What to watch for in January: Birds Turning Over a New Leaf
For some birds, the New Year’s resolution to turn over a new leaf takes on a different, and more literal, meaning. Let’s look at a few wintering species that turn over leaves as part of their foraging techniques. Spotted Towhees and Fox Sparrows forage in leaf litter, often but not always under cover of impenetrable shrubs. You’ll hear them before you see them. They use a hop scratch method to uncover tasty morsels like insect eggs, caterpillars, millipedes, seeds, and fruits. Using both feet simultaneously, they hop forward then immediately hop back, scratching backwards through the litter.
Spotted Towhee (Courtesy James Giroux)
Spotted Towhees are big sparrows with black heads, black backs punctuated by white streaks, white wingbars, white tips on the outer tail feathers, and rufous sides. They are often chatty, with a raspy mew call that sounds like a cat. Follow the call to the shrub one is under, then you might need to get down on knees to try to see the bird. They typically fly low to the next cover when flushed.
The Fox Sparrow is an uncommon winter resident in our area. It is smaller than the 8.5 inch towhee, at 7 inches. There are four different subspecies of this sparrow in the U.S., with different gradations of color. The Red (Taiga) subspecies is most common here. It has a rounded head that is gray with a rufous crown and cheek patch, and rufous streaks on a white breast and belly. They occasionally sing a rich song of clear whistles, and have a smack call that is distinctive. Fox Sparrows are shy birds, so take your time to spot one along the edge of a forest tangle, where it might be foraging in the same area as a Spotted Towhee. The River Trail at Commons Ford Ranch Metro Park provides the tangled shrubby habitat that both of these species prefer.
Fox Sparrow (Courtesy Jane Tillman)
Brown Thrashers might well be called Brown Leaftossers, as they are adept at moving leaves vigorously. They are primarily ground feeders like the above sparrows. Rather than the hop scratch method of foraging, they sweep their bills back and forth through leaf litter and debris to dislodge prey like grubs, crickets and caterpillars. The Brown Thrasher is related to mockingbirds and is an accomplished singer. However as a wintering bird here, what you usually hear is a loud smack call. Look and listen for this large rufous-backed bird in dense tangles.
Brown Thrasher uses its large bill to forage (Courtesy James Giroux)
Other birds that you might hear rooting in the leaf litter include juncos, wrens, thrushes and sparrows. Blue Jays may cache acorns in it. During the breeding season, some leaf litter is used in nest building. Leaf litter is good camouflage for ground nesters like Chuck-will’s-Widows. Make a resolution to put your rake or leaf blower away, and leave the leaf litter for the birds.
A Bird to Look For In January – Add It to Your Life List
Many bird watchers like to keep lists. This winter is shaping up to be a good one to try to add a Golden-crowned Kinglet to your life list (the birds you have seen at least once in your life). They are showing up all over town. The Golden-crowned Kinglet, cousin to the more common Ruby-crowned Kinglet, is often heard before seen. It has a sibilant high-pitched “see” call note, made repeatedly as it forages. Often you’ll find at least a couple of birds moving together through both deciduous trees like hackberries and mesquites, and evergreens like live oaks and junipers. Golden-crowned Kinglets are tiny, about 4 inches, and weigh about as much as two pennies. They have a dramatic head pattern, with a yellow crown (shows orange in upset males) that is bordered by black and a strong white eyebrow. Unlike the Ruby-crowned Kinglet’s muted greenish/olive underparts, you’ll often notice this kinglet’s whitish belly first. Then with a little patience when it forages upside down or gets closer to eye level you’ll be treated with a good look at this ping-pong ball shaped bird.
Golden-crowned Kinglet, a tiny fluffball (Courtesy James Giroux)
Golden-crowned Kinglets feed on insects (primarily moth caterpillars), and spiders. Other items in their varied diet include lice, lacewings, beetles and mites. They may eat small amounts of seeds in winter, and forage low in brush piles, in understory trees, and high in the canopy. In addition to gleaning for insects along branches, kinglets hover to catch prey under leaves and fly out to catch aerial insects. They join in foraging flocks with other small songbirds like titmice and chickadees.
Most Golden-crowned Kinglets that summer in Canada move south in winter. However many others don’t migrate at all, and can survive temperatures as low as -40 degrees Fahrenheit in their northeast or mountain west homes. To survive, nature has equipped a Golden-crowned Kinglet with a lot of insulating feathers which it fluffs up to become a one inch down comforter, and they huddle together in evergreens at night to reduce heat loss. Many do succumb to winter cold, but these little birds compensate by having two large broods per year in their typical spruce-fir forest summer stomping grounds.
Compiled by Jane Tillman, Travis Audubon Volunteer.