Category Archives: Migration

It’s Warbler Time!

Blackburnian warbler (photo by Steve Gosser)
Blackburnian warbler (photo by Steve Gosser)

In early May it’s warbler time!

This is the Biggest Week in American Birding in northwestern Ohio and I’m not going to miss it.  I expect to see my favorite warbler, the Blackburnian (Setophaga fusca) above, and up to five warblers whose names are out of place in Ohio.

The birds listed below were named for the location where a scientist first described them though they were on migration at the time.   The name tells you more about the ornithologist’s travel schedule than it does about the bird.

Tennessee warbler (Oreothlypis peregrina).  From Birds of North America Online:

“Described by Alexander Wilson in 1811 from a migrant specimen on the banks of Tennessee’s Cumberland River, its common name belies the fact that its breeding range is restricted almost entirely to the boreal forest zone of Canada, southeastern Alaska and the extreme northern fringe of the U.S.”

Tennessee warbler (photo by Donna Foyle)
Tennessee warbler (photo by Donna Foyle)

Nashville warbler (Oreothlypis ruficapilla):  Found by Alexander Wilson in Nashville in 1811, and so named.

Nashville Warbler at Magee Marsh (photo by Brian Herman)
Nashville Warbler at Magee Marsh (photo by Brian Herman)

Kentucky warbler (Geothlypis formosa). Named by Alexander Wilson in 1811 while he was in Kentucky.

Kentucky warbler (photo by Tony Bruno)
Kentucky warbler (photo by Tony Bruno)

The elusive Connecticut warbler (Oporornis agilis) is so hard to find in the spring that Steve Gosser’s photo below is from September 2013. Alexander Wilson first saw one in autumn, too. From Birds of North America Online:

Alexander Wilson first described this species in 1812 and named it after the state of Connecticut, where he collected the first specimen, a fall migrant. The common name is something of a misnomer, however, because the species does not breed in Connecticut, nor is it a common migrant there.

Connecticut warbler in western PA, September 2013 (photo by Steve Gosser)
Connecticut warbler in western PA, September 2013 (photo by Steve Gosser)

And finally, the Cape May warbler (Setophaga tigrina) was one of the last birds Alexander Wilson described. He found it at Cape May, New Jersey in May 1813. He died three months later at age 47.  From Birds of North America Online:

“Its English name refers to the locality from which Alexander Wilson first described the species— Cape May, New Jersey—where it was not recorded again for more than 100 years .”

Cape May warbler (photo by Bobby Greene)
Cape May warbler (photo by Bobby Greene)

If I’d named the warblers for my first sightings they’d be Ohio warbler, Magee Marsh warbler, Maumee Bay warbler, and Ottawa (county) warbler.

It’s warbler time in Ohio!

 

(photo credits: Steve Gosser, Donna Foyle, Brian Herman, Tony Bruno, Bobby Greene)

Predict A Great Birding Day

Central Great Lakes weather radar, 6 May 2018, 3:58 EDT (screenshot from weather.gov)
Central Great Lakes weather radar, 6 May 2018, 3:58 EDT (screenshot from weather.gov)

6 May 2018:

How to predict a great birding day in early May?  Find out last night’s weather.

At this time of year migrating songbirds spend the day eating and resting, then fly north overnight.  Their decision to move depends on the weather.  Here’s what they like best:

  • New leaves on the trees at their destination. (The Leaves! article explains why.)
  • A south wind, preferably a light one.
  • No rain, no storms.  If they’re flying north and encounter bad weather, they land right there!
  • Pent up desire: If they’ve had to wait for good weather, the first favorable night will see huge movements of birds — thousands and thousands.

Weather radar is sensitive enough to show rain and snow.  Did you know it also shows migrating birds?

The screenshot above shows the central Great Lakes weather radar at 4am, 6 May 2018.  Yellow, orange and red indicate rain of increasing intensity.  Green and blue are either light precipitation or birds.  Green circles with blue edges are birds.  Birds show up as circles because the detection limit of each radar installation is circular.

So what does this radar plot mean for Pittsburgh?  Here’s a marked up version.

Annotated Great Lakes weather radar, 6 May 2018, 3:58 EDT (screenshot from weather.gov)
Annotated Great Lakes weather radar, 6 May 2018, 3:58 EDT (screenshot from weather.gov)

The red circle shows an area of bad weather.  (Heavier rain is yellow and a hint of orange.) The red line marks the northern limit of the bad weather.  Notice that there are no green circles north of the red areas.  The birds stopped south of there.

