Watching birds in the winter can be an unending source of entertainment. There are so many insights you can gain by simply observing with a sense of curiosity. Try these birding activities and you’ll be hooked.
What’s the pecking order?
Black-capped chickadees are common visitors to northern bird feeders. In the winter, they form loose flocks of 4 to12 individuals and cover a territory of 24 acres or more. This winter flock has a distinct social order.
Try to determine who has more social standing. If a chickadee is at the feeder and another arrives, what happens? Does the newcomer alight nearby and move in only after the first has departed? The newcomer has less social standing in this case. Or does the newcomer swoop in and displace the other at the feeder? This newcomer is ranked higher in the social order of the flock.
Where did it Go?
Chickadees, nuthatches and titmice all cache seeds under bark or in lichen for later retrieval.
Watch a bird after it has picked a seed from your feeder. Does it eat the seed right away? Does it take the seed and cache it somewhere? How many hiding places can you identify? What kinds of trees to they tuck the seeds into?
Male or Female?
White-breasted nuthatches join foraging flocks of chickadees and titmice in winter as they can watch out for predators and find food more effectively together. Nuthatches get their name from their habit of taking acorns and other seeds and wedging them into tree bark crevices to hold them while they hammer or “hatch” the nutmeat out. They also store seeds under bark for later consumption.
If a white-breasted nuthatch moves in on another that is feeding, does the first move away or stand its ground? If it moves away, chances are it is a female, as males tend to displace them at feeding stations.
Train Birds to Come to You
Do you have a leftover scarecrow from Halloween? If you have some straw and some old clothes, it may be worth your while to make one. Perhaps just laying a mitten on the railing will do. Experiment with “your” birds.
Take the scarecrow and set it on a chair or bench by your feeder with sunflower seeds, or pieces of nutmeat from peanuts, walnuts, cashews or pecans in its mitten or on the hat. After a few days, curious (and hungry) titmice and chickadees will soon get used to it and come pick the food right off. When the birds have no fear of the stranger anymore and realize it is a ready source of food, remove the scarecrow and replace it with yourself. Put the shirt, hat and mittens on and sit quietly with food in your hand right where the scarecrow sat. Soon, birds will be coming over to eat from your hand.
Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count
For a more intense winter bird activity, get involved in the Christmas Bird Count. This bird census organized by the Audubon Society helps us keep track of bird populations and therefore influence conservation efforts. For some spirited competition grab your binoculars, bird guides, and fellow birders, leave the comfort of your home and chock up as many birds as you can within a 15-mile radius in a 24-hour period. Dates are from December 14th through January 5th, so the census period has already begun. Go here http://birds.audubon.org/christmas-bird-count for more information.
Make up your own winter birding activities and let me know your winter bird games. There is so much fun to be had right outside that window.
AllAboutBirds, Cornell Lab of Ornithology
Go now. Drive along Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park. Seldom a better fall show than one experienced there. Red maples, sugar maples, hickories, ashes, and more deciduous trees contribute to the collage of fall colors. But in this park, the tulip trees have a unique story.
In a survey done in Shenandoah in 1940, there were no tulip tree groves to be found. By 1990, tulip trees covered sixteen percent of the park.
Tulip trees, or yellow poplars as they are sometimes called, grow in moist sites. They are tall straight trees that have whitish bark. In late spring they blossom with large orange and yellow tulip-shaped flowers. They are not tulips at all but actually part of the magnolia family. They are frequently found in uniform stands. Because of their fast growth rate they shade out many other plants. Morel mushrooms and puttyroot orchid are some of the few understory life forms found in tulip tree groves.
Tulip trees are a “gap” species. This means that they can sit in the understory of a forest and grow very slowly until they get more sunlight. When an opportunity that allows enough sunlight to reach the forest floor occurs, they take advantage of it and speed up their growth rate. Events that open up the forest floor to sunlight would include a tornado, storm, fire, or human activity like lumbering. Tulip trees are often found in old home sites, along forest edges or former orchards.
