All About Birds Blog

Home Page

By Jessie Barry

As winter’s chill sets in, ducks are heating things up. Winter is the season when many ducks pick their mate for the year. Our featured video gives you a mash-up of some of the best duck mating behaviors from the Cornell Lab’s Macaulay Library. Watch for these behaviors on neighborhood ponds, lakes, and rivers that don’t freeze over.

Most species of ducks find a different mate each year. Many waterfowl pair bonds form between the months of December and March on the wintering grounds or during spring migration, which is different from songbirds that find their mate after they arrive on their breeding grounds spring.

In waterfowl mating, it’s the female’s choice. Groups of males perform for the female, and she picks her favorite drake with the best plumage and the best display. Some waterfowl species have some incredible courtship moves, such as the Head-Throw-Kick performed by Common Goldeneye and the Salute-Curtsy signature move of a Red-breasted Merganser. These are ritualized behaviors— members of the same species perform the same display that is hard-wired into their genetic makeup. Courtship displays range from elaborate postures to subtle gestures that you may notice only if you are watching for them.

Commonly Seen Mallard Courtship Behaviors

To see duck courtship in action, find a group of Mallards and take a minute to watch what they are doing. Most of the time they’ll probably be feeding or resting, but if they’re actively swimming around, watch for these behaviors.


Head-Pumping: Males and females rhythmically bob their heads. This display is often repeated and followed by mating.


Head-Up-Tail-Up: With a loud whistle, the drake pulls his wings and tail up, shows off his purple-blue secondaries and compresses his body. This is a quick gesture, often given by males in a group to impress the female.

P10 Grunt-whistle

Grunt-Whistle: A one-second display where the male raises out of the water, pulls his head up, and gives a remarkable whistle, followed by a grunt as he moves back into a normal posture. Often given by groups of males to show off for females.


Nod-Swimming: A male or female swims rapidly for a short distance with its neck held low, just grazing the surface of the water. Females use it to express they are interested in courtship and stimulate the nearby males to display. Males perform this display during bouts of Head-Up-Tail-Up display and immediately after mating.


A Common Goldeneye performs a Head-Throw-Kick. Photo by Cos van Wermeskerken/GBBC.


Looking for ducks this winter? Over the course of the winter waterfowl shift south as frigid lakes of Canada and the northern U.S. freeze over. National Wildlife Refuges, coastal bays, reservoirs, and warm-water outflows can have incredible duck concentrations! Check out eBird under the ‘Explore Data’ tab for recent sightings near you.


Find out more about ducks and bird courtship:

Posted in Birds, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment


By Pat Leonard. Top image: Snowy Owl by Missy Mandel/GBBC.

Last year’s blizzard of Snowy Owls in the Great Lakes states, the Northeast, and down the Atlantic Coast was epic, an unprecedented irruption.

Now some birders are asking, is it happening again?


This winter Snowy Owl reports are lighting up eBird maps for the Northeast and Great Lakes. (Click on image for a larger map, and see eBird’s Snowy Owl map for more locations.)

Snowy Owls are being seen and reported on eBird this winter across the northern-third of the Lower 48 states from Washington state to Maine, with some reports of snowies as far south as Oklahoma and Maryland.

Scientists surmise that last year’s large southward sweep of Bubo scandiacus east of the Mississippi River was triggered by a record nesting season among the breeding population in northern Quebec. When it came time for fledglings to disperse, some among the bumper crop of young snowies had to travel far south to find food. The majority of Snowy Owls seen in the Lower 48 states last year were young males.

This past summer, there was another bumper crop—this time in Nunavut. Researchers from Canada’s Laval University reported record numbers of Snowy Owls nesting on Bylot Island. The previous high found in and around their research plot was 33 nests in 2010; this year they found 116 nests.

So this winter’s Snowy Owls could be returnees from northern Ontario, new birds from Nunavut, or a mix of both. A Snowy Owl geotracking effort called Project SNOWstorm may help answer that question. (See Science from a Snowstorm below.)

