Grosbeaks and apple blossoms

Rose-breasted Grosbeak

This afternoon, a little while after I’d got home, I went back out to my car to retrieve my camera, which hadn’t made it in on the first trip. As I returned to the car I noticed that the apple trees were starting to bloom. Somehow I’d missed noticing that they were even coming in to bud – I haven’t been spending too much time wandering about at home, since I spend six hours every day wandering around outside as part of the banding job. So I moseyed over to check them out, and that’s when I saw this guy, tucked into the foliage. I scrambled to pull out my camera from its shoulderbag, and switch out the lenses to the telephoto.

Rose-breasted Grosbeak

There were actually two of them, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks. And they were either very distracted, or not too concerned about my presence. They went on with their business as I snapped away. This pair (both males) are the first ones I’ve seen this year. They’re not an uncommon species, but they’re so flashy that it’s always a delight to see them.

Rose-breasted Grosbeak

They appeared to be foraging on the not-quite-opened flower buds on the apple and cherry trees. I’m not sure whether they were after the flower itself, or perhaps the nectar reward that would be at the base of the bud. They would drop all the petals as they “chewed”. I stayed and watched them for about 15 minutes, and during that whole time they remained in these fruit trees.

Rose-breasted Grosbeak

We haven’t kept our feeders stocked this spring, but Rose-breasted Grosbeaks will come to feed on sunflower seed. I always enjoy seeing their bright colours adorning the feeder. Those big mandibles are designed for cracking large seeds and hard-shelled food items. As a bird bander I can provide a first-hand testimonial that there’s a lot of power in that beak! They’ve got dexterous necks, however, and it’s really hard to keep your hands out of beak-range while you’re handling them.

Rose-breasted Grosbeak

They’re returning about when I would expect them to. The northern part of their winter range is in Mexico, and some will spend the non-breeding season as far south as Ecuador. The ones that are returning now are most likely the Mexico birds. Generally speaking, birds that winter farther north will return sooner to their Canadian breeding ranges. Species that spend the winter in the north to mid-US will be back by late March, those in southern US probably by mid-April.

Rose-breasted Grosbeak

They were still there when I finally turned to go inside. They’ll be resident here; if not these individuals, then some others, settling down to nest in our woods and woodland patches. Even though they’re not all that uncommon, the novelty never seems to wear off in seeing them.

Rose-breasted Grosbeak


Scheduled post: Yellow-breasted Grosbeak

Abnormal Rose-breasted Grosbeak

We caught this bird during our normal MAPS operations on our previous visit to Maplewood Bog. No, it’s not a new species – it’s a Rose-breasted Grosbeak with some plumage abnormalities. We weren’t sure exactly what was going on here when we caught it. When we got home, I did some searching online (ah, the miracle of the internet) and turned up this discussion on the WhatBird Forums. In it they quote an article written by Julie Craves (Coffee & Conservation) where she discusses a similar bird.

The yellow breast (and underwing coverts), it turns out, are the result of a condition called xanthochroism. Just like albinism is a lack of pigment, and melanism is an excess of pigment, xanthochroism is an abundance of yellow pigment. It may be caused by certain abnormal items in the diet or dietary deficiencies, or may be genetic. The yellow may either be present in excess, or it may replace another colour (usually red, which is often itself controlled by diet).

Abnormal Rose-breasted Grosbeak

This individual was an older bird, at least three years old (“After-Second Year” in banding lingo) based on certain plumage characteristics, but given the extent of white at the base of his primaries, he may be much older than that. Oftentimes, as a bird ages its markings grow in size or extent and can be a rough gauge of age. It’s not a perfect science and there’s always exceptions (who knows if it’s linked to his yellow breast), but this guy may have seen quite a few summers – I can’t recall ever seeing a grosbeak with such an extent of white on his wings.

Monday Miscellany

Rose-breasted Grosbeak

This weekend was spent visiting my family, at my parents’ new place east of Brockville. I packed up Raven and headed out on Friday, and then returned home late today. It was a tri-purpose gathering, combining a belated Mother’s Day with two birthdays (mine and my sister’s, which are two days apart, usually on Mother’s Day weekend). My entire immediate family was there, an uncommon event these days as we’re spread across nearly half of southern Ontario, with close to 450 km (280 miles) separating the two furthest people (the closest two are still an hour’s drive apart). It was a really nice weekend, full of family and good times, but I must admit that in four days I didn’t do a smidge of naturalizing. I barely did any birding, even; aside from about 15 minutes spent with the binoculars Saturday afternoon, my only birding was what I noticed singing or caught a glimpse of while wandering around. My camera spent the weekend in its bag.

