Category Archives: Migration

New Birds In Town

Louisiana waterthrush (photo by Anthony Bruno)
Louisiana waterthrush (photo by Anthony Bruno)

April 17, 2018: Despite this morning's snow ...

Last weekend's warm weather and south winds brought migrating birds to western Pennsylvania.

Here are some of the new arrivals, illustrated in photos by Tony Bruno, Steve Gosser and Don Weiss. My descriptions include the locations where I saw the birds last weekend in case you'd like to look for them.

Louisiana waterthrush (Parkesia motacilla) at top: Found along clean, rushing streams. This bird bobs his tail even when standing still. Walks the water's edge. Perches just above eye level when he sings. At Cedar Creek Park and Walker Park.

Yellow-throated warbler (Setophaga dominica) below: Found near creeks and often in sycamores. Walks on the trunk and large branches, often quite high. At Raccoon Creek Wildflower Reserve and Walker Park.

Yellow-throated warbler (photo by Anthony Bruno)
Yellow-throated warbler (photo by Anthony Bruno)

 

Pine warbler (Setophaga pinus) below: Slow-moving warbler who favors pines but can be found in any tree on migration. Walks on the trunk and large branches. At Snead's.

Pine warbler (photo by Anthony Bruno)
Pine warbler (photo by Anthony Bruno)

 

Yellow-rumped warbler (Setophaga coronata) below: An active warbler with a tiny dark vest and yellow rump. Flits among smaller branches.  Seen at Walker Park, but found nearly everywhere during migration.  This bright-colored bird is male. The females are brown where this one is black.

Yellow-rumped warbler (photo by Steve Gosser)
Yellow-rumped warbler (photo by Steve Gosser)

 

Ruby-crowned kinglet (Regulus calendula) below:  Not a warbler but can be confused due to its similar size. Very hyperactive. Flits and hovers among small branches.  You'll find this bird nearly everywhere on migration.  By the way, ruby-crowned kinglets stay all winter in eastern Pennsylvania.

Ruby-crowned kinglet (photo by Steve Gosser)
Ruby-crowned kinglet (photo by Steve Gosser)

 

Swallows and chimney swifts:  If you're desperate to see swallows and swifts in the spring, stop by a sewage treatment plant.  The nutrient rich outflow spawns flying insects that these birds eat on the wing. I saw my first tree swallows (Tachycineta bicolor) along Route 65 near the McKees Rocks Bridge, just downstream from Alcosan.

Tree swallow (photo by Don Weiss)
Tree swallow (photo by Don Weiss)

 

Winter wren (Troglodytes hiemalis) below:  "Winter" is passing through. Petite with striped flanks and a tiny cocked tail.  Look for him poking for insects among fallen logs and rocky outcrops.  Nests north of Pittsburgh and in the Laurel Highlands.  Seen at Schenley Park, Raccoon Wildflower Reserve and Walker Park.

Winter wren (photo by Steve Gosser)
Winter wren (photo by Steve Gosser)

 

If it hadn't turned cold, it would be a good week to get outdoors.

 

(photos by Tony Bruno, Steve Gosser and Don Weiss)

Where Are They Now?

Ruby-throated hummingbird (photo by Steve Gosser)
Ruby-throated hummingbird (photo by Steve Gosser)

Despite the cold weather a ruby-throated hummingbird arrived in eastern Pennsylvania this week.  He appeared April 2 on the hummingbirds migration map.

Observers in North America enter their first spring sightings of male ruby-throats at the hummingbirds.net website and their entries populate the map.

This screenshot taken at 5am April 5, 2018 shows the northernmost pioneers are in New Jersey and the Delaware watershed.

Spring 2018 (zoomed) map of Ruby-throated hummingbird migration as of 4/4/2018 (screenshot from hummingbirds.net)
Spring 2018 (zoomed) map of Ruby-throated hummingbird migration as of 4/4/2018 (screenshot from hummingbirds.net)

Hummingbirds move north when it's warm but this spring's weather has held them back.  In 2012 it was so hot that they'd already reached Minnesota by now (click here to see).

Follow their migration on the hummingbirds.net map.  Enter your own first sighting at this link.

