Winter birding can be boring in Pittsburgh but not this year. The finches are coming!
According to Ron Pittaway’s Winter Finch Forecast, we’re going to see a lot of northern finches this winter because the “cone, alder and birch seed crops are poor to low in most of Ontario and the Northeast.” These irruptive birds usually stay in Canada all year but move south, east and west in autumn when there’s not enough to eat. Here are a few of the “treats” in store for us in western Pennsylvania.
Above, common redpolls (Acanthis flammea) are a goldfinch-sized birds with rosy chests, rosy caps, and black faces. When they first arrive it takes them a while to notice bird feeders but when they do they cause a mob scene. Look carefully in the flock for a very similar white-chested bird, the rare hoary redpoll (Acanthis hornemanni).
Purple finches (Haemorhous purpureus) are northern visitors that resemble our familiar house finches but male purple finches are “purple” as if they were dipped head first in berry juice. Even their flank stripes are rosy, not brown. Here’s a guide for telling the difference between Purple and House finches.
Two irruptive non-finch species have already arrived as indicators of good birds to come.
Last night at 11pm I looked at Pittsburgh’s weather radar for isolated thunderstorms. Instead I found intense songbird migration in progress. The colors in this radar print show them flying over western Pennsylvania.
Some of these birds would be fatally attracted to Pittsburgh’s city lights — that was nothing new — but last night there was an additional deadly attraction. Pitt won their football game on Saturday and the new Victory Lights were on. Would birds be stuck in the beams?
Saturday evening I had emailed PABIRDS asking folks to check the Victory Lights to see if this was happening. Was I going to ignore my own call to action just because it was 11pm? Well, no. I packed up my gear and drove to the Cathedral of Learning.
Before I got there I parked near Phipps Conservatory 0.4 miles away and looked at the beams (photo at top). Indeed there were bright specks circling inside the beams but I was so far away that only the brightest specks were visible.
I parked at Schenley Plaza near Forbes and counted about 100 bright specks. No, those aren’t moths in my blurry cellphone photo above (11:17:42pm). Those are trapped birds.
In the marked up photo below (11:18:19pm) the bent arrow points to a bird that’s so fatally trapped that it’s flying into the light where it will die. I saw another bird “ditch” out of the column to the roof.
This morning I predict there will be dead or stunned songbirds on the Cathedral of Learning’s many roofs, especially near the source of the Victory Lights.
After several years of low monarch butterfly populations in southwestern Pennsylvania, this year has been spectacular. With the weather still as warm as summer I see monarchs flying south every day — even in October.
Despite the Great Race road closures, eleven of us met at Bartlett Shelter this morning for a walk in Schenley Park. The air was chilly but the birding was good because the north wind brought us new migrants.
I took the group photo, above, at the end of the walk because we were distracted from the start. There were warblers in the trees above us! Cape May, Black-throated Green, Magnolia and Blackpoll.
Ultimately we saw 23 species + an unidentifiable flycatcher (listed as Empidonax sp). We were surprised to find no thrushes or sparrows so we crossed the road beyond our cars to find two song sparrows at the end. Still no thrushes other than robins.
Best find for the day: Mushrooms! My favorite was spectacularly orange but I’m saving it for late October.
And here’s another mushroom. Do you know what it is? (I don’t remember.)
Thanks to all for coming out today. My last scheduled walk for the year will be on October 28 at Duck Hollow.
For migrating songbirds there are two deadly attractions in this photo.
On the left, Downtown Pittsburgh glows in the distance illuminating the night sky. At center-right, Pitt’s blue Victory Lights beam up from the Cathedral of Learning roof. (The building itself is hidden by the dark spruce.)
Downtown Pittsburgh glows every night. Pitt’s Victory Lights glow on Saturday and Sunday nights after Pitt wins a football game. Photographer Dave DiCello tweeted his photo, below, of the Victory Lights on 15 September after Pitt beat Georgia Tech.
The moon shines beside the Cathedral of Learning tonight, as the Victory Lights and spotlights from the roof illuminate the sky over #Pittsburgh in celebration of Pitt’s first ACC win of the season pic.twitter.com/SuTRzRVpl9
City lights are a fatal attraction for songbirds because they migrate at night using celestial lights for navigation. Lured by artificial lights they become confused and circle them. Some crash into buildings. Others land in the city and try to leave after dawn but mistake glass reflections of trees and sky for the real thing. They fly headfirst into glass buildings and windows. Some are stunned, many die. Warblers and wood thrushes are especially vulnerable. Every year nearly half a billion birds die this way in the U.S.
