Posts Tagged ‘songbirds’

Photo Essay: Winter Songbirds


Thursday, November 8th, 2012

Photo Essay: Winter Songbirds by Josh Haas


Evening Grosbeak © Josh Haas

Evening Grosbeak:
This beauty was hanging around some feeders in Algonquin Provincial Park (Ontario, CA). Many northern species were flitting about early in the morning but I waited and waited for this beautiful songbird to hit a perch in the open before firing off some shots. This is a perfect example of patience, but also preparation. Before the shot materialized, I took several test exposures in different areas where I hoped the bird would perch. This meant that my exposure would be very close to right on, if and when the bird finally hit the spot. He did and the result was this image.

Camera Body & Lens- Canon EOS, 300mm f4 lens with a 1.4x extender
Aperture- f9
Shutter Speed- 1/400th
ISO- 400


Common Redpoll © Josh Haas

Common Redpoll:
Common Redpolls are common in the arctic and each winter, some make their way to the northern US. This particular bird was photographed during an irruption year where thousands of Redpolls were in Southwest Michigan. At a friend’s property who was banding songbirds, they were banding Redpolls by the hundreds and I was able to snag a shot before this little gem entered the feeder trap. This is another image where bird feeders were in close proximity but out of view, giving a more natural look.

Camera Body & Lens- Canon 1D Mark II, 500mm f4 lens with a 1.4x extender
Aperture- f7.1
Shutter Speed- 1/1250th
ISO- 200


Pine Grosbeak, male © Josh Haas

Pine Grosbeak:
If you’re looking for a bird with many color possibilities, this is one of them. The Pine Grosbeak can be seen in many color combinations depending on if it’s a juvenile, male or female bird. This particular image is of an adult male. I captured the image at familiar spot, Algonquin Provincial Park (Ontario, CA). This late morning, there were dozens of Pines Grosbeaks hanging around. So many, in fact, I found myself quickly panning around and shooting anything I could get. I finally took a step back and decided to just watch in hopes of learning some behaviors the birds were showing. By doing this, I narrowed in on a section of feeders and branches they hit more often. Setting up for those branches yielded an open shot of this bird. It pays to study and create images, not just point and shoot.

Camera Body & Lens- Canon 1D Mark II, 500mm f4 lens with a 1.4x extender
Aperture- f9
Shutter Speed- 1/500th
ISO- 250


White-winged Crossbill © Josh Haas

White-winged Crossbill:
This image brings back many fond memories for me. During an irruption year, my wife and I had stumbled across some White-winged Crossbills during a Christmas Bird Count. Knowing that it might be possible to find them in a couple other spots I knew of with good pines, I checked one of them out only to find about two dozen Crossbills decimating a small stand of Pines (cones). What a site it was to see. I invited my dad out and when he arrived, he was in awe of how this small group of birds was delicately attacking the cones in search of seeds. We continued to shoot and both brought back many images. This close-up image really displays the literal “cross-bill.” Better than the image above, was the excitement in my Dad that turned him on to birds. That was a good day…

Camera Body & Lens- Canon 1D Mark II, 500mm f4 lens with a 1.4x extender
Aperture- f5.6
Shutter Speed- 1/100th
ISO- 320


Black-capped Chickadee © Josh Haas

Black-capped Chickadee:
Some may not consider this a Northern bird but the range map does show a range in the Eastern US in Michigan and above. I couldn’t help but include this image because in the Midwest, it’s one of the most consistent feeder birds all winter long. Their distinctive chatter and noisy wings will always be special during winter. This simple bird just so happens to be my wife’s favorite bird. While she loves the cute little guy, I think part of it may be the fact that I whistle the birds breeding call in stores when looking for her. She always knows it’s me and we easily find each other this way. =) Hopefully this essay doesn’t prompt other couples to start doing this in Southwest Michigan or we might find ourselves confused the next time we go grocery shopping! This image was taken in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan on a winter morning. I first found the perch with some great mosses and then created a simple setup including seed just under the perch. It didn’t take long for the birds to find the seed and begin using the perch. In our house, this is a classic.

Camera Body & Lens- Canon 1D Mark III, 500mm f4 lens
Aperture- f4
Shutter Speed- 1/400th
ISO- 400

To see more of Josh’s work, get tips on photography, or to sign up for workshops and trips please visit

How Do Songbirds Learn to Sing?


Monday, July 9th, 2012

How Do Songbirds Learn to Sing?

