Yellow Northern Cardinal?

There’s been quite a buzz the last few weeks in the bird world about this picture:

Yellow Northern Cardinal (Image by Jeremy Black)

Nope, that’s not Photo-shopped. That is a real yellow Northern Cardinal.

The story of this cardinal began back in January, when it was spotted by birdwatcher Charlie Stephenson of Alabaster, Alabama. She was looking at her feeder when she noticed a yellow bird, but did not realized right away that it was a Northern Cardinal.

So she contacted ornithologist Geoffrey Hill of Auburn University and her friend, photographer Jeremy Black, to take pictures of this rarity. The cardinal stuck around Stephenson’s yard for a few weeks. At the end of February the photo of the cardinal went viral on Facebook.

So how exactly did this Northern Cardinal, which is normal red, become yellow?

Pigments are found in both plants and animals. In birds, pigments are found independent of feather structure. There are three pigment groups found in birds: carotenoids, porphyrines, and melanin.

Carotenoids are responsible for pigments found in birds that are yellow, red, and orange. Since carotenoids are produced by plants, birds with these pigments get them by ingesting plant material or something that ate the plant material. The quality of a bird’s diet plays a role in how brightly-colored feathers are. Birds with a poor diet will be paler in pigments than a bird with a richer diet. A theory from some scientist and birders is that diet as well as environmental factors may be affecting this cardinal’s color.

Ornithologist Geoffrey Hill believes that the yellow cardinal has xanthochroism. This is a genetic mutation where the carotenoid pigments being drawn in by the bird’s diet are yellow instead of red. Xanthochroism has been seen in other birds such as House Finches, Evening Grosbeaks, and other Northern Cardinals.

Whether the cardinal’s color is due to genetics, environmental factors, or diet, it really is quite beautiful. It’s certainly a very special and lovely sight to see.

Have you ever seen a bird that was a different color than it was supposed to be? Tell me about it in the comments. 


March Vacation Pt 3: Prime Hook NWR

Our final destination on our winter birding vacation was Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge in Delaware. Prime Hook is located along the Delaware Bay and mainly comprised of saltwater/freshwater habitats, as well as some mature hardwood/pine forests.

We really didn’t get many pictures of birds that came out well since everything was pretty far out. It was a beautiful refuge though, so here are some pictures of the landscape.

Boardwalk Loop
Boardwalk Trail (Image by BirdNation)
Fleetwood Pond
Fleetwood Pond (Image by BirdNation)
Dike Trail
Dike Trail (Image by BirdNation)
Pine Grove Trail 2
Pine Grove Trail (Image by BirdNation)

Birds Observed (22):

Bald Eagles, Great Blue Herons, Ring-billed Gulls, Bonaparte’s Gulls, Herring Gulls, Carolina Wrens, Yellow-rumped Warblers, Northern Cardinals, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Northern Shovelers, American Black Ducks, Black Vultures, Turkey Vultures, Red-tailed Hawk, Greater Yellowlegs, Great Black-backed Gull, Mourning Dove, American Robins, Northern Mockingbird, Song Sparrow, White-throated Sparrows, Red-winged Blackbird

We had so much fun visiting 3 national wildlife refuges in 3 different states in 3 days! Can’t wait for the next adventure!

Last year we went to Bombay Hook NWR, Delaware’s other national wildlife refuge. Click here to read about that trip. 

March Vacation Pt 2: Chincoteague NWR

We had a fantastic day exploring Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge at Virginia’s Eastern Shore.

Woodland Trail

Highlights: our very first Brown-headed Nuthatches! What amazing little birds! It was such a thrill watching these nuthatches flutter around the pines. Also Eastern Towhees and juvenile Bald Eagles. Delmarva Peninsula Fox Squirrels

Other birds: Gray Catbird, tons of Northern Cardinals, Black Vultures, Song Sparrows, Carolina Wrens, Turkey Vultures, White-throated Sparrow, Red-bellied Woodpecker

Toms Cove Beach

Highlights: 2 North American River Otters! We even watched one battle with a female Northern Harrier. American Oystercatchers, Willets, our first Lesser Black-backed Gull, Snow Geese flying right over us

Other birds: Ring-billed Gulls, Bonaparte’s Gull, Dunlins, Red-breasted Mergansers, Common Grackles, Mute Swans, Northern Shovelers, American Wigeons, Black-bellied Plover, Great Black-backed Gull

Lighthouse Trail

Highlights: Assateague Lighthouse! The only birds were saw on this trail were many more Northern Cardinals.

