Bird Feeding Pantry

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After regularly being frustrated by digging through tubs and fussing with ziplock bags, I finally got serious about organizing our bird food and ordered some OXO containers. These are the 4.3 quart, Pet POP Containers. Depending upon the density of a particular food, they hold slightly less than a standard 5 lb. bag. We chose these because they fit under our counter, but I would probably go up to the next size if I had space. Overall, I’m very happy with the setup. It’s nice to be able to see how much of each food we have at a glance, and it’s great to not be digging through bins full of ziplock bags, spilling seed, and making a mess. Here’s what we’re currently feeding:

Fine Sunflower Chips

Fine sunflower is the number one most popular bird food. It’s particularly attractive to the various species of finches and sparrows that are so prevalent in Northern California. My friends at Wild Birds Unlimited (WBU) tell me they can barely keep it in stock. We call it “bird crack”. Check out this video of a flock of goldfinches in a feeding frenzy on a tube feeder filled with fine sunflower. 

WBU No Mess Blend

No Mess Blend is a popular food that’s based upon sunflower chips but also contains other shelled seeds and nuts such as white millet and peanuts. It’s called “no mess” because it contains no shells so there’s little waste. The advantage of No Mess over straight sunflower is that finches throw the millet aside which the sparrows and doves then eat off the ground. 

WBU Choice Plus Blend

Choice Plus Blend contains the widest variety seeds, nuts, and fruit of any blend I’m aware of. It’s designed to attract the widest variety of birds and works really well on platform feeders for birds that won’t come to tube feeders. The blend includes black oil sunflower, chopped tree nuts, sunflower chips, shelled peanuts, suet nuggets, safflower, striped sunflower, cherries, and cranberries.

Black Oil Sunflower

Black oil sunflower is a staple item in any bird feeding pantry. It appeals to almost all seed-eating birds and is used as the basis for many standard blends. We like to place it on the platform feeder in piles to attract White-breasted Nuthatches and Purple Finches.

Nyjer

Nyjer (thistle) is a popular seed for attracting finches. It’s typically offered in a “finch feeder” with openings designed specifically for the tiny seeds. While many sources will tell you that nyjer is the best seed for attracting finches, in our experience they far prefer sunflower chips. We offer nyjer in a finch feeder as a backup for when our sunflower feeder is occupied.

Shelled Peanuts

Shelled peanuts are a favorite of Acorn Woodpeckers and California Scrub Jays. Both species regularly visit our wire mesh peanut feeder. 

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Goldfinches

American Goldfinch

Goldfinches are one of the most common birds at bird feeders, and they’re also one of the most tolerant of humans. Backyard birders in California can potentially see them every day of the year. They’re easy to take for granted, yet they continue to be one of my favorite birds due to their exceptional beauty and vibrant personalities.

Lesser Goldfinch

The two primary goldfinches commonly encountered in our area are the American Goldfinch and the Lesser Goldfinch. Identification can be tricky for the layman, though there are a few details that can help differentiate the two:

  • The American is slightly larger then the Lesser (hence the “lesser” moniker)
  • The Lesser has an olive green back, the American has a yellow back
  • The Lesser has yellow undertail coverts, the American’s are white
  • The American has more pronounced wing bars than the Lesser
  • During breeding season, the American’s bill is lighter

There are other details to consider, but the above should be enough to make a positive identification in most cases. Check Sibley’s, Cornell, or Audubon if you need more help. And don’t worry, you’ll find they get easier to identify once you’ve seen a few side-by-side!

The Dark-Eyed Junco

We’ve been seeing lots of these beautiful little Dark-eyed Juncos in our yard lately. They spend the summer months in mountain forests, but come down to the valley to visit backyards during the winter. Their diet can consist of a 50/50 mix of seeds and insects in the summer, but they’re mostly seed eaters in the winter. While they do come to feeders, like other sparrows, they prefer to feed on either platforms or the ground underneath feeders. They’re a welcome addition to our backyard bird community.

From Wikipedia:

The Dark-eyed Junco (Junco hyemalis) is a species of the juncos, a genus of small grayish American sparrows. This bird is common across much of  temperate North America and in summer ranges far into the Arctic. It is a very variable species, much like the related Fox Sparrow (Passerella iliaca), and its  systematics are still not completely untangled.
Adults generally have gray heads, necks, and breasts, gray or brown backs and wings, and a white belly, but show a confusing amount of variation in plumage details. The white outer tail feathers flash distinctively in flight and while hopping on the ground. The bill is usually pale pinkish.

