Archive for the 'Migration' Category

Nov 10 2015

The Odd Goose

Domestic goose and wild ancestor, the greylag goose (photos from Wikimedia Commons)

Domestic goose and wild ancestor, the greylag goose (photos from Wikimedia Commons)

We’ve all seen one … an all-white goose hanging out with the mallards and Canada geese.

Even if we’re unfamiliar with barnyard geese it doesn’t take long to find out the white ones are escaped domestic waterfowl that naturally prefer the places where people feed ducks.

Their scientific name is Anser anser domesticus, the same genus and species as their wild ancestor the greylag goose (above right).

Greylag geese (Anser anser) are mottled gray-brown with paler breasts and bellies, orange bills, and pink legs.  Native to Europe and Asia they were domesticated about 4,000 years ago for their meat and eggs.  In addition to food, they’re useful as Watch Geese because they’re quick to sound the alarm and chase off intruders.  How vigilant are they?  It’s said they saved Rome by warning of a night attack by the Gauls.

Selective breeding has given domestic geese bulky bodies and big butts but they aren’t always white and that causes identification problems.  Not only do some resemble their wild ancestors but geese freely hybridize.  When a barnyard goose mates with a Canada goose they produce some really odd offspring.  Click here for pictures of the many strange results.

If you find a gray-brown goose in western Pennsylvania your field guide will suggest the greater white-fronted goose but be careful before you decide that’s what you’ve found.

Greater white-fronted geese (detail from Crossley ID Guide for Eastern Birds)

Greater white-fronted geese (detail from Crossley ID Guide Eastern Birds via Wikimedia Commons)

Greater white-fronted geese (Anser albifrons) breed in the arctic tundra and winter west of the Mississippi and in Mexico.  They’re a rare bird in western Pennsylvania so check the field marks carefully.  Greater white-fronted geese have a “white front” (white forehead and base of bill), lots of black mottling on the belly, a smaller bill and are much less bulky.

Here’s the “white front” that gave them their name.  (I added the red arrow.)

Greater white-fronted goose (detail from the Crossley ID Guide Eastern Birds, arrow added to indicate white front)

Greater white-fronted goose (detail from the Crossley ID Guide Eastern Birds via Wikimedia Commons. Arrow added to indicate white front.)

Chances are the odd goose in Pittsburgh has domestic relatives but take a really good look at him.  You never know …


(photos from Wikimedia Commons. Click on these links to see the originals: wild greylag goose, domestic goose, greater white-fronted geese from the Crossley ID Guide Eastern Birds)

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Oct 30 2015

Bald Eagle Rendezvous

If you’re a fan of bald eagles, here’s a site to put on your travel plans for next month.

Every November bald eagles congregate on the Susquehanna River at Conowingo Dam just south of the Pennsylvania border in Maryland.  Eagles like the area because the fish are easy to catch after they pass through the dam’s gateway.  We like the area because there are so many bald eagles and it’s only a 4.5-hour drive from Pittsburgh.

As you can see from the video above, it’s a popular place for photography.

If you don’t mind crowds and want to see a wide selection of raptors, visit on Saturday November 14, 2015 for Conowingo’s Bald Eagle Day.

Here’s a video from last year’s event.  Yes, there are crowds but you’ll see cool birds, too.

For more information, follow Conowingo Bald Eagles on Facebook and click here for event information.


(videos from YouTube)

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Oct 27 2015

October (and November) Hummingbirds

Published by under Migration,Songbirds

Rufous hummingbird, female, Carrolton, PA, 19 Oct 2015 (photo by Bob Mulvihill)

Female rufous hummingbird, Carrolton, PA, 19 Oct 2015 (photo by Bob Mulvihill)

Do you still have red flowers in your garden?  Are your hummingbird feeders filled and hanging?  If so you might attract a rare bird.

Our ruby-throated hummingbirds (Archilochus colubris) have left for the tropics but a few hardy northwesterners visit Pennsylvania in the fall.  They’re the Selasphorus hummingbirds.