Assateague Lighthouse (Image by BirdNation)

Marsh Trail

Highlights: Tundra Swans, Chincoteague Wild Ponies at a distance

Marsh Trail (Image by BirdNation)

Other birds: Red-winged Blackbirds, Yellow-rumped Warblers, Great Blue Heron, Great Egret, American Crow

Wildlife Loop

Highlights: Chincoteague Wild Ponies. A herd of them walked right next to my car. The horses were so close to my car, I could have literally reached out and touched them (of course I didn’t!). What a exciting experience! (Make sure to watch the video below to see them all walk by)

Other birds: Northern Pintails, Green-winged Teals, Canada Geese

Black Ducks and Green-winged Teals (Image by David Horowitz)

It was an amazing day. We added 2 species to our life list (current total 192 for me), saw the Delmarva Peninsula Fox Squirrel, 2 North American River Otters, and got up close and personal with the famous Chincoteague Wild Ponies!

Have you been to Chincoteague Island and seen the wild ponies? Tell me about it in the comments.

To read about Part 1 of our vacation at Blackwater NWR, Maryland, click here.

March Vacation Part 1: Blackwater NWR

Dave and I are on a weekend get-away to Chincoteague Island, Virginia. On the way to Virginia, we stopped at Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge in Cambridge, Maryland.

Blackwater NWR is more than 28,000 acres of tidal marsh and mixed loblolly pine and hardwood forests located along the Atlantic Flyway. The refuge features a 4.5 mile wildlife drive as well 4 walking trails. Blackwater NWR has one of the highest concentrations of nesting Bald Eagles on the Atlantic Coast.

Blackwater River (Image by BirdNation)

The first bird that we saw upon arriving into the refuge was an adult Bald Eagle. By the end of the afternoon we ended up seeing 10 eagles. We saw a mix of adults and juveniles. Bald Eagles don’t fully gain their adult plumage of white heads/tails until they are 5-years-old.

Juvenile Bald Eagle (Image by BirdNation)

There were still many large flocks on wintering waterfowl. Hundreds of Tundra Swans and Snow Geese gathered together in the pools behind and next to the visitor’s center. Northern Shovelers were also very abundant. Other waterfowl included Gadwalls, American Wigeons, Canada Geese, Mallards, and American Black Ducks. Interspersed between the waterfowl were small groups of American Coots. Although they look duck-like, American Coots are not closely related to ducks. They are more closely related to rails.


We spent some time walking along the Woods Trail which consists of pine and mixed hardwood trees. This area is prime habitat for the Delmarva Peninsula fox squirrel. Along the trail we saw Tufted Titmice, Carolina Chickadees, Brown Creepers, a Carolina Wren, and a Hermit Thrush.

Hermit Thrush (Image by BirdNation)

Other birds observed included Great Blue Herons, Greater Yellowlegs, Red-winged Blackbirds, an Eastern Bluebird, Ring-billed Gulls, Red-tailed Hawks, and Tree Swallows.

After spending a lovely morning at Blackwater NWR, we made our way to Chincoteague Island, Virginia. After checking into our hotel, found Veteran’s Memorial Park (on eBird as Chincoteague Memorial Park.). From the park we could see Assateague Lighthouse across the water as well as about 8 of the famous wild ponies. At Memorial Park we saw Bufflehead, American Oystercatchers, Red-breasted Mergansers, Black Vultures, Greater Yellowlegs, Common Loons, various gulls, and a bunch of Turkey Vultures sunbathing on a house.

Tomorrow we plan on exploring Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge. I’m looking forward to see what we discover!

Assateague Lighthouse across the water (Image by BirdNation)

GBBC ’18 Part 2: A Rare Surprise

Today’s post is Part 2 of the 2018 Great Backyard Bird Count. You can read about Day 1 here.

We spent the last half of the bird count weekend at the Jersey Shore. For the last few weeks, many birders on some of the Facebook groups I’m a member of have been posting about Redhead ducks. A large flock of these ducks, as well as other waterfowl, have been observed at Lake of the Lilies in Pt. Pleasant, NJ. We’ve never seen Redheads before, so we thought it would be fun to check out this new location.

The first thing I noticed about Lake of the Lilies is that it’s relatively small. It’s also a little unusual because it’s surrounded on all sides by beach houses. I heard the Redheads tend to show up every winter, but with such a small lake I wasn’t sure what else would be around.

