The pictures in this album are a few months old. I’ve been meaning to post these for a while, but they just feel like cheating. I honestly haven’t taken any pictures in some time and finding the time to post is hard too. My feeders are running empty right now too. It’s summer and the birds are out getting fed from other, better sources. Once fall hits, I’ll start putting out some sunflower and seeing if they return.
Anyway, we’re blessed here in Wichita to have the Sedgwick County Zoo. While not the biggest zoo or the most impressive, it’s a well thought out zoo with a notable focus on actual conservation rather than just getting people in the doors and emptying their wallets. There’s a pretty good variety of fun animals to see, well laid-out paths that work like a big park, and even a surprisingly delicious restaurant.
The best part for birders like me is the gigantic aviary. I love going in there and seeing all the unusual birds, plus it makes for an excellent space to practice photography. The birds aren’t all that skittish around people and you can get pretty close. The pictures there don’t feel “real” like the ones I get in the wild, but it’s excellent for practicing composition and other more technical aspects of photography such as my favorite: back-end editing.
Not a lot to say today, but I do highly encourage a visit to the Sedgwick County Zoo if you get the chance! Please enjoy the photos.
Killdeer are all over the place in my neighborhood, absolutely loving the large cotton field behind my home and are found running around all over the place. Though they can fly, I rarely see killdeer do anything except for run around on their long little legs. The way they run around is entertaining too, watching them stand perfectly erect as they dart around, their legs moving a million miles an hour.
You’re probably wondering why exactly they’re called killdeer. After all, it’s not likely that such a small bird could be a match for the much, much larger deer. But, indeed, in a true David and Goliath, the killdeer is quite possibly the single most prolific predator of North America’s deer population, outside of the human.
The killdeer gets its name from its call and not from killing deer. They have a whiny, high-pitched call that sounds like it’s saying “killdeer” over and over. They are quite unmistakable and you’ll certainly hear them if you spend enough time in the Great Plains. The call of the killdeer tends to fade into the background if you’re around the abundant farmland for a while.
You’ll typically only find killdeer on the ground, running around in zigzags as they search for something to eat or just do killdeer stuff. They like to live in fields or in wetlands, so you may see them around water. The killdeer is a species of plover, which is a family of wading birds. Most plovers live on shores, but don’t swim like waterfowl. The killdeer will venture more inland, unlike some other types of plover.
Perhaps the most famous behavior of the killdeer is their acting. Killdeer aren’t the fastest or toughest of birds and their nests are on the ground, making them easily accessible to predators. If the killdeer can’t fight their attackers off, what’s left? Acting! When the killdeer detects a threat near its nest, the parent will stick out one of its wings, acting as though its broken. The killdeer will do everything it can to get the attention of the would-be predator, hoping they will not find the nest and instead pursue the easy prey. Once the predator has been sufficiently distracted, the killdeer will simply fly off, predator none the wiser.
Unfortunately, there isn’t much you can do to actually attract a killdeer to your yard. They are not songbirds who fly around and visit to eat seeds. The killdeer primarily feeds on insects and will forage for seeds in fields, but won’t visit your bird feeders. If you live near a field, you might be able to spot one running around the neighborhood. I see them all the time in people’s yards searching for worms, caterpillars, or whatever else they snack on.
I think the killdeer are quite cute! Please, enjoy the photos I’ve taken and let me know your experiences with them.
A note about the state of the blog:
I know I apologized for the lack of content on my last post, but it got even worse. I’m absolutely swamped and I hate it. I started this as a passion project because, well, birds are neat and I wanted to share it. Unfortunately, I haven’t gotten the readership or interest I was hoping for, so my interest dropped with everything else going on. That’s just me being honest with you. I haven’t had time to get photos lately and haven’t even touched my camera. I’m hoping to take a fun birding trip somewhere soon and I’ll hopefully get to update the blog with more then. But for now, it’s a little slow and I’m sorry.
It’s been over a month and I’m sorry. I’ve been positively slammed at work and at life in general, giving me no time for birding and certainly not enough time for this website. I hope that’s changed for good, so hopefully we’re back on track.
