Category Archives: Songbirds

Best Feedercam!

Pine grosbeak in winter (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

23 December 2022

Severe cold weather has people huddling indoors and birds flocking to feeders across North America. If you don’t have a feeder you can still watch birds online at Ontario Feederwatch, one of the best around.

Tune in to see the usual suspects — cardinals, chickadees, blue jays — and some boreal specialities including common redpolls, pine siskins, pine grosbeaks (above), evening grosbeaks, and crossbills.

Click here or on the screenshot below (with 5 pine grosbeaks!) to visit Ontario Feederwatch at All About Birds. It’s my favorite feedercam.

Ontario Feederwatch with Pine Grosbeaks! 20 Dec 2022 (All About Birds)

By the way, if you don’t see a bird when you tune in, just wait. If you hear them chirping in the background they’re about to arrive.

(photo of common redpoll from Wikimedia Commons; screenshot from Ontario Feederwatch; click on the captions to see the originals)

A Rare Bird at Any Time of Year

Yellow-throated warbler at suet feeder in St. John’s, Newfoundland, 9 Dec 2022 (photo by Felip1 via Flickr Creative Commons license)

16 December 2022

A yellow-throated warbler (Setophaga dominica) would not be rare in Pittsburgh in early May but to see one in Canada in December is amazing.

This bird was photographed in St. John’s, Newfoundland on 9 December by Phillip (Felip1).

It’s not a very sharp picture but enough to identify him: a Yellow-throated warbler. He showed up for some suet early this morning.

I was half-expecting him. He had been visiting a suet feeder a couple of hundred metres away from us a few days ago. And one of the flickers had chopped up lotsa suet for him from the suet holder above. Those flickers are pigs but the other birds appreciate it.

Even though it is mid-December, the weather’s been mild and there are a half-dozen warblers who have apparently decided to try their luck to spend the winter around this town, St. John’s, Newfoundland, when all their relatives decamped a couple of months ago for more southern climes.

Felip1: Late Warbler, 9 December 2022

Pennsylvania is typically the northern limit of the yellow-throated warbler’s range and it’s a short-distance migrant to Florida and the Caribbean. St. John’s, Newfoundland is not even on the map (red arrow points toward it) but Newfoundland is about as far as Florida if you’re migrating from PA in the wrong direction.

Yellow-throated warbler range map from Wikimedia Commons. red arrow points toward St. John’s, Newfoundland which is off the edge of the map

The presence of this bird, one of half a dozen warblers in St. John’s in December, might be an after effect of Hurricane Fiona … and might not.

In any case its splash of yellow is a happy sight on a dreary day.

(photo by Felip1 on Flickr, Creative Commons non-commercial License)

Robins On The Move

Robins pause in a pine, California, Feb 2019 (photo by Douglas via Flickr Creative Commons license)

2 December 2022

In mid November hundreds, perhaps thousands, of American robins (Turdus migratorius) were in the east end of Pittsburgh but left abruptly when the weather dropped below freezing on November 18th. By the 21st it was 17 degrees F and the robins were long gone.

Robins can cope with cold weather but not with frozen ground so they stay just south of the freeze line as winter approaches.

American robin, Marin County, 16 Nov 2022 (photo by Robin Agarwal via Flickr Creative Commons license)

Those that nest in Canada and Alaska may leapfrog over the local slowpokes who wait for truly awful weather.

eBird distribution maps for June-July and December-February show that robins vacate the north to populate temperate zones in winter. June-July is dark purple with robins everywhere except for the hottest southern U.S. In Dec-Feb they’re concentrated in the Pacific Northwest and the Southeast including Florida.

Robins were on the move here in November. Now they’re south of us, wrapping up.

(photos by Robin Agarwal and Douglas on Flickr via Creative Commons license; click on the captions to see the originals)

Watch Your Feeders For Two Rare Birds

Evening grosbeak, January 2013 (photo by Steve Gosser)

21 November 2022

In September the Finch Research Network’s Winter Finch Forecast predicted that evening grosbeaks and pine siskins would irrupt southward this winter. In the past week Pennsylvania Rare Bird Alerts reported 55 sightings of evening grosbeaks and 11 of pine siskins in the state. Some are in western Pennsylvania right now and both are seed-eaters so you might see them at your feeders. Here’s what to look for.

