This year’s weather has made for a lackluster spring migration season in southwestern Pennsylvania. It was suddenly warm in late April then surprisingly cold in the second week of May. During the cold spell migrating birds avoided us by traveling along the Atlantic coast or up the Mississippi valley and Great Plains.
Their absence here was noticeable. Other than one spectacular birding day on 6 May the rest of the month has had a good mix of species but few individual birds. I find it bizarre to spend three hours birding in mid May and see/hear just one American redstart (Setophaga ruticilla) or one Tennessee warbler (Leiothlypis peregrina).
But there have been rewards. Last week in Frick Park Charity Kheshgi found a couple of gray-cheeked thrushes and two mourning warblers on two different days. One gray-cheeked thrush perched in the open.
The mourning warblers remained in the shadows. Scroll right to see his eye shine in the third photo.
Early May is exciting for Pittsburgh birders as beautiful migratory songbirds arrive in our area. Some come from as far away as South America and are en route to northern Canada. Some stay to nest, others move on. What map are they using? How do they get here?
Much of migration remains a mystery. This list is just a summary of the high points. If you have more to add, please leave a comment!
Basic Onboard Navigation System:
Migratory birds are born with a basic navigation system that improves with experience. First-of-year birds fly south in the fall with these instructions: Fly in [this] direction for [this] long.
Those born with a faulty compass head the wrong way and end up on Rare Bird Alerts.
My Life Bird lark sparrow was found at Seal Harbor, Maine. Though usually a western bird, he flew east instead of south.
After a bird has made the trip just once, it remembers the route and retraces it year after year. The lark sparrow in Seal Harbor showed up every September for the typical life span of a lark sparrow. His compass error didn’t hurt him.
Birds can be thrown off course by bad weather but they have additional navigational aids.
Orienting by polarized light at sunrise and sunset:
Before 2006 scientists knew that birds orient themselves at sunset. Then they learned how.
Researchers from Virginia Tech in Blacksburg and Lund University in Sweden say experiments with savannah sparrows in Alaska show the birds take readings of polarized sunlight at sunrise and sunset and use them to periodically recalibrate their magnetic compasses.
Barred owl, Frick Park, 2 May 2021 (photo by Charity Kheshgi)
Baltimore oriole, Frick Park, 1 May 2021 (photo by Charity Kheshgi)
Chipping sparrow, Frick Park, 2 May 2021 (photo by Charity Kheshgi)
Great-crested flycatcher, Frick Park, 28 April 2021 (photo by Charity Kheshgi)
Northern flicker, Frick Park, 23 April 2021 (photo by Charity Kheshgi)
Blackburnian warbler, Frick Park, 28 April 2021 (photo by Charity Kheshgi)
Purple finch, Frick Park, 2 May 2021 (photo by Charity Kheshgi)
Yellow-rumped warbler, Frick Park, 2 May 2021 (photo by Charity Kheshgi)
Rose-breasted grosbeak, Frick Park, 2 May 2021 (photo by Charity Kheshgi)
Red-winged blackbird, Frick Park, 23 April 2021 (photo by Charity Kheshgi)
Mallard and spotted sandpiper, Duck Hollow, 30 April 2021 (photo by Charity Kheshgi)
Barred owl, Frick Park, 2 May 2021 (photo by Charity Kheshgi)
2 May 2021
Frick Park and adjacent Duck Hollow are two of the hottest birding hotspots in southwestern Pennsylvania. So many birds show up during spring migration that we birders spend hours there in April and May.
Frick’s 644 forested acres are a green oasis halfway through Pittsburgh’s developed metro area. The Monongahela River at Duck Hollow beacons to water and shorebirds while the woods attract songbirds to refuel before continuing north.
The Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy map of Frick Park shows how Duck Hollow (furthest point south) connects to the larger park. The birding is so good in that corridor that I often walk from Duck to Frick. If the two locations were a single hotspot their combined species count would probably surpass 200. Click here to download the Frick Park map.
Charity Kheshgi photographs birds at Frick Park and/or Duck Hollow nearly every day. Her slideshow above includes a few of the birds she saw on the cusp of May. See more by following her on Instagram at https://www.instagram.com/charitykheshgi/
p.s. I was there for the Blackburnian warbler but missed the barred owl because I didn’t visit Frick on 2 May. So many birds, so little time!