Comparing the frequency of Snowy Owls reported on eBird checklists in the Northeast shows that so far this has been a good winter for snows…but nothing like last year. Graph from The Cornell Lab’s Birdcast article, Species on the move: Snowy Owl.

According to Marshall Iliff, a project leader on the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s eBird team, this year’s winter Snowy Owl flight into the Lower 48 is impressive but not at the scale of last year’s irruption. For comparison, last winter a 5-state block in the Northeast had more than 8,000 reports of Snowy Owls from November to January. This winter that same block has had 1,200 snowy reports so far.

Still, Iliff says, it’s an above-average winter for snowies.

“This flight can be thought of as an echo flight,” said Iliff. “Echo flights are above average flight years following a very above average year. The exact cause is unknown and might be related to good summer food resources [lemmings] continuing from the previous year, another region with above average food resources, or possibly one-year-old birds returning south via last year’s route.”

For up-to-date reports on where snowies are being seen this winter, check out this custom eBird Snowy Owl map. You can also sign up for eBird’s Snowy Owl alert service.

Science from a Snowstorm

Very little is known about where Snowy Owls go when they travel back north after an irruption. So with snowies in spades last winter, noted naturalist/author Scott Weidensaul helped organize a scientific effort called Project SNOWstorm to put solar-powered data loggers on Snowy Owls and track their movements.


A Snowy Owl with a Project SNOWstorm solar-powered data logger on its back is helping scientists learn more about where Snowy Owls go when they travel back north after an irruption. Photo by Alan Richard.

Last winter the project tagged 22 owls in 7 states. Now they’re waiting for some of these owls to return. Their data loggers will download automatically once they’re within cellular signal range.

So far this winter three tagged owls have flown back within cell range in southern Ontario. The downloaded data from one owl showed that it flew 1,200 miles north from where it was tagged in Erie, Pennsylvania, to spend summer in the subarctic tundra near the Hudson Strait. This may be where this owl was born, since it’s the area of northern Quebec that had a record Snowy Owl nesting season. By October, the owl had flown back south to the St. Lawrence River Valley along the Ontario–New York border.

The SNOWstorm team hopes to tag another eight to 10 owls this winter. If they do, scientists may be able to determine if this winter’s owls return to Ontario, Nunavut, or somewhere else during the breeding season.

To see project updates, visit the Project SNOWstorm blog.


For more about Snowy Owls:

Posted in Birds, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 6 Comments


By Jennie Miller. Top image: Tropical Kingbird by Penny Hall via Birdshare.

For most birders, there’s almost always an opportunity to add a new species to a list—a migrant, a vagrant, an irruptive, or just a bird that you’ve never been able to nail down.

If you use eBird, then eBirds’s new Targets app can make it easy to tack on those easy gets, and get your most wanted birds, wherever you are and at any time of year.

Simply enter your location and time period, then sit back while eBird cross-references your current life list against birds seen by others in that region. eBird Targets will give you a list of your missing species, along with the frequency of how often they’re seen (so you can gauge your chances of getting them) and a link to a map of spots where they’re being seen.

Use eBird Targets around your home to spend a quick morning filling out a few missing species on your list. Or use it for trip planning when you’re going on vacation and want to target the best spots for getting some new birds.

Here’s an example. Say you’re headed to Puerto Vallarta for a little winter respite. As you pack your bags and your binos, spend a few minutes with eBird Targets to hatch your game plan for adding Mexican birds to your life list. First, specify your dates and destination (in this case, the state of Jalisco).



Then, eBird does the math to list and sort your soon-to-be lifers in order of how likely you are to see them.target2

Fianlly, eBird gives you a map of where you may find the birds you’re looking for. In this case, Tropical Kingbirds abound, just steps from your hotel!target3B

For more about eBird and how it can be part of your travel plans, check out:

Posted in Birds, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Red-shouldered Hawk by Corey Hayes via Birdshare.

