Category Archives: Songbirds

Loads of Hummingbirds!

30 Jan 2023, WINGS in Ecuador: Day 2, Yanacocha Reserve on Pichincha Volcano

If you want to see hummingbirds, Ecuador is the place to be. It holds the worlds record for the highest number of species and contains about 40% of the total.

The checklist for our tour has 51 hummingbirds on it, 28 of which have been seen every time WINGS makes the trip. The slideshow displays 20 that we’re certain to see. I tried to memorize them in advance but there are just too many!

As you look at the hummingbirds, here’s something to watch for: Nearly every species has a white dot, called a post-ocular spot, or a white stripe of feathers behind the eye. Why do they have this and what is it for? My Google searches cannot find an answer.

Here are the species in slideshow order with links to their eBird descriptions and [photo on Wikimedia Commons].

  1. Andean emerald (Amazilia franciae) [photo] 
  2. Gorgeated sunangel (Heliangelus strophianus) [photo]
  3. Booted racket-tail  (Ocreatus underwoodii) [photo] 
  4. Brown Inca (Coeligena wilsoni) [photo] 
  5. Buff-tailed coronet (Boissonneaua flavescens) [photo] 
  6. Collared Inca (Coeligena torquata) [photo] 
  7. Empress brilliant (Heliodoxa imperatrix) [photo] 
  8. Fawn-breasted brilliant (Heliodoxa rubinoides) [photo] 
  9. Great sapphirewing (Pterophanes cyanopterus) [photo]  
  10. Purple-bibbed whitetip (Urosticte benjamini) [photo] 
  11. Purple-throated woodstar (Calliphlox mitchellii) [photo] 
  12. Sapphire-vented puffleg (Eriocnemis luciani) [photo] 
  13. Sword-billed hummingbird (Ensifera ensifera) [photo] 
  14. Sparkling violetear (Colibri coruscans) [photo]
  15. Speckled hummingbird (Adelomyia melanogenys) [photo]
  16. Tawny-bellied hermit (Phaethornis syrmatophorus) [photo] 
  17. Tyrian metaltail (Metallura tyrianthina) [photo] 
  18. Violet-tailed sylph (Aglaiocercus coelestis) [photo] 
  19. Velvet-purple coronet (Boissonneaua jardini) [photo] 
  20. White-whiskered hermit (Phaethornis yaruqui) [photo] 

NOTE: The photos may not match exactly to the Mindo Valley hummingbirds because some species vary by location. For instance, see this illustration of the booted racket-tail.

Hello From Puembo

Scrub tanager, Columbia (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

29 Jan 2023, WINGS in Ecuador: Day 1, Puembo Birding Garden

Today I’m spending my first day in Ecuador at the Puembo Birding Garden, a bed and breakfast with cool birds conveniently located near Quito’s airport. Our WINGS tour opens here tonight at dinner.

Puembo Birding Garden is an eBird hotspot so I found out what I’m likely to see long before I arrived. #1 will be a Life Bird that ranges from Columbia to Ecuador, the scrub tanager (Stilpnia vitriolina), easily attracted to fruit trays even in the rain.

Scrub tanager in the rain, Columbia (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Perhaps I’ll hear a croaking ground dove (Columbina cruziana) that looks like an orange-billed mourning dove and sounds like a frog …

Croaking ground dove, Peru (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

… or the bright red crimson-mantled woodpecker (Colaptes rivolii) …

Crimson-mantled woodpecker (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

… or an amazing hummingbird, the black-tailed trainbearer (Lesbia victoriae).

Black-tailed trainbearer in Quito (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Check out this video for a look at where I am today.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons, click on the captions to see the originals)

Is It Spring Yet? Asks the Starling

European starling in winter plumage (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

12 January 2023

I know it’s only 12 January but a starling told me on Tuesday that spring is coming soon. I could see it in his beak.

Most of the birds that spend the winter in Pittsburgh wear the same colors all year long. Blue jays, chickadees and red-tailed hawks don’t change their look from winter to spring. European starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) do make a change but it’s subtle.

In winter they live up to their name with “starry” spotted feathers, dull dark pink legs, and gray-black beaks. When spring comes their spots wear off, their legs become brighter red and their beaks turn yellow.

Last Tuesday I saw a starling whose beak was turning yellow, though still black-tipped like the one pictured below.

Halfway to spring plumage (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

His ultimate goal is this glossy crisp appearance.

European starlings in breeding plumage (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Starling beaks usually start changing in February. Is spring coming sooner than usual or is that starling ahead of the game?

