Winter Birding at TRI


Even in the dead of winter, the Island is rich with possibility for birders.  In addition to year-round inhabitants like the American Robin and Blue Jay, the Island is winter home to several types of birds, including the Ruby-crowned Kinglet and Hairy Woodpecker.  Here is FoTRI's exclusive guide to assist members in identifying the Island's avian inhabitants by either plumage or song:

American Crow - Another bird found at TR throughout the year, the American Cros is a large black bird with a rounded tail. The long bill is also black.  Their call is the familiar “caw, caw”often accompanied by head bobbing and tail flicking.  American Crows have strong familial structures and the grown crows often share nests and help raise their newly-hatched siblings. They flock, and live in communal roosts.  They are omnivorous, and will eat almost anything, from fruit, seeds, and grain to insects, small reptiles, roadkill, eggs, other birds’ hatchlings, and human garbage.  Crows are known to fly carrying mollusk shells, dropping the shell onto rocks to break it open.

American Crow, The Cornell Lab of Ornithology


American Robin - This familiar backyard bird lives on TRI year-round. is dark gray, with red-orange bellies.  The male’s head is black, and the female’s head is gray.  Juveniles have spotted breasts. Their song ranges from a melodic, trilling phrase (“cheerio,”) to high-pitched, whinny-like alarm bursts.  Robins are often found tilting their heads to one side, which allows them to see a worm or other food better by using one eye. They eat worms, insects, spiders, fruit, and berries. American Robin nests are made by females with grasses and mud, with a liner of finer grass, and are often found on shrubs, trees, or even man-made structures.

American Robin at TRI, courtesy of Gary House


Blue Jay - found on TRI all year long, Blue Jays are easy to recognize.  They sport blue backs, white/ tan/ gray bellies, a black ring around their heads and a blue crest.  Their tail and wings are blue, black and white.  Their call is a rather harsh “jaaay jaaay,” and grows more intense when they are warning other birds of danger.  They also make a softer call and clicking sounds, often accompanied by bobbing.  Noisy males put on a show for females in the spring, hopping and flying around their potential mate, which a showy landing in which the he bobbs at length.  In backyards, they are often mischievous, noisily exploring bird feeders, camping sites, and picnic spots.  They feed off insects, acorns, large seeds, and sometimes the eggs of other birds, or recent hatchlings - a famous painting by John James Audubon shows a Blue Jay who was caught in the act. Their nests are often on the branch of a tree, and are made of twigs, bark, grasses and leaves.  Blue Jays have throat pouches that they fill with food, and then hide their spoils in a tree crevice or under the bark, allowing themselves a storehouse for winter.

Blue Jay, The Cornell Lab of Ornithology


Brown Creeper - These tiny woodland birds reside at TRI only in the winter.  Their coloring is brown and buff from above, with white underparts and long tails, and they sport a tan streak over their eyes.  They have an affinity for big trees, where they pick at the bark with their slender bills to search for insects and spiders, moving upward in a spiral around the trunk, or limbs.  Their movements are short and jerky, and when they finish perusing a tree, they fly to the base to climb anew.  Their hammock-shaped nests are found behind loosened flaps of bark on a dying or dead tree, and contain alternating layers of twigs and strips of bark, bound together with cocoons and spider eggs, and finally lined with lichens, moss, wood fiber, and feathers.  Their calls are piercing, with elongated high, thin notes.

Brown Creeper, The Cornell Lab of Ornithology


Canada Goose - Known for their V-formations in flight, Canada Geese may be found on the shores of TRI year-round.  The Canada Goose is a large brown aquatic bird with a white chest, and a black head striped with a white chinstrap. It’s massive wingspan can reach over six feet!  Their incessant honking is a lower tone for the males, as compared to the females.  They often honk while flying.  These territorial birds (especially while breeding) are monogamous and they also communicate via their neck movements.  When threatened, they lower their heads and hiss - you may see this as you walk the trails near the marsh!  Their greeting ritual involves outstretched necks, head rolls, and excited honks, very similar to human greetings.  They feed on submerged vegetation and grasses, and when you see them “dunk,” they’re often looking for food.  Their nests are made of sticks, grasses, and moss lined with down, and are usually located near water.

Canada Goose, , The Cornell Lab of Ornithology


Carolina Chickadee - These tiny birds are visible on TRI year-round.  They are gray with lighter gray underparts and a black cap and bib, and white cheeks. They are extremely inquisitive, and can usually be found in flocks during the winter.  The flocks have a strong pecking order, and they are omnivorous, seeking out insects and spiders - often while hanging upside down - as well as seeds.  Their nests are usually located in an unused cavity that they find or create, and made of moss and bark with a hair or plant fiber lining. Females often sleep in the nest cavity, with males sheltering in a tree or shrub nearby. Their whistling, four-note call often stresses the first and third notes.

