Category Archives: Migration

Get Ready for Crows

Crows gathering at dusk, Alumni Hall, November 2013 (photo by Kate St. John)

I heard them coming last Friday when 50 crows flew over my neighborhood late in the afternoon.  I heard them again Monday morning before dawn, flying over my house in the dark.

Pittsburgh’s winter crow flock is building.  Right now the number is small but by Halloween we’ll see 1,000 of them at dusk near Pitt’s Alumni Hall. Even more of them in November.

Crows gathering on Alumni Hall, Nov 2013 (photo by Kate St. John)

By December expect 10,000 crows.  In March they’ll be gone.

Winter’s coming. Get ready for crows.

(photos by Kate St. John, November 2013)

The Finches Are Coming

Common redpoll, January 2013 (photo by Cris Hamilton)

Winter birding can be boring in Pittsburgh but not this year. The finches are coming!

According to Ron Pittaway’s Winter Finch Forecast, we’re going to see a lot of northern finches this winter because the “cone, alder and birch seed crops are poor to low in most of Ontario and the Northeast.”  These irruptive birds usually stay in Canada all year but move south, east and west in autumn when there’s not enough to eat.  Here are a few of the “treats” in store for us in western Pennsylvania.

Above, common redpolls (Acanthis flammea) are a goldfinch-sized birds with rosy chests, rosy caps, and black faces.  When they first arrive it takes them a while to notice bird feeders but when they do they cause a mob scene.  Look carefully in the flock for a very similar white-chested bird, the rare hoary redpoll (Acanthis hornemanni).

Below, pine siskins (Spinus pinus) look like very stripey goldfinches with faint yellow wing and tail markings. Listen for their unique call like a zipper going up.

Pine siskin (photo by Shawn Collins)

Purple finches (Haemorhous purpureus) are northern visitors that resemble our familiar house finches but male purple finches are “purple” as if they were dipped head first in berry juice.  Even their flank stripes are rosy, not brown.  Here’s a guide for telling the difference between Purple and House finches.

Purple finch (photo by Brian Herman)

Two irruptive non-finch species have already arrived as indicators of good birds to come.

Red-breasted nuthatches (Sitta canadensis) are already here, searching for cones and seeds in local conifers. Listen for their tin horn calls.

Blue jays!   Yes, those crowds of blue jays (Cyanocitta cristata) are visiting from Canada.  They love acorns. 

Blue jay (photo by Cris Hamilton)

Learn what to expect in the 2018 Winter Finch Forecast. Fill your feeders and keep watch.

Don’t be disappointed if blue jays come to visit. They’re the harbinger of good things to come.

(photo credits: common redpoll and blue jay by Cris Hamilton, pine siskin and red-breasted nuthatch by Shawn Collins, purple finch by Brian Herman)

Deadly Attraction, Part 2

Bright specks in the beam, migrating birds swirl in Pitt’s Victory Lights as seen from 0.4 mile away, 7 Oct 2018, 11:05pm (photo by Kate St. John)

Last night at 11pm I looked at Pittsburgh’s weather radar for isolated thunderstorms. Instead I found intense songbird migration in progress. The colors in this radar print show them flying over western Pennsylvania.

Pittsburgh weather radar showing intense bird migration at 11:37pm, 7 Oct 2018 (image from the National Weather Service)

Some of these birds would be fatally attracted to Pittsburgh’s city lights — that was nothing new — but last night there was an additional deadly attraction.  Pitt won their football game on Saturday and the new Victory Lights were on.  Would birds be stuck in the beams?

Saturday evening I had emailed PABIRDS asking folks to check the Victory Lights to see if this was happening.  Was I going to ignore my own call to action just because it was 11pm?  Well, no. I packed up my gear and drove to the Cathedral of Learning.

Before I got there I parked near Phipps Conservatory 0.4 miles away and looked at the beams (photo at top).  Indeed there were bright specks circling inside the beams but I was so far away that only the brightest specks were visible.

Birds circling in the Victory Light beams, 7 Oct 2018, 11:17pm (cellphone photo by Kate St. John)

I parked at Schenley Plaza near Forbes and counted about 100 bright specks. No, those aren’t moths in my blurry cellphone photo above (11:17:42pm).  Those are trapped birds. 

In the marked up photo below (11:18:19pm) the bent arrow points to a bird that’s so fatally trapped that it’s flying into the light where it will die.  I saw another bird “ditch” out of the column to the roof.

Circling in the beam. Bent arrow points to a bird that’s totally trapped, approaching the lights. It will die on the roof (photo by Kate St. John)

This morning I predict there will be dead or stunned songbirds on the Cathedral of Learning’s many roofs, especially near the source of the Victory Lights. 

As I wrote on September 21, the 9/11 Tribute of Light had this problem and solved it.  I hope we can solve it at Pitt, too. 

