Category Archives: Songbirds

Who’s Chirping In That Hedge?

Hedge in front of a house (photo by decaseconds via Flickr Creative Commons license)

14 January 2021

It’s winter and you’re out for a walk in the neighborhood. As you approach a hedge you can hear it’s alive with hidden birds. They sound like this:

Or this:

The noise is a flock of house sparrows (Passer domesticus) but the hedge is so dense and dark that you can’t see them. The photo below shows the problem; click on it to see the birds in a digitally brightened version.

House sparrows in a hedge in Saskatoon (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

House sparrows are always gregarious, but more so in winter when they flock together in large numbers.

Flock of house sparrows in Moscow (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

In the morning and afternoon they disperse to feed, but twice a day — at midday and in the evening — they gather in dense shrubs or evergreens and chatter for an hour or more.  If you approach the hedge they suddenly fall silent. If you peer inside you’ll find a few birds looking wary. The rest have flown out the other side.

If you wait long enough, someone else will watch the hedge for you.

Cooper’s hawk watching for backyard prey, Vienna VA (photo form Wikimedia Commons)

(photo of a hedge by decaseconds on Flickr via Creative Commons license; sparrow photos from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the captions to see the originals)

Benefits of A Rare Bird

White-crowned sparrow (photo by Tim Lenz via Wikimedia Commons)

12 January 2021

White-crowned sparrows (Zonotrichia leucophrys) are not rare in North America but are extremely rare in Britain. In 2008 a white-crowned sparrow showed up in the small town of Cley next the Sea, Norfolk and stayed for many weeks thanks to Richard and Sue Bending who put seed for it in the drive to their Dawn Cottage home, shown below.

Dawn Cottage, Cley Next The Sea, Norfolk (photo from Zoopla real estate site)

In the UK there’s a lovely tradition of birders (called twitchers) making a donation to a local charity when they come visit a rare bird. In 2008 the parish church St. Margaret’s at Cley next the Sea, built in 1320-1340, was in need of restoration funds so the donations were given to the church. The bird stayed for weeks, ultimately raising 6,000 pounds, more than $11,000 in 2008 dollars. At the time it was the most ever raised by a rare bird.

St. Margaret’s, Cley Next the Sea, Norfolk, 2008 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

St. Margaret’s honored the bird with a stained glass window.

The white-crowned sparrow of St. Margaret’s, Cley (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

And British twitchers honored the bird with a nickname — “badger bunting” — for the badger-like stripes on its head.

Beyond the thrill of seeing a rare bird there can be tangible benefits.

p.s. A tip of the hat to @RyanFMandelbaum for his tweet that tells the story.

p.p.s. I saw the church from a distance in late June 2017 when I visited Cley & Salthouse Marshes on a birding tour with Oriole Birding. I had 12 Life Birds there; Best Bird was Eurasian spoonbill. It’s a great place for birds!

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

Birds Wearing Little Red Hats

Common redpoll, Meals Rd Butler County, 10 Jan 2021 (photo by Steve Gosser)

11 January 2021

In this irruption winter of northern birds in southwestern Pennsylvania, we’ve seen pine siskins (Spinus pinus) and evening grosbeaks (Coccothraustes vespertinus) but I had not seen common redpolls (Acanthis flammea) until finally, last week, they were present every day in a sunflower field in Butler County.

Last week was too overcast for a good photo but Steve Gosser returned yesterday for these stunning pictures.

Common redpoll on a sunflower, Meals Rd Butler County, 10 Jan 2021 (photo by Steve Gosser)
Common redpoll, Meals Rd Butler County, 10 Jan 2021 (photo by Steve Gosser)

Then on Saturday 9 January 2021 the birds were even closer to home. Matt Juskowitch found a dozen redpolls at Bethel Green in Allegheny County. Here’s Matt’s documentation shot, proving that the birds are real. Notice the red hat! Adult male redpolls also have a pink wash on their chests.

Documentation photo: Common redpoll at Bethel Green, 9 Jan 2021 (photo Matthew Juskowitch embedded from ebird checklist S78940944)

I went to Bethel Green yesterday, 10 Jan 2021, and saw 9 redpolls eating birch catkins. Here’s one of Matt’s photos from his eBird report yesterday afternoon.

Common redpoll at Bethel Green, 10 Jan 2021 (photo Matthew Juskowitch embedded from ebird checklist S79026167)

Thank you, Matt, for alerting us to these rare birds. If you’d like to see them here are the two locations I visited: Meals Rd, Butler County and Bethel Green, Allegheny County.

The birds are moving around from place to place so they may show up at your own birches, alders, sunflowers or feeders. Watch for small finches with red on top of their heads (“poll” means head). They are only as big as goldfinches.

(photos by Steve Gosser and Matt Juskowitch)


Murmuration of starlings in Rome, Italy (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

8 January 2021

Many people in North America don’t like starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) for their aggressive invasive behavior, but starlings can do something beautiful that no other songbird can match. At dusk as they gather to roost, starlings fly in tight flocks that wheel and turn in unison. Their murmurations make beautiful patterns in the sky.

