Category Archives: Migration

Don’t Miss These Birds!

7 May 2024

If you’re wondering whether to go birding, don’t wait! Spring migration has been exceptionally good in the past few days migration. The slideshow, above, shows just a few of the 58 species Charity Kheshgi and I saw at Schenley and Frick Parks on Sunday 5 May.

The birds are here right now and they’re fairly easy to see despite the early leaf cover. They’re on the move. Don’t miss them. It’s time to get outdoors!

p.s. Did you notice that the first two birds in the slideshow are “Nashville” and “Tennessee” ?

(photos by Charity Kheshgi)

Best Warbler This Week

Brewster’s warbler, Tower Grove Park, May 2014 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

4 May 2024

As I mentioned on Thursday morning, I spent a few days this week at Magee Marsh boardwalk where I experienced the quiet days before The Biggest Week in American Birding. On Thursday 2 May the weather was great, there were more birds to see, and there were 5 times as many people compared to Tuesday. That’s when I re-learned the advantages of birding with a (small) crowd.

I happened to be on a quiet section of the boardwalk when I noticed a crowd forming ahead. Many people were focusing binoculars and cameras at the spot where two guides were pointing and explaining a bird. I rushed over to find out what was up.

On my first look at the bird, I thought “golden-winged warbler” because of its yellow wing, yellow crown, and whitish chest (see example at top), but something wasn’t quite right. Word was spreading through the crowd that this was a Brewster’s warbler, the hybrid offspring of golden-winged x blue-winged warblers. Though not technically a species, for me it was a Life Bird.

The big difference between a Brewster’s and a golden-winged is that the Brewster’s looks pale with a white throat (not black) and a black eyeline (not a wider face patch). Here’s a side-by-side comparison of a male golden-winged warbler vs. a Brewster’s warbler.

Compare male golden-winged warbler to Brewster’s warbler hybrid (photos from Wikimedia Commons)

This diagram embedded from Cornell Lab’s All About Birds shows the warbler’s parents on the left and the Brewster’s in the top right corner. The parents can also produce another variation: a Lawrence’s warbler (bottom right) which I have never seen. Click on the caption to read about their genetics.

I left Magee Marsh yesterday morning while it was raining steadily so I missed the Brewster’s reappearance but my friend Kathy Saunders saw him on 3 May in the same place as the day before.

Yay! Best Bird!

(credits are in the captions)

In the Media: Peregrines, Spring Migration, and Birding

Downtown peregrine with bands, 14 April 2023 (photo by Jeff Cieslak)

3 May 2024

Usually there’s not much bird news in the media, but this was a big week so let’s catch up.

Peregrine falcon chick in Cathedral of Learning nest dies, CBS News, includes comments from Bob Mulvihill at the National Aviary. This is in addition to my report: Now There Are Only Two.

Flying high: Peregrine falcon population likely growing statewide, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Happy news continues on the peregrine’s success story in Pennsylvania.

Here come the early birds: Hummingbirds and warblers part of the first wave of spring migrants News on spring migration and recent hot weather.

And in case you missed it earlier this week, I appeared in a birding segment on KDKA’s Talk Pittsburgh with hosts Heather Abraham and Boaz Frankel at Frick Park.

video embedded from CBS Pittsburgh on YouTube

(credits are in the captions)

Starting Tomorrow: The Biggest Week for Birds

American restart singing (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

2 May 2024

Last weekend the headline in the Toledo Blade read:   Biggest Week  80,000 Birders Return on Friday. The Biggest Week in American Birding begins tomorrow at Maumee Bay Lodge in northwestern Ohio, drawing birders from around the world to see millions of migrating birds, especially warblers.

Normally I would be one of those 80,000 people but this year I didn’t have time for a trip next week so I’m here at Magee Marsh right now, 30 April to 3 May. As your advance scout I can tell you that the situation is different in the week before the Biggest one.