The most likely visitors are rufous hummingbirds (Selasphorus rufus) that breed in the Pacific Northwest and as far north as Alaska.  They’re used to cool temperatures and not bothered by our weather as long as they find enough to eat.  During migration they range far and wide and often visit backyard feeders.

Solo birds can show up anywhere.  Last year Hannah Floyd found one inside Phipps Conservatory during the Pittsburgh Christmas Bird Count.  Unseen when she entered Phipps through an open window, the bird spent a good part of the winter at the red powderpuff tree (Calliandra haematocephala) in the Stove Room.

Selasphorus hummingbirds are so rare in Pennsylvania that ornithologists work hard to band every one that’s found.  Usually they’re identified as rufous hummingbirds but the species is so similar to the even-rarer-in-Pennsylvania Allen’s hummingbird (Selasphorus sasin) that the bird usually has to be in hand to tell.

If you see a hummingbird in your garden at this point, it’s rare!  Call the National Aviary’s ornithologist Bob Mulvihill right away at 412-258-1148 (office) or 412-522-5729 (cell).  Or email him at He’ll stop by to capture and band it and you’ll get a chance to see it up close. He banded the female rufous pictured above in Carrolton, Pennsylvania on October 19.

To learn more about rare fall hummingbirds in western Pennsylvania, click here at the National Aviary’s website.


p.s. While you’re waiting for a rarity, watch hummingbirds spending the winter in West Texas on Cornell Lab’s West Texas Hummingbird Cam.

(photo by Bob Mulvihill)

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Oct 26 2015

Up Close With Saw-whet Owls

Northern Saw-whet Owl at Project OwlNet Banding, 21 Oct 2015 (photo by Doug Cunzolo)

Northern Saw-whet Owl at Project OwlNet Banding, 21 Oct 2015 (photo by Doug Cunzolo)

Did you know that tiny owls are passing through Pittsburgh right now?

Northern saw-whet owls are 7-8″ long, weigh little more than a robin, and have big yellow eyes.  They live in wooded habitats where they’re fierce predators of white-footed and deer mice.  Though small (and cute) they have “attitude.”

Close up of northern saw-whet owl (photo by Bob Mulvihill)

Close up of northern saw-whet owl (photo by Bob Mulvihill)

From mid October to December saw-whet owls migrate at night from their breeding grounds in southern Canada and the northern U.S. to points south.  Each one travels alone but not very fast.  Individual owls average 10km (6.2 miles) per night and tend to reuse the same route year after year.  Every four years the species irrupts in large numbers.

We know this because of Project Owlnet, a continental network of researchers investigating owl migration, founded by owl researcher David Brinker in 1994.  In 2011 Brinker analyzed 10 years of fall banding data (81,584 owls banded!) and published his findings in The Wilson Journal of Ornithology.   Click here to read the fascinating results.

Pittsburgh joined Project Owlnet in Fall 2013 thanks to ornithologist Bob Mulvihill of the National Aviary.  Each Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday night from mid October to early December — weather permitting — Bob and his volunteers set up mist nets and play the owl’s call from dusk to midnight at Sewickley Heights Borough Park.

Bob Mulvihill holds a saw-whet owl for banding (photo by June Bernard)

Bob Mulvihill holds a saw-whet owl for banding (photo by June Bernard)

Pittsburgh’s not a main migration corridor so there are nights when no owls show up but it’s exciting when they do.  Thursday October 21 was quite a success as Bob wrote on Facebook,

Our second night of owl banding produced our second owl of the season! And lots of folks on hand to be delighted by it! A few Orionid shooting stars, a continually calling Barred Owl, and a couple of coyotes howling in the distance made for another “Who knew urban ecology could be so wild!?” kind of night.

You’re welcome to attend Pittsburgh’s Project Owlnet. Dress warmly (bring a blanket!) and show up any time.  Be sure to read more here before you go!

Now’s the time to see saw-whet owls up close.


p.s. If you can’t make it out to the park you can still support the project by “adopting” a saw-whet owl on the National Aviary website.  Click here to read more.

(photo of owl in hand by Doug Cunzolo, photo of owl face by Bob Mulvihill, photo of Bob Mulvihill with owl by June Bernard)

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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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