Evening grosbeak (Coccothraustes vespertinus)

Evening grosbeaks are big bulky finches, larger than northern cardinals, that are shaped like rose-breasted grosbeaks. The male is bright yellow with black accents and white wing patches. When you see him at your feeder you’ll fall in love.

Male evening grosbeak (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Male evening grosbeak seen from the back (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

The females and immature males are not as striking but still beautiful. In bright light they look like enormous goldfinches with fat necks and big beaks.

Female or immature male evening grosbeak (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

On gray days the females and immatures look drab but unmistakable for their size and huge beaks.

Female/immature evening grosbeak (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Evening grosbeaks love sunflower seeds so keep some on hand to attract any that might be flying over. Doug Gross says they also love these wild foods: Seeds of box elder, ash, elm, tulip poplar, hackberry, pine, spruce, larch. Fruits of cherries, apples, crabapples, poison ivy, hawthorn, juniper (red cedar), Russian olive.

This PA map shows where evening grosbeaks have been reported in eBird this month through 20 Nov.

Evening grosbeak sightings in Pennsylvania and surrounding areas, Nov 1-20, 2022 (map from eBird)

p.s. How rare are evening grosbeaks? Their population has declined 90% in the past 50 years! Watch this video by Wild Excellence Films called Irruption: An Opportunity For Evening Grosbeak Conservation about David Yeany’s project to tag and track evening grosbeaks and learn more about the threats they face.

Pine siskin (Spinus pinus)

Pine siskins resemble female house finches but are warm brown in color (not gray-brown) and have sharp pointy beaks with a faint touch of yellow on their wings. They often hang out with goldfinches.

Pine siskin at feeder with American goldfinch (photo by Lauri Shaffer)

They love niger at the feeder and pull seeds from alder and arborvitae cones.

Pine siskins feasting on the seeds in alder cones (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Though petite in size, pine siskins strenuously defend their feeder perches against other birds. Here one shouts at a male house finch.

Pine siskin yells at a house finch (photo by Tom Moeller)

Keep your niger feeder filled and look hard at those goldfinches. This PA map shows where pine siskins have been reported in eBird this month through 20 Nov.

Pine siskin sightings in Pennsylvania and surrounding areas, Nov 1-20, 2022 (map from eBird)

Watch your feeders for two rare birds. You may get lucky!

(photos by Steve Gosser, Lauri Shaffer, Tom Moeller and from Wikimedia Commons, maps from eBird; click on the linked captions to see the originals)

From Warblers to Sparrows

Third northern parula, Frick Park, 14 Oct 2022 (photo by Charity Kheshgi)

17 October 2022

In just two days the mix of songbirds at Frick Park changed from warblers to thrushes and sparrows.

On Friday 14 October Charity Kheshgi and I found three northern parulas (Setophaga americana) along Nine Mile Run at Frick Park. eBird said they were worthy of a Rare Bird Alert. Fortunately Charity got photos of all three, shown in the slideshow below with three photos of each. Two of them are very easy to tell apart because they are at the extremes of bright vs. pale colors.

  • 1. First northern parula, Frick Park, 14 Oct 2022 (photo by Charity Kheshgi)

On Saturday night migration was intense which often means that all the birds leave Pittsburgh. Instead, on chilly Sunday morning we found a new mix of songbirds including those pictured below.

Blue headed vireo, Frick Park, 16 Oct 2022 (photo by Charity Kheshgi)
Golden-crowned kinglet, Frick Park, 16 Oct 2022 (photo by Charity Kheshgi)
Hermit thrush, Frick Park, 16 Oct 2022 (photo by Charity Kheshgi)
Gray-cheeked thrush, Frick Park, 16 Oct 2022 (photo by Charity Kheshgi)

There were many more American robins [50 instead of 7] and white-thoated sparrows (Zonotrichia albicollis) [36 instead of none] and we even heard a fox sparrow (Passerella iliaca) (example below). I wish we could have seen it.

Meanwhile we’re still waiting for dark-eyed juncos but not the snow that comes with them.

