Finch feeding frenzy

The behavior of my backyard birds is often just as telling as the latest weather report.  Judging from the frenzy of activity going on at the bird feeders today, the thermometer must be headed for negative numbers again.

house finches and goldfinches-

There must have been 2 or 3 dozen House Finches and Goldfinches mobbing this feeder in waves.

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A few waited their turn in the bushes opposite the feeder…

house finches and goldfinches-

Most of the time the birds took turns amicably.

house finches and goldfinches-

But there’s always a bully in the bunch. The red-headed male House Finch at top right tried moving a female House Finch off her perch.  But she beaked him once or twice and he moved away.

house finches and goldfinches-

Moments later, he was over on the left side of the feeder trying to move a male House Finch away from his perch. But he lost that battle, too, and flew away.

house finches and goldfinches-

I never realized how pretty Goldfinches are in flight with their striking black and gold wings.

The finches monopolized the feeder continuously for 10-15 minutes and then disappeared for an hour or two.  Then the frenzy started up once more, but again dissipated.  It must take quite a while to move all that bird seed from their crop and stomach into the lower part of the intestine for digestion.

adding some color

The landscape may have turned white again with the latest snowfall, but the birds are starting to show some color at last, with the males molting some of their body feathers.

male house finch

I don’t think I’ve ever noticed the pretty red rump of the male House Finch in its breeding plumage.

male american goldfinch-

Not quite ready for prime time yet, but the male American Goldfinches are starting to sprout new yellow feathers in place of their drab tan winter plumage.

Cardinals, Chickadees, and Finches are singing — spring is on its way, if very slowly.

male cardinal-

Even the Cardinals have yet to lose the gray edging of their bright red feathers before they gain their true spring brilliance.

the birds and the bees

In late September, there are far fewer flowers for the bees and birds to visit — the bees to collect those last remaining dregs of pollen and nectar before the snow flies, and the birds to harvest what seed might still be remaining in flowers that bloomed more than two months ago.

Giant Hyssop is a favorite of the bumblebees these days; its profuse blooms always attract a variety of pollinators, especially when the sunshine can get through the clouds to warm up the air a little.

bumblebees-on-giant-hyssop

The bumblebees generally start at the bottom of the flower head and spiral around upward walking over some flowers, poking their antennae into others, and every now and then inserting their entire head into a particular flower to glean whatever nectar lies at the bottom of the floral tube.

bumblebees-on-giant-hyssop

When the bee gets to the top of the raceme, it makes a short flight over to the next one, beginning again at the bottom and working its way up to the top.  

Flower stalks already being worked by one bee seem to be off-limits; there would probably be little nectar left in the flowers in that case.  But every so often, a couple of bees try working the same flower patch…

bumblebees-on-giant-hyssop

Looks like better foraging on the hyssop flowers than this very attractive but apparently unrewarding purple flower that I planted but have no idea what it is.

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bumblebees-on-giant-hyssop-

oops, this one is taken

bumblebees-on-giant-hyssop-

This isn’t a tandem bumblebee hook-up; the one on top (right side up) is actually flying toward the camera, away from the bee that was originally foraging on that stem.

Overlooking this busy bumblebee activity was a mixed flock of Goldfinches, House Finches, and White-throated Sparrows, all of which were much more interested in the seeds left in the wildflower garden than the flowers there.

house-finch-eating-lilac-seeds-

Their bright red color has faded to a rosy hue with the fall feather molt. This little male spent several minutes picking out lilac seeds from dried up remnants of flower clusters.

house-finch-eating-lilac-seeds

juvenile-white-throated-sparrow-

A juvenile White-throated Sparrow watched what the House Finches were eating, but didn’t seem interested.

Red is the color of…

(fill in the blank…)   It’s time for a science nerd post on Backyard Biology, and I can’t resist summarizing an article I read in Forbes magazine (yes, Forbes does publish very well-written scientific articles) about why birds are red.

Red is the color of … many species of birds. In fact there are over 100 species of birds with a little or a lot of red plumage just in North America.

red birds

The first page of a google search for “red birds” shows a lot of images of cardinals, but many other species with red plumage as well, such as scarlet tanagers, painted buntings, red crested cardinals, flamingos, scarlet macaw, house finch, red crossbill, etc.

