15 January 2012

Some Common Winter Feeder Birds

On Saturday morning, Lindsay and I joined Brian Miller, Vic Riemenschneider, and Sam and Abby Lima at the South Bend-Elkhart Audubon Society wildlife sanctuary for a feeder watch.  Even though the birds we saw are common winter feeder birds, it was enjoyable to spend time watching bird behavior in more detail than I normally do.  We tallied 18 species, including Mourning Dove, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Downy Woodpecker, Hairy Woodpecker, Blue Jay, American Crow, Black-capped Chickadee, Tufted Titmouse, White-breasted Nuthatch, Brown Creeper, Carolina Wren, American Tree Sparrow, Song Sparrow, Dark-eyed Junco, Northern Cardinal, House Finch, American Goldfinch, and House Sparrow.

Female Red-bellied Woodpecker
Red-bellied Woodpeckers (Melanerpes carolinus) are found throughout the eastern half of the United States.  It is always fun to watch this species at feeders because as they approach, they remind me of a big, goofy chocolate lab running up to a kid for a treat... they seem somewhat uncoordinated, fearless, and unaware of any surroundings as they plop down on the feeder; smaller birds tend to disperse when Red-bellied Woodpeckers land on feeders.  The bird in the photograph above is a female, whereas that in the photograph below is a male.  The easiest way to tell them appart is to look at the red on the head.  On the female, the red color is only on the nape (with gray or off-white on the forehead), whereas the male has the red coloration nearly all the way to the beak.

Male Red-bellied Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpeckers (Picoides villosus) and Downy Woodpeckers (Picoides pubescens) are often confused with one another.  In both species, the males have a red patch on the back of the head; females lack this red patch.

Male Hairy Woodpecker
The best field identification characteristic to tell the difference between these two species is not exactly evident in the photographs above and below.  Hairy Woodpeckers have a beak that is as long as the profile of the head, whereas the beak of the Downy Woodpecker is shorter than the profile of the head.  At the base of the beak, Downy Woodpeckers have a "conspicuous" tuft of feathers, whereas this tuft is inconpicuous on the Hairy Woodpecker (this characteristic can be difficult to see).  The Hairy Woodpecker has a larger black shoulder mark than does the Downy Woodpecker, and the outer tail feathers are completely white on the Hairy Woodpecker (Downy Woodpeckers have dark bars on the outer tail feathers).  Hairy Woodpeckers are also larger overall (about the same size as a Red-bellied Woodpecker) than Downy Woodpeckers (about the size of an Eastern Bluebird).  The calls of the two species, while similar, can be used to distinguish the species.  The Hairy Woodpecker call is sharper and a bit higher pitched, and is described as peek.  The Downy Woodpecker call is more gentle and a bit lower pitched, and is described as pik.  Listening to the calls will probably allow you to tell the difference more easily.  Both species are found throughout most of North America.

Male Downy Woodpecker
The American Tree Sparrow (Spizella arborea) is truly one of our winter birds.  This species breeds on the tundra of northern Canada and Alaska but spends its winters throughout much of the continental United States.  One of the best places to find American Tree Sparrows in winter is in fields with an abundance of goldenrod (Solidago spp.).  You would think that a bird with "tree" in the common and latin name (arborea means "tree-like") would spend its time in trees, but this is not the case here.  Although sometimes found in shrubby areas, American Tree Sparrows spend much of their time on the ground.  The species was confusingly given the moniker American Tree Sparrow by the European settlers because they were reminiscent of the European Tree Sparrows from back home.  In addition to the rusty cap and eyeline, the strong white wingbars, and the bicolored bill, the other strong identifying characteristic of this species is the dark spot on the chest.

American Tree Sparrow
The next two species can be fun to watch because they characteristically spend very little time at the feeder and more time caching food to eat later.  These species also often are in small flocks together with Black-capped Chickadees.

Tufted Titmouse
The Tufted Titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor) is a small year-round resident of forests of eastern North America and northeastern Mexico.  The gray back, orange flanks, light belly, and black forehead on a bird with a small crest allow for an easy identification of this species.  The song of the Tufted Titmouse is a whistled peter-peter-peter, but this species produces lots of other sounds that can sometimes sound a bit like Black-capped Chickadee or Golden-crowned Kinglet.

White-breasted Nuthatch
Another fun bird to watch is the White-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis), a species of open woods throughout the continental United States and ranging north into Canada and south into Mexico.  White-breasted Nuthatches spend much of their time upsided-down clinging to trees or feeders.  The nasal, party-horn-like call of this species allows identification without ever seeing the bird, though its call can sound a bit similar to that of the Red-breasted Nuthatch.  The gray back, black cap, white underside, and long thin bill all point towards identification as a White-breasted Nuthatch.  This species lacks the black eyeline of the Red-breasted Nuthatch and the black throat of the Black-capped Chickadee.

Steely stare from a White-breasted Nuthatch
Special thanks to Brian for setting up this outing, and to Vic for opening up the sanctuary for us.


Beth said...

I love watching birds at the feeder, even the ones I see every day. I just find them energetic and cheery!

Good points for telling the difference between hairys and downys. I also find that the hairys seem to have a rounder head than downys, or at least downys seem to hunker their heads down a little more. (If that makes any sense.)

Hey, I recently got a new smartphone, and just got the iBird Pro app for Android. As I spend more time with it, I'll have to write about it, but so far, I think it's pretty neat. I think one of the neatest features is that it includes their calls on it, so if they're kind of shy, you can use their calls to help identify them. Some reviewers said they also used it to draw the shy birds a little closer to them! I can see how this would be much easier than carting a book around with you, too.

Scott Namestnik said...

Thanks for the comment, Beth. I've often been asked why I find it exciting to do bird counts where I likely will see the same common birds that I always see. One of my responses is that you never know when you'll find something rare or interesting, in addition to the common species. Also, you can never learn enough about bird behavior, so it's always good to keep watching!

I agree with the other characteristic you mention as a difference between Downy and Hairy Woodpecker.

For a few years, I've used Lindsay's iPod to cart around the Stokes bird song CDs. I recently got my own MP3 player on which I have bird songs, frog/toad songs, and insect songs (an no music!). One of the bird tracks that I have is something given to me by a friend that has a mixed flock of chickadees, titmice, nuthatches, wrens, and screech owl. This track is used to call birds in closer when you know you're amongst a wave of birds. I've also used individual species calls to attact some species, just like you mention. I've used the iPod (and now will use my MP3 player) for owling as well. Be careful when using your phone app not to play calls around nests as you may distract the species too much, and in the winter don't overdo it because the birds will use a lot of energy to respond to the songs you're playing. At least this is what I've been told in the past.

Beth said...

Really good advice, Scott. Thanks for the tip!

Scott Namestnik said...

You're welcome. You may also be interested in this...


Scott Namestnik said...

Darn it.. I don't think the link works by just clicking on it... you probably will need to copy and paste it in your browser.