Category Archives: Songbirds

Checking Out a New Apartment

Blue tit flies from a nest box in Europe (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

9 February 2024

Like our chickadees, Eurasian blue tits (Cyanistes caeruleus) are cavity nesters who may nest in backyard boxes.

The nest box shown below was lovingly decorated by the landlord and equipped with a camera to view the comings and goings of prospective renters. This bird seems satisfied and will soon take up residence.

(photo from Wikimedia Commons, tweet embedded from WildlifeKate, @katemacrae, located in South Wales)

Watch Birds in the Snow

Redpolls and pine grosbeak in this screenshot from Ontario Feederwatch Cam, 19 Dec 2023 (from CornellLab)

26 December 2023

Take a break from the holiday bustle to watch northern birds in the snow at two live feeder cams:

Live Feederwatch video from Ontario, Canada via Cornell Bird Cams on YouTube
Live video from Maine and the FinchResearchNetwork on YouTube

You’ll see chickadees and nuthatches as well as northern specialties like evening grosbeaks and redpolls. Enjoy!

Look How He Can Move His Eyes!

Great-tailed grackle (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

22 October 2023

The great-tailed grackle (Quiscalus mexicanus), a close relative of our common grackle, is so numerous and annoying in Austin, Texas in the winter that there are always news stories about them. This interview with a grackle researcher revealed a very cool fact about great-tailed grackles that probably applies to our grackles as well.

Great-tailed grackles can move their eyes independently to keep watch in two different directions at the same time! Check out the video below.

video from KUAN on YouTube

Look how he can move his eyes!

(credits are in the captions; click on the captions to see the originals)

Confusing Fall Chipping Sparrows

Tricky chipping sparrow, Frick Park, 7 Oct 2023 (photo by Charity Kheshgi)

10 October 2023

Migrating chipping sparrows (Spizella passerina) have just begun to arrive in Pittsburgh and they look different than they did last spring. The adults are fading and the juveniles, which never did match the adults, now resemble other species. We have a category for Confusing Fall Warblers. There ought to be one for Confusing Fall Sparrows.

From mid-March to mid-April chipping sparrows molt rapidly into breeding plumage with a rusty cap, a sharp white swatch above the black eyeline and rusty-orange tones on the wings.

Chipping sparrow in breeding plumage, April 2020 (photo by Lauri Shaffer)

In mid-August the adults being two and a half months of molting into duller non-breeding plumage, looking ragged in September and ending up with the brownish cap and muted facial markings of non-breeding plumage.

Adult chipping sparrow in October 2012 (photo by Steve Gosser)

Meanwhile the juveniles lose the spotted breast they fledged with and gain sharper facial markings. Sometimes they look like clay-colored sparrows which are indeed rare in Pittsburgh.

Let’s compare the young chipping sparrow at Frick Park to an October clay-colored sparrow: chipping on the left, clay-colored on the right below. These small photos are just like the long distance view in the field.

Chipping sparrow (by Charity Kheshgi) vs. clay-colored sparrow (photo from Wikimedia)

They look almost the same. What’s the difference?

  • The chipping sparrow has a strong black eyeline that extends all the way to its beak and its face patch has muted edges.
  • The clay-colored sparrow has no black between its eye and beak but it does have a dark “moustache” outlining the front edge of its face patch.
  • If you can see the top of the head, the young chipping sparrow may have thin white stripes but the clay-colored has a distinctly wide white crown-stripe.

And just to shake things up, there was a leucistic adult chipping sparrow at Frick last Saturday who looked as if he had been dunked face-first in white paint. His forehead, cheeks and throat were so white that it the camera had a hard time picking up the details.

Leucistic adult chipping sparrow, Frick Park, 7 Oct 2023 (photo by Charity Kheshgi)
Leucistic adult chipping sparrow, Frick Park, 7 Oct 2023 (photo by Charity Kheshgi)
Leucistic adult chipping sparrow, Frick Park, 7 Oct 2023 (photo by Charity Kheshgi)

Theorectically leucism (lack of pigment) is in his genes so his face will always looks like this no matter what plumage he’s in. He’s the only chipping sparrow I can identify as an individual.

p.s. More confusion: When American tree sparrows arrive later this fall they’ll resemble chipping sparrows in breeding plumage, except that the chipping sparrows will be in non-breeding plumage. Click here and scroll down to see American tree sparrows compared to chipping sparrows at All About Birds.

