Category Archives: Migration

Few Migrating Birds But Some Rewards

Gray-cheeked thrush, Frick Park, 21 May 2021 (photo by Charity Kheshgi)

23 May 2021

This year’s weather has made for a lackluster spring migration season in southwestern Pennsylvania. It was suddenly warm in late April then surprisingly cold in the second week of May. During the cold spell migrating birds avoided us by traveling along the Atlantic coast or up the Mississippi valley and Great Plains.

Their absence here was noticeable. Other than one spectacular birding day on 6 May the rest of the month has had a good mix of species but few individual birds. I find it bizarre to spend three hours birding in mid May and see/hear just one American redstart (Setophaga ruticilla) or one Tennessee warbler (Leiothlypis peregrina).

But there have been rewards. Last week in Frick Park Charity Kheshgi found a couple of gray-cheeked thrushes and two mourning warblers on two different days. One gray-cheeked thrush perched in the open.

Gray-cheeked thrush among leaves, 21 May 2021 (photo by Charity Kheshgi)

The mourning warblers remained in the shadows. Scroll right to see his eye shine in the third photo.

And it’s baby season for robins. Cuteness is its own reward.

p.s. Today (and yesterday) there was an olive-sided flycatcher in Frick Park. Click here to se a photo of one that Charity Kheshgi saw at Presque Isle.

(photos by Charity Kheshgi)

Blue And Green

Indigo bunting, Homewood Cemetery, 5 May 2021 (photo by Charity Kheshgi)

8 May 2021

Now that leaves are on the trees the bluest birds have shown up.

Young oak leaves, Schenley Park, 1 May 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

Charity Kheshgi photographed an indigo bunting (Passerina cyanea) at Homewood Cemetery on Wednesday 5 May …

… and a cerulean warbler (Setophaga cerulea) at Frick Park on 4 May.

Click the white arrows on the right side of photos to see more views.

By the way, today is Migratory Bird Day. Don’t miss this opportunity to get outdoors.

(photos by Charity Kheshgi via Instagram)

How Do They Get Here?

Canada Warbler at Schenley Park, 25 May 2019 (photo by Kuldeep Singh)

5 May 2021

Early May is exciting for Pittsburgh birders as beautiful migratory songbirds arrive in our area. Some come from as far away as South America and are en route to northern Canada. Some stay to nest, others move on. What map are they using? How do they get here?

Much of migration remains a mystery. This list is just a summary of the high points. If you have more to add, please leave a comment!

Basic Onboard Navigation System:

Migratory birds are born with a basic navigation system that improves with experience. First-of-year birds fly south in the fall with these instructions: Fly in [this] direction for [this] long.

Those born with a faulty compass head the wrong way and end up on Rare Bird Alerts.

My Life Bird lark sparrow was found at Seal Harbor, Maine. Though usually a western bird, he flew east instead of south.

Experience:

After a bird has made the trip just once, it remembers the route and retraces it year after year. The lark sparrow in Seal Harbor showed up every September for the typical life span of a lark sparrow. His compass error didn’t hurt him.

Birds can be thrown off course by bad weather but they have additional navigational aids.

“Seeing” Earth’s Magnetic Field:

European robin (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

There’s evidence that birds can “see” Earth’s magnetic field to help them navigate, though we’re not sure how. A 2018 study of European robins and zebra finches reported that a cryptochrome protein in their eyes (Cry4) helps them see the blue light associated with magnetism. Cry4 increases during migration season and ebbs thereafter. Intriguing!

Orienting by polarized light at sunrise and sunset:

Savannah sparrow in Juneau, Alaska (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Before 2006 scientists knew that birds orient themselves at sunset. Then they learned how.

Researchers from Virginia Tech in Blacksburg and Lund University in Sweden say experiments with savannah sparrows in Alaska show the birds take readings of polarized sunlight at sunrise and sunset and use them to periodically recalibrate their magnetic compasses.

The Baltimore Sun: Sunlight is key for Bird migration

Navigating by smell:

Gray catbird (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Birds even use their sense of smell! A study of gray catbirds in 2009 showed that those who’d made the trip before used smell to course-correct.

How do they get here? It’s even more amazing than we thought!

To learn more, click the embedded links above.

