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!