The Cardinal Family

This post is not about Northern Cardinals, it’s about Cardinals.

Wait…what? That was probably your reaction, but it’s true: this post is about Cardinals, not Northern Cardinals.

Let’s backtrack for a moment. What do you think of when someone says the word “cardinal”? You probably think of a handsome bright red male with a black face and red bill or a beautiful reddish-brown female with a red-orange bill. Right?

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Cardinal Pair (Image via fanpop.com)

The cardinal we’re most familiar with is the Northern Cardinal, of which I described above. But what if I told you that the Northern Cardinal is not the only cardinal around?  And that cardinals can have other names, such as Scarlet Tanager or Blue Grosbeak(Now you’re probably completely confused haha)

Many people don’t realized that the term “Cardinal” is used to describe a whole family of birds. The family name is Cardinalidae, which consists of 18 species and 7 genera (in North America that is. Worldwide there are 52 species in 11 genera). This family includes grosbeaks, tanagers, and buntings, as well as the Northern Cardinal which bears the family name and its Southwestern cousin, the Pyrrhuloxia.

As with all families, members of the Cardinal family have similar characteristics. These include:

  • Bright and boldly colored males, females with brown tones
  • Small to medium-sized, with stock bodies and relatively short tails, with males being slightly larger
  • Stout conical bills (finch-like)
  • Being primarily found in woodlands, brushy areas, and hedgrows
  • Primarily feeding on fruits and seeds in the winter and insects and larvae in the summer
  • Building cup-shaped nests in shrubs of trees
  • Musical songs with whistled or warbled phrases, sharp and distinct calls (some females, such as the Northern Cardinal, Black-headed Grosbeak, and Pyrrhuloxia, sing too)

The following Cardinals are found in North America:

  • Genus Piranga: Hepatic Tanager, Summer Tanager, Scarlet Tanager, Western Tanager, Flame-colored Tanager
  • Genus Pheucticus: Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Black-headed Grosbeak
  • Genus Rhodothraupis: Crimson-collard Grosbeak
  • Genus Cardinalis: Northern Cardinal, Pyrrhuloxia
  • Genus Cyanocompsa: Blue Bunting
  • Genus Passerina: Blue Grosbeak, Lazuli Bunting, Indigo Bunting, Varied Bunting, Painted Bunting
  • Genus Spiza: Dickcissel

So the next time someone says something like “Hey, did you see a cardinal? “ or “Do you like cardinals?” you can answer back with  “What kind?” (and really confuse them like I did in the beginning of this post). Then you can teach all your friends about the fascinating world of the family Cardinalidae :-).

What’s your favorite member of the Cardinalidae family? Tell me in the comments. (Mine are the Indigo Bunting, Scarlet Tanager, and of course, the beloved Northern Caridnal)

 

World Penguin Day

Today, April 25, is World Penguin Day! With their tuxedo plumage, penguins are probably one of the most recognizable birds in the world. As popular as they are, many penguin population are on the decline, especially the species that frequent or live on Antarctica. Climate change, habitat disturbance, human interaction, oil pollution, and non-native species are some of the reasons for their decline. It’s not too late to help penguins though! Check out these links to find out ways you can help penguins:

One Green Planet Website

Greenpeace Arctic Sanctuaries petition

Just in time for Wold Penguin Day, the group Oceanites released the first ever “State of Antarctic Penguins” (SOAP) report. All 5 species of penguins that utilize Antarctica were included in the study by Oceanites founder Ron Naveen (who describes his job as “I count penguins.” haha :-)). According to the report there are around 12 million penguins in Antarctica. You can read the “State of Antarctic Penguins” report at this link.

So in honor of penguins worldwide, here are some fun facts about these cute black-and-white birds.