Bad weather stopped the birds last night.  Will we see the same birds in Pittsburgh today as we did yesterday?  And in the same places?

Let me know what you find out.

 

p.s. Click on the radar images above to see the current Central Great Lakes radar map at weather.gov.

(screenshots of Central Great Lakes weather radar, 6 May 2018, 3:58 EDT from weather.gov)

The Warblers Are Coming!

American redstart (photo by Tony Bruno)
American redstart (photo by Tony Bruno)

The warblers are coming!  In fact the second wave is already here.

Ten days ago I listed four new arrivals: Louisiana waterthrush, yellow-throated warbler, pine warbler and yellow-rumped warbler.

This week brought in five more beauties, illustrated in photos by Tony Bruno and Steve Gosser.  I saw most of them at Enlow Fork (SGL 302), just 45 air miles south of Pittsburgh.  I’m sure they’ll be in town this weekend.

American redstart (Setophaga ruticilla), at top.  Black, white and orange, as soon as the redstarts arrive they’re easy to find because they’re hyperactive and just above eye level.  We saw 10 of them at Enlow Fork yesterday, April 26.

Northern parula (Setophaga americana), below. Smaller and slower moving than a redstart, parulas are usually in the tops of the trees, especially sycamores. We were lucky to see one at eye level at Enlow Fork.

Northern parula (photo by Steve Gosser)
Northern parula (photo by Steve Gosser)

Palm warbler (Setophaga palmarum), below:  This warbler is easier to identify that you’d think because he pumps his tail and is willing to walk on the ground. I found him on the grass at Frick Park.

Palm warbler (photo by Steve Gosser)
Palm warbler (photo by Steve Gosser)

Black-throated green warbler (Setophaga virens), below. Usually found at mid-height in the trees, he sometimes hovers like a redstart to glean insects from the leaves. Enlow Fork.

Black-throated green warbler (photo by Steve Gosser)
Black-throated green warbler (photo by Steve Gosser)

Common yellowthroat (Geothlypis trichas), below:  This one like to hide in thick bushes so we heard him before we saw him — and then just caught a glimpse.  “Witchity, Witchity, Witchity” at Enlow Fork.

Common yellowthroat (photo by Steve Gosser)
Common yellowthroat (photo by Steve Gosser)

There are plenty of opportunities to see warblers this Sunday April 29.  Click the links for details:

It’s time to get outdoors.  The warblers are coming!

 

(photo credits: American redstart by Tony Bruno; all other warblers by Steve Gosser)

 

Good News You May Have Missed

Hermit thrush (photo by Steve Gosser)
Hermit thrush (photo by Steve Gosser)

After a turbulent week for Pittsburgh’s peregrines, here’s some good news you may have missed.

Spring migration is bringing new birds to Pittsburgh almost every day.

Wednesday’s new arrival (for me) was a hermit thrush at Bird Park in Mt. Lebanon, illustrated by Steve Gosser’s photo above.

On Thursday morning birders discovered that huge flocks of migrating buffleheads, scaup, horned grebes and Bonaparte’s gulls had landed on Pittsburgh’s rivers Wednesday night.  This phenomenon, called a “fallout,” was a one day wonder.  Most of the birds left that evening.

And songbirds that arrived last weekend are still here.  Check out more good news in Tuesday’s article: New Birds In Town.

 

(photo by Steve Gosser)

New Birds In Town

Louisiana waterthrush (photo by Anthony Bruno)
Louisiana waterthrush (photo by Anthony Bruno)

April 17, 2018: Despite this morning’s snow …

Last weekend’s warm weather and south winds brought migrating birds to western Pennsylvania.

Here are some of the new arrivals, illustrated in photos by Tony Bruno, Steve Gosser and Don Weiss. My descriptions include the locations where I saw the birds last weekend in case you’d like to look for them.

Louisiana waterthrush (Parkesia motacilla) at top: Found along clean, rushing streams. This bird bobs his tail even when standing still. Walks the water’s edge. Perches just above eye level when he sings. At Cedar Creek Park and Walker Park.

Yellow-throated warbler (Setophaga dominica) below: Found near creeks and often in sycamores. Walks on the trunk and large branches, often quite high. At Raccoon Creek Wildflower Reserve and Walker Park.

