Category Archives: Songbirds

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

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

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)

Yesterday Before the Rain at Duck Hollow

Nodding thistle was the only spot of color on a drab day, Duck Hollow, 1 July 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)

3 July 2023

I’ve had to cancel so many bird walks this spring that I decided to hold yesterday’s 8:30am outing at Duck Hollow despite the fact that it was certain to pour within 45 minutes.

The sky was gloomy gray, the river was like glass and the fish were jumping. The only spot of color was nodding thistle (Carduus nutans), a biennial from Eurasia.

Rain is coming at Duck Hollow, 2 July 2023, 8:44am (photo by Kate St. John)

Just two of us were hardy enough (crazy enough?) to show up. It started raining steadily in only 40 minutes. We called it quits and went home.

But the birds were quite good considering the weather. Favorites were …

  • A family of belted kingfishers with two begging youngsters. One of the “kids” held his wings wide open to attract attention, like the begging move of a fledgling peregrine.
  • Two warbler species: a yellow warbler and a very wet black-and-white warbler that walked the branches of a black locust.
  • A recently fledged northern mockingbird in a mulberry tree with ripe fruit, along with house finch families with begging young.

Our checklist is here and listed below.

Duck Hollow, Allegheny, Pennsylvania, US
Jul 2, 2023 8:30 AM – 9:10 AM
— 18 species —
Canada Goose (Branta canadensis) 10
Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos) 12
Chimney Swift (Chaetura pelagica) 10
Herring Gull (Larus argentatus) 5
Belted Kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon) 4, Two begging youngsters
Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus) 1
Blue Jay (Cyanocitta cristata) 1
Northern Rough-winged Swallow (Stelgidopteryx serripennis) 6
Carolina Wren (Thryothorus ludovicianus) 4
Northern Mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos) 1 Recently fledged with rumpled gape.
American Robin (Turdus migratorius) 5
House Finch (Haemorhous mexicanus) 12, feeding young
Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia) 3
Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) 7
Common Grackle (Quiscalus quiscula) 3
Black-and-white Warbler (Mniotilta varia) 1
Yellow Warbler (Setophaga petechia) 1
Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) 5

(photos by Kate St. John)

Catbirds Anyone?

Gray catbird (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

20 April 2023

Have you seen your first gray catbird (Dumetella carolinensis) of 2023 yet? I haven’t.

Last week the temperature was so hot for so long in Pittsburgh — up to 16ºF above normal — that we put away our winter coats and wore summer clothes five days in a row. Norway maples burst into full leaf. Oak flowers bloomed. Insects flew around. The ticks came out. (Be careful!) And yet Spring’s migrating birds, the birds we expect under these conditions, did not show up. For instance, where are the catbirds?

As of this writing (6:00am on 20 April) eBird’s gray catbird sightings for April 2023 show that catbirds surround western PA but they aren’t here. Notice the catbird-free zone in western PA.

screenshot map of gray catbird sightings for 1-20 April 2023 (map from Explore Species on eBird)

Zoom in on Allegheny County and you’ll find a single sighting on 8 April in North Park (not shown on map below) and one on 15 April at Riding Meadow Park. Otherwise there are no catbirds in Allegheny County but they’re in the counties around us: Westmoreland, Beaver and Butler. (That red pin drop in the east is in Westmoreland County.)

screenshot map of gray catbird sightings for 1-20 April 2023 (map from Explore Species on eBird)

For some reason Allegheny County, PA is the last place birds want to visit. We have a few theories about it this year but this is an annual problem. Check out the theories and maps in this 2012 article.

p.s. Watch out! More Fire Weather this afternoon!

(photo from Wikimedia Commons, maps from eBird; click on the captions to see the originals)

To Lek or Not to Lek: Grackles Lead Different Lives

Male common grackle, puff and “skrinnk” (photo by Norm Townsend via Flickr Creative Commons license)

23 March 2023

Lek: an assembly area where animals (such as the prairie chicken) carry on display and courtship behavior. Also an aggregation of animals assembled on a lek for courtship.

Merriam-Webster Dictionary

Male prairie chickens hold a lek to attract females and according to this diagram so do “grackles.” It was exciting to think that the puff and “skrinnk” of male common grackles in Pittsburgh was a lek. But it’s not! The three species of grackles in North America lead very different lives.

Common grackles (Quiscalus quiscula), are usually monogamous and may nest alone or colonially with up to 200 pairs in a single colony.

Common grackles, Bill Up Display (photo by Tony Morris via Flickr Creative Commons license)

Bill Up is a male-to-male threat display. The puff and skrinnk is Song during courtship.

Boat-tailed grackles (Quiscalus major), found in Florida and along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, nest in harems. The males gather in leks to attract the females.

