Wednesday, December 29, 2010

You Call This a Storm?

I can clearly remember living in Utah in my early twenties, when a snow storm was just part of the normal routine. I remember driving to work, up the mountain in my Toyota Corolla through three-foot snow drifts and icy roads, with no chains on the tires. There was no question but that life continued and the office was open for business; it just happened to be cold, icy and snowy outside.

I suppose some Utahns would scoff at the little storm we had here this week, and call us wimps for shutting down the whole city (I can hear my brother-in-law now…). A foot of snow? Hardly worthy of mention over coffee talk. We have a librarian in Chesapeake who moved here this year from Wisconsin, and he is undoubtedly perplexed that we have been so paralyzed by this little winter storm. (My Chesapeake back yard, above)

Well, I for one admit to being a wimp. I have lost all of my western hardiness, and have been housebound since the snow started falling. It’s a good thing I was well-stocked on cat food, and that I made soup for myself last week, because in my neighborhood at least, it’s scary out there and I haven’t wanted to step outside, except to take a few photos. I’ve become older, less adventurous, and yes, a wimp.

There are some really great aspects to the aftermath of the storm, though. It’s gorgeous outside! The snow hasn’t yet started melting or getting dirty, and it sparkles now under the bluest skies I've ever seen here in Virginia. Never mind that underneath the piles of snow, some of our landscaping has probably suffered; right now it’s just beautiful.

(My reading chair, back yard)

And the birds? Well, they have been coming to everyone’s bird feeders in huge numbers because all of their other food sources have been buried. At my house, and yours too I’m sure, the variety of species and the numbers of individuals have been pretty spectacular. My regular six or so Blue Jays have grown to over a dozen; same with the Cardinals. And the blackbird flocks? They suddenly descended on my feeders like locusts! The Mourning Doves, Juncos, White-throated Sparrows, Carolina Wrens and others just had to wait until the blackbirds had had their fill before they could get anywhere near the feeder.

(Mourning Dove at the bird bath)

“Blackbird flocks,” by the way, consist of a mix of Red-winged Blackbirds, Brown-headed Cowbirds, Common Grackles, and Starlings. If you look closely, you can see the differences in their field marks and coloration. Female Red-winged Blackbirds in particular stand out, because instead of being black, they look more like big sparrows, brownish or reddish-brownish with a lot of dark brown streaking. Check the pictures in your bird field guide, and compare them to what you see in your yard; it’s fun to start learning the names and identities of what you’re seeing outside your window. If you don’t have a field guide, borrow one from the library; we have ‘em!

Here are a few pictures I took of some of my winter visitors over the past couple of days. I’d like to invite you to share your own winter bird or winter storm photos with me, and I’ll post them next time on this blog for all to see! Simply send them as jpeg attachments in an e-mail to, or call Karen at 410-7141 if you have any questions. I’ll look forward to seeing what you send! Happy New Year, everyone!

(Our state bird, the Cardinal, looks absolutely splendid in the snow)

(The female has more subtle coloration but is still stunning)

(Every time the Mockingbirds see me through a window, they come to demand a peanut butter treat.

(The less common Fox Sparrow does not normally visit Tidewater bird feeders, but when there's a foot of snow in the ground, they sometimes make an appearance, like this one did yesterday. Ah, that blue sky...!)

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Update on Winter Hummingbirds

In my October blog I talked about hummingbirds that winter here in Virginia. Although they are rare, a few usually show up, whether they are our familiar Ruby-throated Hummingbirds that didn't migrate as far south as they should, or whether they are rare western species that migrated in the wrong direction and wound up in Virginia instead of in Mexico.

The Western rarities in particular get birders quite excited, and if a bird is a juvenile or a female and cannot be positively identified by sight alone, a hummingbird bander is usually called upon to band and identify the species. If the owner of the feeder that the hummingbird is frequenting gives the okay, the bird's location is shared with others, and posted on the local listservs so that others can come see the bird.
So far, this winter has been quite an exciting time for hummingbird enthusiasts, and I want to share some of the love with you all. In October I posted two photos from Mark Mullins (Claytor Lake, Va.) of a Rufous Hummingbird that was coming to his feeder. About a week later, Mark made another amazing discovery at the very same feeder: an adult male Black-chinned Hummingbird! While common in the western states, it is extremely rare in the east, and even more rare is seeing an adult male in definitive plumage. Mark took amazing pictures of this bird (above and below) and gave me permission to post them here. Thanks again, Mark.

On November 20 a female hummingbird started visiting a feeder in Chester, Va. (just west of Hopewell). She was a "Selasphorus" hummingbird, meaning she was either a Rufous or an Allen's hummingbird; these two western species are almost identical in female or immature plumage, so a bird bander was called to capture, band, examine and release her. He verified that she was an Allen's Hummingbird, one of only a handful of confirmed Virginia records of this species! I myself drove to Chester twice to see her because I had not seen an Allen's away from the Pacific coast. I was able to get a decent photo of her on a day when the sun actually shone. The homeowners who are hosting her are maintaining three feeders, and bought warming devices to attach to each of them to keep the sugar water unfrozen. It has been bitterfly cold for the past two weeks, but she has been able to survive because of their extra care and effort.

(Note: As of today, December 15, the homeowner hosting the Allen's posted on the listserv that the bird is still there today, with the thermometer reading 8 degrees outside!)
Another "Selasphorus" hummingbird was reported to the Virginia Bird Listserv last week by David Shoch (Charlottesville). This one is visiting a feeder in Earlysville. This one is an immature male, and again, it cannot be determined whether he is a Rufous or an Allen's Hummingbird without closer examination. As you can see from David's photo, below, he is more colorful than the Selasphorus females. The hummingbird bander will hopefully be able visit the bird and make a determination in the next week or two.
I've been told the the Ruby-throated Hummingbird that wintered last year in Sandbridge has returned this year to the same feeder. Birds are built that way; the same bird will often return to precisely the same location year after year, even in cases like this one where the location is outside its species' normal range.
So, that's how things are so far this year. I have faithfully maintained my own hummingbird feeder in my Chesapeake yard, and encourage others to do the same. I have had no winter visitors, at least not while I've been at home to see them --- but, you never know....!