Kent McFarland

What do a whale, a songbird, and you all have in common? We are some of the few animals that can actually learn vocalizations as we grow up. For most other animals, vocal signals are developed with little outside input. They are simply born with the ability to make them. It might not be surprising that a long-lived mammal with a relatively large brain and complex social life can learn vocalizations, but how does a short-lived, birdbrain learn complex songs?

Swamp Sparrow adult male, breeding © Glenn Bartley/VIREO

There’s a remarkable diversity of song-learning strategies. Some learn songs in the first few months of life, over the first year, or throughout their lifetimes. Some learn just a single song while others learn or create a whole repertoire of songs. These are developed by imitating other individuals or sounds they hear in their environment, improvising based on tutor songs, or completely by invention.

Song Sparrow adult, California © Arthur Morris/VIREO

Males learn multiple song types in about 70 percent of songbird species. The repertoire ranges in size from five or less, such as the trill of the Swamp Sparrow, to around ten types in the Song Sparrow, climbing to around one-hundred types in the Marsh Wren, to over a thousand songs of Brown Thrashers. Most songbirds have less than ten.

Marsh Wren adult, Eastern © Doug Wechsler/VIREO

Some species may require early exposure to songs. Young White-crowned Sparrows memorize the songs of adults around them during an early phase and then attempt to match this tutor song with their own voice. Other species can develop a typical song even when raised in isolation. Gray Catbirds and Sedge Wrens can create large, normal repertoires even when raised without hearing songs around them.

Brown Thrasher, adult male © Johann Schumacher/VIREO

Some species only copy tutor songs that fit exact standards.  Young White-crowned Sparrows only learn songs they hear within very specific parameters. Otherwise they appear to be ignored. Some species copy essentially anything they hear. The Superb Lyrebird of Australia may be the champion.  He copies all the songs of birds around him, as well as chainsaws, and even camera shutters and car alarms when near popular birding sites.

White-crowned Sparrow adult, Eastern © Garth McElroy/VIREO

Closer to home, the species found here in the family Mimidae (thrashers, catbirds and mockingbirds) are also mimic champions. Just yesterday as I listened to a Gray Catbird singing in my yard I heard him use the song of the local cardinal several times. The Northern Mockingbird famously copies other bird songs. A male may run through ten species in just a few minutes while singing its repertoire. In the 1800s so many mockingbirds were kept as cage birds that they became quite rare in some areas. Nests were robbed and adults trapped and sold. An excellent singer in New York in 1828 could cost as much as $50, a handsome sum in that era.

Gray Catbird, adult © Brian E. Small/VIREO

Whatever the abilities or methods employed, it is all learned behavior for songbirds. Scientists are trying to learn exactly how their brain does it. There are several areas of the brain involved. A learning circuit, called the anterior forebrain pathway, sends the song to a motor circuit that produces it.  If something goes wrong with the AFP in a young bird, they will stop learning and never learn to sing the correct song. Once the songs are learned, a deactivated AFP has no apparent affect on song output.

Sedge Wren, adult © Brian E. Small/VIREO

Recently, scientists found that the AFP is actually causes a young bird to experiment with sounds and sequences, essential steps in learning songs. The AFP is thought to trip the motor circuit to sing something new.  Another pathway in the brain then compares the new output to the memory of the tutor song. Eventually, the bird sings a match, or nearly so.

Northern Mockingbird, adult © James M. Wedge/VIREO

From the seemingly simple trill of a Swamp Sparrow to the mimicry of the mockingbird, a songbird’s ability to learn is music to our ears. As Miss Maudie said in To Kill a Mockingbird, “‘Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy. They don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corncribs, they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us.'”

Birding from the Driver’s Seat


Friday, June 29th, 2012

First off, don’t get too excited about this title.  This blog isn’t about birding along the highway at 75 miles per hour.  That’s definitely something we don’t advocate.  This post is all about a recent bird survey done driving back roads throughout a large University property.  We happened to be tied to the car for this section, as it was Lillian’s naptime.  =)

The significance of this revolves around a recent purchase of a Toyota Prius.  We’ve done several surveys at slow speeds throughout different properties but always in my truck.  The truck was superb when it came to navigating back-woods areas and had tons of space for all our gear.  Having a sizable life change recently (i.e. baby Lillian), we found ourselves in a tough spot shelling out way too much money in gas so the decision was made to go smaller.  There is definitely a shock to the system going from a truck to a small sedan but the fuel economy has sure made up for it.  I went from 14-17mpg to 50mpg literally overnight.  That is significant.

