A gathering of gorgeous grosbeaks

If you know birders, you’ve undoubtedly heard that this 2020-21 winter season marks an “irruption” year – a period when large numbers of certain bird species migrate to places where they’re usually not seen. This year is especially notable because it is one of the largest mass migrations that has taken place in about 25 years.

The scientists who study irruptions are calling this season a “superflight,” because all the species in the finch family that breed in the boreal forests of the northern USA and Canada have been moving south. Here in the Piedmont, we’ve been lucky to see several of these species.

The finches that have drawn the most attention from local birders are the evening grosbeaks (Coccothraustes vespertinus) with their eye-catching colors and plumage. They tend to move about in flocks and when they land at feeders, they appear more than willing to share with other birds, like a red-bellied woodpecker (above) or pine siskins (below).

When they land on a feeder, however, they may crowd out others due to their size.

While the evening grosbeaks don’t seem quarrelsome like some other birds, they may still have territorial defense encounters when they are vying for food. Perhaps that is what happened to this female with what appears to be a slight injury below her eye. It is unlikely that it would have come from escaping another type of assault as it has been reported that they have no known predators!

The females are subtly colored in shades of gray-beige with touches of green and yellow on their flanks, neck and near their throat. Their wings are marked with black and white patches.

 

Their coloring may look a bit different depending on the quality of the light and how overcast the day is.

The males are eye-catching due to their vibrant yellow and black plumage, featuring a notable dark yellow stripe over the eyes and a bright white patch on black wings.

Both females and males have the very thick, conical bills characteristic of their species.

Watching them at breeding time would be interesting as it does not involve song but instead features the males dancing for their prospective mates.

In the summer, the evening grosbeaks eat insects, including the spruce budworm, which is a tiny caterpillar. Their winter diet includes large seeds, berries and tree buds; maple samaras (papery winged seeds) and sunflower seeds are favorites (especially the gray-striped kind).

In 2018, a few individual evening grosbeaks were spotted in the Triangle but not many people had the chance to see them. I was fortunate to have three visit my feeders for an afternoon when it was snowy.

This year, none have visited me, but they have been very present in our area, especially at the feeders of bird enthusiasts Bert Fisher and Leto Copeley. This lovely couple welcomed birders to visit their yard by appointment (with limited numbers of visitors wearing masks in the large area).

 

Bert kindly updated everyone on the birds’ comings and goings. Their number increased over time to a high count of over 60 birds seen at one time. They often sit high in the trees of the wooded property and then suddenly descend to sit in groups on platform feeders and to pick up fallen seed on the ground.

Over time, the evening grosbeaks have expanded their “territory” over the Northeastern USA, partly in response to increased planting of boxelders (Acer negundo, a type of maple) as shade trees. The seeds of the box elder are available throughout the winter and are a preferred food for these large finches.

Like numerous other bird species, evening grosbeak populations have declined steeply over time. Between 1966 and 2015, their numbers on the East Coast declined by 97%. Continued logging of forests in northern North America, avian diseases, aerial spraying of insects and climate change may all contribute to further reductions of this group of birds.

Researchers are now collaborating in an Evening Grosbeak Project that aims to compare flight calls, genetics and breeding behaviors of five distinctive sub-groups in this species. They are distinguished by the types of calls that they make and birders are asked to help out by submitting recordings to the eBird website.

It appears that Type 3 (Coccothraustes vespertinus vespertinus, the most irruptive of all five sub-groups) is the call type which has traveled to our area. It has a call that is similar to that of a house sparrow.

Some northeastern grosbeaks are now being tracked by the Project. An avian ecologist with the Pennsylvania Natural Heritage Program recently was able to band 47 birds so that sightings of them elsewhere can be reported. He also put a new model of solar radio tracking tags on 29 of the birds, which can help monitor their movements throughout their lifetime.

Evening grosbeaks can live well into their teens; the oldest banded individual was found when he was 16 years and 3 months. Perhaps some of those visiting us this year have been here before during food-poor periods up North. It will be interesting to see when they next decide to visit our area in the future and hopefully a few will visit me.

 

I’ve added some of the trees that tend to attract them, such as winterberries, maples and crabapples, to complement the junipers, pines and elms in my yard, so the welcome mat will be out!

Chilly mornings and nights – birds coping with and resisting the cold!

