Thursday, November 22, 2012

Winter Birds in Full Force

We've just emerged from a four-day series of winter storms that dumped more than 4" of rain on us.  So much for that drier-than-usual fall.  Accompanying this typical winter weather has been our typical array of winter birds, some in higher-than-expected numbers.

Varied Thrushes, such as the female shown above, breed in higher-elevation coniferous forests and become opportunistic foragers in the fall and winter.  For numerous reasons (some of which are not well understood), they often invade the lowlands in October and usually make an appearance in urban areas at this time of the year.  It's not uncommon for them to not show up at feeders until December or January (or not at all).  The individual shown above was one of two that were feeding on the abundant apples still hanging from our neighbor's tree.  (Apples that the local Cedar Waxwings strangely left almost untouched last month.)  When the apples run out, I'm sure that these individuals will begin foraging underneath the feeders.

We've been very lucky with Evening Grosbeaks over the past copule of years.  Even more erratically opportunistic than Varied Thrushes, Evening Grosbeaks were (apparently) forced into the lowlands in late 2010 due to a poor conifer seed crop in the Cascades.  For whatever reason, they have been conspicuous in the area in the fall/winter and occasional feeder visitors.  I was pleasantly surprised to see a lone female (below) at the feeders a couple of weeks ago, and have heard small flocks flying overhead in the early mornings over the past week.  Hopefully we'll get another strong showing of them at the feeders this winter.

This female Evening Grosbeak was a pleasant early November surprise

One of four migrant Golden-crowned Sparrows that enjoyed a pre-storm feast last weekend

While Evening Grosbeaks are my favorite winter visitor, I also look forward to the influx of migrant winter sparrows in the fall.  With the exception of Song Sparrows and Spotted Towhees, most members of the sparrow family do not nest in the area and can only be reliably spotted in the urban lowlands between October and May.  One of the more prominent is the Golden-crowned Sparrow.  Golden-crowned Sparrows breed in Alaska and Western Canada, and then invade the Pacific Coast in the fall.  There are winters where I do not host them until March or later, but I've been lucky so far this winter season.  The first showed up in late September and I had an unusual four in the yard last weekend.  Interestingly, I'm also currently hosting a White-throated Sparrow.  White-throats are common winter residents in much of the Eastern portion of the country, but the wintering population out here is comparatively small.  Despite this, they've recently become one of my most common sparrows over the past couple of winters, surpassing the more regionally-numerous White-crowned Sparrow and even the very common Song Sparrow.  I have no idea why this is, but am not complaining.

Also in the "unusual" department, a Steller's Jay hung around the neighborhood for at least the first half of November.  Steller's Jays can be found in the coniferous hills on the outskirts of town year-round, but are relatively rare in urban areas in the summer and tend to be transient in these areas outside of the breeding season.  I typically see one or two go through the yard in September or October, and that's it.  So seeing two in September and hosting one for two weeks in November was definitely out of the ordinary.

This Steller's Jay hung around the neighborhood for the first half of November

The presence of Ruby-crowned Kinglets in the yard typically means that winter is upon us

When you see the "usual" flock of chickadees and bushtits at the time of the year, it's a good idea to grab the binoculars and look for accompanying warblers and kinglets.  Late November is when I typically see a flock of Ruby- and Golden-crowned Kinglets forage through the yard.  They came a week early this year.  GC Kinglets are notoriously difficult to photograph, as they are tiny, constantly moving, and tend to forage relatively high up in trees.  I typically have better luck with RC Kinglets (above), though they're not easy subjects either. With this mixed flock, a Townsend's Warbler was also observed foraging high up in one of the neighbor's Douglas Firs.  At least one Yellow-rumped Warbler (a migrant Myrtle subspecies individual) has been hanging around the yard for the past month or so - mostly hawking insects, eating berries from my wax-myrtle shrubs, and occasionally picking at suet.

As far as "regular" yard visitors go, Pine Siskins have been out in full force.  Between 60 and 80 have been at the feeders over the past two weekends.  These numbers are about twice what I typically experience during the winter season.  However, other finches have been either absent or in very low numbers.  Over the past few weeks, I've been able to count the number of House Finches and Lesser Goldfinches at the feeders on one hand.  And I'm not sure if I've seen an American Goldfinch since October.

Thankfully, other species are representing in usual or higher-than-usual numbers.  I'm seeing more Dark-eyed Juncos (12-18) than usual.  Red-breasted Nuthatches are frequent, with the more elusive Chestnut-back Chickadees being erratic, but still around.  Woodpeckers (both Downy and Flicker) are also regular weekend visitors.  And after taking a seeming leave of absence last month, Anna's Hummingbirds are very frequent once again.

This immature male Anna's Hummingbird is one of at least three that frequents the nectar feeder

One of just a few House Finches that have been frequenting the feeders this fall

Given what I've heard regionally, this winter appears to be our best shot of seeing a Red Crossbill or Mountain Chickadee at the feeders.  The latter has been popping up at numerous feeders in Western Oregon recently.  I'll keep my fingers crossed!