Category Archives: Migration

Non-Stop 2,500 Miles

Whimbrel at Galapagos, Ecuador (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Whimbrel at Galapagos, Ecuador (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Every fall this bird performs an amazing feat of physical endurance.  It flies non-stop over the ocean for 2,500 miles.

The whimbrel (Numenius phaeopus) is a long distance migrant that occurs on every continent except Antarctica because it breeds in the far north and winters in the southern hemisphere.

Whimbrel range map (BirdLife International via Wikimedia Commons)
Whimbrel range map (BirdLife International via Wikimedia Commons)

Most North American whimbrels spend the winter in coastal South America.  To get there, some travel the western route down the Pacific Ocean to Columbia, Ecuador, Peru and Chile.

Others take an eastern route, flying across northern Canada in mid-July to spend two weeks fattening up on the shores of the U.S. and Canada. Then they launch over the Atlantic and fly non-stop to Venezuela, the Guianas and Brazil.  What’s the air distance from Cape Cod to Venezuela?  2,500 miles.

We didn’t know the whimbrels’ route until the Center for Conservation Biology began satellite tagging them in 2008.  In August 2012 they made an astonishing discovery.  Three of their 20 satellite tagged whimbrels made a wide arc over the Atlantic, far out to sea, before heading for the coast of Brazil.  One of them (red line) traveled 4,355 miles non-stop before touching down. At 30 miles per hour, the trip took six days. Read more at the Center for Conservation Biology website.

Whimbrels' transoceanic flights from Mackenzie Delta to South America (map from Center for Conservation Biology, August 2012)
Whimbrels’ transoceanic flights from Mackenzie Delta to South America (map from Center for Conservation Biology, August 2012)

By now whimbrels have been on the move for several weeks.  When you see one you’ll know why he’s eating so much.  He has a big trip ahead of him.

(photo and map of the whimbrel’s range from Wikimedia Commons. Migration routes map from Center for Conservation Biology.  Click on the captions to see the originals.)

Sugar Doesn’t Hurt Me

Hummingbird at the feeder (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)
Ruby-throated hummingbird at the feeder (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

By August in Pennsylvania, ruby-throated hummingbirds (Archilochus colubris) have finished breeding and all of them, young and old, are fattening up for their migration to Central America.  Many are visiting backyard feeders.

Last week on PABIRDS Rob Blye posted a collection of interesting questions about feeding hummingbirds, including someone’s concern about sugar. Here’s a summary of the feeder discussion with embedded links to the original text.

Do young hummingbirds imprint on feeders as a preferential food source and ignore natural food sources?

No.  Scott Weidensaul writes that as much as 40 percent of the hummingbirds’ diet is made up of insects and other small arthropods which they pursue while away from our feeders. There’s no need to worry that they’re getting an unbalanced diet.

Is sugar bad for hummingbirds?

Not at all. Sugar is bad for humans but fine for hummers. Scott Weidensaul writes: “Flower nectar and a white cane sugar/water mix are essentially identical sucrose fluids.  Four parts water and one part white sugar neatly replicates what they’re getting from flowers. “

Can we offer a different sweetener than sugar? What about honey?

Absolutely not!  Scott writes that “substitutions are dangerous. Organic/brown/turbinado sugar or molasses can pack fatally high levels of iron, to which hummers are exquisitely sensitive, while honey, once diluted, becomes a stew of dangerous bacteria and fungi.”

Is it OK to hang hummingbird feeders if you cannot clean them frequently?

No.  Spoiled food is dangerous for hummingbirds and it spoils daily in 90 degree weather. Clean your feeders thoroughly and regularly. Empty, clean and refill daily when it’s 90 degrees. You can extend this to every few days when the high is 60.  Click here for guidelines from Aududon.

Should we add something to the sugar-water to prevent spoilage?

No.  Scott writes, “avoid new products that claim to deter spoilage. Hummingbird experts are deeply suspicious about the safety of such additives.”

How do you attract hummingbirds if you can’t clean your feeders that often?

Ellen from Cumberland County had that problem so she planted salvia and other hummingbird favorites. The hummingbirds now “come back every year looking for their flowers and guard them zealously.”  Read her flower list on PABIRDS and/or this list of top 10 flowers for hummingbirds at The Spruce.

