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Outdoor Hour Challenge-Birds: Meadowlarks and Goldfinches

Outdoor Hour Challenge Birds #3
Goldfinch and Meadowlark (Western and Eastern)

Inside preparation work:
1. Read the Handbook of Nature Study pages 29-33 about feathers. Another great link is found here: Feather Structure. Here is another link to Bird Wing Shapes.

2. Read in the Handbook of Nature Study pages 53-57 about the goldfinch.

3. Read the Handbook of Nature Study pages 80-82 about the meadowlark.

4. Backyard Birds: Read aloud with your child pages 16-19. Use the illustrations to point out the field marks for each bird and for the goldfinch, the differences between the male and female birds.

5. Peterson Field Guide: Make note of the wing and tail shape illustrations on pages 18 and 19(W) 24 and 25(E) Look up in the index the goldfinch and the meadowlark. Observe the illustrations carefully and read the narrative descriptions and explanations. Notice the beak, the tail, and the wing shape for future reference. (See links at the bottom of the post for the particulars on these field guides.)

Outdoor Hour Time
Practice your quiet observation skills for at least part of your 10-15 minutes of birding time. Remember the focus from challenge two and make special note of the shape of the beak and the way the bird uses it. Also, make note of the wing and tail shapes of any birds that you observe during this challenge.

Shape of the tail: Square tip? Rounded? Pointed? Notched?
Shape of the wing: Rounded? Pointed? Slim? Long? Short?

Sometimes a bird’s wings and tail look differently when they fly. Observe a bird during flight to see if you can notice different colors, shapes, or stripes when they fly. Remember to make these observations for any bird you see during your outdoor time and not just for the meadowlark and/or the goldfinch.

Follow Up Activity for the Goldfinch and the Meadowlark
You can make a nature journal entry for the goldfinch and the meadowlark if you would like. There are several styles of journal pages in the set below.

You will find a coloring page for the goldfinch in Feeder Birds Coloring Book.

For something different in your nature journal, copy the John Keats poem on page 57 of the Handbook of Nature Study. Many families like to include poetry in their nature journals and this poem about the goldfinch is a perfect addition.

If you are using’s bird nature study set (shown below), you can use the pages on feathers to record your feather observations or you can draw a feather and label its parts.

If you would like to hear the bird calls for this week’s birds, here are the links:

Also I am highly recommending that you purchase the Bird Bundle from as a great supplement to your study of birds using the Outdoor Hour Challenge. Note: These are affiliate links.

All About Birds Basic Study Notebooking Pages
Birds of North America Notebooking Pages

Use code discount5 to save $5 on any purchase $10 or more from the Shop. (This does not include membership purchases.)

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Western Scrub Jays and Steller’s Jay: Our Outdoor Hour Study

For the most part these are pesky birds, chasing other little birds out of our feeders. They also are very noisy and their voice is more like a squawk than a song. 🙂

We often put out peanuts on our deck railing for them in the winter and they rally around and gather them up and store them in little holes in the garden. They do the same thing with walnuts and acorns so often times we find little walnut trees and oaks growing in our potted plants and in our flower beds.

They can be carnivorous as well. We had a dead skink in our backyard last year that we were observing and before we knew it, a scrub-jay swooped down and flew away with it. We saw him sitting on top of our neighbors roof pecking away at its snack. (I referenced the link to the entry that tells that story below.)

Last spring we had a nest of baby scrub-jays that we could observe from a bedroom window. We watched the babies as they hatched and then as they started to stick up their open beaks for mama and daddy to put something into it to eat. They were quite helpless. Here is an entry with a couple of photos: Scrub-jay nest. My son was able to get the above close-up of the baby Scrub-jay as it perched in the bushes in our front yard. Click the photo to get a good look at the baby feathers on his belly.

We have watched mama Scrub-jay teach her baby to fly in our front yard. It was painful to watch but the baby did eventually fly away after much coaxing from mama and papa. Here is the baby when it was learning to fly. It could sort of flap from the tree to the bush but then it was afraid to go anywhere else. The mama would fly back and forth in an attempt to demonstrate how to fly.

Look at that beak! We know why he has such a big pointy beak….he uses it to eat and peck and dig.

