Category Archives: Songbirds

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)

Who Says Starlings Can’t Talk?!

Starling accustomed to people, Bristol UK (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Male European starlings mimic the sounds they hear. In the U.S. they’re an invasive alien species so they’re allowed as pets (other songbirds are not!). Put the two together and you get a #smartstarling. Click on the image to see the video.

NOTE: If you don’t hear anything when the Twitter video plays, click the speaker icon on the video at bottom right.

(photo from Wikimedia Commons; screenshot from Nick P. Williams @TheFalconBirder)

Wood Thrushes Prepare To Nest

Wood thrush, May 2020 (photo by Steve Gosser)

One of the joys of birding in Schenley Park this month has been the sight and sound of wood thrushes (Hylocichla mustelina). They arrived in force on 29 April and sorted out their territories in less than a week.

On a sunset walk on 4 May I heard seven of them singing, equally spaced along the Panther Hollow watershed. The other birds fell silent at dusk but the wood thrushes sang even more beautifully than during the day.

Among them is a wood thrush with a unique down-note that makes his song recognizable as an individual. Listen for it in my recording at 14 and 26 seconds.

Wood thrush at dusk, Schenley Park, 4 May 2020 (recording by Kate St. John)

Yesterday I paused in his territory and watched him foraging with his mate among the fallen logs and leaves. He was quick to warn when he saw dog walkers approaching (“WAP WAP”). The dogs are worthy of alarm but not us humans. He may change his mind about us when his lady is on eggs.

Soon the pair will build a nest in a period of 3-6 days. I haven’t seen them carrying nesting material yet, but they may have delayed construction while they wait for warmer weather and fully developed leaves.

Two to three days after the nest is complete she will lay 3-4 eggs, one per day, and hatch the clutch about 12 days later.

If all goes well I may see their fledglings in mid June.

(photo by Steve Gosser, recording by Kate St. John)

Wagging From A Very Young Age

White (or pied) wagtail with young (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Pied wagtails, a subspecies of the white wagtail (Motacilla alba), are common backyard birds in Britain where they live year round feeding on insects and occasionally seeds.

They are very versatile birds in the human environment, nesting in cavities in trees, cliffs, abandoned buildings and even old machinery. Sometimes their choice is unusual, as when a pair nested in the barrel of an old 1894 battlecruiser gun.

Wagtails are well named for their most noticeable behavior. More than a habit, they just can’t help bobbing their tails. They are already wagging from a very young age.

Watch them at their nest in this BBC video from 2019.

(photo from Wikimedia Commons, embedded tweet from BBC Springwatch)

Stars Of The Show

Ruby-crowned kinglet, April 2017 (photo by Steve Gosser)

29 April 2020

Day by day and week by week there are different stars in the spring migration show. Here are the birds that brightened last week in Pittsburgh’s Schenley Park with a look to the week ahead.

For six days, April 22-27, I saw the largest influx of ruby-crowned kinglets (Regulus calendula) I’ve ever experienced in Schenley Park. Each day I counted 25 to 35 of them though I’m sure my numbers were low.

Steve Gosser’s photos, above and below, display these tiny birds from two perspectives. Did you know they have golden feet and black legs? It’s hard to see their feet because they move so fast!

Ruby-crowned kinglets wear golden slippers (photo by Steve Gosser, 2013)

On 23 April a large flock of yellow-rumped warblers (Setophaga coronata) paused on a foggy morning and foraged on the ground. The males were quite bright in their black, white and yellow spring plumage. I’m waiting for the next flock to arrive soon.

Yellow-rumped warbler, May 2012 (photo by Steve Gosser)

Monday 27 April was a stellar day for hermit thrushes (Catharus guttatus) when I tallied seven near the Falloon Trail. Steve Gosser’s two photos, below, show their distinctive reddish tail and plain face. All were silent but they provided an additional behavioral hint: They raised and slowly dropped their tails.

Hermit thrush, April 2020 (photo by Steve Gosser)
Hermit thrush (photo by Steve Gosser)
Hermit thrush, 2014 (photo by Steve Gosser)

In the week ahead I expect more thrushes and warblers.

My first wood thrush (Hylocichla mustelina) in Schenley was photographed on 23 April by Donna Foyle. Yesterday there were three more.

Notice the wood thrush’s distinctive rusty head and back, dotted breast and mottled cheek in these two photos by Steve Gosser.

Wood Thrush (photo by Steve Gosser, 2008)
Wood Thrush (photo by Steve Gosser, 2008)

More warblers are on their way. Yesterday I saw my first black-and-white warbler (Mniotilta varia) of the year. Yay! This one was photographed by Lauri Shaffer in May 2018.

Black and white warbler, May 2018 (photo by Lauri Shaffer)

And here’s an audio star that I heard in Frick Park on 25 April.

At dusk at the intersection of Falls Ravine and Lower Riverview Trail in Frick Park you’ll hear American toads trilling in the wetland by the fence. Check out the video below for their look and sound, recorded on 11 May 2014 in East Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania. At the end of the video you’ll hear a bird sing, an orchard oriole. They’ll arrive soon at the Lower Nine Mile Run Trail near Duck Hollow.

UPDATE AT NOON, 29 April 2020: Two more stars arrived today! Baltimore oriole and rose-breasted grosbeak.

Baltimore oriole (photo by Steve Gosser)
Baltimore oriole (photo by Steve Gosser)
Rose-breasted grosbeak, May 2011 (photo by Steve Gosser)

(photos by Steve Gosser, Donna Foyle and Lauri Shaffer)

Hummingbird Migration: Where Are They Now?

Ruby-throated hummingbird (photo by Steve Gosser, 2014)

As the weather warms, ruby-throated hummingbirds (Archilochus colubris) are traveling north to their nesting territories while citizen scientists are recording their progress on the Journey North website.

Reports on the map show us where they are now. As of 7 April 2020, four intrepid hummingbirds were ahead of the big wave, seen at Mashpee, MA, Geneva, NY, and Tipton and Muncie, IN. Click here to see today’s map.

Screenshot of ruby-throated hummingbirds’ Journey North as of 8 Apr 2020

You can help the tracking effort. Clean and fill your hummingbird feeder and contribute your first sighting at Journey North’s Ruby-throated Hummingbird map. This is an easy and fun activity while we’re home bound for COVID-19.

Click here to see the map. Click here to participate.

(photo by Steve Gosser; map from Journey North)