Tuesday, March 14, 2017

A Wintertime Blog - Photographer Brigitte Hartke and the Birds at Her Northern Virginia Feeder

Cardinal before dawn

It is still dark. I am pouring my coffee when I hear the first chirp, chirp of the day.  Cardinals are the first to my feeder each morning, and the last to visit at dusk.  I am always struck by their beautiful red color, and I particularly like the subtler hues of the female’s feathers.
female cardinal
A female cardinal

male cardinal
A male cardinal

Throughout the day, many birds come to visit as I provide a wide variety of choices — seeds, nuts, dried berries and fruit, suet — and what started as a simple attempt to attract and have birds nearby became a rewarding, enjoyable, though time-consuming, hobby; I love to photograph birds in the closest proximity that they will allow.

mixed flock at feeder
A mixed flock at the feeder

My feeder is just inches beyond my window as my camera’s zoom is not strong, and I have had the chance to study them in a very personal way, and to notice things I could not have observed from a distance.

One of my favorite local birds is the Carolina wren.

Carolina wren
Carolina Wren

This little cinnamon-colored bird with the jauntily-angled tail and beautifully-patterned plumage is the acrobat of my visiting birds.  He will hop all over and under objects, and pops up with ease through the hole in the middle of my platform feeder.  One is left with the impression that the wren is having fun. I know he will look for more than one female this spring, sometimes keeping two families going at once. I’ve loved having these birds take up residence in my small birdhouses; but, take care when leaving your garage door open for long as wrens will have a nest going in no time.  Wrens are especially fond of suet and insects. I had four fledglings visit the feeder once, and was absolutely delighted with their antics and behavior as they checked out every nook and cranny.

a native white throated sparrow
A native White Throated Sparrow

I see, feed and photograph many commonly-sighted birds visiting my feeders, and the occasional towhees, pileated woodpeckers, rose breasted nuthatches, sap-suckers, cowbirds, and grosbeaks; I see a number of species of our fairly common native sparrows which please me very much. I much prefer to take photos of the birds perching on branches or foraging on the ground rather than on a feeder as they look more natural.

A Black Capped Chickadee holding a seed

A watchful Junco


I once supported so many mourning doves that roosted in an oak in the wood just across from my window-placed platform feeder, that it prompted someone to alert me to the fact that I was maintaining a rookery.
Mourning Doves
Mourning Dove 
 I was trying to keep up with  the appetites of up to 26 doves; but they were always there in the tree, day-long residents hanging out through all weathers — and I enjoyed watching them, as I find them such beautifully-plumed birds.
Mourning Dove in snow
 They would usually fly in to feed en masse in the morning and evening — I once counted 11 birds on the platform at once (I should have been scattering the seeds on the ground; it is less stressful for them and discourages the passing of diseases among the birds).  I began experimenting with catching them in flight, coming and going, with my camera shutter speed set very fast.  Speaking of speed, while, on the ground, they slowly beetle around while feeding, once startled or threatened, they are capable of great speed in flight.  They are not the fussiest nest-builders, a friend once remarking that ‘they will cross two sticks together and call it a nest’.
Blue Jay looking in

Blue Jay working a kernel out of the seed

I did enjoy how the proximity of the birds at my window allowed us both the chance for mutual scrutiny.  This they often did, and it is a funny sensation when a bird peers into your kitchen and looks you over. Holding still, I stared back, and occasional took a photo. Those were some of my favorite moments.

Red Bellied Woodpecker

I became accustomed to some of the behaviors over the years.  Blue jays, tufted tits and chickadees will pick up safflower or sunflower seeds and hold them between their talons, crack the shell and eat the seed’s kernel on the spot, then pick up another to repeat.

Tufted Titmouse holding a seed

Nuthatches and some others will grab a nut or seed and fly to a nearby tree to tuck it into a crease or crevice in the bark of the trunk or limbs, to be consumed later.  My guess is that this behavior results in supporting many other birds who will find the food and benefit by it.

