Red and the Peanut

A Cincinnati Birding and Nature Journal

A Magnolia Warbler drops in for a visit...

I caught sight of this fella yesterday morning while I was eating breakfast outside. He was scouring the branches of the tall Rose of Sharon bushes right next to our table looking for (and finding) juicy green caterpillars. This is the first time I've ever had a Magnolia Warbler drop in for breakfast, and I must admit I quite liked it...

Good Morning, sweet bird!
If you look closely in the photo below, you can see a green caterpillar wriggling around in his bill. He worked through all five of the tall bushes gleaning caterpillars as he went. Then he flew up to the maple tree I was sitting under and found tasty treats there too.

Thank you, Mr. Mag, but you keep the caterpillar. My oatmeal and blueberries are enough for me! 
Magnolia Warblers are not summer residents in our area. They are just passing through during spring migration on their way north to their nesting grounds. Eat up, fella! You'll need your energy to make it to your summer home. Maybe I'll see you on your return visit this autumn during fall migration as you wing your way south to your wintering grounds.

...right above me!
Magnolia Warbler field marks are so clear. Even the underside of his tail feathers is a giveaway...half white, half black.
You don't even need to see his facial markings to identify him.

You can come for breakfast anytime, you sweet Magnolia Warbler, you! 
...chalk up another new yard bird for our new house.  I love living by woods! 


The heronry is open for business!

On January first Matty and I decided to explore the woods beside our house and see what was there. The woods lead into a protected green space we had never hiked, so we were excited to check out a new area. While walking the banks of a winding creek in a gorge, we stumbled across a small heronry. Was it active? We didn't know. We'd have to wait until late January or early February when male herons returned to their heronries to stake their claim. Rick and I hiked there several times through January to see if anything was happening, but the nests remained empty, until finally, at the beginning of February we started noticing herons flying low over our house! They had to be headed to the heronry! Last summer when we moved in, Big Blue would fly over our house every morning and evening. We assumed he was flying to Lake Isabella or the Little Miami River. Little did we know a secret heronry was his real destination! On Sunday Rick and I set out to see if the heronry was active...it was! We counted 19 herons. We avoided the creek because we didn't want to be under the heronry disturbing the birds (it's much further downstream and very hard to reach, not to mention dangerous!). Instead, we climbed up to a ridge that overlooks a small valley and the creek. The heronry is on the other side. We were really far away, but with a zoom lens and binocs, we could see the activity...

A male heron makes an early stake at a local heronry, his nuptial plumage visible in the fading light of evening.

We were there around 5:00 and the sun was sinking fast so silhouettes were all we could see, but that didn't matter.  It was so exciting knowing Great Blue Herons would be flying regularly over our house all spring and summer. 

A Great Blue Heron circles his nest preparing to land. Even the fading light
can't hide the lovely nuptial feathers silhouetted against the evening sky.

...settling in for the night.

Nuptial plumage...
Nuptial plumage or breeding plumage are the beautiful feathers birds sport on their head and neck during the mating season. Not all birds have nuptial plumage, but herons and egrets are famous for it. Click here for a link to a Little Blue Heron showing beautiful breeding plumage. (I photographed him on Pinckney Island in Hilton Head back in 2011).

At our previous house, we lived three miles from a huge Great Blue Heron heronry. Over the years I posted a lot about that heronry (starting in 2009). Click here for photos of that heronry in full swing! 


New house, new birds...

It's been a long time since I posted...so long I almost forgot how to do it, but it all came back quickly, thank goodness! Where the heck was I? The same place as always, but I was so busy I didn't have time for birds (I can't believe I just said that, but it's true!). I was spending a lot of time getting our house ready to sell, fighting neck pain that prevented me from carrying my camera or binoculars, and riding and taking care of my horse, but now I have my priorities straight and birds once again are front and center -- where they should be for heaven's sake.

At the end of May Rick and I moved to a new (old) home with woods and fields around it. The new habitat meant new yard birds...eastern bluebirds, turkeys, phoebes, barn swallows, eastern wood peewees, and oven birds...all birds I never saw or heard in our yard at our old house! We spent the summer getting used to the house, making friends with our new neighbors, eating outside, and listening and looking for new birds to add to our yard list.  I think the bluebirds and turkeys are our favorites. It's really exciting to look out and see a flock (or "rafter") of turkeys weaving their way through the tall grass in the yard...

A turkey in dew-soaked grass foraging in our backyard in the morning light.

...and such a cute little rafter you three are! 

Prairie-dogging turkeys...gotta love them! 


Mealworms and Stink Bugs...tasty winter treats for Carolina Wrens!

There's no denying the Carolina Wrens in our backyard love mealworms (beetle larva), so to keep them happy I hide a stash of the larva in a tiny ceramic birdhouse in a pot on our deck. The entry hole in the birdhouse is small enough for a wren but not a starling, so the mealworms don't disappear in a hurry when the starlings (who also love them) descend in a mad feeding frenzy. Funny thing is, when the little birdhouse runs dry, the happy Carolina Wrens let me know they are unhappy by perching above the tiny house and sending me accusatory glares...

If that's not an accusatory glare I don't know what one is. 
"Where are my mealworms, woman?" seems to radiate from his adorable puffed-up self.  

Waiting...waiting...waiting for a refill...
(Is he tapping his little bird toenail in annoyance?)

...emerging from the tiny house fueled up on mealworm protein and ready for dessert...stink bugs!

