Western Bluebirds

To my delight, I saw six bluebirds at the birdbath in my father-in-law’s garden.  I was able to catch a couple of photos and work some drawings.  Bluebirds have always been a rare sighting for me but the last few years I have been seeing more of them in Northern California.  In recent decades, numbers have declined over much of their range.  There is a need to put up many more birdhouses to kept pace with the loss of natural nest sites for these sweet birds.

Western Bluebird is a small thrush about 6 to 7 inches length.  Adult males are bright blue on top and throat with an orange breast and sides, a brownish patch on back, and a gray belly.  They are considerably brighter than the gray-brown, blue-tinged females which I tried to show in my drawings.

This thrush nests in holes in trees or nest boxes and often gathers in small flocks to feed on insects or berries.  What is interesting is their bills are not the kind to dig out their own holes. They rely on woodpeckers to make their nest sites for them.

Western Bluebirds live in open woodlands and at the edges of woods compared to either Eastern Bluebirds or Mountain Bluebirds that are seen more in large meadows.  You can find these birds in evergreen and deciduous woods, particularly ponderosa pines but also pinyon pine-juniper, mixed conifers, and aspen. They thrive in disturbed areas such as burned forests or logged areas that still contain dead trees suitable for nesting and perching.

 

 

A tweet from the other side of the globe ~Purple Sunbird~ By Tahir Khan Arzani

Quest Writer  -: Tahir Khan Arzani from Lahore, Pakistan.

This was the first tweet I got about thirty five years ago and then onwards I started getting them every day early in the morning from about one and half feet from my window. What am I talking about? I am sure you would ask me how I could get these tweets thirty five years ago when twitter was not yet even born.

It was the early eighties and I was in my early twenties. My room was on the outer side of our house in Model Town, one of the serenest and the greenest locality in the historic city of Lahore, Pakistan. It is an old mansion built in the year 1936 even before the partition of India and Pakistan.

My room had a typical colonial four and a half feet, two laired vertical wooden window. Inside it was a two door opening with four milky rosette patterned foggy glass on each side and front part a typical mesh fitted double door. Outside the window there was an old bougainvillea mixed with an orange bell flower creeper covering half of the window and moving stealthily up to the roof. The months of March and April it is all spring in this part of the world and the bell flowers are at full bloom. After hard winters of four months the weather becomes very pleasant in springs here and we start sleeping with open doors only mesh doors are closed as a measure of protection from mosquitoes.

So, coming back to the earliest tweet. My bed was just next to the window. Early one morning while I was in a deep slumber I had to get up on account of a noisy shrilling tweet tweet. It was a constant call repeated several times in a minute that woke me up. Though it was pretty disturbing, I got up angrily but when I looked out side the window where this loud call was coming from my anger turned into shear amusement and enjoyment. It was truly a mesmerizing scene, an ideal setting for a painting in reality with lush green background of bougainvillea leaves with a crumbling and twisting old branch on one side and vibrant orange bellflowers in foreground. At the bellflowers was this stunningly beautiful metallic, purplish-black bird acrobatically clinging up side down to the hanging flower and making these loud tweets. The little beauty couldn’t see me because of the mesh. So, this was the first tweet I ever received and also my formal introduction with the Purple Sunbird which turned into an affair later on.

I was so amused with this happening that I wanted to see this little gorgeous creature more closely. Next day I took a thin jute rope, tide it to the nearest branch and pulled it closer to the mesh window. And from that day onwards this bird started to wake me up in the mornings for many years to come and I still enjoy this spell binding beauty from a kissing distance.

The strange fact of the animal Kingdom is that in animal world males of most of the animals and birds are much more beautiful then that of their female partners. This might sound like a male chauvinistic statement but actually it is so. It can be witnessed from the lions in the African jungles to this tiny Purple Sunbird of my region. Nectar Eatting Sunbird

Lets talk about some technical details that are very important to know for a bird watcher.

This bird is commonly known as “Purple Sunbird” and its scientific name is (Nactarinia asiatica)

It is normally about 7-10 CM (4 inches) in length but I have seen slightly bigger then these about 12-14 cm as well but rarely.  

