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Monday, October 31, 2016

Gray Kingbird, Yes!! Super Rarity Still in MA

The super rare (for there) Gray Kingbird being seen in Eastham, MA on Cape Cod. We went there yesterday to see it and I got these photos. Gray Kingbirds breed in Florida and may wander in migration along the southeast and Gulf coasts. This is only about the fifth or sixth time it has been seen in MA. It is hanging out on telephone wires next to a beach parking lot. So cooperative to see and photograph for all the happy birders who have gone to see it!

Friday, October 28, 2016

How To ID Sparrows At Your Feeder!! They're Migrating!

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 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, 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!

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Super Rare Birds! There's A Gray Kingbird in MA and More!

Gray Kingbird

Rufous Hummingbird 

Western Kingbird

Rare birds are appearing in New England! In MA there's a super rare Gray Kingbird in Hyannis, and possibly 2 Rufous Hummingbirds, one in Andover and one in Westborough. Theres a Western Kingbird on the coast of NH. Birds where they should not be. For the Gray Kingbird there are maybe 3-4 previous records, one from Lynn, Oct. 23, 1869, one from West Newbury, Nov. 22, 1931, one from Martha's Vineyard, Sept. 9, 1988 and possibly one from Concord 1992. (Photos from elsewhere). Gray Kingbirds breed in Florida and may wander in migration along the southeast and Gulf coasts. Western Kingbirds breed mainly in the western part of the country but may wander in migration. Rufous Hummingbirds breed in the Northwest but are showing up with more regularity in fall in the East.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Fox Sparrows Are Migrating Now, Watch For Them at Feeders!

Fox Sparrow photo taken at in NH

Note rufous color on body and tail

This individual has a prominent breast dot

Migration update - Fox Sparrows are on the move and are being reported from many birding list serves, including those in New England. Look for them at your bird feeders. The birds we see in NH have that wonderful foxy color. Not all subsecies of Fox Sparrow are this rufous, some are considerably darker. (See our newly published The New Stokes Field Guide to Birds: Eastern and Western Regions for complete subspecies and extensive photos.) One of the eastern subspecies of Fox Sparrow (Passerella iliaca iliaca) is the most rufous. We're always thrilled to get a close look at these large, beautiful sparrows. Look carefully at the sparrows at your feeders and see if you have any Fox Sparrows. They like mixed seed and will often feed on the ground.