Years ago, I received an unexpected gift from the birds.  Birds are a major force for seed dispersal.  Coming to my feeders, they would sometimes leave droppings on the ground beneath, and this resulted in the germinating of a nice little patch of common asclepias, or milkweed;  I came to refer to it as my “science project’, and I left the plants to thrive from year to year, though their site was less than ideal.  I began to get caterpillars which became pupae and then monarchs!

Great Spangled Fritillary enjoying the milkweed patch

The milkweed, the host plant of the monarch butterflies, also provided nectar and sustenance for yellow and black swallowtails and other butterflies as well as many kinds of bees and other insects.  I used the milkweed patch for my macro-photography for years, as it came up every year after its first emergence.
Spangled Fritillary

On occasion, my photography of birds has developed into a photo-session marathon.  I may go days or weeks without taking a bird pic, and then there will come a day, when the snow comes down and the birds come in, and there’s nothing else to be done but to drop all other activities and stand at the window to photograph, observe, and learn.  Dreary days make the birds’ colors stand out, and the white snow reflects light up to highlight their undersides beautifully.  The falling snow adds to the beauty of the photos as well.
Tufted Titmouse

There are several interesting behaviors worth mentioning that I’ve observed for some years.  In the first, there may be very few visiting birds for several days, and then one bird species will arrive, followed minutes later by another, and another.  Within the space of an hour or two, many kinds of birds will be back to feed.  I later learned that these are called ‘mixed flocks’ that tend to travel together.
Downy Woodpecker and male Cardinal 

Another behavior I have observed is birds ‘freezing’ in place when there is a predator or some danger nearby.  I don’t know if one birds gives out a warning that all the birds heed (I have my doubts that the jays can always be relied up for they are known to give a warning cry just to clear the feeder for themselves).  I have seen birds remain unmoving in any way except for a slight movement of the head and eyes to check out their surroundings; this may go on for fifteen minutes.

Blue Jay

Just as suddenly they all go back to their usual activities.  I watched a red-bellied woodpecker, not known to be a swift flyer, move to the house side of a tree and stay there for some time, while a chickadee sat motionless in the same tree. The doves, being very swift flyers, sometimes choose flight, though they are sometimes caught.  It seems logical that predators home in on the movement of birds, and this seems to be the case.  I don’t think this ‘freeze’ behavior is the same as when ‘sentinel’ birds find a place from which to scan for predators while others forage for food.

An alert male Cardinal

Though I must go farther afield to photograph blue and green herons, eagles, and rails, I will always enjoy living with and capturing images of my “Usual Suspects” — the birds most commonly found at our local feeders in northern Virginia.

Yellow-rumped Warbler
 Moving to the more rural Bull Run area last year, I had to bid goodbye to the bog behind my house in Clifton that, because it was the site of many dead or dying trees, brought in great numbers of woodpeckers; and I had to leave behind my milkweed patch, the host of the monarchs, but I am planning to start a new one here. And I’ve seen birds at my feeder here that I’ve not seen at them before my move, while seeing less of others. Many hawks and owls fly by, a dozen turkeys stopped to preen on the lawn right after Thanksgiving, while the cry of owl pairs calling back and forth, too, can be heard (as well as coyotes that I frequently hear howling at night).  On Christmas morning, I saw my very first owl in the wild. I am hoping to get a photo of her one of these days. Yesterday morning, I watched a great blue heron fly by my bedroom window. Though I am happiest on country rambles, until I get a camera with a stronger zoom lens, I am content to take my best bird photographs here at my window — utterly absorbed and, hopefully, completely snowed in.
Nuthatch in snow

All photographs are owned and copyright 2017 by Brigitte Hartke

Contributor Brigitte Hartke is a writer, gardener, photographer, amateur genealogist
and a very active member of Five Hills Garden Club in Vienna, Virginia.  

Brigitte Hartke surrounded by native bluebells at Riverbend
She enjoys learning and writing about the scientific concepts relating to environment and conservation, and the interconnectedness, evolving over long evolutionary periods, of all the many species coexisting within a healthy biome