Carolina Wren (Thryothorus ludovicianus)
As promised, this week's post veers slightly away from the shoreline of the St. Johns and into the backyards of local residents, focusing on those frustrating sightings that often can't be called anything other than "a couple more of those little brown jobs." Each of today's examples is a bird seen--but not always identified--frequently in our area, either year-round, or during migration. I'll do my best to give you some clear examples of what they look like, but I can't promise it will always be a help, unless you get a really clear view of said LBJ, or can make the identification based on habitat or activity. So, without further ado, here's my selection for this week.
First up is one of our most common LBJs, and fairly easy to identify, as little brown jobs go. This is the ubiquitous Carolina wren, a common backyard bird, and probably, ounce for ounce, the loudest little guy around. Carolina wrens are not sexually dimorphic. (Don't worry. That's a perfectly family-safe phrase meaning simply that you can't tell the males from the females just by looking.) However, while both birds give out alarm calls and the like, only the male sings to guard his territory, making it easy to tell when a male Carolina wren has moved into your yard. I told you, they are loud, and I meant it. It's hard to believe such a loud but beautiful song can come from such a small bird.
Male Carolina wren letting the immediate world know he's found a place to set up house.
Carolina wrens are year-round Florida residents, with their numbers increasing during the winter when birds from northern states join the local population in order to miss the latest nor'easter. Usually less than 5" long, this is a teeny-tiny LBJ, rusty-brown, with a prominent cream eyestripe, white chin, buff underbelly, and down-curved beak. It has the typical wren habit of holding its tail cocked upright, and is primarily an insect eater. (Disclaimer: I see wrens at my feeder all the time, clearly eating some of the seed and fruit.)
Typical posture of Carolina wren, with tail cocked up.
Lunch is Served. Yummy.
Next up is one of the most beautiful little guys that ever visits my feeder, along with his totally unremarkable and hard to identify mate. No one can call a male indigo bunting perched in the sunlight anything but stunning. Well, they could, I guess--but they'd either be lying or colorblind. See for yourself.
Male Indigo Bunting (Passerina cyanea)
There is a good reason for the indigo bunting's Latin name. It is a passerine, or a perching bird, with three toes forward and one backward. And it is blue (cyan). VERY blue. At least the male is. Buntings are definitely sexually dimorphic, as this next picture shows.
Pair of Indigo Buntings
Someone asked me once why it was always the female birds who were often so drab, compared to their brilliantly colored mates. The answer is simple. It's the female who is usually tending the nest, eggs, and young, and being inconspicuously colored goes a long way toward hiding the new family. Nature nearly always comes down solidly on the side of successful procreation. But this tendency toward drab brown or gray females does not make it easy for us birders to figure out just what that LBJ at the feeder actually is. In the case of the female indigo bunting, it's more about size and bill shape than anything else. Indigos are chunkier than Carolina wrens, but not much, if any larger. They measure about 5" in body length, so that's your first clue. The second is the short, sturdy, seed-cracking bill, similar to that of a cardinal, with which it is closely allied.
Female Indigo Bunting
Indigo buntings are year-round residents of central Florida, so you have a good chance of spotting them at your feeders from time to time, especially if you live near open fields, farmland, or open woodland, all prime indigo habitats. They eat a wide variety of foods, including insects during the summer months, and seeds during the winter, so look closely at any small, solid brown bird with a short, heavy beak that visits your feeder, especially in the winter.
Another example of a female Indigo Bunting.
The last bird I want to show you today is a real favorite of mine. They are cheerful, happy, and EVER so easy to identify, once you've been introduced to them. These little guys do NOT need to be lumped with your other LBJs, if you just remember a few pointers. May I present the handsome little chipping sparrow.
Chipping Sparrow (Spizella passerine)
The chipping sparrow, unlike the very successful but non-native house sparrow, is a native of the United States, and a regular winter migrant in Florida. The gregarious little birds travel in small flocks, feeding on seeds and insects on the ground, and readily enjoying backyard bird feeders, as well. They are marginally larger than both Carolina wrens and indigo buntings, being about 5-1/2" long. The back is beautifully marked with brown and black streaks, with a cream colored wingbar. The chin is white, and the breast and underbelly, light gray. But it's the markings on this sparrow's head that sets him apart from the rest, especially in winter. First thing that catches the eye is the rusty-red cap. Directly beneath is a white stripe, and then a black one that goes straight through the bird's eye.
The rust, white, and black markings on the chipping sparrow's head are diagnostic of this species.
You really can't miss them in this winter plumage.
And some think sparrows are drab!
Well, there you have it, folks. Three LBJs that I hope you'll be able to identify when you spot them in the future. Next week, I'll be showing you three more, and be forewarned. These three were the EASY ones. Next week's will be a bit more challenging, I suspect.
Don't Forget to Make Time for an Eco-tour on the Naiad.
In addition to all the usual river denizens, you might even spot an LBJ of your own!