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Tuesday, October 17, 2017

How to ID and Attract Sparrows at Your Bird Feeder Now!

White-throated Sparrows, Zonotrichia albicollis, come in two morphs. One morph has brown head stripes, as here;

the other morph has black-and-white head stripes, as here. There is much individual variation. They all have white throats and are very common at many feeders in winter.

White-crowned Sparrows, Zonotrichia leucophrys, in their first winter have rufous brown head stripes

and no white throat. We just saw one of these in our NH yard.


The dramatic adult White-crowned Sparrow has beautiful black head stripes and a white central crown stripe.

Sparrows are migrating big time. White-throated Sparrows are coming to bird feeders across much of the country now. Somewhat less common here in NH, White-crowned Sparrows are also migrating and coming to feeders. Both these species winter across much of the country and you may have them at your bird feeders all winter. We recently had first-winter White-crowned Sparrows at our feeder amongst the many, many White-throated Sparrows.

These sparrows love to feed on the ground on millet or seed mixes containing millet. We make a special sparrow feeder by building a big brush pile and sprinkling the seed in front and under the pile. It's a sparrow magnet and provides perching spots and cover from predators. The big bonus for us is that we get to see lots of fall sparrows.

If you live in the far western part of the country, you will get lovely Golden-crowned Sparrows visiting your bird feeders. They have a golden forecrown, surrounded on the front and sides by black or brown.

All these sparrow species are in the genus Zonotrichia. We discussed the characteristics of the sparrows in the Melospiza genus as stated in our The Stokes Field Guide to the Birds of North America, the most complete photographic guide available. In our guide, p. 656, we discuss the Zonotrichia genus and say these are "large deep-bellied, broad-necked sparrows with a fairly small conical bill, rounded crown and fairly long, slightly notched tail." In addition to White-throated, Golden and White-crowned Sparrows, the Zonotrichia genus includes Harris's Sparrows.

Tip: Look at these sparrows through your binoculars at your bird feeder and learn the characteristics of the shape of each genus. You will get better at ID-ing them and it will set you up to learn the sparrows in other genera.


Sparrow ID, Melospiza Sparrows



Lincoln's Sparrow, Melospiza lincolnii. Saw one recently here in our NH yard.

Song Sparrow, Melospiza melodyLots are at our bird feeders and bird bath now.

Swamp Sparrow, Melospiza georgiana. Hang out in swampy areas not usually at feeders.

Swamp Sparrow, Melospiza georgiana

Sparrow ID can be challenging, to say the least. We often see Swamp Sparrows, hanging out appropriately, in swampy areas at the edge of the water. Birds are often habitat dependent and thus the Swamp Sparrow's name.

This is a subtly beautiful sparrow with a strongly marked face, russet wash along flanks and reddish-brown on crown, wings and tail.

Swamp Sparrows are in the genus Melospiza, along with Song and Lincoln's Sparrows. In our The Stokes Field Guide to Birds of North America, in addition to individual thorough species accounts with multiple photos per species, we have colored boxes where we give helpful Identification Tips and an overview for many of the bird families. Look for these in our field guide.

For Sparrows, in the new Stokes guide p. 656, we say,

"Sparrows are small birds with short conical bills and varied-length tails. They are birds of primarily grasslands, fields, and open edges, where they feed mostly on seeds and some insects. Most are brownish with streaked backs, and they can look quite similar. Fortunately there are several large genera that have subtle but distinctive shapes. Becoming familiar with these shapes can help you place an individual sparrow into one of these groups, or genera; then you can look for plumage clues to complete your identification.

Species ID: There are 12 genera of sparrows in North America. Only 5 have 3 or more species, and these are the ones that are most useful to know to use in this generic approach.

* Melospiza: Medium-sized to large sparows with rather average proportions: they are slightly deep-bellied and have a medium-sized bill, rounded crown, and fairly long rounded tail. These sparrows are easily seen in brushy areas and marshes; when flused or curious they tend to fly up to higher perches for long periods and give short alarm calls. Some (Song Sparrow) come regularly to bird feeders. Includes Song, Lincoln's, and Swamp.

Chipping Sparrow, Spizella  passerina, adult summer. Chipping Sparrows come to feeders.

In winter Chipping Sparrows change and look like this. Chipping Sparrows are in the Spizella genus.

* Spizella: Small to medium-sized sparrows with high rounded crown, short conical bill and fairy long notched tail. These are fairly conspicuous sparrows that often feed in flocks on the ground. When disturbed they tend to fly up to higher vegetation and look around. They include Chipping, American Tree, Clay-colored, Brewer's, Field, and Black-chinned Sparrows.

In addition to the above, look for this different sparrow at your feeders,
Fox Sparrow, Passerella iliaca. These are large beautiful sparrows that can be seen in fall and winter at feeders.