UPDATE, Tues 9 Oct, 11am: I have received hopeful news of collaboration on this issue between Pitt and Audubon Society of Western PA. Stay tuned.

p.s. Click here for my original Deadly Attraction blog post including information on city lights and the 9/11 Tribute’s solution.

(photos by Kate St. John, radar map from the National Weather Service; click on the caption to see the radar)

Monarchs On Radar

Male monarch butterfly (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

After several years of low monarch butterfly populations in southwestern Pennsylvania, this year has been spectacular.  With the weather still as warm as summer I see monarchs flying south every day — even in October.

We know that migrating birds can be seen on radar. Did you know that clouds of monarch butterflies are visible too?

Back in September 2014 AOL reported that a dense flight of monarch butterflies was visible on radar in the St. Louis area.  Here’s what the National Weather Service radar looked like at the time.

Radar image from 19 Sep 2014, St. Louis, MO (National Weather Service)

Learn how the butterflies made this impression in a 2014 AOL article: Mysterious clouds spotted in radar explained.

(photo of monarch butterfly by Marcy Cunkelman, 2008; radar image from the National Weather Service St. Louis, Missouri via AOL’s article cited above)

Today in Schenley Park, Sept 30

At the end of the hike, I forgot to tell everyone to smile (photo by Kate St. John)

Despite the Great Race road closures, eleven of us met at Bartlett Shelter this morning for a walk in Schenley Park.  The air was chilly but the birding was good because the north wind brought us new migrants.

I took the group photo, above, at the end of the walk because we were distracted from the start. There were warblers in the trees above us! Cape May, Black-throated Green, Magnolia and Blackpoll.  

Ultimately we saw 23 species + an unidentifiable flycatcher (listed as Empidonax sp).  We were surprised to find no thrushes or sparrows so we crossed the road beyond our cars to find two song sparrows at the end. Still no thrushes other than robins.

Best find for the day: Mushrooms!  My favorite was spectacularly orange but I’m saving it for late October.

And here’s another mushroom. Do you know what it is?  (I don’t remember.)

Thanks to all for coming out today.  My last scheduled walk for the year will be on October 28 at Duck Hollow.

p.s. Here’s today’s bird list on eBird https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S48840859

(photos by Kate St. John)

Deadly Attraction

Downtown Pittsburgh glows at night (at left) while the Pitt Victory beams rise from behind the dark spruce tree, 17 Sept 2018 (photo by Kate St. John in Greenfield)

For migrating songbirds there are two deadly attractions in this photo.

On the left, Downtown Pittsburgh glows in the distance illuminating the night sky.  At center-right, Pitt’s blue Victory Lights beam up from the Cathedral of Learning roof. (The building itself is hidden by the dark spruce.)

Downtown Pittsburgh glows every night.  Pitt’s Victory Lights glow on Saturday and Sunday nights after Pitt wins a football game.  Photographer Dave DiCello tweeted his photo, below, of the Victory Lights on 15 September after Pitt beat Georgia Tech.

City lights are a fatal attraction for songbirds because they migrate at night using celestial lights for navigation. Lured by artificial lights they become confused and circle them. Some crash into buildings. Others land in the city and try to leave after dawn but mistake glass reflections of trees and sky for the real thing. They fly headfirst into glass buildings and windows. Some are stunned, many die. Warblers and wood thrushes are especially vulnerable. Every year nearly half a billion birds die this way in the U.S.

You can help birds survive Pittsburgh’s bright lights, both now and in the future.  Jon Rice at BirdSafe Pittsburgh is mobilizing volunteers to help stunned birds now and to collect data on deaths to mitigate the future.

Here’s what you can do:

  • Report Dead Birds:  If you find a dead bird pause to report it. Enter what, where and when in BirdSafe’s I Found A Bird online tool.  Your smartphone automatically knows “where.”
  • Volunteer with BirdSafe: Walk a route for BirdSafe to rescue stunned birds and collect the dead ones(*). See the BirdSafe Volunteer page for more information.  Contact BirdSafe here.

A 10 September 2018 op-ed in the New York Times by Andrew Farnsworth and Kyle G. Horton explains how the 9/11 Tribute of Light made an easy change that solved this problem.

WTC Tribute of Light, New York City, 11 September 2010 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

After the Tribute began in 2003, people noticed that thousands of birds were lured to the lights and dying there, so in 2005 New York City Audubon mobilized volunteers to monitor the beams. When volunteers count 1,000 birds circling in the beams or if a bird is found dead, the lights are turned off for 20 minutes.  That’s all it takes for the “stuck” birds to resume their migration and not become trapped again.  Since 2005 only two birds have died during the Tribute of Light!

The article also describes how we can apply this knowledge across the U.S., including in Pittsburgh.

We also discovered that on average, half of the total passage of autumn bird migration density over the continental United States occurs on fewer than 10 nights. With migration forecasts developed by scientists at the Cornell Lab, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and Oxford University, these cities and others could determine the optimal nights to dim or extinguish lights so that birds can pass safely.

