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Yellow-headed Blackbirds in southern Lancaster, PA

Yellow-headed Blackbird with other blackbirds in Lancaster County. (Photo by Alex Lamoreaux)

During the winter months, thousands of blackbirds roost in the marshes of northern Maryland and then fly up to southern PA to forage in farm fields for the day before retreating back south for the night. Last January, Drew and I had success picking Yellow-headed Blackbirds out of a flock that we found, and my friends Ian and Josh had never seen a Yellow-headed in PA. This morning Ian, Josh, and I drove from Hershey down to southern Lancaster County to search for large blackbirds flocks and see what interesting species we could find mixed with them – knowing that Yellow-headed would be a good possibility and Brewer’s Blackbird a long shot, but still somewhat possible.

We got down to the Nottingham area at sunrise and began scanning the sky for flocks of blackbirds moving north. Soon we saw a few small flocks flying to the NW and started following them in Ian’s car. Within an hour we found where many blackbirds flock were all gathering in some fields and started working through them with scopes and binos. Almost immediately, Ian and I saw the flash of a Yellow-headed Blackbird’s yellow head and white wing patches, but we couldn’t re-find it with all the shuffling the birds were doing and Josh never saw it. After searching for a while longer, we finally started spotting Yellow-headed Blackbirds again and ended up seeing at least 3 male birds and I wouldn’t be surprised if there were more. Here are a few photos of one of the Yellow-heads we saw. They are easiest to spot while flying because their bright yellow head and white wing patch stick out.

Yellow-headed Blackbird with other blackbirds in Lancaster County. (Photo by Alex Lamoreaux)

Yellow-headed Blackbird with other blackbirds in Lancaster County. (Photo by Alex Lamoreaux)

Yellow-headed Blackbird with other blackbirds in Lancaster County. (Photo by Alex Lamoreaux)

Yellow-headed Blackbird with other blackbirds in Lancaster County. (Photo by Alex Lamoreaux)

Despite our best efforts, we never found any Brewer’s Blackbirds. The flock we followed contained an estimated 30,000 Brown-headed Cowbirds, 25,000 Red-winged Blackbirds, 3000 ‘Purple’ Common Grackles, 2000 ‘Bronzed’ Common Grackles, 1000 European Starlings, and at least 3 Yellow-headed Blackbirds. There were also over 1000 Ring-billed Gulls flying over and occasionally dropping down to forage in the fields. Many raptors moved through, checking out the blackbirds including 2 Bald Eagles, 1 Cooper’s Hawk, 5 Red-tailed Hawks, and 1 American Kestrel. The advancing snow storm cut our day short, but we were still pretty happy with what we saw. Here is a link to our eBird checklist and here is a link to the general location that we saw the blackbird flock.

  • http://www.facebook.com/tyler.l.hoar Tyler L Hoar

    Those Yellow Heads possibly are from the eastern lake st clair population in sw ontario. About an hour east of Detroit.

    • http://nemesisbird.com/ Drew

      That’s an interesting idea. As Alex always says, we need to band these birds :)

      • aslamoreaux

        Rocket-netting these flocks would be easy! Gotta band ’em all!

  • Ed Gowarty

    I am wondering if this happens in southern Somerset Co. to any extent. If so would you have any ideas of where to start looking?

    • aslamoreaux

      Southeast PA has the biggest wintering blackbird flocks in PA, mainly because the blackbirds roost down in the marshes of MD and NJ….however, I wouldn’t doubt that there are substantial flocks elsewhere in the state that could have some Yellow-headeds mixed in. Mike Lanzone would be the person to ask about anything Somerset County related.