Here is a scrub-jay in the Mojave dessert. We were having a picnic and he flew down and grabbed my son’s sandwich roll and then he flew away with it….he stopped here and was pecking at the bread.

We also live where there are Steller’s jays and they are much more majestic in appearance than the scrub-jays. They have a crest on their heads and are a deeper, richer blue overall. They too are little pests. You can not have a picnic without one trying to grab something from your plate. They can be quite aggressive. They are very common in Yosemite National Park and you know the minute you open your picnic basket that they will come flying it to check out your selection.

Here is a video I shared before of a white-headed woodpecker in the forest. That is interesting enough but for this entry you might want to watch and see at about 1:00 the Steller’s jay that joins our picnic. I had put a couple of Cheez-its on the ground for him and he perches in the tree and cocks his head to look at us. Listen to the sound of his wings as he flies down to the ground to pick up the cracker. This is typical Steller’s jay behavior at a picnic. Bold and brave.

We do have Western bluebirds in our yard occasionally but not enough to really good a good look at them. We have observed their nesting and protecting behavior one time when we were out on a country road and there were some nesting boxes along the fence. It was spectacular to observe and their colors were brilliantly blue.

Scrub-jays are some of our favorite bird nature study subjects…..

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House Finch: A Frequent Flyer Around Our Feeder

Female House Finch or is it a female purple finch?

The House finch is what you would call a “regular” in our yard. You will see one or two just about every day perched at the feeder and enjoying a fine meal.

The Backyard Bird Book said this about House finches, “These lively red and brown birds may become the most frequent visitors to your bird feeder.”

We had some trouble at first determining whether we had a House finch, a Purple finch, or a Cassin’s finch. It took us some time but we finally determined that we had House finches with regularity, Purple finches at certain times of the year, and an occasional Cassin’s finch. (see the link below to view their photos)

I still have trouble and the photos in this entry could be of purple finches. (I know that many of you think I am the expert but I am truly learning right alongside you.)

How do you tell the difference? They are all on the same page of our field guide and the Peterson’s Field Guide to Western Birds shows the field marks to look for on page 343. The males have very distinct coloration differences and once you know what to look for, you can easily distinguish the three birds from each other. This clear indication of the field marks is what I really like about the Peterson Field Guides.

Here is a link to a very clear description and photos to tell the three very similar birds apart:
Tricky Bird IDs-House Finch, Purple Finch, and Cassin’s Finch (Cornell Birds)

Here is another website that has the song of the House finch:
Learning Bird Songs: House Finch

This photo really shows the color of the finches that we have in our feeder. Some day I will get a good photo of one of this beautiful birds.

Another mystery to us was this orange finch.

We discovered that there is a variation in the house finch where sometimes it is orange like this one that comes daily to our feeders.

House Finch coloring varies widely, and research shows that most of the variation is caused by diet. All male House Finches have the same potential for yellow, orange, or red coloration.”
Project Feeder Watch

Other birds we observed this week:

  • 2 gorgeous red-tailed hawks soaring over my dad’s house
  • Canadian geese flying over our house
  • Crows
  • Western scrub-jays who were building their nests and are very vocal right now
  • Titmouse
  • Dark-eyed juncos
  • Wild turkeys-whole flock in the road with one male showing his big, fluffy tail
  • Robins singing in our tree-my middle son said that they woke him up yesterday morning with their very long song
  • Some kind of yellowish brown finch in the bushes alongside our trail
  • Turkey vultures soaring in the afternoon sun
  • Cedar Waxwings-about two dozen in the tree at once
  • Mourning doves-a pair of them my son spotted in the lawn and then under the feeder
  • California towhees

It has been a busy birding week around our place. When we take our afternoon walks now we can hear lots of different birds…it is as if a whole world is awakening around us. I love it.

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Robins in Our Nature Journals-Finally!

These are some feathers we found on our front lawn under a big tree. We are not sure what kind of bird feathers they are but they were very, very soft. We spent our Outdoor Hour listening to birds and trying to spot them. Our feeders have slowed down a bit in the last few weeks with the changing weather. The most predominant birds in our backyard feeders are Western scrub jays and House sparrows at this time of year.

My son was telling me about the flock of robins that were perched in the tree outside his window yesterday after our snowstorm. He thought there must have been dozens of them.

