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American Crows

American Crow in grain field.
American Crow in grain field.
American Crow in grain field. Photo:Jack Dingle, PGC Photo/Public Domain.

American Crows always fascinate me. It’s their intelligence and the confident way they strut as they walk. To many peoples they symbolize transformation and change. I look into their dark eyes and wish I could hold a conversation with them. I wonder what wise things they would say. 

Who are the Crows?

American Crows (Corvus brachyrhynchos) are the most widespread of the crows. It is the species of crow I see most often here in Philadelphia. I live on the edge of the city with lawns, wooded areas, and plenty of open spaces. This is just the type of habitats crows like. They socialize in small flocks in open habitats.

There are two main species of crows in North America, the American and the Fish Crow. (Corvus ossifragus). The Northwestern Crow (Corvus caurinus) and the Tamaulipas Crow (Corvus imparatus) from Mexico are not as frequent in the U.S. and Canada. . The other crows are visitors from Eurasia. 

The Fish Crow is common more in the south and along the east coast usually near water. The Fish Crow looks very similar to the American Crow, but is a bit smaller and the voice is different. Fish Crows has a higher-pitched single or double cah similar to a young crow’s begging call. 

Flying crows (both American and Fish) have square or slightly rounded tail tips. Ravens tails are wedge-shaped in flight. 

I don’t know if I’ll be able to tell them apart. I ‘m sure I’ve seen Fish Crows and thought it the American. 

The Crow Family

Crows and Ravens are all classified in the genus Corvus. They makeup half of the family Corvidae worldwide. All of the members of the family in North America have all-black plumage. There are members of the family with gray or white markings in the rest of the world. There is at least one specie of Corvidae in most habitats in North America.

Differences between American Crows and Ravens

Ravens (Corvus corax) are much larger than crows, with a heavier bill, and a wedge-shaped tail.  Instead of the open habitats of crows, ravens are common in forests, mountains, canyons, deserts and the coast. The Chihuahuan Raven is common in arid areas. 

American Crow in flight.
American Crow in flight.

What are their Characteristics?

American Crows weight about one pound, are 17.5 inches long and have a wingspan of about 39’ from wing tip to wing tip. The American Crow has a large head, broad wings and a short,  rounded or blunt tail. They fly with smooth wingbeats and they glide with wings slightly raised. Ravens fly with their wings flat. 

A Year Round Resident 

American Crows live in their territories year round. They are certainly in my neighborhood  all year. I see them in groups and flocks. Sometimes two or more walking along the ground of perched in trees. Their family groups range in size from 2 – 10 birds. The family groups are made up of birds of various ages. Many times they include the parents and young from previous years that help raise the current brood.  

How Do They Live?

American Crows create nests that amounts to a bulky bowl made of twigs lined with leaves, moss, or other materials. The nest is usually hidden in the fork of a tree. Generally a crow’s nest is located between 25 and 75 feet above the ground. Sometimes the nest is on the ground. 

American Crows gathering for night time roost
American Crows gathering for night time roost.

When they are not nesting and raising youth, crows gather in large communal roosts. These roosts gather in large trees and number thousands of individuals. The nesting season for American Crows in February through June. They raise one brood of 4 to 6 greenish eggs spotted with brown. The female is the main incubator. The eggs take 16 to 18 days to hatch. Between 28 to 35 days old, the young fledge. Fledge is when a young birds develops wing feathers which are large enough for flight. Young crows stay with their parents for up to four years. 

What Do They Eat? 

Crows success is due to their extremely diverse diet.They are omnivorous ground feeders. They eat small animals including fish, bird eggs and nestlings, snails, small reptiles, insects, worms, dead animals, snails, and other invertebrates.  They eat plant foods such as grains, seeds, and fruits.  Also food waste thrown out by human is on the menu. 

If you want to attract crows, particularly if you want to study these fascinating birds, put out bread scraps or corn on the ground. They’ll eat suet from a feeder if they can reach it. They will eat the fruit from shrubs, particularly the fruit the falls to the ground. 

All members of the Corvid genus store extra food. The bury it in the ground or hide it in trees. Crows will drop a nut onto a hard surface such as a road to break open the shell. See Storing Food for the Winter (How to Hoard)  

Where are They Found?

Crows live year round in small groups in the the lower forty-eight section of the US. Canada is the breeding territory for many crows. And a few areas of the southwest along the Mexican border are winter grounds probably for the individuals who spend the summer breeding in Canada.

Flock of Crows
Flock of crows

Behavior to Watch

During the winter, crows congregate in large flocks. They forage as large flocks at abundant food sources such as a grain fields,  gleaning the leftover seeds. Crows gather together at night to roost in large numbers. 

Perhaps the large groups make it easier for the birds to watch for the one of their most dangerous predator, the Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus) 

Early one June morning, just after 9 am I heard the husky, piercing scream of a Red-tailed hawk and the American crows went crazy. The crows nesting in the Locust tree out back, began to “caw-caw-caw”, frantically until the hawk left the area. The crows were nesting high in the trees raising their young. 

Crows, like Blue Jays will mob a predator.  By mobbing a predator they will make loud, noisy calls and dive at the predator. I saw a neighbor’s cat mobbed by Blue Jays diving and striking the cat along its’ back. 

American Crow perched in a tree
American Crow perched in a tree.

As I write this in late autumn, I hear the caw of a American Crow nearby. I see it perch on the tip of a branch high in the Sycamore tree that towers over the rooftops of the house the next street over. As the Sun sinks lower in the the late afternoon sky, I watch a crow walk across the roofs of the house across from my window. I have always liked crows. There is something special about them. 

Other Crows in North America

Northwestern Crow (Corvus caurinus) is common in coastal areas along the Pacific coast from Alaska to British Columbia. 

Hooded Crow (Corvus cornix) is a rare visitor from Europe spotted in New York and New Jersey. This crow has a pale gray neck and breast. 

House Crow (Corvus splendens) is. Rare visitor form Asian that is smaller than the American crow with gray neck. Cheeks, and breast. 

 

Works Consulted

Burton, Robert, and Stephen W. Kress. Audubon Backyard Birdwatcher: Birdfeeders & Bird Gardens. San Diego, CA: Thunder Bay Press, 1999.

Sibley, David. The Sibley Guide to Birds. Second edition. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2014., p. 384-385.

Sibley, David, Chris Elphick, and John B. Dunning. The Sibley Guide to Bird Life & Behavior. 1st ed. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2001.

Stokes, Donald W., and Lillian Q. Stokes. Stokes Field Guide to Birds. Eastern Region. 1st ed. Boston: Little, Brown, 1996.

 

Related posts and Information

Starling Murmurations: How to Find One and When to Watch (with video)

A Murder of Crows: What does it mean?

Native American Crow Mythology http://www.native-languages.org/legends-crow.htm

 

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Confusing Summer Eclipse Plumage of Waterfowl

male mallard duck in eclipse plumage
Eclipse plumage of male Mallard. Mihael Grmek, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons.

Male ducks and other waterfowl have colorful, distinct plumage. For a month or more after breeding, a male duck will molt and sport dull plumage like the female.

These plumage stages are called “basic (bright) plumage” and “alternate (eclipse) plumage” in ducks. It’s called eclipse plumage since it eclipses the vivid basic plumage. Eclipse plumage is temporary. The next molt replaces the eclipse plumage with the colorful (basic) plumage we see during most of the year.

Females Molt First

Females ducks begin partial body and head molt in spring once they arrive on the breeding grounds or before. For one to three months the female ducks are busy being mothers and caring for their young. After the young have fledged, the female duck loses all her flight feathers at once. This happens in the nesting area.

Males stay in their bright, basic plumage later in the spring than females and begin their molt in early summer. Male ducks have already abandoned their mates and some leave the breeding area. Males of many kinds of ducks have specific molting areas they go to as they begin their summer molt. These areas are often a far distance away from the females.

Wood duck male in eclipse plumage
Wood Duck Aix sponsa, male in eclipse plumage (retains red bill. Credit: Judy Gallagher, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons.

Flight Feathers are the First to Go

The reason for the eclipse plumage is that ducks replace all their flight feathers at the same time. During this time they are flightless. In midsummer, it seems all the male ducks disappear, they haven’t. They are hiding in plain sight or flown off to a distant location. They just look like the females.

First the flight feathers shed all at once. Then the colorful head and body feathers molt (shed) to make way for new feathers.  (Once the flight feather regrow and the birds are able to fly, the bright, eye-catching head and body feathers regrow also.

male mallard duck in eclipse plumage
Male Mallard in eclipse plumage. Credit: Materialscientist, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons.

For both male and female ducks the “summer molt” of flight feathers will last from three to five weeks.

So during the fall, winter, and spring the birds wear the familiar plumage colors we know. It’s summer when identifying ducks looks confusing. This eclipse plumage is mostly seen in adult birds, juvenile plumage is whole other kettle of fish.

