Category Archives: Migration

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)

New Arrivals

  • Chimney swift trio (photo by Jeff Davis)
    Chimney swift trio (photo by Jeff Davis)

24 April 2022

Bird migration picked up last week. I saw 10 new arrivals between April 17 and 23. The photos above, though not my own, give you a flavor of the new birds in town.

  • Chimney swift
  • Broad-winged hawk, migrating overhead
  • Swamp sparrow
  • Ovenbird
  • Black and white warbler
  • Northern parula
  • Pine warbler
  • Rose-breasted grosbeak
  • House wren
  • Wood thrush

More to come this week!

(photos by Jeff Davis, Meredith Lombard, Chuck Tague, Marcy Cunkelman, Lauri Shaffer, Steve Gosser, Tony Bruno)

Early Warblers and Spring Ephemerals: What to Expect in April

Louisiana waterthrush (photo by Steve Gosser)

4 April 2022

Spring was on hold during last week’s long hard frost but it’s coming back this week. Here’s what to expect outdoors in the Pittsburgh area.

The earliest warblers arrive in April before the leaves open.  Last weekend a Louisiana waterthrush returned to Tom’s Run Nature Reserve in Sewickley PA. Look for them walking along clean streams, bobbing their tails, and singing their very loud song.

Purple martin scouts are back at Harrison Hills County Park and Murrysville Wetland Community Park and tree swallows have returned to Moraine State Park. Watch for northern rough-winged swallows, barn swallows, and the rest of the purple martins in the weeks ahead.

Tree swallow (photo by Jessica Botzan)
Tree swallow (photo by Jessica Botzan)

Yellow-throated warblers will return to Pittsburgh area creeks and streams on or before 20 April. You’ll hear them before you see them, walking the high trunks and larger branches of sycamores. 

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

Watch for gray catbirds, blue-gray gnatcatchers, and ruby-crowned kinglets returning soon.

Meanwhile, don’t miss April’s ephemeral wildflowers.

Snow trillium (Trillium nivale) was out in full force yesterday at the Botanical Society of Western PA walk at Little Sewickley Creek in Westmoreland County.

Snow trillium, Little Sewickley Creek, Westmoreland County, 3 April 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

Soon we’ll see spring beauty, spicebush, hepatica, harbinger-of-spring, bloodroot, spring cress, twinleaf, violets and more. 

Spicebush in bloom, Schenley Park 2013 (photo by Kate St. John)
Spicebush in Schenley Park, 13 April 2013 (photo by Kate St. John)
Bloodroot blooming at Cedar Creek Park, Westmoreland County, 19 April 2014 (photo by Kate St. John)
Bloodroot at Cedar Creek Park, Westmoreland County, 19 April 2014 (photo by Kate St. John)

For more details check out my Pennsylvania Phenology page.

It’s a good month to be outdoors.

(photo credits: bird photos by Steve Gosser, Anthony Bruno and Jessica Botzan.  Plant photos by Kate St. John)

The Clean Up Crew Is Back

Turkey vulture in flight (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

31 March 2022

Have you noticed them lately?

Turkey vultures (Cathartes aura) are migrating over Pittsburgh during the warmest parts of the day. They returned to Hinckley, Ohio on 15 March. Now they’re here.

Since my first sighting of a lone turkey vulture on 10 March I now see groups of at least four every day, especially near their roosts.

Turkey vultures at the roost (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Very soon we are going to appreciate that the Clean Up Crew has returned to eat the dead things that rot in warm weather.

Unlike us, vultures can always eat what they want. Find out why in this vintage article.

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

The Grackles Are Back!

Common grackle. “Skrinnnk!” (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

4 March 2022

The grackles are back!

During the winter common grackles (Quiscalus quiscula) are mostly absent from Pennsylvania but in early March they head north to nest. Their return began this week with a trickle of solo birds on Tues 1 March which grew to small flocks of 5-7 on Thursday. Very soon large flocks will pass through on their way to Canada, taking over feeders and backyards as they did at Marcy Cunkelman’s in this 2005 photo.

Common grackles take over the yard, spring 2005 (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

Even if you don’t see them you will hear the grackles announce themselves. Look to the treetops to see the males puff and “skrinnk!”

This week’s scouts are the early birds. More grackles are definitely on the way. Look at the difference in eBird reports between December-February and March-May!

