Birds and Blooms Blog

Get the latest birding and gardening tips from our expert bloggers.

Looking for Winter Finches

Rob Ripma

While in Toledo yesterday, I followed a tip from a friend and went looking for winter finches at a local park. Several winter finches had been seen here but one in particular got me very excited, a Hoary Redpoll! This bird would be a lifer (a bird I’ve never seen before)!

When my wife and I arrived at the park, we found two photographers looking at the Hoary Redpoll! It’s always awesome when the bird you want to see is so cooperative! Although Hoary Redpolls can be hard to identify, this individual has been in a flock with two Common Redpolls which makes the differences really stand out. You can see all of the recent reports of Hoary Redpoll on eBird.

You can see how this Hoary Redpoll has clean white undertail coverts.

You can see how this Hoary Redpoll has clean white undertail coverts.

In this shot, you can see the very small bill that helps to identify this as a Hoary rather than a Common Redpoll.

In this shot, you can see the very small bill that helps to identify this as a Hoary rather than a Common Redpoll.

Have you had any winter finches at your feeder?

Simple Valentine’s Day Wreath Craft

Jill Staake

A few weeks ago, when all the Christmas decorations were put away and the last of the glitter finally swept from the floor (I hope), I decided I wanted a few seasonal decorations to dress up the house just a little. It seemed too early for Valentine’s Day, but I wanted something along those lines to decorate my front door. Artificial silk flowers aren’t really my thing, but I took a spin through the floral section of my local craft store anyway. There, I discovered some fun flowers made of wood, of all things, and decided to design a simple wreath craft that I could use to showcase them.

Valentine's Day Wreath Craft

Simple Valentine’s Day Wreath Craft Materials

  • Heart-shaped grapevine wreath
  • Dried eucalyptus bunch, burgandy
  • Pink wooden flowers, 2 stems with 3 flowers each (I found these at Jo-Ann Fabric)
  • Brown wire (Regular green floral wire won’t blend properly for this wreath craft – find brown or copper wire in the jewelry section instead)
  • 24 inches of ivory ribbon
  • Wire snips
Valentine's Day Wreath Craft

These wooden flowers are sold three-to-a-stem in the floral section of Jo-Ann’s craft stores.

Simple Valentine’s Day Wreath Craft Assembly

  • Snip short lengths of eucalyptus stems and arrange around wreath as desired. Tuck stems into grapevine where possible, and use brown wire to secure as needed.
  • Trim each of the six flowers, leaving about 2 inches of stem attached to each flower. Arrange flowers as desired, tucking stems into grapevine and securing with brown wire as needed.
  • Hang wreath from ribbon loop as shown.

Valentine's Day Wreath Craft

I have this wreath hanging on the back of my front door, and I love that every time I enter the house, I get whiff of the spicy eucalyptus welcoming me home. This wreath craft is seasonal without being too cutesy – perfect for my style!

Looking for more home decor ideas? Check out the DIY Projects for the Home page here on Birds & Blooms.

Backyard Garden Mistake: A Giant Weed In Disguise!

Do you battle weeds in your garden?  Often, it’s not the large weeds that are a problem as much as the small ones that creep along the ground.

spurge weed SW

Perhaps the weed I hate most is spotted spurge.  It starts out so small and gradually creeps along the ground until if forms a large mass.

As a horticulturist, I am often called to consult with homeowners on their landscape.  I have assisted hundreds of homeowners and have seen quite a few unusual things, but this backyard garden mistake was quite remarkable and these homeowners could hardly believe it.

giant weed

As we were looking at the backyard landscape, my attention was drawn to the unusual shrub growing against the wall – I couldn’t figure out what it was from a distance.

large giant spurge weed mistaken for shrub

As I got closer, I still wasn’t sure what type of shrub it was until the homeowner gave me some clues.  He complained that there was a smaller ‘weed’ plant that kept trying to grow into the larger shrub.  He said that he kept cutting back the weedy plant so that the larger shrub could grow.  The shrub had been nicely staked and the homeowner was proud of how nicely it was growing.

giant spotted spurge mistaken for a shrub

As I looked at the base of the plant to see the ‘weedy’ interloper, I discovered that it was in fact the shrub that was supposed to be growing in this space – a Baja fairy duster (Calliandra californica) to be exact.

