Monday, March 26, 2012

Where You Least Expect Them

After a protracted struggle (it actually snowed on St. Patrick’s Day at my house!) Spring seems to be gaining the upper hand around Seattle.  The last few days have been wonderful – and I’ve gone on two long walks with my dogs this week.  Good to be out and about again.  If you go back and look at my posts from last year, you might see that I was quite enthusiastic about the prospects of winter birding.  Unfortunately, it didn’t live up to its promise – not because nature wasn’t cooperating, but because I got wrapped up in other things and let the winter pass without enough observation.  Those “other things” – including an emotionally demanding writing project, ending one business and planning another – were all important.  But I disappointed myself with my unwillingness to brave the cold and dark in search of birds.
Anna's Hummingbird

The one bright spot throughout the winter was my hummingbird feeder.  The Anna’s not only stayed all winter (through snow and storm) but there were more of them here than I’ve ever seen.  One combative little guy staked out our tree and yard as his territory and defended them bravely, but that didn’t stop others from making a run at the feeder whenever they could.

A couple of days ago, I was out on my porch with my roommate and the dogs, enjoying the novelty of sun, when I noticed a hummingbird on the feeder.  It was one of those sights that have become so common I almost passed over it.  But something didn’t seem right.  

My roommate saw it too.  “That doesn’t look like the same hummingbird,” he said.  

This hummingbird – obviously a male – was smaller, and his coloring wasn’t quite right.  I ran inside to get my camera, but by the time I got back he was gone.  I’m pretty sure he was the first Rufous Hummingbird of the new season, back just a little early from his winter in Mexico.  I will be watching for him now, and hoping to get photos.

“Look for surprises among what you take for granted” seems to be the theme so far this year.  There is no more ubiquitous bird in my neighborhood than the Black-Capped Chickadee.  I see them all the time, and as much as I love them, it’s easy sometimes to almost stop seeing them.  When I have the camera, I often think, “One more photo of a chickadee – you have thousands.”  Which is true, I do.  Still, I’ve found surprises hiding among the chickadees before.  A couple of years ago, I found Nuthatches in the chickadee flock in my yard.  So when I started seeing flashes of brown I thought that’s what it must be.

But it wasn’t.

Chestnut-Backed Chickadee
A friend who was visiting watched the feeders with me for a few minutes.  I mentioned the brown interlopers and suggested there might be nuthatches in the flock again.  He wasn’t convinced.

“Those are definitely chickadees,” he said.

Chestnut-Backed Chickadee
He was right.  The next day I started to get photos, and they were definitely chickadees.  Just not Black-Capped Chickadees.  For some reason I had the idea that Chestnut-Backed Chickadees were usually found only in the woods, not around neighborhoods or urban parks.  I was wrong about that.  I asked my naturalist friend and he assured me it was quite common for them to form mixed flocks with Black-Capped cousins in the spring and early summer.  But I’m pretty sure I’ve never seen them in my yard before.  

Pine Siskin
 The same holds true for the Pine Siskins I wrote about in an earlier post.  I’ve seen them around Seattle, but they’ve never been common in my neighborhood – until this year, when they’re everywhere.  Change, it would seem, is in the air.
Pine Siskins

So, encouraged by the new discoveries, I spent a little more time on the deck this past week, and snapped a lot of photos.  I found some familiar, but entertaining fellows – like this puffed up House Sparrow, and a much shier Song Sparrow.  But once again, it was a case of finding the unexpected among the most familiar.  When I looked through my sparrow photos, I found this.

Do you know who this is?

I had to get help with this ID, but if you said “Gold-Crowned Sparrow”, you’re right.  It’s a juvenile, born last year and almost ready to molt into his full adult plumage.  There’s no chance at all that I would have spotted him with my naked eye.  

So far this year, I’ve added four species to the yard list (Gold-Crowned Sparrow, Pine Siskin, Chestnut-Backed Chickadees, and Cooper’s Hawk) and three to my lifetime list (Snow Goose, Chestnut-Backed Chickadees and Gold-Crowned Sparrow).  

Not a bad start at all.

(And I’ll get back to that hawk very soon.) 


If you like Birdland West, you might also want to check out our sister blog Books and Beasts, which focuses on reviews of books about animals and related topics.
(Many of the original photographs featured on Birdland West are available for sale as art quality prints.  You can check out all of our offerings at  If you see an image here that does not show up on our Imagekind site please contact me directly and I'll let you know about availability.)


  1. I loved this post ... primarily because after moving back to Seattle a couple of years ago, I experience my first winter hummingbirds. Living in California for 20+ years, I was accustomed to keeping the nectar refreshed and cool in the summer. But, I didn't anticipate being up before dawn on freezing mornings, pouring warm nectar before our Anna's male arose from his torpor. Great shot of the feeder and the snow.

  2. I have found that bringing the feeders in overnight and putting them out before dawn works pretty well -- and keeping two feeders ready to rotate on the rare, really cold day also helps. I have, however, been scolded by the male who hangs out in our yard for not having the feeder up soon enough on a cold day.