Thursday, November 20, 2014

Orioles Can Brighten up a Winter Feeder

Baltimore orioles can be occasional winter visitors to area feeders. They like a variety of foods; suet dough, sunflower chips, shelled peanut, orange slices, and especially grape jelly are very good at attracting them if they are in the area. And there is potential to attract a rare species of oriole too.

Baltimore orioles occur in a wide variety of plumages based on molt, age, and gender. Below are some frequently encountered plumages.

Male Baltimore Oriole by Jeff Lewis
Male Bullock's Oriole by Jeff Lemons

Identification of adult male orioles is pretty straightforward. the more commonly see Baltimore male has the complete black hood.

The adult male Bullock's oriole is extremely rare here, but this photo was taken near Southpark  two winters ago. Note the orange face and black eyeline and "goatee."

Female Baltimore Oriole by Jeff Lewis

Female Baltimores lack the extensive black of the males. Note the strong stripes on the wings and the orange plumage, especially on the upper breast.

Female Baltimore Oriole by Phil Fowler
In this bird, note again the orange tint to the breast. Also note the long, thin bill in both birds.

Immature Male Baltimore by Jeff Lewis
In this immature male Baltimore oriole, the black hood is just now molting in. This bird is not as orange as some but some orange feathers can be seen coming in on the chest. 

And always be aware of the possibility of a Western tanager visiting your feeder. As in orioles, the adult males are strikingly colored and identification is usually easy. There will be at least a hint of red in the face. This photo was taken in Mecklenburg County a few years ago. 

Adult Male Western Tanager by Wayne Forsythe

The more likely to be seen females and immatures may resemble this duller bird below. Note the greenish yellow plumage and two wing bars, the upper one being yellowish, the lower being whiter. Also notice the bill is shorter and thicker.

Western Tanager by Jeff Lemons.

In this immature male below, note again the yellow upper wing bar, brighter greenish yellow plumage, and a hint of red coming in around the face.

Immature Male Western Tanager by Jeff Lewis

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Water is Just as Important in Winter for Birds

We have gotten off to an early start for really cold weather this winter. As freezing mornings get more frequent, it is important to remember that our area birds need water as much as they need feeder food, maybe even more. Heated bird baths are great, and if you are thinking of investing in one you should not be disappointed if you opt to purchase. But just supplying water in a shallow pan or conventional birdbath during the winter can be just as rewarding, especially during bouts of snow and ice.

You might also attract species that may not normally visit feeders. American robins and cedar waxwings are frequent patrons of provided water in the winter. Check out the photos from our area and see for yourself. 

Cedar Waxwings and Robin by Billy Vaughn

Cedar Waxwings and Robins by Jeanne Davis

Friday, November 14, 2014

Incoming Arctic Air Will be a Hummingbird Mover

So this really is going to be the cold blast that will bring any hummingbirds in the area to feeders. Arctic air streaming in today and tomorrow, along with an even colder shot next week will be a hummingbird express. Keep the feeders thawed and your eyes on them this weekend. Let me know if you see anything.

I have mentioned the rufous hummingbird as the most likely species to show up, but other rare species come too. Last year a calliope hummingbird spent the winter in Mecklenburg County.

Below is a photo of an immature male calliope hummingbird that spent a winter in Union County a few years ago. Notice the few magenta feathers coming in around the throat. Their elongated shape, along with more subtle identifying features, made this ID easy. The calliope hummingbird is the smallest bird that regularly occurs in North America.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

First Winter Hummingbird Report of the Season Received

The first winter hummingbird report of the season came in to me yesterday; a female-plumaged bird off Rea Road in south Charlotte. The observer reports obvious rufous plumage on the flanks. This location is smack dab in the middle of the Mecklenburg County hotspot for wintering hummingbirds. 

Though it is very likely a rufous hummingbird, it will be impossible to tell exactly what it is until a definitive photo is taken or the bird can be observed by an experienced birder. Even then, it may be difficult. The rufous hummingbird belongs to the genus Selasphorus, which includes several other closely related species. The adult males are easy to ID, it is the female-plumaged birds that present challenges. To be accurate, it is best to call them Selasphorus hummingbirds until a specific ID can be made.

If this winter is like the 2013-2014 season, dozens more birds will be discovered in the next couple of months. Keep a watch on those feeders! 

Rufous Hummingbird by Jeanne Davis

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Some Tips on Identifying Some Winter Finches

As a follow-up to the Winter Finch Forecast and as a prelude to some really cool air coming into the area this weekend, here is a short discussion on how to identify the two most likely winter finches that may be seen.

This pine siskin shows the typical streaky plumage, strong wing bars and yellowish patches on the wings. This yellow may be very pronounced in some individuals and more muted in others. Photo by Jeff Lewis.

