Archive for the ‘Ornithology’ Category

Male Dark-eyed Junco | Photo: Sally Dinius/Pacific Northwest Birds

Male Dark-eyed Junco | Photo: Sally Dinius/Pacific Northwest Birds

It’s “the lull” – that period of time when the activity around many Northwest feeders noticeably quiets down. A handful of the usuals are still around, like finches, chickadees, Steller’s Jays, but they’re a skeleton crew for the most part — keeping things running until everyone else comes back.

(Happily, I have a family of House Finches — parents and babies — who’ve been noisily emptying my feeder lately. If it weren’t for them, I might be taking this lull personally!)

“Everyone else” will be back shortly, counting on us to provide seed and suet through the winter. We’ll begin seeing more Dark-eyed Juncos joining the Spotted Towhees foraging below the feeders. A new batch of drab little birds — the molted American and Lesser Goldfinches, who really aren’t new but look to be — will hit seed feeders and thistle socks again, possibly with their Pine Siskin buddies in tow.

And the migratory birds we saw this spring before they headed further north will put in appearances on their way to warmer locales, giving us a brief chance to see some of our spring favorites.

If you feed hummingbirds, it may be quieter for you because the Rufous, Calliope, and Black-chinned Hummingbirds have already gone South. (Calliope and Black-chinned hummers typically breed east of the Cascade Mountains. Rufous Hummingbirds, while more common in the Puget Sound area, are seen on both sides.) Don’t take down your feeders, however — if you live west of the Cascades, Anna’s Hummingbirds are more than happy to enjoy that nectar year-round.

Here are some things you can do to keep your backyard birds (and yourself) happy throughout the upcoming fall and winter.

1. Clean your seed feeders. Actually, this is a good thing to do after each rain storm, when mold can grow quickly inside birdfeeders. Feeding birds from dirty feeders can promote sickness among our avian friends. If you notice a lot of mold growth in your feeder and cleaning it doesn’t help, consider replacing it. I like to replace my seed feeder a couple of times a year, anyway, and tube seed feeders can be pretty inexpensive. I’ve noticed the birds at my feeders prefer these to the fancier feeders; more of them are able to fit on it at once and have an easier time getting to the seeds than other feeders I’ve tried. Platform feeders also work well, but are best when used in combination with a weather dome. Considering our climate, it’s a good idea to use weather domes, anyway, to help inhibit mold growth and curb the spread of disease.

To learn more about the diseases birds can catch and what you can do to help stop these illnesses from spreading, read this fact sheet from the USGS: Coping with Diseases at Bird Feeders.

2. Clean your nectar feeders. Anna’s Hummingbirds are permanent residents here in the Pacific Northwest and rely on us to keep their nectar feeders filled regardless of the season or temperature. At least once a week, even in winter, take the feeder apart and thoroughly clean it using a special brush or toothbrush kept just for the task. I found some skinny toothbrushes at the dollar store that work very well for cleaning the inside of the bottle, and will also use cotton swabs to clean the ports. You’ll want to use bleach if the feeder has a film of mildew on the inside, but if you clean your hummer feeder often, Dawn dish soap and very hot water works just fine with only a periodic cleaning with bleach. Whatever you use to clean your nectar feeder, rinsing the feeder very well is a must.

By the way, please do not use commercial nectar for hummingbirds, whether it contains dye or is “dye-free.” You can make your own using one part granulated sugar to four parts boiled water. Cool, pour into your feeder, and keep the rest in the fridge. My hummers will drink nothing else.

3. Pull some weeds, do a little pruning. If your feeders are away from your deck or patio, take the time to make sure the grass around the feeding station is mowed, weeds are pulled, and bushes are trimmed back. This will allow for ground-feeding birds like Spotted Towhees, Dark-eyed Juncos, finches, sparrows, and jays to reach the seed that’s fallen to the ground. Pruning shrubbery away from the feeding area will give neighborhood cats less room to hide for stalking and hunting these birds.



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4. Empty out any birdhouses. Now that nesting season is over and done with for another year, it’s time to empty out and clean any birdhouses (also known as nest boxes) you may have. Do the birds a favor, however, and put them right back up, as they will use them in the fall and winter months as shelter from the cold and from storms. If you didn’t hang any birdhouses this year, why not put up a couple?

5. Become a citizen scientist. Now is the time to join Cornell University’s Project FeederWatch. This is a fun program I’ve taken part in a few times now, and it feels good to be a part of something that helps bird research. It’s not too difficult: Watch the birds at your feeders for a certain amount of time each day, tally how many you see of each species, then go online and share that data with Cornell. As an added bonus, you may see birds at your feeder that you hadn’t noticed before. Sign up here: Project FeederWatch.

6. Stock up on birdseed and suet. If you live in an area that typically gets heavy snow, you’ll want to stock up not only on food for yourself, your family, and your pets, but for the birds, too. Once birds know where a food source is, they’ll frequent it regularly, and will be especially counting on it when natural food is hard to find. If you’re on the west side, like me, you should stock up, too. Our winters have been mild for a few years, but the reappearance of La Niña could possibly change that and bring us some real winter weather over the next several 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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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 Black-throated Gray Warbler. Photo by Dominic Sherony. Graphic by Pacific Northwest Birds.

Male Black-throated Gray Warbler. Photo by Dominic Sherony. Graphic by Pacific Northwest Birds.