Marmorated Stink Bugs 
This winter the Carolina Wrens have been especially spritely and chippy on our deck, and Rick and I have loved watching them. They've also developed a new habit...scouring the curtains fastened at the corners of our "Big Tent." It's not really a big tent, I just call it that. It's one of those canvas gazebo things we've anchored to our deck. It works really well in the summer keeping the sun off us, and, apparently, it works really well in the winter as a super secret hiding place for stink bugs trying to overwinter in peace. Unfortunately for the stink bugs, our Carolina Wrens have found them out. One day I noticed the folds in the curtains moving when suddenly a Carolina Wren popped out. He had a clearly identifiable Marmorated Stink Bug in his bill. He threw the bug down and proceeded to peck at it and then eat it. "Whoa, that's cool," went through my mind, so I watched for more. He immediately flew back up to the curtain, dove in and came back out with another Marmorated Stink Bug. Over the next few weeks, our Carolina Wrens spent a lot of time searching for and finding stink bugs in the curtains. The activity has lessened, so I think all the tasty treats have been found.

Our "Big Tent" 

The folds in the fastened curtains have become a hiding place for stink bugs.
The folds have also become a treasure trove of a winter protein source for our backyard Carolina Wrens. 

I wondered if Carolina Wrens eating overwintering stink bugs was a thing, or if ours just stumbled on the pests and were "making do" in winter, so I looked it up, and it's a thing! Carolina Wrens love stink bugs, and stink bugs like to overwinter in groups, so when they find one stink bug, they look for more in the same location. Stink bugs release an "aggregation pheromone" to attract other buddies to their super secret winter hiding places or to good feeding sources, which is why so many were hidden the folds of the curtains. Carolina wrens are cavity nesters, and they regularly search crevices and cavities for insects. Since they also take well to man-made nest boxes, it was inevitable that the wrens would search in the man-made crevices of the curtains and end up finding their winter prey.  (When insects "overwinter" they enter a hibernation-like state called "diapause.")

We never use the curtains on the Big Tent, so early this summer I thought I might take them down, but then I forgot to do it! I'm glad I forgot...and I'm also glad I didn't know the stink bugs were slowly gathering for the big winter sleep (or I would have taken them down). Now...next winter our Carolina Wrens will again  have easy hidden treats to find.

Reference links to find out more about Marmorated Stink Bugs and the aggregation pheromone:

  United States Department of Agriculture (July 16, 2014): "ASDA Researchers Identify Stink Bug Attractant"

  EntomologyToday (July 16, 2014): "Scientists Decipher Stink Bug Aggregation Pheromone"

  Rutgers New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station: FAQ "Monitoring for the Brown Marmorated Stink Bug"

  The Journal of Natural Products, 2014, 77 (7), pp 1708-1717: "Discovery of the Aggregation Pheromone 
  of the Brown Marmorated Stink Bug (Halyomorpha halysthrough the Creation of Stereoisomeric 
  Libraries of 1-Bisabolen-3-ols"


Red in the Hornbeam

It doesn't matter how cold or gray it gets outside, Northern Cardinals burn bright...

A Northern Cardinal in the American Hornbeam in our backyard. 


Fast food isn't good for you anyway, Mr. Red-shouldered Hawk!

Our resident Red-shouldered Hawk decided he was tired of sitting in the tree waiting for an unsuspecting meal to fly by, so he went directly to the source for a little fast-food takeout. Apparently word got out that the local "McTitmouse" was under surveillance, so our backyard birds went somewhere else for dinner...

A Red-shouldered Hawk perches on our platform feeder. The Dark-eyed Juncos, White-throated Sparrows, White-crowned Sparrows, Chickadees, Titmice, Carolina Wrens, woodpeckers, and Northern Cardinals that usually dine there were not amused. They fled for safer ground.

...the shutter clicked in time to catch his nictitating membrane covering his eye.  
If you want to see a nictitating membrane in action, click here to go to a video that shows it covering the eye in slow motion. It's cool to watch because the membrane closes horizontally from the medial corner to the lateral corner, not vertically like our eye lid.

Uh ohhh....he hears my camera click, and now he's not amused.

Our Red-shouldered Hawk sat on the feeder for a while, to no avail. He eventually flew off to find his dinner elsewhere.


The mulberries are ripening...

...so here come the Cedar Waxwings!

Cedar Waxwings perch in the big mulberry tree in our backyard.
Every year late in May and early in June, flocks of Cedar Waxwings swoop into our backyard to raid the mulberry trees, gobbling up the juiciest berries as they ripen on the branches. This Saturday as we sat down to dinner on the deck, a large flock arrived in a flurry of excitement and anticipation. Singing their beautiful high-pitched tseeee tsee tseeeee song while on the wing, we heard them coming before we saw them, and then what a free-for-all! The sleek, elegant birds abandoned their usual aplomb and immediately tucked into the berries, devouring anything plump and juicy in sight, but it didn't stop there, they created a commotion by singing to each other, cuddling up along branches, hopping from here to there, then hopping back. It wasn't a complete feeding frenzy, but more like a social gathering where they were all saying things like, "Over here, these are the ripest berries," "No...no...don't listen to him, over here, sample these."  It went on and on until all the sweet, dark berries were gone, and only the underripe, hard berries remained. Then off to the next tree they flew!

Short and sweet 
The mulberry season is short and sweet, so the waxwings don't stick around in our backyard, but later in the summer and in the early fall, pokeweed berries lure the Cedar Waxwings back. Click here for an earlier post on pokeweed berries and Cedar Waxwings in our backyard.


Barred Owl along the Little Miami River

It's been so long since I've been able to get out in the woods and look for sweet, sweet, little birdies, so when the sun came out and the temp climbed up, I grabbed my camera and headed for the river. I saw Black-throated Blues, Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, Wood Thrushes, Yellow-rumped Warblers, Scarlett Tanagers, Red-eyed Vireos, Chestnut-sided Warblers, woodpeckers, and all the other usual suspects...and then I saw this fellow perched high in the branches staring at me......sweet!