Our big national book, The Stokes Field Guide to The Birds Of North America is now available for your convenience in two regional guides that are lighter and more portable. The New Stokes Field Guide to Birds: Eastern and Western Regions recently came out and can be bought at amazon.com, barnesandnoble.com and your local bookseller. Get them for they contain multiple photos of each species of sparrow and will help you with identifying and and enjoying your sparrows more.
Our brand new guide for beginning and intermediate bird watchers is The Stokes Essential Pocket Guide to the Birds of North America, contains over 580 stunning photos, covers 250 species, and can fit in your pocket!

Monday, September 25, 2017

Yellow-rumped Warblers are Migrating Now!

This is a Yellow-rumped Warbler in winter plumage with the tell-tale yellow rump. They're migrating  now so watch for them in your garden. Get to know this bird since it is one of the most common fall migrating warblers. Photo is from our new The Stokes Essential Pocket Guide to Birds of North America, which was recently published!

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Hummingbird Migration now

Young Ruby-throated Hummingbird

Hummingbird migration is happening now! Ruby-throated Hummingbirds are migrating all across the eastern half of the country on their way across the Gulf of Mexico to Central America. Help them fuel up by keeping your hummingbird feeders clean and full and by planting LOTS of red tubular flowers such as this red salvia. They will return next spring. Bye-bye.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

When to Take Down Hummingbird Feeders, plus Rare Hummers

Ruby-throated Hummingbird at feeder

Ruby-throated Hummingbird at Salvia "Black and Blue" flowers


Ruby-throated Hummingbird at Salvia "Lady in Red" flowers.

Conventional wisdom says hummingbirds will not be detained by feeders, they know when to go. A hummingbird's migration urge is triggered by hormonal changes that respond to decreasing day length. But you still need to determine when to stop filling the feeders and take them down.

When and if you remove feeders depends on where you live in the country. If you live on the West Coast, Anna's Hummingbird can be found all year. There are places in the Southwest and along the Mexican border where a few species of hummers can be found in winter.  If you live in the northern part of the country, such as here in NH, the vast majority of Ruby-throated Hummingbirds are gone by the middle of Oct. If you live in some of the states in the middle section of the country, such as Kentucky, most Ruby-throated Hummingbirds have gone through by the end of Oct. If you live in the Southeast in a place like Florida you could possibly have overwintering Ruby-throated Hummingbirds. In addition a number of western species of hummingbirds such as Rufous, Broad-tailed, and Calliope Hummingbirds might show up.

Interestingly there seems to be an increasing trend in western hummingbird species, such as Rufous and Allen's Hummingbirds and others, showing up outside of their normal range in fall in eastern states. NH has had a Rufous Hummingbird in 2007, 2009 and Oct. 2015 and a Calliope Hummingbird in 2013. They came to feeders but disappeared in the winter.

One of the issues of attempting to host an unusual hummingbird in areas that experience cold and harsh winters is the commitment it takes and the uncertain outcome. A standard hummingbird nectar solution of one part sugar to 4 parts water will freeze below 27 degrees. People go to lengths to warm the nectar such as attaching a flood lamp in a clamp-on reflector a few feet from the feeder, or hanging a low watt heat lamp rigged in an outdoor hanging fixture, but that will only keep the nectar unfrozen to near zero degrees. Last winter NH saw weather below zero. Remember to always keep your hummingbird feeders clean and fresh, mold can grow easily in them if you do not clean them every several days.

Our answer as to when we take the hummingbird feeders down here in NH is that we take our feeders down at the first hard frost. At that point our many hummingbird attractant flowers, such as red Salvia, succumb to the cold, and the hummingbirds are essentially gone from here.

A great place to see which and when hummingbird species are seen in your area, and to report your sightings, is the ebird website. Look under "explore data.

Here are a few photos of rare hummingbirds that have shown up in our state of NH.

This celebrity bird is a a little Calliope Hummingbird, male, a bird from the Northwest who strayed far from his usual range and migration route in Nov. 2013. He came to a feeder in Manchester, NH at the home of some very gracious birders who allowed many birders to view this hummingbird, a lifer for many! This was not the first time a Calliope Hummingbird had shown up in New England and there are records from other eastern states also. Calliopes also been reported from MA and NJ. It seems like more and more out-of-range hummingbirds are showing up in the East in fall at feeders. No one knows exactly why this occurs. Some birds' internal compasses may just direct them east instead of south. Over time that species may have a range expansion if those individuals survive and have offspring. Other people think that having more hummingbird feeders available and hardy plants in a human altered landscape may make it possible for some of these hummingbirds to be in the East in fall and winter.

