Ruby-throated Hummingbird

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We have been enjoying these Summer visitors. Their helicopter-like aerial acrobatics illustrate surprising maneuverability, as well as the ability to fly in any direction.

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Ruby-throated Hummingbirds are bright emerald or golden-green on the back and crown, and gray-white underneath. Males have a brilliant iridescent red throat that looks dark when they are not in good light.

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These birds only weigh about as much as a nickel and can beat their wings up to 80 times per second. When fully engaged, their heartbeat can accelerate to 1200 beats per minute.

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Hundreds of kinds of hummingbirds nest in the American tropics and more than a dozen in the western United States, but east of the Great Plains, there is only the Ruby-throat. Their stay here is seasonal and coincides with our peak wildflower season.

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This bird’s habitat is open woodlands, forest edges, meadows, parks, gardens and backyards. Like bees, they feed primarily on nectar and extract it via their long bills. Also, like bees, they pollinate the flowers that they visit. They frequent hummingbird feeders and can be quite territorial about them.

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These are engaging visitors and fun to watch during our warmer months here in northeast Ohio.

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Eastern Phoebe

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While hiking at Hinckley Reservation, I noticed a group of baby birds that were just starting to leave the nest. They were fun to watch, as they hopped from branch to branch.

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One of the easiest bird calls to learn is the call of this creature. It gives a vocal clue to its identity by softly uttering its name — “fee-bee,” with the first syllable accented, slightly longer and higher pitched.

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This sparrow-sized bird appears remarkably big-headed, especially when it puffs up its small crest. It is a dark, drab gray-brown on the back, with a light breast and belly that is often washed with yellow.

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The Eastern Phoebe belongs to a family of birds known as flycatchers. Like most small flycatchers, it has a short, thin bill that it uses for catching insects.

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This bird often perches low in trees and is very active, making short flights to capture insects and repeatedly returning to the same perch, where it characteristically wags its tail up and down frequently.

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The Eastern Phoebe often nests around buildings and bridges where it is easily observed. It is speculated that its population has increased as buildings and bridges provide additional potential nesting sites.

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Despite its plain appearance, this flycatcher is often a favorite among eastern birdwatchers. It is among the earliest of migrants, bringing hope that Spring will soon be at hand.

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Brown-headed Cowbird

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I often see these birds while hiking in northeast Ohio. Males are easy to identify, due to their glossy black feathers and chocolate brown heads. Female Brown-headed Cowbirds are plain brown birds. They are stocky blackbirds with a fascinating approach to raising their offspring.

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Centuries ago this bird probably followed Bison herds across prairies, feeding on insects flushed from the grass by the grazers. The bird’s population expanded with the clearing of forested areas and the introduction of new grazing animals by settlers across North America. Today it follows cattle and is widespread across the United States.

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Females do not build nests, but instead put all their energy into producing eggs, sometimes laying more than three dozen in the Summer. They deposit their eggs in the nests of other birds, abandoning their young to foster parents.

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Some birds, such as the Yellow Warbler, recognize eggs that are not there own, though these birds are too small to remove the eggs out of their nests. Instead, they build a new nest over the top of the old one and hope cowbirds don’t come back.

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Other larger bird species puncture or grab the cowbird’s eggs and throw them out of the nest, but the majority of hosts don’t recognize cowbird eggs at all. The Brown-headed Cowbird’s parasitic reproduction strategy is unique among the world’s blackbird species.

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Brown-headed Cowbirds can be found in open woods, farmland and stockyards. They forage by walking on the ground, looking for insects and seeds. In the Winter, Brown-headed Cowbirds may join huge roosts with several blackbird species. One such mixed roost in Kentucky contained more than five million birds.

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Northern Flicker

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On a recent visit to Canalway Center, I saw a pair of these cool birds. They are large, brown woodpeckers with handsome black-spotted plumage. Males have a black “mustache.”