But there is no inherent red pigment that colors those feathers that rich, ruby hue — so how do birds manage to achieve their rosy glow?

scarlet-tanage

A beautiful scarlet tanager sitting in my buckeye tree

house-finches

Male House Finches show some red in the winter, but are brilliantly red on head and breast this spring.

As I have discussed in earlier posts, birds require beta-carotene (a yellow pigment) in their diet, in order to synthesize the red “canthaxanthin” pigment that reflects red light. The newly discovered enzyme responsible for the conversion from yellow carotene to red canthaxanthin pigment is one of a group of liver enzymes responsible for detoxification of ingested contaminants.  That’s the first requirement of achieving a red color.

If the enzyme is also produced in the skin while feathers are forming, then they achieve their full red color, and apparently, the more active the enzyme, the more intense or widespread the red. That enzyme activity during differentiation in the skin is the second requirement for achieving a red color.

So…REDness could be an honest signal (or indicator) of the health and vigor of the individual bird, an important cue for females seeking the most fit mate.

Red is the color of the most fit males.

Red is the color of the most fit males.

Surviving the cold — part I

Even though I’ve just read that 2015 was the hottest year in historical weather record-keeping (2 degrees F above average world annual temperature), the backyard here is buried in the deep freeze.  Several of my fellow bloggers have been posting queries about how animals survive conditions like this in the wild — or how humans who live and work outdoors all winter survive these extremes.  So, being somewhat of an expert on this topic once upon a time, I’m going to try to explain how they do it.

goldfinch-winter chill

Yikes — it’s chilly out there. for this young American Goldfinch

First — the challenges of winter at far northern latitudes:

  • low temperatures mean warm-blooded animals need to turn their heat producing furnaces to high to offset heat lost to the environment
  • wind, sleet, and any precipitation carry body heat away even faster than just being surrounded by cold air
slate-colored-junco

Who ordered this sleety, icy rain?  But Slate-colored Juncos are tough, and they outlast this kind of inclement weather.

  • the sun is low in the sky and it’s often cloudy and overcast, so radiant heat input is hard to come by
  • where’s the food?  Summer production is long past, food is buried under snow, other animals got to it first — so how does a warm-blooded animal get enough energy daily to fuel the heat-producing furnace?
white-tailed-deer-in-snow-

Really, there isn’t much here to fuel the needs of a large-bodied animal like these White-tailed Deer.

Solutions:

1. Prepare for it:  Those chilly fall mornings and waning daylength are signals that challenging days are ahead.  Animals prepare for the challenges of winter by hoarding or stashing food in places where they can find it later. Usually, there is a flurry of activity at bird feeders as birds and squirrels take seeds to their winter roosting sites.

chipmunk

Packing those cheek pouches full, a chipmunk carries his prize underground to eat later.

And — a new set of freshly molted feathers in the fall not only disguises once brightly colored birds, but provides a nice, new downy coat of insulation.  An under coat of dense fur beneath longer guard hairs helps keep mammals warm in the winter.

2. Eat like crazy — in order to put on a nice layer of fat reserves.  This strategy works better if you’re a fleet-footed mammal, because when birds put on too much fat, they can’t fly.  In addition to the insulative value of a layer of fat, it does provide an energy reserve for overnight energy expenses and the days when foraging for food was inadequate.

house-finches

Dining with friends (House Finches) is always a good idea, so that many eyes can spot the skulking predators.

common-redpolls-

Pine Siskins are so good at searching out and consuming high volumes of seed per day that they can maintain their body temperatures, even at very low extremes.  Like Common Redpolls, these little birds are champions at cranking up the metabolic furnace to generate heat.

And — since there aren’t many insects active in the winter, avian insectivores like chickadees switch their diet to take advantage of the high-energy content in seeds.

black-capped-chickadee

Do you wonder how a bird that weighs less than a McDonald’s ketchup packet stays warm in sub-zero cold weather?