Where are they now?  Check the map to see.

 

(photo by Steve Gosser, screenshot of map from www.hummingbirds.net)

p.s. Thanks to Donna Foyle for sending this news.

Grackles Come, Gulls Go

Common grackle in flight (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Common grackle in flight (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Spring seems to be coming slowly.  Nonetheless we've seen changes in the bird population since February.

Just over a month ago -- February 9 to 13 -- birders typically saw 7,000 ring-billed gulls assemble on the river every evening at the Head of the Ohio in Pittsburgh.  By February 20 that number had dropped to only three.  Yes, there are still ring-billed gulls in the area but the bulk of them are gone.

Ring-billed gulls chase for food (photo by Shawn Collins)
Ring-billed gulls chase for food (photo by Shawn Collins)

 

Meanwhile, common grackles (Quiscalus quiscula) were very uncommon over the winter but individual birds showed up in the last week of February.  I saw my first common grackle in Schenley Park on March 1 and more than 40 yesterday at Moraine State Park.

Common grackles have just begun to arrive and will stay to breed.  Additional ring-billed gulls will pass through Pittsburgh on their way north but they'll keep going.

Grackles come, Gulls go in early spring.

 

(photo credits: grackle from Wikimedia Commons; click on the image to see the original. Ring-billed gulls by Shawn Collins)

p.s.  I noticed the ring-billed gull population change by looking outside my window.  Twice in February I watched for 20 minutes at 5pm while I waited on hold on the phone.  On February 9 I saw thousands of gulls fly over my house on their way to the Head of the Ohio.  On February 22 the number was about 10.   Interestingly, I now associate the music-on-hold with flying gulls.

It’s Time For Ducks

Bufflehead landing, March 2013 (photo by Steve Gosser)
Male bufflehead, March 2013 (photo by Steve Gosser)

Ducks, grebes, coots and loons are migrating north through western Pennsylvania this month.  It's time to get outdoors and see them before they're gone.

Here are just a few of the species reported in Butler and Westmoreland Counties last weekend, photographed by Steve Gosser during spring migration 2011 to 2017.  If you like Steve's photos, check out the opportunity below to see his presentation in Clarion, PA tonight, March 14.

Above a male bufflehead (Bucephala albeola) comes in for a landing.  Notice how pink his feet are in March!

Below, a redhead (Aythya americana) stretches his wings while ducks and geese sleep in the background.

A redhead stretches his wing (photo by Steve Gosser)
A redhead stretches his wing, late February 2013 (photo by Steve Gosser)

A male hooded merganser (Lophodytes cucullatus) displays his crown.

Male hooded merganser showing his crown, March 2015 (photo by Steve Gosser)
Male hooded merganser showing his crown, March 2015 (photo by Steve Gosser)

American coots (Fulica americana) wade in shallow water as they feed.

American coots feeding in shallow water, March 2011 (photo by Steve Gosser)
American coots feeding in shallow water, March 2011 (photo by Steve Gosser)

The male northern shoveler (Spatula clypeata) is distinctive with his long shovel bill, green head, and rusty flanks.

Male northern shoveler, March 2017 (photo by Steve Gosser)
Male northern shoveler, March 2017 (photo by Steve Gosser)

Below, ring-necked ducks (Aythya collaris) take off.  Because of the white ring around their bills, I sometimes call them ring-billed ducks by accident.  The ring is a good field mark.

Ring-necked ducks take off, March 2011 (photo by Steve Gosser)
Ring-necked ducks take off, March 2011 (photo by Steve Gosser)

A red-necked grebe (Podiceps grisegena) in breeding plumage, March 2014.

Red-necked grebe, March 2014 (photo by Steve Gosser)
Red-necked grebe, March 2014 (photo by Steve Gosser)

Get outdoors soon to see migrating waterfowl.

Meanwhile, see more of Steve Gosser's photos tonight March 14 at 6:30pm at the Clarion Free Library in Clarion, PA.  Steve will be sharing his favorite photos and birding adventures at the Seneca Rocks Audubon meeting.  All are welcome.   More info here: http://www.senecarocksaudubon.org

 

(photos by Steve Gosser)

Tundra Swans On The Move

In the next few weeks tundra swans and snow geese will move north through Pennsylvania on their way to the Arctic. The best place to see them is at Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area in Kleinfeltersville.