A Barred Owl perched in a tree along the Little Miami River.
What a surprise to look up and see this fine face looking back at me!


How to make a ceramic pottery "lily pad" bird bath...and a frog to sit on it!

If you're starting to feel a little antsy for spring while a certain Mr. Winter continues to drag his feet (the groundhog saw his shadow...six more week of winter...ugh), why not hurry spring along by making a cute "lily pad" birdbath for the birds...

Learn how to make this cute lily pad birdbath for the birds this spring.
Visions of birds splashing around in a little birdbath you make can help tide you over
until your garden starts waking up and the birds start singing this spring!! 

How to make the bird bath
1. Roll out a slab of clay.
Make the slab at least 1/4" thick. Since this piece will be outside, you want it to be strong.

2. Cut out the shape of the "lily."
The beauty of this project is any shape works. You can make an actual lily shape or just a wavy circle. It doesn't matter!

3. Stuff plastic under the edges and push the center down to form the bowl.
The clay has to harden, and the best way to help it keep its shape is to stuff plastic around the edges. Newspaper doesn't really work, because it absorbs water and loses its shape. The plastic (dry cleaner bags work really well) maintains it shape.

...and that's it! This has to be the easiest ceramic pottery birdbath project ever!

How to make a frog for the lily pad
1. Form a small ball of clay into a wedge shape.
This wedge will be the body of the frog. The pointed end will be its nose.

2. Roll out a clay "noodle," and attach it to the hind end of the body.
This "noodle" will become the frog's leg.

3. Press the noodle to the frog's side. About halfway up, bend the noodle back.
Making a frog's leg is that simple. In the photo below you can see how easy it is to create the look of a frog's leg.

4. Add the webbing on the back feet.
Simply press a few lines into his feet using a wooden carving tool...no details are needed!

5. Roll out two smaller noodles for the front legs and attach them.
In the photo below, you can see the front legs are even easier to create. Attach them just in front of the back legs, and curve them in. Add the webbing lines as well.

6. Roll out tiny balls and press them onto the head to form the eyes; then use an Exacto knife to cut a simple mouth.
Voila...you have a frog to laze on your lily pad bird bath!



6. "Score" the clay to attach the frog to the lily pad.
To attach one piece of clay to another, you must "score" the surfaces first, which means you rough up the surfaces a little, dab water onto the score marks, and stick the two pieces together. I usually use a pencil, a clay needle or a craft knife.

7. You're finished with the construction of the birdbath...
...but you have a few more steps to go: let the piece dry (can take up to a week), fire it, glaze it, and fire again. Find a pottery teacher to help you if you don't have your own kiln or access to clay or glazes. There are lots of studios around town.

You can dig out a small depression in the ground to hold the bird bath (as in the example at the beginning of the post), or place it in a stand like in the photo below. Have fun!!!

I usually scoop out a depression in the ground to hold my lily pad bird baths, but they look great in a stand too.
Another option: attach a chain at three equidistant spots and hang it from a branch.


New Backyard Bird...female Pileated Woodpecker!

It's rare to get new species in our yard now. We've lived here since 1999, so our backyard bird list is pretty well set. I hope this one becomes a regular. We've seen her several times over the past two weeks...

A female Pileated Woodpecker outside our kitchen window. I was shooting through the glass and the screen (while half in the sink), so these photos are a little fuzzy, but I'll take 'em!

...such a pretty little Pileated Woodpecker...not! She's huge, and it's so exciting to see her right outside the window!

...please come back, please come back, please come back! 


The Little Miami Conservancy is turning 50 in 2017!

The Little Miami Conservancy (LMC) is celebrating its 50th year of river conservation, restoration, cleanup and protection of the Little Miami National and State Wild and Scenic River.

Become a Member
If you would like to become a member of the Little Miami Conservancy and make a donation to help protect our Wild and Scenic River, click here for the website, and click the Donate button.

Contact LMC
To contact the Little Miami Conservancy to learn about volunteer opportunities:

     Little Miami Conservancy
     209 Railroad Avenue
     Loveland, OH 45140

     call: 513-965-9344 (leave a message)
     email: partee@littlemiami.com
     ...or click here for a little history of the Little Miami Conservancy

Little Miami River posts over the years...
I just looked on the blog and found I have 118 posts on the Little Miami River and 50 from the Little Miami River Bike Trail. You can find so much beauty along its banks, and we owe that to the formation of the Little Miami Conservancy 50 years ago. Without their stewardship this last half century, much of the beauty would have been lost. Their endless efforts to have the river certified in the National and State Wild and Scenic River programs protected it from development and continue to help ensure it will remain pristine and beautiful.

To see a little more of the Little Miami River's beauty and a few of the birds and plants you'll find along its banks, click here for Red and the Peanut blog posts over the years.


The Marsh Wrens at Maumee Bay...

This post picks up right where the previous post left off...in the middle of the huge stand of phragmites along the boardwalk at the Maumee Bay Lodge. At that time Common Yellowthroats were stealing the show with their happy song, but just a few steps away,  a slew of Marsh Wrens were gurgling out their bubbly song luring me over their way. The little dynamos were on both sides of the boardwalk near the observation deck, singing and moving through the reeds. One male would sound off, and another would reply...then another on the other side would sing, until the entire marsh was a mish-mash of wren music, but not one would come out of hiding to say, "Hi!" So I did what any birder would do. I sat down, listened, and waited. The boardwalk was empty, so there were no humans to scare the wrens away, and eventually, this little fellow popped up, giving me a glimpse of his cute self...

