Archive for the 'Songbirds' Category

Jan 01 2017

Last Bird, First Bird

American crows coming in to roost near the Cathedral of Learning (photo by Peter Bell)

American crows coming in to roost near the Cathedral of Learning (photo by Peter Bell)

What species was the last bird you saw in 2016?  Which one was your first of the new year?

Mine were the same species.  Black birds in a black sky.  American crows.  Here’s why.

Yesterday was the Pittsburgh Christmas Bird Count.  I counted birds in my neighborhood (best bird: red-breasted nuthatch) and gave tips to Schenley Park’s counter, Mike Fialkovich, on where to find the best raptors.

By noon, Mike had not seen the eastern screech-owl nor the merlins, and he’d only seen one peregrine at Pitt.  Oooo!  I carved out some time at dusk to run over to Schenley and have a look.  Mike did too, but I didn’t know that.

Dusk came early.  At 4pm I raced around by car and on foot to find the owl (yes!) the merlins (yes!! two!) and both peregrines (alas, none).  Interestingly, Mike and I saw the merlins at the same time but did not see each other.

Meanwhile, I couldn’t help but see hundreds of crows coming in to Schenley and Pitt for the night, still flying after sunset.  By the time I got home no other birds were out.  Crows were my Last Bird of 2016.

This morning before dawn they flew over my house on their way from the roost.  American crows were my First Bird of 2017.

Happy New Year!

 

p.s. When I stepped outdoors to hear the crows, I heard an unexpected Second Bird of 2017: an American robin singing his spring song, Cheerily Cheerio.

(photo by Peter Bell)

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Dec 27 2016

He Wears A Royal Crown

Amazonian Royal Flycatcher, male, held by Cameron Rutt of Nemesis Bird

Amazonian Royal Flycatcher, male, held by Cameron Rutt (photo linked from Nemesis Bird)

Museum birds make me curious.

On a visit to Bird Hall at Carnegie Museum I saw this bird with an unusual crown that opens sideways!

Royal flycatcher, female, Bird Hall at Carnegie Museum of Natural History (photo by Kate St.John)

Royal flycatcher, female, at Bird Hall at Carnegie Museum (photo by Kate St.John)

Bird crests typically open front to back so that they’re aerodynamic.  Cardinals, blue jays and tufted titmice can fly with their crests up.  This bird would have a problem.

The label on the pedestal says Royal Flycatcher (Onychorhynchus coronatus), female, native from southern Mexico to southeastern Brazil.  Why does she have a sideways crest? And what is it used for?

Back home on the Internet, I found out that royal flycatchers rarely raise their crowns. They use them in perched displays with their mates and in agonistic encounters with other birds but normally keep them flattened.  The birds usually look like this.  Pretty boring except for the tail.

Royal flycatcher, Rio Tigre, Costa Rica (photo by Francesco Veronesi from Wikimedia Commons)

Royal flycatcher, Rio Tigre, Costa Rica (photo by Francesco Veronesi from Wikimedia Commons)

And then I found Cameron Rutt’s blog and photos at Nemesis Bird with the gorgeous male shown above.  Males have red crowns, females have orange.  Wow!

Cameron encountered this flycatcher while banding birds in the Amazon rainforest of Brazil.  As he held the bird, it opened its crest and beak and silently rotated its head back and forth 180 degrees in a mesmerizing display.  See Cameron’s video below.

Royal Flycatcher (Onychorhynchus coronatus) display

Read more about this surprising and wonderful encounter in Cameron Rutt’s blog at Nemisis Bird.

I would never have learned this if I hadn’t been curious about the royal flycatcher at Carnegie Museum. 

The bird that wears a royal crown.

