Archive for the 'Migration' Category

Jul 19 2016

Lesser or Greater?

Lesser yellowlegs and Greater yellowlegs (photos by Bobby Greene)

Lesser yellowlegs and Greater yellowlegs (photos by Bobby Greene)

Robins and song sparrows are still nesting but shorebird migration has already begun.  Lesser yellowlegs (Tringa flavipes) have already arrived in western Pennsylvania and will be followed soon by their look-alike cousins, the greater yellowlegs (Tringa melanoleuca).

How do you identify these similar birds?

First, they’re different from other shorebirds.  Though their plumage may confuse you, these are tall long-billed birds with uniquely bright long yellow legs.  Both of them will wade and swim in deep water.  (The solitary sandpiper, also a Tringa, is shorter with greenish legs.)

And they’re different from each other.  If a lesser and greater yellowlegs are in the same pond they’re easy to distinguish by size — greater is bigger than lesser — but you’re not usually that lucky. Here are some additional clues:

Character Lesser Greater
Bills The bill is only as long as its head. Measure the underside from the chin. Bill is longer than its head front-to-back.
Call Tu …or… Tu-Tu (1 or 2 Tu’s) Tu-Tu-Tu (3 or 4 Tu’s in a row) This bird is noisy! Will give a single Tu over and over when agitated. The way to remember greater vs lesser: 3 Tus are greater than 1.
Body size Dainty, slender, weighs 2.8 oz Substantial, a bit bulky, weighs 6 oz
Behavior Dainty. Picks at surface or under water. Runs sometimes. When feeding appears angry, aggressive(*). Runs with long strides. Chases fish. Almost like a reddish egret but without the wing-dance steps.
Solo? Hangs out with other birds Tends to be solo or with other waders

(*) descriptions from Pete Dunne’s Essential Field Guide Companion.



Using the information above can you tell who’s who in the video?  Behavior is a good clue even when there’s only one bird.


You’ll find these birds at wetlands, ponds, quiet rivers and lakes.

If you’re not sure who’s who you can always call them “yellowlegs.”


(photos by Robert “Bobby” Greene, Jr. video by Mark Vance on YouTube)

3 responses so far

May 14 2016

It’s Bird Day!

Spotted sandpiper in breeding plumage (photo by Bobby Greene)

Spotted sandpiper in breeding plumage (photo by Bobby Greene)

Today is International Migratory Bird Day in the U.S. and Canada.

Though birds migrate during many months of the year their biggest push in North America is in early May.  That’s why we celebrate their arrival and promote their conservation on this second Saturday.

In May migrating birds pass overhead at night and stop to eat in unlikely places where they don’t intend to stay.  Yesterday I saw a spotted sandpiper (pictured above) at Schenley Park’s Panther Hollow Lake.  Shorebirds and wading birds are rare visitors to the lake because the concrete edge provides no food.  The sandpiper paused for a snack at the cat-tails and creek outflow … and then he was on his way to breed at a stream bank, lake or river.

Lake Erie’s southern shore is a great place to find migratory birds this month.  Last week I went birding from Erie, Pennsylvania to Maumee Bay, Ohio.  Here are two of my favorite species seen at Magee Marsh, Ohio — one very large species and one small.

American white pelicans flying over Chase Lake NWR, North Dakota (photo from USFW via Wikimedia Commons)

American white pelicans flying over Chase Lake NWR, North Dakota (photo from US Fish & Wildlife via Wikimedia Commons)

Canada Warbler (photo by Cris Hamilton)

Canada Warbler (photo by Cris Hamilton)

American white pelicans and Canada warblers don’t breed at Magee Marsh but they’re there this month.

Don’t miss the migration on International Migratory Bird Day.  Get outdoors in May!


(photo credits: Spotted sandpiper by Bobby Greene,
American white pelicans by US Fish & Wildlife via Wikimedia Commons.
Canada warbler by Cris Hamilton

2 responses so far

May 08 2016

Ostentatious Orioles

Published by under Migration,Songbirds

Baltimore oriole (photo by Steve Gosser)

Baltimore oriole (photo by Steve Gosser)

Though it’s been less than two weeks since the first Baltimore orioles returned to western Pennsylvania, it didn’t take long for them to arrive in force and begin to establish their territories.

Now they’re everywhere and obvious — singing, chasing, chattering with annoyance, drowning out the songs of other birds.

As soon as they’ve paired up Baltimore orioles sing a lot less and become almost secretive.

Enjoy them now while they’re ostentatious.


(photo by Steve Gosser)

5 responses so far

Apr 28 2016

The Catbird’s Coverts

Gray Catbird (photo by Alan Vernon from Wikimedia)

Gray Catbird (photo by Alan Vernon from Wikimedia)

This week gray catbirds (Dumetella carolinensis) came back to Pittsburgh from their winter homes in Central America.