Carolina Chickadee, The Cornell Lab of Ornithology


Carolina Wren - These small, round birds may be difficult to spot, but their loud, clear, quick, whistled notes are easy to hear, and they are abundant at TRI in all seasons.   Both males and females are reddish-brown above with underparts that are tinted orange-brown, a long white eyebrow stripe, a dark bill, and white chin and throat, and a long tail that points upward. They often move low through dense vegetation and brush in woodlands, where they find insects and spiders to eat. Carolina Wrens are monogamous, and pairs build their dome-shaped nests together of bark, grass, leaves, pine needles, feathers, shed snakeskin, and whatever else they find.  The nests are generally 3-6’ off the ground in trees or stumps, and have side entrances with extensions that look like entrance ramps.

Carolina Wren at TRI, courtesy of Gary House


Dark-eyed Junko - These snowbirds can be found on TRI in the spring, autumn, and winter.  The males are slate gray with white bellies, and the female tends more toward a brown color.  The beak is a light pink, and they sport white outer tail feathers.  They can be found perched high on the treetops in the woodland areas on the Island, and their song is a trill that would not sound out-of-place alerting you to a phone call.  Winter flocks tend to have fixed social hierarchies, with more dominant birds charging and pecking at the less dominant birds. Their nests are often built near the ground, hidden against some rocks, or in the roots of a fallen tree.

Dark-eyed Junko, The Cornell Lab of Ornithology


Downy Woodpecker - The smallest North American Woodpecker species is a white and black bird which can be found at TRI in any season.  Their bodies are white, and their black wings sport white spots.  They have bold black and white facial patterns and males have a bright red patch on their heads.  The Downy Woodpecker has a relatively short beak, about half the width of it’s head (unlike the Hairy Woodpecker, who sorts a bill twice as long).  Their call - which is heard relatively sparsely -  is a high-pitched cheep and they also use a repetitive squeek-squeek-squeek when courting.  Males and females both drum their pointed bills against trees, both to define their territory and to advertise themselves to potential mates, as well as to search for insects. When the pecking is less emphatic and less regular, it is their hunt for insects.  The nest is created by the male, usually in a rotten tree, but females and males both camouflage the entrance with moss and lichens.  During spring courtship, the males display showy behavior, such as waving their bills, chasing up trees, and raising wings.

Downy Woodpecker on TRI, courtesy of Gary House


European Starling - These prolific birds were only brought to America 130 years ago, but they are now so common as to be regarded by many as pests.  They travel in large flocks and can be heard squawking noisily and un-musically in flight.  Their feathers can be nearly black with iridescent purple in the spring, but are generally brown speckled with white the rest of the year, and they always sport their long yellow bills.  Juveniles are pale brown and are starkly different than the adult presentation.  They forage on the ground and in trees for insects, fruit and seeds.  Their nests are generally in tree cavities and buildings, and are comprised of grass, twigs, bark and bits of whatever they find - even if it is man-made.

European Starling, The Cornell Lab of Ornithology


Hairy Woodpecker - Very similar to the Downy Woodpecker, but usually found on TRI only in the winter.  The Hairy Woodpecker looks just like the downy woodpecker, but has a much longer beak.  Their bodies are white, and their black wings sport white spots.  They have bold black and white facial patterns and males have a bright red patch on their heads.  The beak of the Hairy Woodpecker is about as long as it’s head width.  Their call is a high-pitched cheep and they also use a repetitive squeek-squeek-squeek when courting.  Like their downy cousins, males and females both drum their pointed bills against trees, both to define their territory and to advertise themselves to potential mates, as well as to search for insects. When the pecking is less emphatic and less regular, it is their hunt for insects.

Hairy Woodpecker, The Cornell Lab of Ornithology


House Sparrow - Along with the Rock Pigeon and European Starling, the House Sparrow is one of our most common birds, and may be found at TRI year-round.  House sparrows are not related to other North American sparrows.  Males are brightly colored with gray heads, white cheeks, a black bib, and a red-brown neck. The more dominant the male in the pecking order, the larger the patch of black on its throat. Females are brown with striped backs. They are have a trilling tweet which is familiar to any city dweller, and are acclimated to humans, happily foraging crumbs left out by people in crowded flocks.  Their movement on the ground is mroe of a hop than a walk.  They also eat grains and seeds, as well as insects, which they can grab them from the air.  House Sparrows will take “dust baths”, throwing dirt over itself.  Their nests, made of dried vegetation stuffed into their nest hole and lined with feathers, string, or paper, are often in manmade structures, and House Sparrows sometimes steal their nest holes from other birds.