Males are of striking metallic shiny blackish-purple often misunderstood to be black at the first sight but it is metallic purple. Females have from grey to olive greenish upper coat and paler yellowish to off white under parts. Both male and female have probe type bill which is slightly longish cervical with long tubular tongue ideal to penetrate into the long bell flowers and other tube flowers to suck nectar from.

Habits

Purple Sunbird can be seen in gardens, parks and house lawns where greenery is found in urban areas of Lahore during the spring and summer months. It hovers from flower to flower penetrating its beak into the flowers while staying still in the air with its wings fluttering up and down for hundreds of time in a minute like a still helicopter in midair. This fluttering causes a humming sound that pushes a common bird watcher to think that it might be a hummingbird when technically its not. These sunbirds can be seen in pairs and some times in small groups of three to five.

Flitting from one flower to another often clinging upside down to probe with its slender curved bill for the nectar which is its basic diet.  They also catch and eat small spiders and insects especially to feed their young to cover the requirements of protein in their diet but, it is not a major portion of their feed.

Call

Males are very noisy. I have seen the them sitting restlessly on the top of a medium height tree (20 to 25 feet) max or on a nearby wire making regular calls of tweet tweet.. tweet tweet from 2 to 7 times for good half an hour in the mornings but they also do it in other hours of the day as well.

Migration

These Purple Sunbirds are locally nomadic and are found from Thatta in the south near the Arabian Sea to the Himalayan foothills (1200m) in the north.They are also found in desert areas when flora is in abundance. They are absent from dry mountainous regions. In Lahore they are seen till mid October to maximum end November before the hard winter begins and then they return in early spring.

Nesting

I have noticed over the years that the purple sunbird returns in the month of March and the mating and nesting months are from March to May.  They make their nest in bushes, small trees and dense creepers on the garden walls at a height of 3 to 10 feet max. Female makes the nest.. She remains busy finding the right material. The nests are made of soft grass, at times rubbish thin cuttings of cloth. Mostly in longish pouch type close at the bottom and hanging from a tree branch (not necessarily very strong). Normally a sunbirds nest is not very neat from outside but she keeps a neat round opening on the outer side slightly below the branch with which it is hanging. She gives enough cover shade to the opening so that direct rain doesn’t affect the new born chicks. On average there are 2 to 3 pale greyish or greenish eggs with white marks on them. From two to three eggs are hatched but mostly there are 1 to 2 survivors

While going through my field notes of the year 2013 about sunbirds that I just found. I think that some details can be very informative and of some interest to our readers.

It was the March 2013 I noticed that these Sunbirds arrived back in my garden on 15th of March after an absence of three and a half months. Extensive loud calling of the male and dance could be seen for good 15 to 20 days. Both male searched and selected the appropriate place to make a nest. The female started making nest on 2nd of April. The work was completed in 14 -15 days and the female started sitting in the nest from 16th of April. Only female incubates the eggs. Incubation lasts about 14-17 days. Male does help in raising the young. Two featherless naked chicks were hatched. I with the help of my daughter 13 and my younger son 8 years kept a close eye on the nest but from a safe distance and It was the tenth day one of the new born was found dead in the nest and the other one was rescued by my daughter that jumped out of the nest three times in two days. we put her back each time but now fully feathered and very active lone survivor was ready to take its chances and wanted to take its first jump to explore the new world. My son marked the chick with some washable colour to recognize it in the field. It took its first flight after two days. The family remained a regular visitor of our garden the whole summer and we could identify the younger one easily.

So readers, this was my story and the Purple Sunbird for you from my side of the globe. I am sure all of you must have a story of your own to tell. We must share them with each other especially with our children so that, in this way we can transfer these positive habits to them because children are our future but they seem to be so busy while using their laptops and cell phones that they don’t realize what they are missing and how far away they have gone from the natural world. This is our responsibility to convey all this to them in order to bring them back to real world.