(photos from Charity Kheshgi, Lauri Shaffer, Steve Gosser and Wikimedia Commons)

Leave The Leaves

Woolly bear, Isabella Tiger Moth caterpillar, 3 Oct 2018 (photo by Kate St. John)

6 October 2023

In October we see woolly bear caterpillars (Pyrrharctia isabella) out in the open, crossing the trails. Because they overwinter as caterpillars, they’re busy looking for the perfect place to spend the winter in leaf litter, under bark or beneath a fallen log.

Fallen leaves in Schenley Park, Nov 2016 (photo by Kate St. John)

Leaf litter is key winter habitat for a lot of insects including springtails, millipedes, earthworms, butterflies and moths.

Millipede(*) Hays Woods, Sept 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)

It also shelters salamanders and newts

Red eft among the leaf litter in West Virginia (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

… and provides an insect hunting ground for birds including eastern towhees, dark-eyed juncos, robins and mockingbirds.

Eastern towhee, male (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

If you’ve been thinking about “wilding” your yard — even just a little bit — now is a great time to start. Leave the leaves. You don’t have to leave it messy. Here’s advice on what to do.

Leaving the leaves and other plant debris doesn’t have to mean sacrificing your yard to the wilderness. The leaves don’t need to be left exactly where they fall. You can rake them into garden beds, around tree bases, or into other designated areas. Too many leaves can kill grass, but in soil they can suppress weeds, retain moisture, and boost nutrition. 

Avoid shredding leaves with a mower. Raking or blowing are alternatives that will keep leaves whole for the best cover and protect the insects and eggs already living there.

If you decide you need to clean up the leaves and debris in spring, make sure you wait until late in the season so as not to destroy all the life you’ve worked to protect. 

Xerxes Society: Leave the Leaves: Winter Habitat Protection

Take a break this weekend. Don’t bag those leaves! Just push them aside for wildlife. 🙂

(photos by Kate St. John and from Wikimedia Commons)

(*) p.s. The millipede was easy to photograph because it was dead, probably the victim of a parasitic fungus that prompts the millipede to climb high on a twig before it dies. I wrote down the name of the fungus when I took the picture but cannot read my writing. Perhaps it’s Anthrophaga myriapodia.

Undertail Tells The Tale

Magnolia warbler in fall, Sept 2018 (photo by Dave Brooke)

19 September 2023

Right now warbler migration is at its autumn peak in southwestern Pennsylvania but, as usual, the birds are hard to identify. Their fall plumage is dull and confusing, they move fast so we never get a good look at them, and we don’t get much practice because many of them are here only in September. And then they’re gone.

This year it dawned on me that the magnolia warbler (Setophaga magnolia) is super-easy to identify if all you see is its butt, as shown at top and below.

Magnolia warbler shows its undertail, May 2019 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

The “maggie” has a unique pattern on its undertail, easy to see on the free Visual Finders PDF, downloaded from The Warbler Guide. I’ve highlighted the magnolia warbler on this screenshot of Page 15.

Visual Finders Download, Eastern Undertails page from The Warbler Guide I have highlighted the Magnolia tail

Note that the magnolia warbler is the only warbler with a white belly, white undertail coverts, white undertail and a large black straight-edged tip on the tail. It looks as if this warbler was dipped tail first in black paint.

Magnolia warbler excerpt from Visual Finders Download, Eastern Undertails page from The Warbler Guide

On some juveniles the tip is dark gray but the pattern is the same.

So this view is the best way to identify a magnolia warbler.

Underside of a Spring plumage magnolia warbler (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

The undertail tells the tale!

Download Stephenson & Whittle’s free Visual Finders PDF at The Warbler Guide.

