Archive for the 'Songbirds' Category

May 22 2017

Why He’s Called Orange Crowned

Published by under Songbirds

Orange crown on orange-crowned warbler (photo by David Amamoto)

Orange-crowned warbler (photo by David Amamoto)

Have you seen an orange-crowned warbler?  Have you ever seen his crown?

Orange-crowned warblers (Oreothlypis celata) are difficult to identify because they are so dull.  They’re drab grayish-yellow or olive-yellow birds with no wing bars and no obvious field marks except for yellow undertail coverts, very pointy beaks (like so many other warblers) and faint gray eyelines.

Like ruby-crowned kinglets, orange-crowned warblers don’t raise their head feathers unless they’re excited.  Kinglets are often excited but these warblers are calm.  I’d never seen an orange crown … until now.

Thanks to David Amamoto we can finally see how the bird got his name.  Great photo, David!

Click here and scroll down to see more orange-crowned warblers and the birds they resemble.

 

(photo by David Amamoto)

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May 14 2017

No Birds Here

Acres of farmland without plants and insects, Ottawa County, Ohio, early May 2017 (photo by Kate St.John)

Acres of farmland without plants and insects, Ottawa County, Ohio, early May 2017 (photo by Kate St.John)

Early this month I wrote about the decline of nighthawks, swifts and swallows and the parallel decline of their food supply, flying insects.  Why are insects declining?  In a comment Gene suggested that, in addition to insecticides, herbicides play a role.  Here’s why that makes sense.

I’m a city person so farm practices are somewhat mysterious to me.  Nonetheless, in the last 20 years I’ve noticed a change in how the fields look in the spring.  They used to green up with the rest of the landscape but now most of them are brown and as empty as parking lots like the one shown above.  There are no birds here, no swallows wheeling overhead.

The fields look different because herbicides are used to control the weeds. There are different poisons for different crops — for instance one for soybeans, another for corn — and the crops are engineered so they can grow in the presence of specific poisons.

Herbicides are a very labor saving device.  When applied in the fall they keep the fields weed free all winter right up to spring planting.  Consequently, the fields don’t have to be tilled (that’s why they look like parking lots).  The absence of plants means there are no insects, another benefit for the crop.

As the growing season begins you can tell where herbicide has been used because there’s a stark mechanical line between treated fields and the neighboring untreated landscape.

The telltale brown-green line: brown where herbicide was applied, green where not (photo by Kate St. John)

The telltale brown-green line: brown where herbicide was applied, green where not (photo by Kate St. John)

 

Here’s a field where there are birds.

This field is green though weedy, Ottawa County, Ohio, early May 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)

This field is green though weedy, Ottawa County, Ohio, early May 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)

Yes, those plants are weeds.  They will probably be treated with herbicide soon and the field will turn from green to yellow as they die.

Because of herbicides and insecticides, large scale farming takes less work.  Millions of acres of U.S. farmland are truly empty now.  No plants.  No insects.  No birds here.

 

p.s. As I say, I’m a city person and don’t know much about farming so if I’ve got it wrong please leave a comment to correct me.

(photos by Kate St. John)

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May 10 2017

Watch Robins Nesting

Father robin looks at his nestlings (screenshot from American Robin Nestcam at Cornell Lab). Click on the image to watch the nestcam

Father robin looks at his eggs and nestlings, 8 May 2017 (screenshot from American Robin Nestcam at Cornell Lab). Click on the image to watch the nestcam.

American robins (Turdus migratorius) live and nest near us but they’re so common that we often don’t notice them.  Here’s an opportunity to watch a robin’s nest up close.

On Monday May 8, Cornell Lab of Ornithology announced the first hatchling at its American Robin Nestcam in Ithaca, New York.  Baby robins take only 12-14 days to fledge so there will be lots of activity between now and May 20-22.

When I tuned in this morning before dawn there was no adult on the nest.  I know so little about robin behavior that I was full of questions.  Are the chicks already past the brooding stage so they don’t need an adult overnight? Was the mother up early to look for food? Or did something happen to her?  I’ll have to watch and find out.

Click here or on the screenshot above to watch the American Robin Nestcam at Cornell Lab’s Sapsucker Woods.  The wesbite includes screenshots and videos of their daily activity.

 

p.s. You can tell the male and female apart using this subtle characteristic: The male’s head and face are very black. The head and face of the female is much less black, shading toward brown.

(screenshot from American Robin Nestcam at Cornell Lab’s Sapsucker Woods. Click on the image to see the nestcam)

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May 04 2017

How the Blackburnian Got His Name

Published by under Songbirds

Blackburnian Warbler (photo by Chuck Tague)

Blackburnian Warbler (photo by Chuck Tague)

Oh Throw Back Thursday:

This stunning bird with a flame-orange throat is due to arrive this weekend in the Northeast and Upper Midwest.

Did you know he’s one of the few birds named for a woman?  Read on …

How he got his name

 

(photo by Chuck Tague)

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Apr 29 2017

The Catbirds Are Back In Town!

Published by under Migration,Songbirds

Gray catbird (photo by Chuck Tague)

Gray catbird (photo by Chuck Tague)

Years ago Chuck Tague taught me that gray catbirds (Dumetella carolinensis) are a special signal during spring migration.

Catbirds spend the winter in Florida, Cuba and Central America, then return in the spring after the first tantalizing migrants (the blue-gray gnatcatchers and Louisiana waterthrushes) but before the big push of warblers, thrushes and tanagers.

