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Tuesday, November 13, 2018

White-headed Junco, Speckled Robin, what??? Leucistic Birds


House Sparrow, female, leucistic

We often get people sending us bird photos to identify, and nothing mystifies people more than seeing birds with strange white blotches. These are leucistic birds, normal species that are missing some of the pigment in their feathers. I photographed this female House Sparrow in GA.

House Sparrow, female, leucistic

House Sparrow, female, leucistic

This leucistic Dark-eyed Junco photo was sent to us by Dianne Connolly of NH.

The white blotches make an interesting pattern on its head, neck and throat.

This amazing photo of a leucistic American Robin against snow was sent to us by Bud Marschner,

of Fairbanks, AK. Bud is one of the wonderful photographers in our best-seller Stokes Field Guide to the Birds of North America.

Leucisim in birds, is a genetic mutation that prevents pigment, especially melanin, from being deposited in a normal way on a bird's feathers. Usually the leucistic areas are noticeable on birds with black or brown feathers, as in the above cases. Leucistic birds may have white splotches, or look paler or bleached. This is different than albino birds. Albinism is a genetic mutation that prevents the production of melanin in a bird's body. Albino birds usually appear all white with a pink eye. Scientists are still working out what these two conditions are and how they affect birds.

Birds with leucisim or albinism may have a harder time in the wild, as they may be more visible to predators and not as attractive to a potential mate.

Leucisim is very rare in birds. Thus, when 3 people living in neighboring towns in NH reported leucistic juncos to us on about the same day, we found this very interesting. 

If you see a strange looking bird with whitish areas in its plumage and you cannot identify it in your field guide, look very carefully at its size and shape and what other birds it is hanging out with. Our new field guide begins each species account with a thorough description of that bird's shape. If your mystery bird looks exactly like a robin or junco or other known species, but with weird white areas in its plumage, then it may be a leucistic bird.

Thursday, November 01, 2018

Evening Grosbeaks Heading Your Way!


We keep telling you the big news in birding circles is this is going to be a big irruptive year for winter finches and others. See the Winter Finch Forecast http://jeaniron.ca/2018/wff18.htm
It's true for Evening Grosbeaks who are now being seen in NH. These birds only show up certain years when their northern winter range food crops are low. These two female Evening Grosbeaks were enjoying the sunflower seed, their favorite. Look how they dwarf the goldfinches feeding with them!
Keep a look out and your feeders well stocked with sunflower and perching room and you may see Evening Grosbeaks as well as Pine Siskins, Purple Finches and more.

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Ruby-crowned Kinglets Migrating Now! Look for Them!


We're seeing a lot of Ruby-crowned Kinglets migrating through here right now. They're a cute, very small bird, as hyper as a warbler on caffeine, and give a little, high-pitched call. Note the yellow-greenish color on the edges of the wing feathers. We see them flitting along the woodland edges here. Yesterday we saw one come to our window and pick some insects off, what a treat!

They really do have a ruby crown, but they keep it mostly hidden. When alarmed they can raise their head feathers and show the ruby. They may give a  harsh chidit call or ch'ch'ch'ch. Look for them now in woods, or in your yard, they're a treat, not a trick.

Monday, October 08, 2018

How To ID Sparrows At Your Bird Feeder!


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 new 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 book, The Stokes Field Guide to The Birds Of North American 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 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 that was just published yesterday 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!

Tuesday, October 02, 2018

Rare Rufous Hummingbird in New England!

Rufous Hummingbird, seen at a feeder in NH.

Note the notch in the outer edge of the tail feather closest to the central tail feathers (called r2). This clue can help distinguish juvenile and female Rufous Hummingbirds from female and juvenile Allen's Hummingbirds. In this case there is a noticeable notch. Note also the two central tail feathers have extensive rufous with greenish tips.

Here is another view of the tail. The bird was also coming to a planter of impatiens flowers on the deck.

The throat is heavily marked with dark streaks and several lower central orange-reddish feathers.


Some of the head feathers have buffy edges.

In bright light the mirror-like central throat feathers look almost copper colored.

Here is (left to right) Don, birder Kathy who came with her birder/photographer husband, Steve, who took this photo, gracious hosts Stu and Mary who had this wonderful hummingbird coming to their deck feeder, and me.
The following account is from Oct. 2, 2015 but a rare hummingbird like this could show up anytime this fall so be on the lookout.

