Archive for the 'Songbirds' Category

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

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Jul 10 2016

Up Close with a Song Sparrow

Published by under Songbirds

Up close with a song sparrow held by bander Becca Ralston, Neighborhood Nestwatch, Donna Foyle's, 9 Jul 2016 (photo by Kate St. John)

Closeup of a song sparrow held by bander Becca Ralston at Neighborhood Nestwatch, Donna Foyle’s home, 9 Jul 2016 (photo by Kate St. John)

Did you know that song sparrows (Melospiza melodia) are the most abundant breeding bird in Pennsylvania?  All they need are tall grasses, shrubs or trees to thrive in marshes, suburbs, farmland, or along roadsides.

At the National Aviary’s Neighborhood Nestwatch events, song sparrows are a target species and the one most often banded.  This may have been true yesterday at Nestwatch at Donna Foyle’s, but the birds avoided the mist nets!  Bander Becca Ralston had to change the net locations several times before this song sparrow came in.

Song sparrows are boring “Little Brown Jobs” (LBJs) from afar but they’re fascinating up close.  Notice the intricate pattern and subtle shades of brown on this bird’s head.  You can see the feather-eyelashes that circle his eye.  His eyes are black from a distance, but up close you can see that they’re really brown.


Bander Becca Ralston holds a male song sparrow at Neighborhood Nestwatch (photo by Kate St. John)

Bander Becca Ralston holds a male song sparrow at Neighborhood Nestwatch (photo by Kate St. John)


(photos by Kate St. John)

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Jul 06 2016

Variations On A Warbler Theme

Published by under Songbirds,Travel

Connecticut, Mourning and MacGillivray's warblers (illustration by Louis Aggasiz Fuertes in National Geographic, public domain from Wikimedia Commons)

Connecticut, Mourning and MacGillivray’s Warblers (illustration by Louis Aggasiz Fuertes, public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

When Louis Aggasiz Fuertes drew these birds they were all the same genus, Oporornis.  This made sense because Connecticut, mourning and MacGillivray’s warblers are similar in appearance and habits.  All three breed in northern forests where they are shy, secretive skulkers, nesting and feeding on the ground.

The Connecticut warbler (at top) is the hardest to find, so hard that his nest wasn’t discovered for 70 years after the species was described.  His breeding grounds in the bogs and moist forests of Minnesota, Wisconsin, upper Michigan and central Canada are protected by mosquitoes!   Birds of North America says, “Its secretive behavior and preference for breeding habitat in remote areas with abundant insect life has made it very difficult to study.”  No kidding!

The mourning warbler (middle) has a wider distribution.  He breeds in second growth forests from British Columbia to Newfoundland and into the northern tier of Pennsylvania.  He’s one of the few warblers that benefits from human disturbance, preferring to nest in clearcuts 1 to 10 years old.  I usually see him during spring migration at Magee Marsh, Ohio.

MacGillivray’s Warbler (bottom) prefers second growth too, but he breeds at low to moderate elevations in the Rockies and Sierras.  I saw my first MacGillivray’s warbler (Life Bird!) in Glacier National Park in burned areas that are the dry mountain equivalent of a clearcut.

For many years the Oporornis genus calmly hummed along until two discoveries upset the apple cart.

Everyone thought these species never met on their breeding grounds … and they don’t … except for one spot in the Peace region of British Columbia near Dawson Creek where in 2009 Irwin et al. discovered that mourning and MacGillivray’s warblers hybridize.

Then in 2010 DNA evidence split the Oporornis genus.  Now the Connecticut warbler stands alone, though many websites and field guides have not caught up.

  • Old: Oporornis = [Connecticut, mourning, MacGillivray’s and Kentucky warblers].  Geothlypis = [common yellowthroat]
  • New: Oporornis = [Connecticut].  Geothlypis = [common yellowthroat, mourning, MacGillivray’s and Kentucky warblers]

In appearance and ancestry, these birds are variations on a warbler theme.


(illustration by Louis Aggasiz Fuertes in National Geographic, public domain from Wikimedia Commons)

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Jul 01 2016

Dipper or Ouzel

Published by under Songbirds,Travel

Question: What songbird …

  • Lives along streams in western North America?
  • Looks like a plump, dark gray robin with a short tail?
  • Bobs his tail like a Louisiana waterthrush?
  • Does “push-ups” like an angry wren?
  • Swims and dives as if he was a duck?
  • Has white nictitating membranes (third eyelids) for seeing underwater?
  • Eats only underwater prey?

Answer: A bird who has two names — the American dipper (Cinclus mexicanus) or water ouzel.

“Dipper” describes his behavior. While looking for prey from the water’s edge, he dips his body up and down as if doing push-ups on his legs. This action gives him two perspectives while looking through the water’s refraction: high view and low view.

“Ouzel” is an Old English word that now means “like a blackbird,” except that the water ouzel is not like any blackbird. 

In fact this water-loving species is unlike any songbird in North America. 

That’s why I came out west to see him at Glacier National Park.


p.s. Life Bird! I even saw one feeding his young, thanks to Denny Olsen, our Road Scholar birding guide.

(video from JVCdude on YouTube)

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Jun 30 2016

One Note

Varied thrush (photo by Eleanor Briccetti via Wikimedia Commons)

Varied thrush (photo by Eleanor Briccetti via Wikimedia Commons)

Spring starts late in the northern Rockies so many birds are still singing here in Glacier National Park. Fortunately the varied thrush is one of them.

In the breeding season the varied thrush (Ixoreus naevius) is a shy bird of mature western forests. He sings from the top of a conifer for 10 to 15 minutes but the trees are so tall that he’s hard to find. If he wasn’t singing we’d never know he’s there.

His song consists of one note that lasts two seconds.  He pauses 3 to 20 seconds and then sings again, a different note.  The disembodied sound echoes in the canyons.

Like all thrushes his syrinx allows him to blend two sounds so his note has a burry quality.  It sounds like this:

This song is unique in North America and easy to identify by ear.

Just one note.


(photo by Eleanor Briccetti via Wikimedia Commons)

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Jun 28 2016

There’s A Lot Less Singing

Yellow warbler (photo by Chuck Tague)

Yellow warbler (photo by Chuck Tague)

It happens every year. By late June, birds are singing a lot less than they did a month ago. By mid July most birds are silent.

Find out why they stop singing in this article: Becoming Silent.


(photo by Chuck Tague)

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