I have not seen a gray catbird in Pittsburgh yet but I know they’re on their way. Next month they’ll arrive from their wintering grounds in the southern U.S., the Caribbean and Central America. How do they get here?
Migratory birds are born with an innate sense of direction and distance to their goal but must learn how to get there on their first trip south. After they’ve made the trip once, they create a mental map and can use the sun, stars, earth’s magnetic field and their sense of smell to return home.
Their sense of smell? Yes! Birds do have a sense of smell and they use it.
The scientific name for Bushtit is Psaltriparus minimus and the second half of Psaltriparus, “parus,” is Latin for titmouse. And the “tit” in titmouse comes from Old Icelandic “titr” meaning something small.
Bushtits are extremely social, hanging out in flocks of 10 to 40 birds, moving through the trees and bushes gleaning tiny insects off leaves and branches. At night, they roost together. During the breeding season the entire family and their helpers sleep together in their oversized hanging nest.
Whether they’re eating, perched or hiding, bushtits are fond of bushes.
p.s. This video by John Hamil shows how the safety of bushes applies to all backyard birds. When you set up a birdbath, make sure to place it near a bush to provide a safe zone for the birds. They need a place to hide when they’re wet.
On Monday morning, 20 January 2020, a sparrow-sized songbird, colored like an exotic parrot, showed up at a backyard feeder in suburban Pittsburgh. It happened to choose the backyard of Brian Shema, Operations Director at Audubon Society of Western PA. His Rare Bird Alert immediately attracted a steady stream of birders to see this gorgeous visitor. (If you want to see the bird, instructions are at the bottom of this article.)
Painted buntings (Passerina ciris) are seed-eaters that breed in the coastal Southeast and south central U.S., and spend the winter in Florida, the Caribbean and Central America. Though one occasionally shows up in eastern Pennsylvania this individual is quite out of range in the western part of the state. He’s only the third Allegheny County record.
He’s also extra special because he’s male. Female painted buntings are nice to find but their green color is not so photogenic.
To highlight the male and female difference here’s another male, photographed in Florida by Chuck Tague in 2012. (The border emphasizes that this is not the Pittsburgh bird.)
If you’d like to see him, go to this location pinpointed on eBird’s map. Make sure you stay on the street, don’t walk in anyone’s yard, and park without blocking anything. The house is on a corner lot so you can see the feeders from the street. He was there all day yesterday (Friday 24 Jan). Chances are very good that you’ll find other birders looking at him when you get there.
(photos by Steve Gosser, Wikimedia Commons and Chuck Tague; click on the captions to see the originals)
This week is much too warm for snow in Pittsburgh but we can dream as we listen to seasonal music. A favorite is Winter Wonderland, written in Pennsylvania in 1934, that includes these famous lines:
Gone away is the bluebird here to stay is a new bird. He sings a love song as we go along walking in a winter wonderland.” — Winter Wonderland
Back then eastern bluebirds left northern Pennsylvania in the winter but a new bird had arrived and its population was growing. The song’s writer, Richard Bernhard Smith, may have been referring to northern cardinals.
Most robins move south in the fall but some remain north in large flocks that wander in search of abundant fruit. They choose Pittsburgh in December because we have lots of fruit on our native trees, ornamentals, invasive vines, and shrubs.
We usually see American robins (Turdus migratorius) with their wings closed. They perch in a tree, sit on a nest, or walk with their classic 3-steps-and-stop gait. Even in flight robins close their wings, flapping and gliding in a pattern similar to their walk.
This view of a robin with open wings reveals a surprise. The robin’s armpits, called axillaries, match its belly.
Williamson's sapsuckers, immature and adult, Bend, OR (photo by Pati Rouzer)
Red-naped sapsucker (photo by Andy Reago & Chrissy McLarren)
Red-breasted sapsucker (photo by Patty McGann)
Lewis's woodpecker (photo by Mick Thompson)
Acorn woodpecker (photo by Patty McGann)
Gila woodpecker (photo by Mick Thompson)
American three-toed woodpecker, Bend, OR (photo by Pati Rouzer)
Black-backed woodpecker (photo by Patty McGann)
Downy woodpecker (photo by Patty McGann)
Nuttall's woodpecker (photo by Mick Thompson)
Ladder-backed woodpecker (photo by Mick Thompson)
Hairy woodpecker (photo by Mick Thompson)
White-headed woodpecker, Bend, OR (photo by Pati Rouzer)
Pileated woodpecker (photo by Patty McGann)
Northern flicker (photo by Patty McGann)
Gilded flicker (photo by Steve Valasek)
If you’re from Pennsylvania you may not realize we have few woodpecker species compared to the western states of California, Oregon and Washington.
Sixteen of North America’s 22 woodpecker species regularly occur in the Pacific states while only seven occur in Pennsylvania. Five of our species are also found out west though the yellow-bellied sapsucker is rare.
Let’s take a look at western woodpeckers compared to Pennsylvania’s.
Western Woodpeckers (Pacific states)
(Yellow-bellied sapsucker is rare)
Gila woodpecker (California & southwest)
American three-toed woodpecker (not in California)
Nuttall’s woodpecker (California only)
Ladder-backed woodpecker (California & southwest)
Northern flicker (red-shafted)
Northern flicker (yellow-shafted)
Gilded flicker (California & Arizona)
With the most habitat diversity and a lot of trees, California wins the prize in the western woodpecker tableau.
Where are the purple finches, pine siskins, and red-breasted nuthatches this winter? Where are the evening grosbeaks?
If you’ve noticed a lack of winter finches in the eastern U.S. this autumn you’re not mistaken. They’re staying up north.
In his 2019-2020 Winter Finch Forecast Ron Pittaway explained that seed and fruit crops in northern Ontario, Quebec and Newfoundland are exceptionally abundant this year. The winter finches have enough to eat so they’re staying home. Here’s who’s not coming to visit, not even to southern Ontario:
Purple finches: They usually come south, but not this year.
Red and white-winged crossbills
Common and hoary redpolls
Even blue jays will be less abundant because many are staying north.
Like other members of the Corvid family, blue jays (Cyanocitta cristata) are very intelligent and have strong family ties. Some of their intelligence and social awareness is put to use to fool each other, especially where food is involved.
Watch the video above by Lesley The Bird Nerd to see how an adult blue jay played a trick on a young one that was planning to steal his food.