The above photo is a Rufous Hummingbird (Selasphorous rufous) visiting a feeder in Hollis, NH in Oct. 2009. This is a very unusual hummingbird for here. One was last reported in NH in 2007. The Rufous Hummingbird is a western species whose breeding range goes as far up as Alaska. Increasingly, Rufous Hummingbirds are showing up in fall in the eastern half of the country. This hummingbird was banded over the weekend and the bander reported it as a hatching year Rufous Hummingbird, sex could not be determined. Identification of female and immature hummingbirds can be tricky, especially telling Rufous from Allen's Hummingbirds. Sometimes only banders, holding them in hand, can tell them apart by subtle differences in the shape of the tail feathers and even then sometimes it is not possible to definitively tell their sex. The above photo shows the extensive rufous on the sides and rufous on the tail feathers.

The throat has lines of small marks, with a number of larger marks (looking dark because the sun is not hitting them) concentrated in the center and going out to the sides of the throat. Usually the immature female rufous has smaller and fewer throat marks, occasionally with a few larger iridescent marks confined to the center of throat.

The back shows little rufous coloring on this bird. Some immature male Rufous Hummingbirds can show more rufous back coloring, especially later in winter. Adult male Rufous Hummingbirds often have extensive rufous on their backs and their throats.

Good luck with your hummingbirds.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

When Birding is Slow, ID Dragonflies, Here's How!



Birders can look for dragonflies through their binoculars! This is a Halloween Pennant dragonfly, so aptly named, and one of my favorites. We have hundreds in our fields right now.


Widow Skimmer

Widow Skimmer. The most colorful dragonflies with patterns on their wings are often in the Skimmer family of dragonflies.

When birds are quiet in summer, birders turn to watching dragonflies, that's what we do. Dragonflies are active on warm days, the hotter and sunnier the better. Dragonflies are stunningly beautiful, have cool names, and are abundant in fields, lakes, streams, shores, many of the places people go in summer.

Here are a few tips to enjoy and identify them.

1. Use your binoculars to spot them, if you have close focusing binos, even better.
2. Some dragonfly males patrol territories along ponds, lakes, and streams. Females mate with them then lay their eggs on emerging vegetation. If you see 2 dragonflies flying in tandem, this is a precursor to mating. In the wheel positon, mating is occurring.
3. Some dragonflies are more perchers, others more fliers, that can be a clue to their ID. Different perchers have different ways of perching, again an ID clue.
4. In general, some of the most obvious, colorful, and patterned-wing dragonflies you see are in the Skimmer family, so look in that section of our book.
5. Different species of dragonflies are on the wing at different times during the summer, so you will constantly see new ones.
6. Male, female and immature dragonflies of the same species can look different, just like birds.


We (along with dragonfly experts Blair Nikula and Jackie Sones) produced a book, Stokes Beginner's Guide To Dragonflies in order to quickly help you get into enjoying these marvelous insects. We worked out an easy key and lots of color photos. Take it and binoculars along with you the next time you go to the lake, river or stream. We take it with us in the canoe whenever we go out in the summer. Enjoy!

Thursday, June 08, 2017

Saving Bobolinks!

Bobolink male





Here at Bobolink Farm, our 23 acre NH property, we have breeding Bobolinks. It's especially thrilling to see the Bobolinks here, because Bobolinks face declining populations in New England due to of loss of habitat. A federal State of The Birds Report lists Bobolinks among birds that have declined by 38-77% since 1968. A new The Bobolink Project is an attempt in New England to preserve grasslands and save Bobolinks.

We're helping their populations because we provide them with good habitat. Most importantly, we do not let the farmer who hays our fields, cut the fields before the Bobolinks fledge the young out of their nests around mid-July. Usually our farmer cuts the fields at the end of August since, in addition to nesting Bobolinks, we have sometimes had a nesting a American Bittern in the field.

We take our walk around the edge of the field or look from our deck and and it's so beautiful to see the Bobolinks, making their lyrical "plinking" call notes, and settling in the grasses to feed. We get such a deep sense of satisfaction, knowing we are helping a species in trouble and maintaining this grassland habitat. Years ago, when New England was a booming farm economy, grasslands were prevalent. Now, much of New England has grown back to forest and it's rare to find big fields, especially ones that are not cut until the end of the summer.
The male Bobolinks in fall will molt from their black-and-white breeding plumage and resemble the streaked, staw-colored females and young. The flocks will stay here until they depart in early fall, for their long migration to wintering areas in South America. We'll miss them.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Warbler Bonanza, NH Coast!

Northern Parula

American Redstart, 1st summer male

American Redstart, 1st summer male

American Redstart

Canada Warbler

On a tip this morning we headed to Odiorne State Park, on the NH coast, where the temp climbed to 95 degrees but the multitude of warblers could be found in the cooler shade of the tall trees. At least 15 singing American Redstarts, both adult males and immature males, looking like "Yellowstarts," were everywhere. 3 Canada Warblers lurked in the understory. A Northern Parula, gave us a warbler neck view and feasted on apple blossoms. We also saw Magnolia, Chestnut-sided, Yellow and Common Yellowthroat Warblers and a Northern Waterthrush. Then ended with a lobster roll at Ray's. A good day!