Archive for the 'Songbirds' Category

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)

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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

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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

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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

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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

 

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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)

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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
)

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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)

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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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