Saturday, June 20, 2015

A Tiny Hummingbird and a Great Big Trailer!

It was so much fun to see this brand new shiny Conestoga Trailer with my hummingbird image featured on its tail! 
Photo credit:  Melissa Carter

Conestoga has been putting wildlife images on the tails of its trailers for sometime now, featuring both birds and mammals.  You can see some of these images at their gallery featuring their "trailer tails".

One of my birding friends, Wallace Coffey of Bristol, TN, happened to see a trailer with three juvenile owls on the back.  He was so impressed, he asked the driver how the birds happened to be there.  The driver was very cordial and said he was asked about the wildlife art frequently.  He said the owner of the company was a conscientious conservationist and very environment-minded. Wallace, in turn, sent me an email, "Wouldn't it be fun to see a tiny hummingbird featured on the back of one of those big trailers?"  I thought it was a great idea, too!
This week it happened.  The hummingbird image was added to Conestoga's newest trailer by Creative Edge Graphics.  I went to see it yesterday and was wowed. It is stunning! Shiny and beautiful with red lettering matching the red Cardinal Flower visited by a tiny juvenile hummingbird.  This is what drivers on the road will see when they happen to be behind this trailer--a hummingbird traveling all over the country to remind everyone to take care of our environment!
As if hummingbirds visiting our feeders and flowers isn't enough, the timing of this trailer release just adds more excitement as we look forward to our upcoming hummingbird festival.

The Wonder of Hummingbird Festival takes place in Knoxville, Tennessee, at Ijams Nature Center on Saturday, August 22nd.  If you have not already done so, mark your calendar!  The festival features hummingbird banding, expert speakers, nature walks, wildlife demonstrations, and vendors selling food and drinks, native plants and arts and crafts.
                                                                                   Photo credit:  Jody Stone

I will be there with a table of my art.  Come by and say, hello!  Last year one group of hummingbird enthusiasts from Indiana planned their trip to the Smoky Mountains so they could also take in the festival.  Visit this link to see some of last year's festival fun:  Wonder of Hummingbirds.

To see more images of this hummingbird, visit:  Hummingbirds and Pollen

Also visit Wonder of Hummingbirds Festival at East Tennessee River Valley Geotourism

Monday, May 25, 2015

Woodpeckers in Spring

I often take my seed feeders down during the spring and summer months, primarily because a break disperses finch species and helps prevent the spread of finch disease, but also because I have limited space for both storage and feeding.   My focus generally turns to hummingbirds as they arrive in mid-April.
Hummer and Downy                           Watercolor by Vickie Henderson

This year, I took down the seed feeders but left up suet and nut feeders for woodpeckers and other nut-loving birds, and I have been generously rewarded with many fun observations. I noticed yesterday that my neighborhood downies are still coming to the hummingbird nectar to drink!
Male Downy Woodpecker feeding juvenile             Photo credit:  Vickie Henderson

Downy Woodpeckers are now being followed to the feeder by fluffy young and I am hoping that the Red-bellied pair and the Hairy Woodpecker pair will soon be showing up with their young tagging along, too.  Wouldn't that be a treat--to see a Hairy juvenile!  
Male Downy, above, with juvenile below.          Photo credit: Vickie Henderson

I have had Hairy Woodpeckers come to the winter feeders in the past, but have never spotted them in the breeding season until now. Like our other backyard woodpeckers, Hairy Woodpeckers don't migrate but stay near their territories throughout the year. Until now, it was unknown to me if the male Hairy I was seeing actually had a mate and was nesting in the area. Two days ago, I spotted a female at the feeder!

In the image below, you can see the enormous size of the Hairy's bill, approximately the same length as the width of his head.  He also has the distinctive comma mark that extends to his breast and no lateral stripes on his tail.  To recognize him, you also have to keep in mind his size--closer to the red-belly's size than the size of a downy.
Hairy Woodpecker                                   Photo credit:  Vickie Henderson

Even though the frequency of my blog posts has slowed recently, I will certainly post a picture of a Hairy juvenile if I am fortunate enough to see one!

My time and energy is currently concentrated on my book project which has a nearing deadline.  The book is focused on birds, of course!  My observations of birds, bits of life history for each highlighted species, and stories and history about each bird from the pioneer ornithologists that first discovered and recorded bird species in Tennessee are all included in the book. The Tennessee Ornithological Society, the care-taker and creator of Tennessee's bird history, is celebrating 100 years of bird study and enjoyment this year, making it the oldest conservation organization in Tennessee.

