Category Archives: Songbirds

They Eat Poison Ivy

Yellow-rumped warbler eating poison ivy berries (photo by Cris Hamilton)

22 October 2020

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.

Yellow-rumped warbler eating poison ivy berries (photo by Cris Hamilton)

Resident birds such as downy and pileated woodpeckers munch on the berries all winter.

Pileated woodpecker eating poison ivy berries (photo from Flickr by Jen Goellnitz, Creative Commons license)

It makes me feel itchy to think of it!

p.s. Deer eat poison ivy, too.

(photos by Cris Hamilton and from Flickr via Creative Commons licensing by Dendrioca cerulea and Jen Goellnitz; click on the captions to see the originals in Flickr)

Pine Siskins In My City Neighborhood

Pine siskin (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

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.

Pine siskins like the cones on this arborvitae, Pittsburgh, 7 Oct 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

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.

Pine siskin feeding on arborvitae, North Oakland, Pittsburgh, 7 Oct 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

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.

Goldfinch and pine siskin (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)

Rare Birds

Connecticut warbler, Harrison Hills County Park, 24 Sept 2020 (photo by Dave Brooke)

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

Connecticut warbler, Harrison Hills County Park, 24 Sept 2020 (photo by Dave Brooke)

The Connecticut Warbler (Oporornis agilis) is rare because …

  • 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

Bay-breasted warbler in Santa Clara County, CA, 27 Sept 2020 (photo by Robin Agarwal via Flickr Creative Commons license)

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 swallow in flight in Milwaukee (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

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.)

VERY VERY RARE INDEED: The rarest of rare birds was found at Powdermill Banding Station on 24 September 2020 — a half-male-half-female bilateral gynandromorph rose-breasted grosbeak. The bird is male on his/her right side and female on the left. This birth defect is so rare that one of the banders said it was like seeing a unicorn. Click here and here for Powdermill photos and here for other half-male-half-female birds. Rare indeed!

p.s. Read more here about how a bird can be both male and female = bilateral gynandromoprh.

(photo credits: Connecticut warbler by Dave Brooke, bay-breasted warbler by Robin Agarwal, barm swallow from Wikimedia Commons; click on the captions to see the originals)

Woodpecker With An Attitude

Red-headed woodpecker (photo by Lauri Shaffer)

24 September 2020

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.

Red-headed woodpecker attacks a pileated woodpecker (photo by Lauri Shaffer)

It didn’t take long for the much larger woodpecker to leave the tree. Enough is enough!

Pileated woodpecker escapes the attack of a red-headed woodpecker (photo by Lauri Shaffer)

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.

(photos by Lauri Shaffer)

(*) 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.

Red-headed woodpecker account at eBird

Expect Red-breasted Nuthatches And …

Red-breasted nuthatch (photo by Chuck Tague)

21 September 2020

According to this year’s Winter Finch Forecast we should expect red-breasted nuthatches and two winter finch species in Pennsylvania this winter.

The Winter Finch Forecast is an annual tradition founded by Ron Pittaway and carried on by Tyler Hoar. Combining information on bird movement and food availability in northern Canada, it predicts whether finches and three other species(*) will bother to leave their northern homes this winter. The birds only irrupt into southern Canada and the U.S. if the cone and seed crop is low.     (* red-breasted nuthatches, blue jays, bohemian waxwings)

Red-breasted nuthatches (Sitta canadensis) began leaving Canada in mid-August and the vanguard is here, as you can see by these eBird sightings in Allegheny County, 1 Aug through 20 Sep. Offer black oil sunflower seeds, peanuts and suet if you want to see them at your feeders.

The forecast says that most purple finches (Haemorhous purpureus) will leave Canada this winter and some are already on the move. They’ve been seen at least 10 times in Allegheny County since August 1.

Be careful when you identify a purple finch as it closely resembles the house finches we see every day. Female purple finches have sharp brown stripes compared to blurry gray-brown on female house finches. Male purple finches are rosy-purple as if dipped head first in berry juice. They have rosy flank stripes, not brown.  Check out this guide for telling the difference between Purple and House finches.

Purple finch, 2009 (photo by Brian Herman)

The forecast also says that evening grosbeaks (Coccothraustes vespertinus) are now moving south in the highest numbers seen in 25 years. These coniferous woodland finches are expected to come to Pennsylvania but they prefer the forest so don’t expect to see them unless you’re near a woodlot. If you live in suitable habitat, they’ll come to your feeder for black oil sunflower seeds.