Order of Plumage of Ducks

Bright breeding plumage (fall-winter-spring) eclipse plumage (summer) Bright breeding plumage (fall-winter-spring)

birds_ducks_black_mallard.
An American Black Duck (Anas rubripes top left) and a male Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos bottom right in eclipse plumage).
Credit: Jean-Philippe Boulet, CC BY 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons

Ducks with Eclipse Plumage during Summer

  • Mallard
  • Wood Ducks
  • Blue-winged Teal
  • Green-winged Teal
  • Northern Pintails
  • Northern Shovelers

Works Consulted

Kaufman, Kenn, and Kenn Kaufman. Kaufman Field Guide to Advanced Birding: Understanding What You See and Hear. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011.

Sibley, David, Chris Elphick, and John B. Dunning. The Sibley Guide to Bird Life & Behavior. 1st ed. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2001.

Williams, Ernest H. The Nature Handbook: A Guide to Observing the Great Outdoors. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

More on Waterfowl

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Waterfowl Migration in Autumn

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American Redstart

Setophaga_ruticilla_American_redstart_male
American Redstart (Setophaga ruticilla), male (Dover Publications)
American Redstart (Setophaga ruticilla), male. Photo: Dover Publications

While on a  warbler walk years ago, I learned that the American Redstart (Setophaga ruticilla) and the Red-eyed Vireo (Vireo olivaceus) were once the most common birds in Philadelphia and the rest of Pennsylvania.

Still Common?

Once I learned that the Redstart was once one of the most common birds, I began to imagine Redstarts as common as American Robins. The current state of the American Redstart population is stable. There are so many of these birds and they range over an extremely wide area. They range over much of North America, Central America, the West Indies, parts of Eurasia and Africa.

I think any decline is where the bird is found. The American Redstarts is a wood warbler.  Wood Warblers are generally small birds that live in thick to semi-open woodlands, marshes, swamps and forest edges. They like to be near water. Philadelphia provided plenty of forest interior and waterside sites in the past. This is has changed a great deal. I think if I lived in a more wooded or forested area, I would probably see more of the birds.

The American Redstarts I’ve seen were in forests with several ponds and streams nearby. When forests and woodlands are cut down, American Redstarts lose their homes. And the fragmentation of wooded areas leads to an increase in predators which like to hunt along habitat edges. Cowbirds seem to target warblers as foster parents for their large, hungry offspring.

 

American Redstart bird, male
American Redstart bird, male. Photo courtesy of Dan Pancamo Photography http://photos.pancamo.com found on Wikimedia – 3 May 2015

When to See the American Redstart

The American Redstart is a common breeding bird in the northern plains states and areas east of the Mississippi River in North America and in the Philadelphia Region. The American Redstart can be seen in Pennsylvania during the breeding season. They are found here from mid-April until late October. A few stragglers may stay in our area into January, which isn’t very cold anymore.

But this little bird winters in Central America and warm island places like Jamaica. It’s a neotropical migrant.

 

About

I when I see the American Redstart I am so hypnotized but the bright and pretty colors of the male, that I forgot to snap a few photos. Not that I could anyway. Like all warblers, these little insect eaters are fast. Warblers always seem to be “hepped-up” on caffeine. Never staying in one place, and hopping from tree, to trunk to leaf pile, and on and on.

When I go birding, many of us in the group suffer from “warbler neck”. This condition results in a tired head and chest area, as your neck and head are jerked around repeatedly. On warbler treks, people loudly whisper, “Where is the bird?” I can’t see it?” “I hear it, but oh, wait, maybe there are two.” Every warbler walk I have gone on goes like this.

 

female American Redstart (Setophaga ruticilla)
The female American Redstart (Setophaga ruticilla) around Sapelo Island. Photo courtesy: The Lilac Breasted Roller from Sullivan’s Island, United States, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons

Appearance

The male is sports the flamboyant black-and-orange plumage on tail patches and wings.The females have a gray-green head and olive-brown upper body. The underparts are a clear white. Touches of yellow are on her shoulder, wing and tail patches.

The striking orange and black patterns are bright in full view, but serve to camouflage the bird among the shady, leafy branches, the bird’s prime foraging places. The local common name for the American Redstart in Central America is “candelita” meaning “little candle”.

 

What They Eat

American Redstarts are mainly insectivorous, feeding on insects plucked from leaves, twigs and bark. The bird will also feed on nectar and small fruits in winter and during migration.

A common foraging technique of the Redstart is to flush insect prey into the open by flashing the color on its tail patches and wings. As the startled insects flee the American Redstart follow in hot pursuit, often catching insects in mid-air like a flycatchers.

Setophaga_ruticilla_American_redstart_male
A male American Redstart (Setophaga ruticilla) in Chiquimula, Guatemala. Photo courtesy Dennis Jarvis from Halifax, Canada derivative work: Snowmanradio, CC BY-SA 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons

Attracting the American Redstart

If you wanted to attract this bird to your backyard habitat, bird garden or naturalist garden, it seem the best way is to plant plants that attract insects. Native oaks, cherries, plums, birches, crab apples, blueberries and other species that provide food for insect larva are a good start. Having those trees in a leafy neighborhood or near a woods would greatly increase your chances of seeing the American Redstart in your home garden.

Offering water is always a good option. Put out drinking water in water feeders. Keep a swallow birdbath filled with water for bathing.

The Song of the American Redstart

 

Conclusion

It is always a special day when I see American Redstarts. As the breeding season is underway and you walk in the woods, keep an eye out for this beautiful and wide ranging bird.

More on Warblers

What are Neotropical Migrants? (A Beginning Birder’s Guide)

Spring Warblers &#8211; Birding Tips and Techniques

A Warbler Walk 

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Spring Warblers – Birding Tips and Techniques

Setophaga_ruticilla_American_redstart_male
Yellow Warbler (Dendroica petechia). Photo courtesy Pennsylvania Game Commission/Joe Kosack.
Yellow Warbler (Dendroica petechia). Photo courtesy of Pennsylvania Game Commission/Joe Kosack.

Warblers are arriving and birders are all a flutter. These birds have a reputation as challenging the most experienced birdwatchers. In this post I focus on understanding their habits, hopefully making the spring warbler-watching season a fun one.

Warblers of the World

Warblers are classified in two categories by western scientists, Old World (Sylviidae) and New World (Parulidae) birds. The Old World includes Eurasia, Africa, and Australia. The “New World” includes the Caribbean, North, Central, and South America.

“New World” Warblers are small, arthropod-eating birds of Central, South America, and the Caribbean which breed in North America north of Mexico. During spring they migrate as far north as Canada.

 

Hooded Warbler (Wilsonia pusilla). Photo courtesy Jake Dingel/Pennsylvania Game Commission.
Hooded Warbler (Wilsonia pusilla). Photo courtesy Jake Dingel/Pennsylvania Game Commission.

The Wood Warblers

The Parulidae family is called the ‘wood warblers’. The Parulidae are split into two subfamilies, the ‘wood warblers proper’ (Parulidae) and the ‘banana quits’ (Coerebinae). The bananaquits have one species in the Caribbean. This post focuses on the Parulidae, wood warblers of the Americas and the Caribbean.

There are about 116 species of wood warblers that breed in North America, give or take a few. Scientists debate amongst themselves as to how they decide a bird fits into the Parulidae family.  It still is one of the largest bird families.

A female yellowthroat bathing in the Vale of Cashmere in Prospect Park, Brooklyn. Early in the video there’s also a female American redstart.

Video courtesy of Rhododendrites, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons

Warbler Traits

One hundred sixteen species are categorized as Parulidae and all those species share a number of traits.

The wood warblers are small, anthropoid eating perching birds. Species lengths range from 4 to 7.5 inches long. They have skinny little legs that look like toothpicks.

Most have short, pointy slender or flat beaks. They eat arthropods which include insects, spiders, and crustaceans. They search for food in tree bark, among tree leaves, and on the forest floor.

Setophaga_ruticilla_American_redstart_male
A male American Redstart (Setophaga ruticilla) in Chiquimula, Guatemala. Photo courtesy Dennis Jarvis from Halifax, Canadaderivative work: Snowmanradio, CC BY-SA 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons

Many are colorful.  The most common plumage colors are yellow and olive. But also red, black, gray, and green feathers on some species.

female American Redstart (Setophaga ruticilla)
The female American Redstart (Setophaga ruticilla) around Sapelo Island. Photo courtesy: The Lilac Breasted Roller from Sullivan’s Island, United States, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons

The males have brighter and sharper color plumage that females. The females being nest sitters have duller more subdued coloration. The young fledglings, both male and female, share the plumage of their mothers but a bit duller.

