Monarch butterflies are famous for migrating long distances from North America to Mexico but they’re not the only butterfly that travels far. Red admirals migrate, too.
Red admirals (Vanessa atalanta) occur in Europe, Asia and North America. Though the European population can hibernate, red admirals on this continent migrate south to places where their favorite host plant — stinging nettle — grows throughout the winter. In eastern North American they spend the winter in south Texas.
Over the winter a new generation of red admirals matures to fly north and repopulate the continent. We usually don’t notice them but in the spring of 2012 hot weather came so fast that red admirals passed through Presque Isle State Park in a couple of days on mass migration.
On Throw Back Thursday read about the amazing number of red admirals in 2012 in this vintage blog: Mass Migration.
Why don’t we see them migrating more often? Perhaps they’re traveling high above our heads. According to Wikipedia: “During migration, the red admiral flies at high altitudes where high-speed winds carry the butterfly, requiring less energy.” Oh my!
(photo from Wikimedia Commons; click on the caption to see the original)
Spring is popping in southwestern Pennsylvania. Here’s what to look for in late April.
Branching! Great horned owlets are growing up fast. At the earliest nests owlets will walk on nearby branches before the leaves come out. Dana Nesiti photographed this yawning owlet in early April.
Nest building: Songbirds are building nests especially American robins, song sparrows and Carolina wrens. House sparrows flutter by with cellophane for their nests.
Migration: Blackbirds and tree swallows are here. Gray catbirds are coming soon. Also Louisiana waterthrush, yellow-throated warbler, hermit thrush, ruby-crowned kinglet, blue-headed vireo, brown thrasher, blue-gray gnatcatcher, pine warbler, northern parula, chimney swift, barn swallow and house wren. See them on an outing with the Three Rivers Birding Club.
Trees: Flowering trees include redbud, downy serviceberry, cherry and more. “Leaf out” comes in early May.
Butterflies: Spring azures, cabbage whites, eastern commas, orange sulphurs, red admirals.
Turkey season: Be careful if you hear a turkey calling; it might be a hunter. Spring Gobbler hunting season runs from the last Saturday in April through all of May. Junior hunters get a one-day early start on the next-to-last Saturday (April 20).
In late April, spring is happening fast. Don’t miss it!
This time of year can be frustrating for Pittsburgh birders. Migration is underway and the “good birds” are everywhere but here. Why do we keep missing them? Is there something wrong with us?
It’s not us. It’s where we live. Sometimes the “good birds” get here last.
Ruby-throated hummingbirds are a case in point. Their arrival is tracked every year on the Journey North website (screenshot above) where we can see what we’re missing. In the very warm spring of 2012 they arrived in Ohio and Wisconsin by the end of March but weren’t in most of western Pennsylvania in early April. Hummingbirds surrounded us but they weren’t here yet.
In late March more than 440 lesser black-backed gulls congregated in a damp field in northeastern Pennsylvania — an exciting find because they used to be very rare in North America. Why are they here and where are they going? The Pennsylvania Game Commission is using satellite telemetry to find out.
Lesser black-backed gulls (Larus fuscus) are an Old World species that breeds in Iceland, northern Europe, Russia and Kazakhstan and spends the winter in Europe, Africa and coastal Asia. They were never seen in North America until one showed up in New Jersey in 1934. Slowly their wintertime numbers increased until they’re now considered non-regular winter visitors to North America’s Atlantic and Gulf Coasts. See the map below.
They still don’t breed in North America in numbers that count on that map. However, they might be thinking about it.
Meanwhile their migration numbers through Pennsylvania are high enough that ornithologists began to wonder if lesser black-backed gulls are bothering to cross the Atlantic to breed. Are they going to Iceland? We would know that answer if we knew where the Pennsylvania flock was going.
Last spring the PA Game Commission attached satellite transmitters to nine adult gulls when they stopped over in Pennsylvania. The map of the gulls’ movements tells an interesting tale.
The satellite-tagged gulls don’t go to Europe. They stay in North America. Based on their sedentary lifestyle in June they seem to be breeding in Greenland and northeastern Canada.
Last Tuesday March 19 Patience Fisher and I were amazed by the millions of midges in the air at Custards. There were so many that they coated my car and attracted hundreds of tree swallows that wheeled over the marsh.
Tree swallows (Tachycineta bicolor) are short distance migrants who spend the winter as close to us as coastal North Carolina. The males tend to migrate first and arrive on the breeding grounds to claim territory and fight over nest sites, including bluebird boxes. When the females arrive they pair up quickly and place a little nesting material in their chosen nest site. The pair won’t nest for a few weeks but they like to stake their claim early.