So my Monday Miscellany is on the short side this week. The first photo is from mid-week. The Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, including this stunning male, have been making regular trips to the feeders. I’ve been seeing more of the females than the males, although the males can be heard regularly singing in the vicinity. They’re big fans of the sunflower seeds, so we’ve been continuing to fill our feeders even though the winter birds have all mostly departed. I always look forward to the return of these guys to the feeders in spring.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird

The Ruby-throated Hummingbirds have settled in to the area, I think. My mom had at least two females visiting her feeder, and I heard a male doing a U-display at one point. I have yet to see a female here, but then again, I was away all weekend. It astounds me how fast these little birds can beat their wings when flying (an average of 50 beats per second, but substantially higher in certain situations). Watching them hover in the air as they pause to scan their surroundings is like magic. They should be starting to nest soon; also magic? the amazingly tiny nests they build, and the even more amazingly tiny eggs they lay in them.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird

On the particularly rainy day we had last week, I noticed this little guy sitting on the small sumac tree that’s near the feeders in front of our house. He would feed, then sit on the branch for a while, then return to feed, then back to the branch. I guess with the weather so cool and wet, he didn’t want to waste a lot of energy flying all over the place, so he stuck close to a guaranteed food source.

Autumn colors in spring

On my birthday Dan and I went out in the afternoon to visit one of the MAPS sites. It’s the site we have to paddle in to, and at the launch point where we were putting the boat in to the water, I noticed a large patch of vibrantly coloured bushes. The area where they were growing seemed to be under water, and it was hard to tell if the plants were victims of higher-than-normal water levels, or if they were swamp or other wetland bushes. Their colours, and those of many of the small saplings growing among them, really reminded me of the autumn landscape.

Basiaeschna janata - Springtime Darner

These could almost have gone in to the “Wings of the day” W week post. I’ve noticed both dragon- and damselflies to be becoming much more abundant recently. The above, a Springtime Darner (Basiaeschna janata), and below, a Common Baskettail (Epitheca cynosura), were both observed along a stretch of dirt road slightly to the north. They were flying along the edge of the road, in the low, open area between the hard-packed dirt and the forest. Many dragonflies are territorial, and will patrol up and down a stretch of road, path, forest or pond edge, or other open area, as they watch for intruders and look for females. Indeed, these two were doing just that, sweeping up and down the road and then periodically landing on a tree or twig to sun and “recharge”.

Epitheca cynosura - Common Baskettail

Birds, passing through

Signs of autumn: changing leaves and birds

It can be hard to get out of a habit once you’ve become established in it. Blackburnian, ever the biologist, a couple weeks ago set up a semi-formal survey route along the road from our house to the meadow of this post. He’s not content to just simply bird – he likes to track things, record his data and be able to look back on it to compare. This was quite suitably fulfilled through the daily surveys that are part of the regular operations of a migration monitoring station, which he’s been a part of for many years. Prior to getting into that, though, he maintained a route at his parents’, and now, has established one here.


Even back then, there was this fabulous site called eBird. Today it’s grown and exists in several incarnations, our Canadian version being, the Americans still using Effectively a citizen science project, eBird encourages birders to keep track of what they’re seeing on their outings and submit the observations to the site. With the addition of location and some effort data such as date, timespan, number of observers, area covered, etc, the information can be a valuable snapshot of what’s being seen where, when. When pooled together, the data form a bigger picture of trends at a larger scale. Needless to say, rather than languishing in a notebook on a shelf, all our data is being submitted to eBird. The site also has tools for users that summarize your observations for you so you don’t have to do it by hand on your computer, or by flipping through notebooks, pretty handy.

Brown Thrasher

It’s also good motivation to get up early and go out birding. Yesterday I did “census”, following the prescribed 1 kilometer route for the prescribed 1 hour window. It’s interesting to note what you see, and how it changes from day to day. Blackburnian had done the survey the day before, and even from one day to the next our observations varied considerably. Most notably, he had a Sora, which he flushed from the edge of the little marshy bit when he stepped off the road to avoid a car; I did not. On the other hand, I had a trio of Brown Thrashers, including this one, who sat on the branch for a minute or two preening his breast feathers; he did not. That Sora, and these thrashers, were probably long gone today, continuing on with their long journey. For all I know that same Brown Thrasher could be roosting in a hedgerow in Pennsylvania right now.

