Friday, February 15, 2013

Backyard Bird Count This Weekend

The Great Backyard Bird Count is an annual event that takes a massive snapshot of where birds are in North America. In 2012, volunteers reported on a mind-boggling 17.4 million birds. It always gives me a warm fuzzy feeling to be part of something so huge.

Here's all it takes to participate in this weekend's count:
  1. Look for birds for at least 15 minutes on February 18-21. You can count anywhere; it doesn't actually have to be a backyard.
  2. Keep track of the species that you see, and for each species, the largest number that you see together simultaneously. 
  3. Enter the information on the GBBC website.
For those of you who are just starting your bird watching careers, here's a quick guide to the 10 birds most commonly reported by DC Backyard Bird Counters in the last few years. Seasoned birdwatchers: any surprises on this list?

House sparrows by Melvin Yap
House Sparrow     (66% of lists)
Passer domesticus
6.25 inches

If you've got a birdfeeder, you've got house sparrows. These birds were brought over from Europe sometime in the mid-1800s and have proceeded to make quite a home for themselves. Males have a lighter breast with black patch on their throat; females are plain and brown.

Cardinals by Henry McLin (male/female)
Northern Cardinal     (66% of lists)
Cardinalis cardinalis
8.75 inches

There's something about a bright red bird that makes people happy. But female cardinals are pretty too: a hard-to-define mix of tan, red, and orange, with a bright orange bill. You'll often hear both sexes making short "chip" noises to check on each other.
Mourning dove / Tourterelle triste
Mourning dove by Eric Bégin
Mourning Dove      (64% of lists)
Zenaida macroura
12 inches

What color is a mourning dove? A brownish-grey, with pink undertones in the breast and maybe some blue if the light hits it right. We almost always see them in pairs or groups, walking around in our yard or perched on the utility lines, where they show off their long tails. Their song is in fact mournful sounding.
European Starling, PA, USA
Starling by Kelly Colgan Azar
European Starling     (50% of lists)
Sturnus vulgaris
8.5 inches

This bird is another import that has become widespread. Every once in a while a huge flock lands in our yard to forage, then disappears again. Starlings are smaller than crows, and their beaks are longer and thinner. Juveniles are covered in small white flecks, which make a beautiful pattern.

American Robin on Branch
Robin by Mr. T in DC
American Robin     (43% of lists)
Turdus migratorius
10 inches

Everyone knows the robin, but you can amuse your friends by learning the Latin name for this bird (my brother in law calls out "turdus!" every time he sees one). Some robins spend the winter in our area, so they're not necessarily a sign of spring -- though they do become more plentiful as it starts to warm up.
Downy Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker by Ed Gaillard
Downy Woodpecker     (43% of lists)
Picoides pubescens
6.75 inches

Downies are our smallest woodpecker. I was surprised to see this bird on the list as frequently as robins, but we do see them almost every day on our peanut bird feeder. Males have that red spot on the back of their head; in females it's just white.

House finch
House Finch by Henry McLin
House Finch     (41% of lists)
Carpodacus mexicanus
6 inches

We used to have a pair of house finches that visited our windowboxes in Dupont Circle and delighted us with their sweet songs and the splash of color on the male's head. These birds are the third import on our list; they're native to the western US, but someone brought them east in the 1950s.

my little chickadee
Chickadee by ehpien
Chickadee     (41% of lists)
Poecile carolinensis/atricapilla
5 inches

Chickadees are the shortest, roundest birds on our list: fluffy balls of cuteness that fly from tree to tree looking for insects. Washington DC is in the overlap of the range of two hard-to-distinguish species; Carolina chickadees are smaller than their black-capped cousins.

Junco by Jason Means
Dark-eyed Junco     (40% of lists)
Junco hyemalis
6.25 inches

Juncos are snowbirds -- and Washington is part of their southern winter home. When it warms up a little more, they'll be off for Canada. For now, look carefully for these grey or grey-brown birds on the ground: they can blend in quite sneakily.  (See our full post on juncos)

White-striped White-throated Sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis) Great Backyard Bird Count 2010
White-throated sparrow by Stephen Little
White-throated Sparrow (39% of lists)
Zonotrichia albicollis
6.75 inches

White-throated sparrows are another winter resident of the DC area. If one thing surprised me more than seeing the tiny yellow patches on this sparrow's head for the first time, it was learning that it's named for the white patch just under its beak, and not that eye-catching yellow. (See our full post on white throated sparrows.)

That should get you started...for more, browse posts about birds here on the Natural Capital, or check out the fantastic online guide at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Things to Look For in Winter

The days are getting noticeably longer, but spring is still long away. And yet, there are still plenty of things to look for outside.
>> What have you been noticing in nature this winter? Leave a comment below.

Umbilicaria mammulata
Rock Tripe by Paul J. Morris
Among wild edibles, rock tripe is not prized or even particularly appetizing...actually, it's pretty cardboardy. But as a survival food, it's been used for centuries. And even if you don't want to eat them, lichens are a pretty amazing phenomenon.

Photo credit: Annie in Beziers
Mica is another fun thing to look for when there's less going on in the plant world. For bigger pieces look especially in sandy or pebbley streambeds. But I see tiny flakes all the time in our local trails.

DC Squirrel
Squirrel by Vicki's Pics
Squirrels stay active through the winter, unlike their cousins the chipmunks. We know you know squirrels when you see them, but do you know them when you hear them? Listen to the chirps in our post and you may realize some of the birds you thought you'd been hearing were actually rodents.

Pine cones
Hemlock cones by DaveSF
Eastern Hemlocks are rare in our area due to our climate (they prefer the mountains), and becoming rarer due to an imported insect known as the wooly adelgid. It's worth seeking out these "redwoods of the East" while you still can. And winter's an easy time to do it, since they're evergreen.

Squirrel in the snow by ehpien
No big snows yet this winter, but we've had a couple that have left enough to enjoy for the day. If you get out early enough in the morning, you have a better chance of finding footprints in the snow. See our guide to some of the common animal tracks you might see. This Sunday in Rock Creek Park we saw deer, fox, squirrel, and raccoon.

Ice at Scott's Run by the Natural Capital
Even when it doesn't snow, looking for beautiful ice formations can be enough to entice me out into the cold for a good walk...usually. If we get another spell that stays at or below freezing for several days, go check out your favorite body of water.

In the Swamp
Skunk cabbage by Rupert G.
Skunk cabbage is one of the select group of plants in the world that attracts pollinators by imitating rotting flesh. And, it's just about the only native flower you're going to find blooming at this time of year. It's prehistoric-looking and stinky, but it's a flower. In January and February.

See also: for those of us (myself included) who tend to feel a little house-bound as it gets colder and colder outside, we wrote a Southerner's Guide to Staying Warm Outside in the Winter. We also put together a list of Nature Centers in the DC area, in case you need a nature fix when you really can't stand to be outdoors for too long.

Now get out there and explore!