I saw my first one in Schenley Park on Tuesday (April 26) and now I hear them every day, singing from the coverts in my neighborhood.  Here’s what they sound like:

“Covert” means “thicket” but it’s also an ornithological term for feathers that cover the base of the main flight or tail feathers.

Gray catbirds have rust-colored undertail coverts.  Read about them in this 2010 bird anatomy lesson: Undertail Coverts.


(photo by Alan Vernon in Wikimedia Commons. Click on the image to see the original)

4 responses so far

Apr 02 2016

New Arrivals This Week

Brown creeper (photo by Steve Gosser)

Brown creeper (photo by Steve Gosser)

The flowers are ahead of schedule and so are some migratory birds.  This week in Schenley Park I found four new arrivals.

Brown creepers (Certhia americana) spend the winter in the central and southern U.S. so they know about our warm weather and can decide to migrate early.  I saw several brown creepers and heard their high pitched, squeaky song along the Bridle Trail on Thursday.


Two very tiny birds, smaller than chickadees, arrived on Tuesday. It’s unusual to see them together.

Golden-crowned kinglets (Regulus satrapa), at left below, have a winter range similar to the brown creeper’s and usually migrate through before their ruby-crowned cousins show up.  I found both birds on March 29 when I heard the ruby-crowned kinglet singing “Stay away!” as the golden-crowned chased him.  I’ve never seen these two species fighting!

Golden-crowned kinglet (photo by Steve Gosser)

Golden-crowned kinglet (photo by Steve Gosser)

Ruby-crowned kinglet (photo by Steve Gosser)

Ruby-crowned kinglet (photo by Steve Gosser)

Ruby-crowned kinglets (Regulus calendula) spend the winter in the southern U.S. and even in eastern Pennsylvania but they’re a big deal here.  An appearance on March 29 is two weeks earlier than I expect them.

Here’s the ruby’s song and, at the end, the “chack” he makes when annoyed.


On Tuesday I heard a lone chipping sparrow (Spizella passerina) along the Bridle Trail but couldn’t find him for two days.  He was hanging out with a flock of dark-eyed juncoes.  Bob Machesney says that in the North Hills the dark-eyed juncoes are gone before the chipping sparrows arrive.  This solo bird isn’t playing by the rules. 😉

Chipping sparrow in May (photo by Steve Gosser)

Chipping sparrow in May (photo by Steve Gosser)

Here’s the chipping sparrow’s song:


Watch for the first three birds in the days ahead.  Only the chipping sparrow will stay to nest in Schenley Park.


(all photos by Steve Gosser)

7 responses so far

Mar 05 2016

Grackle Day

Published by under Migration,Songbirds

Common grackle in his dominance pose (photo by Shawn Collins)

Common grackle in a dominance pose (photo by Shawn Collins)

Because I’ve kept track of their spring arrival March 5 is Grackle Day at my house. It’s the day that the first common grackles (Quiscalus quiscula) usually arrive in my neighborhood in the spring.

I hear them before I see them: “Skrinnnnk, Krinnnnk”  “Djuk Djuk.”  Listen to this audio clip and you’ll know what I mean.

The video below shows the males puffing up and calling to display their dominance.  The grackle whose beak points the highest is the one who wins.  😉

This year a few ambitious grackles passed through early.  I heard and saw a single common grackle on February 5 and two on March 1.  I’m waiting for more today.

Are there grackles in your neighborhood yet?


(photo by Shawn Collins, audio link from Xeno Canto, video by The Critter Window on YouTube)

7 responses so far

Jan 09 2016


Flowering cherry tree in snow, 4 Jan 2016 at Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh (photo by Kate St. John)

Flowering cherry tree in snow, 4 January 2016 in Pittsburgh (photo by Kate St. John)

After a month of warm weather, these cherry trees were fooled into blooming in early January at Carnegie Museum.

Then last Monday the temperature dropped into the single digits and hit everything that couldn’t get out of its way.  Nothing could protect those delicate pink flowers.

Unlike plants, birds can get out of the way and some of them decided to leave this week.  In my neighborhood, there were many American robins in December but most of them have left since the cold snap.  Did your robins leave, too?

Meanwhile, don’t be fooled by today’s warmth.  Here’s a graph of Pittsburgh’s actual and predicted morning low temperatures for the first two weeks of January.

Graph of morning low temperatures in Pittsburgh, PA, actual+forecast for January 1-14, 2016 as of 1/9/2016 (graph uses NWS data)

Actual+forecast morning low temperatures in Pittsburgh, PA, January 1-14, 2016 (graph uses National Weather Service data as of 1/9/16)

It’s a yo-yo.