  • There were surprisingly few people here on Tuesday and Wednesday, 30 Apr and 1 May. There were few on the boardwalk, even fewer at Maumee Bay Lodge. That changed on Thursday 2 May when there were five times more people on the boardwalk. (The crowd began.)
  • Vendors for the festival started arriving on Wednesday.
  • Other than yellow-rumped and palm, there aren’t many warblers. Though the weather has been quite warm, overnight winds have been from the north, blowing off the lake. I’ve seen a small variety of warblers but only single birds and it takes effort to find them.
  • I miss the benefits of birding in a crowd. To find really good birds, I look for a crowd with their binoculars up and they help find the bird.
  • With so few birds (relative to the Biggest Week), a ruby-crowned kinglet drew a lot of attention.
  • This year: Only a short loop of the Maumee Bay Lodge Nature Center boardwalk is open. The majority is closed due to storm damage in June 2023 (shown here).

So the best time to see warblers in northwestern Ohio really is during the Biggest Week.

Biggest Week in American Birding logo, 2024

Meanwhile, in Pittsburgh migration is ahead of schedule and has been quite good. I haven’t seen any of the birds shown in the logo above in Ohio this week, but I’ve already seen the orange ones in southwestern PA — an American redstart and a Blackburnian warbler.

If I want to see the other two species — the Kirtland’s and mourning warblers — the best place will be northwestern Ohio during the Biggest Week.

(credits are in the captions)

Spring Update: Where Are We Now?

Oak tree in bloom with dangling pollen flowers (photo by Kate St. John)

1 May 2024

Since our last spring checkup six weeks ago, Pittsburgh has galloped into summer. Last weekend we had July-in-April weather with official highs of 83°F and even higher in town.

Pitt peregrine Carla felt the heat at 10am on 29 April as she shaded her chicks and gular fluttered (panted) to cool herself off.

It’s hot at the Pitt peregrine nest, Carla shades the chicks, 29 April 2024, 10am (photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh)

Pittsburgh is not alone. In a wide swath of the U.S. from Iowa to New York spring was 20+ days early this year. In Pittsburgh nearly half of April was more than 10°F above normal while we had only one cold day at 12°F below normal.

U.S. Daily Spring Index Leaf Anomaly, 1 May 2024 (map generated by USANPN Visualization Tool)

So what temperature should we expect if we’re only 20 days ahead of schedule? April 29th ought to have been like a normal 19 May but it was way beyond that.

The heat prompted the trees to leaf out early and flowers to bloom ahead of schedule. Maples and buckeyes are in full leaf now and our oaks are at flower+leaf stage as shown at top. The leaves are hosting food for birds in the form of tiny caterpillars, so …

Migratory birds are taking advantage of the south winds and early leaf out. Since 27 April we’ve seen our first scarlet tanagers, rose-breasted grosbeaks, Baltimore orioles, indigo buntings and warblers.

Charity Kheshgi has been documenting our good luck with warblers at Frick Park. Notice the size of the leaves in her photos!

p.s. And where am I? Right now I’m at Magee Marsh a week ahead of The Biggest Week in American Birding. I don’t expect to see the swarms of migratory birds that will be here next week (I’m leaving on 3 May) but I’ll learn what happens before the people show up and why everyone waits until next week. 😉

(credits are in the captions)

Seen This Week at Enlow Fork

Fire pink, 25 April 2024 (photo by Kate St. John)

27 April 2024

Last Thursday four of us made our annual pilgrimage to Enlow Fork on the border of Washington & Greene Counties(*) to look for wildflowers and birds. We saw carpets of blue-eyed Mary as well as fire pink, wild geranium and dwarf larkspur in both blue and white. (Can you see the tiny spider on the fire pink petal, above?)

Hillside of Blue-eyed Mary and wild blue phlox, Enlow Fork, 25 April 2024 (photo by Barb Griffith)
Wild Geranium, 25 April 2024 (photo by Kate St. John)
Dwarf larkspur white form, 25 April 2024 (photo by Kate St. John)

Record-setting rain in the beginning of April left flood debris in the valley. Donna Foyle photographed the fallen trees that nearly hit the pedestrian bridge.

Enlow Fork flood debris, 25 April 2024 (photo by Donna Foyle)

I tried to capture the water-swept mud and flood depth by photographing debris stuck in the trees. The high water mark here was up to my chin.

Enlow Fork flood debris, 25 April 2024 (photo by Kate St. John)

The floodwaters swept freshwater clams from their homes leaving their empty shells among the flood debris.