The book will be printed in full-color so I can generously illustrate it with my own watercolors along with many historic illustrations and photographs.
Hairy Woodpecker                                   Photo credit:  Vickie Henderson

If you haven't already subscribed to this blog, you will find the email subscription form at the top of the right-hand sidebar.  Once done, the next blog post will be delivered to you by email.  This is a great way to be alerted to a new blog post and to keep up-to-date on the book's progress!
Detail, Northern Ficker in Snow, watercolor in progress by Vickie Henderson

Links and Resources:

Sketch Book--Red-shouldered Hawk Territory
Discover Birds Activity Book
Discover Birds Blog
Watercolors of Birds
Detail of "Hummer and Downy"

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Ice and Bluebirds--a Special Matter

Eastern Bluebirds are one of the most popular and enjoyable birds to have around your home. They don't mind being near people and their activities, and, like many other birds, they recognize you when you're providing food. Bluebirds that are familiar with you will even fly toward you when you are filling their mealworm feeder.
Our nesting Eastern Bluebirds in Tennessee are non-migratory and remain here year-around. They are joined by birds from neighboring states and young bluebirds from neighboring territories to form small wintering flocks that aid winter survival. These flock members help each other find food, spot predators and provide warmth when they roost together in a sheltered cavity, such as a nest box, when the temperature drops below 20 F degrees.
Bluebirds are not your typical feeder birds, however. Their natural winter diet consists of spiders, berries and fruits. If these foods are available they can maintain fat reserves that sustain them during the extreme cold. T. David Pitts, in his book, Studying Eastern Bluebirds, A Biologist's Report and Reflections,  also says the following:  "As a result of their high rate of metabolism, bluebirds can quickly use the fat they store.  If extremely cold temperatures linger for several days, many bluebirds may die since they normally store only enough fat to protect themelves for a day or so, and they may not be able to find enough food to replace the fat that has been used."
A male Eastern Bluebird feeding on the berries of the burning bush.

Pitts also conducted extensive studies in northwest Tennessee that revealed that bluebirds do not digest the seeds that are in the fruits they eat.   These seeds pass through their system undigested and provide no nutritional benefit.  Herein lies the challenge.  A non-seed eating bird that primarily recognizes insects, spiders and berries as food.  How do you feed them when winter gets rough?
And even more challenging, how do your feed them when larger, territorial birds are chasing them away from the berry sources?
Female Eastern Bluebird, above and below.

I had this challenge over the past week, when freezing rain and sleet coated everything with ice and temperatures plummeted to single digits with windchills below zero.  Suet crumbs froze, mealworms froze and larger birds, such as American Robins and Mockingbirds became aggressive, chasing smaller birds, like bluebirds and Hermit Thrushes away from the berry bushes. In fact, one robin was so territorial he chased bluebirds away from both the holly and the neighboring burning bush.
One male bluebird was familiar with the mealworm feeder guard and could navigate through it and eat suet and mealworms offered there, protected from larger birds.  The other bluebirds that came with him did not know how to navigate the guard.  With feathers fluffed against the cold and mealworms frozen motionless, there was little hope they would learn about the guard in sub-freezing conditions.
After consulting friends, Billie Cantwell and Liz Cutrone at Knoxville's Wildbirds Unlimited, I adjusted a Dinner Bell feeder to exclude larger birds by lowering the dome cover to a few inches above the tray, filled the tray with smooth "butter bark" suet pellets, small home-made suet crumbs and freeze-dried mealworms and hung it near the bluebird feeder.  When the male bluebird came to the feeder, his companions soon discovered the added food source and were also able to eat from it. In their absence, I noticed the Hermit Thrush landing on the dinner bell also to eat suet.

Additional good advice-- spread your suet feeders out so if a larger bird claims one feeder, there is an alternate area for the smaller birds to visit.
In the spring you can also consider planting Sumac near the borders of your yard.  In Pitts' studies in northwest Tennessee, two native species, smooth sumac and winged sumac, were the most favored fruit of bluebirds, composing 50-90% of their winter diet even when a variety of other fruits were available.
Pitts advises to plant more than one sumac spaced apart in different areas of the yard to prevent mockingbird dominance.  If a group of robins or cedar waxwings flies in and takes over the holly berry supply, a protective mockingbird will likely take over the sumac next.  Planting shrubs spaced far apart in different areas will give the bluebirds an alternative choice for feeding.
Northern Mockingbird in holly

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Winter Birds and Tennessee's Ice

Ice presents stressful winter conditions, not only for people, but for wildlife.  Though beautiful to witness from warmth and safety, a wintery mix of precipitation that coats food sources presents challenges for bird survival.
In Tennessee we have birds that live here year-around and remain for the winter because of the generally moderate winter conditions and abundance of food.  If enough food is available, many bird species can survive temporary plummets in temperature.  Extended periods of sub-freezing temperatures, however, such as the single digits that we recently experienced, and a quarter inch coating of ice over everything increases survival challenges considerably.  
The American Robin is one of the species that we call resident birds because they remain during the winter.  Many northern robins join our local ones to take advantage of the food sources, so we may see large flocks of robins descending on our yards and visiting fruit producing trees and shrubs. Asian holly is one of the berry producing shrubs that attracts many species of birds, though if you are planting holly, the native American Holly is a better choice.
In these images, you see a Robin picking berries from the holly.  He not only was feeding on berries, he soon claimed the holly for himself, driving away other robins and also driving away the area bluebirds that came to visit.  He ignored sparrows, the Hermit Thrush and did not bother the Mockingbird, the bird we all expect to be territorial with a holly.
The ice and the several days of below 20 F temperatures, presented conditions so stressful, that many birds we normally don't expect to be aggressive were chasing others away from their food source. Above, you see the robin in the act of grabbing another berry.  Notice what happens to the berry in the next image.
An ice coated berry is hard to hold on to!  People feeding birds during the ice storm and deep freeze temperatures in east Tennessee noticed many territorial birds and an influx of species that weren't commonly seen visiting their winter feeders.
I'll show you some of those species in the next few posts.