Yellow-throated warbler (photo by Anthony Bruno)
Yellow-throated warbler (photo by Anthony Bruno)

 

Pine warbler (Setophaga pinus) below: Slow-moving warbler who favors pines but can be found in any tree on migration. Walks on the trunk and large branches. At Snead’s.

Pine warbler (photo by Anthony Bruno)
Pine warbler (photo by Anthony Bruno)

 

Yellow-rumped warbler (Setophaga coronata) below: An active warbler with a tiny dark vest and yellow rump. Flits among smaller branches.  Seen at Walker Park, but found nearly everywhere during migration.  This bright-colored bird is male. The females are brown where this one is black.

Yellow-rumped warbler (photo by Steve Gosser)
Yellow-rumped warbler (photo by Steve Gosser)

 

Ruby-crowned kinglet (Regulus calendula) below:  Not a warbler but can be confused due to its similar size. Very hyperactive. Flits and hovers among small branches.  You’ll find this bird nearly everywhere on migration.  By the way, ruby-crowned kinglets stay all winter in eastern Pennsylvania.

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

 

Swallows and chimney swifts:  If you’re desperate to see swallows and swifts in the spring, stop by a sewage treatment plant.  The nutrient rich outflow spawns flying insects that these birds eat on the wing. I saw my first tree swallows (Tachycineta bicolor) along Route 65 near the McKees Rocks Bridge, just downstream from Alcosan.

Tree swallow (photo by Don Weiss)
Tree swallow (photo by Don Weiss)

 

Winter wren (Troglodytes hiemalis) below:  “Winter” is passing through. Petite with striped flanks and a tiny cocked tail.  Look for him poking for insects among fallen logs and rocky outcrops.  Nests north of Pittsburgh and in the Laurel Highlands.  Seen at Schenley Park, Raccoon Wildflower Reserve and Walker Park.

Winter wren (photo by Steve Gosser)
Winter wren (photo by Steve Gosser)

 

If it hadn’t turned cold, it would be a good week to get outdoors.

 

(photos by Tony Bruno, Steve Gosser and Don Weiss)

Where Are They Now?

Ruby-throated hummingbird (photo by Steve Gosser)
Ruby-throated hummingbird (photo by Steve Gosser)

Despite the cold weather a ruby-throated hummingbird arrived in eastern Pennsylvania this week.  He appeared April 2 on the hummingbirds migration map.

Observers in North America enter their first spring sightings of male ruby-throats at the hummingbirds.net website and their entries populate the map.

This screenshot taken at 5am April 5, 2018 shows the northernmost pioneers are in New Jersey and the Delaware watershed.

Spring 2018 (zoomed) map of Ruby-throated hummingbird migration as of 4/4/2018 (screenshot from hummingbirds.net)
Spring 2018 (zoomed) map of Ruby-throated hummingbird migration as of 4/4/2018 (screenshot from hummingbirds.net)

Hummingbirds move north when it’s warm but this spring’s weather has held them back.  In 2012 it was so hot that they’d already reached Minnesota by now (click here to see).

Follow their migration on the hummingbirds.net map.  Enter your own first sighting at this link.

Where are they now?  Check the map to see.

 

(photo by Steve Gosser, screenshot of map from www.hummingbirds.net)

p.s. Thanks to Donna Foyle for sending this news.

Grackles Come, Gulls Go

Common grackle in flight (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Common grackle in flight (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Spring seems to be coming slowly.  Nonetheless we’ve seen changes in the bird population since February.

Just over a month ago — February 9 to 13 — birders typically saw 7,000 ring-billed gulls assemble on the river every evening at the Head of the Ohio in Pittsburgh.  By February 20 that number had dropped to only three.  Yes, there are still ring-billed gulls in the area but the bulk of them are gone.

Ring-billed gulls chase for food (photo by Shawn Collins)
Ring-billed gulls chase for food (photo by Shawn Collins)

 

Meanwhile, common grackles (Quiscalus quiscula) were very uncommon over the winter but individual birds showed up in the last week of February.  I saw my first common grackle in Schenley Park on March 1 and more than 40 yesterday at Moraine State Park.

Common grackles have just begun to arrive and will stay to breed.  Additional ring-billed gulls will pass through Pittsburgh on their way north but they’ll keep going.