I did get the opportunity recently to stop by the Botanica Gardens here in Wichita, which is an excellent spot to see gorgeous flowers and perfectly curated garden areas. They do have an area designated just for bird watching, though I had little luck there. Speaking of luck, I had managed to find two different Tufted Titmice! The bad luck is that I wasn’t able to get a single picture and titmice are some of the birds I’ve really been wanting to get in my repertoire. Oh well.
I did get decent shot of a Gray Catbird, which I’ve never seen before. Cool birds and hopefully I get some more. Besides the catbirds, I also got an okay shot of a cardinal and of a Black-capped Chickadee. Ever since I upgraded my camera rig, I’ve been trying and trying to get a chickadee but just haven’t been able to. Thankfully, one stood still long enough for a good shot!
There’s also a picture of a Black Crowned Night Heron, which I took at the zoo. Though it is a picture taken at the zoo, it’s actually a wild heron that just happened to be there. I’ll have a post at some point about the captive birds at the zoo, but that’s for later.
Featured heavily in this week’s album is the Killdeer, a little fella I’ve been hoping to get good snaps of. I’ll be featuring the Killdeer as a bird of the week, so I don’t want to talk about them too much. But they are such neat birds!
You’ll also see two more new birds. The birds are Eastern Kingbird and the Northern Mockingbird. Neither shot of the new birds is great, but I still wanted to document them for my life list.
I hope you enjoy the pictures and I hope you’ll forgive the absence! Let me know what you think.
Every single bird I’ve posted about has had something unique about it. The grackles and Blue Jays are intelligent, the Barn Swallow is a distant traveler, the Brown-headed Cowbird is kind of a tool, and so on. The more I learn about these fascinating dinosaurs (yes, they are dinosaurs), the more interesting they get. This week, I’m diving into a new category of birds: the woodpecker. Specifically, we’ll be looking at North America’s smallest woodpecker, the Downy Woodpecker.
Downy Woodpeckers are nearly identical-looking to the somewhat larger Hairy Woodpecker and even shares largely the same habitat area. Besides their size, which at a distance is difficult to judge, they can be distinguished by the Downy Woodpeckers having shorter bills and spots along the white outer tail feathers. In addition, male Downy Woodpeckers have a single red spot on their heads, while the Hairy Woodpeckers have the same red spot that’s divided in two by a strip of black.
Both are black and white, with only the males bearing a signature red spot on top of their heads. Their heads are black and white striped, their wings are black with white spots, and their breasts are entirely white.
It’s theorized that these birds look so similar because Downy Woodpeckers seek to imitate their larger cousins. Feeder Watch has an interesting article about this, speculating that the Downy Woodpecker would like other birds to think they are the larger Hairy Woodpecker and thus gain a bit more respect relative to their size. After all, why would any bird fear the tiny Downy Woodpecker? But the Hairy Woodpecker is about the size of a robin and thus larger than many birds found at common food sources. Thus, the downy gets to have its cake and eat it, getting the advantages of being both a larger and smaller bird.
Like all in the woodpecker family, the Downy Woodpecker is specially suited for smacking its bill repeatedly into trees. The entire design of their heads is purpose-built! Their brains are set in their bodies in such a way that the brains won’t move around after repeated impacts, plus they have special tissue built in like shock absorbers to protect themselves.
Speaking of, woodpeckers will peck for two reasons. One, they will be making holes for nests or for foraging. Most people will assume when they hear a woodpecker drumming that they’re making nests, but this isn’t the case. The second reason is that drumming is how woodpeckers “sing.” Most birds use their elaborate songs to establish territory or find mates, but the woodpeckers instead will drum. It’s not unusual for some woodpeckers to find metal chimneys or other human structures which make more noise than trees.
As I said before, woodpeckers carve holes in trees to make their nests. Woodpeckers will rarely return to the same hole year after year. Instead, other birds such as chickadees and bluebirds will take advantage of old woodpecker nests.
Another adaptation that people don’t about much is the woodpecker’s tongue. Woodpeckers have ridiculously long tongues! They actually wrap all the way around their skulls. These massive tongues make it possible for them to get hard to reach food that would otherwise be impossible for other birds to get.
That said, you can attract woodpeckers to your yard fairly easily. Woodpeckers are known to be suet addicts, with the downside being that other birds or squirrels may hog your suet. There are ways around this, though, including this woodpecker feeder which is essentially two narrow pieces of wood with a narrow gap between them. The idea is you put a thin piece of suet in between the wood out of reach of squirrels or other birds, but woodpeckers will have no issue getting at it because of their tongues! The disadvantage is that regular suet blocks won’t fit. You can also use bark butter!
