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Identifying Birds by Color: A Collection of Photo Galleries

A male Eastern Towhee (Pipilo erythrophthalmus) feeding in the grass. Public domain photo courtesy Ken Thomas.
A male Eastern Towhee (Pipilo erythrophthalmus) feeding in the grass. Public domain photo courtesy Ken Thomas.
A male Eastern Towhee (Pipilo erythrophthalmus) feeding in the grass. Public domain photo courtesy Ken Thomas.

People see color before they see anything else. And trying to identify a mystery bird is no exception. Over the years I have posted photo galleries of common birds grouped by color. These photo galleries serve as guides to figuring out what bird you are seeing. And with spring migration starting, high probability of being stumped by a bird increases.

Photo Galleries: Identifying Birds by Color

Winter Feeder Birds: Identifying Blue Birds 

Winter Feeder Birds: Identifying Woodpeckers

Birds by Color: Blue Birds 

Birds by Color: Yellow Birds

Birds by Color: Yellow Warblers

Birds by Color; Red Birds

Identifying Little Gray Birds

Birds by Color: Orange Birds

Learn the Fall and Winter Color of the Common Bird Species (Audubon website)

How the Cardinals Makes His Red Feathers

 

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Blue Birds: Identifying Birds by Color (A Photo Gallery)

Painted Bunting (Passerina ciris)

 

 

Indigo Bunting (Passerina cyanea)

There are many species of blue birds, birds with blue plumage. Identifying birds by color can be helpful during the upcoming spring migration and breeding season. Birds go through two molts per year.

Two Molts Per Year

The first happens in late summer-fall when the brighter breeding plumage is replaced by the drab basic plumage. The birds will wear this basic plumage through the fall, migration, and winter seasons.

The second molt is before the spring breeding season. The basic drab plumage is replaced with brighter feathers, called the alternate plumage. This is where the males shine. The feathers of males can be very bright and colorful. The females, particularly the species that sit on open air nests, will be drabber in appearance. The drab appearance helps the birds camouflage themselves among leaves and trees.

A Photo Gallery of Blue Birds

This photo gallery of blue birds shows mostly male birds. Studying what the birds look like before the spring migration will give you a much more enjoyable birding season.

Move your cursor over the photo to see the names of the birds. Click on the photo to see a larger photo.

 

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More Photo Galleries: Birds by Color

Winter Feeder Birds: Identifying Woodpeckers

Birds by Color: Yellow Birds

Birds by Color: Yellow Warblers

Birds by Color; Red Birds

Identifying Little Gray Birds

How the Cardinal Makes His Red Feathers

 

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Cavity Nesters: Birds that Use Holes in Trees

Bird_Northern Flicker

Half of all birds are cavity nesters. Woodpeckers, owls, chickadees, nuthatches, and parrots are among the species that do. Cavity nests are safer than open nests.

Cavity nesters can be divided into several categories:

  • those who excavate their own nests and don’t use abandoned holes (primary excavators)
  • those who excavate and use natural or abandoned cavities
  • those who don’t excavate but use natural or abandoned cavities – snags (secondary cavity nesters)

These are the bird species which will use a birdhouse. See our post on Birdhouses: Choosing, Maintaining, and Attracting the Birds.

Remember: Good birders don’t disturb nesting birds. Observing nesting birds should be only done from inside a blind (like your house), with a video camera installed in a birdhouse or not at all.

Female Hairy Woodpecker Picoides villosus) at nest cavity
Female Hairy Woodpecker Picoides villosus) at nest cavity

Do-It-Yourselfers: Birds that Excavate Their Own Cavity Nests

Woodpeckers are the primary excavators of nest holes. Where the Northern Flicker is the primary nest cavity excavators, the Flicker’s nest holes provide homes to over thirteen species of mammal and bird species.

On average, it takes a woodpecker two weeks to excavate a cavity.

Most birds that nest and excavate in living trees choose softwoods such as aspens. Some woodpecker species will choose to live trees with hardwood softened by fungal disease to drill new nests. The woodpeckers spread the fungal infections by carrying the spores on their bills. This creates future potential nest sites.

Other species will choose trees with wood softened by disease and fungal infestations. These primary nest hole builders include:

  • Northern Flicker
  • Pileated Woodpecker
  • Red-bellied Woodpecker
  • Red-headed Woodpecker
  • Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
  • Hairy Woodpecker
  • Downy Woodpecker

Species that nest in living trees often make new holes in the same tree over several years.

Eastern Woodpeckers that use Living or Dying and Dead Trees

  • Red-cockaded Woodpecker – living pines; taking up to two years to excavate the cavity
  • Yellow-bellied Sapsucker – living poplar or birch tree with heart rot
  • Downy Woodpecker – dying or decaying tree
  • Hairy Woodpecker – living or decaying tree trunk or limb
  • Flicker – dead or dying deciduous tree

The Red-cockaded Woodpecker (Picodes borealis) nests in living pines. It is a rare and local bird of the southeastern U.S. It lives in mature Longleaf Pine savannas. It spends on average two years excavating the cavity because of the living trees relatively hard wood.

 

Western Woodpeckers that Excavate Nest Holes in Living Trees

  • Golden-fronted Woodpecker – live trunk or large tree; usually mesquite, pecan, oak or in a dead limb
  • Yellow-bellied Sapsucker – live tree with rotting heartwood caused by fungus
  • Red-napped Sapsucker – dead or living tree with rotting heartwood caused by fungus
  • Ladder-backed Woodpecker – live saguaro cactus
  • White-headed Woodpecker – live tree or dead shrub of pine
  • Black-backed Woodpecker – live tree with rotting heartwood

 

Both male and female woodpeckers build nest holes. Most woodpecker species will excavate a new nest cavity every year. This provides plenty of abandoned cavities for other animals to use. Woodpeckers are supremely important to ecosystems for their excavation activities. Many woodpecker species are poorly studied. This means citizen scientists can help to fill in the gaps in research by collecting data.

