Thursday, December 16, 2010

Winter Birds Return

It's been a while since my last post, which of course means that I was incredibly busy at work. I'm on break now and, though slightly handicapped with my laptop in the shop, finally have some time to share the recent goings-on.

One of the telltale signs of winter is the Varied Thrush. These Robin-like birds flee the mountains when snowfall covers the ground. They may be absent from the lowlands in the winter if the snowfall is insufficient, but we were fortunate to receive a significant amount of precipitation last month. Since the last week of November, we've been hosting 2-3 males in the backyard. They enjoy sunflower chips.

The past few weeks have been particularly good for finches as well. Thanksgiving morning brought us two Evening Grosbeaks (above) and a pair of Purple Finches. Purple Finches are uncommon winter visitors, and are much more likely seen in October, March, and April. Evening Grosbeaks are even less common, but both species have nonetheless visited multiple times in the past few weeks. This is already shaping up to be a very unique winter.

This male Evening Grosbeak has been visiting much more often than expected...

... as has this male Purple Finch.

A female Purple Finch inconspicuously forages through spilled sunflower seed.

While finches and thrushes have been the big news recently, winter warblers have also been frequenting the yard in increasing numbers. Yellow-rumped Warblers have been hawking insects from the trees for several weeks now, but only recently have they begun frequenting the yard for suet. We're currently hosting at least two regulars: one "Audubon's" subspecies and one "Myrtle." The Audubon's is a real territorial jerk and chases other warblers and kinglets out of the yard (he's not so successful with the starlings). The other winter warbler is the Townsend's. Some years are better for others when it comes to Townsend's (last year wasn't so great), so I was very happy to see a female at the suet feeders twice last weekend. I even managed to snap a poor photo of her.

Our not-so-friendly resident "Audubon's" Yellow-rumped Warbler prepares to snack on some suet.

This less obnoxious and much prettier Townsend's Warbler enjoys suet in the squirrel/starling-proof feeder.

And I would be remiss at this point if I didn't discuss our Warbler of the Year: the American Redstart. This vagrant female has been visiting the yard semi-regularly since the first week of November, and continued to do so through the beginning of this month. But I have not seen her since the beginning of the month. So who knows if she's moved on, or if I just haven't been looking at the right times.

At least one Ruby-crowned Kinglet has been appearing semi-regularly recently. He/she appears to be more interested in hawking insects than the suet feeders at this point. This past Saturday, one was foraging for insects that were hiding from the rain under our awnings. Interestingly, a bird that's often misidentified as an RC Kinglet - the Hutton's Vireo - made a surprise appearance two days ago. Hutton's Vireos are year-round residents, but are far from regular yard visitors. So that was a nice surprise.

While speaking of finches earlier, I forgot to mention that we're still seeing a ton of Pine Siskins (above). They're showing up in flocks of 20-40, and are going through nyjer like it's going out of style. Their numbers seem to have diminished somewhat this week, so that may be changing soon. Still, I have never seen a showing of Siskins like this before. The closely-related American Goldfinches have been quietly flocking in number of approximately a dozen or so. Lesser Goldfinches have been few and far between.

Starlings are pests, but very good-looking pests.

Northern Flickers have made a comeback, and have even driven some of the Starlings away.

Woodpeckers, absent for most of October, have made their usual winter comeback. Downies are regulars again, with at least one male and one female frequenting the yard. At least one male Northern Flicker (above) has also become a semi-regular. It's nice to see both back in the fold. Somewhat surprisingly, Red-breasted Nuthatches have been absent since October. I have also not seen any "proper" winter sparrows recently (aside from the 10-20 Juncos that forage here).

Well, that's it for now. Have a Merry Christmas and I'll be back sometime in January.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

A Rare Vagrant

Autumn always brings winter migrants that I expect, local dispersants that I don't necessarily expect, and some unexpected visitors. But one visitor this month has redefined the term "unexpected."

Two weekends ago, I had just returned from a short trip to the playground with my wife and 8-month-old and was considering taking an early-afternoon nap. I peered out of my bedroom window and noticed an unusual bird with a lot of flashy yellow coloring. After breaking out the binoculars and making a quick mental note of its field marks (none of which I recognized), I ran for the camera and was able to fire off several shots. Yeah, it was definitely a warbler but, despite the gray head, it was not a Nashville, MacGillivray's, or anything else that is native to this part of the country. While looking through the Sibley guide (the large "Bible" version), I began to get nervous as I approached the end of the warbler section and wasn't finding a match. And then I found it. My photo was a dead ringer - American Redstart, female. Wow. This is not only a bird that should be in Central/South America by now, but one whose summer range doesn't even include Western Oregon. Indeed, this is only the fourth ever record in Lane County. Needless to say, this finding has attracted a great deal of local attention. Several people have stopped by to either comb the neighborhood or stand in my backyard for a couple of hours with a pair of binoculars. Unfortunately, it's a very tricky bird to locate, as it doesn't visit my yard to feed on anything that I offer, and only one person outside of my household has been able to view it in person. We are also going to be experiencing below-freezing temperatures in the next couple of days, which will kill of most of its food sources (insects and grubs). Hopefully our little visitor learns how to eat suet quickly.