(photos by Charity Kheshgi)

Birds Love Water Features

Western bluebird bathing, California (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

14 October 2022

Songbirds are attracted to water — to streams, puddles, marshes, ponds — especially on migration.

Watch a soothing video of birds enjoying the water in Richard Hall’s backyard in Athens, Georgia.

Want to set up your own water feature? Here are three resources.

(photo from Wikimedia Commons, embedded tweet by @richhallecology)

Very Special Fall Hummingbirds

Rufous hummingbird in winter in Michigan, 27 Dec 2011 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

12 October 2022

Eastern North America has only one hummingbird, the ruby-throated hummingbird (Archilochus colubris), but in late fall after the ruby-throats have left for the tropics a few western hummingbirds come east.

Rufous hummingbirds (Selasphorus rufus) breed in the Pacific Northwest to Alaska and spend the winter along the Gulf Coast and in Mexico. Their range map says they don’t occur in the eastern U.S., not even on migration.

Rufous hummingbird range map from Wikimedia Commons (orange=breeding, lavender=winter range) Yellow lines added by Kate St. John

However, beginning in late October, a few show up in Pennsylvania. Some even reach the Atlantic Coast. An eBird map of rufous hummingbird reports from October to February, 2019-2022, shows them dotted across the eastern U.S.

Rufous hummingbird eBird reports, Oct-Feb 2019-2022 (screenshot from eBird Species Map)

So don’t take down your hummingbird feeders yet. Watch for a very special rare hummingbird — so rare that ornithologists will want to band it(*).

See a closeup of a banded rufous hummingbird, learn about their habits, and find out about the even rarer Allen’s hummingbird at:

(*) Information on who to call in Pittsburgh if you get a rufous hummingbird at your feeder is in the article above.

(photo and range map from Wikimedia Commons; screenshot map of eBird reports; click on the captions to see the originals)

Ruby Kings

Ruby-crowned kinglet (photo by ChristopherT)

11 October 2022

As the September wave of migrating warblers disappears to our south the next wave of birds has arrived from the north, among them ruby-crowned kinglets (Corthylio calendula). These tiny dynamos resemble the plainest warblers and vireos but are so unique that it’s worth taking a closer look at them.

For starters, though ruby-crowns are called kinglets they are no longer in the same genus as golden-crowned kinglets (Regulus satrapa). In 2021, thanks to DNA and some very unique traits, the AOS placed them in a genus all their own: Corthylio.

Smaller than any warbler, ruby-crowned kinglets are olive-green with somewhat whitish bellies. Their most reliable trait is their constant wing-flicking, punctuated by rapid darting to and fro. They also have:

  • Two white wingbars,
  • Big white eyerings broken above and below,
  • A tiny beak
  • No neck
  • A proportionally larger head compared to the look of a warbler
  • Thin black legs with golden feet
  • A dry call note and a rousing song
  • Males have red or orange feathers hidden atop their heads which they raise when agitated.

On any particular bird you may never see a ruby crown. The females don’t have them and the males are not always agitated. However if you keep watching, a bird may come close to watch you, then raise his crown when he figures out who you are. Maybe this curious ruby-crown is female.

Ruby-crowned kinglet, golden slippers (photo by Steve Gosser)

Ruby-crowned kinglets are short-distance migrants that breed in spruce-fir forests in Canada and the northern/mountainous U.S. They spend the winter in southeastern Pennsylvania but are rare in western PA outside of migration. October is the time to see them in Pittsburgh.

Range of ruby-crowned kinglet (map from Wikimedia Commons)

Learn about these energetic birds in an 8-minute video by Lesley The Bird Nerd. Watch for the wing-flicking!

(photos by ChristopherT and Steve Gosser, map from Wikimedia Commons)

Birdlab: Banding Birds at Hays Woods

Red-eyed vireo, held by bander Nick Liadis, 31 Aug 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

8 September 2022

Yesterday Charity Kheshgi and I visited Nick Liadis’ bird banding project — Birdlab — at Hays Woods, the City of Pittsburgh’s newest, most remote, and least developed park.

Nick runs Birdlab at three sites: Hays Woods plus at two private properties, Upper St. Clair and Twin Stupas in Butler County. During migration Nick is out banding six days a week unless it’s raining or windy.