Grackles come, Gulls go in early spring.

 

(photo credits: grackle from Wikimedia Commons; click on the image to see the original. Ring-billed gulls by Shawn Collins)

p.s.  I noticed the ring-billed gull population change by looking outside my window.  Twice in February I watched for 20 minutes at 5pm while I waited on hold on the phone.  On February 9 I saw thousands of gulls fly over my house on their way to the Head of the Ohio.  On February 22 the number was about 10.   Interestingly, I now associate the music-on-hold with flying gulls.

It’s Time For Ducks

Bufflehead landing, March 2013 (photo by Steve Gosser)
Male bufflehead, March 2013 (photo by Steve Gosser)

Ducks, grebes, coots and loons are migrating north through western Pennsylvania this month.  It’s time to get outdoors and see them before they’re gone.

Here are just a few of the species reported in Butler and Westmoreland Counties last weekend, photographed by Steve Gosser during spring migration 2011 to 2017.  If you like Steve’s photos, check out the opportunity below to see his presentation in Clarion, PA tonight, March 14.

Above a male bufflehead (Bucephala albeola) comes in for a landing.  Notice how pink his feet are in March!

Below, a redhead (Aythya americana) stretches his wings while ducks and geese sleep in the background.

A redhead stretches his wing (photo by Steve Gosser)
A redhead stretches his wing, late February 2013 (photo by Steve Gosser)

A male hooded merganser (Lophodytes cucullatus) displays his crown.

Male hooded merganser showing his crown, March 2015 (photo by Steve Gosser)
Male hooded merganser showing his crown, March 2015 (photo by Steve Gosser)

American coots (Fulica americana) wade in shallow water as they feed.

American coots feeding in shallow water, March 2011 (photo by Steve Gosser)
American coots feeding in shallow water, March 2011 (photo by Steve Gosser)

The male northern shoveler (Spatula clypeata) is distinctive with his long shovel bill, green head, and rusty flanks.

Male northern shoveler, March 2017 (photo by Steve Gosser)
Male northern shoveler, March 2017 (photo by Steve Gosser)

Below, ring-necked ducks (Aythya collaris) take off.  Because of the white ring around their bills, I sometimes call them ring-billed ducks by accident.  The ring is a good field mark.

Ring-necked ducks take off, March 2011 (photo by Steve Gosser)
Ring-necked ducks take off, March 2011 (photo by Steve Gosser)

A red-necked grebe (Podiceps grisegena) in breeding plumage, March 2014.

Red-necked grebe, March 2014 (photo by Steve Gosser)
Red-necked grebe, March 2014 (photo by Steve Gosser)

Get outdoors soon to see migrating waterfowl.

Meanwhile, see more of Steve Gosser’s photos tonight March 14 at 6:30pm at the Clarion Free Library in Clarion, PA.  Steve will be sharing his favorite photos and birding adventures at the Seneca Rocks Audubon meeting.  All are welcome.   More info here: http://www.senecarocksaudubon.org

 

(photos by Steve Gosser)

Tundra Swans On The Move

In the next few weeks tundra swans and snow geese will move north through Pennsylvania on their way to the Arctic. The best place to see them is at Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area in Kleinfeltersville.

Though the birds are anxious to get home they wait for winter to break its grip, moving only as far north as open water and fields without snow cover.  They look for open water to rest at night and visible food in the fields.

It’s always hard to predict when waterfowl numbers will reach their peak at Middle Creek but this year must be especially challenging. This winter’s hot-and-cold weather has created thick ice, then open water, then ice again. The snow geese have come and gone and come again.

PA Game Commission counts the geese and swans every day and posts Thursday’s count on their Migration Update page.  The latest report on February 8 says:

Snow Geese: 50,000
Canada geese: 5,000
Tundra swans: 2,500
Since the last update, the majority of the snow goose numbers have returned and seem to be holding there.

Even though I saw lots of snow geese and tundra swans at the Snow Goose Festival in California I still want to go to Middle Creek.  I like to arrive at Willow Point before dawn and watch the snow geese leave the lake after sunrise in an explosive burst.  Then the tundra swans put on a beautiful show.

Tundra swans get in synch on the water before they fly.  They swim together, bob their heads, and hum “whooooo” as they go.  Near the moment of takeoff the flock swims in line, bobbing their heads frequently and humming loudly.  And then they’re off!

