Friday, December 23, 2011

Merry Christmas!

The past few weeks have been an exciting time!  Many of the winter regulars have finally settled in, and a couple of winter irregulars have decided to stick around.

The White-throated Sparrow (above) that was first spotted in the yard on November 11th appears that it will likely overwinter in the neighborhood.  I wasn't expecting this, as most WC Sparrows winter closer to the coast.  In fact, the last individual that I hosted (late Novemeber/early December, 2009) only hung around for a couple of weeks.  But the brightly-colored individual shown above has been showing up multiple times per day since then and doesn't appear to be moving on any time soon.

While winter sparrow numbers have been down overall this winter (no White-crowned, Lincoln's, or Fox; and just one Golden-crowned last month), the presence of year-round sparrow species has been impressive.  Specifically, we've hosted at least one semi-regular Song Sparrow since early November.  Even more impressively, there are at least two local Spotted Towhees that are now feeding in the yard regularly.  This is the first residence where I've had the fortune to see towhees on a regular basis.  And I'm very thankful for that, as they're one of my favorite yard birds.

A Song Sparrow feeds on a mixture of white millet and cracked corn.

A Spotted Towhee cautiously stops in for a quick morning snack.

When we purchased this house, I was pretty confident that the yard and surrounding area would support warblers, kinglets, and wrens.  And my instincts were relatively accurate.  Before the moving truck brought over our furniture, I had spotted one or more Bewick's Wrens, and there were several sightings of migrating warblers (Wilson's, Yellow, and Black-throated Gray) from mid-August through September.  When late October rolled around, Yellow-rumped Warblers could be seen hawking insects around the neighborhood.  Townsend's Warblers soon followed.  While the YR Warblers became frequent visitors at the suet feeders and the Wax-myrtle bushes, the Townsend's Warblers continued to visit only occasionally (perhaps once a day) and largely avoid the feeders.  And then it got cold.  With lows in the mid-20s in early December, much of the insect population was eliminated and we currently have at least one regular male and one female at the suet feeders.  Townsend's Warblers are another one of my favorites and these bright yellow friends are always a pleasure to see on a gray, overcast winter day.

This Yellow-rumped Warbler sits atop one of our Wax-myrtle shrubs on a cold December morning.

A male Townsend's Warbler hits up the caged suet feeder.

We have also been fortunate with kinglets and wrens this fall.  Both Ruby-crowned and Golden-crowned Kinglets exhibit major movements through our area in November.  This year was no exception, as both were frequently observed in mixed flocks with Bushtits and Chickadees last month.  As is usually the case, GC Kinglets move on to winter in more rural areas in December, while some RC Kinglets stick around suet feeders in urban and suburan areas.  Though I'm seeing far fewer RC Kinglets than I did a few weeks ago, one was taking suet at one of the feeders earlier this week.  Hopefully it will become a semi-regular this winter.  The Bewick's Wrens that frequented the yard late this summer became far less conspicuous in the early fall.  However, they've made a major comeback and seem to enjoy my new peanut feeder.  I had hoped to get a good photo of at least one of these three species, but they're all rather difficult to capture.

A Western Scrub-Jay stops in for some cracked corn.

This Pine Siskin is one of two that have visited the yard recently.  Will more winter finches be on the way?

This male Downy Woodpecker checks out the magnolia tree after enjoying a suet lunch.  Woodpeckers have been scarce here so far.

After being regulars in the late summer, Red-breasted Nuthatches seemed to drop off the face of the Earth this fall.  Thankfully, they're resurged over the past two weeks and can be seen at the feeders about once or twice a day now.  Chestnut-backed Chickadee numbers dropped a little over the same time, but there has always been at least one around over the past four months.  Now there are two regulars.

On the other hand, winter regulars for this area, such as Downy Woodpeckers, Northern Flickers, and Pine Siskins, have all been in low number this season.  Siskins numbers are always unpredictable, but I'm somewhat surprised to see so few woodpeckers.  Perhaps January and February will provide us with more.  Evening Grosbeaks, Purple Finches, and Varied Thrushes - all of which were regular to semi-regular last winter due to irruptive movements - have been absent this season (save for one Varied Thrush).  I would expect to see a Purple Finch or two in March or April, when they typically exhibit local movement, but probably not the other two species.