(photos by Kate St. John)

One response so far

Dec 23 2015

Two Oceans, Four Hemispheres

Male red-necked phalarope in July (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Male red-necked phalarope in July, molting out of breeding plumage (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Here’s a bird whose migration takes him through four hemispheres and two oceans.

Thanks to a tiny tracking device placed on 10 male red-necked phalaropes on Fetlar Island, Scotland in 2012, the RSPB learned that these North Atlantic birds fly west and south to spend the winter in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Ecuador and Peru.

Their amazing route starts in the Northern and Eastern hemispheres and ends in the Southern and Western hemispheres.  They spend the winter at sea in the plankton-rich Humboldt Current.

Red-necked phalaropes (Phalaropus lobatus) are small birds with a circumpolar distribution.  The European group is thought to winter at the Arabian Sea but the Fetlar Island birds follow the same southward migration route as those from eastern North America, so it’s likely the Scottish phalaropes are related to that population.

Read more and see a video about their long migration here at BBC News.

And if you want to see a red-necked phalarope, your best chance is in the Bay of Fundy during spring or fall migration.  Two million have been counted there in the months of May and August(*).


(photo of male red-necked phalarope in San Jose, CA in the month of July from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the image to see the original.)

No responses yet

Dec 16 2015

Where Do The Golden Eagles Go?

Golden eagle at the Allegheny Front Hawk Watch, 1 Nov 2011 (photo by Michael Lanzone)

Golden eagle at the Allegheny Front Hawk Watch, 1 Nov 2011 (photo by Michael Lanzone)

In late autumn birders visit the Allegheny Front Hawk Watch, hoping this iconic bird will fly by.  On a good day more than 30 golden eagles migrate past the site.

After years of observation we now take for granted that golden eagles use the Allegheny Front as a migration corridor but that wasn’t always the case.

Golden eagles (Aquila chrysaetos) occur worldwide in the northern hemisphere but their stronghold in North America is in the American West.  They’re rarely seen in the East so it was a surprise when people saw so many at the Allegheny Front.

Where were they coming from?  Where were they going?

The answers remained a mystery until 2006-2007 when Dr. Todd Katzner, Dr. Trish Miller and Michael Lanzone, fore-runners of the Eastern Golden Eagle Working Group (EGEWG), fitted a few eagles with satellite transmitters.  The data showed those birds bred in Quebec and spent the winter in the mountains of West Virginia, Virginia and Kentucky.

This tantalizing information got a boost when the group upgraded their tracking equipment.  Beginning in 2008 most of the birds were fitted with GPS-GSM units that record more frequent data points and transmit over the cell network.

Here’s an EGEWG map from Katzner Lab showing movements of 14 golden eagles, Spring 2012 to Winter 2013.  These eagles were fitted with GPS-GSM units.  (Solid lines are winter/summer homes; dashed lines are migration.)

Golden eagle movements in eastern North America, satellite telemetry, Spring 2012-Winter 2013, part 2 (map courtesy of Katzner Lab)

Golden eagle movements in eastern North America, satellite telemetry, Spring 2012-Winter 2013, part 2 (map courtesy of Katzner Lab)

Thanks to many years of tracking, we now know that the golden eagles of eastern North America breed in Canada and spend the winter in the southern and central Appalachians.  This information, plus on-going research, helps protect the eagles and their habitat.

Click here to view maps at Katzner Lab and find out where the golden eagles go.


(photo by Michael Lanzone, Cellular Tracking Technologies)

3 responses so far

Dec 15 2015

Robins In December

Published by under Migration,Songbirds

American Robin (photo by Chuck Tague)

American Robin (photo by Chuck Tague)

The phrase “The First Robin of Spring” is misleading. We think it means that robins leave for the winter.  Not so in Pittsburgh.  We always have robins in December.

American robins (Turdus migratorius) are very versatile birds. They change their diet for the season, eating invertebrates in summer and fruit in winter.  They take advantage of invasive species, especially earthworms and bush honeysuckle.  They move quickly to places where we’ve changed the landscape, adopting our farms and suburbs.  And they’re flexible on migration.

Studies have shown that American robins migrate an average of 300-750 miles but that average doesn’t tell the whole story.  Some flocks head directly south, arriving in Florida by early December.  Others take their time, pausing when they find abundant food along the way.  Still others stay home or travel less than 60 miles from their breeding grounds especially in the last two decades as the climate warms.

Every December, huge flocks of robins feed and roost in Allegheny County.  In 2008 Scott Kinsey discovered 100,000 of them roosting in Carnegie.  The flocks stay through the month and are counted on the Christmas Bird Counts.  Then, when the fruit is gone, the ground freezes, or there’s snow cover the robins move on.

In Pittsburgh they normally don’t leave until January.


(photo by Chuck Tague)

2 responses so far

Next »