Category Archives: Migration

Birds Wearing Little Red Hats

Common redpoll, Meals Rd Butler County, 10 Jan 2021 (photo by Steve Gosser)

11 January 2021

In this irruption winter of northern birds in southwestern Pennsylvania, we’ve seen pine siskins (Spinus pinus) and evening grosbeaks (Coccothraustes vespertinus) but I had not seen common redpolls (Acanthis flammea) until finally, last week, they were present every day in a sunflower field in Butler County.

Last week was too overcast for a good photo but Steve Gosser returned yesterday for these stunning pictures.

Common redpoll on a sunflower, Meals Rd Butler County, 10 Jan 2021 (photo by Steve Gosser)
Common redpoll, Meals Rd Butler County, 10 Jan 2021 (photo by Steve Gosser)

Then on Saturday 9 January 2021 the birds were even closer to home. Matt Juskowitch found a dozen redpolls at Bethel Green in Allegheny County. Here’s Matt’s documentation shot, proving that the birds are real. Notice the red hat! Adult male redpolls also have a pink wash on their chests.

Documentation photo: Common redpoll at Bethel Green, 9 Jan 2021 (photo Matthew Juskowitch embedded from ebird checklist S78940944)

I went to Bethel Green yesterday, 10 Jan 2021, and saw 9 redpolls eating birch catkins. Here’s one of Matt’s photos from his eBird report yesterday afternoon.

Common redpoll at Bethel Green, 10 Jan 2021 (photo Matthew Juskowitch embedded from ebird checklist S79026167)

Thank you, Matt, for alerting us to these rare birds. If you’d like to see them here are the two locations I visited: Meals Rd, Butler County and Bethel Green, Allegheny County.

The birds are moving around from place to place so they may show up at your own birches, alders, sunflowers or feeders. Watch for small finches with red on top of their heads (“poll” means head). They are only as big as goldfinches.

(photos by Steve Gosser and Matt Juskowitch)

A Flurry of Red Knots

13 November 2020

When red knots come to the UK in autumn they gather in flocks much larger than I have ever seen in the U.S. — sometimes as many as 10,000 birds.

Red knots (Calidris canuta) have a disjoint breeding distribution that determines their choice of winter locations and migration routes. The rufa subspecies visits the eastern U.S. though for most of them the final winter destination is the southern tip of South America.

The islandica subspecies spends the winter in the UK and western Europe after breeding in Greenland and Ellesmere Island, Canada.

Now in non-breeding plumage they are no longer red. The British call them “knots.” The flocks are spectacular!

Next spring they will be red again and head back north.

Red knots in May (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

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

Traveling Together?

Tundra swans at Middle Creek, 2014 (photo by Dave Kerr)

As waterfowl arrive on migration it’s interesting to note that some families travel together, others do not.

Bird parents and offspring stay together during a nesting event but among most species the families split up after the breeding season. Notable exceptions are swans, geese and cranes which stay together as a family unit. The youngsters learn the route and wintering grounds from their parents. If their parents don’t migrate neither do they.

Above, a tundra swan family comes in for a landing at Middle Creek. The youngster (gray head and neck) is still following his parents as they head north in the spring.

Pennsylvania’s resident Canada geese don’t migrate because their parents do not. Back in 1937 when Canada goose populations were dangerously low, a few pinioned geese were released in PA. Those geese bred, but could not migrate. Their offspring never left.

Canada geese, in family groups (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Each duck species has its own migration strategy but that doesn’t mean they travel in family groups. For many, fall is the time to meet and greet the opposite sex. Mixed flocks of gadwalls (Mareca strepera) pair up while they travel. According to All About Birds, virtually all female gadwalls have a mate by November.

Gadwall pair (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

For birds, traveling as a family is the exception.

Some always travel alone.

Common loon, non-breeding plumage (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

(photo of tundra swans by Dave Kerr in 2014, remaining photos from Wikimedia Commons; click on the caption to see the original)

Like A Bonaparte’s

Black-headed gull at the Eiffel Tower (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

2 November 2020

November is a good time to see migrating gulls and waterfowl in southwestern Pennsylvania. Most are common but a few rare ones can fool you.

We always see Bonaparte’s gulls (Chroicocephalus philadelphia) at local lakes and rivers as they head south for the winter. Every once in a while there’s a rare look-alike, the back-headed gull (Chroicocephalus ridibundus). Originally from Europe, some now breed in maritime Canada and New England.