So, that's it for now.  I hope to have more good news in January.  Until then, Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

Sunday, December 4, 2011

A Late Autumn Surge

The past three weeks have been quite exciting!  We are coming off of an impressive surge in winter movement, which has primarily included warblers and kinglets.  However, various members of the sparrow family have also been representing in the backyard.  Fortunately, I've been able to break away from real-world responsibilities to chronicle the activity.

One constant of winter in much of the country is the Yellow-rumped Warbler.  They inundate much of the coasts, South, and Southwest at this time of the year and have a voracious appetite for suet.  And if you happen to have Wax-myrtle bushes in your yard (as we do, shown above), they love the berries as well.  In fact, they're one of the few species of birds that can digest the waxy substance that coats the berries.  Yellow-rumps began flocking in the area a little over a month ago, primarily hawking insects.  The initial wave was primarily the "Myrtle" subspecies that primarily winters on the coast.  Over the past couple of weeks, I've observed more of the Western "Audubon's" subspecies, with a few Myrtles still hanging around.

A male Townsend's Warbler stops in for a bite of suet

This Ruby-crowned Kinglet has been busy foraging for insects in the neighborhood

Our other regular winter warbler, the Townsend's (shown above), has also been visiting semi-regularly.  Townsend's Warblers are far less numerous than Yellow-rumps at this time of the year and are far from a lock to visit suet and peanut feeders regularly throughout the winter.  At this point, I'm seeing at least one a day foraging in a mixed flock, with Bushtits, kinglets, and Yellow-rumped Warblers.  One will occasionally come to a feeder.  It'll be interesting to see how things shake out as winter progresses.

Kinglets tend to exhibit major movements into the Willamette Valley in mid- and late-November, and this year was no exception.  Golden-crowned Kinglets tend to move through and settle in rural areas, while many Ruby-crowned Kinglets (shown above) settle in urban/suburban areas, where they forage for small insects/spiders and take suet from feeders.  Ruby-crowned Kinglets haven't yet visited my suet feeders, but have been observed foraging for insects in the area multiple times per day for the past couple of weeks. Golden-crowned Kinglets tend to move through quickly over the course of a week, and that's pretty much what happened last weekend.  Surprisingly, I managed to count at least three (possibly more) foraging in my neighbor's yard last weekend.  Golden-crowned Kinglets are constantly moving and are a nightmare to photograph, so I don't have any photos to share. :(

A really poor photo of the first Varied Thrush of the winter season

Other winter visitors observed recently include a Golden-crowned Sparrow, a Song Sparrow, two Spotted Towhees, a Pacific Wren, and a single Varied Thrush.  (We may see more Varied Thrushes over the next month or two.)  Large flocks of Cedar Waxwings roamed the neighborhood for the last half of November.  The White-throated Sparrow reported in the last post is still hanging around.

After a banner winter last year, finches have been conspicuously absent from the yard this season.  A poor conifer seed crop in the Cascades lead to higher-than-usual numbers of Pine Siskins and Purple Finches last winter, and even semi-regular visits from Evening Grosbeaks.  This fall has given us just the opposite.  Not only have none of the above been observed at the feeders, but House Finch numbers are way down.  Even more surprising is that I have not seen more than one American Goldfinch since mid-October and have not seen a single individual for the past three weeks.  Interestingly, we *have* been hosting an unusually large number of Lesser Goldfinches (left).  I imagine that American Goldfinches will begin to flock at the feeders at some point, but I'm not banking on hosting flocks of siskins or grosbeaks again this winter.

Other species that have been conspicuously absent include Red-breasted Nuthatches and Downy Woodpeckers.  Red-breasted Nuthatches were regulars in the late summer and early fall, but the locals are apparently wintering elsewhere for some reason.  I'm also at a loss to explain the lack of Downy Woodpeckers.  The surrounding neighborhood is more than adequate habitat for them.  Northern Flickers have been conspicuously loud around the neighborhood for at least a month now, but have only been occasional visitors to the suet feeder.  I am hopeful that all three species will represent in larger numbers over the next few months.

A confused Northern Flicker wonders where the old, easy-to-use feeder went...

... but doesn't take long to adapt to this one.  They're very intelligent birds.

At this point, our most frequent visitor is the Dark-eyed Junco.  Small flocks (6-12) are common throughout the day.  Coming in a close second are Anna's Hummingbirds, with at least three individuals being a near-constant presence.  Flocks of 5-10 American Crows pick through our piles of yard waste for black walnuts.

