Month: September 2016

They Sing for Old Sam Peabody

I assume that autumn migration does not have the same power as spring migration for most birdwatchers. The anticipation of the growing warmth can’t be matched by the cold’s stretching fingers. The number of songbird species winds down to a hardy core. The warbler kaleidoscope outshines juncos, sparrows, and creepers. In autumn, Chimney Swifts flutter and twitter above buildings. Belted Kingfishers dive their last dives. Warblers skulk in the still dense green, faded plumage hidden. Spotted Sandpipers linger no longer by a shore’s corner.

The summer birds’ departure signals a comfort yet to come. I began birdwatching late in the fall. To return to this time is to return to my earliest days, to my first birds.

The title of “first love” belongs to the Dark-eyed Junco. But my first challenge belongs to the White-throated Sparrow. One afternoon, as I watched some continuing juncos forage in my backyard garden, a new flock of birds joined them.They’d stuck around until spring after that. I immediately ID’d them as sparrows. LBJ: Little Brown Job. What else but a sparrow? But it took me days to figure out which species.

Relatively speaking, White-throated Sparrows are easy to identify. The white throat – quiet a large patch beneath the bill – must be mentioned. They are the only North American sparrow with such a mark, after all. Lateral brown and white stripes run along their crowns. Their lores (the region between the eyes and the bill) are yellow. Their legs are pink. Mottled browns complexly color their backs and wings, while their breasts and bellies are plainly gray. Depending on the bird, their plumage can look shockingly crisp, so well-defined as if painted by a steady-handed, well-supplied artist; the whites very white, the yellows very yellow. These particular sparrows belong to the white-stripe variation. Others – around half of the population, as I’ve seen – can be tan-striped, in which they have tan stripes on their crown instead of white. They appear duller and overall more brown than their white-striped counterparts.

To a beginner birdwatcher, patching together the pieces of a bird’s plumage to ID the bird is hard. Or even noticing the fine details. One simply can’t see them. No matter how hard one looks! The obvious for an intermediate birder is obscure for the beginner. (Some shorebirds, in fact, are still difficult for me.)

I called them this, I called them that, I called them what the heck, and then another this. I can’t recall what tipped me to identify these sparrows as White-throats. It certainly helped to finally have a field guide of North American sparrows on hand. I felt victorious at finally being right. And then I spent some time wondering how mis-ID’d so many times.

I grew to adore the White-throated Sparrows. They looked like cute puffballs. When snow storms blew in, the flock would divide themselves in half: one half collecting falling nyjer seeds beneath the finch socks, the other half remaining on the backyard deck. I liked watching them hop around the deck, foraging for the seeds I sprinkled over the table and railings. There were so many of them and the juncos that they littered the deck and ground like ants.

They left footprints all over. Along with the other birds, they slowly pecked away the mounds of snow piled from multiple snowfalls. Several adventurous ones would try to get to the suet blocks I nailed to the tree, only to fall down, wings in a flurry, because they couldn’t grasp the side of the cage. Unlike the juncos and White-breasted Nuthatches, they made no aggressive move to one another.

One particular sparrow had a bag leg – black, stunted, wiry. It would limp, but had an easy time using its wings. It survived the winter. I last saw it and its companions in April, when I stopped throwing seeds outside. Perhaps it managed to return to the north with its flock.

The same April, I personally heard their singing for the first time in the middle of the afternoon. For much of early spring they like to practice before migrating back north and claiming their territory. I had previously listened to the song in recordings. Always the same phrasing, the same rhythm. The key varies. Ornithologists attribute a couple mnemonics to their song: Old Sam Peabody Peabody Peabody, or Oh Sweet Canada Canada Canada. During my second and third springs, I have heard some odd-sounding deviations. White-throated Sparrows – young ones especially – don’t always sing the full song. Sometimes they let out the very first couple of notes, stop, and then start and stop again, like a perfectionist musician. Sometimes they sing the first phrase and then quit for a while. Even the ones that manage the entire song can sound shaky and off-key (no offense to the Lab here!). This either makes one cringe or feel amused.

But back then, during that April, as I look back in retrospect, I realize my luck to have initially heard them at their full potential. The abrupt singing came from the yew trees next to my bedroom window. Whatever I was doing, I stopped. The lone voice rang through the silent air – so clear and level, the key perfected. A Little Brown Job, one eerie and melancholic. You don’t know your power.


Nuthatch, Red-breasted Nuthatch

The last irruption happened three years ago. In October 2013, one month before I became a birdwatcher, I noticed a sudden increase of bird activity around my backyard deck. I briefly saw an odd Black-capped Chickadee in the berry-laden flowering dogwood. Thinking about it, I decided it wasn’t a chickadee, but something else.

