Tag Archive | Red-winged Blackbird

Wintering blackbirds in Texas

Winter leaps upon us in a flash. One minute, it seems, it is a very distant shape looming faintly on the horizon. Suddenly, before we know it, winter has struck, leaving us wondering where the summer went. In Texas, the same seems to happen with wintering birds. One day, only the year-round residents who call Texas home can be seen. The next day, countless wintering birds of all shapes and sizes are everywhere, confusing even the most attentive eye.

Countless blackbirds flock together during the winter

On a recent trip to Brazos Bend State Park here in Texas, about an hour southwest of Houston, we observed some spectacular flocking in action. Literally thousands upon thousands of blackbirds; Red-winged Blackbirds, Brown-headed Cowbirds, Common Grackles and European Starlings congregating on some farmer’s fields. They swarmed and swirled, seemingly in perfect coordination, lifting off and landing as a unit. And yet, this is not a sight you can readily behold on these bird wintering grounds. You don’t see flocks of thousands of these species doing this in the summer, so why do they do it in the winter???

These blackbirds have quite a few reasons for doing this in the winter but these flocking habits also have numerous downsides. First of all, on the positive side, foraging is greatly improved by the large flock as opposed to a single bird or a small group. The more eyes you have working together, the easier it is to find food! More eyes can also mean more safety from would-be predators, and trust me, there are a lot of them!

This brings us to one of the downsides of wintering flocks. Predators. Lots of them. Where there is food, there are consumers, waiting to, well, consume the food. Raptors see these blackbirds as one huge buffet just waiting to be sampled. In a small farmer’s field, we counted up to 20 raptors: about 10 Caracaras, many Red-tailed Hawks, several White-tailed Hawks, a Turkey Vulture and a couple of Northern Harriers, all exploring the delightful opportunity of a full stomach all winter long. If these hawks were to stick with the group of blackbirds, they could potentially always find one or two to pick off from the pack. The more birds in a flock, the more noise and commotion they make, rendering them easily visible targets.

Large concentrations of any living thing invariably bring with them two other depreciating factors; disease and competition. Avian diseases can be spread very quickly in such large flocks and may sometimes ravage a great portion of the local species. More birds might find better food sources but if there isn’t enough to go around, there simply isn’t enough. Weaker, slower and sick birds often will be the first to go hungry as they cannot compete with the healthier individuals.

It was definitely a neat sight to behold, especially when a raptor would plunge into the center of the throng, sending up explosions of blackbirds. One of the White-tailed Hawks that we spotted, an immature, had a very full crop (a muscular pouch near the throat used to store food), showing us that it had been eating well recently.

In the end, the advantages of these congregations greatly outweigh the disadvantages and it is a bewildering sight that will continue to captivate many a fortunate observer.

Posted by Matthew Sim

Bird Profile: Red-winged Blackbird

Up here in the northern part of the continent, we know when spring is here when the robins arrive. These are not the only harbingers of warmer days however; the Red-winged Blackbird heralds the arrival of spring as well, the males arriving before the females to claim their territory.

One of the most abundant and widespread birds in North America, the male is a striking bird; all-black plumage save for his bright red and yellow wing epaulets. The female is a heavily streaked brown bird with a light streak over the crown and above the eye. Males have harems of females living in their marshes, these harems can sometimes number up to 15, but up to one half of the nestlings turn out to be sired by a male other than the territorial bird. During the breeding season, Red-winged Blackbirds are rarely seen far from water and are communal nesters, often nesting alongside other species of blackbirds. Once nesting is over, the Red-winged Blackbird forms flocks and go out to forage over the countryside, returning to marshes to roost at night.

Red-winged blackbirds are a common victim of the parasitic Brown-headed Cowbird but this does not seem to affect the former`s numbers. The young are mostly fed insects, and this is exactly what the female Red-winged Blackbird pictured above is doing; she is feeding insects to a fledgling hidden in the grass. The male does a remarkable job and helps feed  the fledglings in is territory; there can be quite a few young birds to feed!

