Archive for the 'Migration' Category

Aug 31 2016

It’s Time To Watch Chimneys

Across North America chimney swifts (Chaetura pelagica) and their look-alike western cousins, Vaux’s swifts (Chaetura vauxi), are migrating south for the winter.


Chimney swift trio (photo by Jeff Davis)

Chimney swift trio (photo by Jeff Davis)

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.


(video from Cornell Lab of Ornithology on YouTube, swifts photo by Jeff Davis)

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Aug 25 2016

On Their Way to Veracruz

Published by under Migration

Pair of Prothonotary Warblers courting (photo by Kim Steininger)

Pair of Prothonotary Warblers courting (photo by Kim Steininger)

On Throw Back Thursday:

It’s still summer but North America’s warblers are already on migration to their winter homes.

Beginning in August, prothonotary warblers (Protonotaria citrea) spend three months in transit. Read more about where they go and how they spend their time in this article from August 2009.

Leaving Now for Veracruz


(photo by Kim Steininger)

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Aug 24 2016

Which One of You Is Least?

Two "peeps" (photo by Mike Baird, Morro Bay, CA via Wikimedia Commons)

Two “peeps” (photo by Mike Baird via Wikimedia Commons)

Which one of you is a least sandpiper?  That’s the question I ask all the “peeps” when I see them in the field.

This month I’ve been using the tips I wrote in Shorebird Practice on August 12 to find the answers. Here’s how:

  • Which small shorebirds are possible here and now? In western Pennsylvania in August the likely suspects are least sandpipers, semipalmated sandpipers, and at sandy shores, sanderlings.  At muddy locations you might encounter the relatively rare Baird’s sandpiper.  He’s longer-winged than the other three.
  • 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.


p.s. Here are two extensive resources on identifying peeps:  ABA’s in-depth identification of peeps and Peep identification at The Nutty Birder website.

(photo by Mike Baird from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the image to see the original.)

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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)

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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

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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)

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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)

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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)

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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)

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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)

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