The following month, while flipping through multiple field guides, I ID’d it. Red-breasted Nuthatch. I knew it wasn’t a chickadee!

Even though I saw one before I started calling myself a birder, I counted it as a life bird. (Historically speaking, as my logic had it those three years ago. I wouldn’t do such thing these days.) I was only just starting to teach myself about birds that winter. I concentrated on what appeared in front of me as I backyard birdwatched. I forgot about the Red-breasted Nuthatch. Not one visited my feeders.

I learned about the significance of my sighting half a year later when I started socializing with other birders. I couldn’t believe I barely missed such a good bird.

The Red-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta canadensis, RBNU)) is an easy bird to ID. There is nothing like it in North America. A little smaller than the White-breasted Nuthatch, the Red-breasted has a rusty belly, light gray back, white face, black cap,  and thick black eye stripes. Their yanks are more nasal and lighter in pitch – near toy-like – than the White-breasted’s.

To further compare the two species, the White-breasted is a common year-round resident in most of the United States and roughly half of Mexico. And they like deciduous forests. Red-breasted Nuthatches prefer to reside in higher-altitude mature boreal forests, foraging for insects and arthropods in summer and for conifer seeds in winter. During irruptive periods, they will appear in forests with deciduous trees as well.

Their distribution is complex. It varies per year, per the will of the individual. They typically live all year round in the southern half of Canada, and the northernmost and western portions of the US (also including the southeast corner of Alaska and a sliver in the southeast of the mainland). With the exception of those that live in Alaska and Northern Canada, most Red-breasted Nuthatches overwinter where they breed. But a large shortage of food causes an exodus. According to Birds of North American, these irruptions “occur every 2–4 yr when conifer cone production on breeding grounds is poor,” and they move as “far south as the Gulf Coast of Louisiana and the desert washes of northern Mexico,” moving as early as July. How many irrupt each year versus the ones that stay is difficult to say, as is the number of those that eventually return their breeding grounds. Banding and tracking these birds have yet to take place.

As for New York, according to Cornell’s range map, they breed everywhere but won’t go farther south than Dutchess County. They absolutely refuse to set foot in Westchester, New York City, and Long Island unless an irruptions occurs. However, I once heard from a senior fellow birdwatcher – a Long Island resident – that only Red-breasted Nuthatches resided in Long Island several decades ago. Her daughter recalls that they were still more common than White-breasteds fifteen years ago. They would breed in pitch pines and white pines. In fact, they bred Long Island as far back as 1923 and beyond, and were “fairly common” in 1918. Gradually, until 2006-2007, they were replaced by White-breasted Nuthatches. They seem to mostly appear during irruptive periods. As to the history of the bird in Westchester County, “Red-breasted Nuthatches were observed all summer at Mamaroneck.”

It has occurred to me that I could travel to get one. (I did once, when I went on an SMRA trip to Dutchess County this past summer. Still didn’t see one. Still bitter.) However, I am content to spend most of my birdwatching time in Westchester, even three years later. I lack the drive to chase birds on my own. If I don’t see it, then I don’t see it. So, if I were to finally have my second Red-breasted Nuthatch, it would be in this county.

Naturally, I set myself up for disappointment each winter. It happened every time I walked with a group and someone said there could be a Red-breasted Nuthatch in the area. I would stay behind to stare at every clump of conifers. Will they give birth to one this time?


 2016. They are here again.

Late this August, I birded in Rockefeller State Park with a couple friends at the time  – Anne and Debbie, as you would know them from previous posts. We were trying to catch a White-eyed Vireo for Debbie. Another birder we came across said he had heard a couple Red-breasted Nuthatches in a certain part of the preserve. Naturally, I lit up. As always, I thought, This is the moment. And Debbie needed one to her life list. I was ready to run over, but we had to observe a nice number of warblers from a magic tree (best look at a non-breeding Chestunut-sided Warbler yet!) and get that White-eyed Vireo (Debbie didn’t get it in the end). An hour later, we arrived at the spot. Not a Red-breasted Nuthatch to be heard. (But we got warblers.)

After that day, I repeatedly heard this was a good year for their irruption. Birders upstate reported low conifer seed yield. I remained patient.

A little over a week later, I heard an unfamiliar song from my backyard. I went outside to listen and find the bird. But the song must have stopped on my way out.

