Archive for the 'Songbirds' Category

Jun 26 2017

Crow, Crow, Jay, Jay, Raven

Published by under Songbirds

Carrion crow in London, UK (photo by http://www.sharpphotography.co.uk/ via Wikimedia Commons)

Carrion crow in London, UK (photo by SharpPhotography via Wikimedia Commons)

I recently acquired a field guide to European birds and was surprised at the similarities between their birds and ours.  For the next two weeks I'll explore some of the intriguing discoveries I made in Birds of Europe by Svensson, Mullarney and Zetterström.

Book cover: Birds of Europe (image linked from amazon.com)

Book cover: Birds of Europe (image linked from amazon.com)

The common English names of European birds are often similar to those in North America but you can't assume that the species are actually the same.  Here's why there's name confusion.  We sometimes have ...

  • The same common name for the same species found on both continents.  Example: peregrine falcon.
  • Same-name birds with different adjectives. They're not the same species but in the same family. Example: crows and jays discussed below.
  • Same-name species that are not at all related. Example: European and American robins.
  • Birds in Europe unlike any North America bird.  Example: hoopoe.

Crows, jays and ravens illustrate two of these points.

Crow, Crow:

The crow pictured at the top of this article looks like an American crow, but he's not.  You'd have to know he lives in London to know he's a carrion crow (Corvus corone).  Carrion crows are the same size as American crows (Corvus brachyrhynchos) and have the same habits.  Both are in the Corvus family, though not the same species.  Here's an American crow.

American crow in Wisconsin (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

American crow in Wisconsin (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

 

Jay, Jay:

Eurasian jays (Garrulus glandarius) and blue jays (Cyanocitta cristata) have the same common name with different adjectives.  Though they look different they are both in the Corvus family and have similar habits.  It's not a stretch to call them both jays.  Here's what they look like.

Eurasian jay (photo by Pierre Dalous via Wikimedia Commons)

Eurasian jay (photo by Pierre Dalous via Wikimedia Commons)

Blue jay at Algonquin Park, Canada (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Blue jay at Algonquin Park, Canada (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

 

Raven:

A raven is a raven is a raven. The common raven has the same name and is the same species on both continents: Corvus corax.  Whew!  No confusion with this one.

Common raven, Bryce Canyon, Utah (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Common raven, Bryce Canyon, Utah (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Watch for more European birds in the days ahead.

 

(photo credits: Book cover linked from Amazon.com, all other photos from Wikimedia Commons.  Click on the images to see the originals)

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Jun 25 2017

We’ll Stop Singing Soon

Gray catbird singing in Madison, Wisconsin (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Gray catbird singing in Madison, Wisconsin (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

This week I noticed that the birds aren't singing as much as they did a month ago.  Song sparrows and American robins are vocal but Baltimore orioles and rose-breasted grosbeaks have fallen silent.

Gray catbirds have been on and off.  They sang all spring but were quiet in mid-June.  This week they began singing again.  Birds of North America online told me why.

Gray catbirds sing from the moment they return in the spring until late in incubation, then become quiet when the eggs hatch and young are in the nest.  Their first brood fledged in mid June and now, in late June, they're nest-building and incubating their second brood.  That's why they're singing again, though not as often.

Other birds have never stopped.  Northern mockingbird "lonely bachelors" are still singing all night.  John Bauman heard this one outside his window at 1:30am Friday morning!

By mid-July most birds will stop singing.

Maybe the midnight mockingbird will take the hint but it's possible he'll continue into August.  Yikes!

 

(photo from Wikimedia Commons; click on the image to see the original)

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Jun 16 2017

The Most Beautiful Song on Earth

I used to think that the wood thrush had the best song of all North American birds until I stood on a trail in north central Michigan this week surrounded by singing hermit thrushes.  What a privilege to hear them!

If you've never experienced their ethereal song, don't put off the experience for two decades as I did. Hermit thrushes (Catharus guttatus) nest on the ground in coniferous or mixed northern forests.  As our climate warms their preferred habitat will be disappear from the eastern U.S.  By 2050 their eastern breeding range will move north into Canada at Hudson Bay.

Listen now to the most beautiful song on earth.

 

(video of a hermit thrush in Maine by Wild Bird Videos by McElroy Productions on YouTube)

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Jun 13 2017

The Rarest Warbler in North America

Published by under Songbirds,Travel

Kirtland's warbler, Montgomery County, Ohio, 6 May 2016 (photo by Brian Wulker on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Kirtland's warbler, Montgomery County, Ohio, 6 May 2016 (photo by Brian Wulker on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Kirtland's warbler (Setophaga kirtlandii) is one of the rarest songbirds in North America.  I have never seen one.  Today's the day.

This morning nine friends and I are embarking on a Michigan Audubon Kirtland's Warbler Tour to visit its breeding grounds near Grayling, Michigan.

The Kirtland's warbler is a habitat specialist, breeding only in young jack pine forests and almost exclusively in this area of Michigan.  When the forest became fragmented and no longer burned to regenerate, the warblers' population crashed in the 1960's and early 70's.  Listed as endangered, it recovered from a low of 400 individuals to an estimated 5,000 birds thanks to careful forest management and control of the brown-headed cowbird, a nest parasite.