The bottom line is this:  Sugar doesn’t hurt hummingbirds, but spoiled food does.  Clean your feeders thoroughly and often, especially in August’s heat!

(photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

Fall Migration Has Begun

Bonaparte's gull and American avocets at Conneaut Harbor, late July 2013 (photo by Steve Gosser)
Bonaparte’s gull and American avocets at Conneaut Harbor, late July 2013 (photo by Steve Gosser)

Late July doesn’t look or feel like autumn but fall migration has already begun.

Shorebirds are some of the earliest species to start their journey south.  Last weekend brought a good assortment to Gull Point at Presque Isle State Park in Erie, PA.   Here are a few of the migrants we would have seen if we’d been there.

American Avocets (Recurvirostra americana), above, raise only one brood per year and will leave the breeding grounds immediately if their nest fails.   Avocets are always a treat in Pennsylvania because they breed far west of here and could easily bypass us if they wanted to.  Instead, some fly to the east coast before moving south.  Steve Gosser found a pair hanging out at Conneaut, Ohio in July 2013.  (The bird with the black head is a Bonaparte’s gull. He’s also migrating.)

Sanderlings (Calidris alba), below, nest on the tundra in high arctic Canada, mostly north of the Arctic Circle.  These small birds have one shot at breeding so if it doesn’t work they form flocks with other failed breeders in late June and move south in July.

Sanderling on sand, July 2013 (photo by Steve Gosser)
Sanderling on the sand, July 2013 (photo by Steve Gosser)

 

Short-billed dowitchers (Limnodromus griseus) breed from Hudson Bay to western Labrador and in northern Manitoba and Alberta.  Failed breeders leave the breeding grounds in late June while successful females depart in early July followed by males later in the month.  Juveniles leave in August. Once they start passing through we’ll see short-billed dowitchers in Pennsylvania for several weeks.

Short-billed dowitchers, July 2013 (photo by Steve Gosser)
Short-billed dowitchers, July 2013 (photo by Steve Gosser)

 

The lesser yellowlegs’ (Tringa flavipes) lifestyle dictates when each family member leaves the breeding grounds (Alaska to Hudson Bay) for their winter home (primarily in Suriname).  Successful females head south in June as soon as their eggs hatch and the young walk off the nest.  The males protect their chicks until they fly then head south, too.  The juveniles form flocks and fend for themselves until they decide to leave.

Lesser yellowlegs, July 2013 (photo by Steve Gosser)
Lesser yellowlegs, July 2013 (photo by Steve Gosser)

 

Visit Lake Erie’s shore for a good look at shorebirds.  The best places close to Pittsburgh are the harbor area at Conneaut, Ohio or Gull Point at Presque Isle State Park in Erie, PA.

 

(photos by Steve Gosser)

p.s. Here’s the complete shorebird list from Gull Point on July 21-22, 2018, gathered from eBird:

  • American Avocet
  • Semipalmated Plover
  • Piping Plover (local breeder, two nests)
  • Killdeer
  • Whimbrel
  • Ruddy Turnstone
  • Redknot
  • Stilt Sandpiper
  • Sanderling
  • Dunlin
  • Least Sandpiper
  • Pectoral Sandpiper
  • Semipalmated Sandpiper
  • Short-billed Dowitcher
  • Spotted Sandpiper
  • Greater Yellowlegs
  • Lesser Yellowlegs

It’s Warbler Time!

Blackburnian warbler (photo by Steve Gosser)
Blackburnian warbler (photo by Steve Gosser)

In early May it’s warbler time!

This is the Biggest Week in American Birding in northwestern Ohio and I’m not going to miss it.  I expect to see my favorite warbler, the Blackburnian (Setophaga fusca) above, and up to five warblers whose names are out of place in Ohio.

The birds listed below were named for the location where a scientist first described them though they were on migration at the time.   The name tells you more about the ornithologist’s travel schedule than it does about the bird.

Tennessee warbler (Oreothlypis peregrina).  From Birds of North America Online:

“Described by Alexander Wilson in 1811 from a migrant specimen on the banks of Tennessee’s Cumberland River, its common name belies the fact that its breeding range is restricted almost entirely to the boreal forest zone of Canada, southeastern Alaska and the extreme northern fringe of the U.S.”

