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.
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.
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.
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.
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)
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 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.
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.
On gray days the females and immatures look drab but unmistakable for their size and huge beaks.
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.
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)
2. Second northern parula, Frick Park, 14 Oct 2022 (photo by Charity Kheshgi)
3. Third 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.
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.
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.
I was shocked/thrilled at how many folks over the world enjoyed the #WarblerPartyPond video, so here’s another 90 seconds of heaven, highlighting the migrant and resident birds flocking to bathe in my small in-town yard this weekend. How many can you ID? Species list in comments. pic.twitter.com/AOeeSyWLak
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.
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.
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)
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
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 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.
Learn about these energetic birds in an 8-minute video by Lesley The Bird Nerd. Watch for the wing-flicking!
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!
Oakland is visible from the Hays Woods powerline cut.
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.
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.
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.
It’s an ovenbird.
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.
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.
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.
Nick holds an ovenbird after banding.
Each of us got to release a banded warbler.
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.
To learn more about Nick’s banding project and schedule a visit, see his website at birdlab.org.
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.
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.
(photos by Cris Hamilton and from Wikimedia Commons; click on the caption to see the original)