Though there were only 11 birds, these “cigars with wings” were the leading edge of the huge flocks heading north. Those who nest in Pittsburgh will pair up quickly and start building nests in early May.
If you live east of the Rockies and southwest of the Catskills you have to go birding today!
Songbirds migrate in the dark and last night was a busy one for them in eastern North America. We know this because weather radar can see birds in flight and BirdCast uses radar data to show where, when and in what direction the birds are moving in real time.
The map above is BirdCast‘s snapshot of migration at 4:45am today, 27 April 2021. If you live anywhere that’s yellow on this map get outdoors today!
I promised gray catbirds for last Sunday’s walk in Schenley Park but they hadn’t arrived yet. Did they come in last night? I’ll let you know.
Twelve days ago Saint Vincent’s La Soufrière volcano began erupting after four decades of silence. Since 9 April it has blanketed the island with thick ash, forced the evacuation of 20,000 people, and ruined fresh water, homes, and farms. It has also caused a deep humanitarian crisis (see 5-minute British Channel 4 video at bottom) and killed untold numbers of local plants, animals and birds.
The volcanic plume is also devastating the air, bad to breathe and dangerous for anything that flies. Saint Vincent’s airport closed when the eruption began while NOAA’s Volcanic Ash Advisory Center provides maps of Caribbean no-fly zones for pilots. The 10 April zones match the plume graph from NASA.
Though the disaster feels far from Pennsylvania it may affect our migratory birds that have not yet crossed the Caribbean from South America. Will the birds smell the plume and find a way to avoid it?
Airplanes will soon be cleared for take-off at Saint Vincents airport. I wonder if the birds will be, too.
This 8-minute video from Britain’s Channel 4 shows the devastation at Saint Vincents.
About once a week I look back seven years to highlight an old blog post that is still interesting today. This morning when I looked back, I was stunned at how different spring is now in southwestern PA compared to April 2014. A lot has changed in seven years. Migrating ducks, singing frogs and flowers are showing up earlier in 2021. For instance …
Have you seen a lot of ruddy ducks lately? Seven years ago the bulk of their migration through Moraine State Park began on 5 April 2014. This year it started almost a month earlier on 11 March 2021 and is basically over now. Here’s the 2014 blog post that caught my attention: Ruddy Bubbles. Click on the hotspot icons here to see this year’s ruddy duck activity at Moraine.
Have you heard spring peepers or wood frogs calling lately? Seven years ago they were loud on 6 April 2014 (Jeepers Creepers) but this year their peak was on 12 March 2021 at Racooon Wildflower Reserve: Sights and Sounds of Early Spring. When I returned to Raccoon twelve days later the frogs were quieter. They were silent on 4 April 2021.
Grackle Day is coming this week. For some it’s already here.
The arrival of migrating blackbirds and grackles is one of the earliest signs of spring. Common grackles (Quiscalus quiscula) leave the East End of Pittsburgh during fall migration and don’t return until early March, usually around the 5th. I haven’t seen a grackle yet but I found a red-winged blackbird — just one — in Schenley Park on Friday 26 Feb, my First of Year.
Friends in Beaver County reported small flocks of grackles at their feeders on Saturday 27 February. I’m disappointed the birds bypassed Pittsburgh but am keeping my eyes open for their arrival here.
Sometimes I hear their “chucking” sound before I see them. Listen for …
Then they point their bills up, strut and puff and “skriiNNNK.”
I can hardly wait!
Will this be Grackle Day?
(photo from Wikimedia Commons, audio from Xeno Canto, video from YouTube. click on the captions to see the originals)
Goose barnacles often attach themselves to old wood and float from tropical seas to northern shores including the shores of Britain. The barnacles pictured here and in the video below are Lepas anatifera. Their bodies are supported by a long, flexible stalk (a peduncle) that resembles a goose neck.
These fascinating crustaceans are goose barnacles. They live in unmistakably dense colonies, often attaching themselves to marine objects. They occasionally get washed up around our shores. ??
Nowadays that story sounds silly but we shouldn’t be too smug. We still create stories to explain things we don’t understand and spread them quickly on the Internet. In the future our fantastical stories will sound silly, too. I can think of a few about the coronavirus.
(photos from Wikimedia Commons; click on the captions to see the originals)