Black-throated Green Warbler by Josh Haas

Not even thinking of how cool this car would be for birding, we took the car on our survey knowing that we would be on pretty flat two-tracks.  With the car warmed up, we traveled along at 5mph with only the sound of the tires rolling along.  I can’t imagine how many distant bird songs we’ve missed over the years with the sound of a rumbling V8!  This was one of those moments when we realized for activities such as this, this would be a sweet ride.  We rolled along hearing single note calls of Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, faint calls of Red-eyed Vireos and Black-throated Green Warblers singing for mates.

Rose-breasted Grosbeak by Josh Haas

The Toyota Prius and hybrid technology has sure changed things for the better but it’s definitely not for everyone.  For many, there is still a need for large vehicles but for us it was about re-evaluating whether driving a truck was still warranted.  For us, it wasn’t needed any more so a change was made.  It’s a good feeling saving money and reducing our footprint at the same time!

Waves of Bird Songs


Thursday, June 21st, 2012

Naturalist Kent McFarland

Waves of Bird Songs: by Kent McFarland

Wood Thrush, adult © Brian E. Small/VIREO

Each year as the tilted earth travels around the sun, migratory birds wintering in the tropics are waiting. As the northern hemisphere passes from a cold winter tilted away from the sun into the longer and warmer days of spring, they get antsy. After a quiet winter, a Wood Thrush sings at dawn in the rainforest of Belize. Earth’s orbit brings changes. One early spring evening, they all lift off and fly northward. Millions upon millions of songbirds stream northward like a river of feathers each night.

Song Sparrow, adult, Eastern © Rob Curtis/VIREO

The lengthening days of spring sparks the rush of hormones. Higher and higher levels of testosterone and melatonin are produced in males. The high vocal center of the brain actually increases in volume. They begin to sing more and more as they arrive on the northern breeding grounds. By late spring with the length of daylight in the north near its maximum so are the testosterone levels of a male Song Sparrow. He’s feisty and he sings almost constantly on his territory. Other Song Sparrows beware; this is his patch of land.

Winter Wren, adult © Brian E. Small/VIREO

Hermit Thrush, adult male, Eastern © Garth McElroy/VIREO

Its June and around the temperate world songbirds are excited. The breeding season has begun. As sunrise and sunset circle the temperate zone each day, a wave of bird song travels with it. As twilight barely glimmers in the east each morning songbirds are proclaiming their presence. Imagine silently traveling in a hot air balloon at 700 to 900 miles per hour westward with the rising sun just above the temperate forests and grasslands. For 24 hours you’d hear nothing but the joyous songs of spring chorusing around the globe one mile after another, repeating itself day after day the entire breeding season. From a Winter Wren in Maine to a Hermit Thrush in Vermont, onto a Wood Thrush in Ohio, Kirtland’s Warbler in Michigan, Savannah Sparrows in North Dakota, Townsend’s Solitaire in Idaho, an American Dipper singing over the roar of a river in Washington. Just a few you’d hear as you glide with the sun across North America. Millions of songbirds on continents to the west await the rising sun. Wave after wave of songbird chorus travels around the globe.

Kirtland’s Warbler, adult male © Ron Austing/VIREO

Savannah Sparrow, adult (typical form, coloration variable from gray to red) © Claude Nadeau/VIREO

The chorus is music to our ears. For many of us in the north, we have had months of near bird silence. Our world is a cold and quiet one for much of the year. I once heard an ornithologist from the tropics exclaim that those of us in the temperate zone are such keen birders because each year we understand what it would be like to lose most of our birds only to be renewed each spring. Bird song is present year-round in the tropics. The strong sense of wonder of a morning bird chorus perhaps comes from not having it for most of the year. It’s the same excitement we get when we see the first fresh spring wildflower or the sudden appearance of green trees. It’s auditory wonder, scientific wonder, and spiritual wonder. It’s an annual miracle.

Townsend’s Warbler, adult © Glenn Bartley/VIREO

American Dipper, adult © Glenn Bartley/VIREO

The Four Year Image


Wednesday, March 21st, 2012

Female Red-winged Blackboard by Josh Haas

For the many photographers out there, think back to an image you captured that may have taken weeks, months, or even years to capture. For me, it’s an image of a female Red-winged Blackbird.

When thinking about Red-winged Blackbirds, thoughts of the marsh, incessant calls, and dark birds with bright red wing bars come to mind. What is a shame in my mind is that of the female who is typically rarely seen and forgotten about. The female Red-winged Blackbird is a stunning specimen with contrasty barring and hints of carroty color around the throat and beak. The rare sighting of this bird above the reeds make this secretive gem somewhat of a specialty. Seeing these birds is always a treat but setting off to get a great image turned out to be harder than I thought, mostly due to the rare times this bird pops into the open.

