Category Archives: Migration

Birds On The Way This Week

Red-eyed vireo (photo by Shawn Collins)
Red-eyed vireo (photo by Shawn Collins)

Last weekend's rain and north winds may have slowed down migration but the birds have to get here eventually.  Here are five of the many species to look for thanks to Birdcast's Upper Midwest and Northeast forecast.


A few red-eyed vireos (Vireo olivaceus) are already here but the bulk of them are arriving this week. Warbler-sized with plain olive backs and white chests, their distinguishing feature is a charcoal eye line.  They do have red eyes, as shown in Shawn Collins' photo above, but it's unlikely you'll see this because vireos are usually high among the leaves.  Listen for their relentless song, "Here I am. Where are you? Here I am. Where are you?"

"Red-eyed Vireo (Vireo olivaceus)" from xeno-canto by Ross Gallardy. Genre: Vireonidae.


Black-billed cuckoos (Coccyzus erythropthalmus) nest in contiguous forest but you might find one anywhere on migration. I saw one in Schenley Park last week.  About the size of a robin with a very long tail, they have plain taupe backs, plain white chests and black bills that set them apart from their yellow-billed cousins. Black-billed cuckoos have red eyes, too, but you'll have to be as close as Steve Gosser's photo if you want to see them.

Black-billed cuckoo (photo by Steve Gosser)
Black-billed cuckoo (photo by Steve Gosser)

How will you find a black-billed cuckoo? They often sit silently among the leaves but they move like no other bird.  Perched in a hunched position they jump from branch to branch with awkward flapping as they search for caterpillars.  If they were as large as the squirrel cuckoo of Central and South America, you'd say they move like squirrels.  Here's the black-billed cuckoo's song:

"Black-billed Cuckoo (Coccyzus erythropthalmus)" from xeno-canto by Andrew Spencer. Genre: Cuculidae.


At last we'll see a shorebird that's easy to identify!  Dunlin (Calidris alpina) are due here this week. Most of the time dunlin are so plain that you have to identify them by size, shape and habits but in May they stand out as the only small rusty-backed shorebird with a black patch on its belly.

Dunlin in breeding plumage (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Dunlin in breeding plumage (photo from Wikimedia Commons)


Watch for bay-breasted warblers (Setophaga castanea) or you'll miss them!  They nest in Canada so they're only here for a few weeks in May.   With dark backs, black faces, cream-colored necks and a splash of rusty-red bay on their throats and sides these birds are truly "eye candy."  Their song is so high-pitched that it's almost beyond my audio range.  Click here to hear.

Bay-breasted Warbler (photo by Chuck Tague)
Bay-breasted Warbler (photo by Chuck Tague)


Canada warblers (Cardellina canadensis) are arriving, too, but you'll have a longer chance to see them.  As their name suggests they nest in Canada but they also breed in the forests of northern Pennsylvania and the Laurel Highlands. Look for their charcoal gray backs, yellow throats and bellies, and black necklaces. Unlike magnolia warblers they have no white accents.  Their song says, "Chip chuppety, swee ditchety." Click here to hear.

Canada Warbler (photo by Cris Hamilton)
Canada Warbler (photo by Cris Hamilton)


The birds will be hard to see now because the trees have so many leaves ... but leaves attract bugs and that's why the birds are here.


(photo credits:
red-eyed vireo by Shawn Collins,
black-billed cuckoo by Steve Gosser,
dunlin from Wikimedia Commons
bay-breasted warbler by Chuck Tague,
Canada warbler by Cris Hamilton

It’s Gonna Be A Great Week For Birds

Scarlet tanager, 2011 (photo by Steve Gosser)
Scarlet tanager, May 2011 (photo by Steve Gosser)

The Big Push of migration is here!  I've already seen some gorgeous birds that are due this week and there's more to come.  Here's what we can look forward to.

