Category Archives: Songbirds

Not A Sparrow, Not A Thrush

American pipit, Algonquin Provincial Park, Canada (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
American pipit, Algonquin Provincial Park, Canada (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Not a sparrow, not a thrush, he's on his way to Georgia ... sort of.

American pipits (Anthus rubescens) nest in alpine and arctic tundra and winter in open country from the southern U.S. (including Georgia) to Guatemala.  Right now they're on the move through western Pennsylvania, but because our area lacks tundra the best place to find pipits is on mudflats.  And where are those?

Last Sunday a bunch of us stopped at Somerset "Not a Lake" in Somerset, PA to look for birds.  The lake was drained to repair the dam and out on the mud roamed killdeer, dunlin and other shorebirds.  Among them were two songbirds that pecked the mud, darted, zigzagged, ran and jumped. American pipits.

We could hear them, too.  Here's a loud pipit (with a soft longspur in the background):

On Throw Back Thursday this vintage article that lists why pipits aren't thrushes.  Back in 2010 it was posed as a quiz, but I've already told you the answer  😉    Quiz: Not A Thrush.

 

(photo from Wikimedia Commons; click on the image to see the original)

The Wax Eaters Are Back In Town

Yellow-rumped warbler in autumn (photo by Cris Hamilton)
Yellow-rumped warbler in autumn (photo by Cris Hamilton)

After most warblers have left for the winter, the yellow-rumped warblers come back to town.

Breeding across Canada and the northern U.S., yellow-rumped warblers (Setophaga coronata) spend the winter in North America as close to us as Ohio and eastern Pennsylvania, though not usually in our area.  In late fall they stop by in Pittsburgh.

Yellow-rumps don't have to leave for Central or South America because they have a unique talent. Their bodies can digest wax.  In winter they eat the waxy fruits of bayberry and juniper.  Since bayberry is also called wax myrtle, it gave our common subspecies its name:  the myrtle warbler.

On Throw Back Thursday, learn how yellow-rumped warblers get nutrition from wax in this vintage article:  Anatomy: Wax Eaters.

 

p.s. Notice that the warbler in the Wax Eaters article is wearing bright breeding plumage in black, white and yellow . Autumn yellow-rumps are dull brown with a faint vest and a broken white eye ring. The best clue to their identity is their yellow rump.

Yellow-rumped warbler showing its yellow rump (photo by Cris Hamilton)
Yellow-rumped warbler showing its yellow rump (photo by Cris Hamilton)

(photos by Cris Hamilton)

Makes You Happy

Growing up in Switzerland Melanie Barboni had a dream:  She wanted to see a hummingbird.  When she arrived at UCLA three years ago as an Assistant Researcher in Earth, Planetary and Space Sciences, she placed a hummingbird feeder outside her office window. She now hosts more than 200 of these tiny jewels every day.

Melanie's relationship with the hummingbirds has grown so much that she now recognizes about 50 individuals and has given them names. And though her research involves volcanoes and rocks, her nickname is the "hummingbird whisperer."

Why watch hummingbirds?

As Melanie says, "I mean, look at them. It just makes you happy!"

Read the full story here on UCLA's website.

 

(video from UCLA on YouTube)

Tiny Bathing Beauties

 

In August the hummingbird population is at its peak as adults and this year's juveniles prepare to migrate.  Searching for nectar, they visit flowers and backyard feeders.  They're also attracted to shallow, running water.

Here are two soothing videos of hummingbirds bathing.

Neither one describes where it's located and that presents a challenge ...

Can you identify these tiny bathing beauties?

 

(videos from YouTube. Click on the YouTube logo on each video to see the original.)

Eaten By A Fish!

Barn swallow in South Africa (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Barn swallow in South Africa (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

We've all seen fish jump to catch flying insects above the water but African tigerfish do much more than that.

Back in 2011, scientists conducting a telemetry study of barn swallows (Hirundo rustica) in South Africa were surprised to find that their subjects were being eaten by fish!

African tigerfish (Hydrocynus vittatus) are aggressive animals up to 3.5 feet long with very sharp teeth.  During the study at Schroda Dam, the fish jumped out of the water and ate low-flying birds.  In 15 days they ate 300 barn swallows!

