Archive for the ‘NW Bird Species’ Category

Left: Male Violet-green Swallow. Right: Female Violet-green Swallow. Both photos by Alan Vernon.

Left: Male Violet-green Swallow. Right: Female Violet-green Swallow. Both photos by Alan Vernon.


And…action!

It’s always a production when swallows return to the Pacific Northwest each spring.

Our first glimpses of their arrival is often while they’re “performing”: swooping and looping through the air like the happy, noisy, carefree daredevils they are, chasing their food on the wing. They bring to mind a medieval circus troupe putting on airs as they enter a village, already dancing to get the attention of the townsfolk.

The Violet-green was the first species of swallow to show up in our neighborhood this year, claiming prime nesting spots before their Barn Swallow cousins could arrive. As their aerial maneuvers cast spiraling shadows on our sunny lawn, I soon realized it was a group of six or seven that had arrived together, and they’ve been putting on their shows ever since.

And while we’re on the subject of performers, I must say that the Violet-green seems best suited to be one more than any other swallow – especially the male, who arrives in full costume and makeup. Maybe too much makeup. For some time now, his get-up has reminded me of a certain Batman nemesis…possibly this one:

Photo of Jack Nicholson as the Joker courtesy of Warner Bros. Photo of male Violet-green Swallow: Sally Dinius/Pacific Northwest Birds

Photo of Jack Nicholson as the Joker courtesy of Warner Bros. Photo of male Violet-green Swallow: Sally Dinius/Pacific Northwest Birds


Far from being a joker, this beautiful and cheerful bird is a true delight and nothing to summon Batman for. The most trouble Violet-greens are likely to get into is when they attempt to nest where they shouldn’t, like the one above, whom we recently found in our garage. He was quickly let out and all was well. (The bird, that is, not Jack Nicholson. He may still be in there somewhere.)

Read on to learn more about the lively Violet-green Swallow.

Scientific name: Tachycineta thalassina
Family: HIRUNDINIDAE

Size and markings: The Violet-green Swallow is 4.5 – 5 inches long with a wingspan of 10.5 inches. Its iridescent upperparts are a greenish-bronze with touches of violet on the shoulders. The rump and upper tail are also tinged with violet and surrounded by white on each side. The male’s head is a full green, often a slightly different shade than the green on his back, which can appear more teal in color. The female’s head is lighter with bronze coloring on her crown. The bill is small and black. Wings are long and its tail is forked. Its underparts are white, as is the face, with the white reaching over the eye. At the front of the eye is a dark spot, most noticeable on the male.

Food: The diet of the Violet-green Swallow consists of flying insects, which it catches on the wing (while flying).

Swallows & Martins: An Identification Guide and Handbook by Angela Turner and Chris Rose

Swallows & Martins: An Identification Guide and Handbook by Angela Turner and Chris Rose


Habitat/nesting/behavior: Suburban areas and even cities will find this swallow returning year after year to the same nesting sites. It will choose nesting boxes, crevices in buildings, ledges in open carports, and available tree cavities. Its nest is woven together with twigs, rootlets, and grasses, and then lined with soft feathers.

Number of broods per year: 1-2

Number of eggs per year: 4-6

Migratory pattern: The Violet-green Swallow spends its summers in western North America, nesting from northern Mexico all the way to Alaska. It also lives year-round in much of Mexico, where the swallows who’ve migrated will return for winter. Watch for this bird to return to the Pacific Northwest starting in late April (or earlier) into May, when you’ll see it sitting on power lines or swooping acrobatically above its chosen territory as it chases food and chirps excitedly.

Months usually seen at backyard feeders: The Violet-green Swallow is not a feeder bird, but you can still be thrilled by the acrobatics of this suburban nester during the late spring and summer months.


Male Violet-green Swallow by Alan Vernon (By Alan Vernon – Male Violet green Swallow (Tachycineta thalassina)Uploaded by Snowmanradio, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15273911)

Female Violet-green Swallow by Alan Vernon (By Alan Vernon – Female Violet green Swallow (Tachycineta thalassina)Uploaded by Snowmanradio, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid


Learn more about your backyard birds in Birds of the Pacific Northwest: How to Identify 25 of the Most Popular Backyard Birds. Get it for your Kindle (which you can also read on your PC, Mac, smartphone, or tablet with this free reading app), Nook, on Smashwords, or in the iTunes bookstore.