Scarlet Tanager male

Another difference between the two days was in the number of Scarlet Tanagers. A breeder in deciduous woodlands, I have no doubt that these birds will be exceedingly common come next spring, but now that everyone’s dispersed, moving around, and even starting to move out, happening upon them can be hit or miss. Blackburnian missed, but I hit. I tallied ten during my walk, most of which were all in the same flock (the same flock that contained the thrashers; that flock was hoppin’). This particular tanager is a male. Young-of-the-year males start off with the same yellow plumage as the females, while older males lose their red in the fall to become yellow. How can I tell it’s a male, then? Males always still have their black wings; females have brownish wings. I saw one male in the flock that was mottled red and yellow, halfway through his fall moult, but the rest of the birds were straight yellow.

Rose-breasted Grosbeak male

The Rose-breasted Grosbeak is another species where the males lose their gaudy plumage in the fall, opting for the more cryptic streaky browns of the female. So far this fall I’ve more often heard than seen them. Although they’re no longer singing, the Rose-breasteds, and their cousins the Black-headed Grosbeaks of the west, have very distinctive call notes that always remind me of the squeak of a rubber-soled shoe on a gymnasium floor. Really, you can’t mistake that for anything else, so you don’t necessarily need to see them. I was lucky to see this guy, though. And yes, I know it’s male, despite its brown plumage. Male grosbeaks have pink “underarms”, while those of the female are yellow or, occasionally, salmon. When this one flew off, his were pink.

Black-throated Blue female

This one’s a female Black-throated Blue Warbler. As with the tanagers, the “Blues”, as I call them, are dramatically sexually dimorphic, with the male and female having substantially different plumages. This female has neither a black throat nor is blue, characteristics of the male. When the species was first discovered and described, they were actually thought to belong to two different species because of their total lack of resemblence to one another. However, there is one characteristic they both share, and that’s the little patch of white you see on her wing – no other species of warbler has that. The photo’s not the greatest, as she was some distance away in the shade of the photo, but the white spot is diagnostic.

Black-throated Green poss. female?

Unrelated, though sharing a similar name, the Black-throated Green Warblers, or “Greens”, also unsurprisingly share the same feature of a black throat in males. Females lack this characteristic, and during the breeding season, a Green with a pale throat is undoubtedly a female. However, in the fall it’s possible for either young males or females to have pale throats. The throats of males are usually whiter with a couple of black feathers thrown in, but it’s not foolproof. I think this is a female, but it’s really hard to say for sure. Greens, despite their name, are not really green, certainly not hummingbird-green or parrot-green. Their name reflects the dingy yellow – nearly olive – of their back relative to the bright yellow of their facial markings. This one checks me out. I’ll often crop out extraneous bits of a photo, but this one I left full-frame. I was pishing to draw the birds out of a rather thick juniper bush, and this Green flew right in to about five or six feet away, which allowed me some great photo opportunities. Too bad the sun was behind her!

Yellow-throated Vireo

We’re finding warblers and vireos to be in generally lower abundance than we would find at a site along Lake Ontario, for instance. I did have a passable number of species yesterday (seven warbler species, which is more than we’ve seen most days), but at a lakeshore site you’d probably easily get double that, if not more. I haven’t had too many of these, Yellow-throated Vireos, most days we went out, but yesterday I was lucky and had four or five. Interestingly, this species, though it breeds throughout southern Ontario, is one that I hadn’t seen prior to moving here (though I’d heard them singing before, such as the summer I worked in Ohio). Now, they seem abundant, likely another that will be encountered frequently through our woods in the summer. This one came in with the Green to check out my pishing and posed rather obligingly for the camera.

I’m really enjoying the birding here, so many neat things to turn up, but we are really finding that it’s necessary to head out along the road to find much. We’ve got a nice patch of land, but it’s all mostly treed, and during the fall migration all the breeders have moved out of the woods and into more scrubby areas such as old fields, roadsides and hedgerows. We’ll look forward to the spring, when birds start moving back in and setting up shop. We’ll be excited to find out just what calls our place home, but in the meantime, a walk down the road gives us a taste of what we might expect.