Many birders focus their attention on nest boxes in the spring and summer, hoping to see avian parents bringing food to nestlings – and if they’re lucky, getting to see the young fledge. Those blessed with yards or a voice in deciding what goes in public spaces may create more such places by putting up nest boxes on poles and trees. (Poles with baffles are a better choice as it makes it harder for snakes and raccoons to enter and eat the eggs and nestlings.)

What many people don’t always realize is that nest boxes can be enjoyable birding spots in the fall and winter, too. As more and more people choose not to leave snags in their neighborhoods and/or have trees removed from properties, birds are losing places to construct their natural nest cavities. Nest boxes help make up a little bit for that habitat destruction.

 

In the winter, birds check out nest boxes to get a head start on choosing possible nesting sites come spring and summer. In my own yard, especially the Eastern bluebirds (Sialia sialis) and brown-headed nuthatches (Sitta pusilla) will visit one nest box after another to decide which one they might choose as a brooding site in the spring. The nuthatches may be accompanied by a youngster from the past summer who will help raise their new siblings.

 

 

Various species of birds also use nest boxes as warm overnight abodes when the temperatures fall to near freezing and below. Besides the Eastern bluebirds and brown-headed nuthatches, I’ve seen white-breasted nuthatches, Carolina wrens (Thryothorus ludovicianus) and downy woodpeckers (Picoides pubescens) checking out a nest box inside and out.

    

Carolina wren                                                 Downy woodpecker

Some species even use a nest box as a communal overnight refuge, with 12 or more birds squeezing together to conserve their body heat. I haven’t seen so many birds enter a box but perhaps I’m not looking at the right time.

The competition for nest boxes as warm overnight roosting spots can also be intense. A male downy woodpecker in my yard has adopted one particular box as his overnight abode, but the bluebirds would rather have the refuge for themselves. He gets there in the late afternoon and sometimes must pass angry birds to squeeze through the hole.

The bluebirds will then scold from atop the box and while hovering in front of the entrance, but he hunkers down and refuses to leave.

It’s interesting to see that the nest boxes also serve other creatures. Various birds perch on nest boxes while checking out the yard to see what’s going on, like this beautiful Northern flicker (Colaptes auratus).

One day, when looking out my window, I was certain I had seen a lizard peeking out of a box hole. Shortly thereafter, when I was outside, I caught a glimpse of a head and went over to open the box. And it turned out that a Carolina anole (Anolis carolinensis) is sometimes using that box as a place to rest! The birds don’t enter when s/he is there as far as I can tell.

When it’s cold and damp, you can also see birds using other measures to stay warm and resist the cold. Most birds eat quite a lot to put on body fat that is used up at night through shivering (which helps keep them warm). This means you may have crowds at bird feeders with species sharing space as they increase their body mass.

You may also occasionally get an “invasion” of one species, like the pine siskins (Spinus pinus).

Puffing up their feathers is another strategy that our avian friends use – they trap pockets of warmer air around their bodies.

Ruby-crowned kinglet (Regulus calendula)

                                              Brown thrasher (Toxostoma rufum)

           

Chipping sparrow (Spizella passerina)         Dark-eyed junco (Junco hyemalis)

The birds keep their feathers in good condition by engaging in vigorous preening. Some water birds oil their feathers to waterproof them, while others grow special feathers that disintegrate, producing a special waterproofing powder. And birds like mallard ducks (Anas platyrhynchos) have a special blood circulatory system in their legs whereby they lose only about 5% of their body heat through their bare feet.

Creating wood piles and leaving dried leaves and stalks from summer and fall grasses and shrubs can provide birds with some shelter from winter winds and cold, so my yard is now home to five wood piles. Several species of birds also seek out protected roosting areas when the deciduous trees and shrubs lose their leaves and the branches no longer provide hiding spots from predators. My native holly bushes serve that purpose for the lovely white-throated sparrows (Zonotrichia albicollis), as well as Eastern towhees (Pipilo erythrophthalmus) and Northern cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis). I’m glad it keeps them returning to the yard!

As 2021 gets underway, I wish you readers all the best – hope this new year is healthy, happy and as worry-free as possible for you! And thanks for reading my blog. 😊

Serendipity in a stressful year

2020 has turned out to be quite a stress-filled series of months on multiple fronts, so unexpected pleasures and delights are very welcome. For birders in North Carolina (NC), that scenario has luckily been playing itself out this fall and winter. Several unexpected and unusual birds have been spotted in our state, including a Kirtland’s warbler, vermilion flycatcher, MacGillivray’s warbler, and sandhill cranes.

