Blackbirds, phoebes, and kinglets, oh my!

Blackbirds, phoebes, and kinglets, oh my!

Posted March 28, 2020

Written by Mike Perrin

Over the past few days, the signs of spring are everywhere, especially if you pay attention to the birds! Diving deeper into phenology, the study of the change of seasons, there are a few early migrants that signify the start of spring and spring migration. Two blackbird species occupy wetlands areas and agricultural fields, creating a screechy chorus of songs and sounds: Red-winged Blackbird and Common Grackle. Red-winged Blackbirds find breeding habitats in the reeds in wetlands and marshes, where you will frequently hear the males belting out “conk-la-ree!” above their established breeding territory. As the name explains, these medium-sized birds are mostly black and show a gradient of red, orange, and yellow on their wings. Red-winged Blackbirds breed much differently than other species; the female will choose her mate based on the quality of habitat within the male’s territory while females in most other species decide mates by picking the prettiest and showiest male.

Alongside the Red-winged Blackbirds you can often find another blackbird species, the Common Grackle. Their songs and calls are not so pleasant, often sounding similar to a squeaky screen door. Grackles look like Red-winged Blackbirds but lack the red on the wing, show an awkwardly long tail, and a beautiful bluish-green iridescence along the neck, breast, and head. Grackles occupy marshes, fields, and lawns in huge groups and, as a generalist in diet, will eat seeds, corn, insects, fish, and even garbage! If you have a bird-feeder at home, you may have observed and heard a large flock of grackles visit your yard and eat all of your seed. If this happens repeatedly, try shifting to safflower seeds, other bird species will not mind but the grackles will find another foraging area.

Overwintering Eastern Phoebe @ Mass Audubon Stony Brook Wildlife Sanctuary Photo by Mike Perrin 1/26/20

Another early arrival is the Eastern Phoebe. Phoebes are a small, brown and white flycatcher that heavily rely on human-altered areas with built structures like decks, trail kiosks, and bridges for nesting. Phoebes repeatedly belt out “phoebe!”, their two-part namesake call, starting in late March around house lots and forested areas with waterways. Phoebes also flick and pump their tails on their perch or branches as they looking for insects. With such close living spaces, humans find fascination in phoebes, including famous ornithologist John James Audubon. In 1803, Audubon tied a silver ribbon on the leg of a phoebe to see if the phoebes in his yard were returning every year, thus sparking the widely popular research practice known as “bird banding.” Phoebes have just started to arrive in Wareham, with recent sightings at WLT’s Agawam River Trail.

Ruby-Crowned Kinglet @ Marks Cove Natural Area Photo by Mike Perrin 3/24/20

One species that is arriving in particularly big numbers this year in Massachusetts is the Ruby-crowned Kinglet. Ruby-crowned Kinglets are tiny songbirds bursting with energy. They have a solid white eye ring, a white wing bar, and a rarely seen ruby-red crown on the very top of their head. Throughout the winter you may encounter the closely related Golden-crowned Kinglet, but the Ruby-crowned Kinglet decides to head further south for the winter. Often found in wooded thickets associating with mixed flocks of chickadees and titmice, kinglets will stand out for their tiny appearance and frantically fast movements. Both kinglet species were recently seen at Marks Cove Natural Area, with the Ruby-crowned being a truly early surprise.

Explore trails near marshes and other wet areas like Tweedy and Barnes and Birch Island Conservation Area to hear and see Red-winged Blackbirds and Common Grackles (though, you will likely pass several grackles in yards and trees along the road while on your way). To see Eastern Phoebes, go to Agawam River Trail and listen for their call. Check out the southern tip of the Gleason Loop at Marks Cove Natural Area and sort through flocks of chickadees to see if that Ruby-crowned Kinglet is still hanging around. To learn more about these birds and hear their songs and calls, search for them in the Bird Guide at Peruse to find locations of recent sightings. From WLT and the birds, welcome to spring!

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