Another alternative is an upside-down suet feeder, which is essentially a standard suet feeder, but the actual suet can only be accessed from the bottom. This will deter starlings and sparrows who aren’t quite acrobatic enough to get suet comfortably, though they will be able to get at it in small spurts. Woodpeckers, on the other hand, are quite gymnastic and will have no problem.
I have a woodpecker couple that visits me on occasion. They aren’t regulars to my feeders, dropping by only every few days. They are, however, welcome and entertaining visitors. With the goldfinches being away in the summer the Downy Woodpeckers are actually the most frequent visitors to my finch feeders. They aren’t quite designed to for woodpeckers, so you can see them having trouble in the pictures below. Look especially at their tails! Woodpecker tails are a great deal more rigid than most bird tails because woodpeckers actually use their tails like a “third leg” when they anchor themselves on trees.
To me, the most interesting thing about woodpeckers in general is how specially suited they are to just being woodpeckers. Some birds like grackles or crows are well suited for adaptation, but woodpeckers are just darn good at doing what they do!
What do you think of the Downy Woodpecker? Aren’t they cute?
Imagine you’ve just had a baby and you go off to run some errands. When you come home, you find that, actually, you’ve had twins. You’re sure that you didn’t have twins before, but maybe you miscounted. This new baby looks a little different, but all babies look about the same. Plus, it’s a baby. It won’t take care of it itself. You take on the new responsibility without complaint.
The little tots start to grow up, with the additional child more aggressively demanding food and care than what you’re sure is the original. You have a hard time feeding both this mystery kid and your own, so the child you know is your own starts to get a bit neglected. It’s not your fault – babies need help!
Eventually the child grows up and it looks nothing like you. You’ve started to care for the little tyke and it’s basically family, so you feed him until he’s all ready to go off to college. And you promptly never hear from him again.
This is what life may be like for many bird parents who have unfortunately had their nests visited by a Brown-headed Cowbird. Some birds are able to figure out the ruse and will reject cowbird eggs on sight, but most just roll with the punches and raise the forcibly adopted bird as its own. Others will simply give up on parenting altogether if they found a cowbird egg, abandoning even their own young because cowbirds suck.
There are more consequences for the host parents than simply needing to feed more birds. As I described above, cowbird nestlings are aggressive eaters and are louder and more vocal than most nestlings who belong. In some species, this can alert predators and get everyone in the nest killed, including the cowbird baby.
Occasionally, the cowbird parents will monitor their young, but have no involvement in their rearing. If they notice the cowbird egg was rejected, this upsets them and they will trash the host nest. This vengeance behavior seems to apply consequences for the host bird, who may actually consider that an angry cowbird will visit and destroy the entire nest.
Now, you may be wondering how exactly a cowbird knows to be a cowbird when it’s been raised entirely by a different species. Shouldn’t a cowbird raised by sparrows act like a sparrow? It seems that the brain of a young cowbird is programmed innately to listen for cowbird songs and then imprint on them. If it doesn’t hear another cowbird by a certain time, the young bird will instead continue to live among whatever raised it.
Cowbirds are generally considered pest birds, but they really aren’t pests to anyone except other birds. I’ve not noticed cowbirds being more aggressive than other species at my feeders. They’re certainly less mean than grackles, less messy and voracious than starlings, and not bullies like Blue Jays are reported to be. They may show up in groups, sometimes with other similar birds such as grackles. I’ve seldom seen a cowbird show up without a grackle or Red-winged Blackbird in tow.
The Brown-headed Cowbird will visit your birdfeeders, though they also eat insects. You may get more of them visiting if you provide mealworms. I don’t see cowbirds eating at feeders they can’t easily perch on, so a caged squirrel-proof feeder may help deter them. Their favorite feeder is my tray feeder, because it most closely resembles their preferred place to feed, which is the ground.
As I said before, the Brown-headed Cowbird likes to travel in groups with other similar-looking birds, so at a distance they may be hard to spot and differentiate. They are smaller that grackles, about the size of a robin, and can be spotted by their brown heads over all-black bodies. Are they pretty? Maybe not in a colorful sense, but there is something beautiful about their black and brown.
