Category Archives: Songbirds

Splitting Scrub Jays

Woodhouse's Scrub Jay (from the Crossley ID Guide via Wikimedia Commons)
Woodhouse's Scrub Jay (from the Crossley ID Guide via Wikimedia Commons)

I got a new Life Bird two years ago and didn't even know it.

In 2016 the American Ornithological Union split the western scrub jay into two species:  the California scrub jay (Aphelocoma californica) whose West Coast range extends from Washington state to Baja California, and Woodhouse's scrub jay (Aphelocoma woodhouseii) that lives in the interior Southwest from southern Idaho to southern Mexico.

Woodhouse's is pictured above, California scrub jay below.

California scrub jay (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
California scrub jay (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

I finally learned of the split last month but it wasn't in my eBird records.  Duh!  I hadn't entered my "western" scrub jay sightings from Nevada.  When I did I got a new Life Bird at Red Rock Canyon.

Splitting is nothing new to scrub jays.  The Aphelocoma genus is particularly likely to change and already has split many times.

Since 1995 the "western" scrub jay split into four species and the western name disappeared into the Florida scrub jay (Aphelocoma coerulescens only in Florida), the Island scrub jay (Aphelocoma insularis only on Santa Cruz Island, California), the California scrub jay and Woodhouse's.

More splits may be on the way.  Woodhouse's has a tenuous hold on its sumichrasti subspecies and the Mexican jay (Aphelocoma wollweberi) -- shown below -- lives in such isolated populations in the sky islands of the southwestern U.S. and Mexico that he may split, too.

Mexican jay in Madera Canyon, Arizona (photo by Alan Vernon via Wikimedia Commons)
Mexican jay at Madera Canyon, Arizona (photo by Alan Vernon via Wikimedia Commons)

Interesting as this is, there's not room in my brain to keep up with it.  eBird will do it for me if I enter all my sightings.   I'll have to backload my birding history to keep up with splitting scrub jays.

 

(photos from Wikimedia Commons; click on the images to see the originals)

Yellow Is A Sign of Spring

White-throated sparrow (photo from Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons license)
White-throated sparrow (photo from Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons license)

Even before the buds burst and the flowers bloom, birds give us a hint that spring is coming.  Some of them turn yellow.

* White-throated sparrows have boring faces in the winter but their lores turn bright yellow ahead of the breeding season. They'll leave in March or early April for their breeding grounds in the northern U.S. and Canada.

* American goldfinches were brownish all winter but molt into yellow feathers in late winter. Even the females turn a subdued yellow as seen in the female on the left in Marcy's photo.

Goldfinches turning yellow for spring (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)
Goldfinches turning yellow for spring (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

* At this time of year European starlings become glossy and their beaks turn yellow.  The starling below is male because the base of his beak is blue (near his face).

European Starling in breeding plumage (photo by Chuck Tague)
European Starling in breeding plumage (photo by Chuck Tague)

 

There are other birds whose yellow facial skin becomes brighter in the spring.  Can you think of who that might be?  ...

Yellow is a sign of spring.

 

(photos from Wikimedia Commons, Marcy Cunkelman and Chuck Tague. See credits in the captions)

Rare Bird!

Gray-crowned rosy-finch, Crawford County, PA, 3 Feb 2018 (photo by Shawn Collins)
Gray-crowned rosy-finch, Crawford County, PA, 3 Feb 2018 (photo by Shawn Collins)

On 1 February 2018, a couple noticed an unusual finch at their feeders in Crawford County, Pennsylvania.  Slightly larger that a house finch, it was mostly brown with a gray cap, a black-tipped yellow bill, and pinkish wings and rump.  Was it a gray-crowned rosy-finch?

Gray-crowned rosy-finch, Crawford County, PA, 3 Feb 2018 (photo by Shawn Collins)
Gray-crowned rosy-finch, Crawford County, PA, 3 Feb 2018 (photo by Shawn Collins)

The wife called her birding friend Shawn Collins for a second opinion.  Yes indeed, this is a gray-crowned rosy-finch (Leucosticte tephrocotis) a bird so rare that it's the first one ever recorded in Pennsylvania.

