If you have birdfeeders in your yard and watch them day-to-day, you have already noticed the changes in bird species and populations from early to late autumn. Wintering sparrows like Dark-eyed Juncos and White-throated Sparrows are regular visitors now, but were absent just a month or two ago. Regular year-round visitors like the Cardinals and the Blue Jays hung out in breeding pairs and with their offspring during the spring and summer months, but now they gather in larger communal groups. Most of the Ruby-throated hummingbirds left our region by the end of September, as did the swallows and Chimney Swifts that fill our skies during the summer.
So what can you expect to see in your yard right now? I kept tally of the birds I observed in my back yard one day a week or two ago, and came up with 27 different species, without even going outdoors! Winter doldrums and the transition to dark, gray days obviously do not mean a drop in bird life; in fact in many cases, you will find more bird activity as food sources become scarcer and birds concentrate at your feeders.
My favorite visitors right now are, without question, a group of Baltimore Orioles that have taken up residence at my hummingbird feeders (the photo above is of the adult male, who arrived on November 21). These brilliant birds do not breed here on the Virginia Coastal Plain, so we only see them in migration as they pass through on their way to somewhere else. But, as I’ve now learned, a few southbound birds will stop and spend the winter in our region, usually in small flocks, and I am lucky enough to be hosting one of these flocks now.
I optimistically keep my hummingbird feeders full during the fall months, long after our resident hummingbirds have left, hoping to attract a rare vagrant species from the western states. Baltimore Orioles also drink the sugar water from these feeders, and that is what brought them to my yard. My one male adult bird soon evolved into a flock of four, so I hung out a second hummingbird feeder, and also bought a special Oriole feeder that holds sugar water and has a place to put out grape jelly, one of their favorite foods. So my yard has become a virtual smorgasbord for these guys, and they’re sticking around, much to my delight. I plan to buy a few warming devices to place near the feeders so that the water doesn’t freeze when temperatures drop.
This is either a female Baltimore Oriole, or a first-year male that has not developed his bright adult plumage yet. The two are very similar in appearance. Three of the orioles in my yard are in this plumage.
(This is the adult male Baltimore Oriole again, being cute).
Here are a few photos I’ve taken of other avian visitors to the yard this week. Most should look familiar, but some might be new to you:
This is a Red-bellied Woodpecker; it is probably the woodpecker you are most likely to see in your suburban yard. In most people’s opinions, it is one of the most mis-named of all bird species. In the breeding season, the male does have a flush of red color on his belly, which is the root of its name, but that is certainly not the bird’s most conspicuous field mark. In this photo, the bird is eating my peanut butter/cornmeal mixture, which is pressed into the holes of a cedar log feeder; this is wildly popular with the birds, especially woodpeckers and titmice. The recipe is four parts cornmeal mixed with one part each of white flour, chunky peanut butter and Crisco.
The second most likely woodpecker to visit my yard is the Downy Woodpecker, above. He is more likely to nibble on the suet cakes that I buy at the store than eat the the peanut butter mix. This particular individual is a male Downy; you can tell by the red patch on the back of his head. Females are identical to males but do not have this red marking.
If you put out a peanut feeder you will attract even more species of birds, like this male Pine Warbler. Pine Warblers usually visit my feeders only in the colder months, and they like to nibble from the peanuts as well as the suet and the peanut butter mix; all are sources of protein in harsh winter weather. I’ve started mixing shelled sunflower seeds with the shelled peanuts, as it seems to be easier for some birds, especially the smaller ones, to extract and eat the smaller seeds. Titmice, Chickadees, Nuthatches and Finches are just a few of the birds that eat from this feeder.
Of course when peanuts from the feeder drop to the ground, there’s always a Blue Jay ready to swoop in and help himself to some easy pickin’s.
There’s a pair of Mockingbirds on every Chesapeake corner, but despite their “common-ness” I’m very fond of these guys. They are smart, busy, and always seem to have a purpose in mind. The ones in my yard are also very fond of me, as I’m the “big thing” that brings them the peanut butter mixture.
The Mockingbird’s cousin, the Brown Thrasher (above) is an uncommon winter visitor to the yard. In the spring and summer they are quite common and conspicuous; they usually build a nest in my honeysuckle, and raise one or two broods. But they migrate south by October. The birds I
sometimes see in the winter months are birds that migrated here from farther north. As you can see, Brown Thrashers like the peanuts too.
Of course, one of the perils of having a popular birdfeeder yard is that predators find it too. One family of hawks in particular, the Accipiters, prey upon small birds for their survival. They will be attracted to any area where they see a lot of bird activity, including suburban yards. There are two species of accipiter that you might see in your yard, and they look almost identical in appearance. The photo above is of an adult Sharp-shinned Hawk; his cousin the Cooper’s Hawk is generally larger and a bit bulkier. I understand that predators are only following the course that nature has set for them when they hunt their prey, and I try not to interfere — but I must admit, I chased one “Sharpie” out of the yard last week because I was worried about “my” orioles.
The more types of birdfeeders and food you put out, the more different kinds of species will come to your yard. Don’t expect instant results, or be disappointed if no birds come right after you put a new feeder out; it takes them a while to find you, scope you out, and decide whether they are comfortable with your offerings. Once they decide to stay, more birds will follow their lead and join them.