Though the birds are anxious to get home they wait for winter to break its grip, moving only as far north as open water and fields without snow cover.  They look for open water to rest at night and visible food in the fields.

It's always hard to predict when waterfowl numbers will reach their peak at Middle Creek but this year must be especially challenging. This winter's hot-and-cold weather has created thick ice, then open water, then ice again. The snow geese have come and gone and come again.

PA Game Commission counts the geese and swans every day and posts Thursday's count on their Migration Update page.  The latest report on February 8 says:

Snow Geese: 50,000
Canada geese: 5,000
Tundra swans: 2,500
Since the last update, the majority of the snow goose numbers have returned and seem to be holding there.

Even though I saw lots of snow geese and tundra swans at the Snow Goose Festival in California I still want to go to Middle Creek.  I like to arrive at Willow Point before dawn and watch the snow geese leave the lake after sunrise in an explosive burst.  Then the tundra swans put on a beautiful show.

Tundra swans get in synch on the water before they fly.  They swim together, bob their heads, and hum "whooooo" as they go.  Near the moment of takeoff the flock swims in line, bobbing their heads frequently and humming loudly.  And then they're off!

Watch them prepare for takeoff in this video from Wisconsin.

Later this month I'll go see tundra swans on the move.

 

(video by Dale Bohlke on YouTube)

What date is best?  Here are the peak dates in 2016 & 2017 from the Middle Creek Migration Update page:

2017 Migration Summary:
Snow geese: 70,000+ on 02/22/17
Tundra swans: 4,500+ on 02/6/17  <-- notice how early this was!
Canada geese: 5,000+ on 02/10/17

2016 Migration Summary:
Snow geese: 65,000+ on 02/29/16
Tundra swans: 3,500+ on 02/29/16
Canada geese: several hundred on 02/09/16

Rare Bird!

Gray-crowned rosy-finch, Crawford County, PA, 3 Feb 2018 (photo by Shawn Collins)
Gray-crowned rosy-finch, Crawford County, PA, 3 Feb 2018 (photo by Shawn Collins)

On 1 February 2018, a couple noticed an unusual finch at their feeders in Crawford County, Pennsylvania.  Slightly larger that a house finch, it was mostly brown with a gray cap, a black-tipped yellow bill, and pinkish wings and rump.  Was it a gray-crowned rosy-finch?

Gray-crowned rosy-finch, Crawford County, PA, 3 Feb 2018 (photo by Shawn Collins)
Gray-crowned rosy-finch, Crawford County, PA, 3 Feb 2018 (photo by Shawn Collins)

The wife called her birding friend Shawn Collins for a second opinion.  Yes indeed, this is a gray-crowned rosy-finch (Leucosticte tephrocotis) a bird so rare that it's the first one ever recorded in Pennsylvania.

A rare bird like this causes a stampede as soon as the news gets out, so Shawn and the homeowners made a plan.  Their home is in a gated community and they wish to remain anonymous, but they want birders to see the rosy-finch from the best viewing location -- inside their living room!  -- so Shawn is coordinating visits to its anonymous location.  (If you want to see the gray-crowned rosy-finch, email Shawn Collins for an appointment. Click here for instructions.)

Gray-crowned rosy-finch with house finch in background. Crawford County, PA, 3 Feb 2018 (photo by Shawn Collins)
Gray-crowned rosy-finch with house finch in background. Crawford County, PA, 3 Feb 2018 (photo by Shawn Collins)

Why is this bird so rare?

Gray-crowned rosy-finches live in western North America.  The interior population (this bird) nests on the tundra in the Rocky Mountains from Alaska to Montana and spends the winter from British Columbia to New Mexico, Nevada to western Nebraska.

But individual rosy-finches sometimes wander in winter as far east as northern Ohio.