A rare bird like this causes a stampede as soon as the news gets out, so Shawn and the homeowners made a plan.  Their home is in a gated community and they wish to remain anonymous, but they want birders to see the rosy-finch from the best viewing location -- inside their living room!  -- so Shawn is coordinating visits to its anonymous location.  (If you want to see the gray-crowned rosy-finch, email Shawn Collins for an appointment. Click here for instructions.)

Gray-crowned rosy-finch with house finch in background. Crawford County, PA, 3 Feb 2018 (photo by Shawn Collins)
Gray-crowned rosy-finch with house finch in background. Crawford County, PA, 3 Feb 2018 (photo by Shawn Collins)

Why is this bird so rare?

Gray-crowned rosy-finches live in western North America.  The interior population (this bird) nests on the tundra in the Rocky Mountains from Alaska to Montana and spends the winter from British Columbia to New Mexico, Nevada to western Nebraska.

But individual rosy-finches sometimes wander in winter as far east as northern Ohio.

Gray-crowned rosy-finch, Crawford County, PA, 3 Feb 2018 (photo by Shawn Collins)
Gray-crowned rosy-finch, Crawford County, PA, 3 Feb 2018 (photo by Shawn Collins)

Crawford County, PA is on the Ohio state line so maybe it was only a matter of time before a gray-crowned rosy-finch made it to northwestern Pennsylvania.

We're glad this one is here.  Life Bird!

Gray-crowned rosy-finch, Crawford County, PA, 3 Feb 2018 (photo by Shawn Collins)
Gray-crowned rosy-finch, Crawford County, PA, 3 Feb 2018 (photo by Shawn Collins)

Thank you to the anonymous homeowners who've graciously opened their home to view the rosy-finch and thanks to Shawn Collins for coordinating the visits.

For more looks at the gray-crowned rosy-finch see Shawn Collins' Flickr album.

 

(photos by Shawn Collins)

p.s.  Shawn tells those who plan to see it: "Please use the eBird hotspot that Geoff Malosh started for the bird. This is not the exact location due to the home owners request to keep all of her info offline. The gated community is small and the only parking allowed is in her driveway which fits 4 cars. And we are pushing it with 4! To view the bird we have to be in her living room. If you need the eBird link I can send it to you. Please no personal hotspots!!! If anyone is walking the area or what not, you will be turned into the police and will be escorted out with trespassing charges. If that happens once then this bird will be off limits! So please no one be stupid and do anything that will jeopardize folks seeing this bird. This is a very watched community and she had to let people know she will be having visitors this week and next so they were not alarmed at the cars in her driveway.

Just a side note....in each group I've brought over...the bird shows up within 2 minutes after we get there! It's like it knows!!!"

Flashy Hummingbirds In Winter

One of the cool things about visiting California in January was seeing hummingbirds in the winter.  On field trips near Chico I saw Anna's hummingbirds flash their red faces in the sun.

Anna's hummingbird (Calypte anna) is found year round in many parts of California. The rainy season triggers breeding so they nest from December to May.  Though there's snow on the mountains in January, the manzanita that blooms at lower elevations attracts these tiny birds.

Often an Anna's will stake out a bush, watching and waiting to chase off other hummingbirds.  His forehead, face and gorget flash a warning red, "This is mine! Stay away!"

The video from Cornell Lab shows how flashy this hummingbird can be.

 

(video about iridescence from Cornell Lab of Ornithology)

Cardinal Courtship

Female cardinal raises one wing to greet her mate (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)
Female cardinal raises one wing to greet her mate (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

Last week Punxsutawney Phil predicted six more weeks of winter(*) but the birds know spring is on its way.

Northern cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis) don't migrate so they're a good species to watch for early signs of spring.  Some pairs stay together all winter on their home territory or in mixed flocks.