Scarlet tanagers (Piranga olivacea) were already at Enlow Fork in Greene County, Pennsylvania on Friday. When they get here, listen for two sounds that tell you this bird is nearby: the Chip-burr call and the male's "robin with a sore throat" song.

American redstarts (Setophaga ruticilla) were everywhere at Enlow.  Their song can be hard to identify so look for the flash of the male's black, white and orange colors at mid height in the trees.

American redstart, May 2011 (photo by Steve Gosser)
American redstart, May 2011 (photo by Steve Gosser)


Schenley Park's Panther Hollow Lake has a concrete border so I was surprised to find a solitary sandpiper (Tringa solitaria) feeding there on Saturday morning, 29 April.  Look for these dark-backed sandpipers with white eye rings along the water's edge. They travel alone.

Solitary sandpiper, May 2011 (photo by Steve Gosser)
Solitary sandpiper, May 2011 (photo by Steve Gosser)


And here are two species that I haven't seen yet.  According to Birdcast, they'll arrive this week.

The magnolia warbler (Setophaga magnolia) is a tiny bird with a yellow throat and belly that's accented by a black necklace.  He has white splashes on his head, wings and tail that distinguish him from the Canada warbler. Here's his song.

Magnolia warbler (photo by Steve Gosser)
Magnolia warbler (photo by Steve Gosser)


Swainson's thrushes (Catharus ustulatus) are probably the most numerous thrush in North America but we only see them on migration in Pittsburgh.  Look for the buffy lores and eye ring and listen for their wiry upward spiraling song.

Swainson's thrush (photo by Steve Gosser)
Swainson's thrush (photo by Steve Gosser)


Bird migration is in full force in western Pennsylvania.  It's going to be a great week for birds!


(All photos by Steve Gosser. Click here to see his photo blog.)

The Catbirds Are Back In Town!

Gray catbird (photo by Chuck Tague)
Gray catbird (photo by Chuck Tague)

Years ago Chuck Tague taught me that gray catbirds (Dumetella carolinensis) are a special signal during spring migration.

Catbirds spend the winter in Florida, Cuba and Central America, then return in the spring after the first tantalizing migrants (the blue-gray gnatcatchers and Louisiana waterthrushes) but before the big push of warblers, thrushes and tanagers.

Because they're the leading edge of the best part of migration, Chuck always announced his first gray catbird of the year.  I'll carry on his tradition.

Yesterday was the day!  On 28 April I saw my first gray catbirds of 2017 at Enlow Fork in Greene County and at home in the City of Pittsburgh.

This year the catbirds did not arrive alone. At Enlow Fork we also saw rose-breasted grosbeaks, scarlet tanagers, Baltimore orioles, wood thrushes, northern parulas, American redstarts, common yellowthroats and more.

I'm still waiting for an indigo bunting.  Maybe today ... 🙂


p.s.  Many of us learned a lot from Chuck Tague who passed away last June.  This coming Thursday, May 4 at 7:30pm the Wissahickon Nature Club will hold an All Members Night A Tribute to Chuck Tague.  Bring up to 12 slides or digital photos to share.  Click here and scroll down for location and meeting information.


(photo by Chuck Tague)

Soon The Swifts

Chimney swift trio (photo by Jeff Davis)
Chimney swift trio (photo by Jeff Davis)

What's on tap in migration this week?

Some of Birdcast's 14-21 April predictions are already here and one of my favorites is still to come.

Chimney swifts (Chaetura pelagica) are due this week.  We're likely to hear their chittering sound before we see them hawking insects overhead.  Though they look like cigars with wings (above) they're actually related to hummingbirds!  In the western U.S. watch for the similar Vaux's swift (Chaetura vauxi).

Two of this week's predicted migrants were in Schenley Park yesterday.

A blue headed vireo (Vireo solitarius) sang his slurred, sweet song next to Bartlett Playground (click here to hear).  Bobby Greene's photo shows off this vireo's blue-gray head, white spectacles, and the yellow-green wash on his flanks that makes him hard to see among new leaves.

