Archive for the 'Songbirds' Category

Sep 21 2014

Not Confusing

Published by under Migration,Songbirds

Hooded warbler (photo by Steve Gosser)

September and May are the two best months to find warblers in Pennsylvania, but in the fall many are confusing.  Adult males, like this hooded warbler, are not.

Confusing Fall Warblers got their name from four scary pages in the Peterson Field Guide to Birds where immatures and a few females are lined up to show their differences.  Hah!  They all look the same.

But I’ve learned a trick to overcome the problem.  The more you watch non-confusing adults the easier it is to identify their confusing “kids.”

Within each species the birds have the same body-shapes, feeding habits, perching styles and favorite locations (on the ground vs. thickets vs. treetops).  Often, the confusing birds have colors and markings that hint at their non-confusing cohorts.  Sometimes there’s one indelible clue — like the square of white on the female black-throated blue’s wing that matches the male’s.

Get some practice seeing adult male warblers on Steve Gosser’s new Warbler Page where he displays beautiful photos of Pennsylvania’s best.

Not confusing!


(photo by Steve Gosser, September 2014)

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Aug 23 2014

Waxwing Update

Cedar waxwing nestlings (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

Remember the cedar waxwing nest I wrote about this month?  Marcy Cunkelman sent me an update this morning.

The eggs hatched more than a week ago and the parents have been busy feeding the nestlings.

All those trips to the fruit bushes have paid off.  Three healthy youngsters are tall enough now to be seen in the nest.  They have yellow wrinkled “baby” beaks and crests that look like bad toupees.

It won’t be long before they fly.

Keep growing, little guys.  Your”hair” will look better soon.

Click here to see what a just-fledged cedar waxwing looks like.


(photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

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Aug 02 2014

Hummer Time

Published by under Songbirds

Ruby-throated hummingbird (photo by Steve Gosser)

Did you notice that the hummingbirds “disappeared” in June?  And that they came back in July?

Our ruby-throated hummingbirds really didn’t go anywhere.  They were busy nesting and gathering insects to feed their young.  Since they don’t feed nectar to their babies there was little reason to visit hummingbird feeders.

But now the “kids” are grown and the hummingbird population has surged.  Mom, Dad and the kids are jostling for space at the feeders. Males perch high on dead snags to protect their nectar kingdoms.  Steve Gosser captured this beautiful male on his way to a feast.

Once again it’s Hummer Time!


(photo by Steve Gosser)

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Jul 31 2014

TBT: How Cowbirds Know They Are Cowbirds

Immaure brown-headed cowbird (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

On Throw Back Thursday (TBT)…

At this time of year most birds have stopped breeding and are starting to flock for the coming winter.  Many of us have noticed grackle flocks and soon, I’m sure, we’ll see flocks of brown-headed cowbirds.

The fact that young cowbirds flock with each other is a miracle in itself.  Every one of them was dumped as an egg in another species’ nest where they out-competed their foster parents’ young.   Imprinting behavior says they ought to think they’re members of the foster species, but they don’t.

How do cowbirds know they are cowbirds?  Click here to find out in this Throw Back Thursday article.


(photo of an immature brown-headed cowbird by Cephas at Wikimedia Commons.  Click on the image to see the original)



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Jul 21 2014

Bird Banding At Marcy’s

Hey! says this female northern cardinal on banding day (photo by Kate St. John)

Yo! says this wet northern cardinal.  She was about to be banded at Marcy Cunkelman’s last Saturday.

After a week of gorgeous weather July 19 brought all day rain.  At 7:00am Bob Mulvihill (lead bander), Matt Webb, Amy Feinstein and Becca Ralston were all set up for the National Aviary’s Neighborhood Nestwatch bird banding.  Here they are in a photo from Marcy. It was only drizzling at that point.

Banding Day at Marcy Cunkelman's, 19 July 2014, Amy, Matt, Bob, Becca (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

I arrived around 7:30am and soon there were 14 of us under the shelters.  The birds were wet, we were wet, but we were all well fed at Marcy’s delicious buffet.   During downpours we closed the nets and watched the weather radar on our cellphones.

The target species were eight classic backyard birds — robin, cardinal, mockingbird, catbird, chickadee, song sparrow, Carolina wren, house wren — but Marcy’s yard had many more than that.

Highlights included this immature male northern cardinal. He’s being given something to bite so he’ll stop complaining.  This is safe to do with immature cardinals because they don’t have the gripping power of adults.  His bite is a tight pinch but not painful — I know from experience.  Look closely at the top of his beak and you’ll see a bulge on his upper mandible.  That’s avian pox, a common contagious ailment among birds. (Humans are not at risk.)  Bob said it looked like his pox was healing and would fall off.

Immature male northern cardinal is distracted by biting someone's finger (photo by Kate St. John)


Our Best Bird!   This beautiful male scarlet tanager was a big surprise because the nets were set up by the bird feeders and scarlet tanagers aren’t “feeder” birds.  They normally stay high in the trees eating fruit but the rain brought him lower, trying to stay dry.  (He was soaked just like we were.)  He was probably caught when he tried for the fruit on Marcy’s viburnum shrubs near the feeders.

Best bird -- scarlet tanager -- Banding Day at Marcy's, 19 July 2014 (photo by Kate St. John)


Red-eyed vireos were caught for similar reasons.  Here are two males showing off their red eyes.

Two male red-eyed vireos (photo by Kate St. John)

Becca stroked the birds to keep them calm.  This red-eyed vireo responded by bending over backwards.  Who knew they could do this!

