Archive for the 'Migration' Category

Oct 24 2015

Waiting For Snowbirds But Not For Snow

Published by under Migration,Songbirds

Dark-eyed Junco, January 2014 (photo by Cris Hamilton)

Dark-eyed Junco, January 2014 (photo by Cris Hamilton)

In the normal progression of fall migration, October is when northern sparrows arrive in the Pittsburgh area.

I’ve already seen my first white-throated and white-crowned sparrows, but I haven’t seen a dark-eyed junco yet.

Some people call juncoes “snowbirds” because they arrive with the first snow.  Fortunately our juncoes get here before that happens.

I’m waiting for snowbirds, but not for snow.


(photo by Cris Hamilton)

UPDATE: First junco in my yard this fall appeared on Oct 29 after the rain. Then a pause and today (Oct 31) I have 2 juncoes.

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Oct 19 2015

Male Or Female?

Published by under Migration,Songbirds

Ruby-crowned kinglet, October 2015 (photo by Steve Gosser)

Ruby-crowned kinglet, October 2015 (photo by Steve Gosser)

You can’t tell the difference between male and female ruby-crowned kinglets (Regulus calendula) unless they’re upset.  Only males have the ruby crown that gave the bird its name but they hide it unless they’re agitated.

Fortunately for us, ruby-crowned kinglets are feisty and will raise their head feathers as a challenge to each other and just about anyone else.

Watch for them migrating through western Pennsylvania this month.

Steve Gosser photographed this one at Shenango Lake, Mercer County.


(photo by Steve Gosser)

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Oct 09 2015

So Many Birds

Published by under Migration

Tree swallows have left western Pennsylvania for the south but their migration lingers on the Atlantic Coast.

On October 1 Mike Lanzone filmed a huge flock at Cape May, New Jersey.  (Click on the word “vimeo” to see the video in full screen.)

There are so many birds on the East Coast in October that Cape May Bird Observatory holds a fall birding festival.  This year it’s October 22-25 with the title “So. Many. Birds.”  You can see why.


(video by Mike Lanzone)

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Oct 08 2015

Purple Finches This Winter?

Published by under Migration

Purple finch (photo by Brian Herman)

Purple finch (photo by Brian Herman)

Will this winter bring unusual northern birds to our feeders?

Yes, probably purple finches. Maybe redpolls.  I know this because I read the Winter Finch Forecast.

Every fall Ron Pittaway produces a Winter Finch Forecast for Canada that predicts the travels of seed eating birds and three other species that often irrupt when finches do.  When he says a species will leave Ontario, it will probably come to Pennsylvania.

To make his prediction Pittaway looks at Canada’s forests from a seed eater’s perspective.  This year purple finch foods are in low supply on Canada’s trees so he predicts that “Many (not all) should migrate south out of Ontario this fall.”

Get ready for purple finches by offering sunflower seeds at your feeders.

And learn to tell the difference between house finches (already at your feeders) and purple finches (who aren’t here yet).  Click here for comparison photos and a discussion of Purple versus House.

House Finch (Carpodacus mexicanus) Purple Finch (Carpodacus purpureus)
Year round resident throughout PA A northern finch, not common in southern PA
Male (red and brown): Basically a brown bird with red or orange accents, especially on his head. Male (rosy): Head, back, breast are rosy as if the bird was dipped head first in berry juice.
Male (red and brown): Has brown stripes on flanks. Male (rosy): Has rosy stripes on flanks.
Female (brown): Looks gray-brown overall. Has muted, blurry stripes on breast and flanks. Female (brown): Has dark brown flecked stripes on breast and flanks.
May have squared off tail Always has notched tail


The bird pictured above has rosy stripes on his flanks.  Guess who!

Read Ron Pittaway’s 2015-2016 Winter Finch Forecast for news of redpolls, grosbeaks, blue jays and more.


(photo by Brian Herman)

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Oct 07 2015

Through the Storm

Whimbrel (nicknamed Upinraaq) at the MacKenzie River, Canada. She winters in Brazil.

What happens to birds who migrate over the ocean during hurricane season?  Do they run into major storms?

Indeed they do.  Since 2007 when the Center for Conservation Biology began satellite-tracking whimbrels they’ve seen 9 of them fly through hurricanes or tropical storms.  All 9 birds survived!

This year when Upinraaq (above) launched from Newfoundland on her transoceanic journey, she had no idea she’d encounter Tropical Storm Erika.  By the time she hit Erika’s 46 mile per hour winds she’d already been flying non-stop for three days. Nonetheless she flew straight through the storm and made landfall at Suriname.