  • When you think of penguins, you probably imagine them walking around in the snow in Antarctica. However, only 2 of the approximately 17 penguin species live in Antarctica (there’s some debate over how many species there actually are, some say up to 19). They are the Emperor Penguin and the Adelie Penguin. The remaining penguin species live in more tropical climates.
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Penguin Id Chart (Image via Pinterest)
  • Almost all penguins live exclusively in the Southern Hemisphere…except one. The Galapagos Penguin is the only species to live north of the equator.
  • The largest living penguin species in the world is the Emperor Penguin. They stand about 3-1/2 feet tall and can weight 77 pounds or more. The smallest living penguin species is the Little Blue, who stands about 16 inches tall and weighs only 2 pounds.
  • Penguins are flightless birds. Over time, their wings evolved into flippers used for agile swimming. While swimming, a layer of air in their smooth plumage aids with buoyancy and insulates them in the frigid waters. Some species can reach up to 22 miles per hour while swimming.
  • Most penguin species are highly social and live in colonies. They form monogamous breeding pairs. Smaller species lay 2 eggs per clutch, while the Emperor and King Penguin species lay only 1.
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A Gentoo and 2 King Penguins walk on the beach

Image by By Liam Quinn from Canada [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

  • All penguins have countershaded plumage. Their black and white plumage helps them to become camouflaged. A predator below, such as an orca, would have trouble distinguish a penguin’s white belly from the water’s reflection.
  • Most birds molt a few feathers at a time, but penguins molt all their feathers at the same time, called catastrophic molting. Penguins are land bound for 2-3 weeks since they are not waterproof during molting.
  •  Some species create loose nest out of pebbles and feathers. Emperor Penguin males actual incubate their single egg on their feet. The egg sits underneath their brood pouch (which is a featherless area with a concentration of blood vessels) to stay warm. After a female lays the egg she transfers it to the male. The female will go out the sea for about 2 months while the male balances the egg on his feet for 64 days throughout the harsh winter.
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Emperor Penguins with chick (Image by Robyn Mundy via antarctica.gov.au)

What’s your favorite species of penguin? Tell me in the comments below.

Orange-crowned Warbler Sunday

Hi, friends! Our warbler of the week is the Orange-crowned Warbler. It’s one of the few North American warblers that is more abundant in the Western US than the East.

Orange-crowned Warbler (Oreothypis celata)

Descriptions:

Orange-crowned Warblers are one of the plainest New World warblers. Their plumage varies, but they tend to be yellowish or olive. Western Orange-crowns are yellower while Eastern birds are grayer, especially around the head. The orange crown described by their name is very rarely seen in the field. It’s usually only seen when the warbler raises its crest in agitation or excitement. Orange-crowned Warblers have small, sharp pointy bills, short square tails, and short wings. These features help distinguish them from other similar-looking warblers, such as Tennessee, Yellow, and Nashville Warblers. They are also slim and the brightest part of their plumage is usually the yellow under their tails. Orange-crowns also have a split eyering and thin dark eyelines.

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Orange-crowned Warbler in Texas (Image by Dan Pancamo via wikimedia commons)

Range:

Summer (breeding): Alaska and Canada, parts of the Western United States. Migrates throughout most of the Eastern and Midwestern United States. They migrate early in the spring and leave later in the fall. Winters further north than most other warblers. Instead of wintering in Central/South America like most wood warblers, Orange-crowns stay in the southern United States, Mexico, and some parts of California.

Habitat:

Shrubby vegetation, brushy deciduous undergrowth near or in forests.

Diet:

Mainly insects, some berries, nectar, and sap from woodpecker sapwells. They flutter around from branch to branch catching insects and will feed at flowers for nectar. In the winter Orange-crowned Warblers sometimes visits feeders looking for peanut butter and suet. They’ve even been spotted drinking from hummingbird feeders.

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Orange-crowned Warblers (Image by Easton Parkhurst via utahbirds.org)

Breeding/Nesting:

Orange-crowned Warblers tend to return to the same breeding spot each year. Males return first and sing to defend the territory. The female builds the nest low to the ground and covers it with vegetation. It takes her about 4 days to build an open nest cup out of a variety of grasses/twigs and lined with animal hair/grasses. The male does not assist with building the nest but will keep a close watch over the female.

3-6 white and reddish brown-speckled eggs are laid and incubated for about 11-13 days by the female. Both parents will feed the young, who will fledge 10-13 days after hatching. The parents will feed the young for a few days after they leave the nest.

Sounds:

A trilling song that may rise up then fall at the end: chee chee chee chew chew! The songs vary geographically. Males form “song neighborhoods” where males who live in adjacent territories will mimic each others songs.

