Reports from the Great Lakes to Chesapeake Bay indicate this may be a great winter for seeing snowy owls (Bubo scandiacus). Tony Bruno traveled to Ohio last weekend and found this one at Headlands Beach.
There are clusters of snowies this month along the Great Lakes and Atlantic Coast as shown in purple on this eBird map. The screenshot shows only December 1-8, 2017 data. Click it to see the latest snowy owl eBird map for December 2017.
Is it time for a road trip? Or will the owls come south to Pittsburgh? Rumor has it they already have.
This week's cold weather bought winds from the north and flocks of tundra swans over western Pennsylvania. We usually hear them first, rush out to see them fly ... and then they're gone.
Where did they come from? Where are they going?
Most of "our" tundra swans breed in the north central territory of Canada (Nunavut) and north of Hudson Bay. This map from Xeno Canto shows their path in North America. (Breeding range is pink. Migration corridors are greenish yellow. Wintering sites are blue. I've added a purple dot for our location in western Pennsylvania.)
In late September tundra swan families assemble into flocks. Then "our" swans move south through Canada's prairies, arriving in North Dakota and the upper Mississippi River valley in early October where they eat and wait until winter hits.
On winter's first blast they fly southeast to Chesapeake Bay and eastern North Carolina, passing over Pennsylvania on their way.
Tundra swans typically fly 30 miles per hour but on a strong northwest wind they can clock 100 mph and fly non-stop for 1,000 miles.
Most flocks don't stop in western Pennsylvania but they take a break here if the "kids" get tired. That's what happened on Tuesday at Crooked Creek Lake.
Marge Van Tassel and a group of volunteers heard the swans coming and drove to a good vantage point to watch them come in. Marge's photo shows them descending to the lake like large beautiful snowflakes.
Listen for their sound overhead and you may see tundra swans, too.
Not a sparrow, not a thrush, he's on his way to Georgia ... sort of.
American pipits (Anthus rubescens) nest in alpine and arctic tundra and winter in open country from the southern U.S. (including Georgia) to Guatemala. Right now they're on the move through western Pennsylvania, but because our area lacks tundra the best place to find pipits is on mudflats. And where are those?
Last Sunday a bunch of us stopped at Somerset "Not a Lake" in Somerset, PA to look for birds. The lake was drained to repair the dam and out on the mud roamed killdeer, dunlin and other shorebirds. Among them were two songbirds that pecked the mud, darted, zigzagged, ran and jumped. American pipits.
We could hear them, too. Here's a loud pipit (with a soft longspur in the background):
On Throw Back Thursday this vintage article that lists why pipits aren't thrushes. Back in 2010 it was posed as a quiz, but I've already told you the answer 😉 Quiz: Not A Thrush.
(photo from Wikimedia Commons; click on the image to see the original)
It's early November, the wind's from the north, and it's time for waterfowl. Here are two small ducks who stop in southwestern Pennsylvania on their way south.
Buffleheads and ruddy ducks hang out together in the winter, perhaps because they dive for the same food: aquatic insects and crustaceans (crabs, crayfish, etc). Buffleheads add mollusks to their diet (small mussels, clams, etc). Ruddy ducks add plants and zooplankton.
Buffleheads (Bucephala albeola) are black and white with compact bodies and stubby bills. Only 13.5 inches long, they fly fast and land abruptly. They're actually the same size as a pied-billed grebe(*) but bufflehead males look larger because their round white-topped heads stand out.
Identifying female buffleheads is tricky, though, because their black heads have a white splash on the cheek that resembles -- at long distance -- a male hooded merganser or a female ruddy duck.
The best clue to a female bufflehead is that she's close to the males, as you can see in Steve Gosser's photo at top.
While buffleheads look like large ducklings, ruddy ducks (Oxyura jamaicensis) are shaped like bathtub toys(*). At only 15 inches long they have big heads, thick necks and large slightly upturned bills. Just like rubber duckies they often cock their tails, especially when asleep.
In November ruddies are less "ruddy" than in the breeding season but the male retains his white cheek.
Females and juveniles have off white cheeks with a faint brown line.
Though buffleheads winter as close to us as Ohio, neither species stays in Pittsburgh for the season. Stop by our rivers and lakes to see these ducks before they leave.
After most warblers have left for the winter, the yellow-rumped warblers come back to town.
Breeding across Canada and the northern U.S., yellow-rumped warblers (Setophaga coronata) spend the winter in North America as close to us as Ohio and eastern Pennsylvania, though not usually in our area. In late fall they stop by in Pittsburgh.
Yellow-rumps don't have to leave for Central or South America because they have a unique talent. Their bodies can digest wax. In winter they eat the waxy fruits of bayberry and juniper. Since bayberry is also called wax myrtle, it gave our common subspecies its name: the myrtle warbler.
