During the winter common grackles (Quiscalus quiscula) are mostly absent from Pennsylvania but in early March they head north to nest. Their return began this week with a trickle of solo birds on Tues 1 March which grew to small flocks of 5-7 on Thursday. Very soon large flocks will pass through on their way to Canada, taking over feeders and backyards as they did at Marcy Cunkelman’s in this 2005 photo.
Even if you don’t see them you will hear the grackles announce themselves. Look to the treetops to see the males puff and “skrinnk!”
This week’s scouts are the early birds. More grackles are definitely on the way. Look at the difference in eBird reports between December-February and March-May!
eBird: Common grackle sightings, Dec-Feb past 10 years
eBird: Common grackle sightings, Mar-May past 10 years
Despite recurring winter weather we are more than halfway to spring and the birds know it. As their bodies prepare for the breeding season they develop brighter feathers, skin and beaks. Here are two backyard birds who make this transformation. One turns redder, the other loses stars.
Northern cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis) molt from July to October, changing out their old feathers for new. At first the male doesn’t look bright red because the very tips of his new feathers are actually gray. You can see the gray feather tips on his back in the photo below.
By mid-winter the gray tips wear off and the male cardinal becomes brilliant red for the breeding season.
Cardinals get their color from what they eat so diet plays a part and there are regional and habitat differences that affect the color. But no matter where they live, male cardinals turn redder in winter.
European starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) have a similar strategy for changing into breeding plumage. When their feathers are new in autumn each one is tipped with white so their bodies appear to be sprinkled with stars — hence the name “starling.” This close up shows that on new feathers the stars are tiny V’s on the feather tips.
Over the winter the white tips wear off, especially on their head and breast feathers. By the time it’s breeding season their faces and chests are shiny, sleek and iridescent. Starlings lose their stars in the spring.
There is one more transformation that starlings make that will tell you which are male and female.
In the winter starlings’ beaks are dark brown but turn bright yellow in spring. You can tell the difference between male and female by looking at the color at the base of their beaks — the part closest to their faces.
Just like the baby colors — girls are pink, boys are blue. You can see it with binoculars.
Here’s a side-by-side comparison. The blue on the male at left is easiest to see. The pink on the female at right is pale and takes more effort to figure out.
(Cardinal photo by Chuck Tague. Starling photos from Wikimedia Commons; click on the captions to see the originals)
If you listen to birds and have learned to identify a few songs, our resident tufted titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor) is an easy one. His typical spring song is a clear whistled “Pete, Pete, Pete” or “Peter, Peter, Peter.”
However he has some tricks up his sleeve. He may get creative with a different-sounding Peter. This one (near a red-winged blackbird) sings “jury, jury, jury” almost like a Carolina wren.
Sometimes he’s really loud and I wonder, Who is that??
Or he sings an oddly accented Peter also quite loud (cardinal in the background).
And here, in an unattended AudioMoth recording, he doesn’t sound like a titmouse at all.
If it’s a song you can’t figure out at a time of year when new migrants have not yet returned maybe it’s a tufted titmouse.
With the spring equinox only five weeks away on 20 March, local songbirds have begun to sing to claim their territories.
Northern cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis) rejoined the soundscape in the last week or two. If you hear a loud “Cheer, Cheer, Cheer” look for the singer perched prominently nearby. Listen for two cardinals singing, one near one far, in this recording.
Song sparrows (Melospiza melodia) are some of the earliest to resume singing. They piped up in January.
Each male song sparrow has a unique variation on the basic song. The typical pattern begins with 3 introductory notes, then a warbling jumble that ends with a higher or lower note than the rest of the song. Here are two examples:
Though the flocks of American robins (Turdus migratorius) in Pittsburgh now are probably migrants that will leave in March, they can’t help but sing in fine weather.
Listen for their “Evening Song” at the end of the day.
When the sun shines in early February some other birds sing, too, including Carolina wrens and tufted titmice.
Get your ears in tune while there aren’t many singing so you’ll be ready when they all sing at once in April.
