Swifts eat flying insects so they migrate during the day when the insects are out. On hot days they circle high, coursing back and forth in the clouds of bugs. It doesn’t look like organized migration but they’re tending ever southward while they eat.
At dusk the swifts gather at big chimneys, circle in a vortex, then pop into the chimneys to roost, as shown in the video. On cold rainy days they roost during the day to conserve energy when the bugs don’t fly.
Vaux’s swifts are on their way to Central America but the chimney swifts will go much further, crossing the Gulf of Mexico to spend the winter in Columbia, Peru, Ecuador and western Brazil. I wonder if their over-water migration gave them the species name “pelagica.”
For the next several weeks, watch chimneys at dusk to see the swifts. Click here for suggested sites in Pittsburgh.
Are you at a sandy beach? If not, rule out sanderlings. If yes, examine behavior and size. Sanderlings walk on sand, they chase the waves, and they’re noticeably bigger than least and semipalmated. Sanderlings also look whiter than the other two.
Size: Least and semipalmated are smaller than all the other species.
Legs: If you can see colors and the birds legs aren’t muddy you’ve hit the jackpot. Least sandpipers are the only peeps with yellow or greenish legs. If you cannot see leg color then …
Posture while feeding: Imagine a person knee-bending (least) versus extended out to reach something (semipalmated).
Least sandpipers crouch with bent legs and peck near their toes. They look hunched.
Semipalmated sandpipers reach out with their bills to find food. They look stretched out and their tails may be cocked higher.
(Western and semipalmated postures are similar. Fortunately, there are no westerns here and now.)
Bills: All are black.
Least sandpiper bills taper to a fine point with slight droop at the tip.
Semipalmated bills are shorter and straight, sometimes slightly blunt at the tip.
Micro-habitat: According to Pete Dunne’s Essential Field Guide Companion: “Any lone peep in marginal habitat is likely to be a Least (baked mud or tight watery leads flanked by rank tiny puddles).” They say that leasts like edges.
So which one of the birds above is a least sandpiper? It’s a trick question. Both are. And yet they’re standing up to their bellies in water to confound the “leasts liked edges” statement. Notice their yellow legs.
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:
The bill is only as long as its head. Measure the underside from the chin.
Bill is longer than its head front-to-back.
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.
Dainty, slender, weighs 2.8 oz
Substantial, a bit bulky, weighs 6 oz
Dainty. Picks at surface or under water. Runs sometimes.
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 US Fish & Wildlife via Wikimedia Commons)
Canada Warbler (photo by Cris Hamilton)
American white pelicans and Canada warblers don’t breed at Magee Marsh but they’re there this month.
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)
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)
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.
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.
Actual+forecast morning low temperatures in Pittsburgh, PA, January 1-14, 2016 (graph uses National Weather Service data as of 1/9/16)