Category Archives: Migration

Bird Migration on Merchant Ships

This 9-minute video, filmed on merchant ships by Odysseas-Froilan Papageorgiou, provides a unique perspective on migratory birds.

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.

Best Bird is saved for the end!

(video by Odysseas Froilan on YouTube)

MOTUS Peregrines On The Move

Downtown Pittsburgh juvenile peregrines. Bird on left has a MOTUS tag, 20 June 2019 (photo by Lori Maggio)

In June 2019 the Pennsylvania Game Commission fitted 10 of the state’s fledgling peregrines with MOTUS tracking devices to study where they go and how many survive their first year of life. Five months later the network has data locations for three (or maybe five) of them.

Keep in mind that only a few data points have been captured, the MOTUS data is still preliminary, and false positives sometimes occur. That said, here’s what we know so far.

Harrisburg female, Red, 46/BS (ID# 24660)

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.

Map of Harrisburg Red peregrine, ID#24660, enhanced from MOTUS tracking map

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.

screenshot of Harrisburg White data table as of 25 Nov 2019

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.

Map of Harrisburg White peregrine, ID#24662, enhanced from MOTUS tracking map

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.

Proposed map of Nazareth Red peregrine, ID#24665, constructed by Kate St. John and enhanced MOTUS tracking data

Data uncertain: Pittsburgh, female, Blue, 19/CA (ID# 24664)

Interestingly there is a single 51-second data point for the Pittsburgh female (Blue, 19/CA, ID#24664) at Nazareth Red’s location on Amherst Island on 22 July. Its validity is uncertain. I marked it in orange on Nazareth’s map above.

Data uncertain: Bethlehem, male, Yellow, 60/AP (ID# 24666)

Bethlehem Yellow has a smattering of data points at the Allan Hills tower in Saskatchewan, but like the other Saskatchewan error this is 1,700 miles away from his banding site without any intervening locations. The data is under review.

As the MOTUS system gathers more information the picture for each bird will come into better focus. Meanwhile check out the tables and maps as they look today at the links below.

(photo of Pittsburgh juvenile peregrines by Lori Maggio, enhanced maps by Kate St. John from MOTUS tracking data; click on the captions to see the originals)

Eagle-Sized Roaming Charges

Steppe eagle (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

In case you missed it …

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.

Range of steppe eagle (map from Wikimedia Commons)

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.

Steppe eagle in flight (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

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).

Approximate route of Min in Fall 2019, inexpertly drawn by Kate St. John on a map from Pinterest

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.

Learn more about the steppe eagles’ migration and roaming charges here on the BBC. Follow the steppe eagles’ saga at the Russian Raptor Research and Conservation Network.

Click on the map below to see where the eagles have migrated in the past two years.

p.s. What is 100,000 worth in U.S. dollars? About $1,560.

(photos and range map from Wikimedia Commons, Min’s hand-drawn route on map from Pinterest, steppe eagles’ migration map from Russian Raptor Research and Conservation Network. Click on the captions to see the originals)

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.

Monarchs Still Migrating Through Pittsburgh

Monarch butterfly in autumn (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

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.

You can follow their progress across the U.S. on Journey North’s monarch butterfly blog where you’ll find:

Today’s rain will put a damper on monarch migration in Pittsburgh but we can watch from afar as the butterflies make their way to Mexico.

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

Establishing A Bridgehead

Asian lady beetles in the Netherlands (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

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.

The bridgehead effect: Worldwide invasion of Asian lady beetles (map from PLOS One and

The bridgehead effect is now recognized as a method of worldwide pest invasion. The pest establishes a bridgehead — a strong position near a human transportation hub — then fans out from there. Ants, obscure mealybugs and brown marmorated stinkbugs have spread this way.

Who will be the next pest to establish a bridgehead? I hope it won’t be the spotted lanternfly.

Read more at: Bridgehead Effect in the Worldwide Invasion of the Biocontrol Harlequin Ladybird.

(photo from Wikimedia Commons; map from PLOS One article posted at Click on the caption to see the original)

p.s. (*) The European population of H. axyridis is mixed. Some were directly introduced from their native range but were not considered pests until the North America cohort arrived.

From Broad Wings to Red Tails

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

15 September 2019:

You can tell what month it is at a Pennsylvania hawk watch by noticing the most abundant raptor.

If you’re seeing a lot of broad-winged hawks, it must be September. Broad-wing migration peaks right now; they’ll be gone by the end of the month.

If you’re seeing a lot of turkey vultures and red-tailed hawks it must be October. In the fall of 2018, 90% of the turkey vultures that passed the Allegheny Front Hawk Watch went by in October.

Turkey vulture in flight (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Red-tailed hawks spread their migration over several months. Last year at the Allegheny Front roughly 25% were seen in September, 50% in October, 25% in November.

Red-tailed hawk at the Allegheny Front, 31 October 2016 (photo by Steve Gosser)

If golden eagles are at their most abundant, it must be mid-October to mid-November. It’s my favorite time of year at the Allegheny Front.

