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Set the table for spring

painted buntingI feed mostly black sunflower seeds in my yard feeders and throw out some chicken scratch for the ground-feeding birds.  But in springtime we have to change the menu a bit to attract spring migrants.  My hummingbird feeder is hung off the patio near some Red Columbine that is just beginning to bloom and adjacent to three big Coral Honeysuckle bushes that are a favorite of hummingbirds. I haven’t spied a hummer yet, but Kurt Meisenzahl of Lawton reports a Black-chinned Hummingbird at a feeder this week, so there are a few around.  The earlier you hang your feeder, the more likely you are to attract a mating pair to your property.

I keep the scratch and black sunflower around in spring, but hang a feeder with white millet to attract indigoIndigo and Painted Buntings.  It seems to be their favorite food.  I used to feed a finch mix, but noticed that these two species always plucked out the white millet, so I try to provide what they want.  I don’t get many of these birds, seem to just get a few northward bound migrants in April and May.   I’ve seen a breeding pair the past couple of year on the upper end of one of our ponds, though.

I don’t have many orioles around the house, either, but have been able to attract a few with a bright orange feeder stoked with orange slices and grape jelly.  A couple of springs ago I had a couple of male Baltimore’s that would come up on the patio and hang out.  I haven’t hung the oriole feeder yet, but will get it out soon.  I’m sure other folks have favorite foods for different birds, but these have worked for me.  It’s time to set the table to attract our newly arriving spring migrants.
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The Barn Swallows and Killdeer have returned   in the past few days and most of our wintering ducks are gone.  Just a couple of scaup remaining on the ponds as spring dawns on the reddirt hill.
  Photos by L. Dillon.  Click to enlarge.
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Coming soon to your neighborhood

hb 2Yesterday was a beautiful spring day in Oklahoma, but this morning the north wind is howling and I have the fireplace roaring.  The only thing consistent about spring weather on the plains is the wind.  One day it blows 30 mph from the south and the next day it blows 30 mph from the north.  Even though the coming week is going to be more like winter than summer, the Ruby-throated Hummingbirds are headed this way.   I usually see the first males pass through my Norman yard in the last week of March.

Photo by L. Dillon.  Click to enlarge.

I’ve always been fascinated by the hummingbird migration.  It’s almost unbelievable that this teeny fluff of feathers can fly 450 miles into a head wind and cross the Gulf of Mexico.   Before migration hummers fatten up for the journey, increasing their body weight 25-40 percent.  If most birds gained that much weight, they wouldn’t be able to get off the ground.

A lot of folks don’t realize that insects are an important part of hummers’ diet.  If flowers aren’t available, the hummingbirds will switch to insects to survive.  Insects are also a part of their regular diet.  I’ve observed them eating ants and several times watched them pluck swarming gnats from the air.  Late last summer I saw them competing with Blue-gray Gnatcatchers for the tiny insects on sunflowers. When it comes to high-performance aerobatic flying, the teeny hummers are unequaled.  They are the only bird that can hover and even fly backwards.

Too many people think all they have to do is hang out a feeder to attract hummingbirds.  Migrating hummingbirds readily use feeders, but when the males select their territory they are looking for a supply of flowers with nectar, insects and water in a small area.  When the first males come thorough my yard they will find some Red Columbine as well as the wildflowers on the red dirt hill behind the house.  It will be covered with Indian Paintbrush, one of their favorite foods.  I also have Butterfly Bushes, Coral Honeysuckle, Lantana, milkweed and a Desert Willow in the yard to keep a dependable food supply nearby throughout the season.  These same plants also attract butterflies.  The more native plants you have on your property, the more hummingbirds, butterflies and songbirds you’ll attract.

You can watch the hummingbird migration here http://www.learner.org/jnorth/maps/humm_ruby_spring2013.html  Nearest one at this point is near Abilene, TX.  Who will be the first hb mapto report one in Oklahoma?  If I were a betting man, I’d put my money on David Arbor, the biologist at Red Slough.

Read about my backyard bluebirds on my other blog http://bluebirddiary.wordpress.com/ and see my nature photos at http://www.flickr.com/photos/reddirtpics/

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Predator and prey …

IMG_2115 ldNature seems harsh to some people.  To a naturalist it seems logical.  It’s all a part of an on-going process called the balance of nature and evolution. And yes, Homo sapiens is as much a part of the process as some obscure amoeba.

Photo by L. Dillon.  Click to enlarge.

Today I witnessed a predation down on the ponds that will no doubt upset some of my neighbors..  One of our local redtails took a Pekin/mallard cross that has been around since last summer.  Some of the kids had even given her a name.

Predators have evolved over time to become faster, smarter, stronger, camoflaged or whatever to enable them to catch prey and survive.  In the natural world prey evolve along with the predators.  They too become smarter, faster, better camoflaged or whatever and a balance is struck.  When things get out of balance, it’s often the doing of man.  This redtail would be hard-pressed to catch and kill one of the wild ducks on the ponds.  But, this duck is a cross between a domestic Pekin and a mallard.  This mix probably occurred because someone bought a cute fluffy little duck at the feed store and then released on someone’s pond when it was no longer amusing.  There it mated with a wild mallard.  The result was a duck that was set back a few hundred generations and had to try to survive in the wild.  We see how that worked out.

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Drought takes a lickin’

IMG_1626_tonemappedOklahoma has suffered through a two and one-half year drought, but Mother Nature seems to be smiling on us recently.  A series of three Pacific storms has put a lickin’ on this drought.  The previous two have the soil saturated and there is lots of water running into the lakes and ponds this morning.  The western third of the state is in a genuine white-out blizzard and the rest of us are getting significant rain.  And this storm is far from over.  The backside will swing around this afternoon and the eastern two-thirds of the state will get snow.