Blue-headed vireo (photo by Bobby Greene)
Blue-headed vireo (photo by Bobby Greene)


A house wren (Troglodytes aedon) was back at the nest boxes near the golf course's 14th hole, claiming every one of them.  Though boring to look at, his bubbly song is always loud and clear.

House wren (photo by Chuck Tague)
House wren (photo by Chuck Tague)

Warbler season is here with yellow-rumped warblers back in town and one or two sightings of black-throated green, prairie, yellow, black-and-white and a common yellowthroat in our area.

When will the first northern parula (Setophaga americana) arrive?



p.s. Click here for all the Birdcast reports.

(photo credits:  chimney swifts by Jeff Davis, blue-headed vireo by Robert Greene, Jr., house wren by Chuck Tague)

Hello Ruby, Goodbye Juncos

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

Spring migration is heating up!  Here's what Birdcast says we can expect this week (7-14 April) in western Pennsylvania.

Watch for arriving ruby-crowned kinglets (Regulus calendula), blue-gray gnatcatchers (Polioptila caerulea), and many kinds of swallows.

Ruby-crowned kinglets (above) are tiny hyperactive birds with a song that sounds like a carolina wren + winter wren tossed with a chatterbox.  Click here to hear.

The blue-gray gnatcatcher (Polioptila caerulea) is another tiny hyperactive bird who's often heard before he's seen because of his unique "bizzy" sound.  Listen for this call and watch for the small bird pictured below.

Blue-gray gnatcatcher (photo by Steve Gosser)
Blue-gray gnatcatcher (photo by Steve Gosser)


Northern rough-winged, tree, and barn swallows are all on the move.   Click on their photos for identification tips and the calls of these species.  Northern rough-winged swallows are easiest to identify by sound because they make a spitting noise.

Northern Rough-winged Swallow (photo by Chuck Tague)
Northern Rough-winged Swallow (photo by Chuck Tague)


Tree Swallows gather for migration (photo by Chuck Tague)
Tree Swallows on migration (photo by Chuck Tague)


Barn swallow, Ontario, Canada (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Barn swallow, Ontario, Canada (photo from Wikimedia Commons)


Meanwhile, you may not have noticed that dark-eyed junco migration has peaked and they're on their way out.

Goodbye, juncos!


(photo credits:
Ruby-crowned kinglet and blue-gray gnatcatcher by Steve Gosser
Northern rough-winged and tree swallows by Chuck Tague
Barn swallow from Wikimedia Commons

Bird Migration: Get a Forecast!

Osprey migration interactive map, 25 Feb to 25 Mar 2017, linked from eBird's Birdcast

During spring migration new birds arrive every day.  We use weather forecasts to decide when to go birding. Wouldn't it be great to have a bird forecast, too?

Check out Cornell's Birdcast!

When birds migrate each species moves on its own schedule so Birdcast uses eBird data to map earliest arrival dates across North America.  The maps tell us which species are on the move, who's about to arrive and who's left.

Cornell analyzes the past week (here's the March 24-31 analysis), then makes four regional forecasts for the coming week.  Click here for the March 31-April 7 forecast.

The map above shows ospreys on the move from February 25 to March 25.  Yes, our ospreys are back; Toronto's will arrive soon.

Better yet, Birdcast provides arrival highlights throughout the week.  The March 28 report has news of scissor-tailed flycatchers, chimney swifts, eastern kingbirds, red-eyed vireos, northern parulas and more!  Click here for all the Birdcast reports.

So when you want to know what's coming, check out the bird forecast at BirdCast.


(Osprey migration interactive map, 25 Feb to 25 Mar 2017, linked from eBird's Birdcast)

Birds Were On The Move Overnight

National Weather Service radar, 25 Mar 2017, 4:48am (screenshot from NOAA)
National Weather Service radar mosaic, 25 Mar 2017, 4:48am (screenshot from NOAA)

What are the blue dots in the eastern U.S. on last night's radar?  Birds!

