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)
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.
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?
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)
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.
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 (Turdusmigratorius) 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.