You can help birds survive Pittsburgh’s bright lights, both now and in the future. Jon Rice at BirdSafe Pittsburgh is mobilizing volunteers to help stunned birds now and to collect data on deaths to mitigate the future.
Here’s what you can do:
Report Dead Birds: If you find a dead bird pause to report it. Enter what, where and when in BirdSafe’s I Found A Bird online tool. Your smartphone automatically knows “where.”
After the Tribute began in 2003, people noticed that thousands of birds were lured to the lights and dying there, so in 2005 New York City Audubon mobilized volunteers to monitor the beams. When volunteers count 1,000 birds circling in the beams or if a bird is found dead, the lights are turned off for 20 minutes. That’s all it takes for the “stuck” birds to resume their migration and not become trapped again. Since 2005 only two birds have died during the Tribute of Light!
The article also describes how we can apply this knowledge across the U.S., including in Pittsburgh.
We also discovered that on average, half of the total passage of autumn bird migration density over the continental United States occurs on fewer than 10 nights. With migration forecasts developed by scientists at the Cornell Lab, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and Oxford University, these cities and others could determine the optimal nights to dim or extinguish lights so that birds can pass safely.
This easy solution will save migrating birds but we need the data to convince others to make it happen. Please help the birds by helping BirdSafe Pittsburgh.
(photo credits: Downtown Pittsburgh and Pitt Victory Lights by Kate St. John. Cathedral of Learning and Pitt Victory Lights embedded tweet by Dave DiCello. 9/11 Tribute of Light from Wikimedia Commons; click on the caption to see the original)
The ancestors of this saltwater snail changed oceans twice.
California horn snails (Cerithideopsis californica) are native to the Pacific Ocean from the California coast to Baja California Sur in Mexico, but a DNA study published in 2011 found they contain traces of a closely related Atlantic snail, Cerithideopsis pliculosa, and vice versa. The DNA mixing went like this:
3 million years ago North and South America joined at Panama, blocking sea travel between the two oceans.
750,000 years ago, Pacific Ocean snails somehow traveled east to invade the Atlantic.
72,000 years ago, Atlantic Ocean snails came back to invade the Pacific.
How did the snails cross Central America from one ocean to another? Twice?
On Throw Back Thursday, find out in this vintage article: Flying Snails
You would think that all shorebirds live at the shore but not this one. The red-necked phalarope (Phalaropus lobatus) spends most of his life at sea, spinning like a top.
Phalaropes live inland from June through August while they’re breeding in the sub-arctic northern hemisphere but most of the year — November through March — they’re out to sea on the tropical ocean. Their food is on or near the water’s surface.
Phalaropes feed by swimming in tight circles, rapidly picking tiny insect larvae, crustaceans, and mollusks from the water. Their feet are specially equipped for swimming. They have lobed toes like coots. (“Phalarope” is Ancient Greek for “coot toes.”)
In winter red-necked phalaropes don’t have red necks. Right now they’re wearing gray “basic” plumage, shown above, as they migrate to their final destinations in the southern hemisphere. Western birds take an inland route through the western U.S. but you probably won’t see one in the east. Except for a few stopovers at the Great Lakes, the eastern population flies immediately to the Atlantic Ocean.
If you really want to see red-necked phalaropes in beautiful breeding plumage you’ll have to wait for spring. Sparky Stensaas filmed this group feeding at their breeding grounds in Churchill, Manitoba, Canada.
Mid-September is the peak of broad-winged hawk migration in Pennsylvania as these woodland raptors head for the forests of Central and South America.
Broad-winged hawks (Buteo platypterus) breed in North American forests but spend only four months of the year up here. In late August they start to move south, reaching the forests in Central and South America by early November.
What’s unusual about broad-wings is that they travel in flocks — most raptors don’t — and they watch each other for flight cues. If one finds a thermal with good lift, others join him and rise on it as well. Soon they form a “kettle” of hawks stirring round and round in the rising air. As each one reaches sufficient altitude it sets its wings and glides south to find the next thermal.
If the weather’s good this weekend, hundreds if not thousands of broad-wings will kettle up and stream out over hawk watches in the Mid-Atlantic. Here’s what it looks like on a good day, recorded at Ashland Hawk Watch in Hockessin, Delaware on September 15, 2013.