The red-eyed vireo has a flexible neck (photo by Kate St. John)


Here Marcy holds a red-eyed vireo just before she releases it.  We were all as wet as the birds but happy to be with them.

Marcy Cunkelman, ready to release a banded red-eyed vireo, 19 July 2014 (photo by Kate St. John)


The tally for the day was 67 birds.  It was a great day for bird lovers despite the rain.

Thanks to all!


(Banders’ photo by Marcy Cunkelman.  All other photos by Kate St John)

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Jul 15 2014


Published by under Songbirds

Downy woodpecker "teenager" (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

Songbirds grow up so fast that within days of fledging they aren’t babies anymore.

Suddenly they are teenagers — able to find their own food, almost independent of their parents, a little cocky and a little unsure of the world.

Marcy Cunkelman captured these photos of teenage woodpeckers in her garden.

Above, a young downy woodpecker looks like an adult except for the colors on his head.  He fledged with a splash of red on top but that will soon be replaced with black feathers and the red will move to his nape.  Meanwhile he shows off an intricate black-and-white pattern on his forehead as he looks calmly at the camera.

Below, a young red-bellied woodpecker has subtle colors on his face and head with dull gray cheeks and faint orange on his nape. He looks startled. “What is a camera?  Is it dangerous?”

"Teenage" red-bellied woopecker (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

Perhaps your backyard has more starlings than woodpeckers.  (Mine does.)  Click here to see what teenage starlings look like.


(photos by Marcy Cunkelman)

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Jun 14 2014

New Bird In Town

Juvenile European starling (photo by Emőke Dénes from Wikimedia Commons)

There’s a new bird in town with a brown body, faint stripes on his brown chest, black beak, black eye, and a little black mask.

What is he?  A juvenile starling.

He’s confusing because he’s not in the bird guide unless you know to look for starlings.  He doesn’t look like his parents but his behavior is the same as theirs.  The big hint to his identify, if he’s still at the begging stage, is that he won’t leave his parents alone.

You can hear him begging, “Churrrr, churrrr, churrrr.”

Click here for a story about him that I wrote in 2010.

(photo from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the image to see the original.)

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Jun 12 2014

Why Are Warblers Yellow?

Published by under Songbirds

Kentucky warbler (photo by Steve Gosser)

Kentucky warbler (photo by Steve Gosser)

Many warblers have olive-green backs, yellow breasts and black feather accents.  Think of hooded, prairie, Wilson’s and Kentucky warblers like this one.  Why are so many of them this color?

Steve Gosser’s photo shows why.

By the time a warbler nests in North America, the leaves are out and the forest’s light is soft yellow-green.  Seen by a predator from above, the warblers’ olive color matches the dark understory.  From below their yellow breasts match the light filtering through the leaves.  Their black accent feathers break up the colors and look like shadows.

In the winter the warblers live in leafy places in Central and South America where they continue to match the habitat.

Yellow is camouflage.

(photo by Steve Gosser)

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Jun 03 2014

Not Your Typical Backyard Bird

A pair of prothonotary warblers, Conneaut Marsh (photo by Shawn Collins)

This pair of prothonotary warblers at a nest box may give you the impression you can attract them to your yard if you install the proper box.


Surprising for a warbler, prothonotaries choose old woodpecker holes or nest boxes for their nests but they are picky about habitat.  They only nest in forested bottomland, flooded river valleys or swamps.

The male returns from Central America before his lady and places nesting material inside his selected site.  Often it’s over water.  When his lady arrives he hopes she’ll agree that he’s chosen the right place.  If she likes it she adds twigs, leaves, moss and rootlets to finish the nest.

You can’t convince this bird to nest in your back yard … unless your yard is a wooded swamp.


p.s. Thanks to Shawn Collins for the photo that sparked this topic.

(prothonotary warblers at Conneaut Marsh, photo by Shawn Collins)

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May 20 2014

Best Bird

Published by under Songbirds

Worm-eating warbler near Sarah Furnace Rd, 18 May 2014 (photo by Shawn Collins)

Last Sunday I hiked  the Armstrong Trail at Sarah Furnace Road because I wanted to see a worm-eating warbler.

I’d seen them twice before — once at Enlow Fork, Pennsylvania and once at Magee Marsh, Ohio — but every time I’ve tried for them at Sarah Furnace where they’re known to nest I’ve struck out.  I hear them but never see them.

Sunday was slated to turn out the same way.  I walked to the old, closed railroad tunnel at the south end of the trail and I didn’t even hear one.  Perhaps I’d arrived too late in the day.  Perhaps they weren’t around.  I couldn’t tell but I was disappointed and hungry so I sat down — out of sight of the spooky tunnel — and ate my lunch.  Here’s what I mean about spooky.  I was all alone.

Abandoned railroad tunnel, Armstrong Trail, Brady's Bend (photo by Kate St. John)


By 1:00pm I decided it was time to go.  With no particular object in mind I walked back to the tunnel once more.  I stood around for a bit and then I heard *him* singing near me.  A worm-eating warbler!  Eventually he flew out and acrobatically foraged in the dead leaves.  He was easy to see.  Best bird!

Meanwhile, back at the Sarah Furnace parking lot, Shawn Collins had arrived to look for a worm-eating warbler, too.  He recognized my car (it has this bumper sticker) but I was nowhere to be found.  However, there was a worm-eating warbler near my car.  He took its picture, above.

I walked a mile to find a warbler.  He found one near my car.  So now we know there are two.

The Best Birds are in the parking lot.   😉


(photo of worm-eating warbler by Shawn Collins, photo of abandoned railroad tunnel by Kate St. John)

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