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Friday, December 2, 2011

This week in birds

It has been a very interesting week for birding in my backyard. The weather has been pleasant which means that I've been outside working in my garden every day, trying to get it ready for winter. But whenever I'm outside, no matter what else I may be doing, I'm always watching the birds. This week there has been plenty to watch.

Going all the way back to Thanksgiving, just over a week ago, I was showing some of my guests around the garden that afternoon when I heard a most unexpected sound - the chirruping of a hummingbird!  It was a Ruby-throated Hummingbird and it was visiting the blossoms of the Turk's cap, a favorite hummingbird plant. This was very late to be seeing a hummer in my yard, so I checked my records and found that the only later sighting I had had in the backyard was in 2006, when I saw one of the tiny birds on November 28. That stood as my latest recorded sighting. Until today!

This afternoon I was in my backyard taking a rest from my gardening activities while sitting in my favorite chair under the sycamore tree and watching my bird feeders. Suddenly a tiny body flashed across my field of vision and I refocused and realized it was a hummingbird. On the second of December! The bird was scouring the limbs of a crape myrtle and snapping up the small insects it found there. It was in shadow and I couldn't confirm which species it was. I assume it was a Ruby-throat just because all hummers seen in this area are presumed to be Ruby-throats until proved otherwise, but it could just as easily have been a Rufous. Rufous hummers have been wintering in this area in recent years, and even though I had taken down all of my nectar feeders and cleaned and stored them, I'm now thinking about putting one of them back out, just in case there are more stragglers coming through or maybe one that wants to spend the winter here.

Even before I saw the hummer, I had had another birding thrill today. As I was watching the birds visiting the feeders, my attention wandered to a flock of House Sparrows that were feeding under the shrubs and vines along the back fence, but then I realized that one of them was not a House Sparrow. It was much perkier and moved differently than the other sparrows. I grabbed my binoculars to take a look and found myself staring at a White-throated Sparrow, one of the prettiest of the native sparrows. I couldn't remember ever having seen a White-throated Sparrow in my yard before, so, again, I checked my records and - sure enough! - this was the very first White-throated Sparrow I had ever recorded in my yard. That's not to say, of course, that there may not have been whole squads of the birds passing through at times when I wasn't looking, but this was the first one that I had seen here.

I remember White-throated Sparrows well from my childhood when large flocks of them, mixed with Dark-eyed Juncos, would turn up around our farmhouse in late fall and winter. They were our "snowbirds," harbingers of the harder, colder days of winter to come. They were always busy and cheerful and I love watching and listening to them. I would love to see a flock of them here in my yard, but so far I've only seen the one.

Add to these sightings my "first in the yard" sighting of a Dickcissel earlier this week and a very unexpected Red-eyed Vireo that turned up here on Wednesday, not to mention the early arrival of American Goldfinches and you can begin to see that it really has been a banner week for backyard birding.

That Red-eyed Vireo is not an unusual bird for these parts but I normally see them here in spring and summer. I've never seen one here this late in the year. Something's happening here and although what it is is not exactly clear yet, I'm convinced it has to do with the changing climate. Birds are lingering later in their summer homes and migrating later in the fall and earlier in the spring. They are also expanding their home ranges by moving north and sometimes east or west. In a few years, the typical roll call of backyard birds could be quite different from what it is today. Red-eyed Vireos and hummingbirds may become common in December. It will be interesting to see how it all plays out.  


  1. Had my first ever sighting of a hummingbird in December yesterday. I normally take my feeders down, but I have a sugar water addicted woodpecker, so I left them up. It looked like a female. I wonder if she will stick around or if she was just moving through?

  2. Some hummers are making a very late migration this year, Rambling Wren. I haven't seen the one that I saw on December 2 again, but I would no longer be surprised to see one or even to have one over-wintering. It's probably a good strategy to keep the sugar water feeder out.

    On another note, I saw my first goldfinches at the feeders (black oil sunflower) this morning. Time to put out the thistle socks.

  3. Thank you for the response.

    How exciting to see American Goldfinches. My Lesser Goldfinches are at the feeder everyday. I call them little "piggies" because they are constantly eating:)