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IN THE BACKYARD : Philadelphia early-April

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Apr 19, 2021 | by Adrian Binns

April started off cold and windy around Philadelphia. It didn’t feel much like spring, but birds migrate regardless of weather, following their age-old instinct to reach their breeding grounds, to hatch and raise the next generation. Our backyard was greening-up fast, and a handful of early migrants dropped in for sustenance. In the first days of the month, we hosted Golden-crowned Kinglet, Eastern Phoebe and Brown Thrasher. By the end of the first week, a Ruby-crowned Kinglet and Hermit Thrush showed up for a day. The latter spent ample time in our so-called “thrush corner” – a shady spot that attracts many thrushes to poke around the leaf-litter and pick-off insects around the compost bin tucked under a tree.

Eastern Towhee

The second week saw the arrival of a confiding male Eastern Towhee happy to be scratching through the leaf litter and under the feeders. A Blue-gray Gnatcatcher showed a few times on April 12.

As the days grow longer, our winter visitors – White-throated Sparrow and Dark-eyed Junco – have become more vocal, singing boldly. Numbers of both species are dwindling, as they depart to breed north of us. There is great variation among the appearance of White-throated Sparrows; a few are striking with crisp head markings, while others look quite ratty. The birds molt at this time of year, prior to leaving for the breeding grounds. Diet is known to impact appearance, with further studies warranted. The brighter ones that have already molted have perhaps eaten well under our feeders!

Red-bellied Woodpecker

For the second consecutive spring, a pair of Red-bellied Woodpecker excavated a nest in the ailanthus tree at our property edge. They chose almost exactly the same spot as last year, drilling a hole in the underside of a large branch that broke off in a storm. As with many cavity nesters, they face stiff competition from non-native European Starlings. Unfortunately, the woodpeckers were easily evicted by raucous starlings, of which a great number live in our neighborhood and nearby cemetery.

Eastern Bluebird, female

Much to our surprise a pair of Eastern Bluebirds claimed one of our nest boxes and the female began bringing in nesting material mostly consisting of pine needles. Our small suburban backyard is densely vegetated and didn’t seem to be ideal habitat, but the nearby cemetery hosted a breeding pair last year, and perhaps they wanted a change of scenery. After four days of laborious nest-building, the pair disappeared and never returned. It’s possible that the high number of House Sparrows thwarted their efforts.

Blue-headed Vireo

On April 14th a Blue-headed Vireo bobbed through our shrubs and trees. Migration seems to be a trickle, but perhaps the faucets will open wider, and we’ll enjoy many more migrants in our backyard later this month.

Updated April 1-15, 2021

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