We have a resident robin that sits in the very top of our tree outside the front window and he sings and sings and sings very early in the morning…starting just about this time of year.

Here is what our robin sounds like in the morning:
Robin at Learn Bird Songs

We read through the information in the Handbook of Nature Study and found most of it was new to us. How could we be so uninformed about a bird we practically see very day?

“Moreover, a robin notebook, if well kept, is a treasure for any child; and the close observation necessary for this lesson trains the pupils to note in a comprehending way the habits of other birds. It is the very best preparation for bird study of the right sort.”
Handbook of Nature Study, page 57

This statement in the introduction to robins made me stop and think about all of our bird studies. The point is well made that birding is more than just learning to identify birds. Careful study of any particular bird helps us to learn so much about *all* birds and it gives us skills we can use with all birds. We took special interest in the schedule of robin study in the lesson given for robins. This is another example of how to expand nature study to really get the most out of it. My boys were not particularly interested in studying robins so I think we will skip the in-depth study but we will apply the principles to a bird that does interest them.

This week some of us decided to use the coloring page from Cornell to complete in our nature journal and Mr. B (youngest son) decided to just free-hand draw a robin to include in his binder. I like to use the coloring page and then add my own interesting facts as well.

We will be moving on to the House finch later in the week and I will share that study when we are finished.

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Birds in the Winter: Our Winter Wednesday Bird Style

We recently participated in the Great Backyard Bird Count and even though this is our third year participating, we still found it a thrilling activity. The whole family participated at some point over the weekend and although it was a very snowy weekend, we saw some amazing birds. This was a great way to learn about our winter birds and we took the opportunity to combine the Bird Count with Winter Wednesday.

The point that sticks out to me this year is that we had no trouble identifying any of the birds that we observed. We have built up over the last three years the ability to quickly name any bird that happens into our yard or to our feeders. I think that is amazing!

Here is our list of birds that we saw over the weekend:
White-breasted nuthatch
Spotted towhee
California towhee
Cedar waxwing
Western Scrub-jay
Oak titmouse
House sparrows
House finches
Black-eyed juncos
American robins
American crows
Anna’s hummingbird
White-crowned sparrows
Canadian geese

We decided to learn more about the White-breasted nuthatch since it was one of the birds mentioned in the Discover Nature in Winter chapter notes. We have a pair of these that frequent our feeders on a daily basis. They are such perky little birds and have such an interesting sound. They are very acrobatic and entertain us when they climb down the tree trunks head first.

We started off with a coloring page from the Cornell University website found at this link:
Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology and National Audubon Society
Previously, I had printed out the table of contents and it hangs on the wall near our bird viewing window. When we observe a new bird, we check the list and see if there is a coloring page for that particular bird. Then I print just that page out for those that want one for their nature journal.

We also looked the white-breasted nuthatch up in our field guide and on the All About Birds website.

I was interested in learning more about the Cedar waxwing birds that we saw in our trees during the Bird Count. We counted 61 of them at one time! This was the most we had ever seen all in one flock. They were eating the berries/nuts out of the pistache tree.

I used a coloring sheet from the Cornell book as well and then I looked information up in our field guide and at All About Birds. I learned the meaning of the word “frugivore“.

We also learned what is meant by the term “field marks“.

We also found these feathers in our backyard this week and we haven’t been able to figure out who they belong to yet.

There is always something new to research and learn right from our own backyard. 🙂

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More Snow Experiments: Winter Wednesday

This has been one snowy week for our family. We woke up to snow on two mornings and it was gloriously beautiful.

The birds showed up for the Great Backyard Bird Count even with the snow and it was very entertaining to watch the different techniques for getting to the seed. The Spotted towhee was a master at scratching a hole in the snow and finding the seed underneath. The juncos just waited until the towhee flew away and then they took over.

The bulbs seemed happy to just hang out with the white stuff.

We took numerous opportunities to go out and measure the snow depth. We never got over three inches at any one time but it would snow, melt, and then snow again so I think our total count is somewhere about 8 inches for the season. That is actually a lot of snow for our area and we have enjoyed it thoroughly along with the Winter Wednesday activities. (Teenagers think that they can go outside wearing sandals in the snow….and t-shirts. Brrrrrrrr.)

We enjoyed a few snow walks this week and this particular one was very beautiful even if the trees kept dumping snow on our heads as it melted and fell to the ground.