I suppose it’s up to you if the Brown-headed Cowbird is a welcome visitor at your feeders. I’ve never had issues with them in a purely bird feeding sense, but their brood parasitism is understandably troubling.
How do you feel about the Brown-headed Cowbird? Let me know in a note below!
Side note: I apologize for this post being a few days late. I’ve been so swamped lately.
Summer is finally kicking up into full gear here in Wichita. Last week, we saw temperatures into the triple digits and, man, was it hot! Besides just heat, summer means we get special birds that we only see during the hot days. One such bird is the Western Kingbird, who can be seen at the tops of trees, powerlines, and sometimes on the ground as it hunts for insects!
Like quite a few of the birds I’ve discussed in the past few weeks, the Western Kingbird is an insectivore. This means that you won’t be seeing them at your bird feeders, though they can be backyard visitors. The kingbirds need both trees and open spaces, so the farmland of the Great Plains is a fantastic place for them.
The Western Kingbird is gray on top, bright yellow on the chest and belly. They have crests, kind of like cardinals and Blue Jays. They are about the size of a robin and are generally found either in pairs or solo.
The genus name for all kingbirds is Tyrannus, which is Latin for “tyrant.” They’re given this name because kingbirds are exceptionally territorial. If you get too close to a kingbird nest, you’re in trouble. These birds will attack anything and they will do so relentlessly and viciously. They’ll attack others birds, including hawks and other birds of pray, people, and even pets. They do not care. If you get close, they will let you know by furiously dive bombing and pecking. Case in point, I watched a kingbird in my backyard drive away about a half-dozen grackles the other day. And when it was done with the grackles, it chased away a squirrel all the way through the cotton field in my backyard, dive bombing it over and over again.
The nests they’re defending are cup-style nests, usually placed in trees. They are not opposed to using a man-made structure like a telephone pole, either. The female typically lays around five eggs, though some will not reach maturity because she will kick a few out of the nest when it gets overcrowded. Talk about picking a favorite child!
The call of the Western Kingbird is unmistakable. They sound like squeaky dog toys. They don’t have protracted songs like cardinals or other songbirds, so expect just to hear some high-pitched squeaks.
I found these birds tough to photograph simply due to how high they like to hang out. They are not often found anywhere low and eye level, so I found myself looking up a lot trying to find them. Please, enjoy the album below of the pictures I’ve snagged!
What if I told you that you could be a bird landlord? Thanks to the Purple Martin, you can!
Before I get into the Purple Martin, I want to get some housekeeping out of the way. This will be the only post this week. Sadly, I haven’t been able to get any pictures or find time to write anything interesting. My schedule is bonkers, but hopefully will return to normal soon.
Anyway, let’s talks about the Purple Martin!
The Purple Martin is not purple. They usually look more blue. But, in fact, there is no such thing as a true blue bird. Or, in this case, purple bird.
“But Mr. Great Plains Bird Man, I see blue birds all the time! There’s Blue Jays and Indigo Buntings and Bluebirds!”
You’re correct. These birds all appear blue thanks to the way light interacts with a protein in their feathers called keratin. Birds get red or yellow from pigments, usually generated by the foods the birds eat. Birds are unable to actually produce a blue pigment and instead what you’re seeing is almost akin to an optical illusion.
Purple Martins are no exception. Some of them will look more green than blue and a few will show that purple-ish color they’re named for, but they’re generally a very dark navy blue. The males will be darkly colored all over, while the females will have gray chests.
What’s this about being a landlord, you ask? Purple Martins are cavity nesters, but have adapted to strongly prefer man-made Purple Martin nest-boxes. You may have seen them around. Often, they’re shaped like gourds or look like a birdhouse apartment. Usually they’re all grouped together and you’ll see dozens of martins flying in and out of the holes, building nests and feeding young!
To set one up yourself, you’ll need to purchase the appropriate bird house. I’ve linked a few below from Amazon, for your convenience. Set the house up nice and high on a pole, about twelve feet. Another considering is where. Find somewhere nice and open, close to a water source, but far from your bird feeders. You don’t want a starling or a house sparrow deciding the martin house looks nice.
