Yesterday in Schenley Park I saw a scarlet tanager with blotches on his belly. He was starting to turn green.
Scarlet tanagers (Piranga olivacea) molt twice a year. In January through March they molt into breeding or “alternate” plumage while on their wintering grounds in South America. The females don’t change color but the males turn from green to scarlet. Young males often retain a bit of green (click here to see).
When the breeding season is over, they molt back to basic plumage in July through September. The males look blotchy at first but when they’re done they’re bright olive green with black wings as shown below. By then they’re on their way to South America.
(photo at top in August, Tim Lenz; photo below in Oct, Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren)
I was lucky to see yesterday’s scarlet tanager because he hardly made a sound. Tanagers have stopped singing now that breeding is over. This one was singing very softly.
p.s. Did you know that female scarlet tanagers sing? According to All About Birds: “The female Scarlet Tanager sings a song similar to the male’s, but softer, shorter, and less harsh. She sings in answer to the male’s song and while she is gathering nesting material.”
How can we tell when similar birds are actually different species?
In the jungles of Indonesia the male superb bird of paradise (Lophorina superba) is famous for his courtship dance. To attract a mate he calls loudly, unfurls his jet black feathers and iridescent green apron, and starts to dance. If he’s really good at it, the female accepts him.
The bird’s color and dance are so mesmerizing that ornithologists at first dismissed the differences between the eastern and western birds. Now they’ve looked more closely.
This video from Cornell Lab of Ornithology shows how the western bird’s behavior convinced scientists to split the superb bird-of-paradise (Lophorina superba) into two species.
The dance makes a difference. The bird with the sidestep gait is now called the Vogelkop superb bird-of-paradise (Lophorina niedda).
p.s. Volgelkop is the name of a peninsula in western New Guinea, Indonesia where this bird lives. On the map the peninsula is shaped like a bird’s head. Vogel+kop means “Bird head” in Dutch.
It’s relatively easy to identify ducks on water because they look like the pictures in the field guides.
Even when the female is boring, the male is usually colorful as shown in this pair of American wigeons (Mareca americana). He’s the one with a green nape, white crown, white butt, and black tail. The black and white features are unique, even from a distance.
But in flight it’s another story. Here are three American wigeons in the air. I’m stumped!
Why are they so hard to identify? Because we see two body parts that aren’t visible when they’re swimming — bellies and underwings. Who knew that wigeons have white bellies?
The best way to identify ducks in flight is by using black-and-white drawings. This Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife brochure is the closest thing I’ve found online: Ducks at a Distance. See pages 50-51.
(photos from Wikimedia Commons; click on the images to see the originals)
How does a pigeon avoid being lunch for a peregrine falcon?
He flies fast, he stays in a flock for protection, and he (quite literally!) keeps an eye out for danger.
Pigeons have such a wide field of view that they can see danger coming from almost any direction. There’s only a narrow place in front of them where both eyes focus and a narrow blind spot in the back. Pigeons are not alone. Many prey species have a wide field of view.
This is hard for us to imagine because our eyesight is like the raptor’s but raptors seem to know how it works. When a peregrine wants to sneak up on a pigeon he flies in the pigeon’s blind spot.
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.
* 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).
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)
Have you ever seen a distant white raptor and hoped it was a snowy owl or gyrfalcon? I have, but I’m usually wrong. Both species are rare and neither is here in spring or summer.
Snowy owls and gyrfalcons only visit Pennsylvania in late fall or winter. In most years snowies don’t come to the Pittsburgh area at all (this year is an exception) and gyrfalcons are never here. In over 100 years only 41 gyrfalcons were reported statewide (see *1 below).
And yet we still see an occasional rare white raptor, even in the summer. What hawk is this? In nearly every case it’s a leucistic red-tailed hawk.
“Leucism is a condition in which there is partial loss of pigmentation in an animal resulting in white, pale, or patchy coloration of the skin, hair, feathers, scales or cuticle, but not the eyes.” (quoted from Wikipedia). The condition is rare but red-tails are our most common hawk so it’s not surprising to find it in a numerous population.
The whiteness varies from hawk to hawk and even from year to year. Sometimes leucistic red-tails are spotted brown, sometimes they’re entirely white. Pat Gaines photographed a speckled one in Berthoud, Colorado this winter (above) and an all-white bird in North Denver in 2010 (below). Neither bird is albino because its eyes are the normal color, not pink.
Even the all-white birds have at least one normally-colored feather. It’s a tail feather on this hawk, as shown in Pat’s photo below.
(*1) How rare are gyrfalcons in PA? In 1982 and 1984, DVOC’s Cassinia analyzed all the reports of gyrfalcons in Pennsylvania. From the mid 1870’s to 1984 only 41 were confirmed: Gyrfalcon Records in Pennsylvania, Part One, 1982 and Gyrfalcon Records in Pennsylvania, Part Two, 1984. Most reports were in Schuykill, Carbon, Berks, Lehigh and Lancaster counties with only 2 reports at Presque Isle, Erie County (there have been more since then). As of 1984, the most recent sighting of a gyrfalcon in Pittsburgh’s 11-county metro area was 1 bird in Westmoreland County in January 1913.
(photo credits: evening grosbeaks at the Smithsonian by ap2il via Flickr, Creative Commons license. Northern cardinal courtesy of Western Illinois University. Click on the captions to see the originals.)