Sunday, December 29, 2013

Eleven Winter Birds of Pennsylvania

Tufted Titmouse

"Our Keystone State (Pennsylvania) is aptly named in many ways, for it's central position biologically as well as historically. Southern animals approach their northern limits here, and northern animals their southern boundaries. Beside the many species which live here all year, others migrate through or visit during severe northern winters ... We have lakes, forests, bogs, rivers, meadows, ponds and marshes. This precious diversity of habitat allows the variety of birds and mammals which add so much to our joy of living." 
-- Toni Williams, PA Game Commission

While it is impossible for me to decide my favorite winter bird, the tufted titmouse is near the top of my list. The tufted titmouse is 6 inches long and slate gray in color with a white chest and belly. It has rusty brown flanks. It is most recognized by its pointed crest. I love its bold perkiness and seem to take a lot of photographs of the tufted titmouse, enough to devote a posting to this cute little fellow. I think I will do that soon.

Once very common in Pennsylvania, the bluebird has declined in numbers in the last 50 years, partly due to the lack of tree-cavity nesting spots. Encouraged by the North American Bluebird Society, my H.H. erects many bluebird nest boxes in an effort to attract them to our gardens. Suitable boxes must be the exact size to let bluebirds in and keep competitors out.

Eastern Bluebird

Both male and female are blue with reddish throat and breast, but the male is much brighter.

Male Eastern Bluebird

In summertime, bluebirds don't come near the back porch, but during the winter, every day they visit the heated water dish that H.H. placed there. I can't stress enough the importance of providing heated water for winter birds. For more information read 'Winter Bird Bath Tips' in the Birds and Blooms blog.

Female Eastern Bluebird

The American goldfinch is sometimes called the 'wild canary' -- an apt name in the summer, but it loses its yellow feathers in the winter and becomes a dull olive color. Many of them move south for the winter months, but I always have a small flock that stays all winter. I think they stay for the purple coneflower seeds that I leave standing and for the Nyger Thistle that H.H. puts in the bird feeder.

American Goldfinch

American Goldfinches

I love the little (5 1/2 inches) Carolina wren. It is one of the few birds that will sing throughout the year. The male is known to sing up to 40 different song types. Also, they have long-term mates, remaining together throughout the year in permanent territories.

Carolina Wren    

The blue jay is a large (12 inches) bright blue and white bird with a black necklace.  It's feathers don't have blue pigment; refracted sunlight casts blue light. The blue jay is not a favorite of mine as it is known to eat eggs or young birds from the nests of other birds. An interesting fact: it is one of the few birds to cache food.
Blue Jay

The male Northern cardinal is 8 1/2 inches and all bright red with black around the base of its reddish bill. This species is named after the red robes worn by Roman Catholic cardinals. It has a large crest. The female is grayish brown with a bright red bill. They always come to the feeder in pairs and I love to see the male feeding the female during courtship. This is another bird that can be heard singing at anytime of year. While you usually see the charming English robin on British Christmas cards, the bright cardinal graces American ones.
Male Northern Cardinal

Female Northern Cardinal

The round, chubby dark-eyed junco is one of Pennsylvania's most common winter birds, usually seen in southern PA, but this year there are several in my northeast PA garden. They are most comfortable on the ground, 'double-scratching' with both feet to expose seeds and insects. They provide a valuable service to the gardener as the love weed seeds.
Black-eyed Junco

The black-capped chickadee is found across the whole of North America.  He is among the friendliest of back-yard birds, being very bold and inquisitive. He is around all year long, but is most noticeable in winter. He loves insects, so is a great benefit to farmers and foresters.

Black-capped Chickadee

Three types of woodpeckers visit my garden: the pileated woodpecker which I see only in the summer, the downy woodpecker, and the red-breasted woodpecker.  The sparrow-sized downy woodpecker is the most common backyard woodpecker. As you can see, he is small enough to climb right inside the suet feeder.

 Downy Woodpecker

The red-breasted woodpecker is much bigger than the downy being 9 to 10 inches long.

Red-bellied Woodpecker

The white-breasted nuthatch is just 5 3/4 inches long. Males and females look similar, with a short tail, bluish-gray back and wings, black cap and white breast. I like to watch them crawling along the trunk of trees searching for insects. Their ability to perch head down on a vertical surface distinguishes them from all other species of birds. According to Stan Tekielo, Birds of Pennsylvania Field Guide, 'the name "Nuthatch" comes form the Middle English moniker nuthak, referring to the bird's habit of wedging a seed into a crevice and hacking it open.'