Woodpecker nest holes can be identified by shape. The large Pileated Woodpecker makes a large squarish, oblong hole. The wood chips beneath the hole will be oblong, too. Wood chips are often used to line the nesting cavity. Hairy Woodpeckers make round holes.

Black-capped Chickadee nest cavity
Black-capped Chickadee (Parus atricapillus) nest cavity. Photo Credit: Sara Hollerich, USFWS.

 

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Birds Who Excavate their Own Cavity Nest or Use Natural or Abandoned Cavities

Secondary nesters will build their nest on top of the old nests left in the hole. Snags (standing dead trees) with natural cavities are important to secondary cavity nesters. Secondary cavity nesters are the birds that will use human-made birdhouses.

Chickadees and nuthatch don’t have the powerhouse drilling bills of woodpeckers. But these little birds drill their own nest cavities in the rotten wood of old trees.

  • Black-capped Chickadee
  • Carolina Chickadee
  • Red-breasted Nuthatch
  • Brown-headed Nuthatch
House Wren (Troglodytes aedon) entering nest cavity
House Wren (Troglodytes aedon) entering nest cavity

Birds who can’t excavate and only use natural or abandoned cavities

Some birds can’t excavate their own nests. These species will locate and occupy abandoned woodpecker holes. The competition is fierce among these secondary cavity nesters to find and keep their nest holes. These birds will often use birdhouses.

  • Bluebirds
  • Brown Creeper
  • Carolina Wren
  • European Starlings
  • Wood Ducks
  • Common Goldeneye Duck
  • Bufflehead Duck
  • Barrow’s Goldeneye Duck
  • Barn Owls
  • Eastern Screech-Owl
  • Great Horned Owl
  • Northern Hawk Owl
  • Elf Owl
  • Barred Owl
  • Long-eared Owl
  • Boreal Owl
  • Saw-whet Owl
  • American Kestrel
  • Purple Martin (in Western North America)
  • Tree Swallow
  • Tufted Titmouse
  • White-breasted Nuthatch
  • House Wren
  • Winter Wren
  • Prothonotary Warbler

On really cold nights, some birds have been known to seek the shelter of abandoned nest holes to survive the cold. Many birds will even gather in holes for warmth.

bird houses
martin houses at Tinicum NWR

Winter Nature Journal Activity Ideas

Find abandoned nest cavities in trees

  • search for abandoned bird nests and holes
  • sketch the holes
  • note whether the wood is living, rotten or diseased
  • guess who made the hole
  • guess  the age of the hole
  • guess who might live in the hole
  • keep up those birdhouses, birds will use them during severe weather

I’d be careful looking into the hole. You don’t want to startle a Great Horned Owl with sharp talons.

And if you upload your sketch to the Internet, let me know. I would like to share it with your fellow naturalists. We would love to see it.

Further Information

Birdhouses: Choosing, Maintaining, and Attracting Birds 

Places to Raise Young

Finding Abandoned Bird Nests

Nesting Boxes: National Wildlife Federation

Put Out Nesting Materials and Nest Boxes, March 1 

LoveNest Birdhouses with WiFi Cameras

lovenest birdhouse
Lovenest Birdhouse

 

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Birds by Color: Orange Birds

A male Eastern Towhee (Pipilo erythrophthalmus) feeding in the grass. Public domain photo courtesy Ken Thomas.

A male Eastern Towhee (Pipilo erythrophthalmus) feeding in the grass. Public domain photo courtesy Ken Thomas.

Orange birds aren’t very numerous.  There are only four orange bird species here in North America. These photographs will help you decide which one you are looking at.

 

American Redstart - male (Setophaga ruticilla). Photo credit: Dan Pancamo).
American Redstart – male (Setophaga ruticilla). Photo credit: Dan Pancamo).

Female American Redstart (Setophaga ruticilla). Photo by By Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren – Wikimedia Commons. A male Eastern Towhee (Pipilo erythrophthalmus) feeding in the grass. Public domain photo courtesy Ken Thomas.

 

English: Baltimore Oriole (Icterus galbula) female
Baltimore Oriole (Icterus galbula) female (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

A male Baltimore Oriole in Brampton, Ontario, ...
A male Baltimore Oriole in Brampton, Ontario, Canada. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Orchard Oriole (Icterus spurius) . Photo by By Mike’s Birds – Wikimedia Commons.

Orchard Oriole
Orchard Oriole (Photo credit: Wikipedia) – male

 

More Photo Galleries of Birds by Color

Winter Feeder Birds: Identifying Blue Birds 

Winter Feeder Birds: Identifying Woodpeckers

Birds by Color: Blue

Birds by Color: Yellow Birds

Birds by Color: Yellow Warblers

Birds by Color; Red Birds

Identifying Little Gray Birds

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Attracting Birds with Fruit Trees and Berry Plants

A Shadbush tree in my garden.
A Shadbush tree in my garden. A bird food favorite
A Shadbush tree in my garden.

By planting fruit and berry plants you can bring a wider variety of birds to your garden or backyard.

There are many birds that are primarily fruit eaters and they may not visit your seed feeders. A way to draw them into your garden is by providing fruit. But supplying birds with dried fruit is expensive. The least expensive way to provide fruit for birds is to grow native plants which the birds have had thousands of years of experience eating.