Tennessee warbler (photo by Donna Foyle)
Tennessee warbler (photo by Donna Foyle)

Nashville warbler (Oreothlypis ruficapilla):  Found by Alexander Wilson in Nashville in 1811, and so named.

Nashville Warbler at Magee Marsh (photo by Brian Herman)
Nashville Warbler at Magee Marsh (photo by Brian Herman)

Kentucky warbler (Geothlypis formosa). Named by Alexander Wilson in 1811 while he was in Kentucky.

Kentucky warbler (photo by Tony Bruno)
Kentucky warbler (photo by Tony Bruno)

The elusive Connecticut warbler (Oporornis agilis) is so hard to find in the spring that Steve Gosser’s photo below is from September 2013. Alexander Wilson first saw one in autumn, too. From Birds of North America Online:

Alexander Wilson first described this species in 1812 and named it after the state of Connecticut, where he collected the first specimen, a fall migrant. The common name is something of a misnomer, however, because the species does not breed in Connecticut, nor is it a common migrant there.

Connecticut warbler in western PA, September 2013 (photo by Steve Gosser)
Connecticut warbler in western PA, September 2013 (photo by Steve Gosser)

And finally, the Cape May warbler (Setophaga tigrina) was one of the last birds Alexander Wilson described. He found it at Cape May, New Jersey in May 1813. He died three months later at age 47.  From Birds of North America Online:

“Its English name refers to the locality from which Alexander Wilson first described the species— Cape May, New Jersey—where it was not recorded again for more than 100 years .”

Cape May warbler (photo by Bobby Greene)
Cape May warbler (photo by Bobby Greene)

If I’d named the warblers for my first sightings they’d be Ohio warbler, Magee Marsh warbler, Maumee Bay warbler, and Ottawa (county) warbler.

It’s warbler time in Ohio!

 

(photo credits: Steve Gosser, Donna Foyle, Brian Herman, Tony Bruno, Bobby Greene)

Predict A Great Birding Day

Central Great Lakes weather radar, 6 May 2018, 3:58 EDT (screenshot from weather.gov)
Central Great Lakes weather radar, 6 May 2018, 3:58 EDT (screenshot from weather.gov)

6 May 2018:

How to predict a great birding day in early May?  Find out last night’s weather.

At this time of year migrating songbirds spend the day eating and resting, then fly north overnight.  Their decision to move depends on the weather.  Here’s what they like best:

  • New leaves on the trees at their destination. (The Leaves! article explains why.)
  • A south wind, preferably a light one.
  • No rain, no storms.  If they’re flying north and encounter bad weather, they land right there!
  • Pent up desire: If they’ve had to wait for good weather, the first favorable night will see huge movements of birds — thousands and thousands.

Weather radar is sensitive enough to show rain and snow.  Did you know it also shows migrating birds?

The screenshot above shows the central Great Lakes weather radar at 4am, 6 May 2018.  Yellow, orange and red indicate rain of increasing intensity.  Green and blue are either light precipitation or birds.  Green circles with blue edges are birds.  Birds show up as circles because the detection limit of each radar installation is circular.

So what does this radar plot mean for Pittsburgh?  Here’s a marked up version.

Annotated Great Lakes weather radar, 6 May 2018, 3:58 EDT (screenshot from weather.gov)
Annotated Great Lakes weather radar, 6 May 2018, 3:58 EDT (screenshot from weather.gov)

The red circle shows an area of bad weather.  (Heavier rain is yellow and a hint of orange.) The red line marks the northern limit of the bad weather.  Notice that there are no green circles north of the red areas.  The birds stopped south of there.

Bad weather stopped the birds last night.  Will we see the same birds in Pittsburgh today as we did yesterday?  And in the same places?

Let me know what you find out.

 

p.s. Click on the radar images above to see the current Central Great Lakes radar map at weather.gov.

(screenshots of Central Great Lakes weather radar, 6 May 2018, 3:58 EDT from weather.gov)

The Warblers Are Coming!

American redstart (photo by Tony Bruno)
American redstart (photo by Tony Bruno)

The warblers are coming!  In fact the second wave is already here.

Ten days ago I listed four new arrivals: Louisiana waterthrush, yellow-throated warbler, pine warbler and yellow-rumped warbler.