Dead freshwater clams were among the flood debris, 25 April 2024 (photo by Kate St. John)

We didn’t see many birds at first, perhaps because it was so cold. By the time we were ready to walk back it had warmed up enough to see my First Of Year Baltimore oriole, rose-breasted grosbeak and scarlet tanager deep in the woods.

Scarlet tanager First of Year, Enlow Fork, 25 April 2024 (photo by Donna Foyle)

We also saw or heard seven warblers including Louisiana waterthrush, common yellowthroat, northern parula, redstart, Nashville, yellow and yellow-throated warblers.

At one point I put my bright hat (on top of my sun hat & headband) in case a distant wood thrush would notice. The thrush did not, but I earned the name “Golden-crowned Katelet.”

Golden-crowned Katelet, Enlow Fork, 25 April 2024 (photo by Donna Foyle)

We had a great day among pale spring leaves and blue-eyed Marys.

Kate St. John, Donna Foyle, Donna Collett, Enlow Fork, 25 April 2024 (photo by Barb Griffith)

Next week will be much warmer. Bring on the birds!

(*) Where is Enlow Fork?

The Enlow Fork of Wheeling Creek forms the boundary between Washington and Greene Counties in southwestern PA. When we say “Enlow Fork” we are referring to the northern section of PA State Gameland #302 on both sides of Enlow Fork creek. The Gamelands (unpaved) parking lot is at this pin drop: https://maps.app.goo.gl/uzw42KqYZexLP4AB6.

(credits are in the captions. Thanks to Donna Foyle and Barb Griffith for contributing their photos)

Three Waves of Warblers

Louisiana waterthrush (photo by Steve Gosser in 2018)

21 April 2024

Black Swamp Bird Observatory (BSBO) at Magee Marsh Wildlife Area in Ohio has been banding birds for more than three decades. When they analyzed their warbler data since 1992, the arrivals and departures fell into three distinct waves with the same species in those waves year after year.

This led to their Spring Migration Wave Theory, illustrated on BSBO’s website. I have embedded their graphic and made it tiny on purpose so that you will click on the image to see all the details in the original.

Spring Migration Wave Theory (graphic embedded from BSBO.org): First Wave=red, Second Wave=blue, Third Wave=yellow

BSBO describes the waves and their timing in northwestern Ohio. These timings don’t always apply to Pittsburgh. We are between the Mississippi and Atlantic Flyways, so birds often get here last.

The first wave dominated by male White-throated Sparrow, Hermit Thrush, male Myrtle Warbler, and male Ruby-crowned Kinglet occurs around 25 April [in Northwestern Ohio]. Sub-dominant warblers include the Black-throated Green, Black-and-white, and Nashville. …

The second wave, known as the big wave, occurs 7-13 May [in Northwestern Ohio] and is represented by the greatest species diversity of the spring … The second pulse of this wave coming five to seven days after, usually has the largest volume. …

The third wave normally comes around Memorial Day weekend [in Northwestern Ohio] and is dominated by female Magnolia Warbler, American Redstart, Mourning Warbler, vireos, and flycatchers.

Black SwamP Bird Observatory: Spring Migration Wave Theory (boldface added)

Which species are in each wave?

In Pittsburgh the First Wave contains species we’ve already seen this month: Louisiana waterthrush, white-throated and fox sparrows, dark-eyed juncos, hermit thrushes, male yellow-rumped (myrtle) warblers, male ruby-crowned kinglets and now, at the end of April, palm warblers.

Palm warblers, two subspecies “Yellow” and “Western” (image by Chuck Tague)

The Second Wave is the Biggest Week in American Birding at Magee Marsh and the biggest couple of weeks in Pittsburgh. Species include stragglers from the First Wave, too.

The Third Wave includes mourning warblers and the rarely-seen-in-Pittsburgh Connecticut warbler. If you want to see a Connecticut warbler at Magee Marsh, their peak is 20-27 May.

Drawing of Connecticut warblers, male and female (image from Wikimedia Commons)

The Spring Migration Wave Theory explains why I’ve never seen some species in May in northwestern Ohio. I thought they didn’t come there but the real reason is that I wasn’t there when they passed through. I’ve always visited Magee Marsh in the second week of May so I’ve never seen a Louisiana waterthrush nor a Connecticut warbler while there.

This year I’m going a week earlier than usual; the BSBO website tells me what I’ll see. Find details on each warbler and its peak at Magee Marsh here (click on the species name to open the details).