What a treasure trove! We observed 13 different waterfowl species. There were Mallards, Gadwalls, Greater Scaups, Ruddy Ducks, Northern Shovelers, Ring-necked Ducks, Mute Swans, Canada Geese, Buffleheads, an American Wigeon, Hooded Mergansers, and as we expected, a large raft of Redheads. All these different species congregated together to sleep, preen, feed, and float around the lake. We even had a chance to see two Horned Grebes and tons of American Coots. Lake of the Lilies is a lovely little gem. I was so satisfied watching all the waterfowl together. Mission accomplished.

We started head back around the lake to our car when a van stopped. The man in the van yelled out, ” Hi! Did you see the Tufted Duck? My friend told me that there’s a Tufted Duck hanging around here. Supposedly it’s pretty rare!”

No, we have not seen the Tufted Duck. We actually didn’t even know one was there. So we thanked the man  and turned around (obviously lol!) to search for the Tufted Duck. We scanned the lake. Tufted Ducks look very similar to Great Scaups, and as their name suggests, they have a tuft of feathers sticking out from the back of their heads. By this point, most of the duck had their heads tucked in to sleep. I did see one duck with some feathers sticking out, but wasn’t sure if that was the bird. I took some more pictures and after awhile we went on our way.

It turns out that after we left a large number of birders arrived at Lake of the Lilies to find the Tufted Duck. Many people posted the duck on Facebook. I scanned through all the photos I took and checked every single duck. Only one duck looked suspect with some feathers sticking out, so I asked my Facebook group. It was confirmed: we saw the Tufted Duck!

IMG_4930 (2)
Sleepy Tufted Duck (Image by BirdNation)

Tufted Ducks are from Eurasia, so finding one here in America is pretty rare. We didn’t expected to find a rare bird during the count, but we ended up nabbing our first ever Eurasian rarity!

Here’s our count from Lake of the Lilies (17 species, 305 individuals):

  • 45 Canada Geese
  • 3 Mute Swans
  • 5 Northern Shovelers
  • 4 Gadwall
  • 1 American Wigeon
  • 84 Mallards
  • 45 Redheads
  • 4 Ring-necked Ducks
  • 1 Tufted Duck
  • 35 Greater Scaup
  • 3 Bufflehead
  • 6 Hooded Mergansers
  • 22 Ruddy Ducks
  • 2 Horned Grebes
  • 30 American Coots
  • 10 Ring-billed Gulls
  • 5 Rock Pigeons

Our final park of the day was Fisherman’s Cove Conservation Area. We didn’t stay too long, but did see 14 species and 233 individuals.

  • 100 Brant
  • 2 Long-tailed Ducks
  • 2 Mallards
  • 42 American Black Ducks
  • 8 Bufflehead
  • 1 Horned Grebe
  • 1 Double-crested Cormorant
  • 3 Great Blue Herons
  • 3 Turkey Vultures
  • 24 Ring-billed Gulls
  • 37 Herring Gulls
  • 5 American Crows
  • 3 White-throated Sparrow
  • 2 Song Sparrows

Here’s what we saw last year on Day 3. We were not able to participate on Day 4 this year, so you can read about 2017’s Day 4 here.

In the 2 days that we were able to participate this year, we saw 33 different species and 793 individual birds. Two of our species were life-list birds. It will certainly be a Great Backyard Bird Count to remember.


Backyard Bird Count ’18: Lakes Edition

2018 is was our 4th year of participating in the Great Backyard Bird Count. What an interesting weekend it was!

Unfortunately, Day 1 (2/16) ended up being a washout. It was a miserable, dark, rainy day. Here is what we saw on Day 1 last year. 

Thankfully the Sun made an appearance for a little while on Day 2 (2/17) . The temperature was around 40, so we ended up birding at two lakes. First up was Smithville Lake in Eastampton.

Every January/February we end up seeing Common Mergansers at Smithville Lake. I was hoping to see them again, but they weren’t around. It was pretty quiet, but we did see a few species. In total we saw 7 species and 22 individual birds. They were:

  • 4 Mallards
  • 3 Black Vultures
  • 3 Turkey Vultures
  • 1 Red-bellied Woodpecker
  • 3 American Crows
  • 2 Carolina Chickadees
  • 6 White-throated Sparrows
winter at Smithville
Winter at Smithville Lake (Image by BirdNation)

Our second stop was Haddon Lake Park in Mt. Ephraim. Upon arriving at the park, we were greeted by the leader of the welcoming committee:

stalker goose
Canada Goose (Image by BirdNation)

Clearly he wanted food, but I certainly wasn’t going to feed him (Quick PSA: don’t feed the waterfowl!). We continued on our way to find more Canada Geese, Mallards, and Ring-billed Gulls. We also spotted some of the “strange ducks”, like the hybrid below, who seems to be a mix of a Mallard and one of the white domestic ducks.