Big February snowflakes seen from my study porch.

It will be interesting to see what this storm does to deep soil moisture levels and how much runoff our dismal looking lakes will receive.  This one just might be the ‘drought buster’.  If this weather pattern holds, there may even be more of this for us in a few days.

Oklahoma is blessed with the most unique weather reporting system in the nation.  If you haven’t checked out the Oklahoma Mesonet, you should.  To see the latest 24-hour rainfall and about any other weather statistic for the state visit http://www.mesonet.org/

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A sign of spring …

IMG_1653 ldI blogged on my Bluebird Diary this morning about a sure sign of spring on the reddirt hill I call home.  Thought Oklahoma nature lovers would enjoy reading about my backyard bluebirds.  http://bluebirddiary.wordpress.com/

See photos of my bluebirds on flickr http://www.flickr.com/photos/reddirtpics/

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Waterfowl numbers down

IMG_1043 ldAsk most any birder or waterfowl hunter how many ducks they have been seeing this winter and the answer is fewer than normal.  I throw my vote in with that lot as well.  The numbers on our ponds have been really low– just like the water level.

A male Hooded Merganser.  Photo by L. Dillon

Recent surveys by wildlifers confirm the low numbers of waterfowl.  Pre-season surveys in the northern United States and Canada indicated last spring’s duck population was at an all-time high of 48.6 million birds. But the number of ducks and geese in Oklahoma during the first week of January appeared to be lower compared to the same period in 2012, said state Wildlife Department personnel who participated in the annual Mid-Winter Waterfowl Population Survey conducted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. However, the reason for the lackluster numbers is not necessarily due to the overall bird population.

“This year, Kansas, Nebraska and Oklahoma seem to be in the worst shape, as far as habitat for tealwaterfowl,” said Terry Liddick of Spearfish, S.D., a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service pilot-biologist who flew a survey aircraft this winter in Oklahoma.  That isn’t news to those who pay attention to waterfowl numbers.  Read almost any edition of ODWC’s biweekly Waterfowl Report this season, and the most prevalent words have been “poor,” “low” and “below normal.”

Blue-winged Teal photo by L. Dillon.  Click to enlarge.

Wildlife personnel spend about 50 hours in two small aircraft as observers from Jan. 7 to Jan. 14, flying low and slow across Oklahoma to count waterfowl and other migratory birds.

Josh Richardson, migratory bird biologist with ODWC,  surveyed western areas of Oklahoma.  He reports fewer ducks and geese this year than he has in recent years. His preliminary numbers this year are about 40 percent less than his survey results from last year.  Another repercussion from our ongoing drought.

At least our short-term weather pattern is holding more moisture in the air and creating some conditions that can produce some rain.  Pray for rain.

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Grey Snow Eagle House

IMG_0932 ldI recently enjoyed a visit to a uniquely Oklahoma facility just south of Perkins on Highway 177.  The Grey Snow Eagle House is an eagle rehabilitation center run by the Iowa Nation of Oklahoma.  This project  is one that all Oklahomans can be proud of and should be on the bucket list of every nature lover.

Photo of a Golden Eagle by L. Dillon.  Click to enlarge.

The Bah Kho-je Xla Chi (Grey Snow Eagle House) was completed in January 2006  with funds provided by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services and the Iowa Tribe.  Since it’s illegal to possess eagles or even eagle feathers without a USFWS permit, the Iowas possess two different permits.  The Religious-Use Permit allows the Tribe to house eagles that are non-releasable due to the nature or severity of their injuries. This permit also allows the tribe to gather naturally molted feathers and distribute them to tribal members for use in cultural ceremonies. The second permit allows the Tribe to rehabilitate eagles for their eventual release. The Iowa Tribe is the first tribe in the country to be permitted through the USFWS as Eagle Rehabilitators.  They have helped several other tribes establish eagle rehab centers in their relatively short history.

Tours are by appointment only and I’ll provide contact information.  We toured with the Tulsa Audubon Society and everyone seemed to enjoy the visit immensely.  Lots of questions from this knowledgeable group.  I want to extend a big Oklahoma ‘thank you’ to John Kennington for the invite.

We were greeted by Wildlife Manager Victor Roubidoux who immediately made everyone feel welcome IMG_0848 ldand comfortable.  Victor is a soft-spoken, sincere man that you just immediately like.  He has a real passion for eagles and it shows.  The Iowas are a small tribe with just over 700 members, so building and operating this facility takes a big bite out of their budget.  There are no monetary rewards, but the spiritual reward is great and can’t be measured in dollars.  As an Oklahoma nature lover, I salute the Iowas and the staff at Grey Snow Eagle House for their service and dedication to helping injured eagles.

The smaller eagle in front is a male, the larger female.  Photo by L. Dillon.

Currently there are 48 eagles in the facility.  About a dozen are Golden Eagles and the remainder Bald Eagles.  They also have a few miscellaneous raptors that for one reason or another have ended up there.  Every bird has a story.  All the eagles have names and several  seem to have bonds with their keepers.  Many can fly limited distances  within the flight cages, but not well enough to be released. Four eagles are currently being prepared for release.  Others have serious injuries that are heart-breaking to see.  But given their circumstance, they are treated well and live in a loving, clean environment with other eagles.  That is about the best that can be done for them.  The Iowa culture doesn’t permit the euthanizing of eagles.

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Put the Grey Snow Eagle House on your list of Oklahoma places to visit this year.  Check out the Iowa’s website at http://www.iowanation.org/page/home/government/office-of-environmental-services/eagle-aviary or friend them on facebook https://www.facebook.com/GreySnowEagleHouse

Photo by L. Dillon.  Click to enlarge.