Archive for the 'Songbirds' Category

Mar 24 2017

Pittsburgh’s Puzzling Chickadees

Black-capped chickadee (photo by Chuck Tague)

Black-capped chickadee (photo by Chuck Tague, prior to 2007)

A PABIRDS discussion about chickadees in North Park reached this surprising conclusion:  If you think you’ve seen a black-capped chickadee in Allegheny County, think again.  They’re hard to find and there are fewer every year. The reason why this is happening makes our chickadees harder to identify than your typical backyard bird.

Pittsburgh’s chickadees are puzzling because we live in the contact zone where black-capped (Poecile atricapillus) and Carolina (Poecile carolinensis) meet.  When the two meet they hybridize.  Females of both species prefer Carolina males so the birds cross and back cross until the gene pool gets really mixed up.  The hybrids aren’t as successful, though, so the species remain distinct.

Black-capped and Carolina chickadees are usually identified by range — black-cappeds in the north, Carolinas in the south — but in the contact zone they’re hard to tell apart and the hybrids have traits of both.  Some look like one species and sound like the other.  Robert Curry and his team at Villanova University study chickadees in eastern Pennsylvania’s contact zone and have found that the only reliable way to identify them is by DNA test!

Here’s a black-capped and Carolina chickadee side by side, linked from Robert Curry’s Lab website.  You can see that the black-capped is larger, more colorful, and has a relatively longer tail …

Black-capped Chickadee (left), Carolina chickadee (right). (Image linked from Robert Curry Lab Research website. Click on the image to see the original in context)

Black-capped Chickadee (left), Carolina chickadee (right). (Image linked from Robert Curry’s Lab Research website. Click on the image to see the original in context)

… but they don’t pose together in the field.  Use these tips from Project Feederwatch for identifying Pittsburgh’s chickadees.  Look and listen for more than one characteristic.  If you’re not sure, label the chickadee as Carolina/Black-capped in eBird.

So why are black-capped chickadees hard to find in Allegheny County?  Why are there fewer every year?  Because the chickadee contact zone is moving north in step with our warming climate! (more on that next week)

I used to assume that “north of the rivers” was reliable black-capped territory but not any more. In these maps from Neighborhood Nestwatch data, Bob Mulvihill plotted four years of banding black-cappeds (red), Carolinas (blue) and hybrids (green) within 50 miles of Downtown Pittsburgh.   Neighborhood Nestwatch didn’t use DNA tests; they measured the birds.

Map of black-capped, Carolina and potential hybrid chickadees banded at Neighborhood Nestwatch in southwestern Pennsylvania (map courtesy Robert Mulvihill)

Map of black-capped, Carolina and potential hybrid chickadees banded at Neighborhood Nestwatch in southwestern Pennsylvania (map courtesy Robert Mulvihill)

As you can see, the Carolinas and hybrids have (roughly) reached I-76 and jumped east of it in Monroeville.  Look at all the green dots — hybrids!  Click here for more of Bob’s chickadee maps including two zoomed in on northern Allegheny County.

Take care when you identify a chickadee in the contact zone that reaches from New Jersey to Kansas.    You can’t be lazy when identifying Pittsburgh’s puzzling chickadees.

 

(photo of black-capped chickadee at top by Chuck Tague. Black-capped and Carolina side-by-side photo is linked from Robert Curry’s Lab website.  Map of southwestern Pennsylvania Neighborhood Nestwatch chickadees: black-capped, Carolina and hybrid-sized by Robert Mulvihill, used by permission.)

4 responses so far

Feb 28 2017

Tanagers True And False

Published by under Songbirds,Travel

Silver-throated tanager, Cherrie's tanager, yellow-crowned euphonia, Feb 2017 at Las Cruces (photo by Jon Goodwill)

Silver-throated tanager, Cherrie’s tanager, yellow-crowned euphonia, Las Cruces, Feb 2017 (photo by Jon Goodwill)

When I visited Costa Rica this month I saw more tanagers than I’d ever seen before … but some of them weren’t really tanagers.

Tanagers (Thraupidae) are the second largest family of birds on earth but their membership is constantly in flux as DNA tests move birds in and out of the family every year. In the photo above, all three birds used to be Thraupidae but one of them moved out in 2012.

Thanks to photos from fellow travelers Bert Dudley and Jon Goodwill, and from our guide Roger Melendez, here are tanagers we saw in Costa Rica, both true and false.

