Archive for the 'Migration' Category

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)

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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)

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)

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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.)

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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)

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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)

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Nov 14 2015

Have You Seen One Yet?

Published by under Migration,Songbirds

American tree sparrow (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

American tree sparrow (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

In the past few weeks winter sparrows have arrived in western Pennsylvania.  We’ve seen dark-eyed juncos, white-throated, white-crowned, and fox sparrows … but I haven’t heard of American tree sparrows yet.

American tree sparrows (Spizella arborea) breed in Canada and Alaska and spend the winter in weedy snow-covered fields and backyards in the Lower 48 states, though not as far south as Florida.

When they do show up they can be confusing.  They resemble chipping sparrows except for a black dot in the center of their chests and a two-tone bill.  (Notice the yellow lower mandible and the dull brown upper mandible.) The two don’t mix though. Chipping sparrows are usually gone by the time the tree sparrows get here.

Watch for the arrival of this same-but-different bird.

Have you seen an American tree sparrow yet?


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

3 responses so far

Nov 12 2015

A Late Fall

Flock of ducks (photo by Brian Herman)

Flock of ducks (photo by Brian Herman)

It seems to me that fall is late this year.

The leaves were late to change color and stayed on the trees longer than expected, temperatures last week were 15 degrees above normal, and the ducks are late arriving from the north.  In my city neighborhood we haven’t had a really hard frost yet.

Have you noticed this, too?

A strong El Niño is warming the northern U.S. and southern Canada this fall.  Without ice forming on the northern lakes, waterfowl have no compelling reason to come south.  When do you think the big flocks will arrive?

For a good explanation of this year’s El Niño and the Winter 2015-2016 forecast, click here at The Weather Channel.


(photo by Brian Herman)

p.s. Here’s what the El Niño looks like in an image from There’s a big warm spot in the Pacific Ocean and another one off the coast of California.

Seas surface temperature anomaly, Oct 11 - Nov 7, 2015 (image from

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