Very Colorful Wood Warblers

  • Golden Swamp Warbler (Protonotaria citrea)
  • Northern Parula (Parula americana)
  • Blackburnian warbler (Dendroica fusca)
  • Red-faced Warbler (Cardellina rubrifrons)
  • American Redstart (Setophaga ruticilla)
Male Kentucky Warbler (Oporornis formosus) singing.
Male Kentucky Warbler (Oporornis formosus) singing. Photo courtesy Andrew Weitzel from Lancaster, PA, USA, CC BY-SA 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons. Audio courtesy G. McGrane, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

And they have lovely songs. The males are the singers in all but a few species. When warblers are return to their breeding territories I believe their beautiful songs greatly enhance the dawn chorus.

Learning the songs and calls of spring warblers, particularly the most common species, may be your best bet in identifying them, because you may not actually see them.

They constantly move. On many occasions I have heard birders, call out, “Hold still!’ while trying to focus their binoculars on warblers hopping through the trees.

 

Warbler Migration

May is the height of warbler migration. Most American warblers of Central and South America, stay in tropical forests all year around. but some take part in Neotropical migrations and move to northern ecosystems to breed and raise young.

Neotropical migratory American wood warblers breed and raise their young in forests of higher latitudes. This includes the woods and forests of Alaska, Northern and Southern Canada and the United States.

They birds take advantage of the abundance of anthropoids (insects) and more choices of nesting sites than are available crowded tropical areas.

When to Go Birding, I mean Warbling

It is during migration that birders in North America get a chance to see neotropical birds. Otherwise, you would have to travel to the tropics to see them. Birding during spring migration is when the birds save us an expensive overseas trip.

Warblers migrate at night, from dusk to dawn the next morning during spring and fall. During the day they stop to feed. This is when birders get to see them: from dawn all day until they take off at dusk and continue their migration. Unless your area is their breeding territory. 

During migration several species may feed in the same area, creating a bonanza for excited birders.

Breeding

At least 52 species of American Warblers breed within the central and eastern portions of North America from about the middle half of the United States to the southern half of Canada.

Several species can breed in the same stand of trees but feed in different parts of the tree canopy, on the surface of tree bark, or on the forest floor.

Yellow Warbler (Dendroica petechia). Photo courtesy Pennsylvania Game Commission/Joe Kosack.
Yellow Warbler (Dendroica petechia). Photo courtesy Pennsylvania Game Commission/Joe Kosack.

Identifying Wood Warblers

In spring, the different species of spring warblers are easy to identify. The males are brightly colored and they sing species distinctive songs. The female plumages are similar to the males, but the colors are more subtle.

In fall, things get a bit more challenging. Some species change their plumage and can look very different than they did in the spring. The males aren’t singing either. The work of breeding and raising young is over, so there is not need to attract a mate.

Adding to the difficulty, in fall that the plumage of juvenile warblers is similar to their mothers, but duller.

Very Common Wood Warblers

These warblers are common in many areas of North America.

  • Yellow Warbler (Dendroica petechia)
  • Common Yellowthroat (Geothlypis trichas)
  • Yellow Breasted Chat (Icteria virens) – the largest species of Warbler
  • Yellow rumped Warbler (Dendroica coronata)
  • American Redstart (Setophaga ruticilla)

Keeping a Life List or Birder’s Journal

Mystery Bird in the Middle of the Atlantic Ocean

Habitats

Wood warbler choice of habitats contribute to making they hard to see. They like thickets, dense shrubs, and hopping along branches high in the tree canopy. Because of their preferences look for warblers along woodland and forest edges. They can also be found in marshes and swamps.

Photographing Warblers

Getting photographs of these small, hyperactive birds is a challenge. I would love to get a great photo or two of at least two species of warblers. It takes research and practice way before you hit the birding trail. 

An article by Bill Palmer appeared on the North American Nature Photography Association blog entitled, Chasing Spring Warblers

From the article:

“Most of us are pretty adroit at photographing eagles, hawks, pelicans, ducks and other large birds, but what about photographing small, hyperactive, secretive birds such as warblers? Adding to the challenge, when you do get a chance to see one, it may only be visible for a few…”

The tips in this article also help with spotting the warblers on birding trips.

I share it here because it has such excellent advice. Highlights from the article

  • learn the calls and songs of the species you are most likely to see and hear
  • learn which warbler like which habitat
  • spring warbler migration starts in late March through May in North America
  • warblers fly over the Gulf of Mexico back into North America
  • Magee March in Northwest Ohio is called, “The Warbler Capital of North America”
  • the technical stuff of photographing warblers – camera, lens, flash, etc. is covered
  • hints and tips of getting the shot

 

Conclusion

I hope this post has shed a little light on how to observe warblers. In researching this article I learned some tips on how to up my “warbler game”.

I do get excited when I actually “see” one of these birds on a branch or tree limb. Spotting one feels like a major accomplishment. They are a challenge. That’s why birders love warbler season.

This is an updated post originally published March 4, 2020.

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Arctic Birds that Visit in Winter (with video)

American Tree Sparrow (Spizelloides arborea)
American Tree Sparrow (Spizelloides arborea)
American Tree Sparrow (Spizelloides arborea) Jocelyn Anderson [CC BY https://creativecommons.org/%5D

Arctic birds spend the summer nesting season in the Far North at the Arctic Circle. Some are year-round residents of the chilly North. But when winter weather  approaches or food is hard to find, these Arctic birds migrate south to areas with more food. This is your chance to see them without embarking on a costly trip.

What I didn’t realize when I was a new birder was that some birds I wouldn’t see in my local area except in winter. It seems so much emphasis is placed on the spring and summer migrants, that I didn’t realize winter could yield exciting sightings, too.

 

Where to Find Arctic Birds Further South

Experienced birders participate in forums, alerts, and social media pages to be aware of sightings of winter visitors from up north. Unless you travel to points near the Arctic Circle, the winter migrations maybe the only way you get to see these birds.

Normally these birds can be found in ecosystems similar to where they live up North. Snowy Owls will be seen in open fields and grasslands. Red-throated Loons will winter on the shorelines of oceans and bays.

Your backyard may be an area with more food for species such as Bohemian Waxwings or American Tree Sparrows.  Or Snowy Owls maybe show up in a grassy field in your area. Some birds may hang around as late as April until they move back north to breed and raise young.

Snowy Owl landing
Snowy Owl landing in field in winter.

Arctic Visitor: The Snowy Owl

Snowy Owls spend their summers in the Far North of the Arctic Circle. It is an uncommon to rare sight in the lower 48 states of the U.S. When birders in the lower 48 states see this spectacular bird it is big news. Look at your bird field guides range map of the Snowy Owl. Looking at just how far north these birds live, you might rush over to the open fields or marshes to spot a Snowy Owl visitor, too.

Piping plover (Charadrius melodus) walking on the beach
Piping plover (Charadrius melodus)
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Public domain.

Shorebirds in WInter

Shorebirds are a group of birds which share characteristics such as living and feeding along the water’s edge. Most of the 53 species in North America breed in the Arctic and winter along the coastlines.

Instead of camping out on the summer tundra where I hear there are murderous swarms of insects, take a trip to the seashore. Shorebirds will be numerous on beaches where humans frolicked in summer.

Red-breasted_Nuthatch_(Sitta_canadensis)5 By pbonenfant [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Red-breasted_Nuthatch_(Sitta_canadensis)5 By pbonenfant

Arctic Birds Species Common at Winter Feeders

Bohemian Waxwings (Bombycilla garrulus) breed in the far north and often winter in southern Canada and the northern U.S. In irregular years the birds venture as far south as Pennsylvania through the midwest U.S. Trees and shrubs that hang onto their fruit into the winter will attract these birds. When a winter flock of Bohemian Waxwings is spotted in nearby forests, birders gather to see these elegant birds.

The American Tree Sparrow (Spizella arborea) breeds in the north and spends winters over much of the United States. They might visit your feeder. The American Tree Sparrow winter diet consists of small weed and grass seeds. They will select the small millet and nyjer seeds from trays set on the ground.

The Red-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta canadensis) lives in coniferous forests and feeds on the seed in cones of spruce, fir, and other conifers. If the seed harvest from cones is less than what the Red-breasted Nuthatch will irrupt south of the coniferous forests, They can be found in coniferous trees, grasslands, and backyard bird feeders. At feeders they favor sunflower seeds or suet.

Evening Grosbeaks (Coccothraustes vespertinus) live in the coniferous forests in the western U.S. and Canada. This species may irrupt in large flocks. These birds prefer their sunflowers in platform feeders or on the ground.

white pine tree grove
White Pine Trees in a cluster. Photo by Donna L. Long.

Ecosystems Where Arctic Birds are Found

Arctic Birds that Visit Backyard Feeders

  • American Tree Sparrow
  • Evening Grosbeak
  • Red-breasted Nuthatch

Observing on Wetlands, Ponds, Rivers, Bays, etc.