True Tanagers whose names include the word tanager:

Blue gray tanager (photo by Jon Goodwill)

Blue gray tanager (photo by Jon Goodwill)

  • Cherrie’s tanagers (Ramphocelus costaricensis) were plentiful at Las Cruces Biological Station.  Here’s a male, in velvet black and orange with a blue-gray beak, perching next to a female.
Cherrie's tanager, male and female (photo by Jon Goodwill)

Cherrie’s tanager, male and female (photo by Jon Goodwill)

Palm tanagers with red-legged honeycreeper in the background (photo by Roger Melendez)

Palm tanagers with red-legged honeycreeper in the background (photo by Roger Melendez)

  • Speckled tanagers (Tangara guttata) are subtly gorgeous birds. These were at Las Cruces.
Speckled tanagers (photo by Bert Dudley)

Speckled tanagers (photo by Bert Dudley)

Silver-throated tanager (photo by Bert Dudley)

Silver-throated tanager (photo by Bert Dudley)

 

True Tanagers whose names don’t say “tanager”.  These species are in the Tanager family but you’d never know it by their names.

Green honeycreeper (photo by Jon Goodwill)

Green honeycreeper (photo by Jon Goodwill)

  • The scarlet-thighed dacnis (Dacnis venusta) has beautiful scarlet thighs. Too bad the leaves are hiding them.
Scarlet-thighed dacnis (photo by Bert Dudley)

Scarlet-thighed dacnis (photo by Bert Dudley)

Streaked saltator (photo by Roger Melendez)

Streaked saltator (photo by Roger Melendez)

Slaty flowerpiercer (photo by Jon Goodwill)

Slaty flowerpiercer (photo by Jon Goodwill)

 

False Tanagers that are still called “tanagers.”  These birds in the Piranga genus were moved to the Cardinal family (Cardinalidae).

Flame-colored tanager (photo by Bert Dudley)

Flame-colored tanager (photo by Bert Dudley)

Summer tanager (photo by Jon Goodwill)

Summer tanager (photo by Jon Goodwill)

 

“False” Tanagers that used to be in the Tanager family, though “tanager” is not in their name.

  • The yellow-crowned euphonia (Euphonia luteicapilla), pictured at the top with two true tanagers, was in the Tanager family (Thraupidae) until 2012 when he became a Finch (Fringillidae).  This didn’t affect the euphonia’s life but it scrambled our field guides.
Yellow-crowned euphonia (photo by Roger Melendez)

Yellow-crowned euphonia (photo by Roger Melendez)

 

As you can see, the Tanager family can change in a flash!

 

(photos by Bert Dudley, Jon Goodwill and Roger Melendez)

5 responses so far

Feb 23 2017

Two Weeks Early!

Published by under Migration,Songbirds

Common grackle (photo by Steve Gosser)

Common grackle (photo by Steve Gosser)

On Throw Back Thursday:

Last year that I reported that common grackles usually return to my city neighborhood on March 5.

Well, this year they’re ahead of schedule.  They arrived here in Pittsburgh on Tuesday February 21 and even earlier at Moraine State Park, 45 miles further north, on Sunday, February 19.

The grackles are two weeks early!

I noticed them when I heard them “skrink.”

Click on last year’s article below to watch the grackles puff and squeak on video.

Grackle Day

 

p.s. Have you seen other “early birds” this week?

(photo by Steve Gosser)

9 responses so far

Feb 04 2017

Silky Bird

Published by under Songbirds,Travel

Long-tailed silky flycatcher, at Cerro de la Muerte, Costa Rica (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Long-tailed silky-flycatcher at Cerro de la Muerte, Costa Rica (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

On a birding trip to Costa Rica:

This bird with unusually silky feathers is only found in the mountains of Costa Rica and western Panama.

The long-tailed silky-flycatcher (Ptiliogonys caudatus) is one of four birds that used to be in the Waxwings’ family.   Like their former relatives, long-tailed silky-flycatchers eat fruit, flycatch for insects, and flock together in the non-breeding season.  They also have a fondness for mistletoe berries just like North America’s only Silky-flycatcher, the phainopepla.

This blurry photo from Wikimedia Commons gives you an idea of how easy it is to find a long-tailed silky-flycatcher if you’re in the right habitat.

Long-tailed silky-flycatcher (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Long-tailed silky-flycatcher (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

I think I’ll see one today.  We’re birding at Cerro de la Muerte where these photos were taken.

 

(photos from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the images to see the originals.)

Day 9:  Forest trails at Cerro de la Muerte

2 responses so far

Feb 03 2017

Tomorrow Should Be Resplendent

Published by under Songbirds,Travel

Resplendent quetzal leaving nest hole (photo by Joseph C Boone via Wikimedia Commons)

Resplendent quetzal leaving nest hole (photo by Joseph C Boone via Wikimedia Commons)

On a birding trip in Costa Rica:

Today we’re traveling up-mountain to 7,000 feet above sea level to San Gerardo de Dota, the cloud forest home of the resplendent quetzal.  This legendary trogon is the national bird of Guatemala and a must-see species for birders visiting Costa Rica.