Hays Woods is unique for its size and habitat so close to densely populated Downtown and Oakland. Like an oasis it’s an appealing stop for migratory birds. We were there to see Nick band five birds on a slow day compared to the day before when he banded 60!

Hays Woods, The Forest in the City (image courtesy Friends of Hays Woods)

Oakland is visible from the Hays Woods powerline cut.

Oakland in the distance, view from Hays Woods, 31 Aug 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

Nick has placed the mist nets in a variety of habitats. They are intentionally hard to see. When birds see the nets they avoid them.

Bird banding mist net at Hays Woods, 7 Sep 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

Every 30 minutes the banders walk the nets to check for birds. Lisa Kaufman assists at Hays Woods on Wednesdays. Here she is walking the powerline cut.

Walking to check the nets, 31 Aug 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

Each netted bird is gently placed in its own cloth bag and brought back to the banding table. Here Nick tells Lisa what time to record.

Nick Liadis and Lisa Kaufman, bird banding at Hays Woods, 7 Sept 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

It’s an ovenbird.

Ovenbird to be banded, held by Nick Liadis, 7 Sep 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

To age the birds Nick checks their wings, tail and body feathers for molt stage. Below he points out the very faint fault bars on the tail feathers that indicate feather growth. If all the bars line up, then these tail feathers grew in at the same time, which means the bird is still wearing his very first tail feathers and thus hatched this year.

Examine the feathers for molt stage and age, ovenbird at Hays Woods, 7 Sep 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

Nick blows on the belly of a Nashville warbler to check the lump of fat that is fuel for migration. This Nashville warbler had a high fat score so he may be ready to leave tonight for his wintering grounds in Mexico.

Checking the fat score on a Nashville warbler, Hays Woods, 7 Sep 2022 (photo by Charity Kheshgi)

Nashville warblers are one of the smallest birds but it’s not noticeable until they are in the hand. Nick prepares to apply the band.

Applying the band to a Nashville warbler, 7 Sep 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

Nick holds an ovenbird after banding.

Bander Nick Liadis holds an ovenbird, Hays Woods, 7 Sep 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

Each of us got to release a banded warbler.

Kate St. John holds an American restart before releasing it, Hays Woods, 7 Sep 2022 (photo by Charity Kheshgi)
Charity Kheshgi holds an ovenbird before releasing it, Hays Woods, 7 Sep 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

And we learned how much northern cardinals hate to be captured. Cardinals of all ages screech and bite! We were grateful not to hold one.

Female northern cardinal awaits her bands, Hays Woods, 7 Sep 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

To learn more about Nick’s banding project and schedule a visit, see his website at

Support Nick’s efforts with a donation at his GoFundMe site:

(photos by Kate St. John and Charity Kheshgi)

Female Mockingbirds Sing in the Fall

Northern mockingbird (photo by Cris Hamilton)

30 August 2022

Northern mockingbirds (Mimus polyglottos) are special because they challenge our assumptions.

It was a wonder in 2014 when, after centuries of ornithologists saying that only male birds sing, Karan Odom at University of Maryland documented singing females. Most of the species live in the tropics but even back then 150 female-singing species were documented in North America.

After this breakthrough female singing became a hot study topic and more species were added to the list. Recent studies delve deeper. Do northern mockingbird females mimic like males? A study published this April found that they do.

Mockingbirds are also unusual because they sing in autumn when other birds are silent. They do it because they change location. Those that nest in the northern end of their range migrate south while others move locally (see animated eBird map). When mockingbirds “reappear” in September they are singing again to claim new territory.

Northern mockingbird, Nov 2015 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Males and females look alike and they aren’t paired up in winter so we cannot tell which sex is singing. Nevertheless we can hear them. Here are some examples.

28 Sep 2021 in Cincinnati, Ohio:

7 Nov 2019 in Harlingen, TX:

I see mockingbirds in Pittsburgh in the winter. Are they local transplants or from further north? Are they male or female? I dunno.

Northern mockingbird wing flash (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

(photos by Cris Hamilton and from Wikimedia Commons; click on the caption to see the original)