It turned out the large shrub that the homeowner had tenderly cared for was in fact a huge spotted spurge weed that was was growing upward, instead of sideways, due to the careful staking the homeowner had provided.

Large weed masquerading as a shrub

So how did this large weed get mistaken for a shrub, you may ask?  Often, small weeds can be growing in the containers of new plants – I see spotted spurge often growing next to new plants.  The homeowner was not familiar with the real shrub that was planted in this area, so as the weed grew, it quickly outpaced the growth of the originally intended plant.  Of course, it didn’t help that he kept trying to take out the original plant thinking it was a weed.

The homeowner had a good laugh at his unintended mistake and graciously allowed me to share it with all of you.  He has assured me that the huge weed is gone from his backyard garden and the original Baja fairy duster shrub is beginning to fill in.

The takeaway from this story, besides being humorous, is that when adding new plants, make sure that there aren’t any small weeds hitching a ride in the nursery container.  If so, make sure to pull them out.  As for me, despite my best efforts, I still get weeds in my own garden, which I treat with my homemade weed killer that uses two ingredients – vinegar and dish soap.  There are other homemade weed killer recipes out there which also include salt, but salt is not good for the soil or plants.  I’ve had great success without adding salt to my weed killer, which you can learn how to make for yourself here.

What weed do you hate the most in your backyard garden?

 

Birding Basics: Submit Your Backyard Bird Sightings to eBird

Rob Ripma

I’ve written about eBird in the past including how useful the data can be to those that wish to look for specific bird species but haven’t shown how you can contribute your backyard bird sightings to the database. While eBird might seem like it’s a tool only for the serious birder, it’s one of the birding basics that everyone that enjoys watching birds in their backyards should be aware of. It’s all very simple!

1. Go to eBird.org.

2. Sign up for a free eBird account if you don’t already have one!

3. Click on the Submit Observations tab.

4. Follow the instructions on the screen to select your location.

5. Select the date and the type of observation that you are submitting. The most common types of observations that you will be submitting are Traveling, Stationary, or Incidental.

Date and Effort Screen

6. Fill in the boxes next to every species that you observed. Use numbers if you were able to get an accurate count or an “X” if you didn’t count the number of each species that you found.

Sightings Page

7. Submit your checklist and you’re done!

Not only will you be able to keep track of all of the birds you see using eBird, scientists can use the data to study bird populations!

It's even important to document the numbers of common species like this Northern Cardinal.

It’s even important to document the numbers of common species like this Northern Cardinal.

In Search of a Painted Bunting

Jill Staake

Once you see a photo of a Painted Bunting (Passerina ciris), you can’t help but want to see one in person, if just to verify that the colors are as vivid as they seem. You’d think this bird would be easy to find, since it doesn’t really blend in. But this bird in found in limited areas in the U.S. It breeds in summer from Texas along the Gulf Coast to Northern Florida, and up through the Carolina coasts. In winter, it migrates south to the Florida peninsula and Central America.

Painted Bunting Range Map

Even in these areas, populations are scattered, and these secretive birds don’t make it any easier to find them. So when my husband I set off to find this glorious bird in Central Florida, we knew we’d need some help. As we have many times in the past, we used eBird to find out where Painted Buntings have been spotted locally (learn how to do a species search here), and found Felts Audubon Preserve, less than an hour south from our home in Tampa. In fact, the birds are seen so regularly there that one is pictured on the cover of their brochure. So we packed up our binoculars and camera and set off.

Felts Audubon Preserve is small, but offers something many preserves and parks don’t – feeders and a bird blind with large windows, so birders can observe and photograph the feeder visitors in comfort, without disturbing the birds. Painted Buntings had been reported at this site in the days leading up to our visit, so we felt pretty good about our chances.