Resplendent quetzals (Pharomachrus mocinno) live in moist, cool, mountain rainforests from southern Mexico to Panama where they eat fruits in the avocado family.  Both sexes have iridescent green bodies but the male has a deep red breast, a helmet-like green crest, and a magnificent long green tail.

Their genus name, Pharomachrus, means long cloak and refers to the male’s “tail” which is actually four long upper tail covert feathers.  At 30+ inches, they can be three times the length of the male’s body — so long that when he enters the nest hole his tail remains outside.  In the photo above, a male is leaving the nest while his tail is still going in!

Legends of the resplendent quetzal date back to Mayan and Aztec cultures where he was considered the “god of the air” and a symbol of goodness and light.  In Guatemalan legend the quetzal guided Tecún Umán in his fight against the Spanish conquistadors.  When Tecún Umán died, the quetzal’s breast became red from his blood.  The quetzal is also a symbol of freedom because he could not be kept in captivity, dying so quickly in a cage.

And so tomorrow I will have my fingers crossed, hoping to see this resplendent bird.

Resplendent Quetzal, Costa Rica (photo by Francesco Veronesi via Wikimedia Commons)

Resplendent Quetzal, Costa Rica (photo by Francesco Veronesi via Wikimedia Commons)

 

(photos from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the images to see the originals)

Day 8: Traveling to San Gerardo de Dota

3 responses so far

Feb 01 2017

I’m A Woodpecker

Published by under Songbirds,Travel

Olivaceous piculet (photo by Neil Orlando Diaz Martinez, Bogotá, Colombia via Wikimedia Commons)

Olivaceous piculet (photo by Neil Orlando Diaz Martinez, Bogotá, Colombia via Wikimedia Commons)

On a birding trip in Costa Rica:

Smaller than a golden-crowned kinglet this bird is actually a woodpecker!

His common name, piculet, is a double diminutive of the Latin word for woodpecker, picus.  He’s distinguished from 27 other “little-little-woodpeckers” by his olive color so he’s “olivaceous.”

The olivaceous piculet (Picumnus olivaceus) moves among the trees like a nuthatch, using his tiny bill to dig out and eat ants, termites, beetles, and cockroach eggs.

He lives in a wide variety of habitats from Guatemala to northwestern Peru and is a specialty at the Esquinas Rainforest Reserve where we spent the day yesterday.

Like the golden-crowned kinglet, his name is longer than his body.

 

(photo by Neil Orlando Diaz Martinez, Bogotá, Colombia via Wikimedia Commons; click on the image to see the original)

Day 6: San Vito, Las Cruces Biological Station

One response so far

Jan 30 2017

Jacobins and Sabrewings

Published by under Songbirds,Travel

White-necked jacobin, Costa Rica (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

White-necked jacobin, Costa Rica (photo by Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren via Wikimedia Commons)

On a birding trip in Costa Rica:

Hummingbirds!  Costa Rica has 50 species plus four extremely rare ones.  All of them are year round residents except for one:  our own ruby-throated hummingbird.

This makes it hard to pick two hummingbirds to highlight during my trip so I’ll go with two that have exotic names.

The white-necked jacobin (Florisuga mellivora) is a medium sized hummingbird that forages in wet lowlands and foothills to 3,300 feet.  As with other hummers his name is based on his appearance.  “White-necked” comes from his white neck patch.  “Jacobin” refers to his hood, similar to that of Dominican friars. (Click here to see.)

Why isn’t he called a “white-necked Dominican?”  Well, Jacobin was the French name for the Dominicans because their monastery was attached to the Church of Saint-Jacques in Paris.  Unfortunately a political movement wiped out that innocent meaning.  During the French Revolution a group of radicals met at the Dominican monastery to plan their Reign of Terror.  The Jacobins terrorized France from 1792 to 1794.

At six inches long the violet sabrewing (Campylopterus hemileucurus) is the largest hummingbird in Central America.  Common from 3,300 to 7,900 feet, some descend to lower elevations at this time of year.

Violet sabrewing, Costa Rica (photo by Sonja Pauen via Wikimedia Commons)

Violet sabrewing, Costa Rica (photo by Sonja Pauen via Wikimedia Commons)

Male violet sabrewings are very violet and though you can’t see his wings in this impressive photo, they’re the reason he’s called a “sabrewing.”   Cornell’s Neotropical Birds site explains:

In the male, the outermost primaries are thickened and somewhat flattened and are curved at an angle; this combination of features resembles a sabre.

There’s one cool thing about this bird that I’ll miss, even if I see one.  During the breeding season, which corresponds to the rainy season May to October, the males gather in leks of four to twelve birds to sing and attract the females.  Wow!

 

(photos from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the images to see the originals)

Day 4: Hacienda Barú Wildlife Refuge

 

One response so far

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)

10 responses so far

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), 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
)

5 responses so far

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)

No responses yet

Next »