I have not seen a gray catbird in Pittsburgh yet but I know they’re on their way. Next month they’ll arrive from their wintering grounds in the southern U.S., the Caribbean and Central America. How do they get here?
Migratory birds are born with an innate sense of direction and distance to their goal but must learn how to get there on their first trip south. After they’ve made the trip once, they create a mental map and can use the sun, stars, earth’s magnetic field and their sense of smell to return home.
Their sense of smell? Yes! Birds do have a sense of smell and they use it.
There’s one thing we can count on with the coming of spring. Pittsburgh’s winter crows will soon be gone.
Every year thousands of crows come to town in November, build to a crescendo by the end of the year and disperse in late February through March.
Residents near the corner of Bellefield and Bayard Avenues in Oakland can hardly wait. This winter a nightly flock of 3,000 to 4,000 crows plagued their area, roosting in trees near the Western Pennsylvania School for Blind Children. The scene in North Oakland looked a lot like this 2013 video from Minneapolis.
The video’s author, Chuck Smith, points out that the crows usually don’t spend the night in his neighborhood but when they do they leave their calling cards behind.
I like watching crows but I don’t have to live with them.
On Monday morning, 20 January 2020, a sparrow-sized songbird, colored like an exotic parrot, showed up at a backyard feeder in suburban Pittsburgh. It happened to choose the backyard of Brian Shema, Operations Director at Audubon Society of Western PA. His Rare Bird Alert immediately attracted a steady stream of birders to see this gorgeous visitor. (If you want to see the bird, instructions are at the bottom of this article.)
Painted buntings (Passerina ciris) are seed-eaters that breed in the coastal Southeast and south central U.S., and spend the winter in Florida, the Caribbean and Central America. Though one occasionally shows up in eastern Pennsylvania this individual is quite out of range in the western part of the state. He’s only the third Allegheny County record.
He’s also extra special because he’s male. Female painted buntings are nice to find but their green color is not so photogenic.
To highlight the male and female difference here’s another male, photographed in Florida by Chuck Tague in 2012. (The border emphasizes that this is not the Pittsburgh bird.)
If you’d like to see him, go to this location pinpointed on eBird’s map. Make sure you stay on the street, don’t walk in anyone’s yard, and park without blocking anything. The house is on a corner lot so you can see the feeders from the street. He was there all day yesterday (Friday 24 Jan). Chances are very good that you’ll find other birders looking at him when you get there.
(photos by Steve Gosser, Wikimedia Commons and Chuck Tague; click on the captions to see the originals)
Terrestrial birds that migrate over the ocean will land on ships to rest and refuel, especially during bad weather. Some birds are exhausted by the time they land. The ships attract insects that are eaten by songbirds. The songbirds attract birds of prey and shrikes.
The video showcases 70 species seen during Europe voyages. Each half of the video is in taxonomic order. My favorites were the birds of prey and a colorful bird that was new to me — the black-headed bunting. Don’t miss the hobby, the peregrine and the long-eared owl.
The path of the Harrisburg female peregrine (Red, 46/BS, ID#24660) looks quite promising. She flew first to Nockamixon (19 Sept), then west and south to Lamb’s Knoll (2 Oct) and Newtowne Neck near Compton, Maryland (4 Oct). The enhanced map below includes her banding location in Harrisburg. Click here for her path on the Motus website which does not include her banding location.
Harrisburg male, White, 22/BZ (ID# 24662)
Initial data on the Harrisburg male (White, 22/BZ, ID#24662) were clouded by inaccuracies that placed him in both Reading, PA (Drasher) and Saskatchewan, Canada — 1,600 miles away — on the same day.
After removing the Saskachewan error there was still one more puzzle. The data table indicates that Harrisburg White flew 766 miles four times — from western Ontario (Harrington) to the Bay of Fundy (Gardner Creek) and back again. Would a bird have done this? And could he have made one of those trips in a single day, 24-25 August, in a head wind? Hmmm! Doubtful.
With those questions in mind I created the enhanced map below, adding his banding location and removing Gardner Creek (which may still be on his MOTUS map here). While his data is under review Harrisburg White is still on the move. He showed up near Aurora, Ontario on 16 November.
Nazareth, female, Red, 20/CA (ID# 24665)
Hatched on a clinker silo at Lehigh Cement in Nazareth, Pennsylvania this female (Red, 20/CA, ID#24665) logged three data points on Amherst Island in Lake Ontario: 51 seconds on 17 and 19 July and three hours on 6 August. Without other locational data MOTUS cannot generate a map so I created one below with two points while her data is under review. Click here for her data table on the MOTUS website.
Data uncertain: Pittsburgh, female, Blue, 19/CA (ID# 24664)
Steppe eagles (Aquila nipalensis), pictured above, breed on the steppes of Eurasia and spend the winter in Africa, the Middle East, Pakistan, India or Southeast Asia, passing through Central Asia on their way south.
Steppe eagles are endangered in Russia and Central Asia, threatened by persecution and power lines which they encounter on migration so the Russian Raptor Research and Conservation Network has fitted 13 of them with cell-enabled backpacks to track their paths. They plan to mitigate the most dangerous locations frequented by eagles.
The tracking backpacks send four text messages a day with date, time and the eagles’ GPS coordinates. If the bird is far from the cell network, the tracker stores the data until the eagle gets near a tower.
This method worked well in 2018 because most of the eagles traveled near the Russian cell network. This year, however, an eagle named Min spent the summer far from the network in a remote part of Kazakhstan. Her backpack stored months of data that it couldn’t transmit until she flew near a cell tower in Iran (map below).
In October the researchers were stunned to receive a cellphone invoice with eagle-sized roaming charges. They’d budgeted 15 roubles/message but roaming in Iran is 49 roubles/message. In just one texting session Min used up the entire year’s budget for all the eagles!
What to do? They set up a crowd-funding appeal that raised more than enough to cover this year’s charges (100,000 roubles) and Russia’s Megafon network offered to cover the cost, too. So the project is saved.
NOTES: Steppes are prairies or scrubland similar to the Great Plains and Great Basin of North America. Steppe eagles face an additional threat: Because they eat carrion they are dying of diclofenac, just as vultures are.
Though it’s nearly mid October I saw monarch butterflies migrating through Pittsburgh on Thursday and Friday October 10 & 11. Their timing seems late, but they were given a boost by August-like weather early this month.
Now that the weather has changed unwelcome insects will invade our homes including Asian ladybeetles (Harmonia axyridis) that resemble native ladybugs but don’t act like them. Also called “harlequin ladybirds,” they overwinter indoors, make a stink, and bite when frightened.
A hundred years ago we thought this bug was a great idea and repeatedly introduced it to the U.S. to control aphids. The introduced ladybeetles never made it in the wild until a population was found thriving near New Orleans in 1988. After that they spread like wildfire across the eastern U.S. and into Canada.
Thirteen years later they became established in South America and Europe(*). By 2004 they were in southern Africa. They hadn’t been introduced. How did they get there?
A 2010 study of their genetic markers revealed that those three continents were invaded by the eastern North America population. In a move called the bridgehead effect, Asian ladybeetles in the U.S. used our continent as a jumping off point to colonize Europe, South America and Africa.