The Black-throated Gray Warbler is a fairly tame bird. It isn’t going to come up and land on your shoulder, but if you are lucky enough to spy one as it searches for insects among the branches, it won’t be too easily scared off. Despite its reputation of being easy to watch, the American Ornithologists’ Union says there still isn’t much research to be found on this small songbird. We know it migrates to the Pacific Northwest to breed, and then returns to Mexico in the fall. We also know that it eats insects in the summer and will add fruit to its diet in the fall and winter. Sadly, that seems to be the extent of any information gleaned about this black, white, and gray warbler.

This also means that while we can be pretty sure these warblers have about four eggs at a time, on average, we don’t know how many broods (sets of eggs) it has per year, so that information will be missing in the write-up below. Nevertheless, the Black-throated Gray Warbler is still a fascinating bird, which I hope you’ll enjoy learning about. Here we go!

Scientific name: Setophaga nigrescens (formerly Dendroica nigrescens)
Family: PARULIDAE

Size and markings: The Black-throated Gray Warbler is 4.5 to 5” in length. The male has a white face, white underparts, gray back, and a black mask and crown. The female is more of a slate-gray where the male is black, with a white throat. Juvenile is even lighter than the female. All have white wing bars, gray striping on the chest, and a yellow spot in the lores (just in front of each eye).

Learn more about warblers in The Warbler Guide.

Food: The main diet of the Black-throated Gray is insects and caterpillars, though, like other warblers, it may also eat fruit in the fall and winter months.

Habitat/nesting/behavior: Because it hangs out at a lower altitude and will spend time in lower branches and shrubs searching for food, you are more likely to see this warbler than the Townsend’s or Hermit Warblers. The Black-throated Gray prefers pine forests and pine/mixed forests, especially when oak is present. This monogamous warbler builds a soft cup-shaped nest. The length of the incubation and nestling periods is not certain.

Number of broods per year: Unknown
Number of eggs per brood: 4

Migratory pattern: This warbler is seen in the Pacific Northwest during breeding months only, from northern California, west to southern Idaho, and north to Victoria Island and southern British Columbia. In Washington state and Oregon, it is mainly seen west of the Cascades.

Months usually seen at backyard feeders: Not a feeder bird.

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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!

Have you heard? Coloring books are all the rage with adults now. Not kids’ coloring books necessarily, but coloring books illustrated and published with adults in mind, too. From Zentangle to books featuring mandalas, grown-ups everywhere are finding coloring to be an old-hobby-made-new-again. For many, it’s a way to unwind and even be meditative. Personally, I enjoy listening to audio books or podcasts when I’m able to find time to color or do some other hands-on type of hobby or craft.

And what’s better than relaxing while coloring and feeling like a kid again? Not much, unless you throw in being able to learn something at the same time…like bird identification.

Peterson Field Guides Color-In Books: Birds

Peterson Field Guides Color-In Books: Birds

I was so pleased to discover Birds recently, part of the Peterson Field Guide Color-In Books series. Written by Peter Alden and John Sill and using illustrations based on Roger Tory Peterson‘s famous drawings and watercolors, this fun book can be used by anyone who wants to learn more about our North American birds.

Over 230 numbered bird stickers are included, which can be placed inside the book next to the bird you’ll be coloring. Each bird in the book is represented by a black and white drawing and a short paragraph that describes the bird and tells you a tidbit about it that you might not have already known. For example, did you know that the Great Blue Heron, number 7 in the book, is sometimes mistakenly called a “Blue Crane”?

Use whichever medium you like best with this book. Pencils and paints are recommended on the cover, but it seems to me like paints would seep through. Markers (again, there’s the possibility of the ink seeping through), colored pencils, or even crayons can also be used. I use a pack of 50 colored pencils that I purchased from Amazon, and they’ve been working very well for coloring the birds. Having at least 50 colors at my disposal gives me more choices for colors, of course, and the kid in me just thinks it’s cool to have so many. (You should have heard my giddy laugh when they arrived in the mail.) Colored pencils or crayons, in my opinion, make it easier to blend colors — a trick I learned from an artist friend of my mom’s when I was very young.

The first birds I tackled in the book were bluebirds: Mountain, Eastern, and Western. From there, I moved on to a Chestnut-backed Chickadee and then a Yellow Warbler and I’m still coloring away. You can see them all, below. What do you think? Looks like fun, doesn’t it?

Eastern, Western, and Mountain Bluebirds in the Peterson "Birds" color-in field guide.

Eastern, Western, and Mountain Bluebirds in the Peterson "Birds" color-in field guide.

Chestnut-backed Chickadee in the Peterson "Birds" color-in field guide.

Chestnut-backed Chickadee in the Peterson "Birds" color-in field guide.

Yellow Warbler in the Peterson "Birds" color-in field guide.

Yellow Warbler in the Peterson "Birds" color-in field guide.

If I can do this, so can you! Placing the stickers next to the birds really does help when it comes to matching colors and getting the markings correct. Coloring these birds — which uses not only visual but also kinesthetic (hands on) learning — has really helped solidify their appearance in my mind…almost on a new level. And if that’s what it did for birds I already know well, I can’t wait to tackle other birds in the book.

It isn’t just song birds that are covered in this color-in field guide. You’ll find raptors, waterfowl, woodpeckers, and more. Give it a try and let me know what you think.

Links to purchase:

Peterson Field Guide Color-In Books: Birds by Peter Alden and John Sill

Crayola Colored Pencils, pack of 50

You might also like:

Nature’s Mandalas

Adult Coloring Books: A Collection of Coloring Books for Adults; Featuring Mandalas, Flowers, and Geometric Designs by Coloring Books for Adults

Creative Coloring Inspirations: Art Activity Pages to Relax and Enjoy by Valentina Harper

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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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