Gray-crowned rosy-finch, Crawford County, PA, 3 Feb 2018 (photo by Shawn Collins)
Gray-crowned rosy-finch, Crawford County, PA, 3 Feb 2018 (photo by Shawn Collins)

Crawford County, PA is on the Ohio state line so maybe it was only a matter of time before a gray-crowned rosy-finch made it to northwestern Pennsylvania.

We're glad this one is here.  Life Bird!

Gray-crowned rosy-finch, Crawford County, PA, 3 Feb 2018 (photo by Shawn Collins)
Gray-crowned rosy-finch, Crawford County, PA, 3 Feb 2018 (photo by Shawn Collins)

Thank you to the anonymous homeowners who've graciously opened their home to view the rosy-finch and thanks to Shawn Collins for coordinating the visits.

For more looks at the gray-crowned rosy-finch see Shawn Collins' Flickr album.

 

(photos by Shawn Collins)

p.s.  Shawn tells those who plan to see it: "Please use the eBird hotspot that Geoff Malosh started for the bird. This is not the exact location due to the home owners request to keep all of her info offline. The gated community is small and the only parking allowed is in her driveway which fits 4 cars. And we are pushing it with 4! To view the bird we have to be in her living room. If you need the eBird link I can send it to you. Please no personal hotspots!!! If anyone is walking the area or what not, you will be turned into the police and will be escorted out with trespassing charges. If that happens once then this bird will be off limits! So please no one be stupid and do anything that will jeopardize folks seeing this bird. This is a very watched community and she had to let people know she will be having visitors this week and next so they were not alarmed at the cars in her driveway.

Just a side note....in each group I've brought over...the bird shows up within 2 minutes after we get there! It's like it knows!!!"

The Snowies Are Coming!

Snowy Owl, Headlands Beach, Ohio, 2 Dec 2017 (photo by Anthony Bruno)
Snowy Owl, Headlands Beach, Ohio, 2 Dec 2017 (photo by Anthony Bruno)

The snowy owls are coming!

Reports from the Great Lakes to Chesapeake Bay indicate this may be a great winter for seeing snowy owls (Bubo scandiacus).  Tony Bruno traveled to Ohio last weekend and found this one at Headlands Beach.

There are clusters of snowies this month along the Great Lakes and Atlantic Coast as shown in purple on this eBird map.  The screenshot shows only December 1-8, 2017 data.  Click it to see the latest snowy owl eBird map for December 2017.

Map of snowy owl sightings in/near Pennsylvania, 1-8 Dec 2017 (screenshot from eBird)
Map of snowy owl sightings in/near Pennsylvania, 1-8 Dec 2017 (screenshot from eBird)

Is it time for a road trip?  Or will the owls come south to Pittsburgh?  Rumor has it they already have.

Read the latest snowy owl news at Project Snowstorm.  Watch PABIRDS and Ohio Bird News for location updates.

 

(photo by Anthony Bruno)

Tundra Swans Overhead

Tundra swans in flight (photo by Steve Gosser)
Tundra swans in flight (photo by Steve Gosser)

This week's cold weather bought winds from the north and flocks of tundra swans over western Pennsylvania.  We usually hear them first, rush out to see them fly ... and then they're gone.

Where did they come from?  Where are they going?

Most of "our" tundra swans breed in the north central territory of Canada (Nunavut) and north of Hudson Bay.  This map from Xeno Canto shows their path in North America.  (Breeding range is pink.  Migration corridors are greenish yellow.  Wintering sites are blue.  I've added a purple dot for our location in western Pennsylvania.)

Map of Tundra Swan breeding, migration and wintering in North America (from Xeno Canto with location of recordings)
Map of Tundra Swan breeding, migration and wintering in North America (from Xeno Canto with location of recordings)

In late September tundra swan families assemble into flocks.  Then "our" swans move south through Canada's prairies, arriving in North Dakota and the upper Mississippi River valley in early October where they eat and wait until winter hits.

On winter's first blast they fly southeast to Chesapeake Bay and eastern North Carolina, passing over Pennsylvania on their way.

Tundra swans typically fly 30 miles per hour but on a strong northwest wind they can clock 100 mph and fly non-stop for 1,000 miles.

Most flocks don't stop in western Pennsylvania but they take a break here if the "kids" get tired.  That's what happened on Tuesday at Crooked Creek Lake.