Our female American Redstart hawks insects in the backyard on a surprisingly sunny November afternoon.

Outside of the most significant yard bird of my life, there are other interesting things going on here as well. One of the consequences of the bad conifer crop in the Cascades appears to be an irruption of Pine Siskins (left) into the Valley. I hosted a flock of ~50 last weekend and over 20 were jamming the feeders this weekend. I've never seen this many in November (heck, I usually don't see them for another month or so), so the seed crop must really be THAT bad. Unrelated to the conifer crop, House Finches have been hanging out in much higher-than-normal numbers recently. A half dozen were here last weekend and that number went up to 8 this weekend. Fortunately, only one had avian pox. American Goldfinches have reverted to their relatively modest winter numbers, and a few Lesser Golfinches showed up this morning. Lesser Goldfinches, in my experience, are about as fickle as any bird can be. They show up for no apparent reason, and then leave for no apparent reason. Go figure. I heard an Evening Grosbeak calling in the rain this afternoon, but was unable to establish visual contact.

This Pine Siskin enjoys sunflower hearts on a late October morning.

I'm not the only one who has noticed all of the flocking Siskins and House Finches. Accipiters (forest-dwelling hawks) are common out here - especially in the winter - and flocks of birds rarely fail to pique their interest. Over the past couple of weeks, an adult Cooper's Hawk and a juvenile Sharp-shinned Hawk have been making frequent trips to the backyard in search of meals. They've had some success and, as long as they don't eat my Redstart, I'm more than happy to see them thrive. And if they help keep the Starling numbers to a minimum, then all the better.

Our neighborhood Cooper's Hawk hangs out for a while after nearly nabbing a Starling.

Mid/late November is the time of year for Kinglets. Both species native to North American - the Ruby-crowned and the Golden-crowned - move through my yard at this time of the year. The first Ruby-crowned Kinglet was spotted last weekend and I was treated to multiple visits today as well. The more elusive Golden-crowned made its first appearance of the season yesterday. Both are very small and constantly on the move, making photography difficult (I still have yet to take an even halfway decent photo of a Golden-crowned). Fortunately, I was able to snap a semi-decent photo of a Ruby-crowned this morning:

This male Ruby-crowned Kinglet forages for insects in one of my butterfly bushes.

And speaking of tiny birds, our year-round resident Anna's Hummingbirds have been hanging around in increasing numbers now. As the weather gets colder, the ticks and mites that comprise their winter diets become more difficult to find. Thus, they flock to and fight over our nectar feeder and our Pineapple sage bushes. It would make more sense for them to share, but I suppose that it's just not in their nature - until it gets really cold outside, as it may in a couple of days.

A male Anna's Hummingbird partakes in some Pineapple sage nectar.

These bushes are "short-day plants," which means that they grow and bloom in the winter, when daylight hours are short.

A hatch-year male Anna's Hummingbird goes for the artificial nectar. Note the incomplete iridescent plumage on the neck.

Across most of America, the return of Dark-eyed Juncos from their Canadian breeding grounds means that it's October. Though some do breed locally out here, our situation is pretty much the same. Juncos began to visit the yard in medium-sized numbers (6-10) last month, and their numbers have doubled since. The flock of 20 that I hosted this afternoon is likely due to an additional movement from the week of snow that has recently hit the Cascades and Coast Ranges. Here in the Pacific Northwest, we almost always see the "Oregon" subspecies. However, a small number of the "Slate-colored" subspecies (the predominant one East of the Rockies) appear in the winter. I usually get one per winter and this season's showed up late this morning. Interestingly, we've been hosting another anomaly Junco: a leucistic individual. This is the first leucistic bird that I've ever seen.

This is the first Slate-colored Junco that I've hosted in two years.

This leucistic Junco has been a regular in the yard for the past month or so.

And while we're discussing the sparrow family, I'm now wondering if I'm going to have regular migratory winter sparrows this season. Last year, I hosted two Golden-crowned and one White-crowned Sparrow for the vast majority of the late fall/winter season. Late last month, I was feeling optimistic about a repeat with two Golden-crowned Sparrows visiting semi-regularly. However, both seem to have disappeared a few weeks ago. I have yet to see a White-crowned Sparrow, but those typically do not show up until December or later. However, I do have a regular Song Sparrow. Song Sparrows are year-round residents, but typically do not inhabit urban yards outside of the winter. In my experience, they're somewhat erratic winter visitors but this one doesn't appear to be in a hurry to move on.