Without human help the Kirtland's warbler would be extinct by now.  The people of north central Michigan are understandably proud of their work to save the bird and happy to share their rare gem with visitors.  There's a Kirtland's roadside marker in Grayling and a monument to the warbler in Mio.  Read more about local efforts in this article from Michigan Live.

When not in Michigan, Kirtland's warblers winter in the Bahamas, then migrate north through Florida and Ohio.  During migration solo birds are sometimes found in Ohio in early May.  This one, photographed by Brian Wulker, was in Stubbs Park near Dayton on 6 May 2016.

Kirtland's warbler (photo by Brian Wulker via Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Kirtland's warbler (photo by Brian Wulker via Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Kirtland's warbler, Montgomery County, Ohio, 6 May 2016 (photo by Brian Wulker), Creative Commons license on Flickr)

Kirtland's warbler, Montgomery County, Ohio, 6 May 2016 (photo by Brian Wulker), Creative Commons license on Flickr)

I can tell you there are plenty of insects for birds to eat in north central Michigan's woods.  The mosquitoes are frightful!!

UPDATE: yes we saw the Kirtland's warbler. It's amazing how loud his voice is, even when he sings with his back to us.

 

(all photos by Brian Wulker on Flickr, Creative Commons license; click on the images to see the original)

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Jun 11 2017

Warblers This Spring

Published by under Songbirds

Prothonotary warbler, western pennsylvania, Spring 2017 (photo by Steve Gosser)

Prothonotary warbler, western Pennsylvania, Spring 2017 (photo by Steve Gosser)

Did you miss seeing some warblers this spring?  Would you like to see some of your favorites again?

Steve Gosser posted a blog of his best warbler photographs from the past few months.  Enjoy!

http://gosserphotos.com/blog/index.php/2017/06/07/the-warblers-spring-2017/

 

 

(photo by Steve Gosser)

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Jun 07 2017

In The Scrubby Fields

Published by under Songbirds

Yellow-breasted chat, June 2017 (photo by Anthony Bruno)

Yellow-breasted chat, June 2017 (photo by Anthony Bruno)

Last week I got tired of seeing the same woodland birds so I drove north to the scrubby fields of Clarion County.  Thanks to Tony Bruno's photos I can show you what I saw.

Pennsylvania doesn't have grasslands like the prairie states but we do have former strip mines planted in grass to recover the land.  As soon as shrubs gain a foothold our grasslands turn into scrubby fields.

Piney Tract and the Curllsville Strips are two great places in Clarion County for grassland and scrub birds.  Here's my own photo of "the bowl" at Piney Tract, State Gameland 330.  Tony was at Curllsville.

Piney Tract, Clarion County, 1 June 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)

Piney Tract, Clarion County, 1 June 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)

What can you see in habitat like this?

Yellow-breasted chats (Icteria virens), shown at top, are very fond of the thickets.  Easier to hear than they are to see, Tony was lucky to see this chat at Curllsville.  Click here for a sample of their loud song.

Henslow's sparrows (Ammodramus henslowii) love wide open spaces where the shrubs are stunted.  They perch on twigs so small that I tend to overlook the birds so I find them by tracking their songs.  It's amazing how far this simple "fish lips" noise can carry.

Henslow's sparrow, June 2017 (photo by Anthony Bruno)

Henslow's sparrow, June 2017 (photo by Anthony Bruno)

 

Northern harriers (Circus cyaneus) nest on the ground in the scrubby fields.  The brown-colored female is camouflaged at the nest while her gray-colored mate harasses everyone in the area.  A male harrier shouted at me at Piney Tract. Tony encountered this one at Curllsville.

Male northern harrier, June 2017 (photo by Anthony Bruno)

Male northern harrier, June 2017 (photo by Anthony Bruno)

 

I also heard three prairie warblers (Setophaga discolor) singing from the shrubs at Piney Tract, but I could not find them.  Here's what I would have seen if I'd waited longer. This is what I heard.

Prairie warbler (photo by Anthony Bruno)

Prairie warbler (photo by Anthony Bruno)

 

Now's a good time to visit the scrubby fields while the birds are singing.  Click these links for directions to Piney Tract and the Curllsville Strips.

 

(scenery photo of Piney Tract by Kate St.John; all bird photos by Anthony Bruno)

p.s.  Why are there strip mines in Clarion County?  There are three coal seams that tilt downward from north to south under western Pennsylvania. The seams touch the surface along the lacy yellow edges on this DCNR map.  Clarion County is so lacy it's hard to find it under the word "MAIN".

Map of coal seams in Pennsylvania (from PA DCNR)

Map of coal seams in Pennsylvania (from PA DCNR, 1999)

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May 26 2017

First Robins Have Fledged

Fledgling American robin in D.C. (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Fledgling American robin in D.C. (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

On May 23 I saw my neighborhood's first American robin fledgling of 2017.

He's the same size as his parents but has a speckled chest, almost no tail (his tail hadn't grown in yet), and a loud voice.  He follows his mother around my backyard.  When she walks three paces, he walks three paces.  He maintains his distance, begging periodically, until she has food in her beak.  Then he rushes at her to get it.

In four weeks, around June 20, he'll become independent.  Meanwhile his mother will build another nest, lay, incubate and hatch another brood.  If she's quick about it they'll fledge five weeks after he did, around June 27.

Robins raise two or three broods per year and though only one or two survive per nest it's enough to keep their population booming.

 

(photo from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the image to see the original)

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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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