House Sparrow, The Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Lesser Scaup - this freshwater bird is one of the most common diving ducks found in North America, but is common to TRI only in the winter.  Males have a black head, chest, and rear end with grey/ white sides.  Females have a dark brown head, neck and back with some spots or mottling, a lighter brown breast and white belly.  All have a blue-ish bill with black at the tip and a slight bump or peak at the back of the head. Their calls are much quieter than the Canada goose.  Lesser scaups have been known to “play dead” when grabbed by a predator.  They are capable of diving from the very day that they are hatched.  They eat aquatic insects, aquatic plants, snails, clams, and crustaceans.  Their nests are made of grasses lined with down, and may be found on the ground or in a mound of vegetation over the water.

Lesser Scaup, The Cornell Lab of Ornithology


Mourning Dove - a year-round inhabitant of TRI, the Mourning dove is a soft brown with black spots on the wings, a long tail, and a pinkish sheen on its belly. The male has a gray-shaded crown.  The male’s call is a series of coos, with an emphasis on the second note, often given while bobbing his tail and puffing out his throat.  The male often performs acrobatics while courting, noisily clapping his wings and flying high up, and then gliding in a downward spiral.  Once near his potential mate, the Mourning Dove will strut and bow.  Both sexes coo near their nests. The dove parents regurgitate a white milk, which they feed to their nestlings.

Mourning Dove on TRI, courtesy of Gary House


Northern Cardinal - Birders and non-birders alike often recognize the adult male Northern Cardinal, with it’s vivid red plumage and black face mask.  The female is gray-brown with a red tinge on it’s breast.  Adults have red bills, and juveniles look like females, but with dark bills. These birds can be found at TRI year-round and are non-migratory, and they are very visible in the winter when their bright plumage stands out against the drab and snow.  Their songs are often patterned, and may sound like a very traditional chirp, or a two syllable what-cheer.  Alternating songs may be from a courting pair, and these pairs also practice “mate feeding,” with the male presenting food to the female.  Adults feed on, or close to the ground, including seeds, grains, small fruit, insects and spiders. Cup-shaped Cardinal nests are often found low to the ground in dense thicket, and may be built with grass, leaves, bark, twigs, paper, and hair.

Northern Cardinal at TRI, courtesy of Gary House


Northern Flicker - another woodpecker that can be found at TRI in all seasons, they do migrate, but often return to the same place again and again. The Northern Flicker has brown stripes on its back, spots when seen from below, and a black crescent-shaped bibb.  Flickers can be either yellow shafted (yellow underwings with black mustache) or red shafter (red underwings with red mustache).  Females of both types have no mustache.  Their calls are repetitive bursts of “ki-ki-ki-ki-ki” and in courtship is often accompanied by pointing the bill in the air, and head bobbing.  Flickers often drum their bills on their nest tree, which houses a cavity excavated by the male.  They forage on tree trunks and the ground, feeding on ants, seeds, grains, berries and whatever other insects they can find.

Northern Flicker on TRI, courtesy of Gary House


Northern Mockingbird - Yes, the mockingbird is in fact known to mimic sounds.  Walt Whitman called them “the musical shuttle.”  Both sexes look gray from above and tan or dusty white from below, with black on their wings and tail.  When the wings are spread in flight, the Northern Mockingbird’s white outer tail feathers and bold wing patches are on display.  They live at TRI year-round, and are highly visible when mating, because they sing loudly from a visible perch and perform flight loops to attract mates.  Their song mimics other birds, but also sounds made by humans, machines, and other animals.  A sound is generally repeated three times (or more), and then a new sound is heard.  In the fall, the mockingbirds that you hear could be either sex, but in the spring the call is usually made by the males.  They are more vocal at night.  The male and female man build their cup-shaped nest together out of sticks, twigs, grass and moss, lining it with hair or down; and each defend different territories for food, often a berry tree or bush.

Northern Mockingbird, The Cornell Lab of Ornithology


Red-winged Blackbird - These freshwater marsh birds can be found at TRI in all seasons.  The male is jet black  with scarlet shoulder patches bordered with a touch of yellow.  The female is dark brown and streaked.  Juveniles look like females, and as males mature, their shoulder patch turns orange, and then finally red.  Their song is is trilling, or gurgling.  They are generally found in loosely-knit breeding colonies, and males often perch on cattails, which can be found along the boardwalk on the Island.  As they court, they spread their wings and tail, and often chase the females.  Their cup-shaped nests are suspended from cattails or other marshy vegetation, and are built by females. They are usually close to the ground in thick brush and are made of woven grasses, reeds and leaves, lined with soft material.