A male Marsh Wren peeks through the reeds along the boardwalk at Maumee Bay Lodge.
Why was I lucky enough to see this little fellow? Well...our little Marsh Wren was sharing his territory with a pair of Common Yellowthroats, or perhaps it's more accurate to say the yellowthroats had encroached on our wren's digs. Who knows, but with human eyes and imagination, it appeared the Common Yellowthroat had let out with one too many "witchety-witchety-witchety woos," and Mr. Wren had had enough. "Be gone, ye yellow-throated thing" seemed to be the call at hand, because suddenly, our wren popped up, gave the Common Yellowthroat what looked like the stink eye, sang his bubbly spring song for all he was worth, and dove back down to the depths of the reeds where he bubbled out more notes to prove his point. Of course, this is probably all fantasy, but it worked out well for me because I was finally able to photograph this little cutie.

Marsh Wrens are famous for being heard and not seen. They love to move around near the base of the reeds, singing while they are down there, taunting humans who hover about with binocs and cameras.
Marsh Wrens are adorable. Their tail feathers are often cocked nice and high, and their constant motion turns them into little imps...and who can resist an imp? I sat for a while without moving, just listening and watching the male wrens periodically pop up in the air and then flutter back down to the watery safety of the reeds, singing the whole time. They were keeping an eye on their territories, and also possibly building "dummy nests." In early spring, males build several nests hoping to catch the eye of a ladylove. The nests are round and hang between the reeds. Eventually, the female picks the nest she likes and then lines it with cattail down.

(Male House Wrens build several dummy nests in their territory as well, but they use nest boxes and other types of cavities. The female also picks her favorite location and finishes off the nest. A few summers ago, we were able to witness some of this behavior in our backyard. Click here to watch a video of our backyard House Wrens feeding their nestlings.

Singing in the reeds, just singing in the reeds...

Hey...when you're finished with that nest, can I use it?
Here's something cool I read about a few weeks ago in Birds of Lake, Pond, and Marsh: Water and Wetland Birds of Eastern North America, by John Eastman. On pages 231-232, Eastman mentions that when Marsh Wrens leave their nests, bumblebees often move in, lining the nests with cattail down to raise their own broods.

...to say I've fallen behind is an understatement! These photos go all the way back to May 9, 2016 when I was in Toledo for the Biggest Week in American Birding warblerfest.


Witchety-witchety-witchety woo...

Common Yellowthroats were singing for all they were worth a few weeks ago along the Maumee Bay Lodge boardwalk. I was staying at the lodge for the Biggest Week in American Birding warblerfest, and I walked the boardwalk at the lodge many times. In the huge stands of phragmites on the way to the observation deck, Common Yellowthroats were busy staking out territory and singing nonstop...witchety-witchety-witchety-woo...

Male Common Yellowthroat singing along the boardwalk at Maumee Bay Lodge.

The song of the Common Yellowthroat is easy to recognize. It truly sounds like witchety-witchety-witchety-woo! I always hear the bird's song long before I see it. 

The contrast between the black mask and yellow throat and breast stand out through binoculars and the camera's lens, but when you view this bird from a distance with the naked eye, the disruptive pattern and the olive green color on his back help him blend into his surroundings. Thankfully, his loud song gives him away every time and makes easier to find him.

I see you...yes, I do!

A sapling along the boardwalk near the observation tower provided a convenient perch for this male Common Yellowthroat to sing his song. A slew of Marsh Wrens in the same area were singing as well, but they spent most of their time hunkered down in the phragmites. With the Common Yellowthroats and the Marsh Wrens singing loud and clear, this part of the Maumee Bay boardwalk really had it going on! 

I saw so many beautiful warblers at the Biggest Week (I'll try to get all the photos up in a timely fashion...but knowing me, it may take 6 months!). I also taught two field sketching classes and had a lot of fun helping the students discover their inner artists and learn how to become better observers. Observation is the key to drawing...and drawing is the key to observation. :-)

More to come...


Red-shouldered Hawk in snow...

It was a unpleasant surprise to look out to snow this morning. Our resident Red-shouldered Hawk seems to agree with the assessment...

A beautiful Red-shouldered Hawk sits in a snow-covered tree.
Big Red perches in the snow-covered Mulberry Tree.  A stripe of snow clings to the center of his forehead.
I don't think he's pleased... 
Snow in April 


Shelling at Lake Erie...

I love trips to Lake Erie because birding is always involved, but this time, unexpectedly, a little shelling was thrown in too...

These small, beautiful conically shaped shells are gastropods, or snails. They are probably Pleurocera acuta.
Conical-shaped shells we found on the beach along Lake Erie at Maumee Bay State Park.

Thousands of these spiral-shaped conical shells were clumped along the beach at the water's edge at Maumee Bay State Park (near Toledo, OH). They were all in perfect shape and incredibly beautiful. I know nothing about shells, so I took a handful home to learn about them. After a few Google searches, I found a NOAA site from the Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory (GLERL), and learned these beautiful little shells had once been homes to aquatic algal grazers in the gastropod family, commonly know as...snails!

Thousands of the shells were clumped together near the water's edge.

From the photos and the descriptions on the GLERL page, I'm guessing these shells are Pleurocera acuta (common name, Sharp Hornsnail). According to the information on the webpage, these snails are native to the Great Lakes and Ohio River. They like to burrow in sand and mud, and they like the slower flowing areas of rivers near the bank. I'm going to start looking for them along the Little Miami River. Since it drains into the Ohio, they might be there too.

This is a photo of several Sharp Hornsnail shells. One is black and white stripes, two are amber, two are maroon and white striped, one is blueish, and another is black and white striped.
The color variations among the Sharp Hornsnail (Pleurocera acuta) shells are beautiful...greens, ambers, blues, browns, pinks, maroons, and whites. It will be interesting to see if the colors fade over time. 