  • Long-tailed Duck
  • Red-throated Loon

Observing along the Coastline of the Atlantic or Pacific Oceans

  • most of the 53 species of shorebirds in North America

Observing at Grasslands

  • Willow Ptarmigan
  • Rough-Legged hawk
  • Snowy Owl
  • Northern Goshawk
  • Snow Bunting
  • Northern Shrike

Observing at the Shore

  • Glaucous Gull
  • Iceland Gull
  • Bonaparte’s Gull

Observing in Forests

  • Bohemian Waxwing
  • Red Finch
  • Common Redpoll
  • Red Crossbill
  • White-winged Crossbill
  • Pine Grosbeak
  • Golden-crowned Kinglet

Breed in the Arctic and Winter in British Columbia

  • Yellow-Billed Loon
  • Peregrine Falcon

Birds that Nest in the Arctic Wildlife Refuge and Winter in the U.S.

  • Long-tailed Duck
  • Snow Bunting
  • American Tree Sparrow
  • Glaucous Gull
  • Rough-Legged Hawk
  • Common Redpoll
  • Red-throated Loon

Birds to Watch for in Winter (Video)

Lesley the Bird Nerd created a very helpful video which highlights the species to watch out for, why they may arrive further south, and where to locate them.

Conclusion

I hope this article clarifies why birders make such big deals over winter sightings of birds. And I think it also shows that birding is a year-round activity. If you have questions or can add to our understanding,  please leave your comment below.

Works Consulted

Barker, Margaret A., and Jack L. Griggs. The FeederWatcher’s Guide to Bird Feeding. 1st ed. A Cornell Bird Library Guide. New York, NY: Harper Resource, 2000.

Sibley, David. The Sibley Guide to Birds. Second edition. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2014.

Stokes, Donald W., and Lillian Q. Stokes. Stokes Beginner’s Guide to Shorebirds. 1st ed. Boston: Little, Brown, 2001.

Related Posts on Winter Birding 

Winter Birding: How to Master It (with video)

Winter Bird Migrations and Irruptions

Common Winter Birds Across North America

Winter Bird Feeding Guide: Attract Birds to Your Backyard (with video)

Learn the Fall and Winter Colors of These Common Birds

 

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Common Winter Birds Across North America

By Minette Layne (Flickr: [1]) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
By Minette Layne (Flickr: [1]) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Chestnut Backed Chickadee By Minette Layne (Flickr: [1]) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

In North America, there only two dozen common winter feeder bird species that are widespread and can be seen in both the west and east. In both the eastern and western regions there are about another ten species that visit bird feeders.

There are a few surprise visitors, but as you will see in the lists below, there are not that many species that will make birding convenient for you by visiting your backyard.

A Sharp-shinned Hawk perches on my garden fence. Photo by Donna L. Long
A Sharp-shinned Hawk perches on my garden fence. Photo by Donna L. Long

There are other birds in the U.S. and Canada during winter, they just won’t visit your feeders regularly. You may be lucky (or is it unlucky) enough to have a Red-tailed Hawk or a Sharp-shinned Hawk hunt at your feeders for the small, delicious birds you attract. A Great-horned Owl may hang out in a nearby tree.

The birds that live in wet habitats, like shorebirds and waterfowl, are hanging out by the last patches of unfrozen water. If you want to see those birds, you will have to go where they are, unfrozen lakes, rivers, bays, and the oceans.

American Tree Sparrow (Spizelloides arborea)
American Tree Sparrow (Spizelloides arborea) Jocelyn Anderson [CC BY 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)]

As the spring gets under way and the far north arctic regions begin to thaw, visiting arctic bird species will return to the taiga and tundra. These birds breed arctic and winter in the lower 48 states of the U.S. or the more southern areas of Canada. Depending where you live, winter maybe the only chance you get to see some of the birds.

Next week’s post will be on the Birds That Breed in the Arctic and spend the winters in southern Canada and the Continental U.S.

Female Hairy Woodpecker eating suet at my buffet.
Female Hairy Woodpecker eating suet at my buffet.

This is a list of the most common birds which visit bird feeders in the winter months. These birds can be observed across North America including the United States and Canada. The list is compiled from Project FeederWatch.org, a citizen science project of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

The list is broken down by those species that are widespread and those which are seen either in the east or west.

A male Cardinal and Mourning Dove eating from a platform feeder.
A male Cardinal and Mourning Dove eating from a platform feeder.

Widespread Common Winter Feeder Birds (about 24 species)

Woodpeckers

  • Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens)
  • Hairy Woodpecker (Picoides villosus)

Thrushes

  • American Robin (Turdus migratorius)

Starlings

  • European Starling (Sturnus vulgaris)

Doves

  • Mourning Dove (Zenaida macroura)

Nuthatches

  • White-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis)
  • Red-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta canadensis)

Chickadees and Titmice

  • Black-capped Chickadee (Parus atricapillus)

Cardinals

  • Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis)

Blackbirds

  • Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus)
  • Brown-headed Cowbird (Molothrus ater)

Finches

  • American Goldfinch (Carduelis tristis)
  • Purple Finch (Carpodacus purpureus)
  • House Finch (Carpodacus mexicanus)
  • Pine Siskin (Carduelis pinus)
  • Evening Grosbeak (Coccothraustes vespertinus)

Sparrows

  • White-crowned Sparrow (Zonotrichia leucophrys)
  • White-throated Sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis)
  • Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia)
  • Fox Sparrow (Passerella iliaca)
  • American Tree Sparrow (Spizella arborea)

Identifying Savannah and Song Sparrows

Old World Sparrows

  • House Sparrow (Passer domesticus)
Steller's Jay (Cyanocitta stelleri)
Steller’s Jay (Cyanocitta stelleri). Photo: public domain, fws.gov

Western Feeder Birds (about 10 species)

The following is a list of birds that visit feeders in the winter in the western region of North America.

Sparrows

  • Dark-eyed Junco (Junco hyemalis) – Oregon form
  • Dark-eyed Junco (Junco hyemalis) – pink-sided form
  • Golden-Crowned Sparrow (Zonotrichia atricapilla)
  • Cassin’s Finch (Peucaea cassinii)

Chickadees

  • Chestnut-Backed Chickadee (Poecile rufescens)
  • Mountain Chickadee (Poecile gambell)

Thrushes

  • Varied Thrush (Ixoreus naevlus)

Jays

  • Stellar Jay (Cyanocitta stelleri)

Blackbirds

  • Brewer’s Blackbird (Euphagus cyanocephalus)

Woodpeckers

  • Red-Shafted (Northern) Flicker (Colaptes auratus)
bird_dark-eyed Junco
Dark-eyed Junco. Photo by Donna L. Long

Eastern Feeder Birds (about 10 species)

The following is a list of birds that visit feeders in the winter in the eastern region of North America.

Chickadees and Titmice

  • Carolina/Black-capped Chickadee mix
  • Carolina Chickadee (Parus carolinensis)
  • Tufted Titmouse (Parus bicolor)

Sparrows

  • Dark-eyed Junco (Junco hyemalis) – Slate-colored form
  • Eastern Towhee (Pipilo erythrophthalmus)

Wrens

  • Carolina Wren (Thryothorus ludovicianus)

Jays

  • Blue Jay (Cyanocitta cristata)

Blackbirds

  • Common Grackle (Quscalus quiscula)

Woodpeckers

  • Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus)
  • Yellow-Shafted (Northern/Taiga) Flicker (Colaptes auratus)
American Tree Sparrow (Spizelloides arborea)
American Tree Sparrow (Spizelloides arborea) Jocelyn Anderson [CC BY 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)]

More Posts on Winter Birding

Winter Birding: How to Master It (with video)

Winter Bird Migrations and Irruptions (with video)

Winter Bird Feeding Guide: Attract Birds to Your Backyard (with video)

Citizen science project: The Great Backyard Bird Count

Citizen science project: Project FeederWatch Info, Tips, and Nature Journaling Ideas

Identifying Song and Savannah Sparrows

identifying Birds by Color: A Collection of Photo Galleries

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What is the Difference Between Ducks, Swans, and Geese?

duck_Male_Bufflehead_taking_off
bird_wood_Duck
Wood Duck, a dabbling duck.

Waterfowl are those birds which swim in and depend on the water for their livelihoods. These includes geese, swans, dabbling, diving, and whistling ducks. The Britain call these birds wildfowl.

The scientific order is called Anseriformes. Ducks, geese, and swans belong to the Anatidae family which includes 170 species. There are 180 species of living birds in the order. Fifty-one species of ducks, geese, and swans naturally occur in North America.

As a birder knowing the difference between diving and dabbling ducks will certainly help me in the field. I was surprised how little I knew about ducks when I started researching this topic. Considering how important a food source ducks are to humans I felt I should know more. Those of us who are deepening our understand and spiritual ties to the land certainly need to know more.