In February they begin to court.  The males become aggressive toward other males and solicitous to their ladies.  And they begin to sing. (Xeno-canto recording # 356015 by Ted Floyd)

Watch your local cardinals for these courtship behaviors:

  • Lopsided pose :  The cardinal tilts up one side of its body, raises one wing, lowers its crest and exposes its belly, sometimes rocking side to side.
  • Song-dance display (shown by a female cardinal above):  The bird stands erect, raises its crest and one wing.
  • Song-flight display (quoted from Birds of North America):  In flight the male fluffs his breast feathers, raises his crest, sings, and descends slowly toward his mate in short, rapid strokes.  (Is the male doing this in the top photo?)
  • Territorial Singing:  (audio above)
  • Counter-singing:  Female cardinals counter-sing with their mates.
  • Courtship feeding:  The male cardinal presents food to his lady, beak to beak.  Gene Wilburn in Port Credit, Ontario captured a male feeding his lady with a "kiss."

Northern cardinal courtship, "The Kiss" (photo by Gene Wilburn via Flickr, Creative Commons license)
Northern cardinal courtship, "The Kiss" (photo by Gene Wilburn via Flickr, Creative Commons license)

 

Cardinals are courting.  Spring isn't far away.

 

(photo credits: wing flash in the snow by Marcy Cunkelman, The Kiss by Gene Wilburn via Flickr, Creative Commons license)

NOTE(*): On Groundhog Day the Spring Equinox is six weeks away ... so it's always true that we'll have "six more weeks of winter."

Smaller Than A Kinglet

Bushtits near a puddle (photo by Melissa McMasters via Wikimedia Commons)
Bushtits (photo by Melissa McMasters via Wikimedia Commons)

This tiny bird is the only member of its family (Aegithalidae) in the Americas.  Smaller than a warbler, the bushtit's closest relatives live in Eurasia.

Bushtits (Psaltriparus minimus) are western birds that tend to stay put, though some move downslope for the winter.  At this time of year they flock like chickadees, flitting, chattering and hanging upside down to glean insects and spiders from the trees.

When I saw them in California my first thought was "brown chickadees."  This closer look shows why.

Bushtit (photo by Alan Vernon via Wikimedia Commons)
Bushtit (photo by Alan Vernon via Wikimedia Commons)

In February the flocks break up into pairs and the couples spend four+ weeks weaving a foot-long tubular nest like the one shown below.  With a hooded entrance at the top, it is far larger than one bird needs but is big enough to hold the whole family and their friends on cold nights.

Bushtit nest (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Bushtit nest (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

 

Listen for bushtits calling as they follow each other from tree to tree. (recording of American Bushtit by Kristie Nelson, xeno-canto XC363349)

So tiny!  They are smaller than kinglets.

 

 

(photos from Wikimedia Commons; click on the images to see the originals. Audio from Xeno-Canto XC363349 by Kristie Nelson)

Sparrow With a Golden Crown

Golden-crowned sparrow in Richmond, CA, Nov 2016 (photo by Becky Matsubara via Wikimedia Commons)
Golden-crowned sparrow in Richmond, CA, Nov 2016 (photo by Becky Matsubara via Wikimedia Commons)

Female house sparrow?  Nope.  When you see her in real life, this bird is way too large to be a house sparrow.  This is a golden-crowned sparrow (Zonotrichia atricapilla) photographed in November in California.

Golden-crowned sparrows breed from Alaska to British Columbia and spend the winter west of the Cascades and Sierra Nevadas from southern British Columbia to Baja, Mexico.  At the Snow Goose Festival my location finally matched their range.

Sometimes golden-crowned sparrows hang out with their close relatives, white-crowned sparrows (Zonotrichia leucophrys) shown below.  I used to think white-crowned sparrows were large but golden-crowned are larger.

White-crowned Sparrow (photo by Chuck Tague)
White-crowned Sparrow in the eastern U.S. (photo by Chuck Tague)

Their golden crowns can be subtle at this time of year but the color intensifies as the breeding season approaches.  In spring the male's head has a bright yellow patch surrounded by black as shown in the Crossley ID Guide below.

