Archive for the 'Songbirds' Category

May 14 2015

Nowhere To Stand

Common grackles contempplating the Mon River (photo by John English)

Common grackles contemplating the Monongahela River (photo by John English)

These common grackles appear to be inspecting the Monongahela River at Duck Hollow. Perhaps they want to touch the water but there’s nowhere safe to stand.

Though grackles aren’t water birds they’re known to dip their food in water, a trait they may have inherited from their ancestry.

On Throw Back Thursday, watch a video of grackles dunking their food even when it doesn’t need it in this article from 2012: Dunkin’ Peanuts.

 

(photo by John English)

 

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Apr 20 2015

Looking For An Old Man’s Beard

Northern Parula (photo by Steve Gosser)

Northern Parula (photo by Steve Gosser)

Northern parula warblers (Setophaga americana) will be migrating through western Pennsylvania in the next few weeks.  They’re on their way to northern breeding grounds, but plenty of them nest south of Pennsylvania.  Why don’t they nest here, too?

My guess is that they used to.

Northern parulas are very versatile about climate.  Their range map shows they breed from the Gulf of Mexico to southern Canada but there’s a gap in the Rust Belt states, New Jersey, and New England that divides their northern and southern populations.

Breeding parulas are hard to find in western Pennsylvania because they’re picky about nesting material.  They look for a site near water with Old Man’s Beard (Usnea lichen) or Spanish moss where they hollow out a cup in the hanging mass and line it with soft fibers. (On rare occasions they choose other hanging material such as flood debris in trees.)

Shown below at left is old man’s beard lichen (Usnea species), at right is Spanish moss (Tillandsia usneoides).  Both are epiphytes that grow on other plants but they aren’t parasitic. They get their nutrition from the air.

Old Man's Beard lichen and Spanish moss (photos from Wikimedia Commons)

Old Man’s Beard lichen and Spanish moss (photos from Wikimedia Commons)

Spanish moss is a southern plant whose northern limit is in coastal Virginia. Usnea grows in North American and European forests where the air is clean, but Old Man’s Beard has been missing from western Pennsylvania for more than a century, killed by our air pollution.  Though Pittsburgh’s air isn’t as bad as it used to be, it’s still too polluted for a plant that lives on air.  Without Old Man’s Beard, the northern parula passes us by.

So, yes, northern parulas probably used to nest here … and they might come back.  Pennsylvania’s forests have regrown since deforestation a century ago, and the air in the mountains is clean enough for lichens.  Breeding northern parulas have increased in the Allegheny and Appalachian mountains and on the high plateau.

When our air is clean enough for Old Man’s Beard we’ll have northern parulas, too.

 

(photo of northern parula by Steve Gosser. Photos of Old Man’s Beard lichen and Spanish moss from Wikimedia Commons. Click on these links to see the original Wikimedia photos)

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Feb 05 2015

TBT: Cardinals See Red

Northern cardinals feeding together in the snow (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

Throw Back Thursday (TBT):

Winter is more than halfway over.  We turned the corner on Groundhog Day.

As spring sunlight increases, birds’ hormones trigger courtship and territorial behavior.

Northern cardinals feed peacefully together during the winter but soon the males won’t tolerate each other.  Click here to read about their spring behavior in this blog post from 2008:  Cardinals See Red.

 

(photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

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Jan 31 2015

Not A Mourning Dove

Published by under Songbirds,Travel

Zenaida Dove (photo by Dick Daniels via Wikimedia Commons)

Zenaida doves (Zenaida aurita) are near matches for mourning doves except they’re slightly smaller and darker, have shorter more rounded tails, and white trailing edges on their wings.  They live on Caribbean islands, including Cuba.  They are very rare in Florida (*).

These field marks would make for a subtle and complicated identification except that mourning doves (Zenaida macroura) don’t live at St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands — at least not in the southeast corner where I’m staying.

Interestingly, they sound just like morning doves so you could be fooled by their song.

 

(photo by Dick Daniels on Wikimedia Commons.  Click on the image to see the original)

(*) See Vincent Lucas’ comment below on Zenaida doves in Florida.

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Jan 26 2015

First Bird On The Agenda

Banaquits arguing in Brazil (photo from Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons license)

The first bird on my St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands agenda is the bananaquit. For me, it’s a Life Bird so I’m excited to see one.  I fear it will soon become “ho hum,” though, because it’s so common on the island.

The bananaquit (Coereba flaveola) is a small, non-migratory bird — only the size of a black and white warbler — but it moves much faster than the warbler.  Can you say “hyper-active?”

Its beak is curved because it eats nectar for a living just like other tropical nectar-eaters: hummingbirds, sunbirds and honeycreepers.

Ornithologists have tentatively placed the bananaquit in the Tanager family but its family relations are often disputed.   Scientists argue about where to place this bird; these two argue about where to place themselves.

They were photographed at Campo Limpo Paulista, Brazil by Leon Bojarczuk.

 

(photo by Leon Bojarczuk via Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons license.  Click on the image to see the original)

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Jan 25 2015

Visiting Warblers At Their Winter Home

Published by under Songbirds,Travel

Black and white warbler (photo by Cris Hamilton)

Today I’m flying to a place that shares my name for a week of hiking with the Keystone Trails Association and Treks & Trails International.