A female Anna's Hummingbird guards the nectar feeder from a nearby shrub

One of the many Dark-eyed Juncos that regularly visit the yard

Well, that's about it for now.  The past few weeks have been great, but I hope to have some winter finches, woodpeckers, and nuthatches to report later this month.  Until then, have a Merry Christmas and Happy Hanukkah!

Saturday, November 12, 2011

More Migrants

Activity has been down for the past few weeks, which is one reason why I haven't posted in almost a month.  Fortunately, things really began to pick up last weekend.  Overall numbers are still not great, but the lack of quantity is greatly overshadowed by quality of species we've been hosting.

We are currently hosting this uncommon migrant White-throated Sparrow.

One of our more interesting visitors has been a beautiful white-striped morph White-throated Sparrow (above).  This individual, first observed yesterday morning, was a pleasant surprise, as they are rather uncommon winter migrants.  (The last one that we hosted was two years ago, at our previous residence.)  White-throated Sparrows tend to congregate on the coast, so this one may not hang around much longer than a week or so.  At least one Song Sparrow has also been infrequently feeding in the yard.  Song Sparrows are year-round residents here, but are only regulars in urban areas from the late fall through the early spring.

Our two species of wintering warblers, the Townsend's and Yellow-rumped, have also been frequenting the yard for at least a week.  Neither are taking suet right now, indicating that insects are still in ample supply.

A male Townsend's Warbler, apparently tired of consuming bugs, darts off with a peanut.

This Yellow-rumped Warbler forages for insects in the neighbor's apple tree.

One interesting turn of events has been the turnover from American to Lesser Goldfinches.  We were recently inundated with flocks of 100+ American Goldfinches, but they have almost all moved on (only one individual remains).  In their place, a much smaller flock (< 10) of Lesser Goldfinches has been frequenting the nyjer and hulled sunflower feeders.  This has been a nice change of pace.  As much as I enjoy American Goldfinches, the large flocks were just too much.  I hope to see more moderate flocks of them in another month or so.

Our other regulars at this time include Dark-eyed Juncos (of course), Black-capped Chickadees, Bushtits, Scrub-Jays and Crows, who are devouring the walnuts that have fallen from our tree in the front yard.  Interestingly, Chestnut-backed Chickadees are semi-regular at this point.  Expected species that have not been showing up yet include Red-breasted Nuthatches, Downy Woodpeckers, and Northern Flickers.  I hope to see them soon.

A small flock of Lesser Goldfinches feed on hulled sunflower seed.

 A female Anna's Hummingbird guards the nectar feeder from a nearby bush.

We were pleasantly surprised to see our first Cooper's Hawk of the new house last Saturday, a small-ish male.  Interestingly, he showed up at the end of the afternoon, after the vast majority of birds had already left.  Raptors are majestic and I can never get enough of them.  We also appear to have a regular Western Gray Squirrel.  This individual has been hanging around for the past few weeks and doesn't appear to be going anywhere.  As much as I dislike squirrels eating seed that I put out for birds, it's always nice to see a Western Gray Squirrel thrive in an area where the more numerous Fox Squirrels have driven most of them out.

A male Cooper's Hawk searches for a meal in the rain.

Our resident Western Gray Squirrel feeds on an apple from the neighbor's tree.

Well, that's about it for now.  I hope to see some more wintering sparrows and perhaps a small flock of Pine Siskins in the next month or so.  Until then...

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Winter Friends are Here Again

A few weeks ago, we were mired in a quagmire of massive American Goldfinch flocks spilling seed and defecating all over the yard.  Thankfully, their maximum numbers have receded from 100+ to a 50 or so at a time.  Flocks of 10-30 are most common.  I am still excavating mold-infected spilled seed from underneath feeders, but less frequently now.  More importantly, our winter friends have slowly begun returning.
Dark-eyed Juncos (above) began appearing in the yard last Sunday.  I typically see them a week or two earlier, but this is an unestablished yard, so it's not surprising that it took a little longer for them to find it.  A few days ago, a small flock of at least 5 were probing the yard for seed.  They were joined by a Song Sparrow.  Songs Sparrows are year-round residents here, but usually breed in more rural areas.  They often invade urban areas in search of food in the winter.  At the end of that day, a larger member of the sparrow family, a Spotted Towhee, was seen scratching around under the sunflower feeder.  Hopefully we'll see Golden-crowned and White-crowned Sparrows in the next month.