The whorls can be multi-colored like the shell on the left of dark blue, orange, and white, ...or made of similar colors, like the roses and pinks of the shell on the right.
"Whorls" are the rings spiraling the conical shell. Pleurocera acuta can have up to 14 whorls.
After checking the shells I brought home, I found most had between 9 and 11 whorls.

Although they look like black and white stripes, closer inspection shows the dark stripe is really a dark chestnut brown.

Sharp Hornsnail shells from Lake Erie (Pleurocera acuta)

Further reading
If you want to learn a little about snail shell morphology, click here for the paper, "North American Freshwater Snails," by J. B. Burch, and go to page 25 (in Walkerana, 1986, 2(6) on the Freshwater Mollusk Conservation Society (FMCS) website. You can learn about the whorls, aperture, shell size, and shell shapes, e.g., the shape of our little Sharp Hornsnail is "elongate conic." This booklet is packed with a lot of information.

Freshwater Gastropods of North America is a blog with higher-level scientific info. Click here for a link to "Pleurocera acuta is Pleurocera canaliculata," by Dr. Rob Dillon. Just like in birding, it seems the species names of gastropods can change!

Where did the colors come from?
In the comments section, Mary Ann asked if I new why the same mollusk would make shells in various colors. I didn't, so I did a quick check to find out. Click here for a blog post by Richard Goldberg titled, "The Significance of Snail Shell Color and Pattern" (6-19-2009) on the Art and Science of Nature blog. Goldberg explains that these varied colors ("inter-population variability") can be explained through evolutionary science, mentioning "extreme color polymorphism" in a population is good, because "looking different from your neighbor" prevents predators from developing a "search image" for its prey. Read the article for more details.

As for the colors themselves, they are produced in many ways, including pigments the mollusk acquires from what it eats, pigments the mollusk produces to strengthen shells, hereditary colors to offer camouflage, and much more. Click here for an article by Gary Rosenberg titled, "Why do Shells Have Their Colors?" on the Conchologists of America, Inc. website for details.

I emailed Dr. Rob Dillon, a professor in the Department of Biology at the College of Charleston, to make sure I had identified Pleurocera acuta correctly. He replied that I did (yeah!). But there's more...in 2013 Pleurocera acuta received the trinomen "Pleurocera canaliculata acuta" as a subspecies and "junior synonym" of canaliculata. (Pleurocera acuta was first described by Thomas Say in 1821 as canaliculata and the new name reflects that history.) Thanks, Professor Dillon!  See the paragraph above under "Further reading" for a link to Dr. Dillon's blog. Click here if you want to learn what a subspecies is. 

This post is part of our "Big Water" trip to Maumee Bay. Click here for more posts in the series.


Red-shouldered beauty in winter...

When winter has drained the color from the trees, and gray settles in like it owns the place, our Red-shouldered Hawk is conspicuously beautiful. His red shoulders and the strong contrast between the black and white stripes in his tail feathers pop in the landscape...

A Red-shouldered Hawk takes flight from a young oak tree in our backyard.

This is the first time I've seen our Red-shouldered Hawk perch in the young oak tree. It started as a sapling about 10 years ago and has been growing quietly ever since. It finally caught Big Red's eye. Our little oakling is growing up.

Even from behind, and at a distance, a Red-shouldered Hawk is gorgeous and stops you in your tracks.


Red loves his new platform feeder!

Earlier this winter, the platform feeder my dad made me back in 1990 when Rick and I moved from our apartment into our first house died. I went out to stock it with seed, and it was shattered on the ground...raccoon, squirrel...Sasquatch? Who knows who dealt the final blow. All I knew was it broke my heart. That feeder was part of our backyard landscape for over 26 years, and because my dad made it, I loved it all the more. It was Red's favorite feeder as well, and I was surprised how hollow it made me feel to look out and not see Red and his buddies crowded around eating sunflower seeds from it. The thought of putting a new store-bought feeder in its place made me feel even worse, so I just threw seed on the ground and ignored the gaping hole until Rick stepped in to save the day by making a beautiful "Cedar Palace" for Red and me...

Northern Cardinals visit a cedar platform feeder covered in snow.
Red and his buddies took to Rick's cedar platform feeder right away. When the snow melts away,
I will take a few closeups of of it. The Cedar Palace is a work of art...no nails, btw...all mortise and tenon.

Rick took the dimensions from my dad's feeder and got to work. He came up with his own design, and even made cedar shakes for the roof by hand. This thing is sturdy and will no doubt last as long as my dad's, which when added to my current age will make me 80...wait...80???? That can't be right, but after a quick re-add, it is. (I think I'm going to ignore that bit of info for now and just keep watching, painting, and photographing the birds.)

If you want to see my dad's old feeder, click here for the post from 2009, "This bird feeder has seen a lot of action..." It was only 20 years old back then!

(Thank you, Dad, for making the best bird feeder ever, and thank you, Rick, for carrying on the tradition. Lots of hearts, lots of smiley faces, lots of love.)


How to turn a coconut into a bird feeder...

If you have a drill, a vice, a coconut, and some chain, you can make a super cute coconut bird feeder! Back in November I posted a Blue Jay gobbling up sunflower seeds out of a coconut bird feeder (click here for the post). Rick had made the feeder for me earlier in the day, and while he was making it, I photographed him. I had a hunch someone would want to know where I got it, or how I made it, and several people did, so here it goes...

1. Pick up a coconut from your local grocery store.  
Our Kroger's store carries coconuts that have been scored about halfway through. Look for those, because it's a breeze to open them with just a tap from a hammer along the score line. After you crack it open it, clean it out, then get busy...