Marge Van Tassel and a group of volunteers heard the swans coming and drove to a good vantage point to watch them come in.  Marge's photo shows them descending to the lake like large beautiful snowflakes.

Tundra swans landing at Crooked Creek, 7 Nov 2017 (photo by Marge Van Tassel)
Tundra swans landing at Crooked Creek, 7 Nov 2017 (photo by Marge Van Tassel)

 

Listen for their sound overhead and you may see tundra swans, too.

 

(photo credits:  flock in flight by Steve Gosser, flock landing by Marge Van Tassel, map and audio clip recorded in Michigan by Allen T. Chartier, #XC11851 from Xeno Canto)

Not A Sparrow, Not A Thrush

American pipit, Algonquin Provincial Park, Canada (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
American pipit, Algonquin Provincial Park, Canada (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Not a sparrow, not a thrush, he's on his way to Georgia ... sort of.

American pipits (Anthus rubescens) nest in alpine and arctic tundra and winter in open country from the southern U.S. (including Georgia) to Guatemala.  Right now they're on the move through western Pennsylvania, but because our area lacks tundra the best place to find pipits is on mudflats.  And where are those?

Last Sunday a bunch of us stopped at Somerset "Not a Lake" in Somerset, PA to look for birds.  The lake was drained to repair the dam and out on the mud roamed killdeer, dunlin and other shorebirds.  Among them were two songbirds that pecked the mud, darted, zigzagged, ran and jumped. American pipits.

We could hear them, too.  Here's a loud pipit (with a soft longspur in the background):

On Throw Back Thursday this vintage article that lists why pipits aren't thrushes.  Back in 2010 it was posed as a quiz, but I've already told you the answer  😉    Quiz: Not A Thrush.

 

(photo from Wikimedia Commons; click on the image to see the original)

Small Ducks Stop By For a Visit

Bufflehead female with two males (photo by Steve Gosser)
Buffleheads, female with two males (photo by Steve Gosser)

It's early November, the wind's from the north, and it's time for waterfowl. Here are two small ducks who stop in southwestern Pennsylvania on their way south.

Buffleheads and ruddy ducks hang out together in the winter, perhaps because they dive for the same food:  aquatic insects and crustaceans (crabs, crayfish, etc).  Buffleheads add mollusks to their diet (small mussels, clams, etc).  Ruddy ducks add plants and zooplankton.

Buffleheads (Bucephala albeola) are black and white with compact bodies and stubby bills.  Only 13.5 inches long, they fly fast and land abruptly.  They're actually the same size as a pied-billed grebe(*) but bufflehead males look larger because their round white-topped heads stand out.

Male bufflehead (photo by Steve Gosser)
Male bufflehead (photo by Steve Gosser)

Identifying female buffleheads is tricky, though, because their black heads have a white splash on the cheek that resembles -- at long distance -- a male hooded merganser or a female ruddy duck.

The best clue to a female bufflehead is that she's close to the males, as you can see in Steve Gosser's photo at top.

While buffleheads look like large ducklings, ruddy ducks (Oxyura jamaicensis) are shaped like bathtub toys(*).  At only 15 inches long they have big heads, thick necks and large slightly upturned bills.  Just like rubber duckies they often cock their tails, especially when asleep.

Ruddy duck (photo by Steve Gosser)
Ruddy duck swimming (photo by Steve Gosser)

In November ruddies are less "ruddy" than in the breeding season but the male retains his white cheek.

Ruddy duck male, late non-breeding plumage (photo by Steve Gosser)
Ruddy duck male, late non-breeding plumage (photo by Steve Gosser)

Females and juveniles have off white cheeks with a faint brown line.

Female ruddy duck (photo by Steve Gosser)
Female ruddy duck (photo by Steve Gosser)

 

Though buffleheads winter as close to us as Ohio, neither species stays in Pittsburgh for the season.  Stop by our rivers and lakes to see these ducks before they leave.

 

(photos by Steve Gosser)
(*) Descriptions adapted from Pete Dunne's Essential Field Guide Companion, an excellent resource for birding.