Red-winged Blackbirds may be seen at any marsh, lake or pond in Calgary with cattails and bulrushes. Don`t forget to listen; you can always tell if there is a Red-winged Blackbird nearby if you can hear the males distinctive “Conk-la-ree“ song.

Posted by Matthew Sim

May Species Count

Last week, I, along with many other keen birders, did the Calgary and area May Species Count. Two other great birders and I were assigned the south part of the city, our borders were; north to Glenmore Trail, west and south to the Bow river and east to the City limits.  We had a great time, birding for 9 hours on Saturday, driving 139 kilometers and recording 87 birds. We saw many great birds, some of the highlights being 2 Hooded Mergansers, a Western Grebe, a Ferruginous Hawk, a Veery, a Blackpoll Warbler and a Townsend’s Solitaire. The Solitaire was a real surprise as it was far away from its normal habitat and was way too far south.

A Townsend’s Solitaire, way off course.

The Solitaire caught a bug and attempted to swallow it…

But had some difficulty. Eventually, the Solitaire got the bug down the hatch.

Other birds seen included several coots on nests…

Many Red-winged Blackbirds…

And a posing crow.

The May Species Count is held annually and will therefore be held again next year, if you haven’t done it yet, it could be a great time to start.

Posted by Matthew Sim

Stalking the Sora

Two weeks ago I was in Edgemont in NW Calgary, so I stopped at Edgemont Ravines to check out the two ponds there. I didn’t have my camera, which was too bad, because I was able to see the elusive Sora.  Soras are small waterbirds in the rail family, who spend a lot of time hiding in the reeds.

Last week I returned to the ponds, with camera in hand, to try to get a picture of the Sora.  Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to find it, but I did find some other interesting birds and mammals.  The pictures below are from that second trip.

Park on the east side of Edgebrook Boulevard NW.

The easternmost pond.

On my first visit I walked around both ponds, and saw an American Coot, several Mallards, and lots of male Red-winged Blackbirds.  Suddenly, a strange bird popped up onto a cattail…

Every time the first of these comes into view in the spring, I briefly believe that I have discovered a bird unknown to science.  This, of course, is a female Red-winged Blackbird.  They look so unlike the males that at first it seems to be a different species altogether.

It turned out that there were many Red-winged Blackbirds, both male and female, and they were engaged in courtship behaviour and nest-building.

As I finished up the circuit, I heard the hair-raising whinny of a Sora coming from a corner of the pond.  This Sora specialty is one of my favourites, because it sounds like demented laughter.

Sounds courtesy Xeno-canto .

Soras are very elusive birds, who skulk around the margins of ponds, rarely showing themselves.  You hear them far more often than you see them.

I slowly moved towards the spot where the Sora was hidden: step, wait; step, wait; until I was finally rewarded with a shoe-ful of water.  Drat.  I was too close to the pond.

Luckily, back on shore, there was a convenient “surveillance bush” right near the spot where the Sora was concealed.

I lurked behind the bush for ten minutes or so, trying to hold still while mosquitoes treated my neck like an all-you-can-eat buffet.

Finally, there  was some movement in the grass, and there was the Sora!  The bird came almost out into the open.  I regretted not having that camera.  Naturally, when I returned the following week with camera, there was no sign of the bird.  The shot below remains the best picture I’ve got of a Sora, taken at Valleyview Park pond in southeast Calgary in 2008.

Soras almost always seem to keep some vegetation between themselves and the camera.

Despite missing out on the Sora, I continued to the second pond, where last year I had found a Pied-billed Grebe.  Wouldn’t you know it; this time there were no grebes, but there was a pair of scaup.

Lesser or Greater Scaup?

A breeding American Coot didn’t like them around and repeatedly emerged from the rushes to chase them off.

Determined Coot chug-chug-chugging towards his foes!

On my way back to the parking lot, I noticed a small plump rodent scurry into the bushes.  Eventually, I got some pictures.  It was a Vole, probably a Meadow Vole.

So although you don’t always find what you’re looking for, you usually see something interesting, even at the smallest ponds.  All in all, a rewarding outing.

Posted by Bob Lefebvre