Category Archives: Migration

Winter Finches Already!

Male red crossbill in hemlock, Jan 2013 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

27 September 2022

If you’re birding on the coast of Maine you already know this is a good year for winter finches, but I’d just arrived from Pittsburgh so I was surprised to hear jip-jip-jip among the conifers last Saturday in Acadia National Park. Was I hearing crossbills? Yes!

The Finch Network’s Winter Finch Forecast 2022-2023 explains:

In eastern North America, there is a good food crop along the coastal areas of Maritime Provinces southward into New England, which should hold many finches this winter.

Spruce cones are everywhere at Acadia, littering the trails in various stages of ripeness from sappy to seedless.

Spruce cones at various stages, Flying Mountain, Acadia National Park, 25 Sept 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

Small groups of red crossbills (Loxia curvirostra) are almost everywhere, too. If you know what to listen for the birds are easy to find on Mount Desert Island.

Lots of people are seeing and hearing them as shown in eBird’s September 2022 map below. Note that the high density of crossbill reports is actually due to the high density of birders in the park.

Red crossbill species map, 26 September 2022 (map from eBird)

On Sunday at Flying Mountain I saw eight red crossbills (Loxia curvirostra) eating spruce cones. This 2013 photo on a hemlock shows how they feed:

  • Use feet to grab the cone,
  • Use crossed beak to twist open the seed shield,
  • Lick the seed out of the pocket.
Male red crossbill feeding on hemlock cone, grabbing with feet (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

The Winter Finch Forecast 2022-2023 predicts that points south along the coast will see crossbills this winter.

The “Northeastern Crossbill” (i.e. eastern Type 10) will be around this winter, but will they migrate down the coast to Long Island, Cape May and Delaware and points south, as they sometimes do as cone crops are depleted as we progress through the winter season.

Winter Finch Forecast 2022-2023

Though Pittsburgh won’t see crossbills, check out the Winter Finch Forecast 2022-2023 for what we can look forward to in western Pennsylvania. If we’re lucky we may see:

  • Common and hoary redpolls
  • Purple finches
  • Evening grosbeaks, certainly in PA’s northern tier
  • Red-breasted nuthatches
  • And a big year for blue jays.

(photos from Kate St. John and Wikimedia Commons, map from eBird.org; click on the captions to see the originals)

Intense Migration Forecast for Tonight

Sunset and birds (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

22 September 2022

Tonight’s BirdCast Migration Forecast shows there will be intense migration from Michigan down to Mississippi and Georgia. The flocks will fan out east and west, touching southwestern Pennsylvania.

Birdcast migration forecast for the night of 22 Sept 2022 (map from BirdCast)

If you go birding on Friday 23 September, expect to find warblers and thrushes still passing through and an increasing variety of sparrows. Watch for the skulkers – Connecticut and mourning warblers — in late September. Perhaps you’ll see the last of the flycatchers, some of which are already considered “rare” now in eBird.

Friday’s sun and northwest wing will also encourage broad-winged hawks to migrate during the day. Keep an eye to the sky or visit a hawk watch in your area. Hawk watch locations and data are listed at hawkcount.org.

Broad-winged hawk on migration (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Check out the migration forecast and lots of migration tools at BirdCast.

Friday will be great day to go birding.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons, map screenshot from Birdcast; click on the captions to see the originals)

Bird Calls in the Dark

Swainson’s thrush, May 2019, Toronto, ON (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

18 September 2022

If you’re awake one to two hours before dawn on a calm September night, put your ear to the sky and you may hear birds calling overhead in the dark.

Millions of birds migrate at night and call in flight to maintain contact with their fellow travelers. In the one-to-two hours before dawn they begin their descent and are easier to hear but it takes dedication or insomnia to be awake during those prime sleeping hours.

Fortunately with the advent of microphones, recording devices and sonogram technology, ornithologists and amateurs have recorded nocturnal flight calls (NFC) and can identify who’s calling as they fly by. The sonograms are like fingerprints for each species and can be compared at this quick reference website, NocturnalFlightCalls.com, announced this month by Tessa Rhinehart at the University of Pittsburgh’s @KitzesLab.

Many calls, especially those of warblers, are so high-pitched that they are outside my range of hearing so here are three examples of some easily audible nocturnal flight calls.

