsucker has been visiting one of our feeders for the past few days.  This is the first time I’ve seen a sapsucker visiting.  It comes often, stays for several minutes at a time, and appears to be eating black sunflower seeds, though I have seen it well enough to be sure.  It feeds on a woodpecker block of mixed seeds that are largely black sunflower seeds, but there are others and maybe fruits.”

       An unnamed blogger added the only thing that he/she has seen eat around their home is grape jelly.

       I hope you will benefit from these reports; I know that I have.

NEST BOXES FOR PILEATED WOODPECKERS?

       One of the most difficult birds to attract to backyards in Georgia is the pileated woodpecker.  The truth of the matter is most of us have little chance of attracting one of the birds to our yards unless we live close to mature woodlands. 

       However, since this, the third largest woodpecker in the world, has such a large home range (1.5 to 3 acres), if you home is located with the home range of a pileated one just might show up to dine at your feeders.  (If you want to see if you are putting out the right foods for pileated woodpeckers, read the blog I wrote some time ago that addresses this issue.  You can access it by typing the words pileated woodpecker in the Search bubble on the right side of the blog page.)

       This begs the question, “Can I attract a pileated woodpecker with a nest box?”  The answer to this question is, “Probably not.”  Almost invariably, those that have erected nest boxes for pileated ended up providing a nesting site for birds such as the eastern screech owl, American kestrel or wood duck.

       It seems pileated woodpeckers customarily nest in dead trees.  However, even then after they spend upwards of 60 days chiseling out a nesting cavity, they will not reuse it a second year.

PILIATED WOODPECKER PHOTO CREDIT: USFWS

       Since dead trees are at a premium, the pileated woodpecker faces a housing shortage of epic proportions.  With that in mind, if you own a woodland, one of the best things you can do to encourage pileated woodpeckers to your yard to leave dead and dying trees standing whenever possible.

       I live on a bit less than three acres.  One-third of the property is wooded.  When one of the large trees growing on the backside of my land died, I left it standing.  After several years, a pair of red-headed woodpeckers nested in it.  I was hoping the tree would also be used by a pair of pileated woodpeckers too; such was not the case.  The tree eventually fell to ground and is being routinely visited by wild critters seeking ants, beetle grubs and other juicy foods.

       To date, the only pileated woodpeckers I have seen where I live have been flying overhead. Perhaps this will be the year one will drop down and dine on some of my suet.  You never know.

YELLOW-BELLIED SAPSUCKER EATS SUNFLOWER SEEDS

       Those of us that regularly feed birds during the winter know that it is big news when a yellow-bellied sapsucker visits our feeders.  When one does appear, it invariably dines on sugar water housed in a hummingbird feeder poised to entertain a rare wintering hummingbird, grape jelly, or a bird pudding.  You can imagine how surprised retired wildlife biologist, John Jensen was when a male yellow-bellied sapsucker began dining every day on whole black oil sunflower seeds.

       We know that, on rare occasions, yellow-bellied sapsuckers will eat small bits of sunflower seeds, but never whole sunflower seeds.  It makes you stop and wonder why this particular bird has adopted this feeding behavior.

       John told me that he feels that it is possible that the sapsucker chose this feeder because it is fashioned from a log.  This indeed may be the case since yellow-bellied sapsuckers routinely feed while perched on the trunks and limbs of trees. 

       We really do not know much about the winter-feeding habits of this odd woodpecker.  We know that they drill holes in trees and eat cambium (inner bark) and the sap that wells up in these tiny reservoirs. However, the birds are also known cache seeds and nuts during the winter.  Why would they do this unless they eat them too?

       If you have a theory as to why this woodpecker is feeding on sunflower seeds, drop me a line.  In addition, I would like to know what yellow-bellied sapsuckers are dining on at your feeders this winter.

YELLOW-BELLIED-SAPSUCKER

 

BACKYARD SECRET ––TUFTED TITMICE USE ALARM CALLS TO WARN A PREDATOR IS NEAR

      You might be surprised to learn that tufted titmice use alarm calls to warn others that predators are nearby.  Surprisingly vocalizations reveal to others both the size of the predator and the degree of threat it poses.

       In experiments using models of predators ranging in size from the eastern screech owl to the red-tailed hawk, biologists found that tufted titmice reacted differently to models of different sizes.  The alarm calls voiced when faced with the presence of models of eastern screech owls were longer and contained more notes, than those made when provoked with models of much larger predators such as the red-tailed hawk.  Titmice also mobbed the eastern screech owl models longer than the red-tailed hawk.  In addition, the birds also waited longer before resuming feeding activities than they did after dealing with models of larger predators such as red-tailed hawks.

       The researchers surmised this was because smaller eastern screech owls pose less of a threat to them than red-tailed hawks.

BLOGGER SHARES GOLDEN-CROWNED KINGLET EXPERIENCE

       In a recent blog, I wrote about my quest to spot a golden-crowned kinglet in my yard.  Since I wrote that blog, I have heard golden-crowned kinglets in my yard several times; however, I have yet to see a bird.

       In the meantime, one of our fellow bloggers was kind enough to share his amazing encounter with a golden-crowned kinglet.  In addition to describing his experience, he offers advice as to where we might find the world’s smallest perching bird.

  December 11, 2022, Donald wrote, Hi. I was sitting very still in the woods about around 7:40 am last week observing roosted turkeys and a small and very active male golden-crowned kinglet landed on the branch in front of me.  He was quite noisy and active and flew all over the small wood.  Very specific call.  I would suggest heavily wood areas with low shrubs.

       As Donald noted, golden-crowned kinglets are always on the move.  In, fact during the winter it is not rare for a golden-crowned kinglet to stop foraging for more than two seconds before resuming its quest for food.  Finding enough food during a winter day is a matter of life and death.  If, for any reason, a kinglet is unable to locate any food for an hour or two during the day, it just may die during the night.