Category Archives: Songbirds

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)

Migration By Smell

Gray catbird (photo by Shawn Collins)

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.

On Throw Back Thursday, learn how gray catbirds proved they navigate by smell in: Sniffing Their Way North.

(photo by Shawn Collins)

Tiny Birds Crowd the Bath

In eastern North America we have chickadees and kinglets but we never get to see this tiny social bird, the bushtit, that lives year-round from southwestern Canada to Central America.

The bushtit’s name (Psaltriparus minimus) has the same origin as the titmouse’s.

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.

description of video by John Hamil

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.

On left, bushtit nest in hand. At right, bird emerges near top of structure (photos from Wikimedia Commons)

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.

(video by John Hamil, Johnson Creek, Portland, Oregon, photos from Wikimedia Commons; click on the caption links to see the original)

It’s A Wonder

Painted bunting in Allegheny County, 22 Jan 2020 (photo by Steve Gosser)

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.)

Painted bunting, Florida, 2012 (photo by Chuck Tague)

Of course we all wonder where the bunting came from and hope for his continued success. So far, so good. He’s hanging out with juncos and successfully avoiding predators, including the merlin that watched Brian’s backyard on Thursday afternoon.

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)