Bird of the Year – 2016

There is a sweet tradition that holds the first bird sighted on New Year’s Day is your theme bird for the year, one which will share its lessons and inspire you both intellectually and spiritually. This year, the Tufted Titmouse (Parus bicolor) has taken on the role of Bird of the YeaTuftedTitmouser for me after an early morning sighting on January 1st. Personal experience has demonstrated that our fellow species, be they plant or animal, can teach us much about life and I look forward to learning more from the Tufted Titmouse as 2016 progresses.

Below is some of the information I’ve gathered thus far and will continue to decipher how this small songbird will enrich my life with its presence. I’ll share these insights with you later in in the year.

  • More known for its “peter-peter-peter” song than its appearance, the Tufted Titmouse is a small, jaunty passerine (5 to 6″) whose behaviors are interesting to observe.
  • Males and females look alike, although some research suggests that the black forehead patch may be slightly larger on dominant males. Beyond that, one will have to spend some time in observation and listening as the males are the producers of the boisterous “peter” song while females are the primary nest sitters.
  • Although an inquisitive species, Tufted Titmice are a bit less social with humans than their cousins the Black-capped Chickadee, who can be hand-fed after coaxing.
  • Titmice form limited families in that young remain with their parents through the first Winter and sometimes help raise the next season’s brood.
  • Male Titmice strongly defend their territories and their small Winter flocks have an “alpha” male of sorts who will drive off “alien” males who attempt to join the assembly.
  • Being a woodland species, Tufted Titmice are less likely to take up residence in open field next boxes as they prefer not to fly across open spaces.
  • The Tufted Titmouse uses tree cavities for both nesting and roosting. However, they do not excavate their own cavities but, instead, use existing ones. Use of nest boxes is mixed among birders who monitor them.
  • “TT” raises one brood of 5 to 8 youngsters per season. They will include human hair in nest materials but it should be cropped short as longer strands may tangle around the legs of baby birds.
  • Its range is moving northward, likely in conjunction with a changing climate.
  • Although heard often in the woodlands, the Tufted Titmouse rarely visits my backyard feeders in Summer and is almost exclusively seen on the property after the formation of Winter flocks in late Autumn (which include Downy Woodpeckers, Black-capped Chickadees and Nuthatches). It is a non-migratory species.
  • Can hang upside down on branches in search of arthropods hidden beneath bark.

Find your own “Bird of the Year” and enjoy the many pleasures and wisdom of these feathered friends!

An Oakmoss Summer

Our program line-up for the Summer of 2015 includes two field outings and a hands-on workshop in East Aurora, NY as we continue our mission to share the lessons of Nature to benefit the planet and all its inhabitants. Details and registration information available on our website. Please join us!

Twilight Trek
Saturday, July 11 – 7:00 to 9:00pm at West Falls Park. Enjoy an interpretive stroll through the woods and along the creek at dusk, one of the most active times of day as diurnal creatures wind down and nocturnal critters begin to rouse.

Field Flutterers
Saturday, July 25 – 9:00am to 11:30am at Knox Farm State Park. We’ll be seeking out the flighted creatures of the open field, be they insect or avian. From butterflies to birds, there are many species that fill the morning with activity.

Introduction to Herbal Concoctions
Saturday, August 1 – 1:00pm to 3:30pm at the Roycroft Campus Power House. A hands-on workshop in which students will become acquainted with incorporating common herbs into simple preparations for body care and overall general health.

Woodpeckers of Western New York


Woodpeckers of North America

How fortunate we are here in Western New York to have 7 different species of Woodpeckers living amongst us. Important in controlling insect populations, Woodpeckers are greatly served by the presence of dead trees, so leave them standing if they don’t pose a danger. Here’s a little information on each of our native Woodpeckers.

Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens): Our smallest woodpecker (at about 6″), the Downy is a common visitor to backyard feeders. You likely hear its location “peep” frequently as it seeks out insects in tree bark. Interestingly, the male and female “hunt” for food differently, with the male pecking holes into the wood and the female lifting up bark. This is due to variations in the male and female bills, the males with one that is stronger and longer; this allows the pair to make the most of available resources. Males also sport a bright red spot at the back of the head. A suet or peanut feeder is a great way to have the Downy as a regular visitor, especially in Winter.