Evening grosbeak, January 2013 (photo by Steve Gosser)

Remember this sound and you’ll hear them coming.

And finally, the forecast for pine siskins (Spinus pinus) is mediocre but Steve Gosser has already seen one in his Allegheny County backyard last Saturday. Listen for their chatter and distinctive zipper sound and you’ll know they’re here. They like nyger seed just like goldfinches.

Pine siskin in Steve Gosser’s yard, 19 Sept 2020 (photo by Steve Gosser)

Check out the Winter Finch Forecast 2020-2021 to learn more and find out what Canada’s blue jays are up to.

p.s. You can learn where a particular species is within a particular timeframe by going here to explore eBird. Choose species, then date range, then location.

(photos by Chuck Tague, Brian Herman and Steve Gosser. screenshot of eBird red-breasted nuthatch sightings)

Song Sparrow Babies At The Nest

Song sparrow nestlings and parents, 12 July 2020 (screenshot from Bob Donnan video)

17 July 2020

This month a pair of song sparrows is nesting in a hanging basket above Bob Donnan’s deck in southwestern Pennsylvania. Bob wanted to see them better without disturbing them, so he set up a nest camera and is publishing YouTube videos of their activity. This week the babies grew a lot.

Bob’s 12 July 2020 video opens with both parents feeding four nestlings. Only about three days old, the nestlings are featherless and their eyes are closed. After the feeding ‘papa’ bird leaves while ‘mama’ remains to tidy the nest. She picks up something that looks like a worm and eats it — a fecal sac from one of her nestlings.

Later we hear ‘papa’ sparrow singing in the background while ‘mama’ shelters her young and appears to pant. It’s hot. Bob has been trying to provide extra shade because the sparrows’ air traffic has made the flowers droop. (Click here or on the screenshot at top to see the 12 July video.)

Three days later, 15 July, the babies are growing fast. The three remaining nestlings jump up to feed when mama arrives. They look so tall! Click on the image below to see Bob’s 15 July video.

Song sparrow nestlings, 15 July 2020 (screenshot from video by Bob Donnan)

Song sparrows babies mature so fast that they leave the nest at only 10 days old, even earlier in the heat of summer.

The nest on Bob’s deck will be empty soon. You have to look quickly to see song sparrow babies at the nest.

p.s. Bob has a great selection of “how to” landscaping videos on his Bobscaping YouTube channel.

Follow-up videos: (18 July) Junior! Get Back in the Nest!

(screenshots from videos by Bob Donnan; click on the images to see the videos)

Female Birds Do Sing

Male and female northern cardinals, May 2014 (photos by Cris Hamilton)

When I took a class on birdsong in the 1990’s I learned that only male birds sing, the females do not. Then in 2014 that “fact” was turned upside down.  71% of female songbirds do sing.  It’s just that most of them are tropical species. 

The original conclusion was drawn from centuries of observations in Europe and North America. No one had studied birdsong worldwide until a team lead by Karan Odom of University of Maryland published their findings in Nature Communications in March 2014.

Perhaps the old-time observers were blinded by their assumption. There are species in North America whose females sing especially in the Cardinalidae family. For instance, northern cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis) counter-sing and perform duets. Listen for the lady in the background of the recording below (and in this one).

Female blue grosbeaks (Passerina caerulea) sing, too, as recorded by Ted Floyd in Colorado last week.

Learn more about females who sing at the Female Birdsong Project http://femalebirdsong.org. See a partial list of species and listen to the songs at their Why Study Female Song page. Contribute to the project here.

In the meantime, be alert for female songsters this month. In July most birds will stop singing.

p.s. I watched a female purple finch (Carpodacus purpureus) sing in Frick Park on 30 April and 3 May. Unfortunately, I didn’t think to record her.

(northern cardinal photos by Cris Hamilton, audio from xeno canto; blue grosbeak photos from Wikimedia Commons; tweet from Ted Floyd)

Who Is This Mystery Bird?

Mystery bird, possible hybrid found by Steve Gosser, 6 June 2020

8 June 2020

On Saturday 6 June 2020, photographer Steve Gosser found a bird in the Pittsburgh area that doesn’t match any field guide. He looks like a cross between a rose-breasted grosbeak and a scarlet tanager. He sings like a scarlet tanager.