Learn more about Spring Migration Wave Theory and the birds in each wave.

(credits are in the captions)

Migration Last Night!

Blue-gray gnatcatcher (photo by Steve Gosser)
Blue-gray gnatcatcher (photo by Steve Gosser)

17 April 2024

The winds over Pittsburgh were favorable last night and the birds were anxious to head north. There was high migration over southwestern PA and BirdCast tells the tale on their new Migration Dashboard.

Since 2017 we’ve been checking BirdCast for live migration maps and forecasts. This year they’ve supplemented the maps with a Migration Dashboard that provides a wealth of county-by-county information including expected species each night.

Let’s take a look at this morning’s dashboard for Allegheny County, PA.

BirdCast Migration Dashboard: screenshot of Allegheny County, PA on 17 April 2024 at 5:00am

As of 5:00am today, more than a million and a half birds had flown over Pittsburgh but they were slowing down. Live traffic was sparser (50,700 birds in flight), they were moving more slowly (12 mph), and they were losing altitude (1,400 feet). This is normal; they will land before dawn.

The count of birds peaked at midnight (graph on left). It was a really good night for April (graph at right.)

BirdCast Migration Dashboard: screenshot of Allegheny County, PA on 17 April 2024 at 5:00am

You can see an additional reason why the numbers dropped at 5:00am by comparing these two Live Migration maps. At 1:40am the map in Pittsburgh is bright yellow with migrants but a dark hole (no activity) develops in Ohio and West Virginia at 5:00am. Birds stopped flying there because it was raining ahead of a cold front.

screenshots of BirdCast Live maps on 17 April 2024, 1:40am and 5:00am

Who migrated over Pittsburgh last night? The Dashboard shows 14 expected species. (This is a screenshot. Visit Allegheny County’s Dashboard and scroll down to see the rest of the list).

BirdCast Migration Dashboard: screenshot of Allegheny County, PA on 17 April 2024 at 5:00am

I haven’t seen a house wren, yellow warbler or brown thrasher yet this year …

House wren (photo by Chuck Tague)
House wren (photo by Chuck Tague)
Yellow warbler (photo by Chuck Tague)
Brown thrasher bathing in a puddle (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Did any of them land in Pittsburgh this morning? It’s hard to say. I’ll just have to go birding to find out.

Meanwhile check out the BirdCast Migration Dashboard for your county.

(credits are in the captions. Click the caption links to see the originals)

Yes, We Saw Sapsuckers

Yellow-bellied sapsucker, Schenley Park, 14 April 2024 (photo by Charity Kheshgi)

15 April 2024

Twelve of us gathered in yesterday’s perfect weather for an outing in Schenley Park.

Schenley Park outing, 14 April 2024 (photo by Kate St. John)

When I announced the outing, I said we had a good chance of seeing yellow-bellied sapsuckers and indeed we did — at least four plus an interesting interaction between a male and female.

Was this pair migrating together? Birds of the World says Not likely. Male yellow-bellied sapsuckers migrate first, the females follow later. When the males reach the breeding grounds they drum and squeal to establish territory and attract a mate. There was no drumming and squealing in Schenley (they don’t breed here) but the two birds followed each other from tree to tree. One of them seemed annoyed. Was the other “stealing” sap from his/her holes?

There were plenty of holes to choose from. The sapsuckers redrilled old rings on shagbark hickories and made new rings on tuliptrees.

Yellow-bellied sapsucker sipping sap from a tuliptree, Schenley Park, 14 April 2024 (photo by Charity Kheshgi)

We also saw nest building among blue jays (a pair) and red-winged blackbirds (just the female) …

Blue jay carrying nesting material, Schenley Park, 14 April 2024 (photo by Charity Kheshgi)

… and a pair of red-tailed hawks incubating eggs in last year’s successful nest under the bridge.

Red-tailed hawk on nest under PH Bridge, Schenley Park, 14 April 2024 (photo by Charity Kheshgi)

There aren’t many wildflowers in Schenley Park because of abundant hungry deer but we saw a few foamflowers (Tiarella sp) in an inaccessible spot.

Foamflower in bloom, Schenley Park, 14 April 2024 (photo by Charity Kheshgi)

Can you see the flying honeybees and honeycombs in this photo? The hive is so high up (20-30 feet) that we wouldn’t have seen it if we hadn’t been looking for birds.