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Male Cassin's Finch. Photo: http://thenaturespicsonline.com. Public domain.

Male Cassin's Finch. Photo: http://thenaturespicsonline.com

Cassin’s Finch was named for ornithologist John Cassin (1813-1869) by his friend, Spencer Baird of the Smithsonian Institute, though it was just one of five birds to bear his name. At one point the curator at the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences, Mr. Cassin also colored many illustrations for the multi-volume Pacific Railroad Surveys. One of the most well-versed ornithologists of his time, he led a fascinating life, even suffering — and ultimately losing his life — because of his years of bird study. (Read more about John Cassin at Towhee.net.)

Find out more: Eye of the Explorer: Views of the Northern Pacific Railroad Survey 1853-54

Cassin’s Finch is one of the roseate (tinged with rose) songbirds, and looks similar to both Purple and House Finches. The habitats of the three can overlap, especially in the Cascades (and especially on the Eastern slopes), making identification just a bit trickier.

Read on to learn more about this beautiful finch.

Scientific Name: Carpodacus cassini

Family: Fringillidae

Size and markings: At around 6.5″ long with a wingspan of 10″, Cassin’s Finch resembles the Purple Finch and House Finch but is slightly larger, with a longer beak. While the other two pink-washed finches have smooth crowns, the Cassin’s crown tends to be fluffier, often with a peaked look to the top of his head. The male has a reddish-pink crown, and his shoulders, throat, breast, and rump are tinged with the same, though not as brightly as the crown. Lightly-streaked underparts are light pinkish-white to white. The female, who is brown and heavily streaked, has a light chest with distinctive short brown stripes. She may also sport a white eyebrow. The wings of both are brown and streaked.

Female Cassin's Finch. Attribution: http://thenaturespicsonline.com. Public domain.

Female Cassin's Finch. Photo: http://thenaturespicsonline.com


Food: Cassin’s Finch dines on pine seeds, tree buds, sunflower seeds, insects, and berries and bud from various shrubs and trees.

Habitat/nesting/behavior: Tending to live at higher elevations (up to 10,000 feet), Cassin’s Finch can often be seen flocking together with crossbills and Pine Siskins. The female is an eclectic nester who builds her nest using a variety of materials, including animal hair, plant fibers, rope fibers, and grass stems, inside a loose — and often frail — framework of twigs and lichen. Cassin’s Finch will also mimic the songs of other birds.

Number of broods per year: 1-2

Number of eggs per brood: 2-6

Migratory pattern: This songbird lives year-round throughout much of the Western U.S., from the Eastern slopes of the Cascades to the Rockies. It is rare to see Cassin’s Finch to the west of the Cascades. Breeding as far north at Southern British Columbia, it then will winter in the Southwest U.S. and Mexico. Wherever it is, Cassin’s Finch will also “micro-migrate” to lower elevations during harsh winters.

Months usually seen at backyard feeders: Possibly any, but more likely during the winter months.


Learn more about your backyard birds in Birds of the Pacific Northwest: How to Identify 25 of the Most Popular Backyard Birds. Get it for your Kindle (which you can also read on your PC, Mac, smartphone, or tablet with this free reading app), Nook, on Smashwords, or in the iTunes bookstore.

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Female and male Red-winged Blackbirds. Photos by Sally Dinius/Pacific Northwest Birds

Female and male Red-winged Blackbirds. Photos by Sally Dinius/Pacific Northwest Birds

Like so many others right now (or so it seems), I’m currently battling the flu. I’d wanted to write a new blog post today, but alas…I just can’t. So by necessity, I’m sharing with you a blast from the past about a favorite backyard bird — one that has recently been showing up at my feeders again. I know spring is about to spring when these beautiful birds with their fancy epaullets come to call. Enjoy. – Ed.

I always know when a male Red-winged Blackbird has come for a visit to my yard. As if he were a royal monarch announcing his own arrival, he’ll sit on the top of my shepherd’s staff feeder pole, or in the nearby Japanese maple, and let out a piercing “tseert!” for all to hear. And again, “Tseert!”

Not long after he toots his own horn, another Red-winged Blackbird will show up. Sometimes it’s a female or two, sometimes a male buddy. That’s probably what he was doing in the first place…just letting his friends know where the food is and that they should join him, like, now. It’s just more interesting to think of him as crying out, “I’m here! I’m here! All is well…carry on.”