Watch them prepare for takeoff in this video from Wisconsin.

Later this month I’ll go see tundra swans on the move.

 

(video by Dale Bohlke on YouTube)

What date is best?  Here are the peak dates in 2016 & 2017 from the Middle Creek Migration Update page:

2017 Migration Summary:
Snow geese: 70,000+ on 02/22/17
Tundra swans: 4,500+ on 02/6/17  <– notice how early this was!
Canada geese: 5,000+ on 02/10/17

2016 Migration Summary:
Snow geese: 65,000+ on 02/29/16
Tundra swans: 3,500+ on 02/29/16
Canada geese: several hundred on 02/09/16

Rare Bird!

Gray-crowned rosy-finch, Crawford County, PA, 3 Feb 2018 (photo by Shawn Collins)
Gray-crowned rosy-finch, Crawford County, PA, 3 Feb 2018 (photo by Shawn Collins)

On 1 February 2018, a couple noticed an unusual finch at their feeders in Crawford County, Pennsylvania.  Slightly larger that a house finch, it was mostly brown with a gray cap, a black-tipped yellow bill, and pinkish wings and rump.  Was it a gray-crowned rosy-finch?

Gray-crowned rosy-finch, Crawford County, PA, 3 Feb 2018 (photo by Shawn Collins)
Gray-crowned rosy-finch, Crawford County, PA, 3 Feb 2018 (photo by Shawn Collins)

The wife called her birding friend Shawn Collins for a second opinion.  Yes indeed, this is a gray-crowned rosy-finch (Leucosticte tephrocotis) a bird so rare that it’s the first one ever recorded in Pennsylvania.

A rare bird like this causes a stampede as soon as the news gets out, so Shawn and the homeowners made a plan.  Their home is in a gated community and they wish to remain anonymous, but they want birders to see the rosy-finch from the best viewing location — inside their living room!  — so Shawn is coordinating visits to its anonymous location.  (If you want to see the gray-crowned rosy-finch, email Shawn Collins for an appointment. Click here for instructions.)

Gray-crowned rosy-finch with house finch in background. Crawford County, PA, 3 Feb 2018 (photo by Shawn Collins)
Gray-crowned rosy-finch with house finch in background. Crawford County, PA, 3 Feb 2018 (photo by Shawn Collins)

Why is this bird so rare?

Gray-crowned rosy-finches live in western North America.  The interior population (this bird) nests on the tundra in the Rocky Mountains from Alaska to Montana and spends the winter from British Columbia to New Mexico, Nevada to western Nebraska.

But individual rosy-finches sometimes wander in winter as far east as northern Ohio.

Gray-crowned rosy-finch, Crawford County, PA, 3 Feb 2018 (photo by Shawn Collins)
Gray-crowned rosy-finch, Crawford County, PA, 3 Feb 2018 (photo by Shawn Collins)

Crawford County, PA is on the Ohio state line so maybe it was only a matter of time before a gray-crowned rosy-finch made it to northwestern Pennsylvania.

We’re glad this one is here.  Life Bird!

Gray-crowned rosy-finch, Crawford County, PA, 3 Feb 2018 (photo by Shawn Collins)
Gray-crowned rosy-finch, Crawford County, PA, 3 Feb 2018 (photo by Shawn Collins)

Thank you to the anonymous homeowners who’ve graciously opened their home to view the rosy-finch and thanks to Shawn Collins for coordinating the visits.

For more looks at the gray-crowned rosy-finch see Shawn Collins’ Flickr album.

 

(photos by Shawn Collins)

p.s.  Shawn tells those who plan to see it: “Please use the eBird hotspot that Geoff Malosh started for the bird. This is not the exact location due to the home owners request to keep all of her info offline. The gated community is small and the only parking allowed is in her driveway which fits 4 cars. And we are pushing it with 4! To view the bird we have to be in her living room. If you need the eBird link I can send it to you. Please no personal hotspots!!! If anyone is walking the area or what not, you will be turned into the police and will be escorted out with trespassing charges. If that happens once then this bird will be off limits! So please no one be stupid and do anything that will jeopardize folks seeing this bird. This is a very watched community and she had to let people know she will be having visitors this week and next so they were not alarmed at the cars in her driveway.

Just a side note….in each group I’ve brought over…the bird shows up within 2 minutes after we get there! It’s like it knows!!!”