Many bird lovers have traveled to catch sight of these surprising visitors. While I’ve mostly avoided groups the past nine months as part of my COVID-avoiding measures, last week I did join the human migration to an NC home about 20 miles away to see a bird that is normally only found in the northwestern United States – a varied thrush (Ixoreus naevius).

The opportunity to see this lovely bird was offered to the local community by homeowners Tony Hewitt and Marla Wolf. They generously allowed people to come to their suburban yard (by appointment) to watch over the backyard fence to catch sight of the thrush.

When I visited on a “slow” day, it was easy to socially distance oneself from other birders and photographers. Only a couple other people were there for a while (and I was alone some of the time) waiting for the thrush to make an appearance. Everyone wore masks, some having double masked as well.

The varied thrushes normally migrate back and forth in the area stretching from Alaska, through Canada, down to northern California, as shown by this map from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. The website remarks that a few of these birds occasionally wander outside their normal range to the Midwest and Northeast. Seeing one in the southeastern USA is highly unusual.

Map credit: https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Varied_Thrush/maps-range#

This robin-sized bird is a real stunner – his orange, grey, yellow and white feathers grow in a wonderful pattern. The colors seem to vary a bit, depending on the quality of the light falling on them and the background against which you see him. But he is handsome from any angle – front, side or back!

Something I found particularly interesting was a pattern of wavy lines in his tail feathers when the light hit them in a certain way. This was not something that I saw mentioned in descriptions of its physical characteristics. The observation made me want to photograph the thrush again to see if this would show up again.

 

It is interesting to note that one varied thrush crossed the Atlantic and turned up in Great Britain in 1982. It was a unique bird since it represented a rare variant of the species in which the orange feather coloration has become all white. Only five such representatives of this mutation have been recorded since 1921.

In its home range, the varied thrush prefers to stay in dense, coniferous forests near water. The NC visitor is taking advantage of a backyard nook that Marla designed with multiple shrubs and some open space.

The home is not far from a lake, but the thrush is taking advantage of a bird bath for drinks, which Marla kindly had moved so that it was better visible for visiting birders looking over the fence.

Varied thrushes usually feed on insects, foraging on the ground and often under dense cover.

The thrush’s insectivorous diet can be wide-ranging and include ants, beetles, caterpillars, crickets, earthworms, millipedes, snails and spiders.

  

They also eat berries, either in trees or on the ground, during the autumn and winter months. 

Our NC celebrity bird is obviously enjoying seeds furnished daily by Tony and Marla.

A notice placed by Tony near fence announced that the thrush seemed to come out in the open every 30 minutes or so. It turned out that this was indeed the case the first hour that I was there; then the bird came after a couple 15-minute intervals.

He certainly seemed to be a creature of habit because I noticed that after eating, he would go back into the dense undergrowth for several minutes and then re-emerge to take a couple drinks at the bird bath. Eating obviously was making him thirsty and noticing this habit meant it was possible to get “camera-ready” for another appearance.

When it is breeding time, male varied thrushes begin to establish territories and confront other males with threat displays. These begin with the bird cocking his tail and turning it towards his rival, while he lowers his wings. If the rival bird does not go away, the thrush will lower his head, raise and fan his tail and then spread his wings out to the side.

Obviously, our NC bird had no rivals around but there were many other birds foraging in the ground underneath the feeders. They included Northern cardinals, white-throated sparrows, pine siskins and downy woodpeckers among others. And it seemed that “our” thrush was sometimes warning them off.

Or perhaps he was just flashing his wings to scare up insects hiding in the fallen leaves.

There are still large numbers of varied thrushes, with an estimate of some 20 million in the current global breeding population. However, the North American Breeding Bird Survey recorded a cumulative decline of the species of 73% between 1966 and 2015. Logging, wildfires and forest fragmentation are ongoing threats to their breeding habitat.

This is only the fifth time that a varied thrush has been seen in North Carolina. The first sighting was in 2005; three other birds were seen in 2010. No one has any idea what got this year’s bird so far off-course during its migration and no one knows how long it will stay around.

Tony and Marla have kept a visitors’ book (with hand sanitizer available for signers) and many people have been recording their visit. When I visited, more than 110 people had already come by, including some birders from Virginia and Tennessee. More people have since stopped by the Hewitt-Wolf residence to admire this vagrant bird. We are grateful to them for giving us this opportunity!

