An Eastern Towhee at Beamer Memorial Conservation Park

An Eastern Towhee at Beamer Memorial Conservation Park

eastern towhee - on the ground - Beamer Memorial Conservation Area - Grimsby - Ontario

At Beamer Memorial Conservation Area on the Niagara Escarpment in Grimsby, Ontario we happened upon an Eastern Towhee (Pipilo erythrophthalmus) at the edge of an open area.

Beamer Memorial Conservation Area - Grimsby - Ontario - Canada

Beamer Memorial Conservation Area is well known for raptor sightings and for panoramic views from its location on the Niagara Escarpment.  The day we visited, other bird watchers had seen about 100 raptors kettling above the forests of the conservation area, a paltry number when compared to the thousands of raptors that are often seen at one time.

eastern towhee - hidden in thicket - Beamer Memorial Conservation Area - Grimsby - Ontario

Bob and I were thrilled, nonetheless, to spot an Eastern Towhee because we had never seen one of these birds before.  They are strikingly marked, over-sized sparrows with a rather long tail.

eastern towhee - looks at me from thicket - Beamer Memorial Conservation Area - Grimsby - Ontario

Eastern Towhees are birds of the undergrowth where their rummaging makes far more noise than you would expect for their size.  They habitually scratch amongst dead leaves on the ground using a technique where both feet kick back simultaneously – sort of like a backwards hop.

jean takes picture of eastern towhee - Beamer Memorial Conservation Area - Grimsby - Ontario

Because Eastern Towhees like to forage under dense thickets, it makes it difficult to ever get a clear view of the bird.   It is in the leaf litter under bushes and shrubs that the towhee can find the food that it prefers, especially insects, spiders, and sowbugs, but these birds also eat large numbers of seeds and fruit.

Towering Columns of Flying Insects, Beamer Memorial Conservation Area, Grimsby

Interestingly, when Bob and I eventually walked further into the forest, we came to a lookout that afforded a panoramic view of Grimsby and Lake Ontario.  The view, however, was obscured on that afternoon by funnel clouds of insects that seemed to be rising on the air currents.

Swarms of Flying Insects, Beamer Memorial Conservation Area, Grimsby

Numerous clouds of the insects would coalesce into one large cyclone of bugs rising on the updrafts, and then just as suddenly disperse en masse.  We had no idea what the insects were but wondered for what birds these insects might be considered a food source.  The Eastern Towhee immediately came to mind.

eastern towhee - in thicket - Beamer Memorial Conservation Area - Grimsby - Ontario

Back at the head of the trail, Bob and I had recognized the Eastern Towhee as a male because of the stunning black hood, back and tail.  A female is similar to the male except the black feathers are replaced by chocolate-brown.  In both birds, the chestnut brown sides are sharply set off by the white lower breast and abdomen.   Another aspect of the bird that stood out was the red eye, which has given rise to an alternate name for the species,  Red-eyed Towhee.

eastern towhee on grass - Beamer Memorial Conservation Area - Grimsby - Ontario

eastern towhee hunts for food on ground - Beamer Memorial Conservation Area - Grimsby - Ontario

When the Eastern Towhee emerged from the dense brush at the forest edge, Bob and I were afforded a good look at the bird rather than a mere glimpse through tangled twigs.  We were indeed lucky because these birds only rarely venture out from beneath low overhanging shade or cover.  They are very secretive.

eastern towhee - checks leaves for bugs - Beamer Memorial Conservation Area - Grimsby - Ontario

Bob and I were uncertain as to whether the Eastern Towhee was simply foraging, or perhaps preparing to build a nest.  This one seemed to be hollowing out a small depression on the forest floor, which is often where they place their nests at the base of grass or a shrub.

eastern towhee - feet on ground - Beamer Memorial Conservation Area - Grimsby - Ontario

An Eastern Towhee has a thick, triangular-shaped bill suitable for cracking seeds and that helps in identifying the bird as a member of the sparrow family.

eastern towhee - looks for bugs - Beamer Memorial Conservation Area - Grimsby - Ontario

While Bob and I observed the Eastern Towhee, numerous other birds were flitting amongst the upper branches of the shrubs and trees, most notably several White-throated Sparrows and Black-eyed Juncos and one Ruby-crowned Kinglet.  The habitat afforded by the protected forest is a haven for songbirds.

eastern towhee in thicket - Beamer Memorial Conservation Area - Grimsby - Ontario

eastern towhee - among leaves on the ground - Beamer Memorial Conservation Area - Grimsby - Ontario

As Bob and I stealthily moved back and forth along the edge of the forest, the Eastern Towhee adroitly and quickly darted across the forest floor, seeming to roam the same area over and over again.  On rare occasions, it flitted onto the low branch of a shrub, but it definitely seemed to prefer that particular stretch of trees.  We left it there scratching in the leaves while we went to explore the forest trails.

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5 comments

  • Towhees are famous for foraging in the undergrowth. I always see rufous sided towhees forging below my rhododendron bushes.

    • We have never seen Eastern Towhees on our property, so it was a treat to catch up with one at least within a reasonable distance from our place.

      • You have to watch undergrowth to really spot towhees. The best way to spot birds, is by according to habitat. Someone said they were surprised to find a snowy owl sitting in a tree, more than likely that snowy owl was watching a field from that tree. Because snowy owls will go after rodents on that field, just like barn owls. One of the things towhees will get from the undergrowth are berries from English ivy.

  • Wonderful photos of the Towhee. I haven’t seen this bird before. I just love the backward jump.

    • Yes, I know what you mean. We saw other birds jumping in a similar fashion a week earlier: The White-throated Sparrow and the Fox Sparrow. Must be a common thing with birds of the sparrow family.