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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
‘Birding: The Best Posts’ is a roundup of the posts on my blog that I have written over the past ten years. There is a ton of information on this blog. Sometimes it is hard to find. I often stumble upon a forgotten post and am delighted I wrote on the topic.
There is a little bit for everyone from new birders to advanced birders who want to learn about bird behavior and sharpen their birding skills.
I hope this collection, Birding: The Best Posts’, is useful. Have I missed a topic? Do you have a burning bird question and would like a professional librarian to research and find the answer? Drop a comment or question in the box below.
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.
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.
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.
Many are colorful. The most common plumage colors are yellow and olive. But also red, black, gray, and green feathers on some species.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Widespread Common Winter Feeder Birds (about 24 species)
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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)
Geese are smaller than swans and white, gray, or brown in color.
Ducks are generally smaller than geese and swans with shorter necks. These aquatic birds can be found on both fresh and saltwater.
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
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.
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.
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.
I planted the Shadbush over fifteen years ago. I use it as an indicator plant in phenologyobservations. 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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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)
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)
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.
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.
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), commonly seen
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
Savannah Sparrow (Passerculus sandwichensis), commonly seen
heavily streaked breast, no central spot on the chest
short notched tail, pinkish legs, pinkish beak, usually has a yellow lure over the eyes
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.
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.
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.
Eastern Bluebird (Sialia sialis) holding larvae in its’ beak. Photo: public domain, fws.gov.
Eastern Bluebird (Sialia sialis) on bare branches in early spring. Photo by Donna L. Long t Schuylkill Center for Environmental Ed.
Mountain Bluebird (Sialia currucoides) perched on a bare winter tree branch. Photo: public domain, fws.gov
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.
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.
Orchard Oriole (Icterus spurius) . Photo by By Mike’s Birds – Wikimedia Commons.
An easy method of learning to identify birds in your backyard is learning to identify birds by color. Feathers give birds the colors that catch our eyes.
Are you trying to identify birds by color? Have you seen birds that are red or have touches of red? Here is a photo gallery of birds which are red with their common and scientific names. Some might even call some of the birds orange in color. I left out some orange birds to be included in my “Birds by Color: Orange” post for next week.
I included both male and females, if the genders look different. In similar species it helps to pick one or two “identifiers” or markings you can remember to tell the birds apart. I will try yet again this year to tell House and Purple Finches apart.
Notice the difference between the House Finch and the Purple Finch? The Purple Finch male has a lightly rose-colored breast with no streaking underneath. The Purple Finch has more red on its’ head or cap than the male House Finch. The House Finch has a more solidly colored breast and is heavily streaked beneath the breast and his head is not completely red. The Purple Finch female has clear streaks and the House Finch female has muted streaks.
See the difference between the Summer Tanager and the Scarlet Tanager? – The Scarlet Tanager has black or very dark wings.
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.
Dark-eyed Junco in my garden. Photo by Donna L. Long
Red-breasted_Nuthatch_(Sitta_canadensis)5 By pbonenfant
bird – Mountain_Chickadee_(14422009880) By Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren (Mountain Chickadee)
Carolina Chickadee By Dan Pancamo (Flickr: Carolina Chickadee)
Tufted Titmouse. Photo by Donna L. Long
White-breasted Nuthatch. Photo by Donna L. Long
warbler rests during migration on the deck of a cruise ship in the Atlantic Ocean.