Boat-tailed grackles perform during the breeding season (photo by shell game via Flickr Creative Commons license)
Male boat-tailed grackles on the lek (photo by Judy Gallagher on Flickr via Creative Commons license)

Female boat-tailed grackles are dull brown and laid back compared their male counterparts.

Female boat-tailed grackle (photo by Melissa McMaster via Flickr Creative Commons licnse)

Great-tailed grackles (Quiscalus mexicanus), found west of the Mississippi and in Central America, gather in noisy winter flocks.

Great-tailed grackle flock (photo by Phillip Cowan via Flickr Creative Commons license)

In the breeding season they don’t use leks and they aren’t monogamous.

Great-tailed grackle (photo by designwallah via Flickr Creative Commons license)

Birds of the World explains:

[Their] mating system can be described as non-faithful female frank polygyny, in which a territorial male has one or more social mates, each female has one social mate, and both sexes employ extra-pair copulation as a conditional mating tactic. Territorial males defend a small territory including from 1 to several trees, where one or more females nest. The male protects nestlings hatched on his territory, but not nestlings from other territories. He copulates with his social mates and may attempt to copulate with other females. 

Birds of the World: Great-tailed grackle account

Frankly, all the great-tailed grackles mess around. Even the females swagger.

Female great-tailed grackle (photo by Charlie Jackson via Flickr Creative Commons license)

Though they’re all called “grackles” they don’t act the same.

(photos are Flickr Creative Commons licensed and credited in the captions, click on the captions to see the originals)

Watch Hummingbirds in Ecuador

Click on here or on the image above to see the video at

24 February 2023

For a respite this cold weekend, take a break and watch hummingbirds in Ecuador.

At top, an empress brilliant (Heliodoxa imperatrix) and other hummingbirds feed from the hand of Carole Turek, founder of Click on the screenshot or at this link to watch Royal Hummingbird Feeding on my Hand: The Empress Brilliant.

You can also watch hummingbirds — live! — at Sachatamia Lodge in Mindo, Ecuador.

Click here to visit the live hummingbird stream on YouTube

In the brief moment I watched the live stream, two rufous-tailed hummingbirds (Amazilia tzacatl) visited the feeders and chased each other. Notice the orange beak, green body and rufous tail. We saw them at Mindo, photo below by P. B. Child.

Rufous-tailed hummingbird, Feb 2023 (photo by P. B. Child)

Happy hummingbird Friday!

(screenshots from, rufous-tailed hummingbird photo by P. B. Child)

Blue Jays Eat Acorns

Blue jay carrying acorns, September 2022 (photo by Christopher T)

9 February 2023

Nuts seem an unlikely food for blue jays but in fact they make up 67% of their diet in winter. Acorns are their favorites but they also eat beechnuts, chestnuts, hickory nuts and hazelnuts depending on availability.

Jays pluck acorns from the trees in autumn and eat them on site or cache them for later consumption. You would think acorns are too hard for a blue jay to open but Birds of the World (Cyanocitta cristata) explains how they do it:

Hard foods such as acorns, dry dog food, eggs, etc., are rendered by holding them against a branch or other substrate with one (usually) or both feet, and hammering with the mandible. 

Blue jay hammering at food (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

To cache the nuts — as much as 2.5 miles away — blue jays stuff their faces. The blue jay at top is carrying two acorns in his throat and one in his beak. The blue jay below is going overboard with peanuts. When they reach their cache sites they dump the nuts in a pile and bury them individually.

Blue jay stuffing his throat to carry away some peanuts (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Blue jays have a great memory for where they’ve buried nuts but they stash so many that they inevitably lose track of a few.

“Is that were I buried an acorn last autumn?” (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

If they don’t retrieve all of them, no problem. The acorns germinate and become new trees. Studies have shown that “This tendency may account for the rapid post-glacial dispersal of oaks indicated by pollen analysis,” according to Birds of the World. With this in mind, the Agassiz Audubon Society in Minnesota enlisted the help of blue jays ten years ago to “plant” oaks after volunteers collected and dispersed thousands of native acorns in an area that needed new trees.

To retrieve their cached food, blue jays dig it up with their beaks but this doesn’t work when the ground is frozen. It’s just one more reason why blue jays migrate south for the winter.

If your neighborhood doesn’t have any blue jays right now, it may be because they migrated. But check out the local trees. If there aren’t any oaks or nut trees in your neighborhood that may explain why you haven’t seen any blue jays lately.

This vintage article still gets a lot of comments because people miss seeing blue jays.

(top photo by Christopher T via Flickr used by permission. Remaining photos from Wikimedia Commons; click on the captions to see the originals)