I was about to go back inside when I heard three yanks. Not from a White-breasted Nuthatch – from a Red-breasted Nuthatch. I turned to follow the sound and saw the nuthatch’s silhouette in a cedar tree twenty feet away from me. I scrambled to get my binoculars on it. It had flown away.

I decided this was a time to try out playback. I dashed to grab my iPod. My finger stabbed the screen to get to the sound clips. I played the recording once and looked around. I expected to see the nuthatch fly in from the same direction. The recording finished. No movement. I thought it was gone for good. Just by chance, my head suddenly craned up and left. The very nuthatch was perched on the ash tree, fewer than five feet away from my face. As soon as it saw that I spotted it, it flew away again, this time to the row of white pines next to my house.

I crept closer to the pines, stopping where the long branches ended. I played the recording. Immediately, the nuthatch landed on the branch right in front of me. It lingered for a few seconds. Enough time to once more confront the supposed fellow nuthatch it heard, only to find it wasn’t hearing one of its kind, but a facade – again. Enough time to perhaps allow me the best look I could ever get of a Red-breasted Nuthatch. It was smaller than I thought, its breast a beautiful deep rust, its plumage crisp, its shiny black eyes aware and knowing.

It flew away again.

So help me, I could have left it at that. But I played the recording again – several times. The nuthatch darted around the pines, foraging for food, and then it disappeared for good. It wouldn’t allow itself to be fooled a third time.


I’m still hearing and seeing Red-breasted Nuthatches around Westchester. Brinton Brook. Muscoot Farm. Rockefeller State Park. As Cornell’s All About Bird’s introductory blurb says, they are an “intense bundle of energy at your feeder.” I’m counting on that this coming winter.


Work Cited:

Deed, R. F. (1953, October). Regional Reports. The Kingbird, 3(3), 75-77. Retrieved from

Feustel, K. (2007, December). Early arrival of Red-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta canadensis) in southeastern New York during summer 2007. The Kingbird, 57(4), 295-297. Retrieved from

Ghalambor, Cameron K. and Thomas E. Martin. (1999). Red-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta canadensis), The Birds of North America (P. G. Rodewald, Ed.). Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology; Retrieved from the Birds of North America: DOI: 10.2173/bna.459

EDITED 9/15/2016: Regarding historical distribution in Long Island and Westchester County.

Brinton Brook Hike, Report 9-2016

Each September, the Saw Mill River Audubon holds the Brinton Brook Sanctuary hike in conjunction with the Hudson Valley Ramble, an organized series of events which occurs in counties along the Hudson River. Our group of 11 this year mostly consisted of SMRA regulars and a few Ramblers. What sets this hike a part from others during the year is our route. Once we reach the northern side of the sanctuary, we cross the back of the golf course to visit the Croton Arboretum. Then we trek the same trail back to Brinton Brook and resume the usual route. This costs an extra mile or so and another hour and a half.

I took part in my third Ramble as the volunteer bird guide. Another humid and hot day today, though more tolerable than last month. I learned not to expect much with this kind of weather, especially in mid-morning. The only constant activity throughout the hike came from Blue Jays, Black-capped Chickadees, Tufted Titmouse, White-breasted Nuthatches, and Red-bellied and Downy Woodpeckers. And without fail, we heard a resident Pileated Woodpecker at one point.

Fall songbird migration was already underway at this point. Sure enough, we had a couple migrants at the warbler corner. We had to first sift through the more obvious year-round birds – jays, titmouse, nuthatches, and woodpeckers – all of which made such a ruckus that I thought they were mobbing a raptor or an owl. Then we finally spotted the warblers. In addition to last month’s sightings of Black-and-white and American Redstart, we caught a quick sight of a Black-throated Green, not yet having morphed into non-breeding plumage, its throat fully black. (Much later, a few of us saw a pair of Black-and-white Warblers.)

This Ramble included a special bird, the Red-breasted Nuthatch: two in Brinton Brook, one in the arboretum. They would have been good birds to see – for everyone in the group – but I only heard them. They sparsely sounded two or three yanks at a time. I was the only one to ID let alone hear them. Still, I was glad that these nuthatches made it to Brinton Brook. Birdwatchers around the county (me included) and even in Central Park had been spying them for the past couple weeks.

The birding didn’t get more exciting than that. Like last time, I zoned out a lot – thinking about the humidity, conversing with friends, trying not to further rip off the rubber sole of my left hiking book. I listened as we walked around the arboretum and kept my eyes open as we walked the power lines, but I observed nothing of interest except the common birds. The power-lines meadow and the woods were quiet. I did enjoy the occasional breeze, the camaraderie that comes with the hike, and the very being in nature.

This month, I counted 23 species. (