Burt’s Birds

Burt’s Birds (March 2018): Varied Thrush

If you see an orange-and-black bird of moderate size hanging around your feeders, you might think “Robin” and forget about it, but look again: it might be a Varied Thrush, a Robin relative sometimes placed in its own genus. They are handsomely plumaged birds with their contrasting patches of orange and black, including a prominent breast band in males; the colors of male thrushes are similar to those of male Robins—perhaps a bit brighter—and females of both species are comparably duller. But you are most likely to spy one of the thrushes during the winter when they leave their breeding habitat: the dense, wet, coniferous forests, primarily in the mountains, especially fir, hemlock, and spruce groves. There they feed on insects, berries, earthworms, and other invertebrates, sometimes using a fascinating way of feeding in the woods, by grasping a chunk of leaf litter, then hopping backward and tossing the litter aside to expose edibles on the bare ground.

In their dense forest habitat, male Varied Thrushes prefer to defend their territories by singing at dawn, dusk, and after a rain, from the tops of tall trees, reducing them, as Pete Dunne says, “to little more than eerie disembodied notes.” Their nests, probably built by the females, are placed against the trunks of conifers, and the typical clutch of 3-4 eggs is also incubated mostly by the females, probably for about two weeks. These lovely, interesting birds add a touch of beauty to our woods and our yards. (by Burt Guttman, Photo courtesy Eleanor Briccetti, Wikimedia Commons)

Burt’s Birds (Nov 2017): Townsend’s Warbler

If you keep a suet feeder, you’ll expect to see a small variety of birds—chickadees, nuthatches, some sparrows, flickers and small woodpeckers—regularly coming to get their share of the food. But every now and then, especially in the winter, you may be delightfully surprised by a beautiful flash of bright yellow mixed with patches of black, and you may take the time to enjoy the rare beauty of a Townsend’s Warbler. They primarily breed in the very tall trees of the coniferous and mixed-coniferous forests of the mountains from Washington through B.C. to Alaska. Like most other warblers, most Townsend’s participate in a long-term migration to the tropics for the winter and do not return until April and May. But a few remain in the coastal lowlands for the winter where we may see them more easily.

Townsend’s are easily distinguished from the relatively common winter warblers, the Yellow-rumped, by their bright yellow triangular head pattern surrounding a dark cheek patch, darker in males than in females; birders-by-ear know them by their simple very-high-pitched song coming down from the canopy of the forest where they primarily feed, almost entirely on insects. They have been described as very chickadee-like: searching actively along twigs and sometimes hovering briefly to take insects from leaves. Pete Dunne says, “Hops, looks quickly left, right, then hops again.”

Their nest is typically built on top of a horizontal conifer branch, by both sexes. Males arrive on the breeding ground in late May and establish their territories. The first eggs, usually 4-5, are laid by late June. The young, fed primarily by the female, leave the nest 8-10 days after hatching. Townsend’s hybridize to a degree with the closely related Hermit Warblers; all these yellow-faced Dendroica warblers are a delight for birders. (by Burt Guttman, photo – Francesco Veronesi)

Burt’s Birds (Sept 2017) – Barn Owl

Owls sometimes seem like birds of paradox, as some of the most common denizens of our woods yet some of the least seen. The paradox arises because they are primarily birds of the night, when we humans are generally not out and about observing. Of course, many species can be seen by day, but the Barn Owl is one of the most nocturnal. Its stealthy night-time habits, combined with its unusual “monkey” face, has made it a common harbinger of the mysterious, the occult, the sinister, ghostlike, and vaguely evil.

Barn Owls constitute a single cosmopolitan species, widely distributed and native to most of North America, irregularly to the northern states and Canada. It is a lowland species that thrives in farmland, grassland, deserts, and some marshes. Pete Dunne notes that you are most likely to see one as it flushes from a structure you’ve just intruded into, or perhaps caught at the edge of your headlight beam as it flies in open country. Barn Owls do, indeed, commonly nest in structures such as barns, raising the interesting question of where they nested before humans built such structures. A. C. Bent, admitting he has had little personal knowledge of the species, quotes Bendire, from 1892: “Their nesting sites . . . include all sorts of places, such as natural hollows in trees, holes and cavities in clay banks and cliffs, burrows underground enlarged to suit their needs, in the sides of old wells, abandoned mining shafts, dovecots, barns, church steeples, etc.” and even rarely on the exposed roof of a building. Local observers taking part in the Pigeon Guillemot study have reported Barn Owls nesting in the same cliff areas as the Guillemots.

A female commonly lays five to seven eggs at a time, at intervals of a few days, so the emerging nestlings vary considerably in age. Both parents incubate the eggs and are sometimes found incubating side by side, with the eggs spread beneath them. The young tend to be a noisy, very active, and pugnacious lot, fighting with one another and making strange noises. They remain in the nest for about 7-8 weeks after hatching, but may stay in the nearby trees where the parents continue to feed them. Their parents bring in abundant food of various small mammals, most commonly mice of different species, and so have traditionally been considered beneficial to agriculture. (by Burt Guttman, Barn Owl Photo – courtesy Carlos Delgado)

Burt’s Birds (May 2017) – Vireos are not warblers

Yellow-rumped Warbler, Photo Dan Pancamo

Everyone who is aware of the birds that breed in North American woodlands and prairies knows that our lands are hosts to a delightful array of little songbirds. They commonly show up searching for insects and bits of vegetative food on the trees and bushes, often flashing wonderful bright colors. Some of the most colorful are warblers. Western Washingtonians delight in the ever-present Yellow-rumped Warblers, the surprisingly dull Orange-crowned (whose crown you cannot see), the Yellow, Black-throated Gray, MacGillivray’s, Wilson’s, Townsend’s even in the winter, and Yellowthroats in the marshes. While searching for their ubiquitous insect food, they mostly display the bright yellows copyrighted by their family, but have the most uncooperative habit of slipping behind clumps of leaves just as you’re trying to get them in your binocular field. Those of us with good ears find them by voice and delight in their songs, such as the Yellow’s sweet-sweet-sweet, I’m so sweet.