Seed Dispersal by Birds

Most trees, and shrubs in North America rely on birds to disperse their seeds. In the eastern deciduous forest, over 300 species of plants rely on birds to disperse their seeds. And 70% of those plants ripen in the fall just in time for migration.

I researched the relationship between birds and fruit and found out very fascinating facts like what color a berry or fruit needs to be to catch a bird’s attention. And when and why most fruit ripens when it does. I’ve written about the relationship between birds, berries, and fruit before.

 

red berries of American Holly (Ilex opaca). Photo by Donna L. Long.
Red berries of American Holly (Ilex opaca). Photo by Donna L. Long.

Characteristics of Berries Eaten by Birds

Bird swallow seeds whole. And seeds can’t be over three-fifths of an inch in diameter, which is the largest size a seed-eating bird can swallow. By swallowing the seed whole it remains intact and can grow into a plant. Rodents (mice, squirrels) chew seeds and destroy can chance of the seed growing into a plant.

  • size: 5/3 of an inch in diameter
  • color: red or blue, black or white berries (with red, orange, or yellow somewhere on the leaves or stems)

 

Fruit makes up a large part of the diet of these birds.

  • Mimic Thrushes: Bluebirds
  • Thrushes: Robins, Catbirds, Mockingbirds, Thrashers, and European Starlings
  • Waxwings: Bohemian and Cedar
  • Vireos: White-eyed Vireo, Red-eyed Vireo, and Yellow-throated
  • Tanagers: Scarlet Tanager
berries of Smooth Sumac (Rhus glabra) Photo by Donna L. Long.
berries of Smooth Sumac (Rhus glabra) Photo by Donna L. Long.

Top Fruit Trees for Birds

This list includes the top fruit trees and berry plants favored by birds.

Fruit Plants for the Birds – Top Plants  
Common Name Scientific Name Species of Birds That Eat Fruit
Shrubs
Blackberry Rubus 45
Red Mulberry Morus 40
Elderberry Sambucus species 29
Holly Ilex species 27
Sumac Rhus species 27
Small Trees
Cherry Prunus species 47
Serviceberry (Shadbush) Amelanchier 36
Dogwood Cornus species 31
Hackberry Celtis species 24
 
Larger Trees
Black Tupelo Nyssa sylvatica 31
Red Cedar Juniperus virginiana 54
Hackberry Celtis species 24
Vines
Virginia Creeper Parthenocissus 35
Grapes Vitis species 52

 

 

Fall Ripening Berries for Bird Migration

These berries ripen in time for fall migration. The fruits ripen depending on the climate. Berries in cooler climates will ripen before the same plant in a warmer region further south. If a berry ripens in August in New England, the same plant will ripen later in Virginia. This means the birds can eat ripening fall berries as they migrate southward.

 

American Cranberry bush (Viburnum trilobum)

American Elderberry (Sambucas canadensis)

American Plum (Prunus americana)

Arrowwood Viburnum (Viburnum dentatum)

Black Cherry (Prunus serotina)

Black Tupelo (Nyssa sylvatica)

Common Persimmon (Diospyros virginiana)

Hawthorns (Cratagus species)

Inkberry (Ilex glabra)

Rose (Rosa virginiana)

Sassafras (Sassafrass albidum)

Spicebush (Lindera benzoin)

Viburnums

Winter Berries that Attract Birds

Staghorn Sumac (Rhus typhina)

Bearberry (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi)

Cowberry (Vaccinium vitis-idaea)

Crowberry (Empetrum nigrum)

Possum Haw (Ilex decidua)

Winterberry (Ilex verticillata)

 

Highbush blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum). Photo by Donna L. Long.
May 16, 2019 Highbush blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum). Photo by Donna L. Long.

Berries in My Garden

Many of the native trees and shrubs listed are small and can fit in small backyards or gardens. I have a Shadbush, grapes, highbush blueberries and volunteer mulberries in my garden. When I gather berries to eat, I take just what I need. I leave some for the birds.

 

For More on Attracting Birds

The Relationship Between Birds, Berries, and Fruit 

Attracting Birds with a Serviceberry

How to Attract Birds to Your Garden

Attracting Cedar Waxwings to Your Backyard

 

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How a Cardinal Makes His Red Feathers

Male Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis), in my garden
Male Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis), in my garden
Male Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis), in my garden

The male Cardinal glided into my garden. I marveled at the brilliant plumage as he flew from post to fence to the bird feeder. I wondered about that blaring red color. I wondered what made it so, very, very red? I wanted to know the scientific explanation of the what caused such saturation. So, I began to search for the answer and learned some fascinating details about cardinals and urban landscapes.

I heard the pink feathers of a flamingo comes from the foods the bird eats. I understood how that would work in a flamingo eating red crustaceans but I couldn’t figure out what local seeds a seed-eating bird like a cardinal would eat, that would create such an eye-popping red color? I thought about the black-oiled sunflower seeds, flower seeds, and tree seeds that make up the cardinals diet and none of these seeds are red in color. Something else must make the cardinals red color. But, each book I read used the flamingo as an example and didn’t speak about other birds.

Male Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis), in my garden
Male Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis), in my garden

So, I turned to scientific articles and here is what I found out. Just like paint from a tube, pigments make up the colors of a bird’s feathers. Feather colors come from pigments or are created by special features of feather surfaces.These pigments are called biochrome pigments, which are naturally occurring chemical compounds. There are three biochrome pigments that occur in bird feathers: melanin, porphyrins and carotenoids.