This post is a basic overview of the differences between those birds collectively known as waterfowl.

duck_hooded_merganser
Hooded Merganser Diving Duck. Jean from Shelbyville, KY, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons

Characteristics of Ducks, Swans, and Geese

Ducks, swans, and geese are large compared to songbirds. Swans are the largest of the waterfowl. Ducks are the smallest. These birds swim, float on the water, and some can dive in shallow water. Waterfowl live in a variety of habitats where water is found. It is the depth of water that is important. Ducks which dive deep underwater need deeper waters then ducks which gather food on or just beneath the water’s surface. The birds are found in both fresh and saltwater habitats. You will find them grasslands, shrublands, and forest. They spend their days on ponds, lakes, rivers, streams, bogs, fens, and bays.

Male Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos) preening. Photo by Donna L. Long.
Male Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos) preening. Photo by Donna L. Long.

Male and female geese. swans, and whistling ducks look alike. Female and male diving and dabbling ducks can look very different. The male diving and dabbling ducks are often brightly colored compared to the drab coloration of the females. The drab female plumage serves to camouflage the female as she sits on the nest and incubates the developing eggs.

Confusing Summer Eclipse Plumage of Waterfowl

Waterfowl have broad, elongated bodies. Their wings are short and pointed. Strong wing muscles make these birds strong and fast fliers. Their wings beat rapidly during flight.

Waterfowl generally have long necks. Their legs are short and strong and set far back on the body. Most species are web-footed. They walk awkwardly on land but are strong walkers.

canada geese
Head of a Canada Goose.

Their fattened bills have various specializations based on foraging certain foods. Some species have finely-toothed structures in their bills which stain tiny invertebrate from mud.

Ducks are shorter than swans and geese.

Categories of Waterfowl

  • Waterfowl are ducks, swans, and geese.
  • Other aquatic birds such as loons, grebes,  gallinules and coots are considered to belong to different families than ducks, geese, and swans.
  • Wading Birds include herons, egrets, ibises, storks and spoonbills.
  • Shorebirds include plovers, oystercatchers,, avocets, yellowlegs, sandpipers, dowitchers, snipes, terns and gulls.
  • Diving birds are loons, grebes, pelicans, anhingas, and cormorants. In this post we focus on ducks, swans, and geese.
  • Waterfowl and the Seasonal Round

Ducks, geese, and waterfowl are important Indigenous food sources. The the birds were hunted during migration in the spring and fall. Humans who live in northern areas of North America hunted ducks, geese, and swans when they arrived on their northern breeding grounds in the spring. Once the birds left the cold and tundra regions when the breeding season was over, duck hunting season was over until the next spring.

birds_migration
Waterfowl at Bombay Hook NWR. Photo courtesy NWR

In the lower regions of North America, ducks, geese, and swans were in abundance during the fall migrations. This happened as the agricultural harvest was winding down or completed. Hunters would form hunting parties and travel to areas were the birds were plentiful. The ducks were fat and well-fed in preparation for their migration journeys.

Rappahannock hunters of Tidewater Chesapeake Bay area, hunt waterfowl during the fall migration. The hunters would leave a trail of seeds from the water’s edge further into the bush. The birds follow the trail and eat the seeds. The hunter wouldn’t trap the birds on that first day. The second day the procedure was the same but the birds would be caught this time. If a local resident bird, such as a cardinal was caught in the trap instead of waterfowl, the hunter would release the local bird. This custom not to trap local birds but only ‘stranger’ birds which were passing through on migration. This custom benefited the continued workings of the local ecosystem.

Swans and Geese

There are 12 species of swans and geese that naturally occur in North America. These are large birds, much larger than ducks. The often gather in large flocks. Their colors are muted shades of white, grays, and browns.

bird_tundra_swan
Tundra Swan sitting on nest.

Swans

Swans are the largest of the waterfowl. The birds are gray (juveniles) or white in color.

  • Mute Swan (Cygnus olor)
  • Trumpter Swan (Cygnus buccinator)
  • Tundra Swan (Cygnus columbianus)
bird_goose
Goose

Geese

  • Geese are smaller than swans and white, gray, or brown in color.
  • Brant (Branta bernicla)
  • Barnacle Goose (Branta leucopsis)
  • Cackling Goose (Branta hutchininsii)
  • Canada Goose (Branta canadensis)
  • Emperor Goose (Chen canagica)
  • Graylag Goose (Anser anser)
  • Greater White-fronted Goose (Anser albifrons)
  • Ross’s Goose (Chen rosii)
  • Snow Geese (Chen caerulescens)

Ducks

Ducks are generally smaller than geese and swans with shorter necks. These aquatic birds can be found on both fresh and saltwater.

bird_mallard_duck
Mallard, a dabbling duck, eats just beneath the water surface.

Dabbling Ducks are Surface Feeders

The dabbling ducks are ducks which which live near swallow water. They feed on the surface of the water rarely diving beneath the surface. Most ducks are omnivorous, eating both plants and animals.They feed on the surface of the water eating pond, duck weed and other floating vegetation. Dabbling ducks will tip their heads underneath the water surface and eat aquatic plants, insects, and crustaceans. Often their tail would stick straight up in the air. There are 12 indigenous and 2 introduced species here in North America.

 

Dabbling ducks can easily take off and fly from the surface of the water. Diving birds need a running start before taking off.

  • American Black Duck (Anas rubripes)
  • American Wigeon (Anas americana)
  • Blue-winged Teal  (Anas discors)
  • Bufflehead (Bucephaia albeola)
  • Cinnamon Teal (Anas cyanoptera)
  • Common Merganser (Mergus merganser)
  • Eurasian Wigeon (Anas penelope) – rare visitor, near coast
  • Gadwall (Anas fulvigula)
  • Green-winged Teal (Anas crecca)
  • Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos) – the Mallard on Audubon.org https://www.audubon.org/field-guide/bird/mallard
  • Mottled Duck (Anas rubripes)
  • Northern Pintail (Anas acuta)
  • Northern Shoveler (Anas clypeata)
  • Wood Duck (Aix sponsa)
duck_Male_Bufflehead_taking_off
Male Bufflehead taking off. Kevin Cole from Pacific Coast, USA (en:User:Kevinlcole), CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons

Diving Ducks

Diving Ducks are found on large deep bodies of water which allow them to dive beneath the surface of the water for food. They are found on the sea, lakes, rivers, and breed in marshes. Other names for these ducks is pochards or scaups. Ducks often found on saltwater are called seas ducks. Those found on estuaries are called bay ducks. Bay ducks found mainly on freshwater bays and estuaries. Diving ducks don’t walk on land as well as dabbling ducks.

Diving ducks can’t take off from the water as easily as dabbling ducks. This is because the divers have shorter, broader wings which help in diving beneath the water. These are the ducks you see “running’ across the surface of the water before taking off in flight.

  • Barrows Goldeneye (Bucephala islandica)
  • Black Scoter (Melanitta nigra)
  • Bufflehead (Bucephala albeola)
  • Canvasback (Anthya valisineria)
  • Common Eider (Somateria mollissima)
  • Common Goldeneye (Bucephala clangula)
  • Common Merganser (Mergus merganser)
  • Greater Scaup (Aythya marila)
  • Harlequin Duck (Histrionicus histrionicus)
  • Hooded Merganser (Lophodytes cucullatus)
  • King Eider (Somateria spectablis)
  • Lesser Scaup (Aytha affinis)
  • Long-tailed Duck (Clangula hyemalis)
  • Red-breasted Merganser (Mergus serrator)
  • Ring-necked Duck (Anthya collaris)
  • Ruddy Duck (Oxyura jamaicensis)
  • Surf Scoter (Melanitta perspicillata)
  • White-winged Scoter (Melanitta fusca)

Further Information on Ducks

Waterfowl Migration in Autumn

Confusing Summer Eclipse Plumage of Waterfowl

Bird Migrations

Bird Migration Routes – Do You Live Near One?

Dabbling Ducks https://www.ducks.org/hunting/waterfowl-id/Dabbling (Ducks.org)

Diving Ducks https://www.ducks.org/hunting/waterfowl-id/Diving (Ducks.org)

Works Consulted

Kuhnlein, Harriet V., and Murray M. Humphries. “Ducks.” Http://traditionalanimalfoods.org/. Traditional Animal Foods of Indigenous Peoples of Northern North America (blog). Accessed September 24, 2021. http://traditionalanimalfoods.org/birds/waterfowl/page.aspx?id=6456.

———. “Geese.” Http://traditionalanimalfoods.org/. Traditional Animal Foods of Indigenous Peoples of Northern North America (blog). Accessed September 24, 2021. http://traditionalanimalfoods.org/birds/waterfowl/page.aspx?id=6457.

———. “Swans.” Http://traditionalanimalfoods.org/. Traditional Animal Foods of Indigenous Peoples of Northern North America (blog). Accessed September 24, 2021. http://traditionalanimalfoods.org/birds/waterfowl/page.aspx?id=6458.