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Unlike Ohio’s other woodpeckers, Northern Flickers spend a lot of time on the ground hunting for ants and beetles, digging for them with their unusual, slightly curved bill. Northern Flickers probably eat ants more frequently than any other North American bird.

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These birds generally nest in holes in trees like other woodpeckers. And like most woodpeckers, they drum on objects as a form of communication and territory defense.

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The Northern Flicker’s habitat is open forests, woodlots, groves, towns and farmlands. It has a wide range, from Alaska to Nicaragua, and can be found in almost any habitat with trees; though it tends to avoid dense unbroken forests, because it requires open ground for foraging.

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When ants are not available, this bird consumes a variety of fruits and berries, especially in Fall and Winter – it also eats seeds and nuts at times.

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Northern Flickers migrate the farthest of all woodpeckers. They often fly to the northernmost parts of Mexico or to the southern parts of the United States. However, depending on the individual, some prefer to stay in the northern regions of the United States.

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Cactus Wren

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While hiking in a desert wash in Nevada I had my first-ever encounter with one of these boldly marked birds. Not only is it distinctive in pattern, but it also has a harsh, rasping voice.

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The Cactus Wren lives in a variety of low, dry habitats, but is mainly found in cactus, yucca, mesquite and arid brush deserts. This bird is very different from our other temperate-zone wrens. It represents a tropical group of large, sociable wrens, mainly living in Mexico.

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This is the largest wren in the United States. It is chunky, with a long, heavy bill, a long, rounded tail, and short, rounded wings. It is a speckled bird with bright, white eyebrows that extend from the bill, across and above its eyes. Males and females look alike.

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Male and female Cactus Wrens build large, football-shaped nests with tunnel-shaped entrances. These bulky nests are conspicuous in cholla cactus and desert trees. After the breeding season, the wrens may sleep in their nests at night.

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Cactus Wrens feed on a wide variety of insects, including beetles, ants, wasps, true bugs and grasshoppers. They forage on the ground and in low trees, probing in bark crevices and leaf litter in their search for food. The have been known to pick smashed insects from the front ends of parked cars.

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Unlike other wrens that tend to be inconspicuous and hide in vegetation, Cactus Wrens seem to have no fear. They perch atop cacti and other shrubs to announce their presence and forage out in the open.

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The Cactus Wren is the state bird of Arizona. It was super cool to experience this fine bird while on my travels through the Mojave Deseret.

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White-Throated Sparrow

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These days I often see these birds while hiking the Ohio & Erie Canal Towpath Trail.

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White-Throated Sparrows have black-and-white stripes on the crown, a large patch of white on the throat and a yellow spot above each eye.

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In Ohio it is considered a common migrant, and in some years, a fairly common Winter visitor. Easily attracted to bird feeders, this species lives in woods and gardens with dense underbrush.

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These birds also freely sing as they migrate through Ohio. The song is a paraphrased “Poor Sam Peabody, Peabody, Peabody.”

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Osprey

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While staying in Chesapeake Bay, Maryland, I observed several of these fish-eating raptors. Sometimes known as a Fish Hawk, this very distinctive bird was once classified with other hawks, but is now placed in a separate family of its own.

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The Osprey’s head is distinctive, with a white crest and a face bisected by a dark eye-stripe. This bird has yellow eyes. Its feet (talons) are uniquely adapted for capturing and carrying fish; the surfaces are rough, and their toes can be held with three forward and one back, or with two forward and two back.

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Its habitat is along coastlines, lakes and rivers. Its distribution is almost worldwide. The Osprey can often be seen flying over the water, hovering, and then plunging feet-first to catch fish in its talons. After a successful strike, it tends to fly away carrying the fish so that its head faces forward in a streamlined position for transporting it through the air.

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When diving in pursuit of fish, an Osprey can completely submerge itself under water and still be able to fly away with its catch. it has Osprey a third eyelid (called a nictitating membrane, which is semi-transparent) that acts like goggles and helps the bird see clearly beneath the water.