Melanin is present in all forms of animal life including humans. It is a substance derived from the amino acids which living beings including humans, get from their food. Melanin is found in hair, irises of eyes, fur, skin, feathers, scales, etc. Melanin gives humans our skin and eye colors of a wide rainbow of shades of tans, browns, grays, and blacks. All birds have melanin in their feathers which produces the earth tones of grays, blacks, browns and buff colors.

Porphyrins, an organic chemical compound, produce bright brown, green and magenta colors. Porphyrin is an unstable element and is easily destroyed by sunlight. Porphyrins are fairly common in the reddish and brownish feathers of owls and bustards.

Carotenoids produce red, yellow, and oranges. Carotenoid pigments can accumulate in the body and be modified and used by the body in different ways. Sometimes carotenoids are stored in egg yolks, body fat and as oil gland secretions.

Male Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis), in my garden
Male Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis), in my garden

For cardinals, their bright red color is highly dependent on their diets. Cardinals get carotenoids from the seeds and fruits they eat. In cardinals, carotenoids can accumulate in the cell of growing feathers and depending on a few factors, will appear as a bright red color in the plumage of a male cardinal.

In scientific studies, male cardinals were feed a seed-heavy diet without the heavy fruit-based diet that they eat during the molting season. Without wild fruit in their diet, the red plumage was less brilliant and less shocking. The seeds, even though they aren’t red in color, contain the organic compound carotenoid. The “wild”, fruit which contains even more carotenoids than yellow seeds, help create brilliantly red cardinals.

So, the fruits and berries that cardinals eat may contribute heavily to the deep rich red plumage that we see during the breeding season.

See also The Relationship Between Birds, Berries and Fruit

Male Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis), in my garden
Male Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis), in my garden

Cardinals are known to do well in urbanized areas. It is thought the cardinal does well because of increased fruit resources primarily from exotic and invasive fruit species (such as multiflora rose and Amur honeysuckle), abundance of bird feeders, more nesting sites in shrubbery and small trees, and warmer winter temperatures caused by conditions such as the abundance of concrete. Studies have shown that urban landscapes, contain nearly three times the amount of fruit and nearby bird feeders than in rural areas. Surprising? I think so.

All of this points to yet another reason to plant native fruit-bearing trees and shrubs. So, when you fill up your seed feeders and plant fruit-bearing trees and shrubs, feel good you are doing a harmonious and life-enhancing act.

My next post will be a list of fruit-bearing shrubs and trees to plant in your yard and garden.

Why native plants?

The Dawn Chorus – the Cardinal sings at the break of dawn and in the evening.

Birds by Color: Red Birds

The Relationship Between Birds, Berries and Fruit

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Birds by Color: Identifying Little Gray Birds

Dark-eyed Junco (junco hyemalis) in my garden.
Dark-eyed Junco in my garden. Photo by Donna L. Long
Dark-eyed Junco in my garden. Photo by Donna L. Long

During winter there are several species of little gray birds that frequent the buffet at our feeders.

Chickadees live in my neighborhood all year long. Philadelphia is one of those places where the Carolina Chickadee and the Black-capped Chickadee mix. I can never tell the species apart and have stopped trying. When birders around here say they can tell the two species apart, I am skeptical.

Here is a photo gallery of several little gray birds to help you identify them. Thanks to the photographers who shared their photographs through Flickr and Creative Commons.

 

Winter Feeder Birds: Identifying Blue Birds 

Winter Feeder Birds: Identifying Woodpeckers

Birds by Color: Blue

Birds by Color: Yellow Birds

Birds by Color: Yellow Warblers

Birds by Color; Red Birds

Identifying Little Gray Birds

 

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Winter Feeder Birds: Identifying Blue Birds

Blue jay at Fort Washington State Park
Blue jay at Fort Washington State Park . Photo courtesy of Donna L. Long
Blue jay at Fort Washington State Park. Photo courtesy of Donna L. Long

Blue Birds (Sialia spp.) generally don’t visit bird feeders. But birds with blue plumage do visit feeders. There are only three species of blue colored birds that will eat from your free buffet. Here’s a visual guide to identifying the species.

 


Blue Jay  (Cyanocitta cristata) – eastern and western North America

Blue Jay Cyanocitta cristata Welland, ON Canada
Blue Jay Cyanocitta cristata Welland, ON Canada (Photo credit: Wikipedia

The blue is my favorite color and Blue Jays are one of my favorite birds. I don’t see Blue Jays at my feeders very often. But every once in while one shows up for peanuts and thrills me to no end.

Blue Jays are large birds, 11 – 121/2″ long. They are larger than Robins and smaller than crows. Blue Jays are vocal and can mimic hawks. They live year-round in eastern North American and southern Canada. The most distinct feature besides their blue color is their crests and black necklace. A Blue Jay will lower its’ crest when peacefully feeding with its family or flock. the black bridle across the face, nape of neck and throat varies widely among individuals and can be used to identify particular birds.

At the feeder: Blue Jays prefer tray feeders or hopper feeders mounted on poles than hanging feeders. This explains why I don’t see them very often. I need to get a tray feeder. The birds have a fondness for acorns and will eat peanuts, sunflower seeds, and suet. Blue Jays will also drink from bird baths. Blue Jays use mud to build their nest, and a mud puddle in your habitat garden may draw them to your garden.

http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/blue_jay/lifehistory


Steller's Jay (Cyanocitta stelleri). Photo: public domain, fws.gov
Steller’s Jay (Cyanocitta stelleri). Photo: public domain, fws.gov

Steller’s Jay (Cyanocitta stelleri) – western North America

Another bluebird I can’t wait to see in person. The Steller’s Jay, a large dark bird with a prominent crest on its’ head, is the bird I thought of as the Mockingjay of The Hunger Games books.