2. Mark three equidistant spots to drill holes.   
You can do math to create the three evenly spaced points, but it's much easier to just guesstimate or use "The Force" (like I do). Use painter's tape to mark them.

Painter's tape marks the spots for the three holes. 

3. Knock out two of the "eyes."   
Find the three holes at the bottom of a coconut. Two are soft and are easy to push through. These "eyes" make ideal drainage holes to keep water from building up in the shell.

Use a screwdriver or the end of a pencil to push through the eyes to create the drainage holes.

4. Place the coconut in a vice.
Use cardboard squares to cushion the coconut and help keep it from slipping.

It's much easier to drill the holes if you can anchor the coconut in a vice. Little squares of cardboard make nice cushions.

5. Drill baby, drill.
Make sure the drill bit is large enough to create a hole that will fit the chain you've chosen. Drill about 1/4" to 1/2" from the edge.

It's better to drill a larger hole than a smaller hole. The chain I use isn't that wide, so a medium-sized bit works for me.

6. Cut three even lengths of chain, and open the last link on each chain.   
Only open one link at the end of each chain. Use the vice to secure the last link and simply twist it open with a needle-nosed pliers (or any type of pliers that fits).

It's easiest to open the chain by securing half of it in the vice.
You can use any type of chain. I like this type because it's easy to open the links, and the metal is very durable. I usually choose black because it doesn't stand out, but you can use any color. I've made coconut bird feeders using twine, rope, and leather (which looks cool), but chains are the best and last the longest.

7. Thread the open link through the drilled hole.   
Use the needle-nosed pliers to help you thread the link through. After it's through, close it up using the pliers.

It's very easy to attach the chain. Feed the link through and clamp it shut!

8. Hang the three loose ends of the chain on an S hook, and close the hook.   
Be sure to use the pliers to clamp the S hook closed so the chains don't slip off.

Could it be any easier? Hang the feeder in a tree, fill it with seed, and watch and wait!  

A sweet Carolina Chickadee was the first bird to sample the goods. The Blue Jay came next. The birds that most love this feeder are Carolina Chickadees, Tufted Titmice, and Blue Jays. Strangely enough, the squirrels leave it alone! 

When did my love affair with coconut bird feeders start?
It goes all the way back to February 9, 1906. Yes, you read that right...1906! That's when Edith Holden wrote about a coconut bird feeder in her book, A Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady. At the end of her book, on page 176, she included an illustration of the feeder, and I fell in love with it.

Edith Holden's book is a hand-written record of her daily walks and observations of the countryside around the small village of Olton in Warwickshire, England. Edith is a talented artist and naturalist and fills the pages of her book with beautiful watercolor illustrations of the wildlife and scenery she encountered every day on her walks. Rendered with a naturalist’s eye for detail, her paintings are soft, colorful and engaging. Her love and deep understanding of nature is apparent in every painting. She also scatters her favorite poems in with the illustrations and includes historical information and even folk sayings.

Other Options
Sunflower seeds are not the only thing you can put in the coconut. You can also fill it with suet, or even leave the coconut meat in it. The birds will peck away at it (and if you look closely at Edith Holden's painting above, you'll see that's what she did. The little birds are grabbing pieces of coconut from the shell.).  I want to try making a few suet recipes and putting the suet in a coconut. When I find one that works really well, I'll let you know!


The Rock Pigeons at Rock House...

Back in October, we took a trip to Hocking Hills State Park in southeast Ohio. The park is only two hours from Cincinnati and offers wonderful hiking and spectacular scenery. Rock House is one of the caves in the park. Located halfway up a 150-foot wall of blackhand sandstone, the true cave has a 25-foot high ceiling, is about 30 feet wide, and is 200 feet long...but even better, it is home to a beautiful flock of Rock Pigeons....

A Rock House Rock Pigeon!

Rock Pigeons are city birds, right? So the last thing I expected to see when I stepped into the long dark tunnel deep in the woods was pigeons...but I shouldn't have been surprised. Originally, before humans came along and built cities, Rock Pigeons lived in crevices and caves on coastal rock walls and cliffs in Europe, North Africa and parts of Asia. European colonists brought them to North America in the 1600s. Their name reflects their native habitat, so it was especially fun to find them living in the wild!

The trail leading to the Rock House is beautiful. 

Inside Rock House looking out. The pigeons would fly in and out through this opening in the cave. Birds roosted in the many crevices and cracks on the wall outside the cave as well as those inside. 

The birds would fly in and out of the cave, and I loved listening to their cooing and the constant flutter of their wings as they flew from roosting spot to roosting spot.

This fellow is above me on a ledge inside the cave. If I would look to my right, I would see out of the opening in the photo above. Eventually this pigeon flew outside while another flew back in.

Love those pink feet!

This small rectangular reservoir was carved into the sandstone by Native Americans. They would use it to collect water. Now the pigeons used it for drinking and bathing (see the video at the end of the post). 

A view out of the opening opposite the back cave wall where the birds were. This opening looks a little like a bird... 

Rock House video
Click here to watch the "Naturally Ohio: Rock House" video. It was made by the Ohio Public Broadcasting Station, and Pat Quackenbush, an ODNR Naturalist, is the narrator. Pat takes you on a tour of the trail and explains the flora, fauna and history of the Rock House. It's only 20 minutes, and it's really good!

Can pigeons diagnose cancer?
Click here for the article "Can Pigeons Really Diagnose Cancer? A new study says yes, but you're not likely to see them in lab coats anytime soon," written by Hannah Waters on the Audubon web site to learn about pigeons' ability to identify and sort visual patterns, including cancer cell patterns and healthy cell patterns. It can recognize all 26 letters in the alphabet, as well as different faces in photos.