Speck, Frank G., Royal B. Hassrick, and Edmund S. Carpenter. Rappahannock Taking Devices: Traps, Hunting and Fishing. Vol. no. 1. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Museum, 1946.

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Attracting Cedar Waxwings to Your Backyard

Cedar Waxwings eating a shadbush berry.
Cedar Waxwings eating a shadbush berry.
Cedar Waxwings eating a shadbush berry.

Cedar Waxwings made my day this week. What alerted me to the Cedar Waxwings was the calls of a vocal Gray Catbird. The Catbird was making a variety of sounds. A pair of House Finches made an appearance. So did a Robin.

Gray Catbird eating shadbush berries
Gray Catbird eating shadbush berries in my garden.

When watching the Catbird through binoculars I was excited to see two Cedar Waxwings on the outer branches of the dead Norway Maple tree, two houses away. I watched one Cedar Waxwing feed the other.

As I settled in a comfortable chair to watch the activity, several more Cedar Waxwings showed up. I knew what drew the Catbirds, House Finch,  and the Cedar Waxwings to my back garden, the Shadbush. The Shadbush is covered with ripening berries.

House Finch eating Shadbush berries
House Finch eating Shadbush berries

I planted the Shadbush over fifteen years ago. I use it as an indicator plant in phenology observations. I had specifically planted the small tree to attract fruit-eating birds to my garden. It worked to attract the Cedar Waxwings, House Finch,  and Gray Catbird.

Few berries are the dark deep red that signals ripeness. I watched the Cedar Waxwings choose berries to eat. I expected the birds to eat the few ripe berries on the tree. The birds eat a variety of berries but seem to prefer the berries that were half green and half red.

Shadbush berreis with Cedar Apple Rust.
Shadbush berries with Cedar Apple Rust.

Some berries have the telltale signs of Cedar Apple Rust. This is the second year the tree has the disease. The birds avoid the infected berries.

There are at least six birds in the flock. Cedar Waxwings travel in flocks. I think they are some of the most attractive and elegant birds in the east.

It is hard to confuse these birds with any other except the larger Bohemian Waxwing which is found in the northern states.

 

Cedar Wxwings checking to see if the Shadbush is safe.
Cedar Waxwings checking to see if it’s safe to feed.

Cedar Waxwing Feeding Behavior

I first noticed the birds as they perch in a tall dead tree about twenty feet form the Shadbush. Apparently this is standard Cedar Waxwing behavior to perch in a tall tree near the food source. Once they decide it is safe to descend to eat the fruit.

They feed primarily on high sugar fruits for most the of the year, from fall to spring. They go where they find fruit. Their favorite food is the fruit of the Eastern Red Cedar, which gave them their name. The Eastern Red Cedar is a juniper with seed cones that look like a long dark purple-blue berry. Inside the juniper berries contain one to three seeds. Juniper berries are an important winter food source for many birds.

During the summer, Cedar Waxwings catch insects and feed them to their young. The adults eat the insects, too. Insects become an important part of their diet, but fruit remains the principal item.

I watched the birds as they plucked one berry and swallowed whole. The largest size seed a bird can swallow is three-fifths of an inch in diameter. So, if a fruit has a seed that is too large, it won’t be of much use to birds.

We know cedar waxwings become intoxicated on overripe berries. People named Cedar Waxwings for their fondness of cedar tree berries.

The birds typically travel in flocks, like House Sparrows. Apparently, this is more efficient in finding food. When I first saw the Cedar Waxwings, there were only three or four. I saw one bird fly off and return, with more waxwings following. I suppose the first bird was a scout.

Cedar Waxing Facts

Common Name: Cedar Waxwing

Scientific Name: (Bombycilla cedrorum)

Family: Bombycillidae – three species worldwide, 2 in North America

Similar species: Bohemian Waxwing (Bombbycilla garrulus) is larger, plumper, and mostly seen in the northern states.

Range: widespread across North America

Habitat: open woods, hedgerows, orchards

Migration: southward in winter

Length: 7 ½ inches

Plumage: sleek gray-brown body with red waxy tips on the wing tips. There are yellow tips on the tail. Black eye stripes, pointed crest. There is a blush of yellow on the sides of the lower breast. The juvenile is streaked.

Behavior: Waxwings travel in flocks outside of the breeding season

Voice: call is a high-pitched trill

Breeding: Monogamous. Waxwings breed later than many other birds.

Nesting: females lay eggs from early June through early August in trees in shrubs near the nests of other Cedar Waxwings. in a cup-shaped nest. The birds nest in small colonies near a good supply of berries. There are 1 or 2 broods.

Eggs: three to five gray shells with black spots; eggs are incubated twelve to sixteen days. Juveniles are ready to fly fourteen to eighteen days.

Food and Foraging: Waxwings eat sugary fruit almost exclusively and sometimes maple sap. During the nesting season waxwing parents catch insects to feed their chicks and themselves.

Key Food Items: fruits – high sugar, low protein fruits and berries.

 

Cedar Waxwings eating a shadbush berry.
Cedar Waxwings eating a shadbush berry.

Attracting Cedar Waxwings

Check when each plant species and variety has fruit. I would stick with native plants and a straight species not a cultivar. A cultivar has been bred to differ from the original species with characteristics that appeal to gardeners like color, fragrance, height, etc. These changes may make it less appealing to animals. Buying the original (straight) species to attract animals applies to all plants.

  • Spring Foods: fruit left over from winter, buds, sap, and the flowers of apple, cherry, aspens, cottonwood, maple, and oak.
  • Summer Foods: strawberry, shadbush, mulberry, cherry, blueberry, blackberry, honeysuckle, raspberries
  • Autumn and Winter Foods: viburnums, dogwoods, pokeweed, grapes, cedar, mountain ash, apples, fall raspberries, sumacs, hawthorns, junipers, tree buds, sapsucker wells

How to Attract: Cedar Waxwings are not feeder birds as they don’t eat seeds or suet. Waxwings will eat raisins or chopped apples if they are already feeding in the backyard on fruits or berries.

If you have the room, plant berry-producing shrubs and trees whose berries are ripe across the seasons. Hopefully, Waxwings will visit your backyard in every season.

They will drink water or bathe in a bird’s bath. Apparently, they like low-level baths. Beware of low-slinking cats. I had a stray cat take a nap on the roof of my car, right under the tree where the Waxwings were feeding. I shooed her away and wet the car to make it uncomfortable.

 

References Used

The Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior by David Allen Sibley (Amazon.com affiliate link) – Affiliate FAQs – Buying from this site 

Bird-by-Bird Gardening by Sally Roth (Amazon.com affiliate link)

 

More Information on Attracting Birds

The Relationship Between Birds, Berries, and Fruit

Attracting Birds with Fruit Trees and Berry Plants 

Eastern Red Cedar

Shadbush and Dark-eyed Juncos

Highbush Blueberry

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Mystery Bird in the Middle of the Atlantic Ocean

Mystery bird on the Atlantic Ocean. Photo by Donna L. Long.

 

Mystery bird on the Atlantic Ocean. Photo by Donna L. Long.
Mystery bird on the Atlantic Ocean. Photo by Donna L. Long.

Nature Journal, October 07, 2020

I have never been able to identify this little bird to my satisfaction. I think it is a warbler. But, let me tell my story.

In 2006, my family decided to go on a cruise up the east coast. We had never been on a cruise and wanted to know what the hub-bub was about. Nova Scotia was our chosen destination. Being on the Atlantic Ocean on a enormous ship was a novel experience.

After arriving in Nova Scotia we booked a trip on a whale watch. We didn’t see one whale. The boat passengers were not happy. And the whale watch operators made sure to end the trip at their little gift shop on the pier. I don’t think any of us disappointed “didn’t see one whale” watchers bought anything.

Donna on disappointing whale watch off the coast of Nova Scotia. Photo by Ruby Long.
Donna on disappointing whale watch off the coast of Nova Scotia. Photo by Ruby Long.

As the trip was not my most enjoyable, I spent much of my time on the top deck around the pool. On the deck chair next to me this little bird perched on the chair. It was so friendly toward me. It cheered me right up.

But, I never have been able to identify it. Maybe you can help.

We were far out in the Atlantic Ocean somewhere between the coast of Maine and Nova Scotia. The date was August 22, 2006.

Mystery bird on the Atlantic Ocean. Photo by Donna L. Long.
Mystery bird on the Atlantic Ocean. Photo by Donna L. Long.

I notice the gray head, white eye ring, orange blush of color along the sides, yellow bar on wings, and the yellow under the tail. Was it on migration or just on a daytrip? (See also bird migration routes.)