One tulip tree grove is found at mile marker 8 in the northern section of the park. In the fall, the filigreed canopy of bright yellow leaves attract an abundance of leaf watchers especially in the evening when the sunlight streams through and highlights the leaves like golden Christmas ornaments.
(by Ann and Rob Simpson, excerpted with modification, from Shenandoah NaturePod)
“Another Broad-winged” the bespectacled lounger shouted out.
“Make that three” another spoke out.
I followed their gaze skyward and spotted small black dots. I tried my binoculars.
Larger black dots. I’m instantly impressed with these people’s bird identification skills.
I’m on top of Hawk Mountain in Kempton, Pennsylvania in mid-September. Dotted on every nearly horizontal surface of North Lookout is a chair where a bundled and binocular-ed bird watchers sits scanning the skies overhead. A uniformed volunteer is the counter and the recipient of the shouts. In her notebook, she keeps a tally of the species and numbers of hawks as they are spotted. The spotters constantly converse about bird numbers and locations to make sure that they are not reporting the same birds. I join the ranks of the dumbfounded. We form a loose bond by helping each other see what the seasoned spotters are identifying.
Such a scene is taking place all over the country this month and next. Hawks, turkey vultures, falcons, eagles and songbirds are concentrating along the pathways of their ancestors, heading south for a dependable food supply before winter sets in. These pathways, called flyways, often follow ridges where updrafts and thermals help the birds conserve energy on their long flights. Hawk Mountain is located along the Appalachian Flyway and averages sightings of 17,925 raptors per year.
Certain locations and weather conditions allow you to see the birds much more closely as they follow the mountaintop where you may be perched. Here is a website of the Hawk Migration Association of North America to find a location near you. Bring your binoculars and maybe a lightweight chair or just spread out on your back and watch skyward. Your hike up the mountain may be rewarded many-fold.
John D. Rockefeller Jr. became interested in Mount Desert Island in the early 1900’s when he and his wife spent several summers vacationing in Bar Harbor. Their son Nelson, future vice president of the US, was born here.
In 1910 John D. Rockefeller Jr. purchased a house in Seal Harbor and over the years converted it into a large 100 room mansion known as the Eyrie. He was very interested in the preservation of land on the island and became the greatest donor of land and money to the formation of what is now Acadia National Park.
In 1913 he began building the carriage road system. Initially it was just around his property but in time his interest expanded and construction continued until the early 1940s.
In the end John D. Rockefeller Jr. built 16 stone bridges, 57 miles of carriage roads and the two gate-lodges most of which have been given to the park. Along with over 10,000 acres of land and several million dollars for various other projects including the construction of the park loop road and restoration after the 1947 fire, John D. Rockefeller Jr. has been the single greatest benefactor to Acadia National Park.
To this day the Rockefeller family continues its interest and generosity to Mount Desert Island and Acadia National Park.
The significance of the carriage road system is not simply a generous gift or an engineering feat but as a pathway into the heart of the park, where people can experience the full beauty of nature away from human influence.
Today, the carriage roads are wonderful opportunities to experience Acadia by bicycle. Your only companions may be pedestrians and horses. Find out more about biking in Acadia here.
At ECOS, our environmental school, I barely get to tantalize the 4th graders with the highlight to their trip in my introduction to the day. Some kid always brings it up first. “Can we go to the bubble gum tree?”
I wasn’t ready for this question when I first started teaching in the program. I didn’t know what tree they were talking about. My first thought was the spruce. Woodsmen used to pinch off nubs of sap from the bark and chew it like gum. But how could this be it? The stuff tastes awful. The kids can’t possibly be all hyped up about such nasty tasting tree gum.
My only other thought was the black birch, Betula lenta. Now that smells great and was used to flavor candies, gelatin and of course, bubble gum. Kids could get psyched about that. My colleagues later confirmed that this is the tree they touted as the “Bubble Gum Tree”.
