Saturday, January 28, 2017

Mixed WinterFlock

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker with Poison Ivy Berries

This past weekend, my wife and I decided to do a "longer" bird hike in preparation for an upcoming trip. We tend to be slow birders; we walk along scanning for activity and pausing to see and count everything we come across. This makes for a fun birding experience with a high amount of birds but we do tend to cover limited ground. Walking a mile in two hours is not uncommon. We can easily spend 45-60 minutes walking the 300 yards to the back of our property and returning. But on our upcoming trip we expect to be doing some extended walking and wanted to get that feel back. I also received a new backpack for Christmas and I wanted to try it out for more than an hour at a time.

We headed over to a local park with a five-mile multi-use trail around a small lake. This trail is very popular with runners and dog-walkers so it can be a bit frustrating at times to bird the area. But the spot is known to get good collections of birds. When we go, we usually only over a short stretch of the trail and then return along a parallel road instead of doing the whole circumnavigation of the lake. This time we told ourselves we would focus on getting all the way around and only stop when we saw more than just passing activity. Success was relative. It still took us over four hours to do the whole loop.

At one point we stopped where we often see a range of sparrows in scrubby undergrowth. The sparrows weren't coming out but we did see some bluebirds in distant trees. And then it happened. A mixed winter flock settled down upon us. In a tree about 30 ft away a yellow-bellied sapsucker settled on a poison ivy vine for some tasty berries (they seem very popular but so far I have resisted the temptation try them). And then an eastern bluebird flew in just below. I was busy getting my camera out of the bag, but my wife saw the two birds give each other a look and then settle back into their feeding. Luck for me, they were close enough to be in the same frame.

These two were soon joined by a yellow-rumped warbler and brown creeper.

The creeper tended to stay hidden on the far side of the tree but then flew to a neighboring one that gave a much better view.
Brown Creeper Creeping up a Tree
In winter, many small birds travel around together in mixed flocks to feed. They gain the benefit of security in numbers. Chickadees seem to act as security guards always on the look out for threats and more than happy to raise the alarm. Also, since they aren't competing for stable food sources and territories to raise young, the group is more likely to find good food sources. There is always a mix of insectavores, seed-eaters, and omnivores. Each filling their own niche.

In this flock were both kinglets that we get in this area. Below is the golden-crown kinglet showing off its beautiful crown as well as the yellow streaking on the wings.

And the ruby-crowned kinglet (eye Ring = Ruby-crowned) showing a bit of its crown (orangish dot on the top of its head) that is usually kept hidden.

I had never noticed until looking at these photographs that both kinglets have bright yellow pads on their feet. Looking back at the above ones you can see the yellow on the feet.
Golden-crowned kinglet taking flight showing the yellow pads on its feet
While there, another birder came up and joined us. She was from Texas, but visiting her sister nearby and was still learning the Virginia winter birds. So we helped her work through the flock that also included chickadees, titmice, white-throated sparrows, goldfinches, and some other woodpeckers.
As a final treat, here is a bluebird landing to grab an insect from the leaf litter.