It’s winter and you’re out for a walk in the neighborhood. As you approach a hedge you can hear it’s alive with hidden birds. They sound like this:
The noise is a flock of house sparrows (Passer domesticus) but the hedge is so dense and dark that you can’t see them. The photo below shows the problem; click on it to see the birds in a digitally brightened version.
House sparrows are always gregarious, but more so in winter when they flock together in large numbers.
In the morning and afternoon they disperse to feed, but twice a day — at midday and in the evening — they gather in dense shrubs or evergreens and chatter for an hour or more. If you approach the hedge they suddenly fall silent. If you peer inside you’ll find a few birds looking wary. The rest have flown out the other side.
If you wait long enough, someone else will watch the hedge for you.
(photo of a hedge by decaseconds on Flickr via Creative Commons license; sparrow photos from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the captions to see the originals)
In the UK there’s a lovely tradition of birders (called twitchers) making a donation to a local charity when they come visit a rare bird. In 2008 the parish church St. Margaret’s at Cley next the Sea, built in 1320-1340, was in need of restoration funds so the donations were given to the church. The bird stayed for weeks, ultimately raising 6,000 pounds, more than $11,000 in 2008 dollars. At the time it was the most ever raised by a rare bird.
St. Margaret’s honored the bird with a stained glass window.
And British twitchers honored the bird with a nickname — “badger bunting” — for the badger-like stripes on its head.
Beyond the thrill of seeing a rare bird there can be tangible benefits.
p.p.s. I saw the church from a distance in late June 2017 when I visited Cley & Salthouse Marshes on a birding tour with Oriole Birding. I had 12 Life Birds there; Best Bird was Eurasian spoonbill. It’s a great place for birds!
(photos from Wikimedia Commons and Zoopla; click on the captions to see the originals)
Last week was too overcast for a good photo but Steve Gosser returned yesterday for these stunning pictures.
Then on Saturday 9 January 2021 the birds were even closer to home. Matt Juskowitch found a dozen redpolls at Bethel Green in Allegheny County. Here’s Matt’s documentation shot, proving that the birds are real. Notice the red hat! Adult male redpolls also have a pink wash on their chests.
I went to Bethel Green yesterday, 10 Jan 2021, and saw 9 redpolls eating birch catkins. Here’s one of Matt’s photos from his eBird report yesterday afternoon.
The birds are moving around from place to place so they may show up at your own birches, alders, sunflowers or feeders. Watch for small finches with red on top of their heads (“poll” means head). They are only as big as goldfinches.
Many people in North America don’t like starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) for their aggressive invasive behavior, but starlings can do something beautiful that no other songbird can match. At dusk as they gather to roost, starlings fly in tight flocks that wheel and turn in unison. Their murmurations make beautiful patterns in the sky.
This 4-minute video of starlings at dusk was recorded at RSPB Otmoor Reserve, a birding hotspot in Oxfordshire, UK.
And here’s a short clip from San Rafael, California.
Went to see the European Starling murmurations in San Rafael, CA yesterday, and wow was it an experience. pic.twitter.com/Zh5Jf941Kr
Two common birds in Pennsylvania, downy and hairy woodpeckers, are so similar that they’re hard to tell apart. Downy woodpeckers are small and hairys are large but if they’re not side by side there’s just one major clue:
Downy woodpeckers have short beaks, one third the length of their heads back-to-front.
Hairy woodpeckers have long beaks, same length as their heads back-to-front.
Frank Izaguirre (@BirdIzLife) tweeted this recent backyard photo of both birds:
I think this is the first time I’ve ever gotten the true side-by-side with both birds within a foot of each other. The downy’s bill looks weird because it has a sunflower seed in it. pic.twitter.com/ilexbvIOiD
Because of their similarity you’d think downys and hairys are close cousins but they’re not. A study published in April 2019 explains why they look alike, described in Living Bird:
Despite being look-alikes these two species are not that closely related. Their genetic lineages split off from a shared ancestor over 6 million years ago—about as far back as chimps and humans split.
A new study published in April in the journal Nature Communications provides strong evidence that Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers are an example of “plumage mimicry”—one species of bird evolving to match the plumage patterns and colors of another.
When you see a bird eating white berries from a hairy vine you might not realize it’s eating poison ivy. Birds are blissfully immune to the urushiol in poison ivy sap that gives us humans a nasty rash.
By late October poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) doesn’t look like the plant we’ve been avoiding all summer. The leaves are red or missing, the vine is exposed, and bunches of white berries hang from the branches. It’s easy for migrating yellow-rumped warblers (Setophaga coronata) to find the food they’re so fond of.
This year’s Winter Finch Forecast predicted that the pine siskins (Spinus pinus) of eastern Canada would move south this fall. Indeed they have. Friends started seeing them in backyards north of Pittsburgh in late September but I don’t have a backyard anymore. I live in a high-rise and thought I’d have to drive far away to see them. Not!