 

(photo credits:
Male royal flycatcher with red crest raised, still photo and video by Cameron Rutt linked from Nemesis Bird and Flickr.
Female taxidermy mount at Bird Hall, Carnegie Museum, photo by Kate St.John.
Boring royal flycatcher not showing its crest, from Wikimedia Commons; click on the image to see the original
)

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Dec 23 2016

Watch Birds In The Snow

Published by under Songbirds

Evening grosbeaks at Ontario Feederwatch, 15 Dec 2016 (screenshot from Cornell Lab video)

Evening grosbeaks at Ontario Feederwatch, 15 Dec 2016. Click on the image to watch the live camera at Cornell Lab

Dreaming of a white Christmas?

We won’t have snow in Pittsburgh this Christmas and we certainly won’t have evening grosbeaks but you can watch both — live — at Ontario FeederWatch.

The feeders are located in Manitouwadge, Ontario, a remote town that’s far away in the woods — an 11.5 hour drive from Toronto and 8 hours from Duluth, Minnesota.

Manitouwadge is so far north that it has birds we never see here including evening and pine grosbeaks, gray jays and hoary redpolls.  There are also a lot of birds you’ll recognize: black-capped chickadees, downy and hairy woodpeckers, crows and starlings.

Tune in to Ontario FeederWatch and watch cool birds in the snow.  (Click here or on the image above.)

 

Daylight: approximately 8:47am to 5:06pm EST.

(screenshot from Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Ontario Feederwatch. Click on the image to watch the live camera)

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Nov 15 2016

Phoebe in Black

Black phoebe (photo by Steve Valasek)

Black phoebe (photo by Steve Valasek)

North America’s western birds are often similar to their eastern cousins.

Based on color you might mistake this black phoebe (Sayornis nigricans) for a very dark junco but his body shape and habits match the eastern phoebe (Sayornis phoebe).

Notice his flycatcher beak (not a seed-eating beak) and slightly angular head.  Like the eastern phoebe he perches prominently and upright.  If we could see him in motion, he’d be fly catching.  Right now he has a message for hikers.  😉

You’ll have to go west if you want to see this bird. Native to southwestern Oregon, California, Arizona, New Mexico and southwest Texas, the black phoebe barely migrates.  You can find him year round in Central and South America, too.

Click here for his range map.

 

(photo by Steve Valasek)

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Nov 02 2016

Nomads

Published by under Migration,Songbirds

Cedar waxwing adult (photo by Cris Hamilton)

Cedar waxwing, adult (photo by Cris Hamilton)

Cedar waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum) are in town eating fruit on our trees, vines and shrubs.  Their nomadic flocks go where the fruit is and right now it’s in Pittsburgh.

These sleek, fast moving, unpredictable birds are so social you almost never see one alone.  The flocks can number in the hundreds, bouncing from tree to tree or perched high on bare branches.

Without binoculars they look like the last remaining leaves.

If you get a good look at a waxwing you’ll see a sleek bird, smaller than a robin, with a crest, black face mask, yellow tail tips, an olive brown back that fades to gray, a taupe breast and lemon yellow belly.  If you’re lucky you’ll also see the waxy red wing tips that give the bird its “waxwing” name.

Cedar waxwing adult, showing wax-tipped wings and yellow-tipped tail (photo by Cris Hamilton)

Cedar waxwing adult, showing wax-tipped wings (red) and yellow-tipped tail (photo by Cris Hamilton)

 

Its “cedar” name comes from the birds’ fondness for cedar berries.

Fruit of eastern redcedar, Juniperus virginiana (photo by Keith Kanoti, Maine Forest Service, Bugwood.org)

Fruit of eastern redcedar, Juniperus virginiana (photo by Keith Kanoti, Maine Forest Service, Bugwood.org)

 

Cedar waxwings look easy to identify but they can fool you.  They often flatten their crests and move so fast you can’t get a good look at them.  In flight they resemble starlings, and there are some odd-looking birds among them.

Cedar waxwing, immature (photo by Cris Hamilton)

Cedar waxwing, immature (photo by Cris Hamilton)

The mottled ones are immature waxwings whose body shape, black masks, and yellow tail tips are the hint to their identity.