However, her destination is Brazil and she faces a big challenge in Suriname before she gets home.  Click here to read about her land-side challenge and the amazing feats of migrating whimbrels (one flew through Hurricane Irene!) at the CCB’s blog: Whimbrel Tracked Into Tropical Storm Erika.


(photo by Fletcher Smith linked from the Center for Conservation Biology. Click on the image to see the photo and read the story of Upinraaq.)

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Sep 24 2015

Just Plain Ornery

Sharp-shinned hawk atCrooked Creek, October 2014 (photo by Steve Gosser)

Sharp-shinned hawk at Crooked Creek, fall 2014 (photo by Steve Gosser)

Throw Back Thursday (TBT):

Broad-winged hawk migration is about to peak in Pennsylvania. Perhaps it already has.

Next on the Hawk Watch docket will be lots of sharp-shinned hawks, showing off their attitude as they fly.  The peaceful camaraderie of the broad-winged kettle is not for them.  Sharpies are just plain ornery!

Read about their attitude in this September 2008 article –>  Ornery


(photo by Steve Gosser)

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Sep 09 2015

Reluctant To Fly, Except In Migration

Sora (photo by Robert Greene, Jr)

Sora (photo by Robert Greene Jr)

Soras (Porzana carolina) are the most abundant rail in North America but they’re so elusive that we rarely see them fly.  When disturbed they prefer to walk deep into the marsh rather than go airborne.  If you happen to flush one it looks weak and labored in the air.

Though they appear to be fly poorly, soras migrate long distances.  They’re very cold sensitive so they have to leave before the weather turns.  Birds of North America says they become lethargic as the temperature approaches freezing so “most soras winter in areas that have a minimum January temperature above –1°C (30°F).”

From their breeding grounds in Canada and the northern/western U.S. to their wintering grounds in the southern U.S. and Central and South America, soras may fly up to 4,000 miles.  We don’t see them on migration because (presumably) they fly at night but they’re sometimes found resting on ships hundreds of miles offshore.  We know they cross the open ocean.  Some of them winter in Bermuda and the Caribbean.

This month soras are hanging out in wetlands en route on migration.  If you’re lucky enough to see one, think of its journey — reluctant to fly, except to escape the cold.


(photo by Robert Greene Jr)

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Sep 04 2015

Well Over 1,000 Birds

Broad-winged hawks are on the move.  By the middle of this month their numbers will peak at Pennsylvania hawk watches.

In summer broad-winged hawks are secretive but by late August the birds have finished breeding and are ready to start their journeys to Central and South America.

Unlike most raptors, broad-wings travel in flocks, rising together in thermal updrafts, gliding out toward their destination.  At the bottom of the glide they find another thermal and rise again.  From a distance they look like rising bubbles so the flock is called a “kettle.”   The video above shows them gliding. Click here to read more about kettles.

Thermal updrafts are best over sun-heated land so the hawks avoid flying over lakes and oceans.  As they move south, the flocks grow in size and become concentrated at the northern edges of the Great Lakes and the Gulf of Mexico.  By the time they reach South Texas there are hundreds of birds per kettle and half a million broad-wing hawks per day.

To really see the sky filled with birds, visit the hawk watches at Corpus Christi, Texas or Veracruz, Mexico’s River of Raptors in the last week of September and the first week of October.

The video below shows broad-wings over Corpus Christi.  One kettle contains well over 1,000 birds!


(videos from YouTube. Click on the YouTube logo to see more information about the video)

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Sep 03 2015

TBT: Bug Migration

Common Green Darner dragonflies mating (photo by Chuck Tague)

Common Green Darner dragonflies mating (photo by Chuck Tague)

Throw Back Thursday (TBT):

Birds aren’t the only ones migrating right now.

In the early 1990’s scientists discovered that some dragonflies migrate, too.  Here’s the story in a September 2008 blog post:  Bug Migration.


(photo by Chuck Tague)

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Aug 28 2015

Virtual Lobster For Lunch

Belted Kingfisher (screenshot from YouTube video)

Did you know that belted kingfishers eat crayfish as well as fish?

In this YouTube video a female belted kingfisher hunts from a perch and returns with a crayfish.

The crayfish is so large, compared to the bird, that it looks like she’s caught a lobster.  How will she eat it?

Click on the screenshot to watch.


(screenshot from YouTube video by Mark J. Thomas)

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