Category Archives: Songbirds

First Bird of 2018

Blue jay in winter (photo by Cris Hamilton)
Blue jay in winter (photo by Cris Hamilton)

If you keep a list of the birds you see each year, yesterday gave you a First Bird of 2018.

Mine was a blue jay.

He received this honor because I decided not to count the birds I heard but did not see.  This ruled out the house sparrows cheeping in my neighbor's evergreen. I didn't even look for them.

Perhaps this was cheating. If I'd heard an owl I would have counted it.  However, I don't have to stretch the rules to pick a First Best Bird of 2018.

Yesterday afternoon I joined the Botanical Society of Western PA's annual New Year's Day Hike.  Twelve of us braved the 10o F weather at Irwin Road in North Park, led by Richard Nugent.  (He's the tall man in the brown coat.  I'm in the photo, too, but which one?)

Botanical Society New Years Day Hike, 2018 (photo by June Bernard)
Botanical Society New Years Day Hike, 2018 (photo by June Bernard)

We walked to the old homestead to see the Ozark witch hazel that we visit every year.   At the top of the hill was a small flock of birds eating wild grapes, multiflora rose hips and oriental bittersweet.  Among them was my First Best Bird of 2018 -- a hermit thrush.

Hermit thrush (photo by Chuck Tague)
Hermit thrush (photo by Chuck Tague)


What was your First Bird of 2018?  Do you have a Best one?


(photo credits: blue jay by Cris Hamilton, hike photo from June Bernard, hermit thrush by Chuck Tague)

Tell Me How They Do This

Flock of common starlings in a thick bush, Germany (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Flock of common starlings in a thick bush, Germany (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

In fall and winter you've probably heard large flocks of European starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) having loud conversations in thick trees or bushes.  Then suddenly the flock falls silent and takes off.

Here's a good audio example:  Listen for 53 seconds to a lot of noisy chatter. Then the birds fall silent and you hear them take off in a whoosh.  (If you don't want to wait 53 seconds, click in the middle of the audio bar after it starts rolling.)

What signal do starlings use to trigger their escape?  Is it an audio cue?  Or is it visual?

Please tell me how they do this.


p.s.  Did you know that female starlings sing, especially in the fall?

(Credits: Photo from Wikimedia Commons; click on the image to see the original.
Audio: Common Starling (Sturnus vulgaris), XC281737 from xeno-canto by Peter Boesman

Danger From The Air!

European starling flock (photo by Pat Gaines via Flickr)
European starling flock (photo by Pat Gaines via Flickr)

I'm sure you've seen starlings fly away to avoid a predator.  Have you heard their warning signal?

Over the years I've noticed that European starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) make a spitting sound just before they flee.  Sometimes only one or two birds call the alarm, a sharp note repeated three or more times.  It sounds like this.

When I look for the reason they're making the sound, I always see a hawk in the air.  I've learned to look for a raptor when I hear that sound.

The starlings must be saying, "Danger From The Air!"


(photo of starling flock by Pat Gaines on Flickr; click on the image to see the original. Recording of common starling (Sturnus vulgaris) by Toon Jansen at xeno-canto #XC393749)

Singing In November

Northern mockingbird (photo by Don Weiss)
Northern mockingbird (photo by Don Weiss)

This fall migrating mockingbirds came back to town to spend the winter.

Northern mockingbirds (Mimus polyglottos) were a southern species that now nest as far north as southern Canada. In autumn the birds move south and some decide that Pittsburgh is as far as they need to go.  New arrivals immediately set up territory and warn off other mockingbirds by singing, "Mine, Mine, Mine."

The songs are pretty, and pretty confusing because mockingbirds mimic other species.  For instance, this Xeno Canto recording by Joshua Stevenson has an American robin sound at 0:11.  No it's not a robin.

When I walk around my neighborhood this month I hear 15 different songs but they come from only two locations.  Two mockingbirds are "dueling" from opposite sides of Magee Field, the only birds singing in November.

Read how mockingbirds create The Voice of a Crowd in this vintage article from 2010.


(photo by Don Weiss; audio Xeno Canto #XC170052 by Jonathan Stevenson)

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.)