Two years ago I could only identify four birds by sight — cardinals, American Robins, Blue Jays, and Canadian geese (and possibly crows, although I probably got them confused with grackles and ravens).
Since then, I’ve learned to identify many more types of birds (dare I say, dozens?) Bird watching and bird feeding has become a passion of mine, providing much-needed solace since I lost my teenage daughter to cancer in March 2017.
It started with hummingbirds, but these tiny beauties leave New York at the end of the summer, and don’t return until early May. So, I focused my newfound obsession on New York’s wintering birds.
I live in a somewhat rural part of New York State, the Mid-Hudson Valley — an area characterized by stretches of long, winding roads, wooded preserves, lakes and rivers. The birds love it here. Watching them inspired another new hobby of mine, bird photography.
Spring is a great time to watch (and photograph) birds. They’re nesting, returning to the area from wherever they’ve migrated to, and active and eager at my feeders.
All photos in this essay are my own and were taken on a Nikon D3400 DSLR camera with 70–300mm zoom lens (side note: the lens is not really adequate to shoot birds unless I get really close, but the right lens costs $900 which is $300 more than the camera+lens I already own).
One of the most common birds throughout the U.S., the house sparrow is actually an invasive species. House sparrows were introduced into the United States in the early 1900s as part of an initiative to introduce birds that were featured in Shakespeare’s plays. They went onto thrive, along with another bird (and common pest), the European Starling. House sparrows are highly adaptable — they’re among the birds you see flying around inside stores or hopping around the edges of parking lots. The first one I saw (I mean, really saw) was perched on a fencepost at a reststop in Maine.
This adorable sparrow is native to Canada and the Northeastern United States. I see them all year in my backyard and hopping beneath my feeders (they prefer foraging on the ground to perching at the feeders). They have a clear, whistling song that is absolutely lovely. Their distinctive white throats and black and white striped markings on their heads make them pretty easy to distinguish from house sparrows (if you’re paying attention). They also have a dab of yellow above their eyes.
Black-capped chickadees are tiny songbirds that hang around throughout the winter months. They have large heads (relative to their bodies), love to eat black oil sunflower seeds and I’ve occasionally seen them at my nyjer feeders (nyjer is thistle seed that tends to attract finches). Chickadees are bold, curious birds who have been known to perch on people’s hands to feed. They hang around with nuthatches and titmice in small flocks in the winter. And speaking of titmice…
The Tufted Titmouse is a small grey and white songbird which has the peculiar habit of taking one seed at a time from a feeder, and flying to a nearby perch to work on opening and eating it. They hang around with black-capped chickadees, but are a little more skittish (at least, mine are). They’re currently the loudest birds in my yard, singing a distinctive triple-trilled call which is a joy to hear on warm spring mornings.
Northern cardinals are common and conspicuous backyard birds of the passerine family — songbirds with three forward-pointing toes and one backward pointing toe. Cardinals love sunflower seeds and are frequent guests at my feeders. They also like safflower seeds which is a good alternative if your feeders are overrun by grackles and starlings in early spring or late fall. Cardinals don’t tend to gather in large flocks, but I’ve seen as many as ten or more gather in my yard in wintertime, particularly in the late evening hours just before sunset.
There are always a few red-winged blackbirds at my feeders. In winter, they join large flocks of blackbirds comprised of several different species including grackles and starlings, but I usually only see a couple of lone blackbirds at the feeders throughout spring and summer. These large passerines have a very distinctive song characterized by a loud “conk-la-ree!” sound that falls short of being truly musical. Females look completely different from males, with streaky brown coloring and subtle yellow highlights (they look like large sparrows.)
Dark-eyed juncos are little sparrows that love nyjer seed (this one’s at my nyjer feeder). They hang around all winter in the Northeast and seem most active when it’s snowing out (which inspired my husband to dub them our “little penguins”). Their coloring varies regionally and seasonally, but they can be distinguished by their pinkish beaks. The male juncos in New York are uniformly slate grey with white bellies and white outer tail feathers.
Carolina Wrens are adorable. They’re tiny and bold, with a ringing song that belies their small size (fun fact: only male Carolina Wrens sing). I don’t see them often and when I do, it’s almost impossible to get a photo because they’re extremely fast. They eat bugs and fruit which is probably why I don’t see them since my feeders are usually only stocked with seed.
Pileated Woodpeckers are the largest woodpeckers in North America (they’re crow-sized and can measure up to 19 inches long). I snapped a photo of this gal from my kitchen window! I have a lot of large, dead trees in and around my property and these are very attractive to woodpeckers (I have yet to see a Pileated Woodpecker visit my feeders). Both male and female pileated woodpeckers sport a distinctive bright red mohawk, but you can tell this one is a female because the red feathers start near the center of her forehead. In males, the crest starts where the beak ends and they also have a red stripe at the corner of their bill (called a “malar” stripe).
American Goldfinches bring color to my yard throughout the year, but especially in spring and summer when the males turn a bright, distinctive yellow. These goldfinches are at my nyjer feeder (there was a mixture of nyjer seed and crushed sunflower hearts in the feeder when I took this photo). The birds’ mottled appearance is because they’re losing their drab winter colors and brightening up for the spring nesting season. I added two nyjer feeders at the end of summer last year when I noticed that the larger birds tend to crowd out the smaller finches. It worked like a charm — the new feeders attract a wide variety of finches to my yard.
These Pine Siskins at my (other) nyjer feeder appeared at the tail end of autumn last year, but disappeared by November. Pine Siskins are streaky brown finches with yellow highlights and small, pointy beaks. I actually thought they were goldfinches when I first saw them, but then I realized their markings were different and so I looked them up using my favorite birding app (The Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Merlin Bird App).
Red-bellied woodpeckers don’t actually have red bellies as the name would imply. These mid-sized woodpeckers (about the size of a blue jay) are often at my feeders or drumming in one of the old trees that surround my property. I think they’ve gotten used to me because hardly a day goes by that I don’t see a couple of them at one of my (four) feeders. This is a male (I think, it’s hard to tell in the photo) because the red feathers on his crown extend to the front of his beak.
House finches are a common backyard bird and one of the few birds (along with cardinals and blue jays) that bring color to my yard during the drab winter months. They’re small finches about the same size as goldfinches. The males have rose-colored heads and bellies with brown-streaked backs, wings and tails. Their beaks are fairly large compared with goldfinches and pine siskins. Females are a drab brownish grey.
This northern mockingbird wasn’t actually in my yard. I spotted it perched at the side of one of my favorite nature trails about five miles from my house. Mockingbirds have a dazzling and chaotic song which is comprised of bits and pieces of other birds’ songs (they can also mimic frogs, car alarms, and other noises). About the size of robins, mockingbirds are light grey, black and white with yellow eyes. I’ve never seen a mockingbird at my feeder, but I do see them at the edge of my yard, perched on our old fence or on my husband’s garden scaffolding.
This guy needs no introduction and, yes, I took this photo while in my yard. My camera, as they say, was not quite up to the task. There’s a bald eagle nest about 800 yards from my house and I’ve seen both eagles perch in one of the tall pine trees at the outskirts of my yard. I occasionally see one or both of them drying their wings on their favorite perch as I work from my home office. This eagle was carrying a branch to his nest (I presume). Male and female bald eagles look identical, but females are larger.
I’ll stop here (for now), though a few common birds are conspicuously absent include Blue Jays, Mourning Doves, European Starlings, Grackles, Purple Finches, Song Sparrows, Chipping Sparrows, and Downy Woodpeckers — and that’s only what I see passing through my yard most days! Now it’s time for me to go outside and replenish the feeders.