Monday, April 16, 2018

16 Apr 2018: A junco spectrum and #100!

We got about 6 inches (15 cm) of heavy, wet snow over the weekend, which is unseasonably late. Birds are definitely suffering, with reports today (day 3 of snow cover) of birds such as Hermit Thrushes and Tree Swallows sitting on trails and not moving when picked up (the person picking them up only did so to move them to a safer place). The problem is that spring migrants have started arriving, and many of them need insects to eat - which are difficult or impossible to find in heavy snow. There's also a nice layer of ice under the snow, which is not helping.

There will always be a tradeoff for the "early birds" - if they arrive first, they'll be able to claim the best territory; but they risk getting hit by a late winter storm. But of course human interference with the climate (making unseasonable storms like this one more likely) is not helping. Not to mention the other impacts we have on birds, with loss of habitat, introduced predators and competitors, and plenty of windows to fly into.

Most birds will probably be fine - I hope! - and the seed-eaters and generalists who can find a well-stocked feeder seem to be doing well. Our yard is generally not super attractive to birds, presumably because the yard has zero cover (not our choice - we're renting) and the neighborhood in general doesn't have much habitat. But this weekend has been a different story!

Saturday morning, after the snow had started, we shoveled a couple of small patches under the feeder and put down some seed, expecting we might have a few juncos stop by. Well, we very soon had a dozen, then two dozen, accompanied by one, then two, then eight! Fox Sparrows. When I took the above photo on Sunday, I counted 31 Fox Sparrows and about 60 Dark-eyed Juncos!

Our own invasive predators (who live indoors, aside from their enclosed "catio" out one window) have hardly slept since then! I've been spending a lot of time sitting on the floor with them, just watching the sparrows forage. We've had small numbers of other species stop by, too - Song Sparrow, American Tree Sparrow, Chipping Sparrow (#99), a few Red-winged Blackbirds and Common Grackles, three European Starlings, four House Finches, and remarkably only three House Sparrows! - but the Foxes and Juncos have definitely been the main event. The Fox Sparrows have been singing constantly - loudly enough that I can hear them throughout the house even with the windows closed, which has been lovely.

Singing Fox Sparrow

When I went to bed last night, I was hearing ghostly Fox Sparrows and seeing juncos behind my eyelids!

There's been a fun variety of juncos to watch. We mostly get Slate-colored here, but there's been a fair number of Oregons and Cassiars as well. The Cassiar Junco is considered to be an intergrade between Oregon and Slate-colored. Pure Oregons would presumably be fairly rare here in Wisconsin, but we've had some that look pretty close. Here's a sample in approximate order from most Slate-colored to most Oregon:

Classic Slate-colored. One thing to note, unfortunately barely visible here, is the concave shape of the hood - i.e. the white belly extends up into the black hood (there is no "bib").

I'll call this a Slate-colored, but there is just a hint of brownish on the mantle (back feathers). Maybe just a young bird?

Possibly a Cassiar Junco leaning toward the Slate-colored side of the family. The hood is a bit darker than the body, and you can see just a bit of a "bib" here, unlike that first bird. But perhaps an argument could be made for female Slate-colored.

Here's a nice Cassiar with a more distinct hood

Cassiar - starting to see a touch of brown on the side and back.

I'll call the center bird a female Cassiar - not quite brown enough for an Oregon, and maybe too brown for a Slate-colored, with a bib that contrasts slightly with the sides - but females get pretty tricky to sort out. On the right is a male Cassiar, maybe the same individual as one of the above photos.

I'll call this a female Cassiar leaning toward Oregon - the back still has some gray in it.

I'll say female Cassiar again... not quite brown enough for a full Oregon... but this bird and the one above probably wouldn't stand out in a crowd of Oregons.

This one's a pretty classic female Oregon.

And a pretty classic male Oregon, although I would like him to be just a bit brighter. This is when I'm glad all the races are considered one species, so I don't have to worry about whether one is truly pure enough to count on a species list!

What do you think about this guy/gal? Seems to be a first-year bird retaining some juvenile plumage (such as the streaks on the flanks and brown on the crown), so that's not helping. Doesn't seem to have much of a bib, so I'll tentatively go with first-year Slate-colored. Any thoughts?
Yes, they are all "just juncos," but it's fun to pick through the individual variation and try to sort them into boxes. Much more interesting than looking out and saying, "eh, that's just 60 juncos!"

This evening I was watching the just-juncos and listening to the Fox Sparrows again... when a new visitor caught my eye.

I thought, oh, that's nice - I wouldn't have expected to get a Field Sparrow on the yard list. My camera was at hand so I casually snapped its photo. Then I realized - that was #100 for the green year list!


  1. Congratulations on hitting the century mark so early in the year! Do you have a year-end target number?

    1. Thanks! I have 250 in mind, although I wouldn't say it's a firm target. That would be challenging but probably feasible with some multi-day trips. Of course, with green birding and working a full-time job, much of it will depend on chance and continued good health!