When I heard about the trip last year I thought, How could I not visit St John in the U.S. Virgin Islands?  My husband wasn’t interested (he’d had obligations in Pittsburgh and now he can’t travel because of his concussion) but I knew this would be a great opportunity to visit warblers at their winter home.

Many warblers go to Central and South America for the winter but some stay in the Caribbean.  The most common ones at St. John are: yellow warbler, northern parula, blackpoll warbler, black and white warbler (above), American redstart and northern waterthrush.

I expect to see this bird in the coming week … and many birds I’ve never seen before.

Stay tuned.  :)

 

p.s. Internet access is spotty at St. John so I’ve written and pre-scheduled this week’s blogs ahead of time.  I might not post/respond to your comments this week but I’ll be very active online next weekend!

(photo by Cris Hamilton)

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Dec 22 2014

Pushy Visitor

Published by under Songbirds

Pine siskin and house finch in a dispute at the feeder (photo by Tom Moeller)

A pine siskin visiting from Canada argues with a house finch (red rump) at the thistle feeder.  Tom Moeller captured them in the midst of their dispute.

“Hey! This is mine!”

In the photo you can see a subtle difference between the local bird and the pushy visitor:  The pine siskin’s beak is thin and pointy compared to the house finch’s stout beak.

Pine siskins specialize in small seeds in their northern home.

Each bird has a tool (beak) best suited for his diet.

 

(photo by Tom Moeller)

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Dec 15 2014

Can’t Tell Their Sex By Their Color

White-throated sparrow, white-striped color morph (photo from Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons license)

White-throated sparrow, white-striped color morph (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Many birds are sexually dimorphic — males are more colorful, the females are drab — but this isn’t true of white-throated sparrows.

White-throated sparrows come in two color morphs: white-striped shown above, tan-striped below.  The crisp white-striped birds aren’t always male, the plain tan-striped birds aren’t always female.  You can’t tell their sex by color.

White-throated sparrow, tan-striped color morph (photo by Henry McLin on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

White-throated sparrow, tan-striped color morph (photo by Henry McLin, Flickr Creative Commons license)

Here they are side-by-side: white-striped on left, tan-striped on right.  Notice that …

White-throated sparrows -- white-striped and tan-striped side-by-side (photos from Wikimedia Commons and Henry McLin, Creative Commons licenses)

  • Head stripes are black-and-white versus brown-and-tan
  • Lores are bright yellow versus dull yellow
  • Malar stripe is weak versus prominent
  • Breast is gray versus brown-and-tan
  • Breast is mostly clear versus very streaky

Not only do they look different but the white-striped birds are aggressive, philandering and don’t take much care of their kids while the tan-striped birds are gentle and very caring of their young.

You would think these differences would force one of the color morphs to disappear from the gene pool but it doesn’t.  The reason is surprising.

When it comes to picking mates, these birds always mix it up.  White-striped (aggressive) males mate with tan-striped (care-giving) females and the tan-striped (gentle) males mate with white-striped (philandering) females. Thus the color morphs and personalities persist.

Learn more about their amazing social behavior in this article by GrrlScientist in The Guardian, May 2011.

And when you see white-throated sparrows you’ll know you can’t tell their sex by their color but the drab ones are always good parents.

 

(photos: White morph white-throated sparrow from Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons license.  Tan morph by Henry McLin on Flickr, Creative Commons license.  Click on each photo to see its original)

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Nov 20 2014

TBT: Messing Around in Mexico

Published by under Songbirds

Yellow-billed Cuckoo (photo by Chuck Tague)

Throw Back Thursday (TBT):

What are “our” birds doing down south while it’s winter up here?

Some of the yellow-billed cuckoos are messing around in Mexico.

Click here for the story from November 2009.

 

(photo by Chuck Tague)

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Nov 10 2014

Flame-chested Crooked Beak

Published by under Songbirds,Travel

Pyrrhuloxia in Arizona (photo by SearchNetMedia on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

To a Pennsylvania birder (me) this looks like an odd female cardinal but it’s actually a male pyrrhuloxia.

Pyrrhuloxias (Cardinalis sinuatus) are closely related to northern cardinals and their ranges overlap in the southwestern U.S.  The pyrrhuloxias take the driest habitats, the cardinals take the wet ones.  If you live in southern Arizona or south Texas you may have both at your feeders.

How do you tell the difference at a glance?  Look at the beak.  Pyrrhuloxias have short, stubby, yellow beaks with a smaller and curved upper mandible.  Adult northern cardinals have bright red-orange beaks while immatures have dull brown-red.

The beak accounts for part of the pyrrhuloxia’s name.  Birds of North America Online explains that “Pyrrhu” comes from Pyrrhula, the genus for bullfinches meaning flame-colored or red. Loxia is the genus name for crossbills and means crooked.

Its a desert cardinal with a flame-colored chest and a crooked beak.

 

(photo taken in Tuscon, Arizona by SearchNetMedia via Flickr, Creative Commons license)

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