Category Archives: Songbirds

New Birds In Town

Louisiana waterthrush (photo by Anthony Bruno)
Louisiana waterthrush (photo by Anthony Bruno)

April 17, 2018: Despite this morning's snow ...

Last weekend's warm weather and south winds brought migrating birds to western Pennsylvania.

Here are some of the new arrivals, illustrated in photos by Tony Bruno, Steve Gosser and Don Weiss. My descriptions include the locations where I saw the birds last weekend in case you'd like to look for them.

Louisiana waterthrush (Parkesia motacilla) at top: Found along clean, rushing streams. This bird bobs his tail even when standing still. Walks the water's edge. Perches just above eye level when he sings. At Cedar Creek Park and Walker Park.

Yellow-throated warbler (Setophaga dominica) below: Found near creeks and often in sycamores. Walks on the trunk and large branches, often quite high. At Raccoon Creek Wildflower Reserve and Walker Park.

Yellow-throated warbler (photo by Anthony Bruno)
Yellow-throated warbler (photo by Anthony Bruno)

 

Pine warbler (Setophaga pinus) below: Slow-moving warbler who favors pines but can be found in any tree on migration. Walks on the trunk and large branches. At Snead's.

Pine warbler (photo by Anthony Bruno)
Pine warbler (photo by Anthony Bruno)

 

Yellow-rumped warbler (Setophaga coronata) below: An active warbler with a tiny dark vest and yellow rump. Flits among smaller branches.  Seen at Walker Park, but found nearly everywhere during migration.  This bright-colored bird is male. The females are brown where this one is black.

Yellow-rumped warbler (photo by Steve Gosser)
Yellow-rumped warbler (photo by Steve Gosser)

 

Ruby-crowned kinglet (Regulus calendula) below:  Not a warbler but can be confused due to its similar size. Very hyperactive. Flits and hovers among small branches.  You'll find this bird nearly everywhere on migration.  By the way, ruby-crowned kinglets stay all winter in eastern Pennsylvania.

Ruby-crowned kinglet (photo by Steve Gosser)
Ruby-crowned kinglet (photo by Steve Gosser)

 

Swallows and chimney swifts:  If you're desperate to see swallows and swifts in the spring, stop by a sewage treatment plant.  The nutrient rich outflow spawns flying insects that these birds eat on the wing. I saw my first tree swallows (Tachycineta bicolor) along Route 65 near the McKees Rocks Bridge, just downstream from Alcosan.

Tree swallow (photo by Don Weiss)
Tree swallow (photo by Don Weiss)

 

Winter wren (Troglodytes hiemalis) below:  "Winter" is passing through. Petite with striped flanks and a tiny cocked tail.  Look for him poking for insects among fallen logs and rocky outcrops.  Nests north of Pittsburgh and in the Laurel Highlands.  Seen at Schenley Park, Raccoon Wildflower Reserve and Walker Park.

Winter wren (photo by Steve Gosser)
Winter wren (photo by Steve Gosser)

 

If it hadn't turned cold, it would be a good week to get outdoors.

 

(photos by Tony Bruno, Steve Gosser and Don Weiss)

I’m A Tanager


(video by Daniel CR on YouTube)

With their big orange bills the slate-colored grosbeaks I saw in Panama must certainly be related to northern cardinals, right?

Slate-colored grosbeak, northern cardinal (photos from Wikimedia Commons)
Slate-colored grosbeak, northern cardinal (photos from Wikimedia Commons)

They also sound like cardinals. (recording of slate-colored grosbeak in Panama Xeno-canto XC354030 by William Adsett)

But are they related?  No, they're not.

Slate-colored grosbeaks used to be classed in the cardinal family (Cardinalidae) but DNA studies show that Saltator grossus is in the tanager (Thraupidae) family instead.

Don't be fooled, "I'm a tanager."

 

(video by Daniel CR on YouTube; photos from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the names to see the original photos: slate-colored grosbeak, northern cardinal)

Where Are They Now?

Ruby-throated hummingbird (photo by Steve Gosser)
Ruby-throated hummingbird (photo by Steve Gosser)

Despite the cold weather a ruby-throated hummingbird arrived in eastern Pennsylvania this week.  He appeared April 2 on the hummingbirds migration map.

Observers in North America enter their first spring sightings of male ruby-throats at the hummingbirds.net website and their entries populate the map.

This screenshot taken at 5am April 5, 2018 shows the northernmost pioneers are in New Jersey and the Delaware watershed.