3. Hide from the worst extremes:  Chickadees, nuthatches, and woodpeckers find a refuge from extreme temperature and wind in a roost hole.  Some sparrows and larger birds like Robins and Blue Jays huddle in the thickest part of evergreen vegetation which protects them from the effects of wind and precipitation.  Many mammals retreat to underground burrows, tree cavities, or leafy nests to hide from extremes.

bear-in-den-illustration (nps.gov)

Below ground, temperatures are above freezing, and mammals are protected from wind and precipitation. (Illustration from http://www.nps.gov/katm/blogs/Bear-Hibernation.htm)

To be continued tomorrow with more solutions….

white-tailed-buck-in-snow

Gray is the color of…

the landscape recently.  Gray is not my favorite color.  I need something bright in my view, and a little sunshine here wouldn’t hurt.  Flat light may be great for taking photos that lack offending shadows, but it really dulls the color of what I know to be brightly plumaged birds.  So, here’s the best I could do with the colorful House Finches that stopped by the feeder the other day.

house finch male

 

house finches

A small flock of House Finches munched up the sunflower seeds, and then quickly disappeared. There seems to be quite a bit of variation in the red color of the male House Finches.

Like Cardinals, male House Finches depend on the carotenoid pigments in their food during their fall molt to brighten up the striking red color in their head and breast feathers.  Female House Finches usually prefer the reddest males, so like Cardinals, the fittest males are the ones that can find the best food and are thus the most colorful.  If you see orangey tinted House Finches at your feeder, that bird might be a non-breeder next spring.

Mystery tree

We visited the Griffith Park observatory in Los Angeles for a view of the city and a short wildlife hunt.

Even on a moderately clear day, a layer of smoggy air clings to the skyline

Even on a moderately clear day, a layer of smoggy air clings to the LA skyline

A tree we didn’t recognize seemed to be particularly attractive to a wide variety of birds:  acorn woodpeckers, house finches, Anna hummingbirds, to name a few.

I first thought the orange clusters were dead leaves, but on closer inspection...

I first thought the orange clusters were dead leaves, but on closer inspection…

those orange clusters appeared to be flowers

those orange clusters appeared to be flowers

Strange looking flowers, full of sticky globs of glistening nectar residue.

Strange looking flowers, full of sticky globs of glistening nectar residue.

The House finches were really enjoying this sticky treat.

Notice how this male House finch keeps his distance from the sticky stuff.

Notice how this male House finch keeps his distance from the sticky stuff.

A female House finch delicately sampled the gooey flowers.

A female House finch delicately sampled the gooey flowers.

The most likely candidate for this mystery tree was some kind of eucalyptus, but I couldn’t find one that matched these leaves and flowers.  So it’s a mystery…any ideas?

 

Clutter

It’s often difficult to separate the subject being photographed from its background, especially when that background involves numerous tree branches and leaves that distract glaringly from the subject.

A male House Finch posed for several minutes on the tree outside my porch window, but even though I thought he was in the clear, the photos looked cluttered with excess numbers of twigs, stems, and branches.

Really not that attractive a photo, but a starting point.  I like the early morning light on his very red head feathers.

Really not that attractive a photo, but a starting point. I like the early morning light on his very red head feathers.

So I decided to improve on getting rid of unwanted features in photos, and put some of the power of Photoshop Elements to work that I hadn’t used much.

Cropping helps, but doesn't get rid of all of the distracting elements.

Cropping helps, but doesn’t get rid of all of the distracting elements.  There is too much confusion of light and dark in the background.

Cloning and blurring parts of the background helps somewhat. But the bird doesn't really stand out from this background the way I would like.

Cloning and blurring parts of the background helps somewhat. But the bird doesn’t really stand out from this background the way I would like.

Replacing the entire background with a muted blue sky helps the bird stand out.  But this sort of looks fake.

Replacing the entire background with a muted blue sky helps the bird stand out. But this sort of looks fake.  I had to do some minute cloning and repairing of his feathers that got axed by the blue sky maneuver — can you tell where?

I’m not a fan of highly manipulated photos, but sometimes it’s fun to see what it could look like, with better shooting conditions.  Which type of photo do you like best?