(photos by Peter Bell and from Wikimedia Commons; click on the caption to see the original)
In mid-December Pittsburgh birders were a-buzz with the news of five red crossbills on Laurel Mountain in Westmoreland County. The birds are so rare in southwestern Pennsylvania that many made the trek to Rector-Edie Road in the Forbes State Forest hoping to see those beaks.
Red crossbills (Loxia curvirostra) are conifer specialists whose crossed beaks are specially evolved to pry open the cones of spruce, hemlock, fir and pine. Because conifer seed abundance varies year to year they are naturally nomadic and highly irruptive. Few are resident anywhere, even in their northern forest breeding range. You can see why they’re so fascinating in this 5-minute video from the Netherlands.
Crossed beaks are worth seeing and not easy to find so at times I’ve been as obsessed with them as Ahab was with Moby Dick. Unfortunately I was out of town on 26 December when five friends drove up Laurel Mountain to find the red crossbills. In three hours on the mountain they heard the birds at Rector-Edie Road and had good looks at Spruce Flats Bog where Donna Foyle took these pictures.
The weather stayed warm last week so seven of us met up at Spruce Flats Bog on Friday 31 December. In the warmth we felt comfortable waiting for two hours for the views Donna had earlier in the week. Instead three red crossbills flew over once without stopping. We couldn’t see their beaks. Aaarrg! That’s exactly why they are called …
Despite my quest for Moby Beak I’m not going back up the mountain any time soon. The weather is now icy and the roads are barely maintained up there. Better luck next time.
(photos by Donna Foyle, video from Wikimedia Commons; click on the captions to see the original)
White-throated sparrows are back for the winter. Here’s something to remember when you see them.
In the world of birds, the bright ones are male and the dull ones are female, right?
Not so for white-throated sparrows (Zonotrichia albicollis). In this species the bright white versus dull tan stripes are color morphs. The bright white-striped bird at top can be either male or female. The tan-striped below is also either sex.
The bird with bright yellow lores on the left could be female. The one with dull yellow could be male.
Amazingly the colors match up to personality traits regardless of sex.
White-striped birds are bold, aggressive, philandering and not particularly caring of their kids. They are not the best parents.
Tan-striped birds are gentle and very caring of their young. They’re the good parents among white-throated sparrows.
Since each bird can tell the other bird’s personality at a glance, you would think the gentle would mate with the gentle and the bold with the bold. But that’s not how they do it. They always mix it up.
White-striped (aggressive) males mate with tan-striped (care-giving) females and tan-striped (gentle) males mate with white-striped (philandering) females. Thus the color morphs and personalities persist.
On Thursday 9 December Charity Kheshgi and I took a walk in Frick Park on the third day in a row of cold weather. Light snow dusted the leaves and logs but the temperature promised to push above freezing by noon.
Best Bird was a very obliging winter wren who finally posed for his portrait, at top, after showing us his tail. Who knew that a winter wren’s tail is so speckled? It’s worth saving a butt shot to see it.
Yellow-bellied sapsuckers were back in town, perhaps a second wave of migrants after the first set left in early November.
A female red-bellied woodpecker was very vocal as she checked out this potential nest hole.
And a wave of juncos (30 of them!) munched seeds in the tall grass blending into the background.
We were surprised to see a northern harrier heading south. At first we identified him by shape (below). Charity was able to see his light underside and black wingtips.
Perhaps the migrants will stick around for a while. On Saturday morning, though rainy, it is 65 F.
While it’s fall in North America it’s spring in Australia and nesting season for birds. One bird in particular has a loud flute-like voice that it uses for claiming territory.
Grey butcherbirds (Cracticus torquatus) are carnivorous songbirds, larger than robins and smaller than grackles. Their hooked beaks, like those of northern shrikes, help them eat small birds and lizards. Yet when they sing duets or in groups it sounds as clear as a flute.
Wikipedia describes their songs:
All members of the territorial group contribute to the territorial song, a loud and rollicking song with both musical and harsh elements. The song can be sung by only one member, but more often it is sung in duet or as a group. Some duets are antiphonal where it is not obvious that two or more birds are singing. Most songs are sung antiphonally with different group members singing different phases sequentially, with sometimes some overlap. Some songs have been known to last up to 15 minutes. During this time, there is no vocal interaction with groups from other territories.