It’s apparent that the serendipitous sojourn of this gorgeous bird has been a welcome gift to many people – both those who saw it in person and those who’ve admired photos distributed through facebook groups. We hope the bird will survive the winter here and be able to return to its home grounds out West so that its journey has a happy ending!

 

Kinglet capers – defending territory!

A birder recently remarked on a Facebook feed that ruby-crowned kinglets (Regulus calendula) seem to have a diet consisting solely of caffeine and Ritalin, which might account for the almost constant motion in which these lovely little birds seem to spend much of their time. They really get revved up, however, not when they are feeding but when they are defending what they consider to be their territory.

Unlike many other bird species, these kinglets don’t tend to hang out in groups of their peers. On the contrary, they often chase away others of their kind and this can turn into an actual campaign against an intruder that can last for quite lengthy periods.

 

This was brought home to me when I saw a vigorous little male who was confused by his own reflection in an installation at a local garden, aptly entitled “Self-reference”. The NC Botanical Garden organizes a yearly outdoor sculpture competition and this year included Jonathan Davis’ entry comprising a series of shiny glass balls arranged in a tall column supported by encircling metal struts and rope-like cables.

The orbs provided the kinglet with mirrors in which he could see himself, although he was obviously convinced that another male was trying to take over his winter domain. The raised red crest was like waving a flag in front of a bull. (These kinglets usually have the red crest hidden; they only raise it when excited or perturbed.)

My friend Lucretia had seen him attacking the “intruding bird” when she was at the Garden and she alerted another photographer, Mary, and me to his presence. Mary headed over to the site right away and got a lovely photo of Edward looking at himself. (I named him Edward as the meaning of that Anglo-Saxon name is “guardian of prosperity.”)

 

I only got to the Garden later the next morning, but Edward was still spending his time trying to drive away the interloper.

 

The sight of another male kinglet with HIS crown raised undoubtedly only incensed him further.

The day that I was there, he took frequent breaks to restore his energy levels by flying to nearby trees and shrubs to gather food.

He also took some time now and again to sit quietly on the sculpture’s metal rings – when his back was turned to the balls, he didn’t see the invader and could catch his breath, so to speak.

 

It was interesting to see how he tried to peck at the opposing bird, over and over again despite the fact that he was bumping his beak on the sculpture.

 

 

After observing him for a couple hours, I decided to leave Edward alone. However, there was a Garden party that evening and I returned to see the sculpture lit up with reflections of nearby Christmas lights – Edward was still busy in the late afternoon challenging his rival!

 

 

When I returned a couple days later, the sculpture had been removed, to the relief of some birders who were worried that Edward was going to wear himself out and perhaps be compromised when temperatures were due to drop considerably. As I had seen him feeding frequently, I was not too worried about that, but I am glad that calmer times have now returned for him so that he can spend his coming weeks in a more peaceful atmosphere. Hope to see you in your normal foraging mode soon, Edward!

Kinglet capers – finding food and enjoying short rests

It seems that at least once a year, ruby-crowned kinglets (Regulus calendula) feature in my blogs; they are one of my favorite bird species and I always enjoy seeing them again and again.

These small birds are bundles of feathered energy, almost constantly in motion as they seek insects, which form the bulk of their diet.

 

They are only slightly larger than ruby-throated hummingbirds: 9-11 cm (3.5-4.3 in) long versus a length of 7-9 cm (2.8-3.5 in) for the hummer.

When they scour the vegetation for food, they may be flicking their wings continuously.

Fortunately, they do take little breaks now and again, so we can admire their beauty.

These breaks often last less than minute, however, and often are even briefer so you have to be ready and waiting to capture a photo.

I’ve been lucky this fall to find a few spots where I know some kinglets are hanging out, so I get to see them quite regularly.

My yard-visiting kinglet has returned for the winter season as well; I usually see him mostly at the suet feeder, where he will hover like a hummer as he takes quick bites of peanut-flavored vegetable lard laced with grits, oatmeal and nuts. He is a bit more gray in color than many other kinglets.

I’m wondering if this year’s bird is the same one who has been here the last 5 years. Unlike my previous visitor, I’ve seen him take a seed from a feeder as well. This has not happened before, even though it is known that they eat berries and seeds in winter.

This year’s bird also seems a bit shyer than my kinglet(s) from previous years. When I lift up my camera, he tends to take off. My resident the last years was not shy at all, a couple times actually perching on the suet feeder as I carried it to the pole. Still, my yard visitor’s anxiety has been nowhere nearly as obvious as that of another kinglet whose story I will relate in the next blog!