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

White-throated Sparrows Have Four Sexes

White-throated sparrow colors and sexes — green arrows show the only combinations that can mate successfully (photos from Wikimedia Commons)

8 January 2023

White-throated sparrows (Zonotrichia albicollis) come in two color morphs with either white-striped or tan-striped heads. The color tells us nothing about the sex of the bird because both morphs contain males and females. Last week a new article about a 2016 study reiterated the white-throated sparrow’s affinity for mating with the opposite color morph. It’s deeper than just a preference. These birds cannot reproduce with their own color.

Thirty years of research by Elaina Tuttle and Rusty Gonser into the genetics and behavior of white-throated sparrows revealed a mutation in chromosome 2 that makes it impossible for same-color-morph birds to reproduce. The birds seem to know this and only look for mates among birds of the opposite color. Instead of half the population as possible mates, fellow researcher Christopher Balakrishnan points out that “One individual can only mate with one-quarter of the population. This bird acts like it has four sexes.”

  • White-stripe Male
  • Tan-stripe Male
  • White-stripe Female
  • Tan-stripe Female

A system of four sexes is quite rare and there’s a reason. As Balakrishnan says, “it is evolutionarily unstable and one of these alleles will ultimately go extinct.”

White-throated sparrows have declined 69% in the U.S. over the past 50 years and overall (including Canada) by 33%. Are they declining because of habitat loss? window kills? Is their four-sex system also taking a toll? If so they’re probably the only species with that challenge.

Read more in these two articles where I obtained the quotes above: IFLScience: Meet The Sparrow With Four Sexes and NATURE: The sparrow with four sexes.

(four photos above are from Wikimedia Commons at these links: top left, top right, bottom left, bottom right)

Hand Feeding The Birds

Screenshot of female northern cardinal feeding from her hand, Jocelyn Anderson Photography @JocAPhotography

27 December 2022

When Michigan photographer Jocelyn Anderson (@JocAPhotography) takes a walk in the park she brings her camera and a pocketful of shelled peanuts, sunflower seeds and suet nuggets. While balancing her camera she films the birds eating out of her hand in beautiful closeups.

Before last week’s cold snap the birds were very hungry and very active as seen in the screenshot above and her video below. (Videos are in slow motion.)

A male red-bellied woodpecker arrived alone. As he lands you can see the pale red patch on his belly that gives him his name.

Days later it was too cold for bare hands so she offered the food on her mitten.

See more of Jocelyn Anderson’s photos and videos @JocAPhotography on Twitter. Visit her photo website where you can learn “How to Hand Feed Birds.”

(screenshot and videos by Jocelyn Anderson (@JocAPhotography)

Best Feedercam!

Pine grosbeak in winter (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

23 December 2022

Severe cold weather has people huddling indoors and birds flocking to feeders across North America. If you don’t have a feeder you can still watch birds online at Ontario Feederwatch, one of the best around.

Tune in to see the usual suspects — cardinals, chickadees, blue jays — and some boreal specialities including common redpolls, pine siskins, pine grosbeaks (above), evening grosbeaks, and crossbills.

Click here or on the screenshot below (with 5 pine grosbeaks!) to visit Ontario Feederwatch at All About Birds. It’s my favorite feedercam.

Ontario Feederwatch with Pine Grosbeaks! 20 Dec 2022 (All About Birds)

By the way, if you don’t see a bird when you tune in, just wait. If you hear them chirping in the background they’re about to arrive.

(photo of common redpoll from Wikimedia Commons; screenshot from Ontario Feederwatch; click on the captions to see the originals)

A Rare Bird at Any Time of Year

Yellow-throated warbler at suet feeder in St. John’s, Newfoundland, 9 Dec 2022 (photo by Felip1 via Flickr Creative Commons license)

16 December 2022

A yellow-throated warbler (Setophaga dominica) would not be rare in Pittsburgh in early May but to see one in Canada in December is amazing.

This bird was photographed in St. John’s, Newfoundland on 9 December by Phillip (Felip1).

It’s not a very sharp picture but enough to identify him: a Yellow-throated warbler. He showed up for some suet early this morning.

I was half-expecting him. He had been visiting a suet feeder a couple of hundred metres away from us a few days ago. And one of the flickers had chopped up lotsa suet for him from the suet holder above. Those flickers are pigs but the other birds appreciate it.

Even though it is mid-December, the weather’s been mild and there are a half-dozen warblers who have apparently decided to try their luck to spend the winter around this town, St. John’s, Newfoundland, when all their relatives decamped a couple of months ago for more southern climes.

Felip1: Late Warbler, 9 December 2022

Pennsylvania is typically the northern limit of the yellow-throated warbler’s range and it’s a short-distance migrant to Florida and the Caribbean. St. John’s, Newfoundland is not even on the map (red arrow points toward it) but Newfoundland is about as far as Florida if you’re migrating from PA in the wrong direction.

