Friday, November 20, 2009


As keen wildlife people, one of the first things we of course did when we moved in here was to put up a bird feeder. It wasn’t long at all before Tufted Titmice and Carolina Chickadees were coming to the banquet of black sunflower seed, while the addition of a suet block soon had woodpeckers and nuthatches visiting. By late October, the sparrows had begun to arrive from more northerly breeding grounds and these birds – being ground-feeders - responded favourably to a few handfuls of mixed wild bird seed scattered on what we gloriously call a lawn!

Unfortunately, the goings on of a neighbor attracts a flock of some 300 Common Grackles to the yard, a flock which hangs out all day rather than moves on through the neighbourhood. Whilst the antics of these birds can, at times, be entertaining, their loud, brash and boisterous behaviour tends to keep many other species away from the feeders, so I do flap around and scare them off from time to time!

Of course, most of the birds attracted to the yard are essentially commonplace, everyday birds, but that doesn’t detract from them as being a delight to watch. So here’s a run of pictures of Cape May’s ‘bread and butter’ birds, the species that nobody chases after as rarities but which are nevertheless part and parcel of our Cape May World.

Carolina Chickadees survive by being generalists and having an intimate knowledge of their home patch. They are quick to investigate any potential food source that appears and can turn up at a new feeder within just a few minutes of the feeder first being erected. This one is checking out the niger seed hanger that we put up for American Goldfinches.

Though Carolina Chickadees are famously very agile, this individual appeared to have an injury and, though he had both legs still intact, we never saw him use the left one. He was obviously coping with the result of a prior accident of some sort. The interesting thing about maintaining your own feeders in the yard is that you do get to know certain characters personally.

And talking of characters, Tufted Titmice certainly ooze charm and are often very entertaining in their antics. Here's a few pictures of some of our local chaps (and chapesses presumably - it's hard to tell!).

When seen head-on, that crest certainly gives Tufted Titmice a peculiar look!

And finally, a fine profile shot of a Tufted Titmouse.

Carolina Wrens don't come to our garden feeders but I have seen them at the feeders at work, especially on the suet blocks. This bird is very much the sound of Cape May, being one of only two species (the other being Northern Mockingbird) which regularly sings well into autumn. Indeed, Carolina Wrens are far more often heard than seen and they have an amazingly wide vocabulary of sounds.

The Blue Jay is one of North America's best known and most readily-recognised birds. Small parties can found patrolling the woods and backyards of Cape May any time outside of the breeding season, and these  birds often seem to have a competition to see who can make the silliest noise!

When you see the amazing, glowing yellow of a male American Goldfinch in summer (here at our garden feeder in late August), it's hard to believe that they will look so drab in just a few short weeks' time.

By the time that October rolls around, all American Goldfinches - adults and young alike - will look drab and brown like this underwhelming individual!

American Mourning Doves are easily dismissed as dull and boring, but their calls are wonderfully somniferous (look it up!) and their plumages are full of subtle charms.

The bane of our yard at present are the 300 or so Common Grackles that descend noisily on a regular basis. These birds are so noisy and boisterous that other birds tend to stay away when they are in the area and this pack can demolish a whole suet block in less than 24 hours - which starts to get a bit expensive after a while!

Despite my derogatory comments, Common Grackles are actually rather attractive birds - though they don't start that way! This juvenile bird is in the middle of its moult from drab brown youngster to glossy adult. Note also that the eye is still a little dull in colour.

A typical female Common Grackle in resplendent plumage after its post-breeding moult. Females have smaller tails than males and are usually a little drabber, especially on the belly.

This Common Grackle is a male, though the two brown secondary feathers in its wing reveal it to be one of this year's birds, just completing its moult into adult plumage. You can tell that it's a male as, although its tail has a little way to grow yet, it already shows the upturned sides which give a keeled shape, typical of several grackle species. Actually, this individual was pretty lucky; he flew into one of our house windows and I picked him up, dazed and confused (the bird, not me!), from the deck. I kept an eye on him for a few minutes and gradually he recovered. He sat on the deck handrail for some 10 minutes before flying off to join the pack.

It's all a trick of the light! Strange as it might sound, Common Grackle feathers are actually black. The apparent colours are produced by the refraction of light as it passes through the barbs of the feather. The actual angle of the barbs relative to the direction of light and the direction of the viewer, determines the colour perceived by the eye. Thus, when a grackle turns to face the other way, or the light changes, or you move to a different position, the bird can appear to change colour. Common Grackles can appear to be a multitude of colours, from purple and blue to green and bronze - or even black when in the shade!

