Some Local (Drab) Birds

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I am fully aware that even with the more drab birds their mothers are proud of them and they are lovely, not drab, in her eyes; but there really are certain birds that are brownish or grayish and just don’t sparkle. Here are a few of those, along with a compensatory bright bird or two. It is the month of May and we are deep into the season of northward migration. All the birds that wintered in Mexico, Central and South America, or the southern USA are making that long flight back to their northern breeding areas. There are even a couple that come up from Tierra del Fuego!

All in all this is pretty remarkable – many of the warblers weigh less than half-an-ounce and many of them will fly more than 3000 miles each way. The great boreal forests of the northern hemisphere (holarctic – including Siberia as well as Canada) will be the destination for many of the warblers and flycatchers. The sandpipers, jaegers, and some terns will fly even further, up into both dry and wet tundra, well above the Arctic tree line. Many of our sea and bay ducks are already up in the north country nesting alongside tundra pools or in boreal forest trees.

So here are a few images with captions. These are neighborhood birds; nothing was sought out to be photographed, they just happened by. You can see them and record them as well. Look into eBird; a great free data base and information service regarding birds…really you should look it up and enjoy. Some day I will do a page on sparrows as people often ask about them – they are also drab and brown; but show much more variation than you first imagine.

The bird in the header image is a female Rose-breasted Grosbeak (RBGR). The male is black, white, and has a bright red bib; quite eye-catching he is. It looks like he is wearing a tuxedo with a red ascot. The female is like a big chunky sparrow. The large beak is very much a characteristic of Grosbeaks as the name announces, but otherwise she is well designed for remaining out of sight on a nest up in the trees and is not dressed to walk the catwalk with her splashy mate.

The House Wren (HOWR) is a very widespread and common bird. Out here on Cape Cod it is not very common but there are more now than there were ten years ago They will nest in bird boxes in your yard and are a busy and entertaining addition. But they are notorious for destroying Tree Swallow (TRES) and Eastern Bluebird (EABL) nests by piercing and removing the eggs. They do not make good neighbors. There are several kinds of wrens across the USA. Here in the east we also have the noisy and curious Carolina Wren and the secretive Marsh Wren. In the midwest the Bewick’s Wren (BEWR) can be added and further west the Cactus (CACW), Rock (ROWR), and Canyon Wrens (CANW) join the list.
One of the more common nes-box birds is the Tree Swallow (TRES). Tree Swallows prefer open areas and the boxes ought to be away from the tree line as that is where the infamous House Wren hangs out. The males and females are both gun-metal blue on top and white underneath – though it takes a female two years to develop that plumage. The one-year old females are a dusky brown not blue. They will lay up to 8 eggs per grassy nest (in the box) and fledge the young in about 14 days after 14 days of incubation.
This is a Savannah Sparrow. The SAVS is a grassland bird found widely through North America wintering into Mexico and breeding into northern Canada pretty much from coast to coast. As with most creatures that live over a wide range there are geographically different populations. There are several slightly different groups found in the US, here in the east we have the good old savanna savanna, a sort of base line type. There have been over 20 sub-species named at one point and there are now 17 listed forms. This is much to complex to discuss – or even understand. Anyway it is a common bird, not very shy, with a lousy sort of squeaky hissy song, and great yellow eyebrows (lores actually).
This is a Grasshopper Sparrow (GRSP). It is another one with yellow eyebrows. It also has a very hissy song and is easy for us humanly-eared creatures to overlook. It has a flat-headed profile with a warm buffy underside. This is another migrant that returned to our grasslands in mid-May. They winter in warmer areas including our southeast, along the Rio Grande River, and in southwestern Mexico. The best guess would be that those nesting in the northeast migrate south into Georgia and Florida and that the mid-west population stays in Texas and northern Mexico and the western birds head down along the west Mexico coast.
It is a declining species as are many of our grassland birds.
The Scarlet Tanager (SCTA) is a bright bird of the woodlands. It sings from the tops of trees and nests in the same place. It is stunning in the sunlight and not very hard to find – you just have to go out and listen. This is a long distance migrant and like most tanagers it really is a bird of the southern tropics. Our SCTAs leave in September and fly to NW South America spending several months on the east side of the Andes in Columbia, Peru, Ecuador, or Brazil where they join a couple dozen of their tanager cousins. It is a widespread and colorful group of birds in the South American tropical forests.
Then there its a Northern Cardinal (NOCA). This one is trying out a new hairdo; the swept-back look. Cardinals are loud and common and certainly not a drab brown. There is a female in a prior blog post for comparison. She is softer and grayer, but otherwise most definitely a cardinal; kind of drab I guess..
Just for color I’ll add these last two; this is a Pine Warbler (PIWA) a rather common nesting (and occasional wintering) bird here in the northeast. The males can be very yellowish and second year females have a good splash of yellow as well. The first year females are quite gray. Many of the males will have dark olive striping on the sides of the breast – this one has very light striping.
This is a female oriole; it isn’t easy to tell a female Baltimore Oriole (BAOR) from the female Orchard Oriole (OROR). So with that in mind I’ll mention that the male Orchard Oriole is a rich chestnut brick color and really handsome in the sunshine – though a bit dark overall when perched in the shade. The orange-yellow Baltimore needs little introduction or description. (You can look back a couple posts for male orioles at the jelly dish.) The two species pretty much leave the US in the winter and spend their time in Central America for the most part, though the Baltimore Oriole population oozes through Panama into Columbia.
I am not sure – and others who have seen the image are not sure – but we think this oriole is a female Orchard Oriole because it is so yellow in the throat, the lower mandible is so bright, and there’s a good sized patch of almost-yellow (a new color) on the “neck” behind the eye. In order to be sure the undersides need to be seen and then it is still somewhat of a judgement call as to how much yellow there is and how bright it is.
The females of each species tend to mate with the appropriate males and the males do the same – so at least they can tell which species is which.

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