Conservation:

Populations have declined slightly since the late 60s, but are generally stable. These warblers don’t face many of the same issues that other warblers do, such as deforestation in tropical areas, since their wintering grounds are farther north.

Fun Facts: 

  • There are 4 subspecies of Orange-crowned Warblers: the Pacific Coast lutescens, who are brighter yellow; the celatathe grayest and dullest form in Canada and Alaska; orestera found in the Rocky Mountains/Great Basin who are intermediate in color; and the sordida,  he darkest green form found only on the Channel Islands and small parts of California and Baja, California.
  • Orange-crowned Warblers breed in more forest types than any other warbler. They like open woodland and can be found in oak, laurel, fir-aspen, maple, willow, alder, and chaparral (to name a few).

Common Yellowthroat Sunday

Today’s featured warbler is the Common Yellowthroat, which can be found throughout most of the United States during the breeding season.

Common Yellowthroat (Geothlypis trichas)

Description:

Common Yellowthroats are small warblers with a round head and medium-length rounded tail. Males have olive upperparts and yellow throats/chests. Their most unique and distinctive feature is a broad black face mask. They have a thin white line across their forehead that contrasts the black mask. Females are a dull olive-gray color with a faint yellow throat.

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Male Common Yellowthroat (Image by the USFWS via wikimedia commons)

Range:

Summer (breeding): Canada and most of the United States, with the Southwest being less common. Migrates through parts of California and Texas. Winters in Central America, Mexico, and the Caribbean. Found Year-Round in the Southeastern United States to the Gulf Coast, and parts of California, Meixco, and Baja, California

Habitat:

Common Yellowthroats are the only wood warbler that nests in open marshes. Found in reed beds, swamps, briars, streams, overgrown fields, pine forests, and brushy thick areas. They tend to avoid dry habitats.

Diet:

Mainly insects and sometimes seeds. They tend to forage low in the trees, bushes, and other low vegetation growth. They glean insects off the foliage or forage on the ground, and sometimes will catch an insect in mid-air.

Breeding/Nesting:

Males may court females by doing a flight display where he flies up then lands on a perch to sing. They will also follow the female or flick their tails. Males arrive to defend their breeding grounds earlier than the females and fight more intensely after the females arrive. A female will signal that she’s ready to mate with her partner by fluttering her wings and chipping rapidly. This behavior attracts more males than her mate however, so it’s possibly that the female with also mate with a male who’s not her partner.

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Common Yellowthroat Felmale (Image by Tom Grey via birdnote.org)

The female will spend between 4-5 days constructing a nest close to or on the ground. She starts by building a platform of leaves and grasses then weaves together the cup with sedge and grasses. She lays between 3-5 eggs that are white with black or brown spots. The female incubates the eggs for about 12 days while being fed by the male. Common Yellowthroat nests are frequently parasitized by Brown-headed Cowbirds (I experienced a Yellowthroat adult feeding a cowbird chick once, you can read about it here). Both parents will feed the young, who fledge between 8-12 days after hatching. Common Yellowthroat chicks stay dependent on their parents after fledging for longer than most other warbler chicks do.

Sounds:

witchity-witchity-witchity! or which-is-it, which-is-it

Conservation:

Although still pretty widespread, populations have declined due to the draining of salt marshes.

Fun Facts:

  • There are 13 races of Common Yellowthroats, which differ slightly based off their face mask patterns and the brightness of their yellow. The brightest Yellowthroats live in the Southwestern United States.
  • Common Yellowthroats mainly migrate at night.

Yellow Warbler Sunday

Today I wanted to feature my favorite North American Warbler: the Yellow Warbler. Here are some fascinating facts about these adorable and bright birds.