(photos by Kuldeep Singh, Suunto, and Wikimedia Commons; click on the captions to see the originals)

Frick Park on the Cusp of May

  • Barred owl, Frick Park, 2 May 2021 (photo by Charity Kheshgi)

2 May 2021

Frick Park and adjacent Duck Hollow are two of the hottest birding hotspots in southwestern Pennsylvania. So many birds show up during spring migration that we birders spend hours there in April and May.

Frick’s 644 forested acres are a green oasis halfway through Pittsburgh’s developed metro area. The Monongahela River at Duck Hollow beacons to water and shorebirds while the woods attract songbirds to refuel before continuing north.

screenshot of Pittsburgh, PA regional map, google.com

The Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy map of Frick Park shows how Duck Hollow (furthest point south) connects to the larger park. The birding is so good in that corridor that I often walk from Duck to Frick. If the two locations were a single hotspot their combined species count would probably surpass 200. Click here to download the Frick Park map.

screenshot of Frick Park map from Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy. Click here to download the map

Charity Kheshgi photographs birds at Frick Park and/or Duck Hollow nearly every day. Her slideshow above includes a few of the birds she saw on the cusp of May. See more by following her on Instagram at https://www.instagram.com/charitykheshgi/

p.s. I was there for the Blackburnian warbler but missed the barred owl because I didn’t visit Frick on 2 May. So many birds, so little time!

(photos by Charity Kheshgi, maps from Google and Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy)

Chimney Swifts Are Back In Town

Chimney swifts illustration from Crossley ID Guide to Eastern Birds via Wikimedia Commons

29 April 2021

Yesterday a small flock of chimney swifts (Chaetura pelagica) returned to my city neighborhood and swirled to roost in the Cathedral Mansions chimney.

Though there were only 11 birds, these “cigars with wings” were the leading edge of the huge flocks heading north. Those who nest in Pittsburgh will pair up quickly and start building nests in early May.

How do chimney swifts court and build nests? Check out these Fun Facts About Cigars With Wings.

Chimney swift in hand at banding (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Go Birding Today

Bird migration over the US, 27 April 2021, 4:45am (screenshot from BirdCast)

27 April 2021, 5am

If you live east of the Rockies and southwest of the Catskills you have to go birding today!

Songbirds migrate in the dark and last night was a busy one for them in eastern North America. We know this because weather radar can see birds in flight and BirdCast uses radar data to show where, when and in what direction the birds are moving in real time.

The map above is BirdCast‘s snapshot of migration at 4:45am today, 27 April 2021. If you live anywhere that’s yellow on this map get outdoors today!

I promised gray catbirds for last Sunday’s walk in Schenley Park but they hadn’t arrived yet. Did they come in last night? I’ll let you know.

Birding in Schenley Park, May 2019 (photo by Anne Marie Bosnyak)

Use BirdCast’s Migration Tools to plan your next birding adventure.

(screenshot of map from BirdCast; photo by Anne Marie Bosnyak)

Cleared For Take Off?

Volcanic eruption plume of La Soufrière, 9 April 2021 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

21 April 2021

Twelve days ago Saint Vincent’s La Soufrière volcano began erupting after four decades of silence. Since 9 April it has blanketed the island with thick ash, forced the evacuation of 20,000 people, and ruined fresh water, homes, and farms. It has also caused a deep humanitarian crisis (see 5-minute British Channel 4 video at bottom) and killed untold numbers of local plants, animals and birds.

map of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines in the Caribbean (Wikimedia Commons)

The volcanic plume is also devastating the air, bad to breathe and dangerous for anything that flies. Saint Vincent’s airport closed when the eruption began while NOAA’s Volcanic Ash Advisory Center provides maps of Caribbean no-fly zones for pilots. The 10 April zones match the plume graph from NASA.

NOAA VAAC maps, Saint Vincent
Tracking La Soufrière’s plume (image from NASA Earth Observatory)

Though the disaster feels far from Pennsylvania it may affect our migratory birds that have not yet crossed the Caribbean from South America. Will the birds smell the plume and find a way to avoid it?

Airplanes will soon be cleared for take-off at Saint Vincents airport. I wonder if the birds will be, too.

This 8-minute video from Britain’s Channel 4 shows the devastation at Saint Vincents.

p.s. Click here for a video of satellite imagery showing the atmospheric effect of La Soufrière volcano.