So I found this bird today that has all the expert birders scratching their heads. It appears to be a cross between a Rose-breasted Grosbeak and a Scarlet Tanager, possibly a hybrid! No one seems to have any records of a hybrid between these birds! I along with two expert ornithologists will try and relocate this bird in the morning and they are interested enough to possibly try and catch this bird and collect a blood sample so it can be DNA tested. It sang exactly like a Tanager, has black wings like a Tanager, a thinner bill like a Tanager, a red throat like a Tanager but the rest looks very much like a RB Grosbeak. I’ll keep everyone posted as to what we find out!

Steve Gosser Facebook post, 6 June 2020

Here’s who the mystery bird resembles: a male scarlet tanager on the left, a male rose-breasted grosbeak on the right.

Scarlet tanager + rose-breasted grosbeak (photos by Chuck Tague and Marcy Cunkelman)

Yesterday ornithologists Bob Mulvihill and Steve Latta netted the bird and took blood samples for DNA testing. Bob says the bird “bit hard but not as nimbly as a rose-breasted grosbeak.” Rose-breasted grosbeaks have very strong bills.

Mystery bird captured for DNA testing, biting Bob Mulvihill (photo by Steve Gosser)

Unlike a rose-breasted grosbeak, this bird has almost no red color in his axillaries (armpits).

Mystery bird still clamping on Bob’s finger (photo by Steve Gosser)

After the blood sample, Steve had the honor of releasing the bird.

Steve Gosser about to release the mystery bird (photo by Courtney Sikora)

We can hardly wait to find out who this bird is. Visit Steve Gosser’s Facebook page for news.

Congratulations, Steve! What a find!

(mystery bird photos by Steve Gosser and Courtney Sikora via Facebook; scarlet tanager by Chuck Tague, rose-breasted grosbeak by Marcy Cunkelman)

Blackbird Singing in the Dead of Night

Common blackbird singing, Germany, April 2017 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Blackbird singing in the dead of night

Take these broken wings and learn to fly

All your life

You were only waiting for this moment to arise

— 1st stanza from Blackbird by The Beatles

The Beatles’ Blackbird song, recorded in June 1968, always left me with more questions than answers.

  • What is the song about?
  • Who is the blackbird?
  • How could the bird be singing at night when North American blackbirds don’t do that?

At the end of The Beatles recording you can here a blackbird singing. Listen below.

Find out who the blackbird is and what inspired the song at this vintage blog: Blackbird Singing in the Dead of Night?

Whip-poor-will

Eastern whip-poor-will at Magee Marsh, OH (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

27 May 2020

Last evening six of us stood in a dirt parking lot deep in the woods of Washington County and waited for the whip-poor-wills. Twenty minutes after sunset they started to sing.

The eastern whip-poor-will says its name: “whip-poor-WILL, whip-poor-WILL, whip-poor-WILL.” If you’re close enough you can hear the introductory cluck described at Birds Of The World.

Three notes are easily discerned as the bird pronounces its name, and a fourth introductory cluck may be heard at close range.

— Birds Of The World, Cornell Lab of Ornithology

We were that close!

Eastern whip-poor-will, Hillman State Park, 26 May 2020 (recorded by Kate St. John)

Eastern whip-poor-wills prefer dry deciduous or mixed forests with little or no underbrush. Hillman State Park, where we were standing, fits the bill. Hillman is a large former strip mine with no amenities, managed for hunting by the PA Game Commission. The habitat and lack of people appeal to the birds.

When whip-poor-wills nest the female lays two eggs on the ground on top of dry leaves, choosing a place where sunlight makes dappled patterns to match her camouflaged plumage. Hall E. Harrison’s Birds’ Nests Field Guide explains:

Incubating bird sits close; when flushed flies silently away like a moth. Eggs usually discovered by accident rather than by search. Friend of author flushed female from 2 eggs, and returning later to point out nest was unable to find it. After careful study, author detected nearly invisible female incubating 4 ft (1.2 m) away.

Birds’ Nests Petersen Field Guide by Hall E. Harrison

Since they operate at night even a singing male is hard to find. As we approached our cars to leave, a whip-poor-will sounded very close. Barb Griffith found him in the dark, calling from a flat rock. This photo isn’t the bird we saw, but you get the idea.

Eastern whip-poor-will, Lancaster, MA, 2015 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Whip-poor-WILL, whip-poor-WILL, whip-poor-WILL, whip-poor-WILL, whip-poor-WILL …

(photos from Wikimedia Commons; click on the captions to see the originals. Audio recording by Kate St. John)