 

Nashville_Warbler (Orenthlypis ruficapilla).
Nashville_Warbler (Orenthlypis ruficapilla). By Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren – Wikimedia

My guesses have narrowed it down to a warbler. Because of the white eye ring and blushes of yellow on its sides, I have thought it was a Nashville Warbler or a Virginia’s Warbler. The Virginia’s would be quite a bit out of range. (yellow warbler birds identification photo gallery)

Virginias Warbler_(Leiothlypis virginiae. Photo by By Dominic Sherony - Uploaded by Magnus Manske, Wikimedia.
Virginias Warbler_(Leiothlypis virginiae. Photo by By Dominic Sherony – Uploaded by Magnus Manske, Wikimedia.

Mystery Bird: Could it be from Europe?

Does anyone has any idea who this little bird who saved my trip for me, is? You would help me solve a old mystery. Old World Warblers on Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (rspb.org)

Mystery bird on the Atlantic Ocean. Photo by Donna L. Long.
Mystery bird on the Atlantic Ocean. Photo by Donna L. Long.

Related Posts

Birds by Color: Yellow Warblers

Birds by Color: Yellow Birds

 

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Identifying Savannah and Song Sparrows

Savannah Sparrow in winter

 

Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia)
Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia) in my garden.

Saturday, I participated in the Christmas Bird Census at the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education. Identifying Savannah and Song Sparrows was our mystery of the day. Known as little brown jobs, they are hard to tell apart.

I had been waiting for it for over a month. It fits in with my plan to do at least one environmental activity each month.

The day was warm Saturday morning. The last Christmas Bird Count I did two years ago, the temperature was well below freezing. I bought hand and toe warmers, which I didn’t need.

The Full Wolf Moon was low in the morning sky. I wanted to photograph it but the ridges and trees were in the way.

Mourning Doves perched on a branch.
Mourning Doves perched on a branch.

How a Christmas Bird Count is Done

The Census participants gathered in a room at the Center. The Center’s land was divided into sections. Each of the sections had difference habitats. Some sections included the Schuylkill River or creeks and streams. There were plenty of old meadows, grassy areas, and thickets, too. The Census works best when there is a wide variety of habitats to explore.

Some sections were here hilly. And some were flat land with easier walking. Once participants decided what kind of terrain they wanted to walk, we broke into groups. Each group took maps and tally sheets. Then we headed out to our chosen areas.

Leigh of the Schuylkill Center was the leader of our group of three. The third birder was a new acquaintance named Barbara. We three made a great team. We counted many species of birds.

We heard just as many of not more birds than by spotting them by eyesight. Leigh was our bird call and sounds expert. I learn something from her each time I bird with her.

Song Sparrow and Savannah habitat - grassland, open fields, and meadows. Schuylkill Center
Song Sparrow and Savannah habitat – grassland, open fields, and meadows. Schuylkill Center

Caution: Excited Birders Ahead

Our mystery of the day was a sparrow. Know as “little brown jobs” in birding circles, there are so many sparrows. And many of them are confusing to identify. Our mystery was a sparrow that had much darker breast streaks than the more common Song Sparrow.

The mystery sparrow was larger than a Song Sparrow. The streaks were darker. There wasn’t a dark center spot in the middle of the breast. And there were those yellow lures over the mystery bird’s eyes.

So, we reluctantly admitted to ourselves that the mystery bird was what we dared to say out loud. It was  Savannah Sparrow. Savannah Sparrow is often further south during the cold weather. But Philly was 66 degrees F this past Saturday. I didn’t wear a coat, just a fleece jacket.

And we also had a Savannah Sparrow on the Center’s Census last year.  I was proud we could tell that this sparrow was different from the most common ‘little brown jobs” for our area.

Above all, we didn’t want to make a bird into something it wasn’t just because we were excited.

Identifying Savannah and Song Sparrows

To illustrate, take a look at the two Sparrows, Song and Savannah.

Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia)
Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia) in my garden.

Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia), commonly seen

key features:

  • heavy breast streaks with a large dark spot in the center of the chest
  • the long rounded tail is longer than a Savannah Sparrow,’s; no yellow over the eyes,
  • Habitat: thickets, brush, marshes, roadsides, and gardens
  • more on the Song Sparrow including songs and calls on Audubon.org

birds_savannah_sparrow

Savannah Sparrow (Passerculus sandwichensis), commonly seen

key features:

  • heavily streaked breast, no central spot on the chest
  • short notched tail, pinkish legs, pinkish beak, usually has a yellow lure over the eyes
  • more on the Savannah Sparrow  including songs and calls on Audubon.org

 

Pine tree groove - habitat for owls and hawks. Schuylkill Center
Pine tree groove – habitat for owls and hawks. Schuylkill Center

 

Winter Resident Birds We Counted

In fact, who we were counting were the winter resident birds. Schuylkill Center The 2019 Christmas Bird Count Census at the Schuylkill counted 36 species. This 2020 census netted 44 species.

Here are some of the birds my group saw counted:

  1. Carolina Wren
  2. Turkey Vultures
  3. Black Vultures
  4. Red-tailed Hawks
  5. White-throated Sparrow
  6. Robin
  7. Blue Jay
  8. Dark-eyed Junco
  9. Crow
  10. Raven
  11. White-breasted Nuthatch
  12. Black-capped Chickadee
  13. Mourning Doves
  14. Song Sparrow
  15. Savannah Sparrow
  16. Bluebird
Tree Cavity - cover for extreme winter weather.
Tree Cavity – cover for extreme winter weather.

Other Animals Seen in January

In addition, other animals I saw on the warm January day were:

  • Milkweed Bug
  • White-tailed Deer (1 buck, 5 females)
  • Coyote scat
  • Gnats
  • House Fly

Also, some of the other things I saw included: abandoned bird nests. The nest on the left is probably a Vireo nest. We stuck our fingers in and the nest was soft, cushy, and deep.

Once we finished walking our areas, the counters got together tallied our official counts. Afterward, I sat outside in the warm sunshine and ate my lunch. I think it was my first January picnic.

birds

Did anyone else participate in the Christmas Bird Census? What birds did you see? I would love to know in the comments below.

 

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Fall Raptor Migration: What You Need to Know (with video)

Northern Harrier ( ) Photo taken by Donna L. Long
Northern Harrier ( ) Photo taken by Donna L. Long
Northern Harrier (Circus cyaneus) Photo taken by Donna L. Long

Autumn and Spring are raptor migration seasons. Here is a resource guide to fact sheets, websites, field guides, and hawk watch locations. The video does an excellent job of explaining raptor migration.

 

When Raptors Migrate

Birds of Prey, raptors begin their annual fall migration south in late August. Birds of prey migration begins in the northern hemisphere when days grow short and the weather grows colder. Birds of Prey Facts: What Makes a Raptor, a Raptor?

Food becomes less abundant. The usual food sources (songbirds) migrate, burrow underground or hibernate (small rodents). Raptors leave for places where small birds, reptiles and small mammals are active and easily found.

Raptors will migrate a few hundred miles or several thousand each way to better food sources. Some raptors travel to different parts of North America and others to Central and South America.

The songbirds are flying south for the winter. The songbirds, being wise to the ways of raptors, migrate in huge flocks at night, using the stars as their guides. They rest and feed during the day.

The raptors, being wise to the ways of songbirds, migrate during the day. They search for songbird meals along the way.

A Video About Raptor Migration

Here is a video that explains the ins and outs of raptor migration.

 

Where to Watch Fall Raptor Migration

They travel along using the same flyways and navigation methods as other birds. Hawk migration routes often follow isthmuses, peninsulas, and mountain ridges.

Raptors are birds that soar. That is one of the most noticeable things about them. It is that effortless soaring that mesmerizes us as we gaze at them in the sky.

Flapping your wings all the way to South America is hard work. Raptors like to ride along on air currents and columns of warm air.

Raptors soar by “catching thermals” like surfers catch a wave.

Thermals are columns of warm air that rise over sun-heated surfaces such as parking lots, agricultural fields, and rocky areas that reflect heat. The birds float on the rising columns of heat. When one thermal dissipates, the bird glides to another and continue on over long distances.

Raptors are unable to fly over water for long-distances. Because water doesn’t conduct heat into thermals as landforms do.

By soaring and gliding, raptors expend little energy.

There are many places in North America to see hawk migration. They return north in the spring. When northern food sources are awake and running or flying around. then there is more food to feed hungry nestlings. Watching Birds of Prey

 

birds_raptors_great_horned_owl
Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus).

Raptor Migration Paths

Hawk Mountain’s Raptorpedia: Migration Paths 

Hawk Watch International: Raptor Migration 

Hawk Migration Association of North America’s
Raptor Migration Database
: Find a Raptor Watching Site 

HawkCount.org: Daily Migration Statistics

 

Places to watch raptor migration in the Philadelphia area

How to Identify Migrating Raptors

Birds of Prey Checklist for Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey

Hawk International: Raptor ID Fact Sheets (webpage)

Hawk Mountian’s Raptorpedia: How to Identify Hawks  (webpage)

Birds of Prey: Hawks, Eagles, Falcons, and Vultures of North America by Peter Dunne

A Field Guide to Hawks of North America, 2nd Edition (Peterson Field Guides)

The book links are affiliate links to Amazon.com. 