This 4-minute video of starlings at dusk was recorded at RSPB Otmoor Reserve, a birding hotspot in Oxfordshire, UK.

And here’s a short clip from San Rafael, California.

Unfortunately, the murmurations are smaller than they used to be. Starlings have declined 80% in the UK and 49% in the U.S. since 1970.

Murmuration of starlings in Studland, Dorset, UK (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

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

These Look-Alikes Are Not Closely Related

Downy woodpecker compared to hairy woodpecker (two photos from Wikimedia Commons)

7 December 2020

Two common birds in Pennsylvania, downy and hairy woodpeckers, are so similar that they’re hard to tell apart. Downy woodpeckers are small and hairys are large but if they’re not side by side there’s just one major clue:

  • Downy woodpeckers have short beaks, one third the length of their heads back-to-front.
  • Hairy woodpeckers have long beaks, same length as their heads back-to-front.

Frank Izaguirre (@BirdIzLife) tweeted this recent backyard photo of both birds:

Because of their similarity you’d think downys and hairys are close cousins but they’re not. A study published in April 2019 explains why they look alike, described in Living Bird:

Despite being look-alikes these two species are not that closely related. Their genetic lineages split off from a shared ancestor over 6 million years ago—about as far back as chimps and humans split.

A new study published in April in the journal Nature Communications provides strong evidence that Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers are an example of “plumage mimicry”—one species of bird evolving to match the plumage patterns and colors of another.

Living Bird: Are woodpeckers evolving to look like each other; a new study says yes

In fact, the downy woodpecker (Dryobates pubescens) is more closely related to Nuttall’s woodpecker (Dryobates nuttallii), native to California.

Downy woodpecker compared to Nuttall’s woodpecker (two photos from Wikimedia Commons)

And the hairy woodpecker (Dryobates villosus) is more closely related to the red-cockaded woodpecker (Dryobates borealis), a Near Threatened species of mature southern pine forests.

Hairy woodpecker compared to red-cockaded woodpecker (two photos from Wikimedia Commons)

They don’t look like their near relatives. They look like each other.

So don’t feel bad if you can’t tell downy woodpeckers and hairy woodpeckers apart. They are mimics. 😉

See how many other woodpeckers are mimics at Living Bird: Are woodpeckers evolving to look like each other; a new study says yes.

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

They Eat Poison Ivy

Yellow-rumped warbler eating poison ivy berries (photo by Cris Hamilton)

22 October 2020

When you see a bird eating white berries from a hairy vine you might not realize it’s eating poison ivy. Birds are blissfully immune to the urushiol in poison ivy sap that gives us humans a nasty rash.

By late October poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) doesn’t look like the plant we’ve been avoiding all summer. The leaves are red or missing, the vine is exposed, and bunches of white berries hang from the branches. It’s easy for migrating yellow-rumped warblers (Setophaga coronata) to find the food they’re so fond of.

Yellow-rumped warbler eating poison ivy berries (photo by Cris Hamilton)

Resident birds such as downy and pileated woodpeckers munch on the berries all winter.

Pileated woodpecker eating poison ivy berries (photo from Flickr by Jen Goellnitz, Creative Commons license)

It makes me feel itchy to think of it!

p.s. Deer eat poison ivy, too.

(photos by Cris Hamilton and from Flickr via Creative Commons licensing by Dendrioca cerulea and Jen Goellnitz; click on the captions to see the originals in Flickr)

Pine Siskins In My City Neighborhood

Pine siskin (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

This year’s Winter Finch Forecast predicted that the pine siskins (Spinus pinus) of eastern Canada would move south this fall. Indeed they have. Friends started seeing them in backyards north of Pittsburgh in late September but I don’t have a backyard anymore. I live in a high-rise and thought I’d have to drive far away to see them. Not!

Yesterday afternoon Aidan Place shared a photo of a flock of 40 pine siskins bathing in the roof gutter outside his window in North Oakland. I rushed over to his street and there they were!

The flock had found a favorite food, the cones of northern white cedar (Thuja occidentalis) also called arborvitae, in front of Aidan’s apartment and in a long row near the parking lot across the street. Here are the cones they were eating.

Pine siskins like the cones on this arborvitae, Pittsburgh, 7 Oct 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

The natural range of arborvitae (below) overlaps the breeding range of pine siskins so the birds probably felt like they’d found a taste of home.

The flock was easily startled by loud noises (cars, for instance) but tolerant if I stood quietly. I was able to take a very bad photo with my cellphone. The bird is the stripey thing in the middle of the picture with his head down. Yes, they are camouflaged.

Pine siskin feeding on arborvitae, North Oakland, Pittsburgh, 7 Oct 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

If you have a backyard, put out nyjer seed to attract pine siskins and American goldfinches. Watch carefully. Siskins look a bit boring and are smaller than goldfinches as you can see in this 2018 photo by Lauri Shaffer.

Goldfinch and pine siskin (photo by Lauri Shaffer)

If you don’t have a backyard, visit a cemetery and pause near the arborvitae trees. I bet you’ll find pine siskins.

