Jim Williams has been watching birds and writing about their antics since before "Gilligan's Island" went into reruns. Join him for his unique insights, his everyday adventures and an open conversation about the birds in your back yard and beyond.

Posts about Birds in the backyard

Meal moths and Japanese beetles

Posted by: Jim Williams Updated: July 27, 2014 - 7:45 PM

We’ve had two encounters with meal moths. One was seriously bad, the other educational.

 

Meals moths can arrive with the bird seed you buy. Suppliers are careful to exclude the pests, but once in a while they are part of the package. This is why seed should be kept in a covered metal container, preferably in your garage. Unprotected seed should never be kept in your house. You have been warned.

 

Time one: we discover the infestation when we open the pantry to find small green worms on everything containing flour, outside boxes and in. The moths like grain. They — or it — laid eggs there. The eggs hatched. We wondered how many unhatched eggs we had eaten, then laid bare the pantry.

 

That was long ago. More recently, we saw moths flying about the house. In the darkened living room they were flitting shadows against the television screen. I bought sticky traps baited with tiny wafers soaked in meal moth sex hormone. I tore open the package containing the wafer, and before I could arm the trap the air in the kitchen came alive with fliers. Moths were everywhere. They covered the sticky part of the trap before the day was over. I had to buy more traps. 

 

Today, the sex trap is for Japanese beetles. (Why don’t birds eat them? They seem not to, for we have many of the large, shiny, very visible bugs on our mountain ash tree and wild grape vines.) I have used a Spectracide spray in the past, plastic container screwed to the garden hose. This produces more poison than I like, keeping one eye on the tree, the other on the drifting spray. I wanted to mix a bit of the chemical with water for use in a hand sprayer, but the container carried a no-no from the EPA. 

 

Aside: I had close encounter recently with a man who probably would have mixed to his own formula, government be damned. He told me, in response to a question I had not thoroughly thought through, that climate change, if any, was the will of God. Later he told me that seat belts, which he did not use, were a government infringement on his freedom. His pest decisions are probably more direct than mine.

 

I thought of him as I drove to Home Depot to buy traps. The Spectracide web site offered customer endorsements for the traps. One satisfied customer reported trapping an estimated 4,000 beetles in just a few days. Wow. She warned about touching the hormone wafer, for you then would be besieged by crazed beetles. That didn’t happen here. Six hours into the effort we have about half a dozen pissed-off bugs buzzing in the bottom of the collection bag. We’re hopeful that tomorrow will be a better day. Four-thousand is overdoing it, but six isn’t enough.

 

Hopefully, removal of the beetles will ensure grapes ripening, which will please the birds here. We’ve made wine before with wild grapes, but never mastered Pinot Noir.

 

Buckthorn berries, by the way, also should be visible now, preparing to ripen. It is the female trees that bear fruit. Get rid of them. If you lack inclination to remove all of the buckthorn, at least cut down or poison the trees with fruit. Buy a brush-killer liquid. With a knife, scrape some bark from the buckthorn trunk, then paint the wound with the herbicide. It works well.

 

Hatchings

Posted by: Jim Williams Updated: June 4, 2014 - 12:54 PM

The female Canada Goose nesting on our pond hatched six goslings early Tuesday morning. They spent the day under her wings, moving to the water sometime this (Wednesday) morning. Mid-day Tuesday the Hooded Merganser nesting in one of our duck boxes appeared with four chicks. As soon as the geese left the platform, she and the chicks moved in. They can be seen climbing aboard in the lower left corner of the platform.

Birds and your garden -- a new book

Posted by: Jim Williams Updated: May 18, 2014 - 9:23 PM

Birdscaping in the Midwest: A Guide to Gardening with Native Plants to Attract Birds, Mariette Nowak, University of Wisconsin Press, soft cover, 335 pages, index, heavily illustrated, $34.95

About once a year I receive for review a book purporting to guide birders to a yard/garden/landscape that attracts birds. This book, “Birdscaping in the Midwest,” is the first to deliver fully on the promise, plus more. 

It covers far more topics than other books I’ve seen, in greater detail, with better text. It has illustrations not only beautiful (check the Tufted Titmouse photo on page 161) but also helpful. It has diagrams that show you not only which plants to use but how to place them in a garden for best effect. There are lists for everything, and sources for everything, the latter including books and websites.