Felts Audubon Preserve Bird Blind

Felts Audubon Preserve Bird Blind

We settled in alongside one other birder on a lovely Saturday afternoon in January. Our fellow birder had been waiting awhile for the elusive bird, but told us other birds had been stopping by regularly. While we waited, we were entertained by a Northern Cardinal male (and two female friends)…

Northern Cardinal

Jill Staake Northern Cardinal

…along with a flock of Indigo Buntings just starting to grow in their brilliant blue breeding plumage for mating season.

Indigo Buntings

Jill Staake Indigo Buntings

We also saw Tufted Titmice, Blue-Gray Gnatcatchers, Mourning Doves, Palm Warblers, and Yellow-Rumped Warblers – all lovely and fun to watch in their own right. But we were here for the rainbow colors of the Painted Bunting. And so we waited. As the first hour passed, we started to wonder if it would really happen. And then, a flash of green and yellow set our hearts racing.

Painted Bunting Female

Jill Staake Indigo Buntings (L) and Female Painted Bunting (R)

A female painted bunting! Surely a male must be nearby? We held our breaths… and a few seconds later, the brilliant flash of color dashed past and landed on a feeder nearby. The only catch? He landed around back, where all we could see was his tail.

Painted Bunting Female

Jill Staake This female Painted Bunting posed happily for minutes at a time, while the male remained out of sight around back (you can see his tail just to the right of the female’s).

For long minutes, nothing changed. We waiting, muttering little pleas under our breath for the male to come forward. And then… a flock of mourning doves flew in, and the buntings scattered back off into the underbrush.

At this point, our fellow birder gave up. He’d managed to get a few quick sightings, but was ready to move on. We were determined to get photos though, and didn’t have anywhere else to be. So we stayed. It was fun to watch the other feeder birds come and go, and after awhile, the Indigo Bunting flock returned. And then, at last, we were rewarded. Two female Painted Buntings flew in, followed by one brilliant male. And this time he didn’t hide… immediately.

Painted Bunting

Painted Bunting (Male)

He remained skittish, staying for only seconds before hiding in the nearby undergrowth again. But this time, he stayed within photo range, and we managed to snap a few more shots.

Painted Bunting

Jill Staake Painted Bunting

Painted Bunting

Jill Staake Painted Bunting

We watched him for as long as he was in sight, and his lady friends too. It was certainly worth the wait, especially with all the free entertainment leading up to the main show. Eventually though, the cleaning crew showed up, and we knew it was time to head out.

Raccoon

Jill Staake The Raccoon Cleanup Crew

As we left, another couple entered the blind and we shared the news that we had seen the Painted Bunting male more than once. They excitedly settled in for their own wait for this lifetime bird. We knew that if they had the patience, they were sure to be rewarded with the same experience we had, one that was certainly worth the time and effort involved. Painted Buntings are just as beautiful in real life as they are in photos – and now we know it for sure.

If you live in the range of the Painted Bunting and would like to try attracting it to your backyard, here are a few tips:

  • Offer millet and thistle (Nyjer) seed. Painted Buntings eat mainly small insects, especially spiders, they will visit feeders for small seeds like thistle and white millet seed. Try a thistle-feeder with a cage to keep out larger birds, as buntings can sometimes be feeder-shy.
  • Add a birdbath. Like many birds, Painted Buntings like to have an easy source of water to visit. Consider putting in a birdbath with a fountain – moving water attracts more birds.
  • Plant shrubs and bushes. Painted Buntings nest close to the ground in low-growing vegetation, so having these on your property raise your chances of bringing in a breeding pair. Seek out natives for your area when possible.

 

Gomphrena in the Flower Garden

Gomphrena, also called Globe Amaranth, is an easy-to-grow annual for any flower garden and makes a great addition to dried bouquets.

Looking for Secretive Owls

Several owl species such as Long-eared and Northern Saw-whet can be very secretive and difficult to find.

Roosting in the Butterfly Garden

When butterflies need to rest or take shelter, they find a place to roost. Learn how to make your butterfly garden a safe place for roosting.

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