On Throw Back Thursday, learn how yellow-rumped warblers get nutrition from wax in this vintage article: Anatomy: Wax Eaters.
p.s. Notice that the warbler in the Wax Eaters article is wearing bright breeding plumage in black, white and yellow . Autumn yellow-rumps are dull brown with a faint vest and a broken white eye ring. The best clue to their identity is their yellow rump.
Tuesday evening (October 23) Michelle Kienholz sent me the photo below of a huge flock of crows flying over Schenley Park toward CMU at 6pm. See those specks above the horizon? Hundreds of them!
Yes, it's late October and the crows are back in Pittsburgh for the winter. This is just the beginning of the flock. More will follow.
In the next few weeks the crows will move their roost several times until they settle on a favorite safe place. Meanwhile, you'll see them at dawn and dusk flying down the Allegheny River valley and through Oakland.
Twenty-one years ago I attended my very first hawk watch on a spectacular golden eagle migration day -- 26 October 1996 at the Allegheny Front Hawk Watch.
Nowadays when I want to see a lot of golden eagles I visit the Allegheny Front in early November because that's when the eagles fly by. Is it my imagination or are the birds migrating later than they used to? A new study published last month in The Auk: Ornithological Advances confirms that raptors' autumn migration has shifted later.
The study, conducted by Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, analyzed hawk count data for 16 raptor species from 1985 to 2012 at 7 hawk watch sites in eastern North America: Hawk Mountain Sanctuary (Kempton, PA), Hawk Ridge (Duluth, MN), Holiday Beach (Ontario, Canada), Lighthouse Point (New Haven, CT), Montreal West Island (Québec, Canada), Mount Peter (Warwick, NY), and Waggoner's Gap (Landisburg, PA).
The 16 species included both long distance migrants traveling to South America such as broad-winged hawks, and short distance migrants that stay in North America such as sharp-shinned hawks and golden eagles. Each species adjusted its peak migration, but the delays were pronounced for short distance migrants.
To parse out the reason why raptors stay north longer, the study compared climate and air temperature data in the birds' breeding areas to the timing of migration during the 28 year period.
As you can see from this NOAA map from October 2012, the climate warmed in the breeding zone in eastern North America (marked with a yellow square). Click here to see the details on the study's map.
Because the warming climate delays the first frost, plants and insects remain abundant later in the year. This abundance ripples all the way up the food chain to raptors who postpone their fall departure. The study found that the shift in migration matches the pace of warming climate.
Golden eagles demonstrate the trend. Between 1985 and 2012 they waited an additional 0.16 days/year before moving south. By 2012, the delay was 4.48 days. Extrapolating to 2017, golden eagles are leaving 5.12 days later now than they did in 1985.
Whats' more than five days after October 26? November 1. So I'm going to the Allegheny Front Hawk Watch in November.
Click here to read about the study and download the full report.
p.s. Three species have delayed autumn migration even more than golden eagles: Sharp-shinned hawks added 0.2 days/year, northern goshawks added 0.21 days/year and black vultures added 0.40/year.
Will we see northern finches in the eastern United States this winter? It depends on where you are.
Last month Ron Pittaway published his Winter Finch Forecast for 2017. The good news is that northern finches are on the move. The bad news for Pittsburgh birders is that they won't come this far south.
Northern finches such as evening grosbeaks, crossbills, redpolls and purple finches don't care about cold weather but they do care about food and that means seed cones on spruce, fir, pine and birch trees.
Pittaway says that seed crops in northeastern North America are excellent this year -- the best they've been in ten+ years -- so finches have already moved to those areas in good numbers. In fact the seed crop is so good up north that purple finches and evening grosbeaks probably won't leave home this winter.
Last weekend at Cape Cod I saw a swirling flock of tree swallows at their staging area.
Staging: Designating a stopping-place or assembly-point en route to a destination -- from The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary.
Tree swallows (Tachycineta bicolor) breed as far north as the tundra/tree line in Canada and Alaska and spend the winter from Florida to Central America. Their departure from western Pennsylvania is barely noticeable but on the East Coast they gather in salt marshes in huge flocks of a hundred thousand birds. Their interim stops on migration are called staging areas.
In the evening tree swallows funnel down to the marsh in a tornado of birds. At dawn they burst up from the roost, as shown in the Central Florida video above.
Last Saturday I saw thousands of tree swallows flying in tight formation at West Dennis Beach. Though sunset was two hours away they flew low across the salt marsh, hovered and touched down on bushes, swirled up and around and away.
At the height of their swirling I took some photos but couldn't capture their magic. However, this picture shows why they flew so fast and so close. There's a falcon in the upper right corner with a swallow in its talons. Perhaps it's a merlin. I would never have noticed without this photo.