Red-Breasted Sapsucker

We’re lucky today in the northeastern corner of California to get a little rain. We live on the edge of the Great Basin high desert and the last few evenings have been wet ones. The air now has a fresh smell. Lilli lives on the far end of town. Sometimes we take our dogs hiking together. This morning Lilli was blessed with a tap, tap, tap at her bedroom window. She opened her curtain and to her amazement, her morning wake-up call was a Red-Breasted Sapsucker! This was the second morning he came tap, tapping on the windowsill. I was so disappointed not to of seen this regal charmer.

Lilli asked me what I thought the bird was doing? Probably catching some bugs, I responded. With the wet weather swarms of insects emerge to the delight of many of our feathered friends.

Then I remembered we once had a Flicker making holes under the eves at our house in the Bay Area. We had to discourage the bird by blocking off the area with some chicken wire. I told Lilli she’d better check around your windows and make sure the bird isn’t doing any damage. Happily, Lilli reported no damage by her Sapsucker. As the weather warms the sap in the trees will start running and the Sapsucker will not have to venture far to feed.

Because these birds create sap wells in the bark of woody plants and feed on sap the name “sapsucker” has been applied to the woodpecker genus Sphyrapicus.

When sapsuckers first arrive at their breeding grounds in the early  spring, they drill tiny holes in tree bark, usually in neatly spaced rows.  These holes are called wells. The wells are shallow but drilled through the outer bark to underlying phloem or xylem tissues of a tree. In northeastern California we have many conifers like the Modoc cypress that are green all year and many woodpeckers drill to  find  insects. These trees also produce some sap, but in the spring here, the gourmets of trees to drill into are the aspen and the willow. Later the bird returns periodically to feed on the sap that oozes out. As the temperature rises the   sap in the trees will flow, trapping bits of cambium and other tree tissues, as well as insects which the birds enjoy. If you live closer to the northwest coast you will often see Red-Breasted Sapsucker in hemlock or spruce trees. We see them jaunt out to catch insects in the air, and they will eat berries and fruits. Besides drilling sap wells, like in a more typical woodpecker fashion they will glean insects from tree trunks, and if your are very, very lucky even from your bedroom window.

Birds are so intelligent and observant! This bird in particular helps provide food and nesting places for other species. Other birds notice and make use of sapsucker wells to supplement their food intake with sap or with insects attracted to the sap. Hummingbirds, for example, appear to be closely associated with Red-Breasted Sapsuckers. It is documented in northern California that both the Rufous and Anna’s hummingbirds will take advantage of these sap wells. The hummingbird locates their nests close by a food source because of the frequent feedings of their young. Baby hummingbirds need to be fed about every 20 minutes, plus the mother hummingbird needs to replenish her own energy to keep up this demanding pace. Hummers will follow sapsuckers in their daily movements to discover where these sap wells are.  In addition, other birds like the Mountain Bluebird will grab up an excavated nest cavity of the Sapsucker to provide a perfect nesting site for themselves to use. Sapsuckers, in general, are very important birds to have in our habitat, contributing in force to the web of life.

The adult Red-Breasted Sapsucker is a medium-sized woodpecker with a bright red head, nape, throat, and breast. They have white barred upper body, with a blush of yellow on it’s belly, and white rump. There is also a white stripe running up the side with more white on the female than the male. The wings are checkered, black and white with large white patches. It has a black bill, gray legs and feet.  They are closely related to the Red-Nape Sapsucker and  Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker and they may even cross-breed sometimes.

Conservation status: These birds are still fairly numerous but populations have declined somewhat because of loss of habitat from cutting the tree forests in the northwest.

Nesting: A pair of red-breasted sapsuckers usually excavates a new nest cavity each year, leaving the old ones for other species of birds or mammals. They lay 5-6 white eggs. Incubation is by both sexes (with male incubating at night and part of day), 11-15 days. Both parents feed young, bringing them insects, sap, and fruit. Young leave the nest 23-28 days after hatching. One brood per year.

The parents teach the young fledglings the sapsucking habit by feeding them for about 10 days after they leave the nest. Last summer on retreat at Olympia, Washington State Park I saw these birds teaching their youngsters this technique. The fledglings were shy and stayed more in the shadowy thicket, too dark for me to get a good photo. I still watched them with smiles for hours each afternoon while I was there.