But the same habitats are also home to another family, the vireos. They differ from warblers in several ways important to birders. For instance, while warblers appear nervous, always moving quickly, vireos are slower, more deliberate as they forage in trees and bushes. A brief study of the plates in your field guide will show how very plain they are in contrast to bright warbler plumages, several with a wingbars-and-spectacles pattern or with prominent eyestripes. Feeding on insects, they sometimes fly out to grab one out of the air, but also feed on berries. Kenn Kaufman notes that male vireos are persistent singers who repeat their monotonous songs endlessly, even in the heat of the day or while incubating eggs in the nest.

Warblers feel like expected and always appreciated delights of a spring birdwalk, but somehow spotting a vireo makes the walk special and memorable. (by Burt Guttman, Photo – courtesy Dan Pancamo)

Burt’s Birds (March 2017) – Yellow-rumped Warbler

As winter leaves and we again start to enjoy spring weather, the thoughts of bird-inclined people naturally turn to the myriad of wonderful breeding birds that we enjoy so much. Particularly those of us who have spent much time in—or who grew up in—the eastern half of North America are inclined to remember the joys of spring migration and especially the waves of passerines that arise from the Gulf area and spread northward. Then some of us may recall the absolute joy of standing in a rich woodland in the midst of a “warbler wave” as the birds tumbled through the trees and bushes around us, nourished by the fresh bounty of insect food, always pushing northward, and perhaps creating in a few wondrous hours a major share of our life lists. Yes, of course, other wonderful birds arrive with the spring, but warblers hold a special place in the heart for many; and as a representative of the Parulidae, let us again remember the Yellow-rumped Warblers.

Ornithologists have for a long time played a kind of science game called “Split and Lump” that may baffle the general public as some established species are formally split in two or as similar species are lumped into a single one. The game uses the classic definition that a sexual species includes all the individuals that are actually or potentially capable of breeding with one another. (That “potentially” just makes the game more challenging.) When I was growing up in Minnesota, we had two species: the more easterly Myrtle Warbler, with its white throat and pale supercilium, and the more westerly Audubon’s Warbler, with a yellow or yellowish throat and no supercilium. But some ornithologists studying these species eventually decided that all the forms interbreed with one another and should be considered a single species. (Darn! Cheated out of a life bird by science!)READ MORE

Burt’s Birds (January 2017) – Pine Siskin

“Hey, what’s that heavily streaked sparrow on the feeder? Looks very strange. There are lots of sparrows with light streaking, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen one with such heavy marks all over! Oh, it’s moving off—omigosh, it’s got yellow wings!! What the heck is it?”READ MORE

Burt’s Birds (November 2016) – Long-tailed Duck

As we anticipate birding over the winter, when waterbirds become more prominent objects of interest, it is useful to take up Bonnie Wood’s reflections on identifying ducks, and the species known now as Longtailed takes on a special interest. Until recently, the species was known in North America as the Oldsquaw, unfortunately preserving old racist stereotypes; the name reflected the loud vocalizations from male ducks—described as yodeling “ow-ow-owlee . . . caloo-caloo” that help identify the species. When members of a flock are all calling together, the effect is strange and farcarrying. Females just offer quacking notes.

Unless you spend time on the Long-tailed breeding grounds in the Arctic—where the species is one of the most abundant—you’ll encounter Long-tails only in their nonbreeding plumage, which is quite distinctive. In contrast to their summer plumage (dark above, white below), winter males show a great deal of white: white head with a large black patch, mostly white body. Winter females retain some of their dark breeding plumage but acquire a partly white head with that large black patch. Long-tailed Ducks are quite sociable, and during the winter they form huge flocks on the oceans and bays, such as Puget Sound. Of course, breeding pairs go off by themselves. Courtship begins in autumn but is mostly accomplished from the winter onward as birds mingle during migration. Pairs arrive together on their breeding grounds. They lay their eggs in nests on the ground near water, well-hidden by rocks or vegetation. At the start of egg incubation, males go off to nearby waters to moult, leaving incubation to the females. The young leave the nest shortly after hatching and can already swim and dive well. Their food consists of mollusks, crustaceans, and insects. At sea, they eat primarily mollusks (mussels, clams, periwinkles), crustaceans, and some small fish. On their breeding territory, they eat mostly aquatic insects with some crustaceans and mollusks, but also some plant food. They obtain most of their food by diving, remaining within about 30 feet of the surface though apparently they can dive quite deeply. They land on the water rather clumsily, splashing down breast first, and then dive with their wings partly spread but propelled by their feet. (from Nov/Dec 2016 Echo newsletter, by Burt Guttman), photo – Wolfgang Wander)