Allen's Hummingbird 1600x ab BINNS AQ9I3094 copy

IN THE BACKYARD : Philadelphia in December

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Dec 31, 2020 | by Adrian Binns

Winter is upon us, bringing chilly mornings and ice skims on birdbaths amid a stark, mostly-brown landscape in southeastern PA. Winter birds are settling in for the season, enjoying the bounty of our daily-stocked bird feeders. White-breasted Nuthatches, Downy Woodpeckers, and Carolina Wrens prefer peanuts, while Carolina Chickadees, Tufted Titmouse, Blue Jays and Northern Cardinals devour the black-oil sunflower seed. Mourning Doves, Dark-eyed Juncos, White-throated and Song Sparrows forage on the ground, fending off a multitude of House Sparrows.

Red-breasted Nuthatch

For about two weeks in mid-December, a female Red-breasted Nuthatch spent her days in our yard, grabbing peanut bits from the hopper, and foraging in hedgerow pine trees. It was a treat to watch her, as we don’t see Red-breasted Nuthatches every winter. It’s been a good irruptive year for northerly species, and we’ve seen several Pine Siskins this month, and a pair of Purple Finches which provided good comparison to our common, resident House Finches.

Purple Finch

Brown Creepers are short-distance migrants that breed in mature woodlands a short distance north of us, as close as the Poconos and Appalachian Mountain ridges of Pennsylvania. We’ve caught them creeping up various tree trunks in our yard, usually hearing before seeing them.  Likewise, we hear the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker mewing before spotting them pecking high in a tree.

Cooper’s Hawk

Sightings of Eastern Bluebird, Golden-crowned and Ruby-crowned Kinglets are always interesting amid the regular backyard activity. Raptors bring extra excitement – almost daily, a juvenile Red-tailed Hawk attempts to grab one of our many Gray Squirrels, while both Sharp-shinned and Cooper’s Hawks terrorize feeder birds.

Allen’s Hummingbird

The biggest highlight of the month (the year!) was a Selasphorus hummingbird, that zipped unexpectedly to our nectar feeder the morning of December 9th. With great excitement we observed the tiny bird eagerly drink, her body pulsing with high-speed heartbeat. We knew she was either a Rufous or Allen’s Hummingbird species, which are difficult to separate as non-breeding or immatures. Fortunately, licensed bander Sandy Lockerman was able to come over two days later, to band and confirm the bird as a mature female Allen’s Hummingbird, the 6th state record for this western species. We welcomed scores of visitors to come see her, and were thrilled that she stayed for 11 days, through December 19.  On that day, she was recorded as a brand-new species to the long-running Glenolden Christmas Bird Count which encompasses a large part of Delaware County, PA. We were sad not to see her the following days, but hope her journey is peaceful.

The narrow R5 tail feather on Allen’s Hummingbird

It’s been a wonderfully interesting and exciting year of birding my Philadelphia-area backyard. Each season brought new birds to photograph, and avian experiences to watch. I was impressed by the species diversity of my quarter-acre space in densely-developed suburbs, and thoroughly enjoyed writing about them this year.

January begins another year of birding in the Philadelphia area and beyond. I can’t wait to see what happens in 2021!  Happy New Year to you and yours.

updated Dec 1-31, 2020

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