One warm spring day birding along a bustling boardwalk for Warblers, this image would finally come to fruition. As we walked, we passed several openings with marshy habitat where male Red-Winged Blackbirds were calling and fighting over mating rights. From time to time females would show themselves, but rarely away from cover and never high enough to get a face-to-face image with a clean background. While others snapped away, I knew the results would be bland so onward we walked. We soon approached another opening with a nice bench for resting. We stopped and decided to take a break from carrying all the heavy gear. As we enjoyed the spring morning and the orchestra of bird songs, the chack and chatter calls of a close female caught my ear. I turned and brought my camera up just as a beautiful adult Female popped on to an open branch. I captured an image and was beside myself until she let out one more call, which beckoned me to continue shooting. I was completely content with getting a perched shot of this beauty but to capture an image with her singing was the icing on the cake. I captured a handful of nice songbird images that day but the one that will always stand out is the singing Female Red-winged Blackbird.

Male Red-winged Blackbird by Josh Haas

If there was any lesson to be learned that day, it was that preparation is key. By having my camera gear ready to go and exposure settings close to where they needed to be, I was able to bring up my camera and fire away. Always monitor your settings as natural lighting changes by the second. Being ready is most the battle.

Enjoy the Sighting


Wednesday, March 7th, 2012

Cooper's Hawk © Dave Haas

The awe and splendor hawks bring to people is awesome. Anywhere I find myself teaching about raptors with a Red-Tailed Hawk or a Great-horned Owl on the glove, no matter the age, people are in awe. The one question we always get in programs is “How do I get rid of that hawk that’s getting the birds at my feeders”?

There are ways of preventing hawks from coming into your feeders, but my question is why? If we step back and think about Nature and the food web, these hawks are only doing what they’ve adapted so well to do. If you think about it, having bird feeders attracts small songbirds and where dozens of prey items gather, a predator will eventually find its way to the area. By having bird feeders out, we’re essentially ringing the hawk dinner bell for a smorgasbord of tasty treats. I say treats, but to some hawks these flighted songbirds are subsistence for getting them through to the next day. For those that want to create a more even playing field for songbirds, think about setting up feeders close to trees and other brush. Having feeders with cover such as this will help bring in more birds but also give them areas they can quickly take shelter from predators. This will help the songbirds, but it won’t keep hawks from coming in. If you decide you truly want the hawks to stay away, the feeders will have to come down.

House Finch © Josh Haas

When it really comes down to it, think about how rough nature is. Wild animals don’t have it as easy as us and their lives are very tough. They aren’t lucky enough to go to the store, pick up some items and whip together a filling dinner whenever hunger hits. When a Cooper’s Hawk comes in and nabs a House Finch near your feeders, simply enjoy that sighting and think of it as a connection with nature. This is a wonderful thing to experience and learn from. For me, sightings like this are part of the reason I have bird feeders!

Morning Stroll


Friday, March 2nd, 2012

Black-and-white Warbler by Rosemary Allen

I took a stroll last week past an oak hammock, down towards the edge where the willows meet the pond cypress swamp, near my home in SW Florida. While the lone Wood Stork flew overhead and Turkey Vultures rode the thermals, I walked through the still bare-leafed cypresses laden with their catkins full of pollen and their smaller female cones ready to receive. The pollen fluff from the willows greeted me first while warblers flitted and called, eating as they jumped, flew or crawled from branch to branch. I stood among stands of tall coastal plain willows mixed with Red Maples, dahoon holly and wax myrtle, the result of a wet prairie evolving into woodland after years of no fire.