African tigerfish (image from Wikimedia Commons)

In 2014 scientists used high definition video to record the fish in action. Click here to see.

 

Fortunately, there's someone on hand to eat the tigerfish.

Crocodile eating an African tigerfish, South Africa (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Crocodile eating an African tigerfish, South Africa (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

 

Watch out, barn swallows!  Don't fly too low!

 

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

Scarlet Baby

Scarlet tanager nestling (photo by Chuck Tague)
Scarlet tanager nestling, 2008 (photo by Chuck Tague)

On Tuesday I heard a sound in Schenley Park that I didn't recognize: a melodious call from a baby bird.

I found the bird flutter-climbing from a low perch to a high spot in a tree, moving fast and begging the entire time.  He had downy tufts on his head, a striped chest, big feet, short wings and an almost non-existent tail.  He looked a lot like the bird pictured above.

I couldn't identify the fledgling so I waited for his mother to bring food and she solved the mystery.  A bird just like her is pictured below (from Wikimedia Commons).

Female scarlet tanager carrying food to feed young (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Female scarlet tanager carrying food to feed young (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

If you don't recognize her, here's another clue.  The father bird looks like this.  (I didn't see him that day.)

Male scarlet tanager (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Male scarlet tanager (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

 

Obviously scarlet tanagers change a lot as they grow into breeding adults.  Read more about them in this vintage article from July 2008:

Scarlet Baby

 

(photo of fledgling by Chuck Tague. photos of adult female and male from Wikimedia Commons; click on the images to see the originals)

 

Woodpeckers Are Doing Really Well

Pileated woodpecker, April 2012 (photo by Chuck Tague)
Pileated woodpecker (photo by Chuck Tague)

Last week Pittsburgh Today published a brief article about ecosystem health in the Pittsburgh region.  One of their points caught my eye: Pileated woodpeckers (Dryocopus pileatus) have made a big comeback in our area.

I've noticed this too.  During Pittsburgh's 2016 Christmas Bird Count last December, many of us found pileated woodpeckers -- so much so that Audubon's summary of the count included this remark: "Pileated Woodpecker was reported at a higher than expected number.  48 individuals represents a new high count for Pittsburgh. "

On the same day as Pittsburgh Today's article, I also received an email from Tree Pittsburgh with news about a project this fall to replace ash trees lost to emerald ash borer (read more here.)

Without intending it, the topics are related.  My hunch is that we have more pileated woodpeckers in Pittsburgh because we have more under-the-bark insects and more dead and dying ash trees, suitable for nesting, since the emerald ash borer came to town 10 years ago.

Pileated woodpecker hole in dead white ash tree, Pennsylvania (photo by Kate St. John)
Pileated woodpecker hole in dead white ash tree, western Pennsylvania (photo by Kate St. John)

 

Woodpeckers are doing really well.  It's the only bright spot in the emerald ash borer plague.

 

(photo credits: Pileated woodpecker by Chuck Tague.   Dead ash tree with pileated woodpecker hole by Kate St. John)

 

The Dickcissels Came Back

Dickcissel singing in western PA, 10 June 2017 (photo by Anthony Bruno)
Dickcissel singing in western PA, June 2017 (photo by Anthony Bruno)

While I was on vacation in Europe I missed the chance to report on an unusual bird in Pennsylvania this summer.

First seen in early June, dickcissels (Spiza americana) have now been reported in 14 of Pennsylvania's 67 counties, north, south, east and west.

Their sudden appearance in the middle of the nesting season is a tribute to their peripatetic lives.  If nesting fails at their preferred location they'll travel a thousand miles to find a better nesting site.

Perhaps they came to Pennsylvania this year because there's a severe drought where they usually nest in the plains of North and South Dakota and Montana. Bob Mulvihill wrote about this correlation during the dickcissel invasion of 1988 (click here and scroll to page 6).

U.S. Drought Monitor map, 4 July 2017 (map from U.S. DroughtMonitor, UNL, USDA, NOAA)
U.S. Drought Monitor map, 4 July 2017 (map from U.S. DroughtMonitor, UNL, USDA, NOAA)

 

In the summer of 2012 when there was a severe drought in the Midwest, dickcissels came back to Pennsylvania.  Read more about them in this vintage post from June 2012: Dickcissels

 

(June 2017 photo by Anthony Bruno)