A female Dark-eyed Junco feeds on millet and cracked corn.
A Song Sparrow joins the flock of Juncos
Several other uncommon species have come through the yard.  A week ago, a migrating Yellow Warbler and Hermit Thrush were seen foraging through our bushes.  A Townsend's Warbler was observed in the neighbor's bushes last Sunday.  Townsend's Warblers are often regular visitors to suet feeders from November through April.  Their migration patterns are complicated due to multiple populations migrating through the same regions at different times.  The individual that I saw last Sunday was most likely an early migrant from the north or east of here.  This morning a small flock of Cedar Waxwings briefly congregated in our magnolia tree.

A juvenile male Rufous Hummingbird enjoys sugar-water on a rainy October morning.

A male Bushtit forages in the shrubbery

American Goldfinches still represent in substantial numbers.

Downy Woodpecker numbers have been increasing as of late.

An acrobatic Red-breasted Nuthatch hits up the suet feeder.
In other news,  Bewick's Wrens have been very active as of late.  Hopefully they stay around for the duration of the winter.  Northern Flickers have been loudly conspicuous in the immediate area, but have not spent much time at the suet feeder.  Chestnut-backed Chickadees have been observed on-and-off again recently as well.

Birds aren't the only newcomers to the area.  The Western Gray Squirrel shown above is relatively uncommon in our Fox Squirrel-dominated neighborhood and has been hanging around for the past week.

That's it for now.  I hope to have additional sparrow species and possibly a Purple Finch to report next time.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Goldfinch Fatigue

Given the way that they flock at this time of the year, I've always associated the month of September with American Goldfinches.  And it's gotten to the point where I sometimes refer to it as "Goldfinch Month."  By approximately mid-September, flocks of 40-50 "AMGOs" at my nyjer and sunflower feeders are commonplace.  Towards the end of the month, their numbers reach or exceed the century mark (I counted 91 in the backyard five minutes ago).  While I appreciate having goldfinches at my feeders (especially the males in their bright yellow breeding plumage), they begin to wear on me at this time of the year.  Not only does it cost me about $25 a week to keep my feeders filled at this time of the year, but much of the spilled seed begins to grow mold and I'm actually forced to excavate and dispose of infected soil and seed under my feeders to keep the area from becoming an avian bioharzard.  (Always a fun time on a Saturday afternoon.)  Thankfully, in a few weeks, the large flocks will thin out significantly and I can return to appreciating the smaller portions of goldfinches.

In the midst of this goldfinch blitzkreig, there have also been a few exciting recent sightings.  A couple of them have literally emerged from the flocks themselves.  On two separate occasions over the past week, I've spotted lone Pine Siskins foraging with them.  Siskins often join flocks of other finches to forage for seed in late summer and fall.  Interestingly, another individual that I stumbled upon while photographing one of these goldfinch flocks was a female Black-throated Gray Warbler.  This was pure coincidence, as warblers do not forage with finches.  Black-throated Gray warblers trickle out slowly in August and September during their fall migration.  I imagine that this individual was the last that I'll see in the yard until May.
One of the many large American Goldfinch flocks that have been hitting up the backyard recently
This female Black-throated Gray Warbler stopped by briefly in the middle of the month
Other notable migrants over the past month have included two visits from at least one female Yellow Warbler and a few visits from transient Warbling Vireos.  An unusual Black-headed Grosbeak that strongly preferred to feed terrestrially (most use feeders) hung around the yard for at least a week and a half, which is unusual during migration.  This individual appeared to be healthy, and hung around until September 9th.  I have not seen a Rufous Hummingbird for at least two weeks.  Some are known to hang around into early October, but I doubt that I'll see another one until March.

This unusual Black-headed Grosbeak hung around the yard for a good week and a half

This female Yellow Warbler was spotted in the neighbor's apple tree at the end of August
Other interesting sightings include a Steller's Jay from last weekend.  Steller's Jays breed in the general area, but not locally in this part of the city.  They typically move from their conifer-dominated breeding grounds (typically outside of town) to other locales in September and October.  A Northern Flicker was observed calling from the top of one of the neighbor's trees at the beginning of the month, but it took until this morning for one to actually visit the feeders.  Interestingly, this individual was a mix of Red- and Yellow-shafted subspecies.  I see mixed-race individuals from time to time (mostly in the winter), but they seem to have gotten more common over the past couple of years.