Yesterday afternoon Aidan Place shared a photo of a flock of 40 pine siskins bathing in the roof gutter outside his window in North Oakland. I rushed over to his street and there they were!
The flock had found a favorite food, the cones of northern white cedar (Thuja occidentalis) also called arborvitae, in front of Aidan’s apartment and in a long row near the parking lot across the street. Here are the cones they were eating.
The natural range of arborvitae (below) overlaps the breeding range of pine siskins so the birds probably felt like they’d found a taste of home.
The flock was easily startled by loud noises (cars, for instance) but tolerant if I stood quietly. I was able to take a very bad photo with my cellphone. The bird is the stripey thing in the middle of the picture with his head down. Yes, they are camouflaged.
If you have a backyard, put out nyjer seed to attract pine siskins and American goldfinches. Watch carefully. Siskins look a bit boring and are smaller than goldfinches as you can see in this 2018 photo by Lauri Shaffer.
If you don’t have a backyard, visit a cemetery and pause near the arborvitae trees. I bet you’ll find pine siskins.
The birds aren’t picky about being in the city as long as they find conifers — ornamental or otherwise.
(photos from Wikimedia Commons, Kate St. John and Lauri Shaffer)
We’ve all heard of rare birds but what makes a bird rare?
By definition a bird is rare if it is very hard to find due to location, time of year, or low population. If it is far out of its normal range or seen at a time of year when it shouldn’t be there the bird is marked rare by eBird. To make it more challenging, some low population species are very secretive and live in dense habitat, thus are rarely seen(*).
Here are some recent examples.
Rare In Many Ways: Connecticut Warbler at Harrison Hills County Park, Allegheny County, PA on 24-26 Sept 2020
It is not abundant anywhere and its population is declining.
It is very hard to find and to see — even when you know exactly where it is — because Connecticut warblers are extremely secretive, foraging quietly in dense underbrush and rarely popping into view.
In most of North America it is seen only on migration so it’s present for only a day or three. (range map here)
Finding a Connecticut warbler requires luck and patience and more luck. Dave Brooke had all of those + his camera when this bird made an appearance at Harrison Hills County Park near Natrona Heights, PA on 24 September 2020. I went to see the bird myself on 26 September and managed to catch a glimpse of its tail as it foraged in a thick stand of mugwort. I wouldn’t have seen it at all if five other birders hadn’t pointed out the twitching plants when I arrived.
Rare by Location: Bay-breasted warbler, Santa Clara County, California, 27 September 2020
This fall we’ve had a very good run of bay-breasted warblers (Setophaga castanea) in the Pittsburgh area. I’ve seen so many that eBird tells me my report count is too high. However, a bay-breasted warbler in California is rare indeed. Robin Agarwal got a photo of it in Santa Clara County on 27 September 2020.
Rare for Time of Year: Barn Swallow, North Park, Allegheny County, PA, 26 September 2020.
Barn swallows (Hirundo rustica erythrogaster) are common in summer in southwestern Pennsylvania but they leave in August for Central and South America and are definitely gone in late September. However, on 26 September Mark Vass saw one flying over Marshall Lake at North Park, Allegheny County. eBird announced his find but there was no photo. (This photo is from Wikimedia Commons.)
There weren’t many warblers at Frick Park yesterday but we saw nearly every woodpecker that occurs in Pennsylvania except for the red-headed woodpecker (Melanerpes erythrocephalus), a very rare bird in Frick(*). Soon we were dreaming about red-headeds, reminiscing about the times we’ve seen them, and remarking on their attitude.
Red-headed woodpeckers sometimes exhibit clownish behavior but more often I’ve seen them fighting. They’re rated as the most pugnacious woodpecker in North America and live up to it by challenging every cavity-nesting bird. They go hard after starlings, northern flickers and red-bellied woodpeckers. They will even challenge pileated woodpeckers four times their size.
Last year Lauri Shaffer was lucky to witness a red-headed woodpecker attacking a pileated.
It didn’t take long for the much larger woodpecker to leave the tree. Enough is enough!
Red-headeds will even attack each other, as witnessed by Chris Saladin when an immature attacked an adult. On Throw Back Thursday check out her photos of the battle between two red-headeds, the woodpeckers with attitude: The Most Pugnacious Woodpecker.
(*) p.s. Red-headed woodpeckers are Rare Birds indeed. eBird describes them this way:
The Second Atlas of Breeding Birds in Pennsylvania reports an alarming decline throughout the state with a 46 percent decrease in the number of blocks that recorded the species between the first and second atlas periods. In that short amount of time, the Red-headed Woodpecker withdrew significantly from its former breeding range and was no longer found in 13 of Pennsylvania’s northern counties.