"For the Birds" Index

New!  Jim B has opened a message board dedicated to the sharing of information about wild birds and the hobby of bird watching. Birders of all levels of experience and any location are cheerfully invited to join in:

For The Birds (vol 6)


October 02, 2002 - For the Birds originally appeared as a series of posts on the Cape Ann Online message board. It was aimed at the audience who sees birds in their day to day life and is curious about them rather than the hardcore or even intermediate bird watcher.

Any word in blue can be clicked on for more info.

What’s Happening

October is a great month for bird watching. Birds migrating from the north are passing through our area. Some may stay for the winter while others may be abundant one week and almost totally gone the next. Your chance of seeing migrating birds can be very weather dependent. Look for oddities when weather fronts or storms pass through our area.

October has the added attraction of fewer insects to contend with in the field. The greenheads and midges are gone leaving only mosquitoes to contend with. The threat of West Nile Virus makes the decision to use insect repellant containing DEET an easy one for me. DEET has been shown in studies to be the only successful mosquito repellant. If you start to get hardcore about this bird watching stuff and find yourself paddling through marshes or hiking through brush be aware of the mosquitoes as they are no longer a simple irritation. Also wear long socks and pants in the brush and remember to check for ticks at the end of the day. Lyme disease is still around.

Here are a couple of fun birds to watch right now and they may be seen in the harbor or the Annisquam River.

Belted Kingfisher

Kingfishers are a family of birds and three types are found in the United States. The Belted Kingfisher is found throughout the U.S. and is the only one found locally. It is a different bird than the endangered African Kingfisher that was recently bred in a zoo. Our kingfishers are quite abundant.

Folks often hear a kingfisher long before they see it. The Belted Kingfisher is about Robin sized with a big head that makes it look kind of like a woodpecker. The Belted Kingfisher makes a distinct somewhat high pitched chattering sound. They can usually be seen perched above water, dashing from perch to perch, or diving from the air to catch a fish. Kingfishers are one of the few local birds that can hover. They hover in much the same manner as hummingbird. They have to flap their wings like mad to maintain position. The ability to hover is a great advantage for predators searching for prey items. The only birds I know of locally that can hover without flapping (called kiting) are the Least Tern (still a few around but almost all gone south) and the American Kestrel (a small colorful falcon).

Belted Kingfishers are solitary animals except during breeding season. If you drive Alligator Alley in Florida in January you may see one hundred of them perched on the telephone wire equally spaced a half mile apart. The cool part about seeing them here now is there are a lot of them about. I saw eight of them yesterday in about an hour. A few will stay the winter but in 2000 the Christmas Bird Count found only four in all of Gloucester and Rockport. Watching and listening to the kingfishers hunt while the sunset reflects off the Annisquam is about as beautiful as birding gets.

Bonaparte’s Gull

Two quick points before I get into this bird. One, There is no such thing as a seagull. We have Herring Gulls, Great Black-backed Gulls, and Ring-billed Gulls all the time and a few other gulls that are seasonal. The larger gulls take four years to mature and go through plumage changes each year. Two, if you are certain you can identify the species of every gull you see please take over writing For the Birds. Gull identification, with gulls complicated molts, hybridization, and downright unusual rarities popping up every now and again can be very puzzling.

The Bonaparte’s Gull was not named for Napoleon but rather for Napoleon’s nephew Charles Luciene Bonaparte, the bird watcher. No, I didn’t make that up.

The Bonaparte’s Gulls we see now have lost their solid black coloring on their heads and have but a small black spot behind the eye remaining. They have orange / red legs and are rarely seen mixing with other gull. You won’t find them at the dump.

Bonaparte’s Gulls are small and swift in flight. Some have described them as ternlike. They make a rapid buzzy repeated chhrrr sound. They will be around until early December and a flock of thirty five of them is easily seen everyday now from Wingaersheek Beach. All gulls should be as beautiful and well mannered.


Bird Food

Feeding birds is a subject of many books and I will not try to cover it all here –just a few quick points as to what to do now in the fall.

Number one in any season - Keep the birdbath full of clean water. Replace the water everyday lest you breed mosquitoes.

Bring in the hummingbird feeders. Clean them and store them for the winter. There is a great controversy discussed on about leaving feeders out to long and what to do about oddball western hummers that turn up in Massachusetts in the fall. Occasionally a few birds of any species will buck the trend and migrate east or west instead of south. A few of these birds make it and the specie’s territory is expanded. Most do not.

While you’re cleaning you might want to clean your other feeders. If you can’t bring the feeder in and it is made of wood, just hose it down, and paint on a 10% bleach solution. Throw a plastic bag over it for an hour or so and rinse.

Black-capped Chickadees

There are lots of different types of birdfeed out there from plain old stale bread to gourmet mixes sold in boutique type stores. Knock yourself out, do whatever you enjoy. I keep three thistle (niger seed) feeders for the finches, one old flower pot bottom filled with mixed seed for the groundpounders and a couple of suet bars going all winter. The mixed seed is the only source that can produce weeds in the yard so I don’t feed more than will be eaten in a few hours.

I toss a few roasted unsalted peanuts in with the mixed seed. Blue Jays love peanuts so much they will grab them one at a time and hide them so none of the other Blue Jays will get them. Only after they have stashed away every available peanut will they start to eat. Watching them rush frantically to get more and more is hysterical.

The suet will attract chickadees, Tufted Titmouse, and the small woodpeckers. Unfortunately it will also attract starlings. The nuts and mixed seed will attract Rock Doves aka pigeons and squirrels. You can spend all your money, go crazy, even shoot them, but there is no long term way to discourage the starlings and Rock Doves. The squirrels cannot stand cayenne pepper. Mix a tablespoon per pound of seed and the squirrel will learn to stay away as they don’t like the burning sensation in their mouths. The birds are not harmed by this at all so if the squirrels really bother you, then this is the way to go. OTOH if the squirrels don’t bother you, put a few extra peanuts or an uncooked ear of corn out for them.

On bird feeding


On binoculars and spotting scopes


What’s happening, a daily compilation of observations by local birders


The local bird club


An on-line field guide


Jim B’s Online Bird Photos