Golden eagle at the Allegheny Front, 2 Nov 2016 (photo by Steve Gosser)

Pennsylvania hawk watches are about to switch from broad-wings to red-tails. Count the raptors to find out what month it is. 😉

(Broad-winged hawk and turkey vulture photos from Wikimedia Commons; click on the caption to see the originals. Red-tailed hawk and golden eagle by Steve Gosser)

Take A Birding Break

Click here to watch the video

Would you like to take a birding break?

Spend a few minutes watching fall warblers in Central Park in a video by Quoteny, recorded August to October 2014.

Enjoy the birds’ delicate beauty or challenge yourself to identify them, listed them below in order of appearance.

Click here to watch the video.

In order of appearance:

  • Magnolia warbler
  • Black-and-white warbler
  • Black-throated blue warbler
  • Common yellowthroat
  • American redstart (female or immature)
  • Palm warbler
  • Hooded warbler (adult male)
  • Northern parula
  • Yellow-rumped warbler (notice that in this view it isn’t showing any yellow)
  • Red-eyed vireo
  • Blackpoll warbler (bathing)
  • Northern waterthrush
  • Ovenbird (mesmerized by a rat)

(photo is a screenshot from video by quoteny on YouTube)

Locust Swarms Act Like Facebook

Mormon cricket, Sept 2014 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

In the American West there’s a 3-inch long katydid called a Mormon cricket (Anabrus simplex) that cannot fly but it sure can walk.

We hardly notice Mormon crickets until millions swarm and march across the landscape, advancing more than a mile a day like a Biblical plague of locusts. Naturally scientists wondered what makes them do it.

Swarm of Mormon crickets heading eastward through a culvert on Halfway Highway, Oregon, circa 1939 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

A 2006 study discovered that the swarms are driven by hunger and fear. The crickets are hungry for protein and salt so they start to migrate, but the bugs are cannibals and will eat each other if they can. Those at the back of the pack pursue the front line to catch and eat them. Fear forces the crickets to keep track of their neighbors and constantly on the move.

Despite the danger from behind, individuals sometimes double back into the crowd. If enough of them do it the whole swarm changes direction. How does this happen? What signals such a change?

In 2011, a study of locust swarming behavior at the Max Planck Institute worked on a computer model to predict the bugs’ behavior. Nothing adequately mirrored the swarms’ movements until researchers applied a social networking model that predicts the movement of human opinion on Facebook and Twitter. Somehow the locusts walking in one direction convince others to walk in the same direction. As researcher Gerd Zschaler remarked,

We concluded that the mechanism through which locusts agree on a direction to move together (sometimes with devastating consequences, such as locust plagues) is the same we sometimes use to decide where to live or where to go out: we let ourselves be convinced by those in our social network, often by those going in the opposite direction.

We don’t necessarily pay more attention to those doing the same as us, but many times [we pay more attention] to those doing something different.

Swarms of locusts use social networking to communicate, Science Daily

Our crowd-based opinions move like swarms of locusts.

Swarms of locusts act like Facebook.

p.s. If you’ve never seen a swarm of Mormon crickets click here for a National Geographic video. Read more about locust swarming behavior in Science Daily.

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

Watch Songbird Migration Online

BirdCast on 3 Sep 2019, 4:50a (screenshot from Live BirdCast map)

5 September 2019

Songbird migration is underway across the continent but we can’t see it happening outdoors because the birds travel at night. However, we can watch them online.

Radar can see birds in flight so Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s BirdCast uses national radar data to plot where, when and what direction the birds are moving. Click the BirdCast link to see the most recent video. Watch sunset (red bar) sweep across the continent and the birds start to move, then sunrise (yellow bar) sweep across and migration stops for the day. The date above the map is a pulldown menu for selecting prior nights.

The BirdCast screenshot above was taken on Tuesday 3 September on a night when many birds left Pittsburgh on their way to the Gulf coast. At 4:50am you can see them lighting up the BirdCast map from southwestern Pennsylvania to Mississippi.

Before BirdCast existed, I watched weather radar for a snapshot of current bird activity. BirdCast filters the weather map so you see only the birds. The Weather Service does not so you’ll want to check out this vintage article — Watch Migration On Radar — for a quick tutorial on how to read the map.

The screenshot below was taken from Great Lakes weather radar on the same date and time as the BirdCast snapshot at top. Notice the differences!

Great Lakes weather radar, 3 Sep 2019, 4:50a (screenshot from the National Weather Service)

Wisconsin and Lake Michigan are brightly colored on the weather map because of heavy rain. That same area is a dark spot on BirdCast because birds don’t migrate in a storm. BirdCast also shows no birds moving in Florida; Hurricane Dorian was there.

Last night, Sep 4-5, the wind was from the north and skies were clear west of the Appalachians. BirdCast and weather radar both show birds on the move from Pennsylvania and Illinois to the Tennessee and Mississippi Valleys.

BirdCast and Great Lakes radar, 5 Sep 2019, 4:10am (from BirdCast and NWS)

It’s a good day to go birding.

(screenshot maps from BirdCast and the National Weather Service Great Lakes)

Monarchs On The Move

Monarch butterfly flying away in Iowa, Sept 2018 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

In the past week I’ve noticed many monarch butterflies in flight and they’ve all been heading south.

When you see a monarch, pay attention to the direction it’s heading. Right now is the peak period for them to pass through Pittsburgh on their way to Mexico.

Monarch butterflies are on the move!

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