The birds aren’t picky about being in the city as long as they find conifers — ornamental or otherwise.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons, Kate St. John and Lauri Shaffer)

Rare Birds

Connecticut warbler, Harrison Hills County Park, 24 Sept 2020 (photo by Dave Brooke)

We’ve all heard of rare birds but what makes a bird rare?

By definition a bird is rare if it is very hard to find due to location, time of year, or low population. If it is far out of its normal range or seen at a time of year when it shouldn’t be there the bird is marked rare by eBird. To make it more challenging, some low population species are very secretive and live in dense habitat, thus are rarely seen(*).

Here are some recent examples.

Rare In Many Ways: Connecticut Warbler at Harrison Hills County Park, Allegheny County, PA on 24-26 Sept 2020

Connecticut warbler, Harrison Hills County Park, 24 Sept 2020 (photo by Dave Brooke)

The Connecticut Warbler (Oporornis agilis) is rare because …

  • It is not abundant anywhere and its population is declining.
  • It is very hard to find and to see — even when you know exactly where it is — because Connecticut warblers are extremely secretive, foraging quietly in dense underbrush and rarely popping into view.
  • In most of North America it is seen only on migration so it’s present for only a day or three. (range map here)

Finding a Connecticut warbler requires luck and patience and more luck. Dave Brooke had all of those + his camera when this bird made an appearance at Harrison Hills County Park near Natrona Heights, PA on 24 September 2020. I went to see the bird myself on 26 September and managed to catch a glimpse of its tail as it foraged in a thick stand of mugwort. I wouldn’t have seen it at all if five other birders hadn’t pointed out the twitching plants when I arrived.

Rare by Location: Bay-breasted warbler, Santa Clara County, California, 27 September 2020

Bay-breasted warbler in Santa Clara County, CA, 27 Sept 2020 (photo by Robin Agarwal via Flickr Creative Commons license)

This fall we’ve had a very good run of bay-breasted warblers (Setophaga castanea) in the Pittsburgh area. I’ve seen so many that eBird tells me my report count is too high. However, a bay-breasted warbler in California is rare indeed. Robin Agarwal got a photo of it in Santa Clara County on 27 September 2020.

Rare for Time of Year: Barn Swallow, North Park, Allegheny County, PA, 26 September 2020.

Barn swallow in flight in Milwaukee (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Barn swallows (Hirundo rustica erythrogaster) are common in summer in southwestern Pennsylvania but they leave in August for Central and South America and are definitely gone in late September. However, on 26 September Mark Vass saw one flying over Marshall Lake at North Park, Allegheny County. eBird announced his find but there was no photo. (This photo is from Wikimedia Commons.)

VERY VERY RARE INDEED: The rarest of rare birds was found at Powdermill Banding Station on 24 September 2020 — a half-male-half-female bilateral gynandromorph rose-breasted grosbeak. The bird is male on his/her right side and female on the left. This birth defect is so rare that one of the banders said it was like seeing a unicorn. Click here and here for Powdermill photos and here for other half-male-half-female birds. Rare indeed!

p.s. Read more here about how a bird can be both male and female = bilateral gynandromoprh.

(photo credits: Connecticut warbler by Dave Brooke, bay-breasted warbler by Robin Agarwal, barm swallow from Wikimedia Commons; click on the captions to see the originals)

Woodpecker With An Attitude

Red-headed woodpecker (photo by Lauri Shaffer)

24 September 2020

There weren’t many warblers at Frick Park yesterday but we saw nearly every woodpecker that occurs in Pennsylvania except for the red-headed woodpecker (Melanerpes erythrocephalus), a very rare bird in Frick(*). Soon we were dreaming about red-headeds, reminiscing about the times we’ve seen them, and remarking on their attitude.

Red-headed woodpeckers sometimes exhibit clownish behavior but more often I’ve seen them fighting. They’re rated as the most pugnacious woodpecker in North America and live up to it by challenging every cavity-nesting bird. They go hard after starlings, northern flickers and red-bellied woodpeckers. They will even challenge pileated woodpeckers four times their size.

Last year Lauri Shaffer was lucky to witness a red-headed woodpecker attacking a pileated.

Red-headed woodpecker attacks a pileated woodpecker (photo by Lauri Shaffer)

It didn’t take long for the much larger woodpecker to leave the tree. Enough is enough!

Pileated woodpecker escapes the attack of a red-headed woodpecker (photo by Lauri Shaffer)

Red-headeds will even attack each other, as witnessed by Chris Saladin when an immature attacked an adult. On Throw Back Thursday check out her photos of the battle between two red-headeds, the woodpeckers with attitude: The Most Pugnacious Woodpecker.

(photos by Lauri Shaffer)

(*) p.s. Red-headed woodpeckers are Rare Birds indeed. eBird describes them this way:

The Second Atlas of Breeding Birds in Pennsylvania reports an alarming decline throughout the state with a 46 percent decrease in the number of blocks that recorded the species between the first and second atlas periods. In that short amount of time, the Red-headed Woodpecker withdrew significantly from its former breeding range and was no longer found in 13 of Pennsylvania’s northern counties.

Red-headed woodpecker account at eBird