Yellow-throated warbler range map from Wikimedia Commons. red arrow points toward St. John’s, Newfoundland which is off the edge of the map

The presence of this bird, one of half a dozen warblers in St. John’s in December, might be an after effect of Hurricane Fiona … and might not.

In any case its splash of yellow is a happy sight on a dreary day.

(photo by Felip1 on Flickr, Creative Commons non-commercial License)

Robins On The Move

Robins pause in a pine, California, Feb 2019 (photo by Douglas via Flickr Creative Commons license)

2 December 2022

In mid November hundreds, perhaps thousands, of American robins (Turdus migratorius) were in the east end of Pittsburgh but left abruptly when the weather dropped below freezing on November 18th. By the 21st it was 17 degrees F and the robins were long gone.

Robins can cope with cold weather but not with frozen ground so they stay just south of the freeze line as winter approaches.

American robin, Marin County, 16 Nov 2022 (photo by Robin Agarwal via Flickr Creative Commons license)

Those that nest in Canada and Alaska may leapfrog over the local slowpokes who wait for truly awful weather.

eBird distribution maps for June-July and December-February show that robins vacate the north to populate temperate zones in winter. June-July is dark purple with robins everywhere except for the hottest southern U.S. In Dec-Feb they’re concentrated in the Pacific Northwest and the Southeast including Florida.

Robins were on the move here in November. Now they’re south of us, wrapping up.

(photos by Robin Agarwal and Douglas on Flickr via Creative Commons license; click on the captions to see the originals)

Watch Your Feeders For Two Rare Birds

Evening grosbeak, January 2013 (photo by Steve Gosser)

21 November 2022

In September the Finch Research Network’s Winter Finch Forecast predicted that evening grosbeaks and pine siskins would irrupt southward this winter. In the past week Pennsylvania Rare Bird Alerts reported 55 sightings of evening grosbeaks and 11 of pine siskins in the state. Some are in western Pennsylvania right now and both are seed-eaters so you might see them at your feeders. Here’s what to look for.

Evening grosbeak (Coccothraustes vespertinus)

Evening grosbeaks are big bulky finches, larger than northern cardinals, that are shaped like rose-breasted grosbeaks. The male is bright yellow with black accents and white wing patches. When you see him at your feeder you’ll fall in love.

Male evening grosbeak (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Male evening grosbeak seen from the back (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

The females and immature males are not as striking but still beautiful. In bright light they look like enormous goldfinches with fat necks and big beaks.

Female or immature male evening grosbeak (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

On gray days the females and immatures look drab but unmistakable for their size and huge beaks.

Female/immature evening grosbeak (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Evening grosbeaks love sunflower seeds so keep some on hand to attract any that might be flying over. Doug Gross says they also love these wild foods: Seeds of box elder, ash, elm, tulip poplar, hackberry, pine, spruce, larch. Fruits of cherries, apples, crabapples, poison ivy, hawthorn, juniper (red cedar), Russian olive.

This PA map shows where evening grosbeaks have been reported in eBird this month through 20 Nov.

Evening grosbeak sightings in Pennsylvania and surrounding areas, Nov 1-20, 2022 (map from eBird)

p.s. How rare are evening grosbeaks? Their population has declined 90% in the past 50 years! Watch this video by Wild Excellence Films called Irruption: An Opportunity For Evening Grosbeak Conservation about David Yeany’s project to tag and track evening grosbeaks and learn more about the threats they face.

Pine siskin (Spinus pinus)

Pine siskins resemble female house finches but are warm brown in color (not gray-brown) and have sharp pointy beaks with a faint touch of yellow on their wings. They often hang out with goldfinches.

Pine siskin at feeder with American goldfinch (photo by Lauri Shaffer)

They love niger at the feeder and pull seeds from alder and arborvitae cones.

Pine siskins feasting on the seeds in alder cones (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Though petite in size, pine siskins strenuously defend their feeder perches against other birds. Here one shouts at a male house finch.

Pine siskin yells at a house finch (photo by Tom Moeller)

Keep your niger feeder filled and look hard at those goldfinches. This PA map shows where pine siskins have been reported in eBird this month through 20 Nov.

Pine siskin sightings in Pennsylvania and surrounding areas, Nov 1-20, 2022 (map from eBird)

Watch your feeders for two rare birds. You may get lucky!

(photos by Steve Gosser, Lauri Shaffer, Tom Moeller and from Wikimedia Commons, maps from eBird; click on the linked captions to see the originals)