  • Yellow Warblers are one of the most widely distributed wood-warblers. They breed throughout a majority of the United States and Canada up to the Arctic Circle, and winter as far south as Mexico and parts of Northwest South America.
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Yellow Warbler (Image by Gerrit Vyn via allaboutbird.org)
  • Yellow Warblers, as their name suggest, have bright yellow plumage throughout their whole body. Females and immature birds are a paler yellow than the males. Males have faint chestnut-colored streaking down their breasts. All Yellows have elongated bodies, edging on their wings, plain faces, large black eyes with faint eyerings, and straight black bills.
  • There are numerous races/subspecies of Yellow Warblers. They are usually split into three main groups (that can be further split into even smaller races): Yellow Warblers (United States/Canada), Mangrove Warblers (Central and South America), and Golden Warblers (West Indies). The groups are determined mainly by the head color of the male. Mangrove Warblers are chestnut-hooded and Gold Warblers have chestnut caps.
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“Golden” Yellow Warbler (Image by Paul Asman and Jill Lenoble via wikimedia commons)
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“Mangrove” Yellow Warbler (Image by Charles J. Sharp, sharpphotography.co.uk)
  • You can find Yellow Warblers in wooded areas along streams, lakes, and marshes. They tend to prefer willow, cottonwood, and alder trees. They also can be found in orchards and waterside thickets. In their winter they live in sub-tropical habitats in towns, woodland edges, and open-country.
  • They will forage from low in the tree up to the top, but males tend to forage higher up than females.
  • Yellow Warblers mainly eat insects and sometimes berries. Two-thirds of their diet can be made up of various species of caterpillars.
  • Yellow Warblers build small but sturdy nest cups that are found in a vertical fork of a small tree or bush. However, because they are usually in an open areas, they are frequently parasitized by Brown-headed Cowbirds. Many Yellow Warblers can figure out when there is a Cowbird egg in their nest, so they will build another layer over the intruding egg and bury it. Unforunately, when this happens their real eggs get buried too, so they are essentially starting their nest over. Some Yellow Warbler nests have been found with 5 to 6 layers because the Cowbird would continue to try to lay its eggs and the warbler would keep burying them!
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Yellow Warbler nest with hatchlings at Boundary Creek (Image by David Horowitz)
  • A male Yellow Warbler will defend his territory by singing or using a circle flight display.
  • Breeding pairs are monogamous and may stay together for more than one nesting season.
  • Yellow Warblers arrive at their breeding range in late April/May and some leave right after their young fledge (early July). However, some stay later into August or linger into the fall.
  • The oldest-known recorded Yellow Warbler was an 11-year-old female. The maximum age of wild Yellow Warblers is usually 10-years-old.
  • Males sing a bright and melodic song. It’s so cheery that many people say it sounds like sweet-sweet-I’m-so-sweet! (I’ll agree with that! haha :-))

What is your favorite species of warbler? Tell me about it in the comments.

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Singing Yellow Warbler (Image by BirdNation)

Palm Warbler Sunday

Hi everyone! Now that it’s spring it’s time to start a new weekly feature. We are a week into spring and I’ve already seen many spring migrants in my neck of the wood. Red-winged Blackbirds, Common Grackles, American Oystercatchers, Killdeer, Eastern Phoebes, and Osprey are just a few of the migrants arriving in New Jersey. Over the next 2 months, many more bird species will be arriving in North America after their winter breaks, including one of my favorite groups: the warblers.

Warblers tend to be some of the later spring migrants, with many arriving in late April/early May. I thought now would be the perfect time for us to starting learning about warblers so we’ll be ready to identify them when they arrive. Our first warbler will be one of the early migrants: the Palm Warbler.

Palm Warbler (Setophaga palmarum)

Description:

Palm Warblers have prominent rusty caps that they show off while constantly pumping their tails. Their upperparts are brown with tan wing bars and underparts are yellow with faint brownish stripes. They have a very noticable supercilium (“eyebrow”) above their eyes. Their tails are long and square, block black base and white tips. Males and females have similar plumage.

 

Range:

Winters in Florida, the Gulf Coast, the southern Atlantic Coast, the Caribbean, and some parts of Central America. Migrates through the Eastern part of the United States. Summer (breeding) in Canada.

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Palm Warbler (Image by Corinne Errico via njaudubon.org)

Habitat:

During migration, Palm Warblers can be found in woodlands, near ponds and streams, and open pastures. At their breeding grounds, they live in open boreal coniferous forests and bogs that contain tamaracks, spruce, cedar, and pine trees. They tend to stay in the lower parts of the tree, in bushes/thickets, or on the ground.

Diet:

Insects, berries, and seeds. They may glean insects off of leaves or catch them in mid air. During the winter they will usually forage on the ground.