South winds overnight prompted songbirds to move north from Florida to the Great Lakes.  A storm front approaching the Mississippi River and rain from Chicago to Massachusetts brought them to a halt.

Today should a good day to go birding in the areas that have those fuzzy blue dots.  Get out there before it rains.


(screenshot from the National Weather Service full-res radar mosaic)

Birds On The Move Every Day

Birds in the Americas are on the move every day of the year -- even in winter.

 Animation by Frank La Sorte/Cornell Lab of Ornithology
Migration animation by Frank La Sorte/Cornell Lab of Ornithology


This animation by Frank La Sorte at Cornell Lab uses eBird data to show the movements of 118 species in the western hemisphere. Yes, your eBird checklists can lead to something useful and beautiful like this.

Click on the link to learn which species are on the map and how it was made in this January 2016 news from Cornell Lab:  Mesmerizing Migration: Watch 118 Bird Species Migrate Across a Map of the Western Hemisphere.


(animation by Frank La Sorte/Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Click on the image to see the original)

Of Llamas and Possums

Llama on Machu Picchu, Opossum in western Canada (photos from Wikimedia Commons)
Llama on Machu Picchu, Virginia opossum in western Canada (photos from Wikimedia Commons)

What do llamas and opossums have in common?

Their ancestors swapped continents during the Great American Interchange.  They now live a world away from their country of origin.

The "Great American Interchange" sounds like a flea market or a swap meet but it's actually the movement of species between North and South America when the two continents joined at Panama three million years ago.

Before the interchange our continent had members of the camel family; South America did not.  The camelids walked south and thrived on their new continent in the wild as guanacos and vicuñas and domesticated as llamas and alpacas.  In the meantime camels went extinct here in North America.  So there are wild camels in Peru but we have none.

Other animals made the journey, too. Here are just a few of the northern species that became successful in South America: camelids, squirrels, cottontail rabbits, deer, wild horses, peccaries, otters, raccoons, wolves, cougars, American sparrows (Emberizidae), trogons and condors.  Click here for the complete list.

Initially the interchange was symmetrical with the same number of species going north and south but the result was lopsided.  More northern species survived their move to South America than did southern species transplanted to the north.  This was due in part to the difficult trek northward (deserts en route), our less hospitable climate (winter!) and the long isolation of South American fauna.

Opossums were one of the few success stories.  We had no marsupials in North America until the Virginia opossum's ancestors made the journey and thrived on our continent.  Many of their relatives still live in South America.

So what did we get when South American animals walked north?  Not as much as you'd think: opossums, armadillos, porcupines, cougars, parrots, hummingbirds, tanagers, and tyrant flycatchers.  Click here for the complete northbound list.

Cougars (Puma concolor) are on both lists because they were originally from North America and walked into South America. After they went extinct in North America the southern ones walked north to repopulate our continent.

We humans were part of the Great American Interchange, too.  Our species' movement around the globe was made possible by continental land bridges.


(photos from Wikimedia Commons: llama at Machu Picchu, Virginia opossum in western Canada. Click on each link to see the original.)

Two Weeks Early!

Common grackle (photo by Steve Gosser)
Common grackle (photo by Steve Gosser)

On Throw Back Thursday:

Last year that I reported that common grackles usually return to my city neighborhood on March 5.

Well, this year they're ahead of schedule.  They arrived here in Pittsburgh on Tuesday February 21 and even earlier at Moraine State Park, 45 miles further north, on Sunday, February 19.

The grackles are two weeks early!

I noticed them when I heard them "skrink."

Click on last year's article below to watch the grackles puff and squeak on video.

Grackle Day


p.s. Have you seen other "early birds" this week?

(photo by Steve Gosser)