It is a large, dark bird with a charcoal black head and all blue body. A prominent crest tops its’ head. A social bird the Steller’s Jay travels in groups, that often play and chase each other.

The Steller’s Jay is a noisy bird and excellent mimic. It can imitate dogs, cats, birds, chickens and some mechanical objects. During winter they join mixed-species foraging flocks. In fall,   the Steller’s Jay will carry several large nuts, such as acorns or pinyon pine seeds, at a time in their mouth and bury them one by one. These nuts will be a winter food story. With the Jay’s excellent memory, few will be forgotten.

This Jay is a ground feeder and eats insects, seeds, berries, nuts, small animals. eggs and nestlings. To draw this bird to your feeders supply peanuts, sunflower seeds, and suet. Skip the nestlings.

The Steller’s jay also uses mud to build its nest. A pan full of mud in spring may draw them to your habitat garden.


Western Scrub-Jay (Apnelocoma californica) – western North America

Western Scrub Jay photographed in Aloha, Oregon - May 2000 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Western Scrub-Jay photographed in Aloha, Oregon – May 2000 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I have never seen a Scrub Jay in the flesh but I’ll be traveling out west this year and look forward to seeing this bird. This Jay’s wings and tails are solid blue, without the white and blue “stain-glass” markings of the eastern Blue Jay. The Scrub Jay doesn’t have a crest and the back is a brownish tan. To draw this striking bird to your feeders, mimic how it eats naturally. It forages on the ground and a platform feeder would work best. The Scrub Jay eats insects and fruit during spring and summer and nuts and seeds during fall and winter. For winter feeding try sunflower seeds, peanuts corn, almonds, walnuts, and cherries.


More Winter Birding Posts

Winter Birding: How to Master It (with video)

Winter Bird Migrations and Irruptions (with video)

Learn the Fall and Winter Colors of These Birds

Winter Feeder Birds: Identifying Woodpeckers

 

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

 

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A Song Sparrow Softly Calls Among the Falling Snow

A Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia) explores my garden in during a winter snowstorm.
A Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia) explores my garden in during a winter snowstorm.
A Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia) explores my garden in during a winter snowstorm.

There are many little brown birds that visit feeders in winter. Some are sparrows, like the Song Sparrow above. Others are finches like the House Sparrow and the House Finch.

A Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia) explores my garden in during a winter snowstorm.
I like this photo of the  Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia) looking right at me.

The most common sparrows are the Song Sparrow, Chipping Sparrow, Dark-eyed Junco, White-throated Sparrow and the American Tree Sparrow. If you learn those sparrows you can identify the most commonly seen sparrows in the eastern United States. All of these birds come to bird feeders. Of these five birds the Chipping Sparrow and the American Tree Sparrow look similar, both have rusty-red caps on their heads. But the American Tree Sparrow has a central spot on their un-streaked breast.

A Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia) explores my garden in during a winter snowstorm.
I listened to the soft, sweet ‘peeps’ of the sparrow as she/he hopped beneath garden cages.

I don’t see many Song Sparrows in my garden, usually one or two looking for fallen seeds from the feeders the House Sparrows are dominating. But, listening to the soft peeps and low whistle of these little birds sounds hauntingly beautiful between the falling snowflakes.

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Winter Feeder Birds: Indentifying Woodpeckers

A Downy Woodpecker at my bird feeder.
A Downy Woodpecker at my bird feeder.
A Downy Woodpecker at my bird feeder.

For the last several mornings, I have heard the distinctive drumming of a woodpecker as I leave for work. I bet very few of my neighbors know we have woodpeckers among us. But, both Hairy and Downy Woodpeckers visit my backyard bird feeders year-around.

I have watched woodpeckers take sunflower and peanut seeds from my seed feeder. But, mostly they come for the suet. I use suet with peanuts in it. I have both Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers at my feeders.

Below are photos of the most common woodpeckers to come to bird feeders in the winter. Whether they are frequent visitors in the eastern or western North America is noted behind each species name.

Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens) (east, west)

The Downy is the woodpecker you are most likely to see in urban areas than the Hairy. Downies are widespread at feeders that offer fat or suet. Downies will also eat sunflower seeds and cracked corn.

The Downy is the smallest woodpeckers. It has a small, short, dainty bill when compared to the Hairy Woodpecker. The Downy has outer tail feathers that are white with black spots. Hairy Woodpeckers are larger. To choose between Downy and Hairy, I remember, “Downies have dots”, for the black spots on the white tail feathers.

 

Male Hairy Woodpecker at my feeders.
Male Hairy Woodpecker at my feeders.

 

Hairy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens) (east, west)

The Hairy Woodpecker can be distinguished from the Downy Woodpecker by the unspotted white outer feathers on its’ tail. The Downy Woodpecker has black spots on the white outer tail feathers and is smaller than the Hairy. The Hairy has a larger, chunkier bill than the Downy.

If you are not sure whether a Downy or Hairy woodpecker is visiting your feeder, placing bright color tape about 7 inches apart. A Downy is 6 – 7 inches high, the Hairy is 8 – 9.5 inches high. This may make it easier to gauge the size and the species. The outer tail feathers of the Hairy are white with no black spots. The Downy has black spots on the outer-tail feathers.

The Hairy Woodpecker’s natural food is beetle larvae and the fatty, mushy suet resembles it. So, to attract the Hairy Woodpecker put out suet. In addition to suet peanut butter mixes and meat scraps also attract the birds. But Hairy Woodpeckers come to all my feeders, including sunflower seeds, nyjer and suet.