The martins won’t eat from your bird feeders. Purple Martins are insectivores, through and through. Like the Barn Swallow, Purple Martins eat insects from the air. They are incredibly entertaining to watch as they swoop around, dive-bombing after butterflies, moths, dragonflies, and any other bugs they can get their beaks on. They’re very fast and nimble, being specialized in the hawking of insects.
Like Barn Swallows, Purple Martins also migrate great distances, being found in South America during the winter. They only visit Kansas during the summer when all of the insects are out. And thank goodness, I don’t know what I’d do without them!
Sadly, Purple Martins are in a bit of a decline right now. They developed a healthy relationship with humans in that we provided them with the perfect nests. These nests were so perfect that they started to disregard other nests. On top of that, the invasive house sparrow and European starling started using their natural nesting sites, so they had a hard time finding anything but man-made Purple Martin houses. This decline is caused by there being fewer man-made nests due to waning interest in birding. Unfortunately, my generation just doesn’t seem to care as much about bird feeding.
I hope my website can help change that. I’ve found birds to be exceptionally interesting and the more I learn about them, the more interesting they get!
Please, enjoy the small gallery below and leave a note in the comments!
I was torn on whether or not to actually do a post on the Mallard. There is not a more ordinary duck out there and possibly not a more well-known bird in America. When people say “duck,” they think either of the white Aflac duck or of the Mallard… or maybe Donald or Daffy. Mallards are ubiquitous throughout most of the United States, with only a few southern parts being their wintering range when migrating. The bulk of the continental US, including Kansas.
Mallards are exceptionally adaptable birds, with Mallards being spread out around the world and finding ways to live in a variety of environments. Mallards particularly seem to have a talent for learning to live among humans, with Mallards seeming to occupy every park, pond, lake, or body of water they can find. For instance, I have a group of Mallards that visit my backyard every single afternoon because, on occasion, the rains produce deep puddles in the field just behind my house. They stop by now even without puddles because they know there’s gonna be deer corn. Mallards love corn.
Speaking of, corn is a healthy snack you can feed Mallards and other waterfowl at the park. A lot of people like to bring bread with them to feed the ducks, but please do not do this. Bread has zero nutrition and is actually difficult for the ducks to digest. It is not good for them. Instead, bring dried corn or oats.
If you want Mallards in your backyard, you’ll need water. Build a pond or any other natural body of water where the ducks can reasonably swim and they’ll likely stop by. You can increase your odds of a Mallard visitor by also having something for them to eat, such as corn.
Mallards are social birds, preferring to hang out in groups. If they aren’t in a group, they’re generally seen as a male/female pair. Contrary to popular belief, Mallards do not mate for life. They’ll mate for a single breeding season and then the male will take off as soon as the female lays eggs. This is why you’ll never see a male and female leading a group of ducklings around.
There isn’t a delicate way to put this next bit of information: Mallards are kinda rapey. If a male Mallard is not successfully paired, he will actively seek out a female that does not have a clutch of eggs or ducklings and attempt to rectify this by force. During the peak of their mating season, they will even force themselves upon ducks of other species or even other male Mallards. Groups of unpaired males will even hunt down a female and proceed to take turns copulating with her. This process is not pleasant for the female, but unfortunately, nature is not always pleasant.
We kind of want to have this almost “Disney” view of birds as these happy creatures, but it’s hard being a bird. They’re gorgeous, fun to watch and listen to, and fascinating for us, but it’s easy to forget that they’re just out there trying to survive. Some are doing better than others and the Mallard is one of the ones doing well. Their crude mating habits are one reason why they’re such a successful species. I’ll do a post at some point about the “dark side” of birds, but for now, we’ll leave it at that.
Sorry my normally fun posts about your favorite birds got a little on the dour side! On another less-than-happy note, I don’t believe I’ll have new photos for the Friday post. I’ll still post an update, but don’t expect new pictures. My week has been insanely full!
Short Version: The Backyard Birdwatcher’s Bible is a gorgeous book full of fun information and a good overview of various bird-related topics from attracting birds to identifying birds to birds in human art, but only does these things as a general overview without getting deep into any particular topic.
I received The Backyard Birdwatcher’s Bible as a gift and I thoroughly enjoyed reading through it. The art and photographs in the book are fantastic, with many high-quality, professional pictures of various birds and other things. If you’re looking for a book you pick up and spend a few minutes flipping through pages to learn something, then this is the book for you.