Seen with its close relative, the American goldfinch, the differences are apparent. The goldfinch has no streaking on the upper or lower sides. The two species often will occur together and have similar habits. The finch feeder stocked with niger seed will attract both species but sunflower seed feeders are just as attractive to them.  Photo by Taylor Piephoff                                                                                                                              

Purple finches should looked for now as well. This typical female shows the dark cheek patch bordered by two whitish stripes, resulting in a strong facial pattern. Purple finches are larger, bulkier, and more "bull-necked" than the house finches that are permanent residents in our area. Photo by Kent Fiala                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        


The male purple finch has more extensive raspberry color to the plumage. Note how the raspberry extends over most of the body, particularly from the breast down to the belly. Again, these birds are much more bulky than house finches. Photo by Kent Fiala

The male house finch has a more red or rose color than the purple finch, and the red is much reduced in coverage area. Note how the red extends to the breast but not to the belly. Male house finches are also brown on the upperparts whereas the purple finch has the shades of raspberry. Photo by Lee Weber

 This photo shows a female purple finch sharing a feeder with female house finches. Note how the streaking stands out compared to the house finches, which are plainer. Also note the plainer, unpatterned face of the house finch. The bulkier, bull-necked posture of the purple finch can be seen in this photo too. Photo by Lee Weber

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Time to Start Looking for Winter hummingbirds!

It’s almost November first! Time to talk hummingbirds! For those of you who have been reading my Observer column for a few years, you should know what I am talking about. For those of you who may be new readers, this may strike you as an odd time of year to be discussing hummingbirds. Not so.
For the most part, our ruby-throated hummingbirds departed the southern piedmont around October eleventh. The water level in my feeder hasn’t moved since then. There may be a few ruby-throat stragglers still, but they will almost certainly be moving on soon. If you are still seeing a hummingbird at your feeder, you need to take a close look at it. Any hummingbird seen in Mecklenburg County after November first is much more likely to be a species that has flown in from the western United States. I suspect there are some of these long-range visitors with some of you right now. Please let me know if you are still seeing one.
As November wears on the likelihood of a hummingbird visiting you will increase. Keep your feeders up and maintained. Watch for fleeting visitors or dropping water levels, especially after the passage of strong cold fronts. Last November I received a dozen messages that hummingbirds had arrived after the passage of an unusually strong front mid-month. By New Years Day I had records of over thirty-five hummingbirds visiting feeders in the area. Some birds decided to move on after a day or so but some ended up staying almost to April, departing just in time for the ruby-throateds to come back.
The most likely species that you might see will be the rufous hummingbird. Males are pretty unmistakable, being almost all red. The females and immature, which are the most likely to be seen are more challenging to identify. Look for some reddish coloring on the flanks and around the tail region. If you get one, take a photo if possible and send it to me.

I will be writing more about wintering hummingbirds as the season goes on, providing updates on numbers and locations. 
Compare the two species in the photos below.

Female Rufous hummingbird by Jennifer Carpenter
In this photo of a female rufous hummingbird, notice the reddish plumage on the flanks and on the sides of the tail. This color is something to look for when examining late fall and winter hummingbird visitors. This is the most likely plumage these birds will be exhibiting.

In the photo of an immature male rufous hummingbird below, notice how most of the plumage is an unusual reddish-orange

Male rufous hummingbird by Fran Thomas


Female Ruby-throated Hummingbird by Phil Fowler
In comparison, this female ruby-throated hummingbird shows no reddish plumage at all. This is the species that nests in the eastern United States. If you are seeing any type of hummingbird right now, let me know at

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Winter Finch Forecast is Out

Every fall serious birders, both field birders and backyard feeder watchers, wonder what the coming winter will bring in the way of migratory and irruptive northern finches. The movements of northern finches such as pine siskins, purple finches, common redpolls, and crossbills can vary widely and wildly from year to year. For example, in some years pine siskins may dominate feeders even as far south as the Carolinas. In other years they may be completely absent.

Movements tend to be based on the availability of food produced by northern conifers. The better the yield of seeds the more likely the birds are to stay to the north. Poor yield or crop failure results in birds moving around more. And it really isn't limited to just finches. Other species like red-breasted nuthatches, waxwings, and blue jays are affected too.

Ron Pittaway released his Winter Finch Forecast for 2014-15 recently. Though predictions are generally for the northern and northeastern United States, some insight can be gained into what species we might expect to encounter here in the piedmont of the Carolinas.

Check out the full forecast here:

Maybe some pine siskins, shown here with a lone American goldfinch, will put in appearances at local feeders this winter.