Archive for the 'Songbirds' Category

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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Sep 01 2016

A Tip on Confusing Fall Warblers

Female yellow warbler (photo by Chuck Tague)

Female yellow warbler (photo by Chuck Tague)

On Throw Back Thursday:

It’s warbler time again as these tiny birds migrate south through western Pennsylvania.  They’re not as much fun as they were in the spring.

In May they were dressed in their colorful best.  This month a lot of them are wearing camouflage.  Who are these confusing fall warblers?

Back in 2009 it dawned on me that I could identify immature fall warblers because I had looked hard at their parents in the spring.  Read how it works here:

Confusing Fall Warblers

 

(photo by Chuck Tague)

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Aug 05 2016

His Feathers Sing

The male club-winged manakin (Machaeropterus deliciosus) uses dance and sound to attract the ladies but he doesn’t open his mouth.  He uses his wings!

Watch and listen as he bows and flares.  The loud buzzy noise is made by his secondaries.  Cornell Lab writes:

The secondary wing feathers of the male Club-Winged Manakin, a bird from South America, are large and rigid. He strikes them together at about 107 times per second to create a buzzing sound, which is used during courtship displays.

Ornithologists have known for a long time that the males’ secondary feathers are deformed.  This 1871 drawing shows the difference between the males’ deformed and the females’ normal feathers.

Modification of Manakin Pipra deliciosa = Machaeropterus deliciosus wings for sound production, from Darwin's - The Descent of Man

Modification of Manakin Pipra deliciosa = Machaeropterus deliciosus wings for sound production, from Darwin’s – The Descent of Man

 

Now that we have high definition video we can see why they’re like that.  He makes his feathers sing.

 

p.s.  Click here for the location of secondary wing feathers.

(video from Cornell Lab of Ornithology on YouTube. Illustration from Wikimedia Commons; click on the image to see the original.)

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Jul 22 2016

Purple Martins: Faithful to Home

Purple martin fledgling opens wide for dad (photo by Donna Foyle)

Purple martin fledgling opens wide for dad (photo by Donna Foyle)

Last Saturday fourteen of us joined purple martin landlords and their families at Bob Allnock’s annual Purple Martin Night where we learned about the birds and heard news of their success.

Click here for the slideshow that illustrates this article.

Purple martins (Progne subis) are North America’s largest swallow and the only bird that relies on man-made housing for its nest.  The western population still uses woodpecker holes but eastern purple martins made the switch long ago to nest colonially in apartments and man-made gourds provided by human landlords.

Purple martin houses at Bob Allnock's (photo by Kate St. John)

Purple martin houses at Bob Allnock’s (photo by Kate St. John)

The landlords provide housing and protection and the martins return faithfully every year.  The dark blueish purple males arrive first — in April in western Pennsylvania — followed by the adult females with dark backs, light bellies and gray collars.  The adults claim their favorite nest sites before the speckled sub-adults arrive.

Purple martins eat only flying insects and are especially fond of dragonflies.  To catch them they feed higher in the sky than other swallows.  We didn’t think the martins were anywhere near us until we looked up at the clouds with our binoculars and saw them wheeling as much as 500 feet above.

Female purple martin with food for her nestlings (photo by Donna Foyle)

Female purple martin with food for her nestlings (photo by Donna Foyle)

By mid-July many of the young martins in Bob’s colony had already fledged but they still begged from their parents.   The (approx) 80 nest sites were humming with activity as the adults fed youngsters, took out the garbage (fecal sacs), and sometimes even tussled at the nest holes.  One youngster (see him in gourd #2) fledged while we were there.

Like all birds, purple martins are vulnerable to nest predation and a variable food supply. Fortunately they have dedicated landlords who …

  • Check the nests to make sure all is well. In the slideshow notice the circular access lid on the gourds. Bob Allnock can also watch three nests on nestcams.
  • Protect the nests from starlings by providing M-shaped holes that only purple martins can use.
  • Thwart raccoons and snakes who climb the poles to raid the nests.  Bob Allnock has wrapped the base of his poles with live electric wiring (“electric fence”).  One shock is all it takes!
  • Scare off great horned owls who raid from the air.  Bob turns on a yellow “air dancer” at dusk.  He moves it to a new location every night so the owls don’t get wise to it.
  • Provide supplemental feeding during prolonged wet weather when the bugs don’t fly. Purple martins starve without these feedings.

And the weather has cooperated.  This year’s fledglings are doing well in western Pennsylvania’s dry weather, especially after three wet years in a row.

Until their young have learned the ropes the purple martins stay at the colony.  At dusk they return to spend the night inside the nests.

In September they’ll leave for Brazil and their landlords will wait through the long quiet winter for their faithful purple martins to come home.

Click here for a slideshow of the event.

 

(All the purple martin close-ups are by Donna Foyle. House photos by Kate St. John.  Image of yellow inflatable air dancer from Amazon.com)

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