Look carefully through grackle flocks and you may well find a smaller, stubby-billed, dark-eyed individual. This is a male Brown-headed Cowbird on our lawn. This species more often forms its own flocks - or sometimes flocks with Common Starlings. There is currently a flock of some 200 Brown-headed Cowbirds hanging out on the lawns around the Route47/Route 9 junction in Rio Grande. Something to enjoy while you wait for the lights to change! Brown-headed Cowbirds are not popular with some birders as they are 'brood parasites'. That means, rather like the better-known Common Cuckoo of Europe, they lay their eggs in other birds nests. In North America, cowbirds lay eggs in the nests of a number of wood-warbler species and, partly because of severe habitat loss in many places which affects breeding wood-warblers, cowbirds are having a detrimental effect on the populations of their hosts.

This streaky brown bird with a peachy face is an adult female Red-winged Blackbird in one of our cedar trees. Red-winged Blackbirds are closely related to cowbirds and grackles, in a widespread New World family known as the icterids. Red-winged Blackbird is another species that flocks up during the winter and thousands pass through Cape May during the autumn. They spend much of their time around wetlands, but do also frequently visit back yard feeders, either singly or in groups.

Red-winged Blackbirds are named after the males, who sport a smart red shoulder patch. This patch is shown off to good effect during the courtship display in spring and summer, but can at times also be completely hidden by the body feathers. This is a typical adult male in non-breeding plumage. Actually, this is a classic species that gets its breeding plumage by feather wear rather than by moulting. During the winter, all the black body feathers have brown edges and tips; these gradually disappear due to everyday wear and tear, leaving a spring bird covered in seemingly fresh, all black feathers. This is a smart ruse, that allows birds to come into breeding plumage to attract a mate, without having to go through a costly, energy-draining moult. Clever eh?

Northern Mockingbirds are widespread and common garden birds throughout much of North America. They are accomplished songsters and are easily identified by their long tails and obvious white wing flash which shows well in flight.

Northern Mockingbirds can be tame and confiding; here's one that regularly hangs out around the Hawkwatch Platform at Cape May Point State Park.

White-throated Sparrows breed to north of New Jersey, but flood into the area from early October onwards and can be abundant. They are easily attracted to seed scattered on the ground in open areas and have a fascinating method of scratching for food by scraping with both feet at the same time!

Another White-throated Sparrow; both the pictures show birds from the flock of 20 or so currently hanging out in our yard. White-throated Sparrows can be quite variable in appearance, particularly in the amount of white on the throat and on the supercilium (the big pale stripe over the eye).

First-winter White-throated Sparrows are much drabber than adults, having only a subdued version of the head pattern. To British eyes, these birds are not dissimilar to some of the accentors.

Always a treat at the garden feeder and quite easily tempted in with a suet block, this is a White-breasted Nuthatch. This species is actually pretty scarce in the southern third of Cape May and particularly uncommon south of the canal. This is because they like large, mature trees for breeding in and these are a scarce commodity south of Rio Grande.

Our local White-breasted Nuthatch again, this time showing off a little more of the rufous underparts.

Another prized feeder bird - though can you tell what it is from this angle? This is a female Downy Woodpecker that has become pretty tame with us now. There are two species of black-and-white woodpecker that breed in Cape May County, which can sometimes be difficult to tell apart - the Downy and the Hairy. Actually, I put this picture in because it nicely shows one of the key identification features; Downy Woodpecker has black bars on the outer tail feathers, while Hairy Woodpecker has all white outer tail feathers.

Another picture of our female Downy Woodpecker, here on the suet block. Typical Downy Woodpecker features seen here are the rather short, stubby bill and the prominent tuft of creamy feathers at the base of the bill. Males of both Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers are told from the females by a red patch on the back of the head.

Ahhh, the Christmas Card Bird!! Northern Cardinals are brilliant red and a common yardbird, making them well-known to all - and well-known as the bird that appears on American Christmas cards. Actually, only the males are bright red, the females are a subtler shade of brown with rusty touches.

For us Brits, of course, it's the wonderful European Robin that features on our Xmas cards - though unfortunately they are actually more orange than red on the breast!

Well, that'll do for yardbirds for now; I'm sure there will be more to come in the future. If you live around Cape May - or anywhere else in the Eastern USA or Canada for that matter - I hope these pictures of our common yardbirds will inspire you to go and see what's in your own yard. Go on, stick some bird food out and see if you can go one better than the neighbours!