Spring 2018 (zoomed) map of Ruby-throated hummingbird migration as of 4/4/2018 (screenshot from hummingbirds.net)
Spring 2018 (zoomed) map of Ruby-throated hummingbird migration as of 4/4/2018 (screenshot from hummingbirds.net)

Hummingbirds move north when it's warm but this spring's weather has held them back.  In 2012 it was so hot that they'd already reached Minnesota by now (click here to see).

Follow their migration on the hummingbirds.net map.  Enter your own first sighting at this link.

Where are they now?  Check the map to see.

 

(photo by Steve Gosser, screenshot of map from www.hummingbirds.net)

p.s. Thanks to Donna Foyle for sending this news.

Tanagers Galore!

Crimson-backed tanager (photo by Francesco Veronesi via Wikimedia Commons)
Crimson-backed tanager (photo by Francesco Veronesi via Wikimedia Commons)

Before I left for Panama I wondered, Would I see any new tanagers there?  I'd been to Costa Rica all the way to the Panama border so surely every tanager would be the same.  Not so!

60% of all tanagers (Thraupidae) live in South America.  Some of the southern birds have seeped into eastern Panama because it borders Colombia.  Those that prefer South America don't make it to Costa Rica because the topography and habitat change in western Panama.  Eight of my 97 Life Birds in Panama were tanagers.

Here are just a few of the most colorful tanagers we saw last week.   Some of them occur in Costa Rica and one of them, the bay-headed tanager, was a Life Bird for me last year.

The crimson backed tanager (Ramphocelus dimidiatus), at top, shows a flash of red from below.  His beak stands out because the lower mandible is bright blue-white.  He reminds me of Costa Rica's Cherrie's tanager.

In Cerro Azul we saw lots of shining honeycreepers (Cyanerpes lucidus) at the hummingbird feeders.  Check out those bright yellow legs!

Shining honeycreeper (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Shining honeycreeper (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

 

Gray-headed tanagers (Eucometis penicillata) are even prettier than this.  Their backs are the color of green olives.

Gray-headed tanagers in Columbia (photo by Julian Londono from Wikimedia Commons)
Gray-headed tanagers in Columbia (photo by Julian Londono from Wikimedia Commons)

 

Bay-headed tanagers (Tangara gyrola) are as colorful as painted buntings. I first saw this bird in Costa Rica but he's worth a second look.

Bay-headed tanager (photo by Dominic Sherony via Wikimedia Commons)
Bay-headed tanager (photo by Dominic Sherony via Wikimedia Commons)

 

This flame-rumped tanager's (Ramphocelus flammigerus) yellow color is a regional characteristic in Panama.  He used to be called the lemon-rumped tanager for obvious reasons but he was lumped with flame-rumped tanagers because they interbreed. His Colombian relatives have bright orange-red rumps.

Lemon-rumped tanager (photo by Francesco Veronesi via Wikimedia Commons)
Lemon-rumped tanager (photo by Francesco Veronesi via Wikimedia Commons)

 

And finally, the white-shouldered tanager (Tachyphonus luctuosus) resembles a red-winged blackbird but his beak shows us he's not in the blackbird family.

White-shouldered tanager (photo by Francesco Veronesi via Wikimedia Commons)
White-shouldered tanager (photo by Francesco Veronesi via Wikimedia Commons)

In Panama there are tanagers galore!

 

(photos from Wikimedia Commons; click on the images to see the originals)

Splitting Scrub Jays

Woodhouse's Scrub Jay (from the Crossley ID Guide via Wikimedia Commons)
Woodhouse's Scrub Jay (from the Crossley ID Guide via Wikimedia Commons)

I got a new Life Bird two years ago and didn't even know it.

In 2016 the American Ornithological Union split the western scrub jay into two species:  the California scrub jay (Aphelocoma californica) whose West Coast range extends from Washington state to Baja California, and Woodhouse's scrub jay (Aphelocoma woodhouseii) that lives in the interior Southwest from southern Idaho to southern Mexico.

Woodhouse's is pictured above, California scrub jay below.

California scrub jay (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
California scrub jay (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

I finally learned of the split last month but it wasn't in my eBird records.  Duh!  I hadn't entered my "western" scrub jay sightings from Nevada.  When I did I got a new Life Bird at Red Rock Canyon.

Splitting is nothing new to scrub jays.  The Aphelocoma genus is particularly likely to change and already has split many times.