If any bird fits the self-important, king-of-everything characterization, it’s the Red-winged Blackbird. After all, he even has his own harem. Highly polygamous, this very handsome blackbird will have his own clan of “sister wives”: One male can have anywhere from one to over a dozen females nesting in his territory.

The females are far from monogamous themselves, and have been known to lay clutches of eggs fertilized by different males.

If you see only one Red-winged Blackbird at your feeder, rest assured that others aren’t too far away. These birds are very communal and will roost together all year long, though flocks tend to be larger in winter months.

Here’s more of what you should know about the Red-winged Blackbird:

Species: Agelaius phoeniceus
Family: ICTERIDAE

Size and markings: Though roughly the same size at 7-9 inches long and with a wingspan of 12-15 inches, male and female red-winged blackbirds look completely different. The male is all black with the exception of red and yellow shoulder patches. The female’s plumage is a warm brown and heavily streaked. On both, the bill is sharply pointed.

Food: Red-winged Blackbirds feed on seeds, insects, berries, grain, corn, and small aquatic life, such as insects hiding inside aquatic plants.

To attract RWBB’s, try Woodlink’s Magnum Sunflower Seed Screen Feeder

Habitat/nesting/behavior: Cup-shaped, loosely woven nests are built in damp areas such as marshes and ditches, though some Red-winged Blackbirds choose to nest in grassy fields. Red-winged Blackbirds are polygamous, and several females will nest in one male’s territory.

Number of broods per year: 1-2
Number of eggs per brood: 2-4

Migratory pattern: Some Red-winged Blackbirds remain year-round in the Pacific Northwest, but some do winter in the southern United States and Mexico. Males are the first to return in February to set up their territories, with the females following later.

Months usually seen at backyard feeders: Any, though most likely from February/March through November.

Many of the above facts about the Red-winged Blackbird were taken from Birds of the Pacific Northwest: How to Identify 25 of the Most Popular Backyard Birds.


Learn more about your backyard birds in Birds of the Pacific Northwest: How to Identify 25 of the Most Popular Backyard Birds. Get it for your Kindle (which you can also read on your PC, Mac, smartphone, or tablet with this free reading app), Nook, on Smashwords, or in the iTunes bookstore.

Don’t forget to follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and now Instagram!

Male Mountain Bluebird. Photo: Elaine R. Wilson

Male Mountain Bluebird. Photo: Elaine R. Wilson

There are three bluebird species in North America: the Eastern Bluebird (perhaps the most well-known of the three), the Western Bluebird, and the Mountain Bluebird. Of the three, only the Western and the Mountain Bluebirds call the West their home. While both are bluebirds and have their similarities, they are quite easy to tell apart. Read on to learn more about the beautiful Mountain Bluebird.

Scientific name: Sialia currucoides
Family: TURDIDAE

Size and markings: This member of the thrush family is 6.5-7” long and has a wingspan of about 12”. Unlike his cousin, the male Western Bluebird, the male Mountain Bluebird has no rufous coloring. During breeding months, he is sky blue on the head, neck, wings, and upperparts. The blue gradually gets lighter from the chest downward. Gray coloring around the eyes and on the lores (cheeks) can be seen in the winter. Females have sky blue on the tail, rump, and edges of the wings, while upperparts and underparts are rufous-gray or, at times, grayish-white. Females are further distinguished from the males by their white eye ring, a common marking of thrushes, which the males lack.

Food: Insects are the main food of the Mountain Bluebird, who will forage for them on the ground or catch them on the wing (while flying). This bird is also a fan of berries and other fruit and will eat mealworms and suet offered on platform feeders.

Female Mountain Bluebird. Photo: Linda Tanner

Female Mountain Bluebird. Photo: Linda Tanner


Habitat/nesting/behavior: The Mountain Bluebird prefers open habitat dotted by trees. It’s undaunted by colder habitats during the winter months and even in summer will be found where it’s cool, in mountainous areas higher than 7,000 feet. Mountain Bluebird pairs are monogamous cavity nesters but will nest in bluebird boxes when offered.

Number of broods per year: 1-2

Number of eggs per brood: 4-8

Number of days young spend in nest: 21-23

Migratory pattern: In breeding months, this bird is found in the mountains of western North America as far north as Alaska, usually at elevations of 7,000 feet and up. In the winter, it is more likely to be found at lower elevations from central Oregon to Mexico. Stragglers who stay in the Pacific Northwest are seen in more open areas of mountain foothills, but are considered rare.