 

Red-bellied Woodpecker on a tree. (Wikipedia)
Red-bellied Woodpecker on a tree. (Wikipedia)

Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus) (east, west)

The Red-bellied Woodpecker is a widespread bird that is spreading northward in winter. Red-bellies often cache food for food-scare winter days.

The Red-bellied Woodpecker has bright-red plumage only on the head (the male) and on the nape of the back of the neck (both male and female).  The back is barred black and white. The red belly is one of the those traits you can’t see unless you hold the bird in your hand. The red on the belly is most a blush and isn’t easy to see when the bird is perched on a tree trunk.

Red-bellies have a generalized diet and will sample nearly everything. To attract Red-bellied Woodpeckers use suet, puddings, sunflowers seeds, peanuts and acorns. Acorns are nearly 70% of its natural diet. I wonder if they like white or red acorns? Acorns of white oaks are sweeter than the acorns of black and red oaks.

Flicker
Flicker

Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus) (east, west)

I would love to see a Flicker at my feeders. they are in the woods and forests not far from my house, but I haven’t seen one outside to the woods. These flickers spend most of their time on the ground. Their natural foods are ants. In winter the eat fruits and seeds, including the berries of poison ivy and poison sumac.

Flickers are relatively uncommon at feeders, but they do show up in some lucky places. In feeders, Flickers like bird puddings, suet and black-oiled sunflower seeds. Offering these foods on the ground, where the Flicker normally eats should help. Logs with drilled holes filled with suet, could work or tree-mounted feeders

Flickers are large, 12 1/2″ – 13″ high. Flickers are very distinctive-looking. I think they are smart-looking birds. They have a black bib under the throat, a light brown back and black spots back and front. The males have a black mustache; females do not. Both sexes have a slash of red color on the back of their heads.

Flickers have different colors ways and are not considered different species. And there are hybrids between eastern and western birds.

I enjoy watching the woodpeckers. The don’t fly away until I come quite close to them.

A Downy Woodpecker at my bird feeder.
A Downy Woodpecker at my bird feeder.

 

More Winter Birding Posts

Winter Birding: How to Master It (with video)

Winter Bird Migrations and Irruptions (with video)

Learn the Fall and Winter Colors of These Birds

WInter Feeder Birds: Identifying Blue Birds

 

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

 

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Sharpies in the Winter

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

In the fall I often see a Sharp-shinned Hawk hunting in my backyard. Several times I have had the breath-holding pleasure of watching this sleek agile flier dive into a thicket in pursuit of a plumb juicy House Sparrow.

Sharpies are strictly bird catchers. They regularly visit bird feeders in winter. They may nest in the secluded dense conifer forest of the far north, but they spend the winter in low elevation edge habitat and suburban area. Sharpies winter from the U.S.-Canadian border south to Central America.

Sharp-shinned-Hawk
Sharp-shinned-Hawk (Photo credit: colorob)

This bird hawk chases House Sparrows through the tangled thicket of Shadbush, rose, and high bush blueberries unscathed. The Sharpie executes abrupt turns and high-speed chases in pursuit of prey.

I have yet to see a successful hawk fly away with a small bird to eat. maybe the Sparrows in my garden are tough to catch. The thicket helps by providing a good hiding place.

Last winter the Mourning Dove flock in my garden dwindled in size from over a dozen to four or five birds. My neighbors told me the Sharpie lurked around my garden, perched on the gate posts during the day when I was at work. Apparently, the same Sharpie visited my garden every day and hunted.

If the Mourning Doves are the prey, then the Sharpie was very likely a female. Female Sharpies, being larger than the males, take larger prey than the males. Females prey only on larger birds such as Mourning Doves, Blue Jays, and Quails. Males usually take the smaller birds like House Sparrows.

Sharpies are rarely encountered in urban and suburban areas during summer as they breed at high elevations, from May to August, at high elevations in coniferous forests and remote woodlands in Alaska and throughout Canada.

Sharp-shinned Hawk (Accipiter striatus), Michigan
Sharp-shinned Hawk (Accipiter striatus), Michigan (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

 

 

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The Shadbush and Dark-eyed Juncos

Dark-eyed Junco

IMG 1949

I spotted the first Dark-eyed Junco in my garden on a Sunday morning. I had noticed the dapper, little gray-backed birds skipping along the ground around town the past week. I am thrilled that they have returned to my garden.

The Juncos signal that cold weather and winter are near. They leave in the spring for their breeding grounds far to the north in the boreal forest.

They migrate south to warmer winter areas like Philadelphia in late fall and stay until spring.  The birds arrive here as the Shadbush is in its full peak of color in the fall.

I use the Shadbush (also called the Common Serviceberry) as an “indicator” plant. When I notice something happening I want to make note of, I use the Shadbush (Amelanchier arborea), growing in my backyard as a marker of time. This is basic phenology, the study of seasonal occurrences and correspondences.

shadbush (serviceberry) blooms in spring
shadbush (serviceberry) blooms in spring. Photo by Donna L. Long.

The Shadbush gets its’ name because, as its flowers are blooming, the Shad fish are on their annual migration from the ocean, up inland rivers to its breeding grounds. The inland rivers, like Philadelphia’s Schuylkill and Delaware Rivers are a passage way for thousands of fish. Humans fish in the Schuylkill River for food and the Philadelphia Water Department works hard to keep the Schuylkill River clean. At this time the Shad is in abundance. The shad is a bony but tasty fish and was my grandmother’s favorite.

Any plant you choose can be your personal ‘indicator’ plant. I chose a native plant that was close to home and that I would see every day. The shadbush lives in my garden and is visible from my bedroom window.