With the leaves off the trees and a barren landscape, winter is a time when raptors become more conspicuous. Plus, there are fewer daylight hours and lower prey abundance, so hawks and falcons are out hunting more intensively. Where you see a raptor—in a tree, atop a pole—gives you a good first clue to its identity. And don’t forget to broaden your selection set of possible species to include those raptors that have shifted their ranges south for the winter.


A Rough-legged Hawk in flight shows off the characteristic dark patches on the underside of its wings. Photo by Brian Sullivan.

Rough-legged Hawk
Buteo lagopus

Visitor from the High Arctic

Rough-legged Hawks are raptors that migrate down from the Arctic. Because they come from a largely treeless place, these hawks look for similar surroundings to spend the winter, typically open habitats such as farm fields and airports. Light morph roughlegs have two large, dark patches on the underside of their wings, a good clue if you see them soaring. They also have feathered legs all the way to the toes, and are one of the few raptors that hover in place as they hunt (kestrels would be another, but roughlegs are much larger).



A Cooper’s Hawk catches a White-crowned Sparrow. Photo by Stephen J. Pollard.

Sharp-shinned Hawk Accipiter striatus
Cooper’s Hawk Accipiter cooperii

Raiders of the Backyard Bird Feeder

These two accipiters are built for speed and maneuver-ability, with short wings and long tails for slaloming among trees at top speed. But sometimes they zero in on the flocks of little birds that congregate at bird feeders. If a Cooper’s or a sharpie visits your feeder, you may only see a sudden gray streak and songbirds scattering for cover. But if they perch nearby, either to consume their meal or wait for the birds to return, you may get a chance for a good look. Differentiating between the two can be confusing, but sharpies tend to be smaller overall with a smaller round head and thinner legs. Cooper’s Hawks are about the size of a crow with a flatter head and thick legs. Take a look at our Sharp-shinned and Cooper’s Hawk ID page on the Project FederWatch website.



A male American Kestrel shows off its slate blue colored wings. Photo by Corey Hayes via Birdshare.

American Kestrel
Falco sparverius

The Littlest Falcon

If you see a small raptor perched on a wire, you’ve got an American Kestrel (North America’s littlest falcon). The southern United States gets an influx of kestrels in winter, as migrants from the northern states join the year-round residents in the South. If you see multiple kestrels, try and identify whether you’ve got males (slate blue wings) or females (reddish wings). You might notice that the kestrel sexes don’t mingle much in winter—females use the typical open habitat, and males use areas with more trees. This situation appears to be the result of the females migrating south first and establishing winter territories, leaving males to the more wooded areas.


Red-tailed Hawk (left) have a more mottled pattern of feathers on their wings; Red-shouldered Hawk (right) have a checkerboard pattern. Photo of Red-tailed Hawk by hawk person via Birdshare, Red-shouldered Hawk by Brian Sullivan.

Red-tailed Hawk
Buteo jamaicensis
Red-shouldered Hawk
Buteo lineatus

Two Red Buteos for Winter in the Southeast

Redtails are common in most areas year-round, and they’re certainly not shy—often staking out a hunting spot in the wide open, such as the top of a fence pole. But in the southeastern U.S. that brownish-red hawk you see may be a Red-shouldered, not a Red-tailed. In winter, Red-shouldered Hawks from the Northeast come down to join year-round residents in the Southeast. To tell the two hawks apart, look at the pattern of feathers on their wings: Red-shouldered Hawks have a checkerboard pattern, whereas redtails are more mottled. Habitat is another clue: Red-tailed Hawks like to hunt in open areas, and Red-shouldered Hawks stick closer to the woods. Or, just take note of the size: Red-tailed Hawks are big and stocky, while Red-shouldered Hawks are noticeably smaller, slight enough to perch along an electrical wire (redtails rarely do this). Both species also live year-round in California and Oregon.

For more on IDing raptors:

Posted in Birds, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | 17 Comments
Older Entries |