Breeding/Nesting:

Palm Warblers arrive on their breeding grounds in April and the female will start building her nest by early May. Males may have more than one mate. Females build a small open cup nest in low trees near the trunk or on the ground. She weaves a variety of grasses and other plant materials together on top of sphagnum moss. She will usually conceal the nest with a clump of grass and line the inside with feathers.

The female lays 4-5 creamy white eggs with brown spots. The eggs are incubated for around 12 days. Sometimes Palms deal with brood parasitism by Brown Cowbirds.However, they will usually discover the intruding egg and cover it to add an extra layer to the bottom of the nest. Both parents will feed the chicks and within 12 days the young are taking their first short flights. Palms can possibly have 2 broods per year.

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Palm Warbler (Image via pintrest/fineartamerica.com)

Sounds:

A weak trill song, a chip or tsip call

Conservation:

There are currently no major threats against Palm Warblers in their winter or summer habitats, and their population is considered stable.

Fun Facts: 

  • Being called “Palm” these birds sound more tropical, but they actually live farther north than many other warblers.
  • There are 2 subspecies of Palm Warblers. Western Palms have white bellies and paler breasts, while Eastern Palms are yellower and patchier.
  • In their winter grounds of Florida you may see a Palm Warbler near palm groves, but you won’t find them in the palm trees themselves.

 

I’ve only ever seen one Palm Warbler so far. It was at Palmyra Nature Cove and was my first warbler I learned to identify. Have you seen a Palm Warbler? Tell me in the comments below.

Wood Duck Wednesday!

For the final Waterfowl Wednesday of the winter, I wanted to feature one of my favorite ducks; the Wood Duck. I am always on the lookout for Wood Ducks when I go birding, especially at Boundary Creek. Dave and I know a mating pair live there, so we always try to find them. The last time we visited Boundary, the Wood Duck pair was hanging out with the Mallards. We were able to get our best picture of them to date, and even that is still blurry because they are always slightly to far out of range.

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Boundary Creek Wood Duck pair (Image by David Horowitz)

Anyway, I think Wood Ducks are beautiful birds and always wonderful to see. Here are 7 fun facts about these stunning ducks.

  • Both male and female Wood Ducks have distinctive plumage. Males have buffy flanks, a chestnut breast, a round head with a purplish-green hooded crest, and a white “bridle”. Their eyes and bill are bright red-orange. Females are a pale gray with spotted flanks. She has an eyering and white patches that encircle the eyes. Even though their plumage is so distinctive, they are masters of camouflage in their habitat (especially the female, who can seem to disappear by simply moving over a few steps). They are smaller than Mallards, at about 19 inches in length.
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Male and Female Wood Ducks (Image by BS Thurner Hof via wikimedia commons)
  •  Unlike most ducks, Wood Ducks nest in tree cavities. As a result, they have strong claws that help them climb trees. The tree is usually close to water, but can be as far away as 1.2 miles.
  • Of all the North American ducks, Wood Ducks are the only species that regularly produce 2 broods per year. There can be up to 15 eggs in a nest cavity. When the young hatch they are precocial, so they have their down feathers and leave the nest within a few hours. Remember, they hatched up high in a tree, so Wood Duck chicks need to jump out of the tree to make their way towards the water! It’s quite a sight to watch a parachuting Wood Duck chick. (I suggest you google some videos of jumping wood duck chicks, it’s a lot of fun!)
  • Wood Ducks live year-round in the Southeastern and Pacific Coast of the United States. They can breed throughout the Midwest, New England, and Northwestern United States. They are rarely found throughout most of the Interior West/Southwest, except for small pockets of year-round populations. They prefer wooded habitats near rivers, ponds, streams, and swamps.
  • It’s common for Wood Ducks to demonstrate intraspecific brood parasitism, meaning females will lay their eggs in each other’s nests. It’s possibly that a nest cavity that has been parasitized can have up to 40 eggs in it!
  • They are strong fliers, and can fly up to speeds of 30 miles per hour.
  • Ducklings can jump from a tree up to 300 ft high without injury!
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Female and chicks (Image via Pinterest, liberatingwings.typepad.com)

Have you ever seen a Wood Duck? Tell me your Wood Duck experience in the comments.

Next week is Spring, so we will start a new feature. I hope you enjoyed another winter of Waterfowl Wednesday!