I can see this small tree as it grows from bare winter branches to first bud to full bloom, to fall color and leaf drop and back to bareness again.

Shadbush (Serviceberry)
Shadbush (Serviceberry) berries from the tree in my garden.

I like using trees and shrubs as my indicator plants as they are less likely to move from year to year. I think good indicator plants could be any of the oaks, maples, nut or berry trees and shrubs. I like using food plants because it teaches me useful survival skills.

If I choose an oak, I would choose a ‘white’ oak. White Oaks leaves have rounded edges. White oaks have sweet acorns which mature in one season and can be eaten raw. Red oaks (with pointed leaves) need two years to mature and the acorns require soaking in water to remove the bitter tannic that can cause constipation if eaten. Acorns can be ground into flour and used to make cooking oil

I think good indicator plants would be White Oak, Sugar Maples, nut trees (hickory, walnut, hazelnut, beechnuts, etc.) and berry shrubs like blueberry, shadbush, chokeberry or cranberry).

Watching indicator plants and learning correspondences is a way of developing deep ecological knowledge and relearning the skills that sustained our ancestors for thousands of years.

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Identifying Birds of Prey: Books to Help You

 birds - Crows Protest Against Screaming Hawk

Identifying birds of prey has undergone a transformation. The old ‘field mark’ system has been supplemented with a more behavioral approach.

Our ancestors who stayed close to the land and its rhythms could tell species apart at long distances. They used both known field marks and behavior to identify an animal. This approach is more holistic.

The field mark system was pioneered in book form by Roger Tory Peterson. His field guides focused on color, plumage, marking and other easily seen details. This is called the ‘field mark’ approach. This works best when you have a clear and close look at an animal.

But, if the birds is flying a mile overhead, then the field mark system doesn’t work as well.

This is where the behavioral approach comes in handy.

Instead of looking for plumage details or eye color, more emphasis is placed on how a bird behaves.  This behavior approach looks at a number of factors.

  • how a bird flies
  • the rhythm of the flaps and glides while flying
  • does it fly with soaring, rocking motions or long flights or short bursts
  • the bird’s overall shape, size and color and silhouette
  • the bird’s behavior
  • any calls or sounds made

All of these behaviors and clues add up to a good identification. Even still,  it is hard to be accurate all the time.

Birds of prey species often have distinctive ways of flying and holding their wings. If you learn these profiles and behavior you will be able to identify raptors even when they are circling miles above you.

Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis)
Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis)

I often see Red-tailed Hawks and Turkey Vultures flying overhead. When they are tiny specks in the sky is not easy to distinct between the two birds. I often check the manner of flight, color pattern of feather and body and whether other birds are in the sky with it.

I focused on identifying a Turkey Vulture. The Turkey Vulture is a dark underneath with a dark body, dark V-shape on the wings and translucent white “fingers” at the end of its wings.  A soaring Turkey Vulture’s silhouette takes on a more pronounced V-shaped than a Red-tailed Hawk. And a Turkey Vulture often looks huge, where a Red-tailed Hawk can look smaller.   I have gotten pretty good at telling a Turkey Vulture from any other bird.

I think the behavioral approach used along with the field marks approach, helps to make a very knowledgeable birder.

There is much to learn on identifying birds of prey. We can’t cover it all here.

Here is a list of some of the best books on identifying birds of prey. The books all focus on day-flying raptors. Owls, being night fliers are not included. All the links lead to more information on Amazon.com.

A Field Guide to Hawks of North America (Peterson Field Guides)
A general field guide using field marks and flight silhouettes is William S. Clark’s,  Hawks (A Peterson Field Guide). This guide has very good drawings of birds of prey. It doesn’t include owls but all the other North American raptors are included. It is a good book for learning the “field mark’ system. The book is small enough to carry with you in the field.

Hawks in Flight: Second Edition
A book with an holistic approach is  Hawks in Flight by Pete Dunne, David Sibley and Clay Sutton. The aim is to study the photos before raptor watching. It includes all the diurnal (day-active) raptors. Night-active owls are not included. It focuses on each species distinct characteristics. Including movement, color pattern and body shape. It is too big to carry outdoors.

Hawks at a Distance: Identification of Migrant Raptors and Hawks from Every Angle: How to Identify Raptors In Flight

Both books focus on identifying raptors in flight. Hawks at a Distance has photo of birds when they are just specks in the sky. Hawks from Every Angle focuses on identifying hawks that you can clearly see but from the back, side, or in profile.

The Crossley ID Guide: Raptors (Crossley Id Guides)

I bought this book this spring. The photos are taken from such angles that you wonder how the authors managed to get the photos. For each species there are near and far photos from different angles. There also ‘quiz’ pages.  Photos of several species of raptors, from different angles, are placed on a page. The answer key is in the back of the book. A good book to work with on a chilly winter night.

Of all the books, I like the Peterson field guide and the Crossley Id Guide the best. They fit my skill level. In honing my id skills, I tend to focus on one or two common species that  are abundant in my area. This means I see them often. From there, I can add other species as the need arises.

If you are trying to decide, use the handy links to Amazon.com to weight the merits of each title or browse through them at the library or a bookstore.

If you buy from Amazon.com, In Season, receives a tiny fee to help with the blog costs.

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Raptor Rush Hour Traffic In Fort Washington Park Sky.

Bald Eagle at Conowingo Dam (Maryland) in 2010.
Bald Eagle at Conowingo Dam (Maryland) in 2010.

It seems the Militia Hill Hawk watchers that gather at Fort Washington State Park are having an exciting year.