White-breasted Nuthatch

Sources:  National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Birds, Eastern Region
Smith, Toni 50 Birds and Mammals of Pennsylvania
Stokes, Donald and Lillian Field Guide to Birds
Tekiela, Stan Birds of Pennsylvania Field Guide

Watching the birds that visit the feeder and bird bath during the winter months is my favorite activity, and every year I look forward to the Great Backyard Bird Count, a joint project of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the Audubon Society, held in February. For more information click on the poster in my sidebar. If you live in the US or Canada please plan on joining in the fun.

As I said at the beginning of this posting, it is impossible for me to name a favorite bird, but if pressed I must say the sweet bluebird brings me much joy. Do you have a favorite backyard bird?

I hope your Christmas was as wonderful as mine. We had a big Boxing Day celebration here and I was in heaven with my family around me. I made all the traditional English foods and reveled in keeping our English traditions alive with plum pudding, mince pies, trifle, and Christmas cake.

Wishing you a very happy new year, my dear gardening friends!
Pamela x

Other critters spotted in my garden recently ...


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  1. We have the same backyard birds here in Southeast Texas except for the Dark-eyed Junco and White-breasted Nuthatch. I haven't seen either of those two this season, although we do get juncos in some years.

    I'm delighted to hear you'll be participating in the Great Backyard Bird Count. That and Project FeederWatch which is now in progress are my two favorite citizen science projects.

  2. I too like the bluebird best. We don't get them in the city, and I rarely ever see one at the preserves. You got very nice bird photos, Pam. I do like the titmouse in the snow image the best. It has a story in that image.

  3. I love all these birds, what gorgeous photos. It is fascinating to see what lovely birds you have over there.

  4. Wow, what a beautiful post, Pam. We have all the same birds here and I'm watching and photographing them quite regularly. I have done so many bird posts in the past that I have not added one lately, although I've been collecting photos for when the time is right (aka: 'when I get around to it')! I know we also get the Carolina Chickadee here, in addition to the Black Capped. Being from PA and livingin NY & ME I was always more familiar with the Black Capped...but think I am mainly seeing the Carolina variety now.

  5. What a lovely post. I've enjoyed reading about all the different birds you have visiting your garden, very different from the ones which visit mine.

  6. You have such a wide variety of birds, much more colorful, and interesting looking than our local birds, but I think the bluebird s my favorite too!

  7. Such a different variety of birds in your garden than we have in Western Europe. The Northern Cardinals have such a gorgeous vivid colours and the Eastern Bluebirds. We also have woodpeckers but with other colours. Loved to read this post with beautiful pictures. Birds are so difficult to photograph. We also have a backyard bird counting day, already on January 18th. I will do my best but sometimes I think I count the same bird twice.
    Wish you a Healthy and Happy 2014 and a fantastic gardening year.

  8. What a great post, your pictures are fantastic. You have a beautiful garden as well as photogenic wildlife!

  9. Thoroughly enjoyed this post Pam. It was nice to read about the birds that visit your garden. A few are quite similar to our native birds (obviously the same family) but with the slightest of differences.
    A Happy New Year to you Pam!

  10. What an educational post Pam. I guess I'll have to stop calling the goldfinches 'little yellow birds' from now on :) Had no idea their feathers changed colour in winter, just thought they went south this time of year. Now I will watch for them. Happy new year!

  11. Pam, you did a great job showing us these beautiful creatures! Thank you and Happy New Year!!!

  12. I love birdwatching! We have gotten many of the same birds both in North Carolina and where I am in Massachusetts. i am thrilled to see how many bluebirds there are where I live now, and while they are definitely shyer birds, they do come and eat the sunflower hearts that I put out. My favorite are actually the woodpeckers. So far I've only seen Downy Woodpeckers where I am now, and I've never seen an Pileated one. They seem like such impressively beautiful birds!

  13. So many pretties :)

    We had many of those birds visit our old house, and are just starting to build up a collection at our new one... with the chickadees and titmice starting it out. It takes so much time for them to find the feeder! Though we have spotted a pileated woodpecker in our trees.

    I hope you are feeling healthier in this new year, Pam!

  14. Still catching up that you see so many of the same birds I do including the red breasted woodpecker who is new to our garden this year.

  15. A lovely post, Pam. You get many different birds than we do. And so many in your yard!

  16. A lovely post, Pam. You get many different birds than we do. And so many in your yard!

  17. We identified a newcomer to our seed feeder during the blizzard-a Carolina wren. So glad to have found your blog. We were clueless until I found your pictures!

  18. I am so happy that the chickadee is on this list! I have spent this whole summer and made my whole back yard a wild bird paradise. I love watching the blue birds, the red birds, the chickadees, the mourning doves, the wild turkeys and all of the others here in western pa. It has helped me so much with my anxiety and depression. Chickadee usually comes pretty close nowadays and is very friendly. I love my birds. Thank you for this lovely blog!