Next:  Bluebirds and ice--a special matter

More on wintering birds in this blog

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Polar Bear Alley on the Hudson Bay

On our final day in Churchill, we enjoyed a tour of the town's history and natural areas with interpretive guide, Paul Retson.  
It was impossible to miss the rifle over the windshield.  Polar Bears present a variety of challenges for the locals, sometimes coming into town, breaking into homes, taking a resident's storage of winter meat or causing general destruction and havoc.  On the other hand, Polar Bears are one of the main attractions that bring tourist dollars to the Churchill economy.
The Polar Bear Holding Facility is more frequently called the "bear jail".  After many years of trying to manage bears for the safety of bears and people, the holding facility has become the solution to problem bears.  
Traps are baited and placed in the area where the problem bear frequents.  Once the bear is captured, it is temporarily sedated and placed in the holding facility. Manitoba's Polar Bear Protection Act regulates conditions under which a live polar bear may be considered for placement in a captive situation.
Bears are not fed while in the facility.  Polar Bears are mostly fasting this time of year.  The females fast while nursing their cubs except for chewing a bit of vegetation. The males are partially fasting and will feed on whatever food source they find.  Officials learned many years ago, that if they feed the bears while they are in the facility, the bears remember the food and return, creating a worse problem.
While we were visiting, there were eleven bears being held in the facility.  The bears are held for a pre-set number of days and then lifted out by helicopter and taken to a wilderness area and released. 
The Hudson Bay shore area along Polar Bear Alley on the outskirts of Churchill.

Churchill, Kaskatamagan and Kaskatamagan Sipi are three Wildlife Management Areas dedicated to protecting land habitat for polar bears in Manitoba.  Together they encompass 14,000 sq km or 5405 square miles.  Wapusk National Park, located 28 miles south of Churchill, protects 11,470 square km of land (4430 sq miles) and is one of the world's largest Polar Bear maternity denning areas in the world.
Our guide, Paul Retson, discusses the natural history of the area and bear trapping.

Wapusk is the native Cree word for polar bear. In order to protect the habitat and wildlife, the Park is accessible only by special permit and by helicopter or tundra buggy.  Wapusk is the area where scientists first documented Grizzly Bears crossing over into Polar Bear habitat.  Seven Grizzly Bears were documented in the Wapusk park between 2003 to 2008.
Above, Billie Cantwell pauses with her camera.  Misty rain/snow and wind were common conditions, requiring protective covers for camera gear.
The dirt road that skirts the edge of town is frequented by Polar Bears and has become known as Polar Bear Alley.  Fresh Polar Bear tracks were spotted on the road as we arrived.
Located a good distance away from the road, a female Polar Bear and her cub were making their way along the Hudson Bay shore.  Though difficult to see in the gray light in the image below, the Hudson Bay is just beyond the dark rocky area.




In the wee hours of the morning, we said 'Goodbye' to Churchill and boarded our train for the return trip to Winnepeg.  One of our stops the next day was the town of The Pas.
On the roof of the depot, I found a cooperative Black-billed Magpie.  These members of the jay family were seen in many areas, but seldom stayed still long enough for me to capture a good image!

Located near the depot, a mural created by Mike O'Toole depicts Manitoba's changing habitat and wildlife heritage.



Billie Cantwell and Colin Leonard board the train as we head for our final destination, Winnepeg.
Sunset viewed from the window as we near the end of our travels with Via Rail.
This is the fourteenth and final post in the series on my journey to Churchill, Manitoba, to see Polar Bears including a visit to Riding Mountain National Park.  Click the journey to Churchill link to see all the posts.  The most recent post will appear first.  When you reach the end of the page, click "older post" to continue with the series.

Click here for Part 1--Polar Bears on the Hudson Bay and Part 2
Visit my sketchbook page on Polar Bears
Blue Sky Expeditions in Churchill
Blue Sky Expeditions on Facebook
Link to my Polar Bear video
Hudson Bay Buggies and Bears with Rail Travel Tours
Learn about Polar Bears
Hudson Bay
Eskimo Museum
History of Churchill from Churchill Science
Churchill History
the impact of sea ice decline
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For the Love of It...

...the sage sees heaven reflected in Nature as in a mirror, and he pursues this Art, not for the sake of gold or silver, but for the love of the knowledge which it reveals.
Sendivogius (1750)

Your Uncapped Creativity...

Your Uncapped Creativity...
"There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action; and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. If you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. You must keep that channel open. It is not for you to determine how good it is, nor how valuable. Nor how it compares with other expressions. It is for you to keep it yours, clearly and directly." ----the great dancer, Martha Graham