Since 1995 the "western" scrub jay split into four species and the western name disappeared into the Florida scrub jay (Aphelocoma coerulescens only in Florida), the Island scrub jay (Aphelocoma insularis only on Santa Cruz Island, California), the California scrub jay and Woodhouse's.

More splits may be on the way.  Woodhouse's has a tenuous hold on its sumichrasti subspecies and the Mexican jay (Aphelocoma wollweberi) -- shown below -- lives in such isolated populations in the sky islands of the southwestern U.S. and Mexico that he may split, too.

Mexican jay in Madera Canyon, Arizona (photo by Alan Vernon via Wikimedia Commons)
Mexican jay at Madera Canyon, Arizona (photo by Alan Vernon via Wikimedia Commons)

Interesting as this is, there's not room in my brain to keep up with it.  eBird will do it for me if I enter all my sightings.   I'll have to backload my birding history to keep up with splitting scrub jays.

 

(photos from Wikimedia Commons; click on the images to see the originals)

Yellow Is A Sign of Spring

White-throated sparrow (photo from Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons license)
White-throated sparrow (photo from Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons license)

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.

Goldfinches turning yellow for spring (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)
Goldfinches turning yellow for spring (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

* 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).

European Starling in breeding plumage (photo by Chuck Tague)
European Starling in breeding plumage (photo by Chuck Tague)

 

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)

Rare Bird!

Gray-crowned rosy-finch, Crawford County, PA, 3 Feb 2018 (photo by Shawn Collins)
Gray-crowned rosy-finch, Crawford County, PA, 3 Feb 2018 (photo by Shawn Collins)

On 1 February 2018, a couple noticed an unusual finch at their feeders in Crawford County, Pennsylvania.  Slightly larger that a house finch, it was mostly brown with a gray cap, a black-tipped yellow bill, and pinkish wings and rump.  Was it a gray-crowned rosy-finch?

Gray-crowned rosy-finch, Crawford County, PA, 3 Feb 2018 (photo by Shawn Collins)
Gray-crowned rosy-finch, Crawford County, PA, 3 Feb 2018 (photo by Shawn Collins)

The wife called her birding friend Shawn Collins for a second opinion.  Yes indeed, this is a gray-crowned rosy-finch (Leucosticte tephrocotis) a bird so rare that it's the first one ever recorded in Pennsylvania.

A rare bird like this causes a stampede as soon as the news gets out, so Shawn and the homeowners made a plan.  Their home is in a gated community and they wish to remain anonymous, but they want birders to see the rosy-finch from the best viewing location -- inside their living room!  -- so Shawn is coordinating visits to its anonymous location.  (If you want to see the gray-crowned rosy-finch, email Shawn Collins for an appointment. Click here for instructions.)

Gray-crowned rosy-finch with house finch in background. Crawford County, PA, 3 Feb 2018 (photo by Shawn Collins)
Gray-crowned rosy-finch with house finch in background. Crawford County, PA, 3 Feb 2018 (photo by Shawn Collins)

Why is this bird so rare?

Gray-crowned rosy-finches live in western North America.  The interior population (this bird) nests on the tundra in the Rocky Mountains from Alaska to Montana and spends the winter from British Columbia to New Mexico, Nevada to western Nebraska.

But individual rosy-finches sometimes wander in winter as far east as northern Ohio.

Gray-crowned rosy-finch, Crawford County, PA, 3 Feb 2018 (photo by Shawn Collins)
Gray-crowned rosy-finch, Crawford County, PA, 3 Feb 2018 (photo by Shawn Collins)

Crawford County, PA is on the Ohio state line so maybe it was only a matter of time before a gray-crowned rosy-finch made it to northwestern Pennsylvania.

We're glad this one is here.  Life Bird!

Gray-crowned rosy-finch, Crawford County, PA, 3 Feb 2018 (photo by Shawn Collins)
Gray-crowned rosy-finch, Crawford County, PA, 3 Feb 2018 (photo by Shawn Collins)

Thank you to the anonymous homeowners who've graciously opened their home to view the rosy-finch and thanks to Shawn Collins for coordinating the visits.

For more looks at the gray-crowned rosy-finch see Shawn Collins' Flickr album.