Immature cedar waxwing eating fruit (photo by Cris Hamilton)

Immature cedar waxwing eating fruit (photo by Cris Hamilton)

 

While feeding, the flock bounces and swirls above you. Then just before they all take off they raise their voices in high-pitched Zeeee’s and are gone.  If you can’t hear the sound below, click here for the sonogram to see what you missed.  (Note: There’s a cardinal in the background of the recording. You might hear the cardinal but not the waxwings. Cedar waxwings are one of the first bird sounds we lose as we age.)

 

Though some waxwings stay all winter in southern Pennsylvania most of the nomads are on their way to the southern U.S.  They’ll leave when they run out of fruit or a cold front arrives.

 

p.s. Cedar waxwings are one of the few species whose population has increased in the past 20 years, perhaps because there’s more fruit as invasive honeysuckle spreads and we plant ornamentals in new suburbs.

(cedar waxwing photos by Cris Hamilton, photo of eastern redcedar berries by Keith Kanoti, Maine Forest Service via Bugwood.org)

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Oct 26 2016

Taking The Long Way Home

Published by under Migration,Songbirds

Northern wheatear in non-breeding plumage, October (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Northern wheatear in non-breeding plumage (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Northern wheatears (Oenanthe oenanthe) are insectivorous songbirds that breed in northern Eurasia, northeastern Canada, and Alaska.  But no matter where they breed they go home to Africa for the winter.

Research using geolocators has found that they make longer journeys than they need to because they’re so committed to their African home.  Those that breed in Alaska travel 9,000 miles.

All About Birds illustrated this amazing migration in the map linked below.  Wheatears from the Canadian Arctic cross the North Atlantic to the U.K, then down the coast via the Azores to western Africa.  Those that breed in Alaska cross the Bering Strait and head east across Siberia, south to Kazakhstan and finally to eastern Africa.

Map linked from Audubon article

Map linked from Audubon article

Read more about their fascinating travels and how they fuel up to make the journey in the All About Birds blog:

Migrating Northern Wheatears Go the Distance—and Pack Accordingly

 

If you see a northern wheatear in the Lower 48 States you are really lucky!

 

Typo Correction, 1:30pm: I mixed up east and west in Africa. Fortunately the birds know where they’re going.

(northern wheatear photo from Wikimedia Commons, map linked from All About Birds. Click on the images to see the originals in context.)

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Oct 11 2016

Similar Sapsuckers

Published by under Songbirds,Travel

Yellow-bellied sapsucker (photo by Cris Hamilton)

Yellow-bellied sapsucker (photo by Cris Hamilton)

Now that yellow-bellied sapsuckers (Sphyrapicus varius) are migrating through western Pennsylvania I’m reminded of three sapsucker species we’ll never see unless we travel west.

 

The red-naped sapsucker (Sphyrapicus nuchalis) resembles a yellow-bellied except that his nape (the back of his head) is red.  He lives among trees in the Mountain Time zone all the way to the Sierras and Cascades.  Amazingly, his range only overlaps the much larger range of the yellow-bellied sapsucker at a few sites in Canada — so you can identify him by location in the U.S.

Red-naped sapsucker (photo by J. Maughn, Creative Commons license via Flickr)

Red-naped sapsucker (photo by J. Maughn, Creative Commons license via Flickr)

 

The red-breasted sapsucker (Sphyrapicus ruber), native to far western North America, looks as if he’s been dipped in tomato juice. His range sometimes overlaps the western edges of yellow-bellied and red-naped sapsuckers with whom he sometimes interbreeds.  The hybrids look like sapsuckers partially dipped in tomato juice. 😉

Red-breasted sapsucker (photo by Jacob McGinnis, Creative Commons license via Flickr)

Red-breasted sapsucker (photo by Jacob McGinnis, Creative Commons license via Flickr)

And finally, male Williamson’s sapsuckers (Sphyrapicus thyroideus) can’t be mistaken for any other bird.  Sporting a black head and chest and a bright yellow belly, these sapsuckers live in middle to high elevation western mountains.  I’ve never seen one.