The House Finches are definitely feeling spring-ey and are singing up a storm, even if the cardinals are just half-hearted about it.  The male finches seem particularly bright red these days, as their hormones rev up.  I assume the outer duller portions of their fall molted feathers have finally worn off to show their rosy glow.

This guy just couldn't quit posing.

This guy just couldn’t quit posing as he snacked on sunflower seeds.  Maybe he was just showing off for the ladies.

Fruit lovers

Out in my mother-in-law’s California backyard, the persimmon tree is drooping with fruit. The tree is deciduous in the winter, leaving just the bright orange globes hanging from rather spindly stems.

persimmon fruits

Persimmon may be an acquired taste for some (humans), but the animals love these juicy orange fruits. I found a variety of birds feasting on the semi-rotting pulp, as well as a gray squirrel.

A female (or juvenile) House Finch inspects the fruit to determine which one to peck.

A female (or juvenile) House Finch inspects the fruit to determine which one to peck.

The sharp, chisel beak of a Scrub Jay can open up these fruits so other birds can feed on them.

The sharp chisel beak of a Scrub Jay can open up these fruits so other birds can feed on them.

scrub jay feeding on persimmon

A flock of Yellow-rumped Warblers swarmed the fruits, digging into the gaping cracks in the fruit left by  larger-beaked birds

A flock of Yellow-rumped Warblers swarmed the fruits, digging into the gaping cracks in the fruit left by larger-beaked birds.

yellow-rumped warbler eating persimmonMockingbirds, and even Anna Hummingbirds, made their rounds through the persimmon tree for a bite of fruit or a stray insect attracted to the rotting fruit.  But the major consumer (by volume and time spent snacking) was the Gray Squirrel, who grabbed the fruit with his front legs while stuffing his head deep into the fleshy interior.

Can't get enough of this good stuff.

Can’t get enough of this good stuff.

Persimmon is originally from China, but is grown all over the world.  I love them, but many people don’t because of their astringent skin that imparts an unpalatable “furry-ness” to the fruit if not peeled correctly.   However, the fruit has a high glucose content (a whopping 33.5 g sugar/100 g fruit), so it provides quick energy to hungry animals.  Like many fruits, it is low in protein content (only 0.8 g/100 g fruit), although perhaps birds supplement their protein by eating the insects that are also attracted to the fruit’s exposed fleshy interior.

Something new

My daughter convinced me to try a different photo-editing program called Lightroom 5 (Adobe).  It’s easier to master than the full-scope Photoshop program, but has more fine controls than the PS Elements program I was using.  One of the nicest features is covering up all the annoying distractions in the images, like twigs that stick out in odd places, or power poles and phone lines in the middle of the photo.   So here are a couple of my first attempts at animal portraiture using Lightroom.

I removed some of the twiggy branches in the background and lightened the background to make the Junco stand out a little better.

I removed some of the twiggy branches in the background and lightened it to make the Dark-eyed Junco stand out a little better. 

This was taken in the early morning, and the light was too dim to give the bird much color. Lightening the background helped as well.

This was taken in the early morning, and the light was too dim to give this male House Finch much color. A light touch highlights with the brush tool helped, as did lightening the background around the bird.

I was out stalking deer the other day, and found three does in the way backyard, but they were too shy to come out from behind the vegetation. (Even in suburbia, deer must know when hunting season starts.)  To keep them from running off, I hid behind a tree and tried shooting through a maze of twigs and dried stems, thinking I could edit the vegetation out.  That proved impossible.

Out-of-focus seed heads in the foreground produced big blogs of tan over the doe's rear, which I replaced with some dead leaves cloned from the vegetation above her head.  I would have never tried this in Photoshop, but it's a snap in Lightroom.

Out-of-focus seed heads in the foreground produced big formless blobs of tan over the doe’s rear, which I replaced with some dead leaves cloned from the vegetation above her head. I would have never tried this in Photoshop, but it’s a snap in Lightroom.

Of course, it now takes me 10 times as long to edit a photo, but hopefully the results will be worth it.