The Swainson’s thrush (Catharus ustulatus), above, has such a distinctive flight call that you can identify it in the dark by sound. All About Birds describes the call as a hollow peep that resembles the call of a spring peeper frog.

The rose-breasted grosbeak (Pheucticus ludovicianus) repeats a single rough whistle.

Rose-breasted grosbeak (photo by Cris Hamilton)
Rose-breasted grosbeak (photo by Cris Hamilton)

Click here for a clearer version of the rose-breasted grosbeak flight call that was “photo-bombed” by a killdeer.

Though it is extremely unlikely to hear a dickcissel (Spiza americana) fly over Pennsylvania, this sound is so distinct that it’s worth a listen.

Dickcissel singing in western PA, 10 June 2017 (photo by Anthony Bruno)
Dickcissel singing in western PA, 10 June 2017 (photo by Anthony Bruno)

Leanr more about nocturnal flight calls at Nocturnal Flight Call FAQs from David Brown. He recorded dickcissels during the 2017 irruption over Montoursville, PA.

Make your own NFC recorder using a microphone, a dinner plate, a bucket and a computer. Instructions and information at Nemesis Bird’s Night Flight Call primer. (This article may be as old as 2012.)

Know which nights will be good for listening by checking BirdCast’s migration forecast.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons, Cris Hamilton and Anthony Bruno; recordings embedded from Xeno Canto)

Birdlab: Banding Birds at Hays Woods

Red-eyed vireo, held by bander Nick Liadis, 31 Aug 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

8 September 2022

Yesterday Charity Kheshgi and I visited Nick Liadis’ bird banding project — Birdlab — at Hays Woods, the City of Pittsburgh’s newest, most remote, and least developed park.

Nick runs Birdlab at three sites: Hays Woods plus at two private properties, Upper St. Clair and Twin Stupas in Butler County. During migration Nick is out banding six days a week unless it’s raining or windy.

Hays Woods is unique for its size and habitat so close to densely populated Downtown and Oakland. Like an oasis it’s an appealing stop for migratory birds. We were there to see Nick band five birds on a slow day compared to the day before when he banded 60!

Hays Woods, The Forest in the City (image courtesy Friends of Hays Woods)

Oakland is visible from the Hays Woods powerline cut.

Oakland in the distance, view from Hays Woods, 31 Aug 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

Nick has placed the mist nets in a variety of habitats. They are intentionally hard to see. When birds see the nets they avoid them.

Bird banding mist net at Hays Woods, 7 Sep 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

Every 30 minutes the banders walk the nets to check for birds. Lisa Kaufman assists at Hays Woods on Wednesdays. Here she is walking the powerline cut.

Walking to check the nets, 31 Aug 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

Each netted bird is gently placed in its own cloth bag and brought back to the banding table. Here Nick tells Lisa what time to record.

Nick Liadis and Lisa Kaufman, bird banding at Hays Woods, 7 Sept 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

It’s an ovenbird.

Ovenbird to be banded, held by Nick Liadis, 7 Sep 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

To age the birds Nick checks their wings, tail and body feathers for molt stage. Below he points out the very faint fault bars on the tail feathers that indicate feather growth. If all the bars line up, then these tail feathers grew in at the same time, which means the bird is still wearing his very first tail feathers and thus hatched this year.

Examine the feathers for molt stage and age, ovenbird at Hays Woods, 7 Sep 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

Nick blows on the belly of a Nashville warbler to check the lump of fat that is fuel for migration. This Nashville warbler had a high fat score so he may be ready to leave tonight for his wintering grounds in Mexico.

Checking the fat score on a Nashville warbler, Hays Woods, 7 Sep 2022 (photo by Charity Kheshgi)

Nashville warblers are one of the smallest birds but it’s not noticeable until they are in the hand. Nick prepares to apply the band.

Applying the band to a Nashville warbler, 7 Sep 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

Nick holds an ovenbird after banding.

Bander Nick Liadis holds an ovenbird, Hays Woods, 7 Sep 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

Each of us got to release a banded warbler.

Kate St. John holds an American restart before releasing it, Hays Woods, 7 Sep 2022 (photo by Charity Kheshgi)
Charity Kheshgi holds an ovenbird before releasing it, Hays Woods, 7 Sep 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

And we learned how much northern cardinals hate to be captured. Cardinals of all ages screech and bite! We were grateful not to hold one.