Williamson's sapsucker (photo by Ken Schneider, Creative Commons license via Flicker)

Williamson’s sapsucker (photo by Ken Schneider, Creative Commons license via Flicker)

 

Watch for yellow-bellied sapsuckers passing through western Pennsylvania on their way south.  In eastern Pennsylvania, they stay all winter.

 

(photo credits:  Yellow-bellied sapsucker by Cris Hamilton. Red-naped sapsucker by J. Maughn, Creative Commons license via Flickr. Red-breasted sapsucker by  Jacob McGinnis, Creative Commons license via Flickr. Williamson’s sapsucker by Ken Schneider, Creative Commons license via Flicker)

 

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Sep 29 2016

Relative Weights

House sparrow and common grackle (photos by Chuck Tague)

House sparrow and common grackle (photos by Chuck Tague)

On Throw Back Thursday:

How many house sparrows equal a common grackle?  Find out in this September 2009 article …

Weight Conversions

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Sep 25 2016

The Lump Might Split

Published by under Songbirds

Yellow-rumped Warbler in spring (photo by Chuck Tague)

Yellow-rumped (Myrtle) Warbler in spring (photo by Chuck Tague)

If you’ve seen a yellow-rumped warbler in both eastern and western North America you might get a new Life Bird without doing anything.

Two weeks ago Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s eNewsletter announced that the yellow-rumped warbler, a species that was lumped in 1973, might have to split — possibly even four ways!

If the split happens, the birds would probably use the names they had before the lumping.

Yellow-rumps in eastern North America, shown above, used to be called “myrtle warblers.”

Yellow-rumps in western North America, shown below, were “Audubon’s warbler.”

Yellow-rumped (Audubon's) warbler (photo by Steve Valasek)

Yellow-rumped (Audubon’s) Warbler (photo by Steve Valasek)

These birds have different DNA and, happily for us, they look different.  Notice the yellow throat on the western bird.

Read about the possible four-way split and see their breeding range map at Goodbye Yellow-rump on the All About Birds blog.

 

(photo of yellow-rumped myrtle warbler by Chuck Tague, yellow-rumped Audubon’s warbler by Steve Valasek)

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Sep 12 2016

Chestnut-Sided Is Yellow Capped

Published by under Migration,Songbirds

Chestnut-sided warbler, Spring and Fall (photos by Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren via Wikimedia Commons)

Chestnut-sided warbler, Spring and Fall (photos by Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren via Wikimedia Commons)

Finally!  Last night’s north wind generated intense bird migration from the northeastern U.S. to Texas.  Here’s the 10:30pm EDT radar mosaic.  Wow!

A good night for migration in the eastern U.S. (radar mosaic from NWS, 11 Sep 2016, 22:28 EDT)

A good night for migration in the eastern U.S. (radar mosaic from NWS, 11 Sep 2016, 22:28 EDT)

This morning we’ll find lots of new arrivals from Pittsburgh to the Gulf Coast. Among them will be chestnut-sided warblers that no longer live up to their name.

In the spring (at left above) both sexes of the chestnut-sided warbler (Setophaga pensylvanica) have brownish red “chestnut” sides with a black eye line and malar stripes.  Their undersides are clear white from throat to tail and they have wing bars, yellow wing patches, a yellow cap, and something we rarely notice — yellow backs with black stripes.

In the fall their black accents are gone and most are missing the chestnut sides. Instead they have white eye rings!  The right hand photo shows this amazing transformation.

Fall chestnut-sided warblers retain their clear white throats and bellies, yellow wing bars, and their distinguishing characteristic — the yellow on top of their heads.  The color is muted now to yellow-green and extends to the nape and back.

What happened to the chestnut sides?  Adult males have a hint of chestnut, shown in the right hand photo, but the females and juveniles are missing it.  And just to make you crazy, fall bay-breasted warblers have chestnut sides and yellowish heads — but no eye ring.

So don’t expect to find a chestnut-sided warbler today.  Watch for the yellowish cap.

 

(chestnut-sided warbler comparison photos by Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren via Wikimedia Commons. Click on these links to see the original photos in spring and fall)

 

 

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