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (Sphyrapicus varius): One of the migrating Woodpeckers, this bird is second smallest at between 8 and 9 inches. Its belly is more a buff color than yellow and males and females are distinguished by the throat patch (males-red/females-white). Both genders have a red patch on their foreheads. Sapsuckers drill deeply into trees to exude the sap. While they do drink up some sap, there is also an ulterior motive. The sap attracts insects so a Sapsucker will “tap” the tree and then return a short time later to feast. They make regularly spaced and aligned holes on trees so it’s easy to see if a Sapsucker has been harvesting. Birch and Maple are among their favorites, but it is not uncommon to see them on fruit trees. In early Spring, watch for Hummingbirds following the Sapsuckers. The sap drawn by the Sapsucker is vital to “Hummer” survival before flowering begins and they feast upon the sweet liquid.

Hairy Woodpecker (P. villosus): Looks almost exactly like the Downy except 1/3 larger at 9 inches. Also common, this species has a louder “peep” and often signals warning with a repetitive, steady call. Quite the scavenger, this Woodpecker serves trees well by devouring many destructive insects that live within them. Also easily attracted by suet and peanut feeders.

Red-Headed Woodpecker (Melanerpes erythrocephalus): More of a rarity in our area, this migratory species is hard to miss, should you be so lucky to have one in your neighborhood. At about 10″, this Woodpecker has a solid, deep-red head, white underparts and black back (with white wing patches). It has a very long bill which is used to store nuts and acorns in deep crevices. They also feed while in flight, swooping across open fields in search of flying insects. Leaving dead snags and trees is beneficial for this species which they will use for nesting sites.

Red-bellied Woodpecker (M. carolinus): Much more common than its Red-Headed cousin, the 10″ Red-bellied minimally migrates so can often be spotted in Winter here in WNY. Besides the usual insects, this one also enjoys nuts and acorns, plus wild fruit, and uses its long beak to cache food. The female is distinguished from the male by having red on only the back half of its head. The lower belly is where the red feathers occur and it is much more predominant on the male.

Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus): Our second largest Woodpecker, (~12″) the Northern Flicker is more often heard than seen. However, if you’ve an ant hill on your property, don’t be surprised to find a Flicker dining excitedly. This behavior sets them apart from their cousins as they are the only Woodpecker to feed regularly on the ground. Flickers have a loud repeated “wacka wacka” call and a long, clear “whistle” in their vocal repertoire. They are easily distinguished from other Woodpeckers by their brown coloration and dark brown “bib”. Males have a larger, dark red patch at the top of the neck than do the females as well as dark brown cheek stripes. Interestingly, the Northern Flicker varies from east to west in its range. In eastern territories, the feather shafts are colored yellow where in the western areas, they are red. This is why the variety found in Western New York is also called the Yellow-shafted Flicker (see below). These birds are generally migratory in our area.

Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus): The “king” of Woodpeckers in our area at ~17 inches. Most people are quite surprised at the size of this bird when initially spotted. However, like the Flicker, it is more often heard than seen and generally found in mature forests. However, if you have that type of habitat nearby, you can easily draw the Pileated to your property by leaving dead trees standing. Tracking Pileated territory is easily done by seeking out the large, rectangular cavities that this Woodpecker excavates in dead trees in its search for food, carpenter ants being among its favorites. The call is similar to the Flickers but has a different cadence and rises and lowers in volume. Males are distinguished from females by their red-striped cheeks.


A female Yellow-shafted morph of the Northern Flicker, common in the eastern portion of the bird’s range.
(photo courtesy of Distant Hill Gardens)


A male  Northern Flicker in its red morph, which is found in the western portion of the bird’s range.
(photo credit: Joan Gellatly)

More Lessons from Nature

This morning’s edition of BirdNote provides yet another example of how Nature provides balance. By taking time to study the systems on planet Earth, we can find many solutions to problematic circumstances that make use of what Nature already provides.