This Golden-crowned Sparrow showed up in late October, but moved on just a couple of weeks later.

However, this Song Sparrow doesn't appear to be going anywhere.

My semi-urban neighborhood isn't the best woodpecker habitat, but my Downies and Flickers have made a strong resurgence recently. This is an encouraging development, and hopefully I'll host a more woodpeckers this year than last.

This Downy Woodpecker...

...and this Northern Flicker both dig the new suet feeder.

A typical winter scene: A Western Scrub-Jay eats peanuts on a cold and wet afternoon.

Well, that's about it for now. It'll be interesting to see how our Redstart does in sub-freezing temperatures and how the goings-on in the yard shake out otherwise. I'll report back in a few weeks...

Saturday, October 23, 2010

An Early Winter?

As I write this, the first "winter storm" of the season has just begun. Wind gusts occasionally shake the trees across the street and rain pitter-patters against the roof. By tomorrow evening, we're supposed to have received 2-3 inches. And if the 10-day forecast is calling for little sun. We very well may be in for an early winter this year.

One of the telltale signs of mid-Fall is the return of winter sparrows. The most numerous in this area are the Dark-eyed Junco (above). As of the last writing, I was occasionally seeing one or two in the yard, which most likely bred locally. However, I have been hosting a half-dozen on a regular basis for the past couple of weeks. More will likely appear over the next 4-5 weeks. Another one of our common migratory sparrows, the Golden-crowned, was spotted last weekend. I hope to see more in the upcoming weeks. Non-migratory Song Sparrows have also been visiting the yard for at least the past week. Song Sparrows tend to inhabit wooded or riparian areas during the breeding season, but disperse afterwards and often visit backyard feeding stations in the winter. I was also surprised (and fortunate) to observe an unusual migrant. A hatch-year Chipping Sparrow spent at least two days in the backyard a couple of weeks ago, before (presumably) continuing its journey southward. I managed to get several nice photos of this individual. In the upcoming weeks, we should be seeing White-crowned Sparrows as well.

A Golden-crowned Sparrow forages for insects in one of our pieris bushes.

A Song Sparrow feeds on spilled sunflower.

This hatch-year Chipping Sparrow stayed with us briefly a couple of weeks ago.

Large flocks of American Goldfinches from early September through mid-October are common here. However, Pine Siskins typically do not show up until November or December. I was not surprised to see that we've been hosting two since about mid-September, but I was a little more surprised to see 14 at our feeders this morning. These numbers are more typical of late November or beyond, but there may be a non-weather-related reason why they're here so early this year. I've read a few reports that the conifer seed crop in the Central Cascades is poor this year, and think it's likely that this is why they're here so soon. It's possible that other conifer specialists, such as Evening Grosbeaks and Red Crossbills, may irrupt into the Valley this winter. That would be a heck of a treat for us.

The occasional Pine Siskin in October is to be expected, but...

... a flock of them suggests that something is up. Given the reports of the poor conifer seed crop in the Cascades, this may be a big year for irruptive finches.

One of the more irregular feeder finches, the Purple Finch, has also been representing in larger-than-expected numbers this season. Purples tend to move through urban yards in the early fall and early spring, and my experience has been that March and April are the best months for them. So I was surprised to see one in late September, and even more surprised to see two different individuals a couple of weeks ago. The individual in September hung around for a few days, but the latter two apparently did not stick around. I have no idea when I'll see one again, so these pleasant surprises certainly were appreciated. Evening Grosbeaks, highlighted in the last post, are apparently still making their way through. One individual (a female or hatch-year) was spotted at the bird bath last Sunday. With this year's failing conifer crop, it's possible that they may flock to the feeders later this winter.

This male Purple Finch forages through the neighbor's apple tree.

American Goldfinches, pictured here earlier this month, are flocking to the feeders in more manageable numbers now (10-30, rather than 50-80). My wallet thanks them.

While all of the summer warblers have passed through, our Yellow-rumped Warblers have moved in from the mountains and at least one will likely stay to visit our suet feeders later this winter. Both subspecies (the white-throated "Myrtle" and the more common, yellow-throated "Audubon's" have been spotted in the yard and at least two individuals are chasing each other around, vying for territory.

An "Audubon's" Yellow-rumped Warbler forages for insects on a late afternoon in mid-October.

Our neighbor's apple tree has continued to act as a magnet for fruit-loving birds this month. Flocks of a couple dozen Cedar Waxwings have been common for the past few weeks, and they've recently been joined by a few American Robins. Unlike the Eastern half of the country, Robins are not as prevalent in this area and are infrequent yard visitors in most places.

Both adult...

... and juvenile Cedar Waxwings have been enjoying apples this fall. Yum.

This hatch-year Robin concurs that apples are delicious.