This Rufous Hummingbird has been coming to a feeder in central NH; a rare event, as this is a western species of hummingbird whose breeding range goes as far up as Alaska. Rufous Hummingbirds have shown up in NH before (including in 2009 and 2007) and the trend is for them increasingly showing up in the eastern half of the country in fall. Adult male Rufous Hummingbirds have extensive rufous orange on their throats and backs. Females and immatures have streaked throats with variable amounts of orange and are more difficult to distinguish from similar looking Allen's Hummingbirds.

From our book, The Stokes Field Guide to the Birds of North America,
Rufous Hummingbird, "F. iridescent green above, below, orangish-brown flanks, white forecollar and central belly; throat finely streaked with bronze or green dots, often with irregular central orange-red blotch; tail with extensive orangish brown at base... Nearly identical in the field to f. Allen's and cannot be distinguished except by hard-to-see shapes of individual tail feathers. In f. Rufous, next-to-central tail feathers slightly notched on inner web, and outer tail feathers nearly as broad as adjacent ones. In similar f. Allen's, next-to-central tail feathers generally untouched, and outermost tail feather narrower than in Rufous, but difference slight. Juv. (Jun-Nov.) Like ad. f. but juv. f. may have whitish throat with few markings; juv. m. may have more heavily marked throat with larger iridescent reddish spots. Complete molt into ad. plumage occurs Sep.-Mar."

Thanks to the wonders of high speed digital cameras, I was able to capture details of the tail and plumage of this bird. The noticeable notch in the r2 tail feather is similar to the description and diagram in Pyle's "Identification Guide to North American Birds" (a manual used by bird banders) for a juvenile male Rufous Hummingbird; the juvenile female averages less of a notch. The juvenile male has the two central tail feathers "narrower and with substantial rufous at the base" the juvenile female has the two central tail feathers "broader and primarily green, without rufous or with some rufous at the base." The adult female has two central tail feathers with "greater amounts of rufous but less than in males." According to aging the Rufous Hummingbird in Pyle, the juvenile has a "crown with distinct, cinnamon edging." So basically the preponderance of clues point to this being a juvenile male Rufous Hummingbird.

Photos of mine and others are being sent to hummingbird banders for further confirmation.

We had a great time seeing and photographing this marvelous little bird and Mary and Stu were so generous to let birders visit! Thank you!

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Prime Time For Hawk Migration watching is now! Here's How!

Broad-winged Hawk, adult. Has thick, black-and-white tail bands.

The hawks are coming! The hawks are coming! We're entering prime hawk migration time for birders in the northern and eastern half of the U.S. Some hawks, such as Sharp-shinned and Cooper's Hawks, Merlins and American Kestrels, will move by flapping, but Broad-winged Hawks, an abundant migrant, travel by using rising thermals. Weather conditions of clear and sunny, with mild north or northwest winds, should produce ideal conditions for Broad-winged Hawk migration. The Hawk Migration Association of North America runs a large website where all the dates and numbers of migrating hawks are recorded. Go there to keep track of migration or to find a hawkwatch site in your area. Most of the Northeast hawkwatch sites will seen many Broad-winged Hawks this fall as well as many other raptors.

Here are some tips for watching hawks:

1. Prime Broad-winged Hawk migration in the North is Sept. 11 to 25, in the South (TX) it is Sept. 25th to Oct. 10.

2. Prime Sharp-shinned Hawk migration in the Northeast is Sept. 1 to Oct. 10, in the Mid-Atlantic States it is Sept. 10 to Oct. 20, in the West it is Sept. 11 to Oct. 31.

3. Hawks usually move most under sunny skies with mild northwest, north or northeast winds. Broad-winged Hawks require thermals to move.

4. Go hawk-watching at one of the many "official" hawk-watch sites here. Or find your own by going to a hill, mountain, or tall structure available to you that has good views to the north, because that is the direction the hawks are coming from.

5. Bring binoculars that are at 8 power, or even 10 power if you have them. Scan slowly back and forth across the sky at different heights to find the hawks. Most hawks will be fairly far away and some may look like specs. Learn hawk shapes at a distance to identify them. Many hawkwatchers also use spotting scopes to locate hawks.

6. Here's a brief look at the most common hawks you will see:

Broad-winged Hawk, adult

Broad-winged Hawk, juvenile

* Broad-winged Hawks. These are medium-sized hawks, 16" long, with broad wings, and soar together in groups. Look for the broad black-and-white tail bands seen on the adults, usually visible even at a distance. Juvenile Broad-winged Hawks have thin tail bands and dark streaking that is usually heaviest on the sides of the breast.

Red-tailed Hawk, juvenile

*Red-tailed Hawks migrate a bit later than Broad-winged Hawks and here in NH, we can see them all the way through Oct. or even later. People may confuse juvenile Broad-winged and Red-tailed Hawks. Note on this bird, the dark mark, called the patagial bar on the leading edge of the wings, a great clue, also the dark belly streaks form a "belly band" another great clue.