The domestication of the Rock Pigeon
Click here to read about the earliest encounters of man with the Rock Pigeon. The first art appears in Mesopotamian cuneiform tablets dating back over 5000 years ago, but it's more likely the pigeon was domesticated by Neolithic man over 10,0000 years ago in the area near the Tigris and Euphrates rivers when humans started cultivating grains. In prehistoric times, Rock Pigeons probably lived with man in caves and in the crevices on the surrounding rock walls and cliffs.

A unique way of drinking water
Pigeons and doves drink water by using their bills like a straw, sucking water in while their bill is still immersed in the water. Most birds take a sip and toss their head back so the water flows down their throat. The following video is dark and poor quality (taken in a cave with my cell phone), but you can see the pigeon sucking up the water through its bill...

A Rock Pigeon drinking water at the Rock House from Kelly Riccetti on Vimeo.


Fly Red, fly!!!

Mrs. Red-shouldered Hawk is watching you...

A Red-shouldered Hawk in the mulberry tree in our backyard. 
She perched there for about 30 minutes before flying off empty-taloned. 


A Yellow-bellied Sapsucker...

...has taken up residence in our backyard! Wait, what? A Yellow-bellied Sapsucker? We've lived in our home for almost 17 years, and we've never had one visit our yard ever, but this fella has been here at least a week. I hope he sticks around for the rest of the winter. The most common time to see Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers in our area is during spring and fall when they are migrating through. Sapsuckers nest much farther north, and they usually winter farther south, but we have one that appears to be wintering in our backyard...

A Yellow-bellied Sapsucker perches on our deck railing amid snowflakes and a small accumulation of snow.
A Yellow-bellied Sapsucker on our deck. 

It's the third week of January, and if you look up the bird list on the Cincinnati Audubon's website (click here), you'll find Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers are given a "D," which means they are hard to find in our area this time of the year. So yahoo for our new little visitor!

...and what a sweet yellow belly you have!

A wintering Yellow-bellied Sapsucker eating suet while snowflakes are falling all around him.
Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers like sap, but there is no sap flowing around our house, so suet is the next best thing.
Our sapsucker has visited all of our suet feeders but has ignored the sunflower seed and peanut feeders.

This suet feeder is right outside our living room window, making it easy to get a good look at him. 

A male Yellow-bellied Sapsucker climbs a mulberry tree. Snow is falling making this a lovely winter scene.
A Yellow-bellied Sapsucker clings to a mulberry tree in our backyard while snowflakes fall gently all around.

Another view of the sapsucker through our living room window. The mulberry tree he is on is further away than the suet feeder, but still close enough to see him fairly well.

Our Yellow-bellied Sapsucker is not trying to drill any sapwells on the tree. He doesn't drill if sap is not flowing.

Sapsuckers start drilling sapwells when the sap starts flowing in early spring. They don't drill if there is no sap to be had. On Cornell's "All About Birds" website (click here), I read hummingbirds love hanging around sap wells and drink the sap readily. In some parts of Canada, Ruby-throated Hummingbirds time their spring migration so they arrive with the sapsuckers. Bats and porcupines visit sapsucker sapwells too, so these little birds help feed a lot of other animals! Here is another cool fact: sapsuckers will roll ants and other small insects in sap to create a "sugar-coated bolus" to feed to their young (click here for the source on the Penn State Extension site).

I hope our new Yellow-bellied Sapsucker sticks around all winter. It's been fun watching him. 

We have had a very warm winter so far. Tonight, however, the temps are dropping to the single digits and wind chills will be fierce. I hope the cold does not drive this little cutie south. I'll keep you posted!


Merry Christmas!

A red-breasted nuthatch with a red ribbon and pinecones in the snow wishes everyone Merry Christmas!
North Woods Visitor, by Kelly Riccetti


Trumpeter Swans at Maumee Bay State Park

There is nothing more noble on a lake than a Trumpeter Swan gliding through the water, and it's a sight uncommon down in Cincinnati (meaning I've never seen a pair of Trumpeters on any lakes, ponds or wetlands near us...with the exception of Swan Lake at the Cincinnati Zoo), but up in northern Ohio, Trumpeter Swans are almost a common sight. At least they were for us when we were at Maumee Bay earlier in November...

A Trumpeter Swan on the inland lake at Maumee Bay State Park near Toledo, Ohio.
(Photo courtesy of my cousin, Curg. I didn't have my camera with me, so Curg stepped in and captured this fellow!)

In Cincinnati we have Mute Swans on some of our ponds and lakes, which are also beautiful, but not native, so I was really excited to see these huge native swans in the wild! Trumpeter Swans are the largest waterfowl in North America and create quite an impressive sight. In the early 1900s Trumpeters were almost hunted to extinction. Their feathers, skins, meat and eggs were in demand, and hunting coupled with habitat destruction nearly wiped them out. Through habitat restoration, protection and reintroduction, Trumpeter Swans have survived and are now making a comeback!

Two Trumpeter Swans were inseparable on the inland lake at Maumee Bay State Park. I assume they are a mated pair because Trumpeter Swans are monogamous and mate for life. (Photo credit to my cousin, Curg.)