 

This post was originally published, October 5, 2011, and has been updated and expanded.

 

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Bird Migration Facts

warbler rests during migration on the deck of a cruise ship in the Atlantic Ocean.
warbler rests during migration on the deck of a cruise ship in the Atlantic Ocean.
warbler rests during migration on the deck of a cruise ship in the Atlantic Ocean.

Bird migration takes place two times a year. Generally, it happens in the spring and autumn of the year in the temperate regions. In the tropics, movement happens during the dry and rainy seasons.

Food is a driving force. Birds migrate in temperate regions to places with better sources of food. In tropical regions, the reason is to move to areas with less or more water.

The birds that live in the northern parts of the United States over the winter live mainly on seeds, tree buds, and dry berries. Live flying insects are scarce in northern regions in winter. So, most flying insect-eating birds migrate.

The majority of those insect-eaters that remain north in winter are small birds that live mainly on insect eggs and the developing young of insects. These birds include chickadees, nuthatches, titmouse, and woodpeckers.

Learn about Winter Birds and Winter Food

 

Where Do Birds Go When They Migrate?

The great majority of birds migrate in a generally north-south direction. Most birds that bred in Canada and the northern United States fly south for the winter. Many migrate as far south as South America. The seasons south of the equator are opposite those in North America. Therefore, North American birds that migrate to southern South America arrive in time for that region’s summer. And plenty of insects. These migrants are called Neotropical migrants.

Bird migration can take place day or night. Some species migrate by day. Others fly at night. Bird migration usually starts at dawn or dusk. Birds can travel alone or in flocks, depending on species.

bird - Migration Routes - Do You Live Near One?

Learn about Bird Migration Routes and Flyways

This map documents the round trip a female long-billed curlew, AJ, made from June 2014 to May 2015. USFWS Mountain-Prairie [Public domain]
This map documents the round trip a female long-billed curlew, AJ, made from June 2014 to May 2015. USFWS Mountain-Prairie [Public domain]

How Do Birds Navigate?

We don’t completely know how birds navigate. But, scientists have experimented and made several suggestions. Birds may use several compass techniques to find their way.

  • an internal compass that tells which way is north, south, east, west, etc.
  • birds possess magnetite in their beaks which measures the strength of the earth’s magnetic field
  • the sun as a directional aid
  • the star patterns as a compass
  • polarized light compass – using the patterns of the polarized skylight at dawn and dusk

These methods and others we may not know about help birds to find their way. Many birds use flyways or routes to migrate from one area to another.

Piping plover (Charadrius melodus) U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Public
Piping plover (Charadrius melodus) U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Public domain.

Migration for South American, Waterfowl, and Shorebirds

No South American birds migrate to North America. They fly only as far north as the tropics, spend the winter there and then return south for the summer.

Most waterfowl, such as ducks and geese only migrate short distances. They generally nest and overwinter on the same continent.

Shorebirds tend to migrate in flocks and usually at night.

Hummingbird Migration Dates

Waterfowl Migration in Autumn

Canada Geese on a Pond in Ottawa, Canada. D. Gordon E. Robertson [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)]
Canada Geese on a Pond in Ottawa, Canada. D. Gordon E. Robertson [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)]
I hope you enjoy the video. The host does a great job of explaining the ways birds navigate.

 

 

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The Dawn Chorus

American Redstart (Setophaga ruticilla), male (Dover Publications)
American Redstart (Setophaga ruticilla), male (Dover Publications)
American Redstart (Setophaga ruticilla), male (Dover Publications)

For the past two weeks, I have opened my eyes, well before the alarm, and listened to a symphony of bird songs.

Before the sun has completely lightened the sky, the neighborhood birds are singing. This is the Dawn Chorus and it is truly magical.

What is the Dawn Chorus?

The Dawn Chorus is sung by male songbirds, (often called the passerines or perching birds).

This musical performance happens only during the breeding season. The male birds are singing, “Come, be my mate”. Some mornings it can be quite loud. And with all the species singing at once it is hard to tell the songs apart. If I listen closely I can pick out a Cardinal or a Robin.

birds_singing male robin
Singing male Robin

When Can I Hear the Dawn Chorus?

The singing is most intense at dawn. Scientifically, sound travels clearer and farther in the cool morning air. There is seldom wind at dawn to distort the songs and diminish the range.

The singing starts while it is still dark. As the sky lightens, more birds join in. It continues for about 1/2 hour. It starts earlier on moonlight nights when the sky is bright all night into morning. The singing starts later when the morning sky is overcast and the weather dull.

By the time the sun is fully up, the chorus dies down.

Where Can I Hear the Dawn Chorus?

This Chorus happens in the temperate parts of the world, namely in Europe and North America. I can imagine how the chorus sounds differently where the local combinations of birds sing their songs. How much fun would it be to travel around the world and wake each morning to the sounds of the local male songbirds singing their hearts out?

Listen to the Dawn Chorus (video)

More About Bird Calls and Songs

Birding by Ear: Learning Bird Calls and Songs

Bird ID Skills: How to Learn Bird Songs and Calls (Cornell University)

10 Common Bird Songs Made Less Confusing (Audubon.org)

 

Originally published 14 May 2010. Updated. 

 

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Learn the Fall and Winter Plumage of these Common Birds

A female House Sparrow at a winter feeder in Philadelphia.
A female House Sparrow at one of my winter feeders in Philadelphia.
A female House Sparrow at one of my winter feeders in Philadelphia.

 

Learning the fall and winter plumage of common birds will cut down on “ID frustration” and increase your confidence. This is a good time to learn the “off-season” plumage of the few birds that stick around. These birds maybe flashy during the breeding season, but they are understatedly elegant during the cold weather months.

Birding at Your Backyard Feeder

Fall and winter are still is a decent time to “go” birding. You can set up bird feeders you can watch from the comfort of your warm and cozy home. You can “go” to a window in your house and observe, sketch, and draw the birds that visit your feeders.  I set up a feeder that I can easily see from my bedroom window.

Helps and Tips from Audubon

Learn the winter plumage of five year-around birds with this useful post from the Audubon website.

via Learn the Fall and Winter Colors of These Common Bird Species | Audubon

You can also download the free Audubon Bird Guide app.

 

Bird Plumage: Identifying Bird by Color

Birds by Color: Blue

Birds by Color: Yellow Birds

Birds by Color: Yellow Warblers

Birds by Color; Red Birds

Identifying Little Gray Birds

 

More on Bird Plumage

Confusing Summer Eclipse Plumage of Waterfowl

 

More Winter Birding Posts

Winter Birding: How to Master It (with video)

Winter Bird Migrations and Irruptions (with video)

Winter Feeder Birds: Identifying Woodpeckers

WInter Feeder Birds: Identifying Blue Birds

 

 

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An Easier Way to Draw Birds (video) — John Muir Laws

birds_cardinal_dark-eyed_junco
bird drawing - John Muir Laws
Bird sketches by John Muir Laws

An Easier Way to Draw Birds

I have always struggled drawing birds. I bet it is because I don’t get the angles right. If there is an easier way to draw them, I am certainly giving it a try.

John Muir Laws says he has found a better, easier way to draw birds. He said he realized that the way he taught and the way he actually drew were a bit different. The new technique is based on the way he “really” draws birds.

For years I have taught the same system to quickly draw birds in the field. Over the last few months my approach has changed radically. I think I can now get you drawing better birds with fewer lines. -John Muir Laws 

If you have his book, The Laws Guide to Drawing Birds, I think this new method is the one on page 8, called, “Angles”.

Watch the Video – “The New Bird Drawing System”

I watched most of the 1 1/2 hour long video and plan to watch the rest and practice the exercises. This is a good video to watch as Mr. Laws, essentially teaches a whole lesson on the new technique.

Use Photographs or Live Birds

You can draw birds as they hop and fly around outside. You can also use photographs. It’s best to use your own photographs because you don’t have to worry about copyright infringement. This maybe a concern if you post you nature journal pages or sketches online like I do.

I think I’ll need plenty of practice to improve my skills. Autumn and winter are good times to practice because there are fewer birds around. Also the trees are often bare without the abundance of leaves that hide the birds.

If it is cold outside, I can always sit at a window and draw as they visit my feeder.

Related Posts for Nature Drawing

Best Books for Nature Journal Keeping and Drawing

Choosing Binoculars for Nature Study

Choosing FIeld Guides for Nature Study

Autumn Nature Journal Writing Prompts

Drawing Nature in Autumn

Observation Checklist to Sharpen Your Skills