Other year-round residents who typically don't hang around in the yard during breeding season have also graced us with their presence recently. These include our resident woodpeckers, the Downy and the Northern Flicker. Attracted by the large flocks of goldfinches, Cooper's Hawks are also visiting the yard on a semi-regular basis now. Steller's Jays, one of my favorites, are still occasionally stopping by for peanuts. Originally spotted at the beginning of the month, I'm still seeing the occasional Chestnut-backed Chickadee at the suet feeder.

This majestic male Northern Flicker is visiting the suet feeder on a semi-regular basis now.

The almost-as-majestic Steller's Jays are still stopping in for the occasional meal of peanuts.

Chestnut-backed Chickadees, always an elusive yard bird for me, are stopping by every once in a while.

If you look really hard, you'll find an immature Cooper's Hawk hidden behind the leaves and branches. This individual managed to pick off an unfortunate goldfinch moments prior to this photo being taken.

It's been a great beginning to the fall/winter bird season so far, and hopefully our luck will continue. Until next time...

Saturday, October 2, 2010


Like the Germans consuming massive amounts of food and drink in late September/early October, our yard has become a veritable Oktoberfest over the past week. Both neotropical migrants and locals moving out of their breeding areas have inundated the yard. This is easily the most lively early Fall I've ever witnessed.

To underscore the awesomeness of the past week, the Evening Grosbeak (above) - a bird that I've hosted for a grand total of one day since the mid-1980s - has visited my yard for two consecutive days now. And they've visited at least four times today. Wow.

Adult female (left) and hatch-year Evening Grosbeaks enjoy sunflower seed.

Another one of our irregular natives has also made a big splash recently. Cedar Waxwings breed in our neighborhood and can be found in small numbers here and there in the summer. But they flock in the late summer, right around the time that our neighbor's apple tree offers ripe fruit. A flock of ~10-15 have been visiting the apple tree several time per day since Friday. In contrast, Purple Finches head deep into the forests to breed and stray into less wooded (sometimes urban) areas afterwards. I typically don't see them until mid-October (if at all in the Fall... they're more conspicuous in March/April), so I was pleasantly surprised to see a female/juvenile at our feeders last weekend. A mature male was spotted this afternoon. Another forest-breeder/yard-feeder species, the Pine Siskin, has returned as well. Two began joining our flocks of 40+ American Goldfinches a couple of weeks ago and they're still showing up daily. These may have bred locally, but it's difficult to tell. In addition, our Juncos have returned from the Cascades and surrounding foothills. We're still waiting for the other winter sparrows.

A Cedar Waxwing enjoys a ripe apple.

Purple Finches are in the house!

This Pine Siskin enjoys nyjer on an early October afternoon.

The return of Dark-eyed Juncos means that summer is dead.

Several local breeders that disappear in the summer have also returned. These include Spotted Towhees, Red-breasted Nuthatches, Northern Flickers, and Chestnut-backed Chickadees (a new species for this yard).

Neotropical migrants have mostly made their way through at this point. Because of this, I was pleasantly surprised to see a female Black-throated Gray Warbler foraging through the neighbor's apple tree last weekend. I was even more surprised to spot a male in the same tree this morning.

This female Black-throated Gray Warbler was a pleasant surprise.

This blurry Townsend's Warbler might be the last one that we see until November.

While we're still waiting on our winter sparrows, our first winter warbler made a surprise appearance. Townsend's Warblers breed in the Northern Cascades, Northern Rockies, the Yukon, and Alaska. They winter along the Pacific coast, from Washington down to Baja California. We're close enough to the coast to enjoy them in the winter, but our first arrivals typically aren't until Thanksgiving. While I've seen them locally as early as mid-October, I was a little surprised to see on high up in the neighbor's tree during the last week of September. So we'll see how this plays out. Perhaps this is the sign of an early winter, and perhaps we just got lucky this year.

A male Spotted Towhee steps out of the dense brush for a few seconds.

A female Anna's Hummingbird sips sugar-water in the rain.

Freshly-molted Starlings look really nice, but they still eat way too much of my suet.

Our friendly Red-breasted Nuthatches have returned!

Chestnut-backed Chickadees are native to this area, but are a new species to this yard.

In addition to the high numbers of notable avifauna that we've hosted recently, we were pleasantly surprised to see a large, furry Western Gray Squirrel in the yard this morning. Our neighborhood is overwhelmingly populated by the more diminutive Fox Squirrel. Western Grays are native to the region, but tend to inhabit more rural areas. A brash individual jumped from our roof to our trellis (and back) this morning. Their enormous busy tails crack me up.

Wow, so who could ask for anything more? Well, I'm greedy and would like some more Evening Grosbeaks, some California Quail, and a couple of Red Crossbills to photograph for my next post. But even if that doesn't happen, I'm still very thankful for what I have. Until next time...