How to tell the difference between a Trumpeter Swan, a Tundra Swan, and a Mute Swan...
Three species of swans live in North America: the Trumpeter Swan (the largest swan), the Tundra Swan (the smallest of the three), and the Mute Swan. The Trumpeter Swan and the Tundra Swan are native. The Mute Swan is an exotic, invasive Eurasian species introduced in the late 1800s as a decorative pond species. Originally, owners kept their wings clipped to keep them on their ponds, but over time, several escaped and now breed in feral populations. Mute Swans are easy to identify. They have large orange bills with a black knob. It's a little harder to tell Trumpeter and Tundra Swans apart since they both have black bills, but there are specific field marks that help you ID the birds. Here are a few sites to help you learn the differences:

Click here for a guide from the Kellogg Bird Sanctuary that explains how to tell the swans apart. It even has a little interactive test to help you learn the differences.
Click here for swan identification tips from the Trumpeter Swan Society.
Click here for a 6-page printable pdf that explains how to spot the field marks that differentiate swans and geese.

If you read any of the ID tips on the links above, you learned Trumpeter Swans are often described as wearing "lipstick." If you look closely, you can see that field mark in this photo. (Again...photo credit to my cousin, Curg.)

The field ID marks of a Mute Swan are easy to recognize...an orange bill with a black knob.
(I photographed this fellow back in 2009 on a pond near my house.)

Trumpeter Swans are making a comeback in Ohio, but they are not safe yet...
The exotic Eurasian Mute Swans populating many of the lakes and ponds in Ohio are very aggressive and can outcompete Trumpeter Swans trying to establish a territory. They also are voracious eaters and can deplete aquatic vegetation for native waterfowl and even destroy entire wetland ecosystems, further squeezing out Trumpeter Swans.

Click here for a post titled "Swan Song," by John Windau on the Wild Ohio Education blog that explains in more detail the Trumpeter's plight and the steps taken to reintroduce them to Ohio.
Click here for details from the ODNR Division of Wildlife.
Click here for two previous posts with photos of Mute Swans and their cygnets on a pond near my house.

Migrating Tundra Swans at Maumee Bay...
We also saw a small flock of migrating Tundra Swans on the inland lake as well. They were off in the distance and didn't stay long. It was an impressive sight to watch them take off together to move on to another lake.

This post is part of our recent Big Water trip to Maumee Bay, click here for more posts in the series.


Happy Thanksgiving!

feeling or showing an appreciation of kindness; thankful. "I'm grateful to my family and friends for all of the love you've given me." synonyms: thankful, appreciative
I was talking to my mom this morning about how special Thanksgiving is. She summed it up with one word, grateful. It truly is wonderful to have a day set aside every year to simply be grateful for everyone in our lives and all that we have. I'm deeply grateful I have a loving and kind family, close friends and neighbors, and sweet pets and animals...

A heart made of acorns to show the love and appreciation of nature.
...and I'm also grateful for Mother Nature and all the love she has to offer!
Happy Thanksgiving!


Gobble, gobble...

...makes you think of the birds that will soon grace many tables on Thanksgiving Day, right? Sounds logical, but I'm not talking about those birds at all. I'm referring to the "greedy" Blue Jays in my backyard gobbling up sunflower seeds and peanuts like they are going out of style...

One of our backyard Blue Jays on the coconut feeder outside our kitchen window. He's not greedy. He's filling the gular pouch in his throat with sunflower seeds to hide in one of his many winter food caches. 

How can one bird eat that many seeds?
It can't! When you see Blue Jays downing one seed after another, watch closely, and you'll see they aren't eating the seeds at all, they are storing them in a pouch in their throats called a gular pouch. Blue Jays have a built-in carrying case called a gular pouch under their tongues. This expandable pouch extends down into their throats as far as the upper esophagus. In late summer and all through the fall Blue Jays and other birds, such as chickadees, nuthatches, and Tufted Titmice, start hoarding acorns and other seeds and nuts in winter caches. By storing their food, they can survive long, cold winters when their normal food sources freeze over or run out.

Click here for an older post with photos of a Blue Jay filling his gular pouch with peanuts, and learn how Blue Jays with their acorn caching ways repopulated areas with oak trees after the last glaciers retreated.

Click here for an earlier post on scatter-hoarding and winter food-caching birds in our area.

Gobble, gobble...it's fun to watch Blue Jays gobbling up sunflower seeds. They waste no time filling their gular pouches, then fly off to a winter cache, deposit them, and come back for more.

Blue Jays behaving badly (or is it just fall migration?)...
While most of the red, yellow and gold leaves of autumn have fallen from the trees and faded away, it's still fall, and Blue Jays are still out there doing their autumn antics. My mom called a few weeks ago reporting 17 Blue Jays were in her backyard behaving badly. They were impersonating hawks, stealing seed, frightening the titmice, and taking over every feeder in their yard...but, she loved it! It's very exciting to have a marauding band of migrating Blue Jays in your yard, especially when you live in the city! She wanted to know what was going on, so I let her know in autumn, some northern Blue Jays take to the wing and migrate south, while others stay put. When they migrate, they form large groups of what really do look like marauding bands, and when a flock lands in your backyard, watch out. They will raid all of your feeders and plunder till nothing remains. Then they will be gone in a flash, not to return.

Click here for a pdf of a paper by Paul A. Stewart in North American Bird Bander, July-Sep. 1982, titled, "Migration of Blue Jays in Eastern North America," pgs 107 - 112. Stewart analyzes banding and recovery records to identify the birds' migratory movements, showing Blue Jays are partly migratory because some groups stay throughout the year, and of those that do migrate, not all return to their same nesting grounds. Stewart includes maps that show the locations of direct recoveries of banded migratory birds.

This fellow is not part of a marauding band. He's just a regular at the Coconut Cafe outside our kitchen window. 

...put the blue in the coconut and shake it all up. 

Gobble up those sunflower seeds Ol' Blue and secret them off to your winter food cache. Your scatter-hoarding will get you through the winter, plus it's great for seed dispersal!


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