Black-and-white Warbler by Rosemary Allen

There were more than enough clouds of gnats, swarms of flies and assorted larvae to feed this hungry flock of mixed songbirds. Finding my spot and being careful to avoid the fire ant piles, I sat and watched the Black-and-white Warbler work the willows. This bird appears to be very successful at finding food between the furrows of the bark, along stems, and under leaves with ceaseless movement. Just as quickly as he appears into my view in front of the willow trunk, he disappears behind. And for just a moment I have an opportunity to look at him straight on. I waited patiently for him to reappear but this time it was near the base of the small shrub. Now, this bird was hammering into the bark. For a fleeting second I wondered if he had learned this skill from the woodpeckers he hung out with and then, of course, I realized this was the woodpecker he was hanging out with, a Downy Woodpecker to be precise. Often when I am birding I only have a chance to glance at the head , back or wing, so I have learned to catch on to some identifiable characteristics. Both are bark foragers but in this instance the giveaway was the behavior. The warbler is more like a vacuum cleaner, hopping and creeping with his tail held up; the downy is more like a pneumatic drill sitting back on his tail. But they look so similar with their small size and their black and white coloring! Both of their heads are striped but there is a white stripe on the Downy’s back and the belly is white, not striped. The absence of a red patch on the head identifies it as a female. The warbler’s strong contrasting black and white stripes with the white eye stripe and white wing bars identify it as a male. And as I looked closely at their beaks, the warbler’s was thinner when compared to the chiseled beak of the woodpecker. Although identifying them at last gave me satisfaction; their behavior was far more interesting to observe.

Downy Woodpecker by Rosemary Allen

When I first arrived 12 years ago, this land was still a wet prairie and the wading birds were the ones to see here with flocks of Roseate Spoonbills, egrets, herons and ibis. For the time being, the songbirds and woodpeckers are the stars of the show filling their bellies and of course, the hawks and eagles are close behind waiting to fill theirs.

Downy Woodpecker by Rosemary Allen

A Gift for Your Sweetheart and the Birds


Tuesday, February 14th, 2012

Birds are at the heart of the modern origin of Valentine’s Day when it was said in the Middle Ages in Europe that the second week of the second month birds began to mate.

“For this was seynt on Valentyne’s day
Whan every foul cometh ther to choose his mate”

– Chaucer’s “Parliament of Foules”

Nesting season, what a perfect time to find our own Valentine! And a present of chocolate might just put our loved one in the right frame of mind. In southern Mexico and parts of Central America, frothy chocolate drinks have been served at weddings for thousands of years. Casanova is said to have consumed chocolate to enhance his performance. For centuries, humans have believed in the power of chocolate.

Today, we’re clearly hooked on chocolate. From 1970 to 1995, the world production of it doubled. According to a 2009 Nielsen report, Americans spend about $345 million dollars on 58 million pounds of chocolate for Valentine’s Day.

Here’s where birds come into the story once again. Chocolate comes from the seeds of Cacao trees (Theobroma cacao), which is native to tropical lowland rain forests of Central and South America. Lot’s of the chocolate we purchase comes from these areas and many of the songbirds that greet us each summer morning pass the winter there.

Adult Bicknell's Thrush © Steve Faccio/VIREO

Cacao is grown in the understory in the shade of tall trees. Scientists have compared bird communities in shade grown Cacao plantations with forest fragments in Panama and found them to be fairly similar. They found over 200 different kinds of birds with 86 species found in cacao only and only 46 in forest fragments only. Eighteen species of migratory songbirds were found only in Cacao. With lowland rainforest disappearing or fragmented, shade grown Cacao (and shade grown coffee) is becoming more and more important for bird conservation.

While much of the Cacao is still grown in the traditional way under a forest canopy, many growers are now clearing forests to cultivate the trees in more open plantations. Organic chocolate is made from shade-grown Cacao. It often supports fair trade practices, where farmers and workers harvesting the beans are paid fairly, and the Cacao is grown without the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides.

Jesus and Jaime Moreno, businessmen and conservationists from the Dominican Republic, visited Mount Mansfield in Vermont and joined me to see a Bicknell’s Thrush a few years ago. This bird breeds here in the mountains and winters in the Caribbean where the Moreno’s live. It is one of the rarest migratory songbirds in North America. Luckily, I was able to not only show them the bird singing, but I captured one during my research work. I let one of them hold the bird and let it go after I banded it. They couldn’t believe this little bird sitting on the palm of their hand would fly thousands of miles to their home in just a few months.

Adult Male Bicknell's Thrush © Tim Laman/VIREO

The Moreno brothers were inspired. Back home they decided to invent and market a new ice cream flavor from their company that would help raise awareness and money for Bicknell’s Thrush conservation. The ice cream is called Choco-Maple, possibly the first flavor ever created for a migratory bird. The idea was to combine distinctive flavors from both ends of the Bicknell’s Thrush migratory range, organic cacao and macadamia nuts grown in the Dominican Republic and maple syrup from Vermont. Profits are donated to help conserve Bicknell’s Thrush habitat.

Although the ice cream is only available in the Dominican Republic, you can do your share to help conserve songbird habitat through your buying power. This year think about purchasing organic chocolate (and coffee) to please your Valentine and the birds.