There were quite a few trees and tree branches across the trail.

This is the first time we have seen water running over this waterfall along the trail. We were excited to see this on the day after the big snowstorm. The sound was the perfect little waterfall sound.

Hope you are enjoying your Winter Wednesday activities as much as we are.

Winter Wednesday Button

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Great Backyard Bird Count Starts Today!

great backyard bird coutn
Don’t forget to check out the Great Backyard Bird Count because it starts today!

So far we have:

  • 37 Dark-eyed juncos
  • 4 White-crowned sparrows
  • 4 House sparrows
  • 3 House finches

This is a pretty unusual day for us since we woke up to two inches of snow and it is still coming down. The birds are all hunkered down somewhere out of the snow I am sure.

We have officially called it a “snow day” from school so we can do some fun stuff… watch birds and paint some wintery trees.

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Brightness to the Garden

“The daffodil, jonquil, and narcissus are very closely related, and quite similar. They all come from bulbs which should be planted in September; but after the first planting, they will flower on year after year, bringing much brightness to the gardens in the early spring.” Handbook of Nature Study, page 551

I don’t know if it is “early spring” but my narcissus/paper whites are all pushing up out of the ground among my violets. I know it won’t be long now until I have some fragrant beauties to enjoy.

Our birdfeeders are busy every day as many, many different waves of birds come through to feast. These finches are all sharing so nicely. I noticed that there have been quite a few birds in the birdbath as well.

We are getting ready to take part in the Great Backyard Bird Count from February 13-16, 2009.

I encourage you all to look into this family activity as well. Here is the link to find out all about it:
Great Backyard Bird Count

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Hummingbird and Bleeding Hearts

What a treat! This hummingbird was having a meal right next to me when we were at the nursery this afternoon. He didn’t seem to care that I pulled out my camera to capture his pretty green feathers and his long black beak. He came back several times as I was browsing but he always came back to this particular plant, the bleeding heart. (make sure to click the photos to enlarge them)

“The hummingbird’s beak is exactly fitted to probe those flowers where the bird finds its food. The tongue has the outer edges curved over, making a tube on each side.”
Handbook of Nature Study, page 115

The Handbook of Nature Study has a whole section on hummingbirds, pages 115-117.

There is also section on the bleeding heart, pages 558-560.

We had a very enjoyable afternoon picking out a few new plants for our garden. I will have to share about those after I get them planted in the ground. 🙂

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Evening Grosbeak in My Feeder and How We Identify a Bird

Very little compares to identifying a new bird in your feeder. This one was so unusual that we just couldn’t stop looking at it.

The photo does not do it justice. It is bright yellow, with distinct markings of black and white. It was fairly good size so we got a pretty good look at it.

Although the photo didn’t turn out well, the memory will be forever with us.

We identified this bird as an Evening Grosbeak.

Yesterday we saw a bunch of blue birds that we had never seen before. We were out driving in the car when we saw nesting boxes all along a fence. We saw flashes of blue and realized that they were birds fighting, not only in the air but on the ground. The birds were very aggressive. When we got home we pulled out our field guide and identified the birds as Western bluebirds.

I shared the following information with a friend about how I identify a bird by explaining how I identified the Evening grosbeak. I personally like using the Audubon Society’s Field Guide to Birds.

Steps I Use To Identify a Bird
1. When I am trying to identify a bird, I rely heavily on color. The bird we saw in our feeder was a bright yellow so that narrowed it down as far as identifying it. The Audubon guide that I suggested for birds is organized by type of bird (clinging, perching, duck-like, etc) and then by predominant color. This makes it fast to skim through a lot of birds visually.
2. After I look at color and general type, I look at size. (sparrow-size, robin-sized, goose-size, etc) The Aububon guide does group from smallest to largest.
3. After color, type, and size, I look at beaks. This is really easy in the Aububon guide because on the photo pages there are three bird photos on a page so there are less pages to look through.
4. If I hit on the right bird by doing that method, I usually do a Google image search on the internet to confirm my findings. If I missed and didn’t get the right bird but I am in the right ball park, I go to and do a search there.

That pretty much sums it up. I know that others have different methods for identifying birds with a field guide but this works for our family.

It was a big bird weekend around here. I love it.