Haddon Lake is a GBBC tradition for us. Now that we’ve been participating for multiple years, we can compare what we’ve observed this year to the past. Two species that we saw this year for the count but not past years were the Northern Mockingbird and Double-crested Cormorant. We had the opportunity to watch the cormorant climb out of the water and dry its wings off for a few minutes. Surprisingly, for a bird who’s livelihood is diving for fish, the Double-crested Cormorant’s feathers are not waterproof. Therefore, you’ll commonly see these birds fanning out their wings to dry. I took a video the cormorant preening.

We weren’t the only ones taking a stroll around the lake. It turns out that we were being followed around the whole lake by…

stalker goose 2
Canada Goose follower (Image by BirdNation)

The Canada Goose from the welcoming committee.  It was the first time I’ve had a Canada Goose participate in my bird count walk haha! :-p

Haddon Lake Park count (8 species, 233 individuals):

  • 130 Canada Geese
  • 90 Mallards
  • 1 Double-crested Cormorant
  • 7 Ring-billed Gulls
  • 2 Downy Woodpeckers
  • 1 Northern Mockingbird
  • 1 Song Sparrow
  • 1 Common Grackle

Overall our total count for Day 2 was 14 different species and 255 individual birds. Check our what we saw on Day 2 last year here).

Stay tuned for Part 2!



Happy Lunar New Year!

It’s the first day the Lunar New Year. Known as the Spring Festival, the Lunar New Year occurs on the second new Moon after the Winter Solstice. Although Lunar New Year is celebrated in many Asian countries, the most popular version of this celebration is Chinese New Year.

An important part of the new year is the Chinese Zodiac. The Chinese zodiac is a repeating 12-year cycle. Each year is represented by an animal and its characteristics. The 12 animals (in order) are: Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Goat, Monkey, Rooster, Dog, and Pig. 2018 is the Year of the Dog, and 2017 was the Year of the Rooster.

Luck plays an large role in Chinese culture. Many Chinese believe in surrounding themselves with lucky symbols and objects to increase their prosperity and joy. It’s said that you are unlucky during your animal year, but there are things you can do to increase your luck.

We have one bird in the Chinese Zodiac: the Rooster (last year’s animal). The Rooster is a lucky bird because it sound similar to the Chinese word for lucky, or . Roosters represent loyalty, courage, confidence, honesty, and being hard working. These birds also epitomize the Sun God, since they crow every morning when the Sun rises.

Rooseter By Žiga (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 ( or GFDL (, via Wikimedia Commons
Here are a three more important birds in Chinese culture:


In Western cultures, the mythical phoenix rises from the ashes and exemplifies rebirth. However, the Chinese phoenix is not related to the Western one. In Chinese culture, the phoenix is the king of all birds. They are messengers of happiness and only appear in times of prosperity and peace. The phoenix consists of the wings of a golden cockerel, the head of a peakcock, and the body of a swan. The name of phoenix, feng hunag, means “male bird, female bird”. As a result, the phoenix represents the union of masculinity and femininity, or ying and yang.

The phoenix is often pictured with another important mythical Chinese creature, the Dragon. These creatures together represent the Emperor and Empress. This bird is also extremely docile and signifies high moral standards.

Fenghuang (Image via


Cranes are one of the culture’s most favored birds, second only to the phoenix. They represent longevity, wisdom, purity, and peace. Two cranes together means a wish for a long marriage and a crane flying towards the Sun means social advancement or ambition. Cranes also signify authority, so cranes were embroidered onto the robes of Imperial officials. According to Chinese legend, cranes carry departed spirits to heaven.

red-crowned crane
Red-crowned Cranes (Image via tumbler)

Mandarin Duck

Mandarin Ducks are said mate for life, so they represent long term love and marriage. They also symbolize happiness, especially if lotus flowers are depicted along with the ducks. These birds are very common on wedding gifts and cards.

Mandarin Ducks (Image via
Image via


The birds listed above are only some of the many important bird symbols in Chinese culture. If you like this topic, let me know and I can highlight some more of them.