If the book was a bird it would be a big bird. If it was a flower it would be a gorgeous flower.

The author, Mariette Nowak, is a professional, leader of a native plant and landscape group and for the Lakeland Audubon Society in Milwaukee. She is a public speaker on landscaping, native plants, and birds. Before retirement she was director of the Wehr Nature Center within the Milwaukee County park system.

The book offers an education on native plants and birds. It would be interesting even if you have no plans for a garden. However, once you’ve page through it, the urge to make a plan and find a shovel could be strong. 

Here is the table of contents: 

Birds and Plants: an ancient collaboration, going native, the case against exotics.

Gallery of Bird-habitat Gardens: photos.

Native Habitat for Birds — the basics: getting started, planning and design, site prep and planting.

Bird-habitat Gardens for Specific Birds: gardens for hummingbirds, prairie birds, migratory birds, winter birds, and birds of the savanna, woodlands, wetlands, and scrublands. Plus birdbaths and water gardens.

Midwestern Plants that Attract Birds: trees, shrubs, vines, wildflowers, ferns, grasses, sedges, and rushes.

Maintaining and Enhancing Your Garden, with information on bird housing and bird feeding, and advice on solving problems should they occur.

Have you ever bought a packet of assorted wildflower seeds? I have. Bad idea, Ms. Nowak tells us. She writes of tests that have shown the average such packet to contain as much as 30 percent exotic-plant seed (you don’t want these!), and germination rates as low as 40 percent. The author advises buying seed from nurseries that specialize in native plants.

There is a particular article discussing a Minnesota yard, one cursed with buckthorn. The removal and replacement is clearly and thoroughly discussed. I read this with interest. I’m in the midst of buckthorn removal, given the almost 100 percent viability of every seed in every berry, a project that might last a lifetime.

The book would be valuable for a gardener who has no pointed interest in birds as well as birders, even those who don’t garden but want to know more about habitat, a key to finding birds. I suspect it would lead either in the direction of the other. There is almost as much information here about birds as there is about plants. This book deserves a place on the shelf next to your favorite bird guide book.

How hard can it be to build a duck nesting box?

Posted by: Jim Williams Updated: April 25, 2014 - 10:12 AM

Is building a duck nesting box a test of possible cognitive degeneration and/or onset of significant memory deficiencies, or am I just a really crappy carpenter?

Yesterday I built three duck nesting boxes. The end result will be one box because the first two assemblies were unassembled and retrofitted to accommodate unexplained error in measurement. In one case I needed congruent sides, cutting one, then using it as pattern for the second. This involved carefully tracing its outline on a second board, then cutting on the lines, a skill acquired in kindergarten. Yet the second side turned out a quarter inch shorter than the first. 

I had to cut the first side down to size. This happened twice. I was building an ever-shrinking duck box. 

It didn’t help that one of the boards I bought was a quarter-inch narrower than the others. That speaks to the wisdom of cheap lumber. 

Today I will attach the front of the box, with an entry hole that looks exactly like it was made by a large woodpecker, which is a real-life touch not mentioned in the plans I was using. The plans, by the way, come from the Minnesota DNR publication “Woodworking for Wildlife.” Carroll Henderson wrote the book and supervised the detailed drawings. I’m certain he made things as simple as possible. I mean, he includes a plan for building a bluebird nesting box from a single board. How complicated can that be?

I’m counting on Wood Ducks and Hooded Mergansers, potential tenants, having a tiny sense of aesthetics, favoring practical considerations. I will mount the box on a steel pole in the far recesses of the marsh behind our house, where it will not be seen by humans.

I’m going build a second box, employing the lessons of the first. I’m hoping to confirm that the answer to my question is that I’m a crappy carpenter, but with potential for improvement.

Nearby nesters

Posted by: Jim Williams Updated: April 22, 2014 - 9:51 AM

Here are the pair of Red-tailed Hawks that are nesting near our home. In the first photo the birds are in the upper righrt corner, one of them taking flight. The nest is at upper left. The second photo shows one of the birds eating, at right, while its mate watches, left. The pair of Wood Ducks are nesting in a box at the edge of the pond in our back yard. 

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