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...