Cedar Waxwing on Privet

Cedar Waxwing on Privet

We have a massive Privet in our backyard that towers over our two-story house. Everyone who sees it says, “That’s the largest Privet I’ve ever seen!” The tree is currently producing a ton of berries which are quite popular with a local flock of Cedar Waxwings.

The waxwings feed high up in the canopy of the tree, which makes capturing photos quite a challenge. Shots from ground level are impossible. This shot was captured through our upstairs bathroom window. It’s a double-pane window and because of its location, it’s difficult to clean. Shooting through two panes of dirty glass makes for soft, washed out images that require a good deal of post processing to salvage. Often, when source images are so degraded, it’s not worth the effort. But occasionally, when you’re lucky enough to have all of the elements of the composition fall into place, the resulting image can be worth the extra effort.

An Intruder

We had an intruder in the yard the other day. A Sharp-shinned Hawk attacked one of our resident songbirds and flew off with it. I captured the above photo when he returned a short while later. Needless to say, the yard was dead silent and devoid of songbirds for at least an hour thereafter. Hawks need to eat too, and I understand about trophic cascades, but I’d prefer that he finds another yard in which to hunt. 

About Sharp-shinned Hawks (from the Audubon Field Guide):

The smallest of our bird-hunting Accipiter hawks, this one is also the most migratory, breeding north to treeline in Alaska and Canada and wintering south to Panama. It is during migration that the Sharp-shin is most likely to be seen in numbers, with dozens or even hundreds passing at some favored points on coastlines, lake shores, and mountain ridges. At other seasons the hawks lurk in the woods, ambushing songbirds and generally staying out of sight.

 

Cedar Waxwings

Our former house was in a modern suburb with young trees, small yards, and lots of concrete. The backyard birding wasn’t bad, but for the most part our regulars were limited to the various finch and sparrow species. One of the birds we always wanted to see, but rarely did, is the beautiful Cedar Waxwing.

We moved into an older neighborhood this past spring. Our new house is a block away from a riparian corridor and the neighborhood is filled with old growth trees. We suspected it might be better for backyard birding, and it turns out we were right.

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Over the summer we would often hear the distinctive call of Cedar Waxwings high in the treetops around the neighborhood, but never in our own backyard. They were tantalizingly close, but very difficult to spot up in the tops of the massive old trees. We eventually resolved ourselves to the fact that our yard didn’t have the right mix of trees to attract waxwings and that we might have to settle for admiring them from a distance.

Then, one day in mid-November, they suddenly showed up - a flock of at least 40 waxwings landed in our backyard.  We have a massive Privet (over two-stories tall), and much to our surprise, it produces large quantities of berries in early winter, berries that appear to be very attractive to waxwings. The flock stayed around for over two weeks, gorging themselves daily on the berries and making quite a mess on our deck (be careful what you ask for). Their feeding has slowed down for now, but we’re hoping they come back in the spring when our grand old Mulberry tree starts producing its fruit.

Photographing Waxwings

Even with so many birds around, waxwings are difficult to photograph. They mostly stay high up in trees which makes it tough to get a good angle for a photo. Fortunately, we have an upstairs bathroom window that faces out over the backyard. Shooting through window glass is less than ideal, but I was able to capture a number of memorable images with my 100-400 during their visit.

Like most songbirds, waxwings flit about almost constantly while feeding, so relatively high shutter speeds are in order (1/500 and above). They tend to feed in the shadows inside bushes and trees, so plan on high ISOs and relatively aggressive post processing to deal with the resultant noise.

About Cedar Waxings

From the Cornell Lab of Ornithology:

A treat to find in your binocular viewfield, the Cedar Waxwing is a silky, shiny collection of brown, gray, and lemon-yellow, accented with a subdued crest, rakish black mask, and brilliant-red wax droplets on the wing feathers. In fall these birds gather by the hundreds to eat berries, filling the air with their high, thin, whistles. In summer you’re as likely to find them flitting about over rivers in pursuit of flying insects, where they show off dazzling aeronautics for a forest.
The Cedar Waxwing is a medium-sized, sleek bird with a large head, short neck, and short, wide bill. Waxwings have a crest that often lies flat and droops over the back of the head. The wings are broad and pointed, like a starling’s. The tail is fairly short and square-tipped.