Female northern cardinal awaits her bands, Hays Woods, 7 Sep 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

To learn more about Nick’s banding project and schedule a visit, see his website at birdlab.org.

Support Nick’s efforts with a donation at his GoFundMe site: https://www.gofundme.com/f/help-nick-to-conserve-birds-their-habitats.

(photos by Kate St. John and Charity Kheshgi)

This! is Shorebird Migration

Semi-palmated sandpiper flock (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

19 August 2022

Check out this swirling flock of semi-palmated sandpipers on migration this week.

Is there a merlin out there?

(photo from Wikimedia Commons; click on the caption to see the original)

Common Birds, Exotic Ranges

House sparrow flock in England (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

8 August 2022

Birds move around on their own but some of our most common species came from a different continent or a different habitat and were introduced here by humans. Now you can see both native and exotic ranges in eBird after they made changes this month to the species maps.

House sparrows and pigeons, both introduced from Europe, are a case in point. In the eBird maps below native range is purple, exotic range is orange.

Introduced to cities: House sparrow (Passer domesticus)
Domesticated and introduced: Rock pigeon (Columba livia)
Feral rock pigeon (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Explore Species Maps: European Starling (screenshot from eBird)
Reverse journey to Europe: Canada goose (Branta canadensis)

We tend to think that all exotic species were introduced from Eurasia to the Americas. Canada geese made the reverse journey. Europeans actually wanted them. Are they regretting that decision?

Canada geese in Hesse, Germany (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Exotic on its own continent: House finch (Haemorhous mexicanus)

Captured house finches were illegally transported from California to New York City in the 1940s to be sold as “Hollywood finches” in the pet trade. Just before the law caught up to them, the vendors released the birds on Long Island. The “exotic” house finch population has now spread across the continent. eBird shows it on the map below. Click here and scroll down to see how they spread through the decades.

Male house finch (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)
Exotic within its native range: Northern bobwhite (Colinus virginianus)

The northern bobwhite does not do well in urban and suburban habitats but as a game bird it is raised in captivity and released for hunting in gamelands, agricultural fields and open woods. Have you seen a bobwhite in your backyard? It is an escapee within its “exotic” range.

Northern bobwhite (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Northern bobwhite range map from eBird; Checkmark in the blue circle to remove escapees from map

Learn more about the new eBird maps at Important Changes to Exotic Species in eBird.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons and Marcy Cunkelman, screenshot maps from eBird; click on the captions to see the originals)

Yesterday at Schenley Park: Nestlings and Blackpolls

Blackpoll warbler, Schenley Park, 22 May 2022 (photo by Charity Kheshgi)

23 May 2022

Six of us gathered at Schenley Park yesterday morning in perfect weather for a bird and nature walk. (The sixth is taking the picture.)

Great weather for an outing in Schenley Park, 22 May 2022 (photo by Charity Kheshgi)

First on the agenda was a look through my scope at the Pitt peregrines. Though we were half a mile from the Cathedral of Learning we could see one adult babysitting and two fluffy heads looking out the front of the nestbox. This is where the chicks were standing as we watched.

3 peregrine chicks at the Cathedral of Learning, 26 days old, 22 May 2022

Inside the park, a pair of red-tailed hawks is raising three chicks about the same age as the peregrines. We paused on our walk to watch them eat. Best views are from here.

Scroll through Charity Kheshgi’s Instagram photos to see our Best Birds including the blackpoll warbler pictured above.

In all we saw 25 species (https://ebird.org/checklist/S111010535). Not a high count but well worth the trip.

Chimney Swift (Chaetura pelagica) 1
Ruby-throated Hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) 1
Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis): Saw 4, maybe 5: 1 or 2 adults + 3 young in nest.
Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus)  3
Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus)  1
Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus)  2
Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus)  Saw 4: 1 adult via scope + 3 young in nest via falconcam.
Eastern Phoebe (Sayornis phoebe)  1
Red-eyed Vireo (Vireo olivaceus)  5
Blue Jay (Cyanocitta cristata)  4
Carolina Chickadee (Poecile carolinensis)  1
Carolina Wren (Thryothorus ludovicianus)  5    2 pairs
Gray Catbird (Dumetella carolinensis)  4
Wood Thrush (Hylocichla mustelina)  2
American Robin (Turdus migratorius)  18
House Sparrow (Passer domesticus)  1
House Finch (Haemorhous mexicanus)  5
Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia)  2
Orchard Oriole (Icterus spurius)  2
Baltimore Oriole (Icterus galbula)  1
Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus)  4
Common Grackle (Quiscalus quiscula)  1
Blackpoll Warbler (Setophaga striata)  2    Seen!
Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis)  2
Rose-breasted Grosbeak (Pheucticus ludovicianus)  1

p.s. Charity’s photo of the rose-breasted grosbeak was taken after the walk.

