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...

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