Red-winged Blackbird on TRI, courtesy of Gary House


Ring-billed Gull - these gulls are instantly recognizable to Americans who spend time at restaurants all along U.S. coasts, as well as inland lakes and rivers.  They inhabit TRI year-round.  They are often quite unfazed by proximity to humans, and sometimes beg for food.  The Ring-billed gulls are identifiable amongst the many other white, gray, and black gulls by the distinctive black ring around their yellow bill. Adults have a white head and breast, gray wings, a black tail, and yellow feet.  Juveniles are brown and white mottled.  They nest on the ground in noisy groups, and eat scavenged garbage, insects, small fish, and some invertebrates and crustaceans.  Their call is a caw that sounds like an “owww.”

Ring-billed Gull, The Cornell Lab of Ornithology


Rock Pigeon - These are the city pigeons that many Washingtonians are used to.  They live on TRI in all seasons.  They are generally a combination of dark and light blue-tinted gray, with a dark gray head, an iridescent neck, and two dark wing bands.  Their coos can often be heard around rock outcrops and farmland.  Their nests are shallow bowls made of sticks, twigs and leaves, and are often on man-made structures.  Both sexes feed their nestlings regurgitated fluid known as “pigeon milk.”

Rock Pigeons, The Cornell Lab of Ornithology


Ruby-crowned Kinglet - These tiny bird make their homes on TRI only in the winter, when they can be recognized by their energy and constant flicking of their wings.  They are olive-gray with a white ring around their eyes and black and white wing stripes.  Their most prominent feature is a burst of ruby on the crown of the male. Their diet consists primarily of insects, and their song is loud a musical twittering. Females build their globe-shaped nests high up in trees, out of grass, feathers, moss, spiderwebs, and cocoon silk, with plants and fur to line them.  The nests have an elastic property, and can expand as the nestlings grow.

Ruby-crowned Kinglet, The Cornell Lab of Ornithology


Song Sparrow - a year round resident of TRI, the Song Sparrow is a small round bird that generally has whitish underparts and brown streaked upper parts.  There are often some brown streaks on the white breast, converging in a central brown spot.  However, there are many sub-species of Song Sparrows that vary in both size and markings.  The song of the male begins with an individual (or a few) notes, and often ends in a trill, musically tweeting “sweet, sweet, sweet.”  They sing in patterns, often repeating one pattern several times, before switching to another. They are commonly found in shrubs, thick brush, undergrowth and low trees, often near water - so the Island is a prime spot for them!  During early spring mating season, males sing from exposed perches and chase away competitors by fluffing their feathers or waving the wings, and not infrequently by giving chase to their rivals.  To court, the male swoops down at the perched female, who responds with a trill.  The female builds a nest on the ground, but they are generally well-hidden in thick vegetation.


Song Sparrow, The Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Tufted Titmouse - These neat gray relatives of the chickadee are resident on TRI all year long. Both males and females have pointed crests.  They are lively and social  birds with musical songs that sound like “wheeta-wheeta-wheeta.”  Tufted Titmice are omnivorous, and are active foragers.  They can sometimes be found foraging upside down on a tree!  Their nests, built by females out of grass, leaves, bark, moss and hair;  are generally found in cavities of trees, or even in man-made structures.

Tufted Titmouse, The Cornell Lab of Ornithology


White-breasted Nuthatch - Found on TRI in all seasons, these birds sport blue-gray backs, white faces and underparts, and chestnut on the side flanks.  Crown and napes are often glossy black in males and gray or dull black in females.  Their calls, which can be heard mid-winter and spring, are repetitive ah-ah-ah-ah-ahs.  They are often seen scurrying down a tree in search of insects, but also eat nuts and seeds.  They store their extra food in tree crevices for their use in the winter. To ward off other birds, the lavishly spread their wings and sway from side-to-side. Males can often be found singing on an exposed perch in late winter, the better to be noticed by the females.  They practice mate-feeding, and their nests may be found in tree holes.

White-breasted Nuthatch on TRI, courtesy of Gary House


White-throated Sparrow - These large brown and gray sparrows have a striking black-and-white head pattern, a bright white throat, and spots of bright yellow between the eye and their gray bill. Some White-throated Sparrows are tan striped, with a buff-on-brown face stripe. They can be found on TRI in the winter and spring, and are often found near the ground or in bushes, searching the leaves for food.  They are known for their strange-looking foraging style: they hop on the ground toward leaves, using both feet to scratch backwards, and then pounce on whatever they have uncovered. Their song consists of very long, musical whistles, and they fly with rapid wingbeats.  Nests are built by females with moss, grass, twigs, wood chips, and pine needles, typically on or near the ground under shrubs or dense vegetation, or in the roots of an upturned tree.  White-throated Sparrows eat seeds, fruit, and insects.

White-throated Sparrow on TRI, courtesy of Gary House