(from Farnsworth and Horton New York Times 9/10/2018 op-ed)

This easy solution will save migrating birds but we need the data to convince others to make it happen. Please help the birds by helping BirdSafe Pittsburgh.

(photo credits: Downtown Pittsburgh and Pitt Victory Lights by Kate St. John. Cathedral of Learning and Pitt Victory Lights embedded tweet by Dave DiCello. 9/11 Tribute of Light from Wikimedia Commons; click on the caption to see the original)

(*) The dead birds are valuable for science. They become part of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History’s collection.

Long Distance Snails

California horn snail (photo by tiyumq via iNaturalist)

The ancestors of this saltwater snail changed oceans twice.

California horn snails (Cerithideopsis californica) are native to the Pacific Ocean from the California coast to Baja California Sur in Mexico, but a DNA study published in 2011 found they contain traces of a closely related Atlantic snail, Cerithideopsis pliculosa, and vice versa.  The DNA mixing went like this:

  • 3 million years ago North and South America joined at Panama, blocking sea travel between the two oceans.
  • 750,000 years ago, Pacific Ocean snails somehow traveled east to invade the Atlantic.
  • 72,000 years ago, Atlantic Ocean snails came back to invade the Pacific.

How did the snails cross Central America from one ocean to another?  Twice?

On Throw Back Thursday, find out in this vintage article: Flying Snails

Spinning Like A Top

Red-necked phalarope, September 2011 (photo by Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren via Wikimedia Commons)

You would think that all shorebirds live at the shore but not this one.  The red-necked phalarope (Phalaropus lobatus) spends most of his life at sea, spinning like a top.

Phalaropes live inland from June through August while they’re breeding in the sub-arctic northern hemisphere but most of the year — November through March — they’re out to sea on the tropical ocean.  Their food is on or near the water’s surface.

Phalaropes feed by swimming in tight circles, rapidly picking tiny insect larvae, crustaceans, and mollusks from the water.  Their feet are specially equipped for swimming. They have lobed toes like coots.  (“Phalarope” is Ancient Greek for “coot toes.”)

In winter red-necked phalaropes don’t have red necks. Right now they’re wearing gray “basic” plumage, shown above, as they migrate to their final destinations in the southern hemisphere. Western birds take an inland route through the western U.S. but you probably won’t see one in the east. Except for a few stopovers at the Great Lakes, the eastern population flies immediately to the Atlantic Ocean. 

If you really want to see red-necked phalaropes in beautiful breeding plumage you’ll have to wait for spring.  Sparky Stensaas filmed this group feeding at their breeding grounds in Churchill, Manitoba, Canada.

Red-necked Phalarope spin feeding Churchill, Manitoba, Canada from Sparky Stensaas on Vimeo.

Look how fast they spin!

(photo from Wikimedia Commons; click on the caption to see the original. video by Sparky Stensaas on Vimeo)

Broad-winged Hawks On The Move

Broad-winged hawk (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Mid-September is the peak of broad-winged hawk migration in Pennsylvania as these woodland raptors head for the forests of Central and South America.

Broad-winged hawks (Buteo platypterus) breed in North American forests but spend only four months of the year up here.  In late August they start to move south, reaching the forests in Central and South America by early November. 

What’s unusual about broad-wings is that they travel in flocks — most raptors don’t — and they watch each other for flight cues.  If one finds a thermal with good lift, others join him and rise on it as well.  Soon they form a “kettle” of hawks stirring round and round in the rising air.  As each one reaches sufficient altitude it sets its wings and glides south to find the next thermal.

If the weather’s good this weekend, hundreds if not thousands of broad-wings will kettle up and stream out over hawk watches in the Mid-Atlantic.  Here’s what it looks like on a good day, recorded at Ashland Hawk Watch in Hockessin, Delaware on September 15, 2013.

Make plans to visit a hawk watch soon. Here’s how to find one near you: Hawk Watch Information

Living In The Wind

Hudsonian godwits (Limosa haemastica) breed on remote tundra and sedge meadows in Canada and Alaska, then spend the winter as far south as the tip of South America.

To make this long journey they assemble in flocks in August on wet prairies and mudflats where they use their long upturned bills to probe for invertebrates and plant tubers.

Since their food is found in wide open places, Hudsonian godwits spend their lives in the wind.  I hadn’t thought about this until I searched for videos and hear the wind on every soundtrack.

At top, Hudsonian godwits fly in slow motion in the moaning wind.  Below a flock of 2,500 assembles at James Bay, Canada in lots of wind.

Occasionally a lone Hudsonian godwit is found during migration, like this one at Bowdoin National Wildlife Refuge in Montana.  Even here it’s windy.

(videos from YouTube; click the YouTube logo to see the originals)