  • eBird: Common grackle sightings, Dec-Feb past 10 years

Common grackle (Quiscalus quiscula) sightings, winter vs spring, past 10 years (retrieved from eBird on 3 Mar 2022)

Use eBird and your sightings will be added to the maps.

(photos from Marcy Cunkelman and Wikimedia Commons; distribution maps from eBird retrieved on 3 March 2022; click on the captions to see the originals)

Where is The Sea Eagle?

Steller’s sea eagle in Hokkaido, Japan, its native range (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

11 January 2022

When a bird is extremely rare, very large, nomadic, and easily recognizable it quickly becomes a celebrity. There is only one wild Steller’s sea eagle in North America(*) and wherever he goes birders flock to see him. He lingers sometimes then leaves for parts unknown. Every day the question is, Where is The Steller’s sea eagle?

Closely related to bald eagles, Steller’s sea eagles (Haliaeetus pelagicus) are the largest eagle on earth weighing up to 20 pounds with a wingspan as much as 8 feet. They breed on the coast of Far Eastern Russia and winter on the coasts of Russia and Japan.

The total population of Steller’s sea eagles is only 5,000 and they are declining. One has come to North America. Here’s his story so far.

History of the bird as of 23 Dec 2021 when last seen in Massachusetts:

Video of the bird in Maine on 31 Dec 2021:

Photographed in Maine on 8 Jan 2022 by Erin @ourtravelintale:

As of 9 January the sea eagle was last seen flying away near the bridge at Southport, Maine. Today everyone’s asking “Where is The sea eagle?”

Track his Maine locations via Maine Audubon’s Rare Bird Alert Steller’s Sea Eagle or at https://linktr.ee/StellersSeaEagle or on Twitter at https://twitter.com/WanderingSTSE.

Meanwhile in Pittsburgh, 300 miles from the nearest ocean, I will probably never see this bird. I can imagine the disappointment and expense of spending a day or two flying or driving to the sea eagle’s last known location and arriving after it had left. Sigh.

UPDATE 10 March 2022: The Steller’s sea eagle is still in Maine as of 5 March 2022.

(*) The closest we come to a Steller’s sea eagle in Pittsburgh is at the National Aviary. Their sea eagle, Kodiak, escaped on 25 September 2021 and was captured on 3 October. For eight days the National Aviary was definitely asking “Where’s The Sea Eagle?”

(photo of sea eagle in Japan from Wikimedia Commons; videos, tweets and Instagram embedded from original sources)

In Quest of Moby Beak

Male red crossbill at Spruce Flats Bog, Westmoreland County, PA, 26 Dec 2021 (photo by Donna Foyle)

2 January 2022

In mid-December Pittsburgh birders were a-buzz with the news of five red crossbills on Laurel Mountain in Westmoreland County. The birds are so rare in southwestern Pennsylvania that many made the trek to Rector-Edie Road in the Forbes State Forest hoping to see those beaks.

Red crossbills (Loxia curvirostra) are conifer specialists whose crossed beaks are specially evolved to pry open the cones of spruce, hemlock, fir and pine. Because conifer seed abundance varies year to year they are naturally nomadic and highly irruptive. Few are resident anywhere, even in their northern forest breeding range. You can see why they’re so fascinating in this 5-minute video from the Netherlands.

Video of red crossbills in De Koog, Netherlands, 2013 via Wikimedia Commons

Crossed beaks are worth seeing and not easy to find so at times I’ve been as obsessed with them as Ahab was with Moby Dick. Unfortunately I was out of town on 26 December when five friends drove up Laurel Mountain to find the red crossbills. In three hours on the mountain they heard the birds at Rector-Edie Road and had good looks at Spruce Flats Bog where Donna Foyle took these pictures.

Zoomed in on female red crossbill, 26 Dec 2021 (photo by Donna Foyle)

The weather stayed warm last week so seven of us met up at Spruce Flats Bog on Friday 31 December. In the warmth we felt comfortable waiting for two hours for the views Donna had earlier in the week. Instead three red crossbills flew over once without stopping. We couldn’t see their beaks. Aaarrg! That’s exactly why they are called …

Despite my quest for Moby Beak I’m not going back up the mountain any time soon. The weather is now icy and the roads are barely maintained up there. Better luck next time.

(photos by Donna Foyle, video from Wikimedia Commons; click on the captions to see the original)