In terms of local year-round species, Red-breasted Nuthatches and Black-capped Chickadees have been representing in relatively high numbers over the past month.  Chestnut-backed Chickadee numbers, on the other hand, have fallen.  Their movements tend to be unpredictable, so I'm not terribly surprised.  A hatch-year male Anna's Hummingbird has  become a permanent fixture at the nectar feeder, and hopefully he'll hang around for the winter as well.

This hatch-year male Anna's Hummingbird appreciates all of the work that I do maintaining the nectar feeder

This mixed-race Northern Flicker was the first suet visitor of the season
A Red-breasted Nuthatch checks out the neighbor's roof
Chestnut-backed Chickadees have tailed off recently.  Perhaps we'll see more later this fall.
The fall weather moved in last night (along with rain), so changes are definitely afoot.  In the next post, I should have reports of juncos and possibly some southbound sparrows as well.  Perhaps I'll get lucky with some more exotic species, as I did last fall.  See you in a few weeks.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

An Auspicious Beginning

Sometimes I like to think that I have some sort of "magic touch" when it comes to attracting birds, but the reality seems to be that Eugene's natural habitat and geographic location are more responsible. When we moved into our last house, the yard of which did not contain a single tree, I was concerned about the immediate habitat's ability to attract birds. I was rewarded with two Golden-crowned Sparrows on the day that we moved in and an unusual visit from a White-throated Sparrow the following week. The next fall and winter were banner years for Varied Thrushes, Purple Finches and my favorite, Evening Grosbeaks. Apparently the surrounding area was good enough to overcome that. In contrast, our new home is surrounded by ample mature deciduous and coniferous trees, fruit-bearing trees, and shrubbery. So I'm pretty optimistic about our new yard. And what I've observed during our first month here has justified my optimism.

As mentioned in the previous post, Bewick's Wrens (above) were observed around the yard once or twice at the beginning of the month and we were hoping that they would be regulars. I'm happy to report that they are indeed heard calling almost every day. Given that they're year-round residents, I'm optimistic that they'll hang around. Red-breasted Nuthatches and Chestnut-backed Chickadees have also been regulars in the yard, visiting the feeders and bath daily.

A Red-breasted Nuthatch snatches a sunflower seed.

A Chestnut-backed Chickadee stops in for a drink of water on an unusually-hot August day.

A few new species regular to the area have also appeared recently. In the middle of the month a single male Lesser Goldfinch was observed. It was soon joined by others, including four fledglings a week later. Last week a Downy Woodpecker stopped by for a bite of suet. We will most likely host many more in the next couple of months.

It's the beginning of migration and we've seen more than our share of movement over the past couple of weeks. A week and a half ago, a male Black-throated Gray Warbler briefly stopped in the yard to forage for insects in the photinia bushes. Unfortunately, I wasn't fast enough with the camera. Just an hour later, a male Wilson's Warbler (above) stopped in. It foraged through the same general area, and was present for a good 15 minutes. It was an exciting morning, as it's rare that two migrating warblers visit on the same day, much less within an hour of one another. Black-headed Grosbeaks have been coming through the yard since the second week of August and at least one is still visiting. These are mostly adult females (the males have already moved south), though I have seen at least one hatch-year at the sunflower feeder.

This migrating female Black-headed Grosbeak loads up on calories for her trip South.

This hatch-year Black-headed Grosbeak watches mom feed while waiting his/her turn to use the feeder.

Many other migrants have passed through recently, including a Willow Flycatcher, a Western Wood-Pewee, a Swainson's Thrush, and even a low-flying flock of Canada Geese (a sure sign that summer is on its last legs).

A male Lesser Goldfinch feeds on nyjer on a warm August morning.

Shortly after the adult Lesser Goldfinches found our feeders, they brought their young to the yard.

This American Goldfinch is one of the most frequent birds in the yard. Fledglings have been observed in the yard recently as well.

The August mini-heat wave appears to be over (knock on wood), as I type this on a cool, breezy, overcast afternoon. As summer continues to lose its grip, the yard will become much more active. I hope to have many more stories and photos to share later next month.