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Most of their nests that I saw had babies, which usually number three. The female Osprey remains with her young most of time, sheltering them from sun and rain, while male hunts and brings back fish, which the female feeds to her offspring. This bird feeds almost entirely on fish that are less than a foot long.

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The Osprey was seriously endangered due to effects of pesticides in mid-20th century; since DDT and related pesticides were banned in 1972, Fish Hawks have made a significant comeback in many parts of North America.

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Although on previous trips to the coast I was able to see Ospreys from afar, this was the first opportunity for me to get a close-up look at them – and they were fascinating to watch.

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California Scrub Jay

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This is a fun bird to encounter while visiting the Golden State; it is both colorful and intelligent. Their behavior can be bold and inquisitive, and their calls can be loud and raucous. The California Scrub Jay is often seen in parks, neighborhoods and riverside woods near the Pacific Coast.

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Pairs of California Scrub-Jays are often seen swooping across clearings, giving harsh calls, with their long tails flopping in flight. This is a bird that does not migrate. Western Scrub Jays eat insects, fruits, nuts, berries, and seeds, and occasionally small animals. They are regular visitors to bird feeders.

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California Scrub Jays gather surpluses of food and store it in scattered caches within their territories. They rely on highly accurate and complex memories to recover their hidden food, often after long periods of time. Jays can also be quite mischievous when it comes to procuring and storing food. They will steal acorns from Acorn Woodpecker caches as well as from stores hidden by other jays, and then look around to make sure no one is watching before they hide their stolen prize.

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Recent research has suggested that jays and crows are among the most intelligent of animals. The brain-to-body mass ratio of adult California Scrub Jays rivals that of chimpanzees and is dwarfed only by that of humans.

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Western Scrub Jays appear to have “funerals” in reaction to finding a dead jay. They will screech over the body, attracting other jays, for as long as 30 minutes and stay near the body for a day or two. We often don’t think of birds as being as “brainy” as mammals, but crows and jays are challenging that mindset.

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American Tree Sparrow

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I often see these small birds while hiking on the Ohio & Erie Canal Towpath. This is a northern species that visits the United States in the Winter. It can tolerate very harsh weather and low temperatures if it has a good food supply.

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American Tree Sparrows are mostly gray with a rufous crown and ear stripe. Their upperparts are streaked brown. There is one dark spot in the center of the breast; another good identification characteristic of this bird is its bi-colored beak.

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In the Winter, they are gregarious and form flocks, sometimes hanging out with other bird species. They mainly search on the ground for seeds, but they also may ascend on plants, to look for seeds, berries and invertebrates.

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Their preferred habitat is weedy fields with hedgerows or shrubs, usually along forest edges or near waterways. American Tree Sparrow often visit backyards, especially if there’s a birdfeeder.

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This species breeds in the far north and is rarely seen outside of northern Canada in the Summer. It is fun to watch, as it adds its color and song to our sometimes drab Winters.

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Henslow’s Sparrow

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Hiking in Bath Nature Preserve in Akron Ohio, I encountered a bird I’d never seen before. Though to me several species of sparrow look remarkably similar, the Henslow’s Sparrow can be identified by its combination of chestnut brown wings, intricately patterned olive-green head and back of neck, black and brown streaked back, and flat-headed, short-tailed profile.

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A grassland species, this bird historically bred in the tallgrass prairies. It now nests mostly in neglected grassy fields, where it dines on insects and seeds. This is a is a remarkably inconspicuous bird that very few people get a good look at. In addition, Henslow’s Sparrow populations have declined, and this species has been identified as the highest priority for grassland bird conservation in eastern and midwestern North America.

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Unlike the tuneful Song Sparrow, which it closely resembles, the Henslow’s Sparrow’s dry, thin, insectlike song is often described as a “feeble hiccup.” When it sings, it sharply throws its head skyward and then utters its quiet song.

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Though its call is unimpressive, it was a cool experience to observe this secretive grassland bird.

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