 

(photos by Shawn Collins)

p.s.  Shawn tells those who plan to see it: "Please use the eBird hotspot that Geoff Malosh started for the bird. This is not the exact location due to the home owners request to keep all of her info offline. The gated community is small and the only parking allowed is in her driveway which fits 4 cars. And we are pushing it with 4! To view the bird we have to be in her living room. If you need the eBird link I can send it to you. Please no personal hotspots!!! If anyone is walking the area or what not, you will be turned into the police and will be escorted out with trespassing charges. If that happens once then this bird will be off limits! So please no one be stupid and do anything that will jeopardize folks seeing this bird. This is a very watched community and she had to let people know she will be having visitors this week and next so they were not alarmed at the cars in her driveway.

Just a side note....in each group I've brought over...the bird shows up within 2 minutes after we get there! It's like it knows!!!"

Flashy Hummingbirds In Winter

One of the cool things about visiting California in January was seeing hummingbirds in the winter.  On field trips near Chico I saw Anna's hummingbirds flash their red faces in the sun.

Anna's hummingbird (Calypte anna) is found year round in many parts of California. The rainy season triggers breeding so they nest from December to May.  Though there's snow on the mountains in January, the manzanita that blooms at lower elevations attracts these tiny birds.

Often an Anna's will stake out a bush, watching and waiting to chase off other hummingbirds.  His forehead, face and gorget flash a warning red, "This is mine! Stay away!"

The video from Cornell Lab shows how flashy this hummingbird can be.

 

(video about iridescence from Cornell Lab of Ornithology)

Cardinal Courtship

Female cardinal raises one wing to greet her mate (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)
Female cardinal raises one wing to greet her mate (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

Last week Punxsutawney Phil predicted six more weeks of winter(*) but the birds know spring is on its way.

Northern cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis) don't migrate so they're a good species to watch for early signs of spring.  Some pairs stay together all winter on their home territory or in mixed flocks.

In February they begin to court.  The males become aggressive toward other males and solicitous to their ladies.  And they begin to sing. (Xeno-canto recording # 356015 by Ted Floyd)

Watch your local cardinals for these courtship behaviors:

  • Lopsided pose :  The cardinal tilts up one side of its body, raises one wing, lowers its crest and exposes its belly, sometimes rocking side to side.
  • Song-dance display (shown by a female cardinal above):  The bird stands erect, raises its crest and one wing.
  • Song-flight display (quoted from Birds of North America):  In flight the male fluffs his breast feathers, raises his crest, sings, and descends slowly toward his mate in short, rapid strokes.  (Is the male doing this in the top photo?)
  • Territorial Singing:  (audio above)
  • Counter-singing:  Female cardinals counter-sing with their mates.
  • Courtship feeding:  The male cardinal presents food to his lady, beak to beak.  Gene Wilburn in Port Credit, Ontario captured a male feeding his lady with a "kiss."

Northern cardinal courtship, "The Kiss" (photo by Gene Wilburn via Flickr, Creative Commons license)
Northern cardinal courtship, "The Kiss" (photo by Gene Wilburn via Flickr, Creative Commons license)

 

Cardinals are courting.  Spring isn't far away.

 

(photo credits: wing flash in the snow by Marcy Cunkelman, The Kiss by Gene Wilburn via Flickr, Creative Commons license)

NOTE(*): On Groundhog Day the Spring Equinox is six weeks away ... so it's always true that we'll have "six more weeks of winter."

Smaller Than A Kinglet

Bushtits near a puddle (photo by Melissa McMasters via Wikimedia Commons)
Bushtits (photo by Melissa McMasters via Wikimedia Commons)

This tiny bird is the only member of its family (Aegithalidae) in the Americas.  Smaller than a warbler, the bushtit's closest relatives live in Eurasia.

Bushtits (Psaltriparus minimus) are western birds that tend to stay put, though some move downslope for the winter.  At this time of year they flock like chickadees, flitting, chattering and hanging upside down to glean insects and spiders from the trees.

When I saw them in California my first thought was "brown chickadees."  This closer look shows why.

Bushtit (photo by Alan Vernon via Wikimedia Commons)
Bushtit (photo by Alan Vernon via Wikimedia Commons)

In February the flocks break up into pairs and the couples spend four+ weeks weaving a foot-long tubular nest like the one shown below.  With a hooded entrance at the top, it is far larger than one bird needs but is big enough to hold the whole family and their friends on cold nights.

Bushtit nest (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Bushtit nest (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

 

Listen for bushtits calling as they follow each other from tree to tree. (recording of American Bushtit by Kristie Nelson, xeno-canto XC363349)

So tiny!  They are smaller than kinglets.

 

 

(photos from Wikimedia Commons; click on the images to see the originals. Audio from Xeno-Canto XC363349 by Kristie Nelson)