Honeybee hive way up high in a hollow branch, Schenley Park, 14 April 2024 (photo by Charity Kheshgi)

In all, we saw 33 species and lots of breeding behavior. Our last sighting was a surprise: two bald eagles, an adult and an immature, circling northward in Junction Hollow. I wondered if one of the Hays eagles was escorting an immature intruder away from the Hays nest.

See our checklist below and online at https://ebird.org/checklist/S168641182

Schenley Park, Allegheny, Pennsylvania, US
Apr 14, 2024, 8:30 AM – 10:45 AM, 33 species

Canada Goose (Branta canadensis) 4
Mourning Dove (Zenaida macroura) 2
Cooper’s Hawk (Accipiter cooperii) 1 Immature
Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) 2 One adult & one immature flying/soaring up Junction Hollow.
Broad-winged Hawk (Buteo platypterus) 1
Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) 2
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (Sphyrapicus varius) 4 Drilling and sipping sap, especially on trees with well established sapsucker rings on bark.
Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus) 2
Downy Woodpecker (Dryobates pubescens) 4
Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus) 6
Eastern Phoebe (Sayornis phoebe) 2
Blue Jay (Cyanocitta cristata) 7 Two jays carrying nesting material to same nest area.
Fish Crow (Corvus ossifragus) 1 Heard
Carolina Chickadee (Poecile carolinensis) 5
Tufted Titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor) 4
Northern Rough-winged Swallow (Stelgidopteryx serripennis) 4
Ruby-crowned Kinglet (Corthylio calendula) 2
Golden-crowned Kinglet (Regulus satrapa) 2
White-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis) 2
Brown Creeper (Certhia americana) 2
Carolina Wren (Thryothorus ludovicianus) 4
European Starling (Sturnus vulgaris) 5
American Robin (Turdus migratorius) 6
House Finch (Haemorhous mexicanus) 5
American Goldfinch (Spinus tristis) 3
Chipping Sparrow (Spizella passerina) 1
Dark-eyed Junco (Junco hyemalis) 4
White-throated Sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis) X Heard
Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia) 5
Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) 9 Female building a nest.
Brown-headed Cowbird (Molothrus ater) 3
Common Grackle (Quiscalus quiscula) 3
Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) 6

(all photos by Charity Kheshgi except for the people-photo by Kate St. John)

Seen This Week

Fox sparrow singing at Frick Park, 12 March 2024 (photo by Charity Kheshgi)

16 March 2024

Four days this week were unseasonably warm with highs 18 to 20+ degrees above normal. The flowers and birds responded.

On Tuesday, Charity Kheshgi and I heard a fox sparrow at Frick Park but he was elusive. We spent a long time trying to get a good look him until a blue jay’s weird call made us pause. So did the fox sparrow, as shown above in Charity’s photo.

On Wednesday there were few birds at Toms Run Nature Reserve but we saw purple dead nettle (Lamium purpureum) in bloom.

Purple dead nettle, Toms Run, 13 March 2024 (photo by Kate St. John)

On Thursday 14 March I was surprised at the lack of birds at Raccoon Creek Wildflower Reserve, but the flowers on the Jennings Trail cliff face (bordering the creek) were responding to the heat. It’s not Full Blown Spring yet but I found:

Harbinger of Spring, Raccoon Creek Wildflower Reserve, 14 March 2024 (photo by Kate St. John)
Spring beauty, Raccoon Creek Wildflower Reserve, 14 March 2024 (photo by Kate St. John)
Sharp-lobed hepatica, Raccoon Creek Wildflower Reserve, 14 March 2024 (photo by Kate St. John)
Round-lobed hepatica, Raccoon Creek Wildflower Reserve, 14 March 2024 (photo by Kate St. John)
Virginia bluebell budding flower, Raccoon Creek Wildflower Reserve, 14 March 2024 (photo by Kate St. John)
Alder catkins, Raccoon Creek Wildflower Reserve, 14 March 2024 (photo by Kate St. John)

And in case you missed it Carla, the female peregrine at Pitt, laid her first egg at the Cathedral of Learning on 14 March. Additional eggs are expected approximately 48 hours apart.

(credits are in the captions)