Right now warbler migration is at its autumn peak in southwestern Pennsylvania but, as usual, the birds are hard to identify. Their fall plumage is dull and confusing, they move fast so we never get a good look at them, and we don’t get much practice because many of them are here only in September. And then they’re gone.
This year it dawned on me that the magnolia warbler (Setophaga magnolia) is super-easy to identify if all you see is its butt, as shown at top and below.
Note that the magnolia warbler is the only warbler with a white belly, white undertail coverts, white undertail and a large black straight-edged tip on the tail. It looks as if this warbler was dipped tail first in black paint.
On some juveniles the tip is dark gray but the pattern is the same.
So this view is the best way to identify a magnolia warbler.
While on the way to somewhere else I found … the bluest thrush.
According to Birds of the World, the grandala (Grandala coelicolor) is a gregarious thrush that makes a vertical migration in the Himalayas and Tibetan Plateau(*) from barren alpine breeding grounds at 3900–5500 m (12,800-18,000 ft) to rocky mountainside valleys and ridges at 3000–4300 m (9,800-14,000 ft), sometimes as low as 2000 m (6,500 ft).
To put this in perspective, if grandalas lived in the U.S they could only breed on Denali (20,000 ft) or the highest Rocky Mountains. Some of them never come down as low as the highest point the Rockies, the peak of Mount Elder.
Grandalas are the same size as wood thrushes and like the wood thrush are the only species in their genus, but there the similarity ends. For instance, grandalas are sexually dimorphic with royal blue males and brownish-gray females.
Grandalas have versatile diets tuned to their cold climate lives. They eat insects in summer and fruit in fall and winter.
Like cedar waxwings grandalas travel in huge flocks in fall and winter. When they perch they flick their wings and tails.
Ruby-throated hummingbirds (Archilochus colubris) start their fall migration earlier than many other species so they’re more abundant than usual now. Come to Westmoreland County for a family friendly hummingbird event on:
Learn about hummingbirds, the plants that attract them, and how to care for your feeders so the birds stay healthy. There will also tips on taking great bird photos. And if the weather is good and the birds cooperate we(*) will get to see hummingbirds up close like this one in the bander’s hand. This bird was banded by Bob Mulvihill in Marcy Cunkelman’s garden in July 2015.
(*) I say “we” because I’ll be there, too, to teach you about hummingbirds. I’m looking forward to it!
Events fill up fast! Registration is recommended to guarantee your spot and help us plan timing, seating, and/or trail routes. If there are spots available at the time of the program, non-registered individuals can join on a first-come, first-served basis.
Dudley tasked several undergraduate students with experimenting on the hummers visiting the feeder outside his office window to find out whether alcohol in sugar water was a turn-off or a turn-on. All three of the test subjects were male Anna’s hummingbirds (Calypte anna), year-round residents of the Bay Area.
They found that hummingbirds happily sip from sugar water with up to 1% alcohol by volume, finding it just as attractive as plain sugar water, but they sip only half as much when the sugar water contains 2% alcohol. …
“They burn the alcohol and metabolize it so quickly. Likewise with the sugars. So they’re probably not seeing any real effect. They’re not getting drunk,” he added.
Best Birds were a very cooperative yellow billed cuckoo and an elusive green heron. The cuckoo posed for us, the green heron zoomed away. Later the heron zoomed in and landed above us near a second green heron. Two!
In the Nine Mile Run valley I marveled at this confluence of a muddy tributary with the main stem of Nine Mile Run. This, in microcosm, is like the confluence of the clear-running Allegheny with the muddy Monongahela River at The Point.
Last week the temperature was so hot for so long in Pittsburgh — up to 16ºF above normal — that we put away our winter coats and wore summer clothes five days in a row. Norway maples burst into full leaf. Oak flowers bloomed. Insects flew around. The ticks came out. (Be careful!) And yet Spring’s migrating birds, the birds we expect under these conditions, did not show up. For instance, where are the catbirds?
Zoom in on Allegheny County and you’ll find a single sighting on 8 April in North Park (not shown on map below) and one on 15 April at Riding Meadow Park. Otherwise there are no catbirds in Allegheny County but they’re in the counties around us: Westmoreland, Beaver and Butler. (That red pin drop in the east is in Westmoreland County.)
For some reason Allegheny County, PA is the last place birds want to visit. We have a few theories about it this year but this is an annual problem. Check out the theories and maps in this 2012 article.
Male prairie chickens hold a lek to attract females and according to this diagram so do “grackles.” It was exciting to think that the puff and “skrinnk” of male common grackles in Pittsburgh was a lek. But it’s not! The three species of grackles in North America lead very different lives.
Bill Up is a male-to-male threat display. The puff and skrinnk is Song during courtship.
Boat-tailed grackles (Quiscalus major), found in Florida and along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, nest in harems. The males gather in leks to attract the females.
Female boat-tailed grackles are dull brown and laid back compared their male counterparts.
Great-tailed grackles (Quiscalus mexicanus), found west of the Mississippi and in Central America, gather in noisy winter flocks.
In the breeding season they don’t use leks and they aren’t monogamous.
Birds of the World explains:
[Their] mating system can be described as non-faithful female frank polygyny, in which a territorial male has one or more social mates, each female has one social mate, and both sexes employ extra-pair copulation as a conditional mating tactic. Territorial males defend a small territory including from 1 to several trees, where one or more females nest. The male protects nestlings hatched on his territory, but not nestlings from other territories. He copulates with his social mates and may attempt to copulate with other females.
You can also watch hummingbirds — live! — at Sachatamia Lodge in Mindo, Ecuador.
In the brief moment I watched the live stream, two rufous-tailed hummingbirds (Amazilia tzacatl) visited the feeders and chased each other. Notice the orange beak, green body and rufous tail. We saw them at Mindo, photo below by P. B. Child.
Nuts seem an unlikely food for blue jays but in fact they make up 67% of their diet in winter. Acorns are their favorites but they also eat beechnuts, chestnuts, hickory nuts and hazelnuts depending on availability.
Jays pluck acorns from the trees in autumn and eat them on site or cache them for later consumption. You would think acorns are too hard for a blue jay to open but Birds of the World (Cyanocitta cristata) explains how they do it:
Hard foods such as acorns, dry dog food, eggs, etc., are rendered by holding them against a branch or other substrate with one (usually) or both feet, and hammering with the mandible.
To cache the nuts — as much as 2.5 miles away — blue jays stuff their faces. The blue jay at top is carrying two acorns in his throat and one in his beak. The blue jay below is going overboard with peanuts. When they reach their cache sites they dump the nuts in a pile and bury them individually.
Blue jays have a great memory for where they’ve buried nuts but they stash so many that they inevitably lose track of a few.
To retrieve their cached food, blue jays dig it up with their beaks but this doesn’t work when the ground is frozen. It’s just one more reason why blue jays migrate south for the winter.
If your neighborhood doesn’t have any blue jays right now, it may be because they migrated. But check out the local trees. If there aren’t any oaks or nut trees in your neighborhood that may explain why you haven’t seen any blue jays lately.
This vintage article still gets a lot of comments because people miss seeing blue jays.
(top photo by Christopher T via Flickr used by permission. Remaining photos from Wikimedia Commons; click on the captions to see the originals)