Golden-crowned sparrow from Crossley ID Guide via Wikimedia Commons
Golden-crowned sparrow from Crossley ID Guide via Wikimedia Commons

I saw these birds for the first time at Bidwell Park in Chico, California ("Life Birds").  Even the boring ones were wearing faint golden crowns.

 

(golden-crowned photos from Wikimedia Commons; click on the images to see the originals. White-crowned sparrow by Chuck Tague)

Reaching For A Drink

Wrentit leaning for a drink (photo by Gregory "Slobirdr" Smith via Flickr, Creative Common license)
Wrentit leaning for a drink (photo by Gregory "Slobirdr" Smith via Flickr, Creative Common license)

Here's a California bird that lives year round in coastal scrub and chaparral.

About the size of a black-capped chickadee, the wrentit (Chamaea fasciata) usually skulks in dense thickets so he's hard to see.  But this one came out for a drink and Gregory "Slobirdr" Smith captured his acrobatic stretch.

Male and female wrentits sing all year long.  If you hear this song you might find the bird.  (recorded by Michael Lester Xeno-canto #XC312612).

 

p.s.  Wrentits are uncommon to rare in California's Central Valley.  You have to go up-slope to find them near Chico.

(photo by Gregory "Slobirdr" Smith via Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Only In California

Yellow-billed magpie, San Benito County, CA (photo by J. Maughn via Flickr, Creative Commons license)
Yellow-billed magpie, San Benito County, CA (photo by J. Maughn via Flickr, Creative Commons license)

There are three species of magpies on earth but this one, the yellow-billed magpie (Pica nutalli), lives only in the open oak savannah of central and southern California.

Even though barn owls (Tyto alba) occur worldwide this video could only happen there.

Like all magpies the birds are brave and relentless.  One of them pulls the owl's wing!

What are the three Pica species? Eurasian (Pica pica) in Europe and Asia, black-billed (Pica hudsonia) in western North America, and yellow-billed (Pica nutalli) only in California.

 

(photo by J. Maughn on Flickr, Creative Commons license; click on the image to see the original. Video by Charles Sullivan on YouTube)

p.s.  Yellow-billed magpies are hard to find near Chico, California ever since West Nile Virus came through.  I was afraid I'd never see one but J. Maughn (his photo is at top) suggested looking at eBird for recent sightings.  Ta dah!  I went to a place near Big Chico Creek where magpies had been seen this month and found a pair building a nest.  Life Bird!

 

First Bird of 2018

Blue jay in winter (photo by Cris Hamilton)
Blue jay in winter (photo by Cris Hamilton)

If you keep a list of the birds you see each year, yesterday gave you a First Bird of 2018.

Mine was a blue jay.

He received this honor because I decided not to count the birds I heard but did not see.  This ruled out the house sparrows cheeping in my neighbor's evergreen. I didn't even look for them.

Perhaps this was cheating. If I'd heard an owl I would have counted it.  However, I don't have to stretch the rules to pick a First Best Bird of 2018.

Yesterday afternoon I joined the Botanical Society of Western PA's annual New Year's Day Hike.  Twelve of us braved the 10o F weather at Irwin Road in North Park, led by Richard Nugent.  (He's the tall man in the brown coat.  I'm in the photo, too, but which one?)

Botanical Society New Years Day Hike, 2018 (photo by June Bernard)
Botanical Society New Years Day Hike, 2018 (photo by June Bernard)

We walked to the old homestead to see the Ozark witch hazel that we visit every year.   At the top of the hill was a small flock of birds eating wild grapes, multiflora rose hips and oriental bittersweet.  Among them was my First Best Bird of 2018 -- a hermit thrush.

Hermit thrush (photo by Chuck Tague)
Hermit thrush (photo by Chuck Tague)

 

What was your First Bird of 2018?  Do you have a Best one?

 

(photo credits: blue jay by Cris Hamilton, hike photo from June Bernard, hermit thrush by Chuck Tague)