This year’s migration is proving the best year ever. By September 23, more than 20,000 birds of prey flew over the park in the annual migration southward. Ninety-six Bald Eagles were among the travelers.

For the first  few days of this past week, it was rainy and cloudy outside. Rain systems bring winds from the South blowing northward. This is not good south-going, migration weather.  The birds will wait for clear skies and wind blowing from the north to the south to resume their journeys.

On a clear day thermals (columns of warm air) rise up from the ground (including roads and parking lots). Raptors which migrate during the day, can coast on the columns of warm air for miles without flapping their wings. Songbirds tend to migrate at night when there are no thermals.

cumulus clouds
cumulus clouds

As fascinating thing about thermals – they can often have a cumulus cloud sitting above them. Wikipedia has a good illustration of this phenomena. On the next clear day I will be looking for a line of cumulus clouds pointing the way south. I guess there will be raptors riding the thermals beneath the cumulus clouds. Earth is just too cool.

With rough weather, migrating raptors will head west toward the Appalachian mountains and continue southward.

This past week has been the first time I have been able to get out and migration-watch. The last several weeks with school starting have been tiring and busy.

Migration will last a few more weeks. The Militia Hill Hawk Watch lasts from September 1st through October 31st. We still have a little time left to enjoy the spectacle.

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Birds by Color: Yellow Warblers

Male American Goldfish feeding at my feeders.
Male American Goldfish feeding at my feeders.
Male American Goldfinch feeding at my feeders.

During migration, the Philadelphia area is inundated with yellow warblers that pass through the area on their way to points north. Some yellow warblers stay in the Delaware Valley to breed during the summer months.

The warbler section of any field guide is full of yellow birds. Warblers are a group of birds dominated by olive and yellow plumage.

Warblers are the also the most annoying birds to identify as they are often small, quick and hyperactive.

If you are trying to identify yellow birds and they aren’t the usual yellow bird species, try looking for your bird among the warblers.

Birds by Color: Yellow Warblers

Mystery Bird in the Middle of the Atlantic Ocean

 

Black-Throated Green Warbler (Dendroica virens). Photo courtesy Jake Dingel/Pennsylvania Game Commission.
Black-Throated Green Warbler (Dendroica virens). Photo courtesy Jake Dingel/Pennsylvania Game Commission.

Black-Throated Green Warbler (migrates through SE PA, breeds in other areas of PA, the female has yellow thought

Blackburnian Warbler (Dendroica fusca) migrates through SE PA, breeds in other ares of PA

Blue-winged Warbler (Vermivora pinus) breeds in SE PA

Golden-winged Warbler (Vermivora chrysoptera) migrates through SE PA, breeds in other areas of Pennsylvania

Cape May Warbler (Dendroica tigrina) migrates through Pennsylvania

Canada Warbler (Wilsonia candensis) – migrants through SE PA

Cerulean Warbler (Dendrioca cerulea) migrates through Philadelphia; female is yellowish

Chestnut-sided Warbler (Dendroica pensylvanica) miigrates through Philadelphia, breeds in some areas of SE PA and Pennsylvania

Common Yellowthroat (Geothlypis trichas) common summer  breeder in Philadelphia area, rare to occasional winter visitor in the Coastal Plain

Connecticut Warbler (Oporornis agilis) migrates through Pennsylvania

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

Hooded Warbler (Wilsonia citrina) migrates through SE PA, breeds in central and western PA

Kentucky Warbler (Oprornis formosus) breeds in SE PA

Magnolia Warbler (Dendroica magnolia) migrates through SE PA, breeds in other areas of PA

Mourning Warbler (Oporornis philadelphia) migrates through SE PA, breeds in other areas of Pennsylvania

Nashville Warbler (Vermivora ruficapilla) migrates through SE Pennsylvania

Northern Parula (Parula americana). Photo courtesy US Fish and Wildlife Service/Bill Thompson.
Northern Parula (Parula americana). Photo courtesy US Fish and Wildlife Service/Bill Thompson.

Northern Parula (Parula americana) breeds the Philadelphia area

Orange-Crowned Warbler (Vermivora celata) migrates through Pennsylvania

Palm Warbler (Dendroica palmarum) migrates through Pennsylvania

Pine Warbler (Denrioica pinus) migrates through Philadelphia and migrates in other areas of Pennsylvania.

Praire Warbler (Dendroica discolor). Photo courtesy Jack Dingle/Pennsylvania Game Commission.
Praire Warbler (Dendroica discolor). Photo courtesy Jack Dingle/Pennsylvania Game Commission.

Prairie Warbler (Dendroica discolor) migrates through Philadelphia, breeds in other areas of PA

Prothonotary (Protonotaria citerea) migrates through Pennsylvania, breeds in small areas of PA

Tennessee Warbler (Vermivora peregrina) migrates through Pennsylvania; female has yellowish easy on breast

Wilson’s Warbler (Wilsonia pusilla) migrates through SE PA

Yellow-Breasted Chat (Icteria virens) – breeds in southern PA, rare and occasional visitor in the Coastal Plain (link)

Yellow-Rumped Warbler (Dendroica coronata) winters in SE PA, breeds in northern PA

Yellow-Throated Warbler (Dendroica dominica) breeds in SE PA

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

Yellow Warbler (Dendroica petechia) breeds throughout PA

 

Winter Feeder Birds: Identifying Blue Birds 

Winter Feeder Birds: Identifying Woodpeckers

Birds by Color: Blue

Birds by Color: Yellow Birds

Birds by Color: Yellow Warblers

Birds by Color; Red Birds

Identifying Little Gray Birds

 

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