Tuesday, January 31, 2012


After moving into this house in August, I figured that it'd take a good year or so for my yard to become fully "established" with the locals.  Turns out that it only took five months.  The past two weekends in particular have been incredibly kind to me...

Evening Grosbeaks (above) may just be my favorite bird.  Growing up in the Midwest, I would hope and hope that a flock would show up to my sunflower feeder on a winter day.  Alas, it never materialized.  I didn't have a chance to see one until moving to the Pacific Northwest... and getting one to visit the backyard is an even greater challenge (especially if you live in an urban area).  Fortunately, the conifer seed crop in the Central Cascades was bad last fall, and this forced many seed-eating finches into the Valley.  This irruptive movement allowed us to enjoy semi-regular Evening Grosbeaks from October into January of last year.  Without the benefit of a massive seed crop failure, I figured that my chances of seeing one any time soon were very low.  So imagine how surprised I was to find FOUR males perched in my neighbor's tree this past Saturday morning.  They visited the feeders throughout the day but, in true unpredictable Evening Grosbeak fashion, I have not seen them since.

This past Sunday, I was pleasantly surprised to see a female/immature male Purple Finch foraging on spilled sunflower chips.  Purple Finches are unusual but regular winter season visitors.  However, they tend to appear in backyards mostly when moving out of their local wintering habitats in March or April (or, less commonly, when moving out of their breeding habitats in October.)  That said, I have hosted January Purple Finches over the past two years, so I'm not shocked.  In other finch news, flocks of 50+ Pine Siskins have been dominating the yard for the past two weekends.  If I didn't know any better, I'd think that this was a second consecutive irruptive finch year.

A Purple Finch feeds on spilled sunflower chips

Flocks of 50+ Pine Siskins forage under the sunflower feeder

Varied Thrushes winter West of the Cascades in numbers that vary yearly.  These numbers can range from a bona-fide irruption (last winter) to few or none (2009-2010).  Local snowfall can trigger movement out of the Cascade foothills, and this appears to be what happened a couple of weeks ago.  Thankfully, the "snow refugees" have decided to stick around for a while.  At least four have been regularly visiting the yard since mid-January, and I'm very thankful for them.

A male Varied Thrush forages through the backyard on a January afternoon

Although I have not seen many of the "normal" wintering sparrows (Golden-crowned and White-crowned), I have been very fortunate to host two White-throated Sparrows over the past month or so.  And both continue to visit the millet/cracked corn ground feeder.  We continue to host at least two Spotted Towhees as well.

This tan-striped morph White-throated Sparrow has become a regular

Dark-eyed "Oregon" Juncos continue to represent in appreciable numbers, though more modest since November

Other species of note include a recent uptick in Downy Woodpecker and Northern Flicker numbers.  At least one Chestnut-backed Chickadee continues to visit regularly, and I was also pleased to host two Red-breasted Nuthatches this past weekend.  They had been scarce for some time.  Yellow-rumped and Townsend's Warbler numbers have fallen off slightly, though both species continue to visit the suet feeders multiple times per day.  Our local Bewick's Wren (who refuses to pose for a photo!) has also been visiting the feeders very frequently.

Interestingly, American Goldfinch and House Finch numbers have been ridiculously low this winter.  I'm not complaining - just a little confused.

One of two Red-breasted Nuthatches that returned to the feeders after a long absence

A Varied Thrush forages in the back corner of our yard.  Note how well he blends into the dark blue and orange of the decomposing leaves.

A temporarily-uncommon American Goldfinch stops in for some sunflower seed.  Note the molt to black feathers on the cap - spring isn't far away!

I'll leave you with a summary of my FeederWatch counts for the first half of the winter season.  Not bad...

Monday, January 16, 2012

Winter in Full Swing

We've had winter temperatures for about a month and a half now, with morning temperatures in the low/mid 20's last week.  But winter wouldn't be winter without a little snow.  So it was certainly nice to wake up to a lightly-dusted lawn these past two mornings!  Light snow in the valley also means significant snow cover in the foothills... which means more birds in the valley and an exciting time at the feeders.

Winter has really settled in over the past few weeks, and this has been reflected by the abundance and behavior of our wintering warblers.  Back in mid-November, it was relatively easy to spot 4-5 Yellow-rumped Warblers hawking insects, visting the suet feeders, and vying over territory.  But as their migratory movement has died down, the Yellow-rumps have thinned out and a maximum of two at a time can be observed around the yard now.  Townsend's Warblers (above) weren't regular suet-eaters until December, and even then could infrequently be observed at the feeders.  But now there is at least one male and one female that visit the suet feeders several times per day.  As the weather has rendered insects far less abundant, suet has become a much greater part of the Townsends' diet.

A Yellow-rumped Warbler visits the yard for a bite of suet

The cold and snow have also directed other species to our backyard.  It is more than just coincidence that a female Varied Thrush happened to appear in our backyard yesterday morning, after the winter's first appreciable snow accumulation under 2000' in the foothills.  Varied Thrushes spend the winter foraging the floors of coniferous forests in the foothills.  When their feeding grounds get buried under several inches of snow, they often head into the valley.  Downy Woodpeckers and Northers Flickers, insectivores who only occasionally visited the yard in October and November, are both hitting up the suet feeders much more often now.  Bewick's Wrens, which had become somewhat elusive back in the fall, have now returned to take advantage of my peanut feeder.  Of course, they can be very difficult to spot (and photograph).  But if you're patient, you'll see one dart into the peanut feeder, select a nut, and dart back into the bush at least once a day.  We also hosted our first-of-the-winter Slate-colored Junco at the end of December.  They winter in small numbers out here.

A female Varied Thrush forages through the yard the morning after a major snowfall.

Pine Siskins converge on a snowy January morning.

There have been upticks in other species as well.  A month ago, I was only seeing one or two Pine Siskins feeding with a flock of Lesser Goldfinches.  Now I'm hosting homogeneous flocks of 10-20 siskins.  I am also hosting at least two Spotted Towhees now, and I regularly see at least one per weekend.  Remember when yard towhee sightings were very infrequent?  I'm glad that those days are gone. ;)

Wintering sparrows are usually a big part of the backyard feeding station.  Though this winter has not been great for sparrows in general, I've been fortunate enough to host a White-throated Sparrow since mid-November.  White-throats are pretty common winter feeder visitors in the Eastern half of the county, but not so much out here on the West Coast.  The wintering populations here are relatively small, and they're a somewhat-noteworthy find.  Two weeks ago, a second White-throated Sparrow appeared at the cracked corn/millet feeder.  This one is a tan-striped morph, so now I have one of each type!  My first White-crowned Sparrow of the winter appeared last weekend, but I haven't seen it since.

My "regular" white-striped morph White-throated Sparrow was recently joined by a...

tan-striped morph White-throated Sparrow.  This is an uncommon wintering species on the West Coast.

Not to be left out, this immature White-crowned Sparrow also joined in on the fun.

While things are going great here for a first winter at a new home, there are a few species that seem to be "lagging" behind in number.  Red-breasted Nuthatches have been conspicuously absent for much of the fall and winter, especially considering how frequently they were observed here in the late summer.  This area is not overly-coniferous, but contains enough pine and fir to attract regular Chestnut-backed Chickadees.  American Goldfinches and House Finches also continue to represent in puzzlingly-small numbers.  I was burned out by the former by early October and don't really care much for the latter (they're a half a step down from House Sparrows, in my opinion), but I'm still at a loss to understand why so few have been around.

Well, that's it for now.  I hope to report (and photograph) the yard's first Purple Finch soon.  (March or early April would be a better bet, but I've been known to get lucky now and again.)