What The Backyard Birdwatcher’s Bible is not is a bible. This book does not delve into any particular topic with depth, covering only the basics or a niche part of birding and mostly leaving it at that. For instance, a variety of bird species are covered in their “guide,” but you may find yourself missing a few birds that frequent your yard. To put this in perspective, my Birds of Kansas Field Guide, which is itself a general overview sort of book, has more species in it than The Backyard Birdwatcher’s Bible. Birds of Kansas covers Kansas birds exclusively, so you would think a book purporting to cover the entirety of North America might have more.
I say this not necessarily to knock The Backyard Birdwatcher’s Bible, but more to illustrate the purpose of this book. If you want a comprehensive field guide, you need to look at Sibley book. If you want a comprehensive book on a birding garden, there are books for that too. The Backyard Birdwatcher’s Bible is like an overview 101 class, not a “bible” that includes everything you could possibly need.
Should you buy this book? It’s hard to make a case for purchasing this book for yourself. If you’re looking for a field guide, there are far better choices out there. I cannot imagine lugging this book around to do any serious sort of birding. However, The Backyard Birdwatcher’s Bible does make an excellent gift or a coffee table sort of book. If you have a friend who’s just getting into birding or even someone who does this hobby a little more seriously, it’s hard to resist the production of this book.
Which is where the four stars really comes from. This book is absolutely gorgeous. It’s fun to just flip through its pages and quickly read a section or two, which are about the length of a magazine article. If you give this book as much depth as it gives you, you will have a good time. To use a cliché, The Backyard Birdwatcher’s Bible is a jack of all trades, master of none.
What is in this book is well-written, well-produced, and full of real eye candy, but eventually you’ll start to notice what it lacks.
I already showed off the Eastern Bluebird couple that visits my feeders have started bringing their fledglings along. Just about every time I go out back, I see them just hanging out in my trees or gobbling up mulberries. One of the parents is never far, usually taking a spot a few trees over where they keep a watchful eye. It’s quite interesting to watch.
I’ll usually spot the parent showing up first, especially if it’s Mr. Bird. Mr. Bird with his bright blue feathers is impossible to miss, but the kids are still mostly gray and brown. There are definitely two little fledglings, with one being more of an orange-brown on the crest and other dark gray and brown. I’ve watched the pair cuddle up together in a tree and then get into little sibling quarrels. They truly do act just like any other pair of siblings. I like to think they’re brother and sister, but I have no way or knowing for sure. Time will tell!
I spent quite a bit of time of Sedgwick County Park, which is where I got the Baltimore Oriole pictures. I also found a few young Blue Jays, who are too old to be considered fledglings, but not quite adults just yet. I saw a couple of young robins as well, but none of the pictures are good enough to post. I’m sure I’ll get more at some point.
This week does bring us two never before seen birds! I managed to photograph both a Carolina Wren and a Cedar Waxwing, neither of which have ever gotten posted here. The wren isn’t too much of an accomplishment, as they’re not super uncommon in Kansas, but the Cedar Waxwing is typically only a winter visitor the Great Plains. I was absolutely shocked when I heard that unmistakable high pitched tsee sound that waxwings make. I started looking for them immediately and, sure enough, there was a group of maybe a half dozen high up in the trees feasting on berries.
The Cedar Waxwing is beautiful and I hope to get more, higher-quality shots to post as Bird of the Week eventually. Same goes for the Carolina Wren.
The farmer who manages the field behind my house just recently cut everything down, so it’s easy to spot the Northern Bobwhites who live in the field. You’ll see a shot of two males who were out back chasing one another. I was also doing some outdoor cooking and spotted a pair of Killdeer, so hopefully I can photograph them in the near future.
Also while I was cooking, a group of four Black-capped Chickadees. I hadn’t seen any chickadees come by in a while, so it was awesome getting to see my favorite little birds again. Again, my camera wasn’t with me so I was content just to see them again. I haven’t ever seen so many at once, so I’m wondering if they weren’t juveniles with their parents.
I have an extremely busy work schedule coming up next week, so I may have difficulty getting everything together. I don’t know if I’ll be able to get pictures, process them, and then get all three posts up. I will do my very best!
Anyway, please enjoy the gallery below and let me know what you think!