Have you noticed? There aren’t many robins in Pittsburgh right now.
In December it was another story. Every day I watched hundreds feast on the ornamental fruit trees in Oakland. Their numbers fell slightly in early January, then surged again on the 13th when I saw so many that I recorded their number as ∞ (infinity) in my notebook.
But they ate all the fruit and the ground was too frozen to find worms and invertebrates, so they left. If I’m lucky I see one or two robins a day.
This situation is only temporary. The robins wintering in Florida are getting restless. Soon they’ll come north, following the 37oF average daily temperature isotherm and the arrival of the Spring.
You can watch their progress and contribute your own observations on the Journey North website. Click here to see an animated map of the Robin Wave.
We’re in a robin hiatus now but they’ll be back soon. My prediction is March 5. What do you think?
(photo by Chuck Tague)
Much as we’re unhappy with the results, the introduction of house sparrows from Europe began a grand experiment in avian adaptation.
House sparrows were introduced to both the U.S. and New Zealand in the 1850s where they immediately became isolated from their native populations. More than 150 years later they differ based on where they live.
In addition to changes in plumage the birds are different sizes. In locations where winters are harsh, the birds are large. Where the climate is moderate, they are smaller. This effect is called Bergmann’s rule and is true of birds around the world.
In 1992 William A. Buttermer studied house sparrows at a winter roost in Ann Arbor, Michigan where he found that the largest males survived the best.
Not only were the large birds able to thermoregulate better than the small ones but they had two other advantages. The larger birds claimed the most favored roosts and they were able to fast longer.
During winter storms birds must roost and wait for the weather to improve, so they are forced to fast. The larger birds survived fasting better than small ones.
It’s better to be bigger in winter.
(photo by David Lofink via Wikimedia Commons. Click on the image to see the original. Tenth Page is a “wild card” inspired by page 161 of Ornithology by Frank B. Gill.)
This winter in addition to irruptions of evening grosbeaks and redpolls, crossbills have come to Pennsylvania.
I’ve seen white-winged crossbills before, especially in the winter of 2009, but this year they’ve eluded me. People send news of them to PABIRDS but when I travel to their reported location they aren’t there. True to their irruptive nature crossbills are always on the move. Dang!
Last week I ran into Claire Staples while on my lunch break in Oakland. We exchanged bird sightings and Claire said she’d experienced the same problem finding crossbills until quite recently when she heard them near her home in Squirrel Hill.
The clue is their sound. Claire says they sound like typewriters, a useful tip as I actually do remember what typewriters sound like. Shows how old I am!
So now on my walks I’m trying hard not to look for crossbills as I don’t want to jinx my chances of seeing them. But I’m listening for the sound of typewriters.
(Click here to hear.)
(photo by Heather Jacoby)
In snow-covered fields horned larks are easy to see because their brown backs don’t completely blend into the background.
Without snow these birds match the dirt. The only way I find them is by luck — I hear them and then search for movement in the mud.
When the blizzard finally ends on the East Coast today, it will be easy to see horned larks against all that snow. In the meantime in Pittsburgh our snow will melt in tomorrow’s 50 degree temperatures.
Despite the challenge of muddy fields I think I’d rather have a hard time seeing horned larks.
(photo by Bobby Greene)
Again on the theme of camouflage…
Here’s a snow bunting whose winter plumage is makes him hard to see on partially snow-covered ground.
His eye is like a dark pebble, his brown cheek and necklace like mud between the melting snow.
(photo by Shawn Collins)
If you merely glanced at this feeder from afar, you might assume all the birds are goldfinches.
They’re all the same size, but the two birds at the top are common redpolls, the latest arrivals in a massive irruption of winter birds.
In western Pennsylvania they’ve joined purple finches, red and white-winged crossbills, pine siskins, evening grosbeaks, and red-breasted nuthatches, all of whom came south because of the drought up north.
I’ve chronicled other irruptions (see list below) but I don’t remember a year in which so many species visited at the same time. This year the only thing we seem to be missing are snowy owls.
Look closely at your feeders. You might have some exciting visitors.
(photo by Marcy Cunkelman)
The red streak on his belly gave the red-bellied woodpecker his name.
(photo by Marcy Cunkelman)
Still on the theme of South Florida birds… last month when I visited Wakodahatchee Wetlands I noticed that a formerly common bird was missing.
I used to see loggerhead shrikes out there, but this year I didn’t see any. As I drove around the area I could see why.
On my first visit to Wakodahatchee in December 1996 the site had been newly transformed from an open sewage treatment facility to a man-made wetland complete with boardwalk. Back then the site was still embedded in farmland, Jog Road was only two lanes wide, and the road grid from Delray ended nearby.
Since then Wakodahatchee’s habitat proved its worth for birds and made the area more appealing to people by removing the sewage smell. Now, 17 years later, the farmland is gone and the wetland is surrounded by housing developments, shops, parking lots, and a widened road grid. The last bit of open habitat, Green Cay Wetlands, was preserved by Ted and Trudy Winsberg when they sold their farm to Palm Beach County Water Utility.
The suburbanization of western Palm Beach County eliminated the open habitat required by loggerhead shrikes and probably reduced the insect and rodent population they feed on. When their habitat disappeared, the shrikes moved elsewhere. Unfortunately, both the loggerhead shrike and their favored habitat are becoming scarce.
And so, this year I didn’t see any loggerhead shrikes at Wakodahatchee. I am not surprised but I’m not pleased.
As Joni Mitchell sings in Big Yellow Taxi, “Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone. ”
(photo by Chuck Tague)
Here’s a beautiful little bird that’s a favorite of mine though I’ve never actually seen him.
Similar in size to a Carolina wren, the silver-throated tanager (Tangara icterocephala) is a true tanager in the Thraupidae family. Our “tanagers” (scarlet, western, summer, etc.) are now considered cardinals (Cardinalidae).
Silver-throated tanagers don’t migrate so you have to go to the mountain forests of Central or South America to see them. When not breeding they hang out in mixed flocks with other small birds of similar color. Black and yellow is their flock badge.
Since 85% of their diet consists of fruit, I hear it’s easy to attract them to feeders. Wouldn’t it be stunning to see this colorful little bird in your backyard!
Charlie Hickey photographed this one at Dota, San Jose, Costa Rica, last month.
(photo by Charlie Hickey. Click on the image to see the original.)
“Gone away is the bluebird, here to stay is a new bird. He sings a love song as we go along, walking in a winter wonderland.” — Winter Wonderland
Even though Winter Wonderland doesn’t mention Christmas, we sing it at this time of year with thoughts of snow and love.
The lyrics were inspired by snowfall in Honesdale, PA. I like to think they have a special meaning for Pennsylvania birders.
Eastern bluebirds leave northern and western Pennsylvania during cold snowy winters so it’s accurate for a snowy song to say, “Gone away is the bluebird.” (Bluebirds remain further north during mild winters. Eight days ago it was 58 degrees during the Buffalo Creek Watershed IBA 80 Christmas Bird Count; I counted 35 bluebirds!)
And who is the new bird? My choice would be the northern cardinal.
In 1800 northern cardinals were southern birds but they expanded their range northward as people changed the landscape and improved food availability. Cardinals reached northern Ohio in the mid 1800s and were common in Pennsylvania and New Jersey by 1900.
So when the lyrics to Winter Wonderland were written in northeastern Pennsylvania in 1934, the northern cardinal was already here to stay.
(photo by Steve Gosser)