(photos by Charity Kheshgi)

This is The Week for Warblers

  • Hooded warbler (photo by Steve Gosser)

10 May 2022

In your backyard, in a local park, or at hotspots on Lake Erie’s southern shore, this is the week to see beautiful warblers on migration in eastern North America. They fly overnight and fuel up during the day, flitting among new leaves on the hunt for insects. Here are just a few of the gems to look for, in photos by Steve Gosser.

Get outdoors. This is the week!

(photos by Steve Gosser)

Rare Golden-winged Warbler Visits Schenley Park

Golden-winged warbler in Schenley Park, 4 May 2022 (photo by Charity Kheshgi)

5 May 2022

After yesterday morning’s downpour the sky never cleared and the air was so heavy that I didn’t expect to see good birds in Schenley Park, but when I arrived the soundscape was filled with the songs of rose-breasted grosbeaks, wood thrushes, Baltimore orioles, and many northern parulas. When I found the loudest parula I discovered he had a rare friend — a golden-winged warbler (Vermivora chrysoptera). The two of them were feeding on insects hidden in new elm leaves.

My post on the rare bird alert drew in other birders and photographers, including Charity Kheshgi whose photos are shown here. Rare birds usually visit for only 24 hours so everyone had to act fast.

Golden-winged warbler in Schenley Park, 4 May 2022 (photo by Charity Kheshgi)

Why is this bird rare?

The Golden-winged Warbler is a sharply declining songbird that lives in shrubby, young forest habitats in the Great Lakes and Appalachian Mountains regions. They have one of the smallest populations of any songbird not on the Endangered Species List and are listed as Near Threatened by the IUCN. An estimated 400,000 breeding adults remain—a drop of 66% since the 1960s. In the Appalachian Mountains the situation is even worse: the regional population has fallen by 98%. We’ve learned that the main reasons for the decline include habitat loss on the breeding and wintering grounds (Central and northern South America) and hybridization with the closely related Blue-winged Warbler.

Cornell Lab of Ornithology: Golden-winged warbler Conservation Strategy

Because of their precipitous decline, golden-winged warblers have been well studied for at least a decade. Seven years ago, scientists tracking this tiny bird in Tennessee discovered that it sensed the approach of violent storms and fled the tornadoes one day ahead. Read the amazing story of how golden-winged warblers flew 400 miles to the Gulf of Mexico to avoid the storms … and then came back.

(photos by Charity Kheshgi)

Migration: The Color of Spring

Scarlet tanager, May 2021 (photo by Christopher T)

1 May 2022

May at last! For the next three weeks gorgeous birds will arrive on the south wind, some to nest, others to pause on their northward journey. With colors more vibrant than April’s wildflowers they suddenly appear among new green leaves. Red, yellow, blue, black and white, Christopher T’s photos show them at their best.

Male scarlet tanagers (Piranga olivacea) are not scarlet when they spend the winter in South America — instead they are green — but by the time they’re back home in the eastern U.S. they are the brightest red.

Kentucky warblers (Geothlypis formosa) highlight brilliant yellow with a black cap and mask. We are lucky to have this uncommon bird nesting in Pennsylvania. I-80 approximates the northern edge of their range.

Kentucky warbler, May 2021 (photo by Christopher T)

Male indigo buntings (Passerina cyanea) are mottled brown when they spend the winter in Central and South America, but nothing says “blue!” like an indigo bunting in May sunshine.

Indigo bunting, July 2021 (photo by Christopher T)

Even black and white look beautiful when worn by a male black-and-white warbler (Mniotilta varia) …

Black and white warbler, April 2022 (photo by Christopher T)

… and more beautiful when punctuated by the male rose-breasted grosbeak’s (Pheucticus ludovicianus) exclamation point. Watch carefully when he flies to see the rosy surprise beneath his wings.

Rose-breasted grosbeak, May 2021 (photo by Christopher T)

Get outdoors this month to enjoy migration’s colors of spring.

(photos by Christopher T)