This week brought in five more beauties, illustrated in photos by Tony Bruno and Steve Gosser.  I saw most of them at Enlow Fork (SGL 302), just 45 air miles south of Pittsburgh.  I’m sure they’ll be in town this weekend.

American redstart (Setophaga ruticilla), at top.  Black, white and orange, as soon as the redstarts arrive they’re easy to find because they’re hyperactive and just above eye level.  We saw 10 of them at Enlow Fork yesterday, April 26.

Northern parula (Setophaga americana), below. Smaller and slower moving than a redstart, parulas are usually in the tops of the trees, especially sycamores. We were lucky to see one at eye level at Enlow Fork.

Northern parula (photo by Steve Gosser)
Northern parula (photo by Steve Gosser)

Palm warbler (Setophaga palmarum), below:  This warbler is easier to identify that you’d think because he pumps his tail and is willing to walk on the ground. I found him on the grass at Frick Park.

Palm warbler (photo by Steve Gosser)
Palm warbler (photo by Steve Gosser)

Black-throated green warbler (Setophaga virens), below. Usually found at mid-height in the trees, he sometimes hovers like a redstart to glean insects from the leaves. Enlow Fork.

Black-throated green warbler (photo by Steve Gosser)
Black-throated green warbler (photo by Steve Gosser)

Common yellowthroat (Geothlypis trichas), below:  This one like to hide in thick bushes so we heard him before we saw him — and then just caught a glimpse.  “Witchity, Witchity, Witchity” at Enlow Fork.

Common yellowthroat (photo by Steve Gosser)
Common yellowthroat (photo by Steve Gosser)

There are plenty of opportunities to see warblers this Sunday April 29.  Click the links for details:

It’s time to get outdoors.  The warblers are coming!

 

(photo credits: American redstart by Tony Bruno; all other warblers by Steve Gosser)

 

Good News You May Have Missed

Hermit thrush (photo by Steve Gosser)
Hermit thrush (photo by Steve Gosser)

After a turbulent week for Pittsburgh’s peregrines, here’s some good news you may have missed.

Spring migration is bringing new birds to Pittsburgh almost every day.

Wednesday’s new arrival (for me) was a hermit thrush at Bird Park in Mt. Lebanon, illustrated by Steve Gosser’s photo above.

On Thursday morning birders discovered that huge flocks of migrating buffleheads, scaup, horned grebes and Bonaparte’s gulls had landed on Pittsburgh’s rivers Wednesday night.  This phenomenon, called a “fallout,” was a one day wonder.  Most of the birds left that evening.

And songbirds that arrived last weekend are still here.  Check out more good news in Tuesday’s article: New Birds In Town.

 

(photo by Steve Gosser)

New Birds In Town

Louisiana waterthrush (photo by Anthony Bruno)
Louisiana waterthrush (photo by Anthony Bruno)

April 17, 2018: Despite this morning’s snow …

Last weekend’s warm weather and south winds brought migrating birds to western Pennsylvania.

Here are some of the new arrivals, illustrated in photos by Tony Bruno, Steve Gosser and Don Weiss. My descriptions include the locations where I saw the birds last weekend in case you’d like to look for them.

Louisiana waterthrush (Parkesia motacilla) at top: Found along clean, rushing streams. This bird bobs his tail even when standing still. Walks the water’s edge. Perches just above eye level when he sings. At Cedar Creek Park and Walker Park.

Yellow-throated warbler (Setophaga dominica) below: Found near creeks and often in sycamores. Walks on the trunk and large branches, often quite high. At Raccoon Creek Wildflower Reserve and Walker Park.

Yellow-throated warbler (photo by Anthony Bruno)
Yellow-throated warbler (photo by Anthony Bruno)

 

Pine warbler (Setophaga pinus) below: Slow-moving warbler who favors pines but can be found in any tree on migration. Walks on the trunk and large branches. At Snead’s.

Pine warbler (photo by Anthony Bruno)
Pine warbler (photo by Anthony Bruno)

 

Yellow-rumped warbler (Setophaga coronata) below: An active warbler with a tiny dark vest and yellow rump. Flits among smaller branches.  Seen at Walker Park, but found nearly everywhere during migration.  This bright-colored bird is male. The females are brown where this one is black.