Because they’re the leading edge of the best part of migration, Chuck always announced his first gray catbird of the year.  I’ll carry on his tradition.

Yesterday was the day!  On 28 April I saw my first gray catbirds of 2017 at Enlow Fork in Greene County and at home in the City of Pittsburgh.

This year the catbirds did not arrive alone. At Enlow Fork we also saw rose-breasted grosbeaks, scarlet tanagers, Baltimore orioles, wood thrushes, northern parulas, American redstarts, common yellowthroats and more.

I’m still waiting for an indigo bunting.  Maybe today … 🙂

 

p.s.  Many of us learned a lot from Chuck Tague who passed away last June.  This coming Thursday, May 4 at 7:30pm the Wissahickon Nature Club will hold an All Members Night A Tribute to Chuck Tague.  Bring up to 12 slides or digital photos to share.  Click here and scroll down for location and meeting information.

 

(photo by Chuck Tague)

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Apr 28 2017

Hidden in Plain Sight

Woodcock mother and chicks at Magee Marsh, Ohio, May 2013 (photo by Charlie Hickey)

Woodcock mother and chicks at Magee Marsh, Ohio, 6 May 2013 (photo by Charlie Hickey)

We had so much peregrine news this week that Throw Back Thursday is a day late.  Today, at last, I can talk about a different bird.

Male American woodcocks (Scolopax minor) returned to Pennsylvania in late February or March and immediately set up their courtship “stomping” grounds.  At dusk they’d strut and peent, then launch into the air with whistling wings to claim territory and attract a mate.

By the end of April dancing time is nearly over because the females are nesting and their eggs will hatch soon. When they hatch, the chicks will be as well hidden as the eggs.

At Magee Marsh, Ohio in May 2013 this woodcock family was hidden in plain sight.  I couldn’t see them no matter how hard I tried!  Click the link below to read more.

Woodcock Family

 

(photo by Charlie Hickey)

p.s. I’ll be hiking out of cell range for most of today (28 April 2017) so I won’t be able to respond to your comments for at least six hours.  The peregrines had better behave while I’m gone!

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Apr 03 2017

Missing Something?

Northern mockingbird missing his tail, near Phipps Conservatory, March 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)

Northern mockingbird missing his tail, near Phipps Conservatory, March 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)

There’s a bossy northern mockingbird near Phipps Conservatory who shouts his song and chases all the birds but he’s missing something — his long expressive tail.

Tails are used in flight, of course, but they’re also an important communication tool for mockingbirds.

“Look at me!” says the mockingbird as he struts with his tail cocked up, wags it to one side during confrontations, and fans it in his parachuting flight display.

Without a tail he looks silly, drooping his wings while he raises his tiny tail coverts. So far the ladies aren’t impressed.

Tail-less northern mockingbird near Phipps Conservatory, March 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)

Tail-less northern mockingbird near Phipps Conservatory, March 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)

I wonder how long it will take to grow back his tail.

For courtship purposes, it better be soon!

 

(photos by Kate St. John)

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Mar 29 2017

I’m Moving Northward

Carolina chickadee in North carolina (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Carolina chickadee in North Carolina (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Last week I wrote about Pittsburgh’s Puzzling Chickadees and promised to tell you why we have fewer black-capped chickadees every year.  The reason is: Our winters are getting warmer.

The Pittsburgh area is squarely in the contact zone where black-capped (Poecile atricapillus) and Carolina chickadees (Poecile carolinensis) meet and hybridize.  Black-capped chickadees can survive cold winters so they live north of the zone.  Carolinas cannot; they live in the south.

The contact zone snakes from New Jersey to Kansas, dipping south along the chilly Appalachian Mountains.  Studies by Robert Curry and his team at Villanova University found that the contact zone is located where winter low temperatures average at or above 14 to 20oF.

In 2010 David Sibley drew the contact zone for his Distinguishing Black-capped and Carolina Chickadees article. Click on the screenshot to see his original map and zoom it for your area.  The map is about 7 years old.

Screenshot of David Sibley's map of the black-capped and Carolina chickadee contact zone in 2010 (click on the map to see the original and zoom it in for your area)

Screenshot of David Sibley’s map of black-capped and Carolina chickadee contact zone approximately 2010. Click on the map to see Sibley’s original article and zoom the map for your area.

 

Seven years make a difference.  During that time the zone moved north almost 5 miles.  Here’s why:

Chickadees don’t migrate but young birds disperse to find a breeding territory.  The easiest territory to claim is an “empty” place where there aren’t competing birds of the same species.  For Carolina chickadees, that place is on the northern edge of the contact zone.

In 2000-2002 and 2010-2012, Robert Curry and his team measured winter temperatures and conducted DNA tests to identify chickadees in study plots north, south and inside eastern Pennsylvania’s contact zone.

The studies showed that over the 10-year period winter average low temperatures moved north 0.7 miles per year. They also found that female Carolina chickadees are dispersing further than their usual 0.6 miles.  They’re moving 0.7 miles northward in lock-step with climate change.

What does this mean for you?

If you live on the northern edge of the contact zone your chickadees can change in a year or two from 100% black-capped chickadees to a mix including Carolinas and hybrids.  On the southern edge it’s just as interesting as the black-cappeds disappear.

So don’t take Pittsburgh’s chickadees for granted.  The contact zone is moving northward.

 

(photo from Wikimedia Commons, map screenshot from David Sibley’s blog: Distinguishing Black-capped and Carolina Chickadees.  Click on each image to see the original.)

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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.)

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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)

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