Keep an eye out for tree swallows in the days and weeks ahead … and hope for warm weather so they have enough insects to eat.
Tree swallows are coming soon.
(photo from Wikimedia Commons; click on the caption to see the original)
If you like to watch the seasons change take some time to go birding this weekend. Ducks, robins and blackbirds are on the move.
Last Tuesday at Moraine State Park, my friends and I saw 16 species of waterfowl including tundra swans, three kinds of mergansers, a rare red-throated loon, and ruddy ducks like the one pictured above. (Notice his breeding plumage, blue bill.)
Migrating species change as you travel east. Last Tuesday at Yellow Creek State Park — only 70 miles east — there were 855 canvasbacks! We didn’t see any at Moraine.
Meanwhile American robins are arriving in good numbers. They sing at dawn in my neighborhood even though they haven’t reached their destination. Pretty soon they’ll be singing in the dark, too.
Watch for red-winged blackbirds, common grackles and killdeer. They’ve just arrived in Pittsburgh.
When I saw forty sandhill cranes near Volant, Pennsylvania on Monday, I thought of the time I saw 500,000 in Nebraska in March 2004. Half a million sandhill cranes are a breathtaking, exhilarating, stupendous experience! It has to be seen in person. Here’s what it’s like.
Every spring the cranes leave their wintering grounds in Mexico and Texas to converge on an 80-mile stretch of the Platte River in Nebraska. Their numbers peak in March when 80% of all the sandhill cranes on Earth are there.
Cranes are drawn to this location because the Platte is still “a mile wide and an inch deep” between Lexington and Grand Island. The water is shallow enough to roost in overnight and there’s abundant plant food in local wetlands and waste corn in the cattle fields(*). The cranes spend three to four weeks fattening up for their 3,000 mile journey to their breeding grounds in Canada, Alaska and Siberia.
At dusk and dawn they move to and from the Platte River in spectacular numbers. Their sight and sound is amazing, especially when you’re in a bird blind near the action. They dance with their mates and jump for joy.
I saw their great migration in late March 2004. Before my trip I booked dusk and dawn visits to the bird blinds at the Platte, then I flew to Omaha and drove west to Grand Island and Kearny (pronounced Karney). I didn’t mind the 2.5 hour drive because I wanted to see a piece of the Great Plains and experience this: For over 100 miles there are no cranes at all then suddenly, just as I-80 approaches the Platte River, the sky is filled with them. I’d arrived!
I saw hundreds of thousands of sandhill cranes at dusk and dawn and spent my days at local birding hotspots where my highlights were white pelicans, burrowing owls, lapland longspurs, and a Harris’ sparrow. I had hoped to see a whooping crane but I was too early that year. (Whoopers leave Texas later than the sandhills.)
When I mentioned Ron Pittaway’s Winter Finch Forecast a month ago, I didn’t list evening grosbeaks because (silly me) I didn’t believe they’d get this far. I was wrong. Evening grosbeaks have made it to western Pennsylvania. Woo hoo!
Evening grosbeaks (Coccothraustes vespertinus) are stocky yellow, black and white finches with heavy bills for cracking open seeds. They live year-round in coniferous forests across Canada, the northern Rockies, and the Cascades but move south when seed cones become scarce. This winter is one of those years.
Evening grosbeaks are a very big deal in Pennsylvania. They used to visit regularly in the 1970s but their population is declining, conditions changed, and they stopped coming our way. Their visits have been extremely spotty and intermittent for four decades. The one pictured above (left) visited Marcy Cunkelman’s feeder in November 2012. In Mt. Pocono, Pennsylvania they returned to Bruce Johnson’s feeders this month after an absence of 42 years!
The eBird map below (12 Nov 2018) shows where they’ve been seen since September. I added seven purple dots for locations mentioned on PABIRDS that weren’t entered in eBird. Notice the sightings in Crawford and Erie Counties!
All the flocks were flying southeast, heading for their wintering grounds at Chesapeake Bay and eastern North Carolina.
At Moraine State Park, 13 of us searched the sky for tundra swans when we heard them overhead. The sky was so blue and they were flying so high that it was a real challenge to see them. Ultimately we counted four flocks totaling 260 birds. Here’s the flight call that cued us to look up.
Listen and look for tundra swans (Cygnus columbianus) early this week in western Pennsylvania. They usually pass through on or near Veterans’ Day. Yesterday they were right on time.