Yellow-rumped warbler (photo by Steve Gosser)
Yellow-rumped warbler (photo by Steve Gosser)

 

Ruby-crowned kinglet (Regulus calendula) below:  Not a warbler but can be confused due to its similar size. Very hyperactive. Flits and hovers among small branches.  You’ll find this bird nearly everywhere on migration.  By the way, ruby-crowned kinglets stay all winter in eastern Pennsylvania.

Ruby-crowned kinglet (photo by Steve Gosser)
Ruby-crowned kinglet (photo by Steve Gosser)

 

Swallows and chimney swifts:  If you’re desperate to see swallows and swifts in the spring, stop by a sewage treatment plant.  The nutrient rich outflow spawns flying insects that these birds eat on the wing. I saw my first tree swallows (Tachycineta bicolor) along Route 65 near the McKees Rocks Bridge, just downstream from Alcosan.

Tree swallow (photo by Don Weiss)
Tree swallow (photo by Don Weiss)

 

Winter wren (Troglodytes hiemalis) below:  “Winter” is passing through. Petite with striped flanks and a tiny cocked tail.  Look for him poking for insects among fallen logs and rocky outcrops.  Nests north of Pittsburgh and in the Laurel Highlands.  Seen at Schenley Park, Raccoon Wildflower Reserve and Walker Park.

Winter wren (photo by Steve Gosser)
Winter wren (photo by Steve Gosser)

 

If it hadn’t turned cold, it would be a good week to get outdoors.

 

(photos by Tony Bruno, Steve Gosser and Don Weiss)

Where Are They Now?

Ruby-throated hummingbird (photo by Steve Gosser)
Ruby-throated hummingbird (photo by Steve Gosser)

Despite the cold weather a ruby-throated hummingbird arrived in eastern Pennsylvania this week.  He appeared April 2 on the hummingbirds migration map.

Observers in North America enter their first spring sightings of male ruby-throats at the hummingbirds.net website and their entries populate the map.

This screenshot taken at 5am April 5, 2018 shows the northernmost pioneers are in New Jersey and the Delaware watershed.

Spring 2018 (zoomed) map of Ruby-throated hummingbird migration as of 4/4/2018 (screenshot from hummingbirds.net)
Spring 2018 (zoomed) map of Ruby-throated hummingbird migration as of 4/4/2018 (screenshot from hummingbirds.net)

Hummingbirds move north when it’s warm but this spring’s weather has held them back.  In 2012 it was so hot that they’d already reached Minnesota by now (click here to see).

Follow their migration on the hummingbirds.net map.  Enter your own first sighting at this link.

Where are they now?  Check the map to see.

 

(photo by Steve Gosser, screenshot of map from www.hummingbirds.net)

p.s. Thanks to Donna Foyle for sending this news.

Grackles Come, Gulls Go

Common grackle in flight (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Common grackle in flight (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Spring seems to be coming slowly.  Nonetheless we’ve seen changes in the bird population since February.

Just over a month ago — February 9 to 13 — birders typically saw 7,000 ring-billed gulls assemble on the river every evening at the Head of the Ohio in Pittsburgh.  By February 20 that number had dropped to only three.  Yes, there are still ring-billed gulls in the area but the bulk of them are gone.

Ring-billed gulls chase for food (photo by Shawn Collins)
Ring-billed gulls chase for food (photo by Shawn Collins)

 

Meanwhile, common grackles (Quiscalus quiscula) were very uncommon over the winter but individual birds showed up in the last week of February.  I saw my first common grackle in Schenley Park on March 1 and more than 40 yesterday at Moraine State Park.

Common grackles have just begun to arrive and will stay to breed.  Additional ring-billed gulls will pass through Pittsburgh on their way north but they’ll keep going.

Grackles come, Gulls go in early spring.

 

(photo credits: grackle from Wikimedia Commons; click on the image to see the original. Ring-billed gulls by Shawn Collins)

p.s.  I noticed the ring-billed gull population change by looking outside my window.  Twice in February I watched for 20 minutes at 5pm while I waited on hold on the phone.  On February 9 I saw thousands of gulls fly over my house on their way to the Head of the Ohio.  On February 22 the number was about 10.   Interestingly, I now associate the music-on-hold with flying gulls.