A Day to Remember

Purple Finch

Yesterday was one of the best days of backyard birding I’ve ever experienced. In the morning, I set up a new awning over the platform feeder and was worried it might deter the birds, but instead I had more traffic on the platform than I’ve ever seen. It might have been the awning, but it also might have been the Choice Plus Blend I dumped in the tray when I removed the hopper feeder (more likely).

Dark-Eyed Junco (Oregon Variant)

In any case we had quite a mix, with Yellow-rumped Warblers (Audubon’s), Dark-eyed Juncos (Oregon Variant), Purple Finches, White-breasted Nuthatches, Bewick’s Wren, White-crowned Sparrows, Oak Titmice, California Scrub Jays, California Towhee, Northern Mockingbirds, Mourning Doves, Lesser Goldfinches, and about two dozen American Goldfinches. A number of Cedar Waxwings were also high up in our Privet munching on berries and making a mess on the deck like they do. What a day!

Yellow-Rumped Warbler (Audubon’s)

Lesser Goldfinch (Male)

Ready for Fall

Cedar Waxwing in Privet

I spent a couple of hours deep cleaning all of our feeders last night. We’re reconfiguring the mix of food we’re offering to attract the widest variety of birds this fall. The tube feeders now contain shelled peanuts, a nyjer blend, a “no mess” blend, and fine sunflower hearts (aka “bird crack”). The “no mess” blend contains sunflower chips, hulled white millet, and shelled peanuts. It’s a good one to have in your feeders when White-crowned Sparrows return in the fall. Finches don’t eat the millet, which they throw on the ground for the sparrows and Morning Doves, neither of which will normally sit on posts. 

We also have a hopper feeder and tray feeder. We’ve switched over to “no mess” in the hopper, and we’re offering whole black oil sunflower along with suet balls in the tray. Both of these feeders are more attractive than tube feeders to birds that don’t comfortably perch on posts and prefer to feed on the ground or larger surfaces.

So far this fall we’ve seen lots and lots of Gold Finches and House Finches, good numbers of White-breasted Nuthatches, increasing numbers of White-crowned Sparrows, Oak Titmice, Black Phoebes, California Towhees, Robins, European Starling, Black-headed Grosbeaks, Bewick's Wren, Western Tanagers, Acorn Woodpeckers, and a single Western Meadowlark. And to top it off, a full grown Cooper’s Hawk landed in our front yard the other day. I was sitting at my computer working and it landed on the lawn right in front of me. Our neighbor mentioned that a mating pair nest in the neighborhood, but that was the first I’d seen. They’re quite stunning at close range, but we’re hoping they don’t harass our songbirds too much!

Documentation vs Art

Here is a pair of photos showing the original image, straight out of the camera, versus the final image after processing and manipulation in Affinity Photo for iOS. In this case, the goal was not to document the bird for identification, but instead to create a more pleasing image for enjoyment and self expression.

My take is that each person will have their own preferences and limits when manipulating photos, and so long as they’re honest about their process and intentions, there is no right or wrong.

Here is a synopsis of the process I used to create this image:

  • Import the file into Affinity Photo on the iPad Pro.
  • Crop.
  • Open the develop module and adjust overall exposure, highlights, shadows, clarity, and saturation.
  • Duplicate the base layer.
  • On the duplicate layer, select the bird and limb, then convert  the selection to a layer mask. Now the bird and the background are on separate layers.
  • Apply sharpening to the bird layer (using unsharp mask).
  • Apply noise reduction to the background.
  • Add an HSL layer and pin it to the bird. Adjust the saturation and luminosity of the individual color channels on the bird.
  • Add an HSL layer and pin it to the background. Adjust the saturation and luminosity of the individual color channels on the background.
  • Using the clone brush, reduce the intensity of the highlights in the background, remove the extraneous limb, and clean up the area around the bird’s head.
  • Apply a vignette to the background layer.
  • Export to the Photo Library. 

And here’s the metadata:

  • Camera: Fuji X-T2
  • Lens: Fuji 100-400 f/4.5-5.6
  • Focal Length: 400mm (600mm equiv.)
  • Aperture: f/5.6
  • Shutter: 1/250 sec.
  • ISO: 5000
  • 12.9” iPad Pro
  • Apple Pencil
  • Affinity Photo for iOS