Kids don’t seem to be disappointed that they can’t pluck off pieces of bubble gum like they envisioned. The flavor can be detected in the twigs. Just under the bark one can smell oil of wintergreen. They light up when they find their own bubble gum tree using the scratch and sniff method. Scratched twigs smell so deliciously cool, fresh and minty. I let them collect a 6-inch section and then share how I make birch bark tea. Here’s how:
It’s the twigs that you’ll need, so tall adult trees with branches out of reach will not do. Saplings or seedlings will need to supply twigs within reach. My backyard is full of B. lenta trees, so I frugally trim a few branches here, a few there, or when I have to get rid of a wayward seedling, I at least use it for tea.
Strip the leaves off. Break up the twigs to be 2-4 inches long, or however short they need to be to fit into a pan. In doing so, expose the cambium, where the oil of wintergreen can be detected in the sap. I strip the bark on a couple sides of the twig. Fat twigs don’t contribute much, so stick to flexible twigs less than 1/8 inch thick I’d say. Just keep sniffing as you go to stick with those end twigs that have the most odor.
Cover your collection of twigs with water. Simmer – don’t boil. You want to extract the oil of wintergreen flavoring from the twigs but you don’t want to boil the flavoring away or make it taste harsh. Your kitchen will smell great during this process!
On this hot summer day, I’m thinking about making birch tea using the sun tea method. I imagine, putting the twigs in a clear container out in the sun for a while might extract the flavor as well. I haven’t tried it yet, but maybe you can give it a go and let me know.
Once the water is nicely brownish, I call it finished. You want to separate the water from the twigs and other stuff you don’t want to swallow. I often use cheesecloth, but a paper towel serves the same purpose as a filter. I just put it in the mouth of my container and pour my tea right through it.
At this time of year, I stick my tea in the fridge to drink cold. In the winter, I prefer it warm. I have a sweet tooth and sugar usually goes in other teas, but black birch tea tastes just fine as-is.
At the end of our day, among the many frameworks-oriented lessons they’ve learned, my kids go home with lots of super skills. They’ve gained some plant identification skills, learned to look closely at nature and used their senses. Lastly, they realize there is specialness in plants. Well, at least one plant in particular. That’s my particular passion that I hope they pick up on – the unique world of plants.
America’s National Parks and Preserves are featured in a new series of quarters to be issued by the US Treasury. Five quarters will be issued in 2010. Look for these in the palm of your hand this year:
1. Hot Springs National Park in Arkansas – the first publicly preserved landscape, will be the first quarter issued. As early as 1807, people had begun using the springs for relaxation and health. In the 1830s, President Andrew Jackson set aside some of the springs for public use. Although not designated as a National Park, the Hot Springs became the first nationally preserved land. In 1921, Hot Springs was re-designated as the 18th National Park.
2. Yosemite National Park in California - followed a similar path to National Park status as Hot Springs. President Abraham Lincoln set aside the land as a national preserve, but the land was returned to California soon thereafter. It wasn’t until 1890 that Yosemite returned as a National Park.
3. Yellowstone National Park - the first official National Park will also be honored. In 1872, President US Grant established as the first National Park in the world. Established originally to preserve its scenery, some now refer to Yellowstone as America’s Serengeti for the exceptional wildlife viewing opportunities found here.
4. Mount Hood National Forest – although not a national park, the 100-year effort to make it so continues to this day. Mount Hood and its surrounding forests are managed by the US Forest Service. Although some land is preserved under wilderness designation, much of the land is managed for timber harvesting.
5. Grand Canyon National Park - was established as one of America’s first National Monuments. The US Antiquities Act gave the President the opportunity to set aside land without the approval of Congress. Originally meant to preserve important Native American archeological sites, President Teddy Roosevelt read into the act a broader mission. He used the act to create 18 national monuments, including setting aside over 800,000 acres as Grand Canyon National Monument. Learn more about the history of this special National Park with a Grand Canyon NaturePod.
I stopped my cadre of 5th graders right under the tree where a songster was loud and distinct. “Listen to this fantastic bird, my friends,” I urged excitedly, and the group of 23 inner-city kids fell silent. After listening a few seconds I whispered, “This awesome bird sings his name. He’s called a Phoebe. Do you hear him sing “Phoebe” over and over?” Again, we all listen intently, and I see smiles creep across faces.