* Sharp-shinned Hawks. These are small, about Blue Jay-sized, 12" long, hawks in the accipiter group. They migrate mostly singly with flap-flap-flap glide flight and have short rounded wings and a somewhat long tail that has a squared end.


* Cooper's Hawks. These are extremely similar to Sharp-shinned Hawks, and are a tricky ID challenge, but are somewhat larger, 17" long, with a longer, rounded tail and larger, longer head and similar flight pattern.

* American Kestrels. These are a type of falcon. They are smaller than a Sharp-shinned Hawk, about 10 1/2" long, with pointed wings and a long tail and fly mainly with continuous flapping.

* Merlins. Very similar to a Kestrel but darker and larger, about 12" long. Has broad, pointed wings and a somewhat shorter tail than a Kestrel. Flies swiftly and strongly. See yesterday's blog entry for details on Merlin vs. Kestrel ID.

* Turkey Vultures. Very large, about 27" long, all black birds that constantly soar with their wings held in a V.

7. Keep track of your numbers and turn them in to your local bird or hawk-watching organization.



8. For more complete information on identifying hawks see our all new national photographic guide, The Stokes Field Guide to the Birds of North America. It has 3,400 images and is the most complete photo guide available.

Wednesday, September 05, 2018

When to Take down Hummingbird Feeders!

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.

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Fledgling Birds, What You Should Know

Baby American Robins about to fledge and leave the nest.

This is a very busy time of year for birds. They have nested and now many have fledglings that are out of the nest. In many cases, fledglings birds are fed by their parents for another several weeks - college age, we jokingly call it, "out of the nest but still dependent on the parents". The fledglings must learn how to feed themselves and how to avoid danger.

This photo was taken of robins in a nest over our front door. They were just about to leave the nest. The next day they were gone. We spied one of them in the middle of our driveway, then a parent robin came and fed it then it followed the parent into the woods to safer place as it could only fly a very short distance. In several days it will develop better flying skills.

So many times fledglings like this are scooped up by well-meaning people, convinced the fledgling has been adandoned. What a tragedy. If only they knew how to back up and observe from a distance, keep kids and cats indoors, and let the parents care for the fledgling and lead it to cover.



By the way, if you ever do find a truly abandoned fledgling or nestling, (confirmed by observing it for quite a while to be sure no parent is involved), you should know it is not legal for you to keep and raise a native bird. Bring the fledgling to a licensed bird rehabilitator.

Eastern Bluebird, male fledgling,  being fed at our mealworm feeder by his mother

With birds that nest in bird houses, such as bluebirds and Tree Swallows, the fledglings from the get go are better flyers than the young of birds who nest in open cups. Tree Swallows fly very well when they leave the box and are hardly fed at all by the parents, as they can catch food on their own. Bluebirds can fly somewhat when they leave the next box, usually enough to make it to the safety of trees. They are then fed for several weeks by the parents. 

Monday, July 16, 2018

Go For The Gold! Attracting Goldfinches!

American Goldfinch, male, eating Purple Coneflower seeds

American Goldfinch with fledgling

Fledgling getting fed

This is the time of year our American Goldfinches are in their brightest colors. They flock to our Purple Coneflower when it starts to go to seed. Above is one very enterprising fledgling goldfinch who landed on the Purple Coneflower, begged from its father, and was rewarded with coneflower seeds fed by its dad.

American Goldfinches are late nesters. When the young have left the nest they will continue to be fed by their parents for a variable amount of time, which can be up to a month. Listen for their distinctive "chipee, chipee, chipee" calls. Eventually they will learn to feed themselves and we will see young goldfinches helping themselves to the seeds of coneflower and some of the other flowers in our garden. Purple Coneflower is such an attractive plant. We enjoy the flowers and then the goldfinches relish the seeds — win-win!

We plant our extensive gardens with many plants and flowers to attract birds. In late summer goldfinches eat the seeds of Purple Coneflower, Verbena bonariensis, rudbeckias, and sunflowers. Later they will feast on the seed heads of Joe-Pye Weed and asters.

Gardening Tip: To attract more birds leave up the seed heads of your flowers! This will attract finches and sparrows such as Chipping, Song, White-troated, and White-crowned Sparrows. Enjoy!!

Goldfinches also come to special finch feeders filled with Nyjer/thistle as well as sunflower feeders. In winter they lose their bright yellow color and turn a drab brown, molting back to bright yellow in spring.

For more ideas on bird-friendly plants see our Stokes Bird Gardening Book.