(photos by Dave Brooke, diagrams from The Warbler Guide free download)

I highly recommend the 560-page The Warbler Guide by Tom Stephenson and Scott Whittle which I use at home after noting the warbler’s key features in the field. In my opinion the book is indispensable if you take photographs.

The Bluest Thrush

Grandala near Dzongla (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

11 September 2023

While on the way to somewhere else I found … the bluest thrush.

According to Birds of the World, the grandala (Grandala coelicolor) is a gregarious thrush that makes a vertical migration in the Himalayas and Tibetan Plateau(*) from barren alpine breeding grounds at 3900–5500 m (12,800-18,000 ft) to rocky mountainside valleys and ridges at 3000–4300 m (9,800-14,000 ft), sometimes as low as 2000 m (6,500 ft).

To put this in perspective, if grandalas lived in the U.S they could only breed on Denali (20,000 ft) or the highest Rocky Mountains. Some of them never come down as low as the highest point the Rockies, the peak of Mount Elder.

Range map of grandala, embedded from Birds of the World

Grandalas are the same size as wood thrushes and like the wood thrush are the only species in their genus, but there the similarity ends. For instance, grandalas are sexually dimorphic with royal blue males and brownish-gray females.

Five male and one female grandala (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Grandalas have versatile diets tuned to their cold climate lives. They eat insects in summer and fruit in fall and winter.

Like cedar waxwings grandalas travel in huge flocks in fall and winter. When they perch they flick their wings and tails.

Watch the bluest thrush in this 4:45 minute video by RoundGlass Sustain.

video from RoundGlass Sustain on YouTube

(*) Grandalas occur at high altitudes in these countries/territories: India, Nepal, Bhutan, Tibet, China, northern Myanmar.

(credits are in the captions)

Hummingbird Day on August 19

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

9 August 2023

Have you noticed a lot of ruby-throated hummingbirds at your feeders lately? Their fall migration is already underway so this month is the perfect time to see them up close at Powdermill.

Powdermill Nature Reserve, operated by the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, has one of the longest continually-running bird banding stations in the U.S. Throughout the year they see species abundance ebb and flow based on weather and migration timing.

Ruby-throated hummingbirds (Archilochus colubris) start their fall migration earlier than many other species so they’re more abundant than usual now. Come to Westmoreland County for a family friendly hummingbird event on:

Hummingbird Day, Saturday 19 August 2023, 9:00am-noon at
Powdermill Nature Reserve
1795 Route 381
Rector, PA 15677

Powdermill Nature Center (photo embedded from CMNH Powdermill website)

Learn about hummingbirds, the plants that attract them, and how to care for your feeders so the birds stay healthy. There will also tips on taking great bird photos. And if the weather is good and the birds cooperate we(*) will get to see hummingbirds up close like this one in the bander’s hand. This bird was banded by Bob Mulvihill in Marcy Cunkelman’s garden in July 2015.

(*) I say “we” because I’ll be there, too, to teach you about hummingbirds. I’m looking forward to it!

Ruby-throated hummingbird in bander’s hand, July 2015 (photo by Kate St.John)

This event is free but do register here in advance so Powdermill knows to expect you. As the registration page says:

Events fill up fast! Registration is recommended to guarantee your spot and help us plan timing, seating, and/or trail routes. If there are spots available at the time of the program, non-registered individuals can join on a first-come, first-served basis.

CMNH: Hummingbird Day Event

Click here for more information. Hope to see you there.

(hummingbird photos by Steve Gosser and Kate St. John, Powdermill photo embedded from carnegie.org)

Hummingbirds Know How to Stay Sober

Anna’s hummingbird at a feeder (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

1 August 2023

Fermentation happens in the wild when sugars in fruit are exposed to yeast and bacteria on the skin. A crack in the skin starts the process, then animals consume it with sometimes hilarious results. Groundhogs and squirrels fall over. Waxwings get so loopy they cannot fly.

Nectar ferments, too, which prompted UC Berkeley biologist Robert Dudley to wonder how hummingbirds react to it. Do they like it or avoid it? Do hummingbirds get drunk?