“Yea, I hear it.”
“That’s what he says.”
Other murmured phrases and nods of recognition ripple through my rapt audience.
I can’t really memorize bird song very well. I’m relieved to say I’m not the only one. The best way to distinguish and remember specific bird song is to translate it into English. It is not only easier to describe to kids (and adults) but recognizable in our brains.
There are a number of mnemonics that are commonly associated with certain birds. Here is a list of some birds you may hear this month, and the mnemonic of what their song sounds like:
American Robin – “cheery-up, cheery-o, cheery-up, cheerily”
Yellow warbler – “Sweet Sweet, Sweet I am so sweet”
Eastern towhee – “Drink your teeeeeea”
Black throated green warbler – Zee Zee Zee zoo Zeee”
Barred owl – “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you all?”
Whip-poor-will – “WHIP-poor-WILL, WHIP-poor-WILL WHIP-poorWILL…“
Eastern Wood-Pewee – “Pee-ah-wee Pee-ah-wee”
Eastern Phoebe – “Fee-bbbbbe Fee-bbbbbe”
Black-capped Chickadee –
Warbling Vireo – “If I SEES you, I will SEIZE you, and I’ll SQUEEZE you till you SQUIRT”
Red-eyed Vireo – “Here I am. Where are you? Over here. Look up now. Do you see?“
Tufted Titmouse – “Peter-peter-peter. Peter-peter-peter.”
Carolina Wren – “tea kettle tea kettle tea kettle tea kettle tea kettle.” (loud and fast)
Brown Thrasher – “Spring’s here, spring’s here, plant it plant it, in the ground, in the ground, cover it up, cover it up…” (doublet after doublet; each doublet seldom repeated)
Chestnut-sided Warbler – “very very very very pleased-to-meet-you” (quite fast)
Ovenbird – “teacher teacher teacher teacher” (with each “teacher” progressively louder)
Common Yellowthroat – “Which-i-ty which-i-ty, which-i-ty, which-i-ty
White-throated sparrow – “Poor Sam Peabody Peabody Peabody” or “Oh Sweet Canada Canada Canada” (depending on your nationality of course)
Red-winged Blackbird – “Honk-a-reeeeee”
Eastern Meadowlark – “spring of the year”
American Goldfinch – “per-chick-a-ree”
Here are some resources to further your study of birdsong:
The Backyard Birdsong Guide, by Donald Kroodsma – an audio field guide. Lets you listen to the birdsong with a push of the button.
May the sound of a familiar songster bring a smile to your face too.
Memorial Day is approaching fast. It’s the unofficial start of the summer season. If the weather is warm, you will find the beaches at Cape Cod National Seashore filled with waders, swimmers, and sun lovers. If the weather is cool and stormy, the waves will teem with wet-suited surfers.
Should you find yourself at the Cape, and need a break from the sun and surf, check out the Old Harbor Lifesaving Station at Race Point Beach. Park staff and volunteers recreate the techniques first employed by the U.S. Lifesaving Service back in the mid 1800’s.
A strong offshore current known as “The Race” caused numerous ships to flounder as they rounded the tip of the Cape. Surfmen patrolled the beaches during stormy weather to spot and assist these ships.
When the word went out that a ship was in trouble, surfmen would gather. When the weather was so bad that surfboats could not be launched, a canon would be fired to deploy a line to the struggling crew. As testament to the importance of these waters for trade, instructions were sent with the line in multiple languages. These instructed sailors to affix the line to their mast and ride a breaches buoy to shore, skimming across the tempest.
The lifesaving stations had a 99% success rate along the shores of Cape Cod, saving over 175,000 lives.
In 1915, the U.S. Lifesaving Service and the Revenue Cutters Service joined to create the US Coast Guard. Today, these men and women continue the tradition, going out in the worst of weather and under the most difficult conditions, to assist sailors in trouble.
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