Months usually seen at backyard feeders: Winter months and migration.


Learn more about your backyard birds in Birds of the Pacific Northwest: How to Identify 25 of the Most Popular Backyard Birds. Get it for your Kindle (which you can also read on your PC, Mac, smartphone, or tablet with this free reading app), Nook, on Smashwords, or in the iTunes bookstore.

Don’t forget to follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and now Instagram!







Western Scrub-jay. Photo: Sally Dinius/Pacific Northwest Birds

Western Scrub-jay. Photo: Sally Dinius/Pacific Northwest Birds

There are five jays that call the Pacific Northwest home. Can you name them all? Steller’s Jay is the most common, followed by the Gray Jay and the Western Scrub-jay. The Blue Jay and Pinyon Jay round out the five, but these two are somewhat rare.

The Western Scrub-jay (WSJ) used to be a rare sight, as well, especially in Washington State. But an important part of its habitat is the Prairie Oak, and as this tree has spread northward, the WSJ has followed it. We humans are very good at ripping out important wildlife habitats, however, so it remains to be seen if this northward expansion will continue or if it will eventually stall.

It’s an exciting thing to watch these birds on their northern march. Just a handful of years ago, it was a big deal to see them in areas south of Seattle. But they kept moving, handily conquering the Emerald City and the Puget Sound suburbs, and are now being seen further north. (I’ve heard a rumor that the WSJ has also been seen in British Columbia. I’ll be looking into this, for sure.) A few of them visited our feeders for a few weeks in September, but have since moved on. Luckily, the camera was ready, and my daughter and I were both able to get a few good shots.

Western Scrub-jay. Photo: Erica Dinius

Western Scrub-jay. Photo: Erica Dinius

If you compare many range maps for the Western Scrub-jay, you might notice that some maps show this bird living farther north than other maps do. Some maps will show these birds living to the north of Seattle, while some show them barely making it over the Washington/Oregon border.

Put these maps in order and they will illustrate the WSJ’s northward expansion. Very cool to see, indeed. (A Google image search will help you to find some of these maps.)

The Western Scrub-jay can be broken down into three subspecies: Aphelocoma californica, Aphelocoma woodhouseii, and Aphelocoma sumichrasti. The one we see most commonly in the Pacific Northwest is A. californica.

Read on to learn more about the Western Scrub-jay.

Scientific name: Aphelocoma californica
Family: CORVIDAE

Size and markings: 11″ long (28 cm), with a wingspan of 15-16″ (38-41 cm). Head, wings, and tail are blue. Dark eyes sit under a white eye stripe and just in front of a gray cheek patch. Beak is dark with a slight downward curve at the end. Back is brownish-gray. Unlike Steller’s and Blue Jays, this one has no crest on its crown. Tail is long and blue. Light-colored undersides. A. californica, most typically seen in the PNW, has a blue “necklace” interrupted by a white shirt front.

Learn more: American Museum of Natural History’s Birds of North America by DK Books

Food: The Western Scrub-jay is omnivorous, eating everything from nuts (acorns, peanuts), seeds, and berries, to snails, insects, and spiders. Rodents and the young of other birds are also fair game. It won’t pass up a good feeding station, either, especially when sunflower seeds are offered. This jay will scavenge for seeds below feeders, as well.

Habitat/nesting/behavior: Throughout its range, which consists primarily of the western United States and parts of Mexico, the WSJ frequents foothills and lower mountain slopes, scrub lands, and even suburbia if not too densely populated, preferably near oaks. This monogamous bird prefers low trees and shrubs for nesting sites, where both male and female work on building the nest.

Number of broods per year: 1
Number of eggs per brood: 1-6

Migratory pattern: While the Western Scrub-jay does not migrate, it often chooses fall as a time to be nomadic and change location, which may also be when its range expansion occurs.

Months usually seen at backyard feeders: Possibly any.


Learn more about your backyard birds in Birds of the Pacific Northwest: How to Identify 25 of the Most Popular Backyard Birds. Get it for your Kindle (which you can also read on your PC, Mac, smartphone, or tablet with this free reading app), Nook, on Smashwords, or in the iTunes bookstore.

Don’t forget to follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and now Instagram!

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