(images from Wikimedia Commons, NOAA and NASA Earth Observatory)

What’s Changed In 7 Years?

Ruddy duck in breeding plumage (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

8 April 2021

About once a week I look back seven years to highlight an old blog post that is still interesting today. This morning when I looked back, I was stunned at how different spring is now in southwestern PA compared to April 2014. A lot has changed in seven years. Migrating ducks, singing frogs and flowers are showing up earlier in 2021. For instance …

Have you seen a lot of ruddy ducks lately? Seven years ago the bulk of their migration through Moraine State Park began on 5 April 2014. This year it started almost a month earlier on 11 March 2021 and is basically over now. Here’s the 2014 blog post that caught my attention: Ruddy Bubbles. Click on the hotspot icons here to see this year’s ruddy duck activity at Moraine.

Have you heard spring peepers or wood frogs calling lately? Seven years ago they were loud on 6 April 2014 (Jeepers Creepers) but this year their peak was on 12 March 2021 at Racooon Wildflower Reserve: Sights and Sounds of Early Spring. When I returned to Raccoon twelve days later the frogs were quieter. They were silent on 4 April 2021.

Spring peeper calling in the Ozarks (photo by Justin Meissen via Wikimedia Commons)
Spring peeper calling in the Ozarks (photo by Justin Meissen via Wikimedia Commons)

On 31 March 2021 I found bloodroot and hepatica blooming at Cedar Creek: Before The Freeze. Seven years ago they bloomed a couple of weeks later on 12 April 2014: It Was Fun While It Lasted.

Bloodroot blooming at Cedar Creek Park, Westmoreland County, 19 April 2014 (photo by Kate St. John)
Bloodroot blooming at Cedar Creek Park, Westmoreland County, 12 April 2014 (photo by Kate St. John)

What’s changed in seven years? The climate is warmer. Nature is responding.

It will be interesting to see what happens next.

(photos from Wikimdeia Commons and by Kate St. John)

Is It Grackle Day?

Male common grackle (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

1 March 2021

Grackle Day is coming this week. For some it’s already here.

The arrival of migrating blackbirds and grackles is one of the earliest signs of spring. Common grackles (Quiscalus quiscula) leave the East End of Pittsburgh during fall migration and don’t return until early March, usually around the 5th. I haven’t seen a grackle yet but I found a red-winged blackbird — just one — in Schenley Park on Friday 26 Feb, my First of Year.

Friends in Beaver County reported small flocks of grackles at their feeders on Saturday 27 February. I’m disappointed the birds bypassed Pittsburgh but am keeping my eyes open for their arrival here.

Sometimes I hear their “chucking” sound before I see them. Listen for …

Then they point their bills up, strut and puff and “skriiNNNK.”

I can hardly wait!

Will this be Grackle Day?

(photo from Wikimedia Commons, audio from Xeno Canto, video from YouTube. click on the captions to see the originals)

Goose Barnacles, Barnacle Geese

Goose barnacles, Lepas anatifera (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

20 February 2021

Goose barnacles often attach themselves to old wood and float from tropical seas to northern shores including the shores of Britain. The barnacles pictured here and in the video below are Lepas anatifera. Their bodies are supported by a long, flexible stalk (a peduncle) that resembles a goose neck. 

Goose barnacles and barnacle geese have similar names because people linked them to explain where the geese came from.

Every fall barnacle geese (Branta leucopsis) migrate to Britain and the east coast of the North Sea where they spend the winter. Those in Britain arrive from their breeding grounds in Greenland.

Barnacle geese (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

In the Middle Ages people didn’t know that birds migrate so they worked to explain the sudden appearance of full grown geese that they never saw nesting. Their explanation was that goose barnacles floated to shore, took root, and produced a tree that produced barnacle geese. This notion persisted for hundreds of years, from at least the 12th to 16th centuries.

Barnacle Geese. Facsimile of an Engraving on Wood, from the “Cosmographie Universelle” of Munster, folio, Basle, 1552

Nowadays that story sounds silly but we shouldn’t be too smug. We still create stories to explain things we don’t understand and spread them quickly on the Internet. In the future our fantastical stories will sound silly, too. I can think of a few about the coronavirus.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons; click on the captions to see the originals)