Tree Swallows are cavity nesters and easily encouraged through the installation of next boxes. (Photo courtesy of

Tree Swallows are cavity nesters and easily encouraged through the installation of next boxes.
(Photo credit:

The BirdNote broadcast illustrates this concept through a horse farmer who  noted how native Swallows feed on insects. From witnessing this, he was inspired to put them to work battling the horsefly problem on his ranch. By simply providing nesting opportunities, Mark has the flies under control, brought peace to his animals and helped support Swallow reproduction.

I can attest to the excellent maneuverability of Tree Swallows having been dive-bombed untold times while monitoring an Eastern Bluebird nest box trail (no injuries resulted). So it is no surprise that Swallows of all kinds can snap up insects in flight with supreme ease.

This is how it’s done, folks. So many solutions to both practical and personal issues are already in play so get out there and discover how to live a more balanced life through the systems at work in the natural world.

Click the icon below to listen to the BirdNote broadcast, Mark Borden and the Swallows:

An Avian Tribute to Mom

I learned during childhood that my Mom was afraid of birds. This fear was rooted in an incident from her own youth. You see, she often stayed with her Grandmother who ran a subsistence farm. On one of those visits, a chicken had just been “dispatched” the old fashioned way with an axe which resulted in the bird performing a “post-beheading” dance across the barnyard directly into my mother.

As I was growing up, we lived next door to an older couple and Mom and the neighbor lady (who we called “Aunt Peg”) were quite close. Aunt Peg took great pride in her flower gardens and was an avid bird watcher, having a number of feeder stations in her back yard.  So you can imagine the air space around our house was busy with fluttering wings and this tended to keep Mom from spending time outdoors in the yard. On one occasion, a bird got into our house which caused my mother quite a panic.

Flash forward 50 years to 2012 and Mom was diagnosed with advance stage colon cancer. Surgery was successful in removing a softball-sized tumor but the disease weakened her to a state that put her just over the line for assisted living, requiring her to have long-term care. Outside the window of Mom’s room in the nursing facility are several bird feeders and during her early, mostly bed-ridden days there, she passed time watching the avian callers. On nearly every visit, Mom would describe a bird she’d seen and ask if I could identify the species.  Her daily inquiries led me to purchase her Stan Tekiela’s “Birds of New York” field guide so she could enjoy her bird watching more completely and keep a checklist.

Once the weather warmed and Mom regained much of her previous strength, her bird watching moved to the outdoors to a bench near the feeders where she enjoyed their company as they flew to and fro. Imagine the joy I felt now that the fear of birds Mom carried all those years had disappeared allowing us to share one of my greatest passions.

My Mom

My beautiful mother.

Mom passed over a few days ago and while my heart is very heavy, I am elated that she had discovered the joy, beauty and wonder of the bird world before leaving this reality. Fly with your new friends,  Mom – one day we will again enjoy the feathered world together. Much love…

Timberdoodle Season

It’s that time of year for the annual ritual of “leeking” and “timberdoodling” as we head out to harvest wild ramps and watch the early evening heavens for signs of the “Skydancer” – officially, the American Woodcock.

American Woodcock

Photo courtesy of

The Woodcock (Scolopax minor) – also known as the Timberdoodle – is a member of the Sandpiper family. The size of a small game bird, this forest dweller is well camouflaged with its brown mottled coloration. The Woodcock’s bill is long to accommodate the hunt for earthworms (its chief diet) and the eyes are placed near the back of the head to allow it to keep a close eye on its surroundings while scavenging for lunch.

It is in the early Spring of the year that this quirky bird begins its mating rituals with the males making a dazzling display in their attempts to woo the gals. Just after sundown, in an open (preferably gravel) area near woodlands, you might hear a male Woodcock “peent”- the sound he makes to signal the ladies he’s about to impress them with his prowess. After a few moments of “peenting”, the male will take off in flight spiraling high in the sky creating a whistling effect with his wings. He circles a bit, then dives down with a kissing-like sound. He often will land almost exactly where the ritual “dance” began.

Head out to an open area near the woods in the evening during the next few weeks of Spring and listen for the tell-tale “peenting”. Then watch the skies above and enjoy one of the most spectacular of bird displays.

Here’s a video showing the air dance and the peenting of the Timberdoodle: