Sunday, April 29, 2012

The Big Morning

As April has progressed, more migratory birds have been moving in (and out).  We are currently at the peak of spring migration, as reflected by this weekend's exceptional activity.

I always like to begin posts with a photo that will catch the attention of the casual reader (yes, all three of you).  I had been trying to get a nice photo of a male Rufous Hummingbird all spring and was fortunate to have two males fighting over the nectar feeder last Saturday.  My opportunity finally arrived and I didn't hesitate to take advantage!

But as interesting as Rufous Hummers are, they're not the big story right now.  Yesterday, I hosted the most impressive spring migratory morning that I can remember.  It began at approximately 7:15 am when I spotted an Orange-crowned Warbler foraging through my neighbor's bushes.  Orange-crowns are our most common summer warbler and the first large wave of them passed through earlier in the month, so this was interesting, but not incredibly so.  Shortly afterwards, I noticed a larger bird hawking insects from the same tree.  A look through the binoculars revealed a greenish-gray bird approximately 6" in length with a habit of cocking its tail.  Definitely an Empidonax flycatcher.  Flycatchers of this genus are notoriously difficult to identify.  However, the long-ish, bi-colored bill and prominent eye ring strongly suggested a Pacific-slope Flycatcher.  The only other Empid flycatcher with the same bill type that is found in this region in late April/early May is the Willow Flycatcher.  Given that Willows have very faint eye rings and are grayer in color, I'm confident that this individual was a Pacific-slope.  It came back to this tree a couple of times later in the morning but, unlike the Willow Flycatchers I've hosted in the past, stayed perched deep within the tree.  So a photograph wasn't going to happen.

Thankfully, more photogenic birds were on their way.  Approximately 10 minutes later, I spotted a pair of Wilson's Warblers in that same tree (what is it with this tree?).  These individuals foraged through our yard afterwards, before moving elsewhere.  Almost immediately afterwards, I spotted a MacGillivray's Warbler back in the neighbor's yard.  It posed long enough in the neighbor's fir for a photo, before darting across the fence into our Wax Myrtle bushes.  True to form, the MacGillivray's stayed low to the ground (they rarely forage above eye level).  After a lull in the action, I stepped back inside and, after looking out the other window, noticed a Nashville Warbler in one of our Photinias.  What a crazy morning!

This male MacGillivray's Warbler hangs out in our neighborhood for a while on a late April morning.

A Nashville Warbler joins the fun.

This blurry Wilson's Warbler was less cooperative with my camera.  A better photo from last August can be found here.

As I was making a report of these sightings at my desk, I could see the MacGillivray's foraging through the ornamental shrubs in our front yard.

This crazy morning was rounded out by migratory sparrows.  As mentioned in the last post, White-crowned Sparrows have been visiting in modest numbers.  Some "pure" gambelli subspecies individuals were observed a couple of weeks ago, but we're now hosting an individual whose field marks suggest it's of mixed race.  Interestingly, our overwintering tan-striped morph White-throated Sparrow was part of the Saturday madness as well.  I'm somewhat surprised that it's still hanging around.  Also present that morning were two Golden-crowned Sparrows.  At least 2-3 different individuals have been frequenting the yard for the past couple of weeks.

This Golden-crowned Sparrow stocks up on seed before moving to its breeding grounds in Canada/Alaska

Not to be forgotten, the first Warbling Vireo of the year made its way through the yard last Tuesday.  (It didn't want to pose for a photo, either.)

Other recent changes in the yard include the absence of many local wintering species, including Dark-eyed Juncos, Varied Thrushes, Townsend's Warblers, Purple Finches, Downy Woodpeckers, and Northern Flickers.  Adding to the mix are American Goldfinches and House Finches, both of whom were unusually underrepresented this winter.  Chestnut-backed Chickadees, who were also sporadic this past winter, have also made something of a comeback over the past week or so.  (Perhaps a pair is nesting locally?)  Approximately a dozen Pine Siskins continue to visit the feeders.  I imagine that many of these individuals will breed locally this summer, which means that fledglings will be in the yard in another month or so.  Small flocks of Evening Grosbeaks continue to nomadically roam around town, sometimes coming down to visit the feeders, sometimes not.  They will begin to move into their breeding grounds in the foothills in another 2-3 weeks.

American Goldfinches, Lesser Goldfinches, and Pine Siskins visit the sunflower feeder.

As we get into May, we will enter the downslope of migratory movement.  Black-headed Grosbeaks are in town (I saw one downtown this morning) and should be visiting the sunflower feeders any day now.  Western Tanagers and Bullock's Orioles may also visit the yard over the next couple of weeks.  Willow Flycatchers and Western Wood-Pewees will also make their way into the area by mid-May.  It'll be interesting to see which of these visits the yard next.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Seasonal Movement

With the March's endless rain and snow now in the rear-view, spring migration is finally underway.  Due to the continuation of somewhat soggier-than-usual conditions (we weren't going to get off that easy now!), migration seems to be running about a week or so behind.  Still,  the past couple of weeks have been fruitful and exciting.

Orange-crowned Warblers (above) are a harbinger of spring for much of North America.  Here in the Pacific Northwest, Orange-crowns begin to make their way through between mid-March and early April.  The individual pictured above was photographed on Easter morning (April 8th) which, as we'll show later, was a heck of a morning for local movement.  The migratory wave that brought this individual to the yard was about a week later than usual.

Early- and mid-April have also brought us a large movement of Ruby-crowned Kinglets.  These  diminutive, hyperactive birds winter in the Willamette Valley and make their annual pilgrimage to the Cascades and surrounding foothills at this time of the year.  The local movement this season seemed unusually high, with over 70 individuals reported at a popular birding location in town last week.  They were omnipresent for much of the first week and a half of the month in my yard, with three individuals spotted in my cherry tree just a couple of days ago.

This male Ruby-crowned Kinglet works one of the neighbor's trees

A male Rufous Hummingbird cautiously waits for me to go back inside before returning to the nectar feeder.

Rufous Hummingbirds, first spotted way back during the second week of March, have continued to make their way through since the beginning of the month.  Females predominated at the end of March and early April, but males have had a more-or-less equal showing since.  Rufous Hummingbirds have historically disappeared from my yard by mid-May (presumably not breeding in the area), but hopefully that changes this year.

Migratory sparrows have also been coming through.  Last week, a trio of "Gambel's" subspecies White-crowned Sparrows (subspecies gambelli) made an appearance in the yard (thanks to Dave Irons for the subspecies ID).  This subspecies winters in the Southwest and breeds in Western Canada and Alaska.  Thus, they are strictly migratory in our neck of the woods.  (Conversely, our typical winter vistors, the pugetensis subspecies, are year-round residents.)  Two Gambel's WC Sparrows were in the yard yesterday, accompanied by one of our overwintering White-throated Sparrows.  A Golden-crowned Sparrow (almost done molting into breeding plumage) was scratching around for seed beneath the feeders this morning.  This Golden-crown, who also breeds in Western Alaska and Canada, will likely make its way north soon.  A Fox Sparrow (not shown) was also spotted in the yard last week.

This migatory "Gambel's" White-crowned Sparrow can be differentiated from the local pugetensis subspecies, in part, by the bright white spots on its upper back, its thin black post-ocular stripe, and the very limited amount of dark coloring at the tip of its otherwise corn-yellow bill.

A molting and soon-to-be migrating Golden-crowned Sparrow stops in for a snack 

Our most abundant sparrow, the Dark-eyed Junco, is also on its way out.  Though not migratory in the true sense (in fact, a small number breed locally), most breed in the Cascade foothills.  A week ago, I could easily count a half dozen in the yard.  Now, I have two remaining individuals.  I imagine that they'll be gone by this time next week.

Local (non-migratory) movement is also big at this time of the year.  Many species of birds winter in the lowland urban areas and breed in the forests just outside of town.  On Eastern morning, we were blessed (no pun intended) by two of my favorites: Evening Grosbeaks (above) and Purple Finches.  Evening Grosbeaks have been flocking around town for most of the first half of the month.  At the beginning of the month, there was a flock of almost 30 split between our large Black Walnut and one of my neighbor's trees.  The following weekend, two females and a male came down to feed in the yard.  Just a few minutes later, a lone male Purple Finch began snacking at the same feeder.  April is a good time to see both species (Evening Grosbeaks tend to hang out here a little longer, into mid-May)

A male Purple Finch with a mouthfull of sunflower

Pine Siskins continue to hang around in flocks of 15-20.  Though they typically breed in the coniferous forests of the Cascades and surrounding foothills, some tend to hang around and breed locally (especially after an irruptive winter).

The large flocks of Pine Siskins (above) finally caught the eye of the local Accipiters (small hawks).  Both Sharp-shinned and Cooper's Hawks have been making the rounds recently.  Our local female Cooper's (below) has been especially aggressive, hunting in the yard multiple times over the past week.  She was even accommodating enough to give my rather loud two-year-old a good look...

In the midst of migratory madness, we would be remiss to omit a discussion of our year-round locals.  Anna's Hummers are still in shorter-than-usual supply due to the wet weather, but are still hanging around and resisting the migratory surge of the notoriously-aggressive Rufous Hummers.  Northern Flickers seem to have left for their woodland breeding grounds, but I'm still seeing a fair number of Downy Woodpeckers at the suet feeders.  Bushtits and Black-capped Chickadees - both local breeders - continue to represent in typical numbers.  American Goldfinches, greatly underrepresented this winter, have made something of a comeback.  And that's great, because the males look marvelous in their breeding plumage.

A female Downy Woodpecker stops in for some suet

This mostly-molted male American Goldfinch looks great in its breeding plumage.  I hope to see more of them this summer.

I love ending with a nice, bright American Goldfinch.  They're a beacon of better weather to come in a sea of overcast skies.  

It's supposed to be warm and sunny this weekend, with highs in the 70s.  And that means more migrants!  Black-throated Gray Warblers have made their way into town and will probably appear in the yard soon.  We may also see our first-of-the-season Nashville Warblers and Cassin's Vireos soon as well.  And we're about two weeks away from our first-of-the-season Black-headed Grosbeak.  What an exciting time.  Until then, good birding...

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Hooray, it's Spring!

Three weeks ago, we had back-to-back days of sunshine and temperatures in the 60s.  I began to wonder if I might be able to plant a couple of weeks early this year.  Mother Nature responded with a reality check of rain, followed by a surprise visit from Old Man Winter.

On the morning of March 21st, we received 6" of heavy, wet snow that brought down many trees and shrubs around town (thankfully, ours suffered minimal damage).  Most of Eugene was shut down that morning, and I used the half day off work to replenish feeders, sprinkle seed under our arborvitae trees, and to brush snow off of the foliage hummingbird feeder.

Birds like the Pine Siskin pictured above did just fine in the adverse conditions (a lot better than our neighbor's tree, at least) and, of course, the snow eventually melted.  The cold and snow gave then way to to moderate temperatures and rain.  Lots of rain.  We received just under 10" of rain in March, almost twice the average for the month.  This has put a real damper (no pun intended) on hummingbird visits to the yard.  Since spotting the male Rufous Hummer just under three weeks ago, only one other individual has been observed in the yard (a female, last weekend).  Even the regular Anna's Hummers have been visiting less frequently than usual.

A male Varied Thrush forages through leaf litter on a rainy March afternoon

American Goldfinches and Pine Siskins dine on hulled sunflower.  The former are making a comeback.

Many other species seem unfazed by the December-esque weather.  Large flocks of Pine Siskins still visit the feeders daily.  Northern Flickers, Downy Woodpeckers, and both species of goldfinches (American and Lesser) are more frequent visitors now than in previous months.  American Goldfinches have visited in unusually small numbers this winter.  The snowstorm brought our previously-regular White-throated Sparrow (white-striped morph) and an immature White-crowned Sparrow out of the woodwork.  Diseased Pine Siskins, omnipresent in any large flock, brought a mature adult Sharp-shinned Hawk to the yard a couple of times back in mid-March.  While on their way out now, a half dozen Varied Thrushes were present in the yard last weekend.  And we are still entertaining double-digit numbers of Dark-eyed Juncos.  The winter weather may have delayed the latter two species from returning to their higher-elevation breeding grounds.

One of this winter's regular White-throated Sparrows forages for seed.

A "Slate-colored" Dark-eyed Junco feeds with a small flock of its "Oregon" subspecies friends.

A Spotted Towhee forages for seed.

Thankfully, this weather "setback" is only temporary.  The rhododendrons and magnolia tree are beginning to bloom and my cherry tree and little Sitka mountainash are beginning to sprout leaves.  Some of our feathered friends are also beginning to sport their breeding plumages.  Not even Old Man Winter can stop the inevitable...

This "Audubon's" Yellow-rumped Warbler has almost completely molted into its breeding plumage...

...and this male American Goldfinch isn't far behind.

This week also marks the end of FeederWatch.  A summary of my counts for the 2011-2012 season are listed below.  Given that this was the first year of feeding birds in this yard, I have to say that I'm pretty pleased with an average of 17.8 species per weekend and six weekends of 20+ species.  Heck, any winter with an Evening Grosbeak visit is a good one in my book!  This was a banner year for Pine Siskins and also a strong year for Varied Thrushes.  I was also pleasantly surprised to have regular Bewick's Wrens and Spotted Towhees for the duration of the winter season.  This was a very auspicious beginning to what I hope will become a very "birdy" yard.

Well, that's it for now.  We should be seeing more Rufous Hummers over the next couple of weeks (and perhaps a Calliope if we're really lucky).  It's possible that we'll get a visit from a Chipping Sparrow or Orange-crowned Warbler soon, and perhaps a Hammond's Flycatcher in a couple of weeks.  Spring migration always brings lots of fun surprises.