Dudley’s study, published this June in Royal Society Open Science, concludes that hummingbirds indeed drink fermented sugar-water but they drink responsibly. Hummingbirds know how to stay sober.

Anna’s hummingbird at feeder, Vancouver Island (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Dudley tasked several undergraduate students with experimenting on the hummers visiting the feeder outside his office window to find out whether alcohol in sugar water was a turn-off or a turn-on. All three of the test subjects were male Anna’s hummingbirds (Calypte anna), year-round residents of the Bay Area.

They found that hummingbirds happily sip from sugar water with up to 1% alcohol by volume, finding it just as attractive as plain sugar water, but they sip only half as much when the sugar water contains 2% alcohol. …

“They burn the alcohol and metabolize it so quickly. Likewise with the sugars. So they’re probably not seeing any real effect. They’re not getting drunk,” he added.

UC Berkeley press release, Hummingbirds drink alcohol more often than you think

Hummingbirds regulate their alcoholic intake. This stupefied Bohemian waxwing, reeling from too much fermented fruit, needs to have a conversation with them.

p.s. Want to learn more about hummingbirds and see them being banded and in the hand? Come to Hummingbird Day on Saturday 19 August 2023, 9a-noon at

Powdermill Nature Reserve
1795 Route 381
Rector, PA 15677

Click here for event information and free registration. I’ll be there. More news later.

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

Horsenettle and Cuckoos: Yesterday at Frick Park

Horse nettle at Frick Park, 30 July 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)

31 July 2023

Yesterday morning’s walk at Frick Park had great weather, lots of participants and good birds.

Members of the Frick Park outing on 30 July 2023 (photo by Joe Fedor who held my phone-camera)

Early in the walk we encountered horsenettle (Solanum carolinense), pictured above, whose flowers are similar to those of its relatives in the Solanaceae or Nightshade family including tomatoes, potatoes and eggplant (called aubergine in the UK). Though it’s not a nettle, its common name refers to the thorns on its leaves. Did you know the leaves smell like potatoes when crushed? Thorns prevent me from trying this. (NOTE: This just in! An article about the edible Nightshades in The Guardian https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2023/jul/31/the-truth-about-nightshades-four-online-myths-about-potatoes-tomatoes-and-aubergines.)

Best Birds were a very cooperative yellow billed cuckoo and an elusive green heron. The cuckoo posed for us, the green heron zoomed away. Later the heron zoomed in and landed above us near a second green heron. Two!

In the Nine Mile Run valley I marveled at this confluence of a muddy tributary with the main stem of Nine Mile Run. This, in microcosm, is like the confluence of the clear-running Allegheny with the muddy Monongahela River at The Point.

Main stem of Nine Mile Run (clear) is joined by a tributary, 30 July 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)

Our eBird checklist is here and shown below.

Frick Park–Nine Mile Run, Allegheny, Pennsylvania, Jul 30, 2023 8:30 AM – 10:30 AM
1.75 miles, 24 species, 17 participants

Mourning Dove (Zenaida macroura) 2
Yellow-billed Cuckoo (Coccyzus americanus) 2 Good looks at one of them
Chimney Swift (Chaetura pelagica) 2
Ruby-throated Hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) 1
Green Heron (Butorides virescens) 2
Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) 3
Downy Woodpecker (Dryobates pubescens) 5
Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus) 1
Red-eyed Vireo (Vireo olivaceus) 3
Blue Jay (Cyanocitta cristata) 5
Carolina Chickadee (Poecile carolinensis) 3
Tufted Titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor) 2 Youngster chasing an adult for food
Carolina Wren (Thryothorus ludovicianus) 3
European Starling (Sturnus vulgaris) 5
Gray Catbird (Dumetella carolinensis) 5
American Robin (Turdus migratorius) 12
American Goldfinch (Spinus tristis) 3
Field Sparrow (Spizella pusilla) 1
Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia) 7
Baltimore Oriole (Icterus galbula) 4
Common Grackle (Quiscalus quiscula) 2
Scarlet Tanager (Piranga olivacea) 1 Female seen briefly
Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) 7
Indigo Bunting (Passerina cyanea) 3

(photos by/for Kate St. John)