At top, a black-headed gull perches on the Eiffel Tower in Paris. In winter neither he nor the Bonaparte’s have black heads, however the amount of black-on-white varies.

Below, Geoff Malosh photographed a black-headed gull at Moraine State Park on 1 December 2017 (embedded from Macaulay Library). Notice that this gull has more black on its head than the gull at top.

As much as they look alike, the big difference between black-headed gulls and Bonaparte’s is the color of the bill. Black-headed gulls have red bills, Bonaparte’s have black as shown below.

Bonaparte’s gull in non-breeding plumage (photo by Bobby Greene)

One of these Bonaparte’s gulls is using his black bill. Check the color to know who he is.

Bonaparte’s gull in Florida, 2012 (photo by Chuck Tague)

In the meantime, keep an eye out for unusual birds in the Pittsburgh area. There were eight surf scoters (Melanitta perspicillata) at the head of the Ohio River on Saturday 31 October. The photo below is embedded from Amy Henrici’s checklist. Click on the image to see the original.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons, Geoff Malosh via Macaulay Library, Bobby Greene, Chuck Tague and Amy Henrici via Macaulay Library; click on the captions to see the originals)

Airborne For 10 Months Of The Year

In eastern North America our chimney swifts (Chaetura pelagica) land every evening to roost in chimneys. In Eurasia and Africa the common swift (Apus apus) stays airborne for 10 months of the year!

No one knew this until Lund University in Sweden attached geolocator tracking devices to common swifts in 2015. When the swifts returned from their winter range in Africa the Swedes recaptured the tagged birds and found that most had not landed since they left!

Since common swifts spend so much time in the air and can live for 20 years an individual swift may fly 3 million miles in his lifetime. Wow.

(image from Wikimedia Commons; click on the caption to see the original)

Watch For Amazing Flocks This Fall

Migrating flock of common grackles take over the trees (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Now that the breeding season is over birds have gathered for migration and the winter.

Early this week 50 common grackles leapfrogged over the trees and forest floor as they searched for food and bathed in Panther Hollow Run. (This photo gives you an idea of their abundance.)

Cedar waxwing numbers peaked in Schenley Park in early October when they devoured most of the porcelain berries. They’ll spend the winter further south, for instance in Memphis, Tennessee where this photo was taken.

Cedar waxwing flock feeding on the ground (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Pine siskins were everywhere a couple of days ago. Are they still visiting your feeders? Where will they head next?

Pine siskin flock in Minnesota (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Starlings numbers are building in Pittsburgh as northern visitors arrive. Soon there will be thousands.

European starlings overhead, Maryland (photo by Mr. T in DC via Flickr Creative Commons license)

Crow numbers are building too. Last weekend I counted 2,400 but more arrived last night. Eventually the flock will look like this video from 2011. Where will they roost? Stay tuned.

Watch for spectacular flocks this fall. Let me know what you see.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons and Mr. T in DC, video by Sharon Leadbitter. Click the captions to see the originals)

Up to 55 mph Non-Stop For 11 Days

Bar-tailed godwit (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

14 October 2020

Yesterday the news broke that a bar-tailed godwit fitted with a satellite tracking tag had flown non-stop over the Pacific Ocean from Alaska to New Zealand in 11 days. During his 7,500 mile trip he reached speeds of up to 55 miles an hour. He’s an amazing bird from an amazing subspecies.

Bar-tailed godwits (Limosa lapponica) breed in Scandinavia, Siberia and Alaska and spend the winter at shores from Europe to Africa, from southern Asia to New Zealand. Most travel over or near land (see map) but the Alaskan subspecies, Limosa lapponica baueri, flies down the center of the Pacific Ocean to New Zealand. According to Wikipedia, this subspecies makes “the longest known non-stop flight of any bird and the longest journey of any animal without feeding.”

Late last year the Pukorokoro Miranda Shorebird Centre in New Zealand satellite-tagged 20 bar-tailed godwits to find out where and when they go. Tracked by the Global Flyway Network, godwit 4BBRW left Alaska on 16 September and landed in New Zealand on 27 September.

Find out more and see his route at The Guardian link below.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons; 4BBRW map embedded from The Guardian article, complete route from Wikimedia Commons; click on the captions to see the originals)

p.s. Next spring he’ll fatten up to return to Alaska on one of these red routes.

And he’ll look a lot fancier in breeding plumage.

Bar-tailed godwit in New Zealand in June, breeding plumage (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Pine Siskins In My City Neighborhood

Pine siskin (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

This year’s Winter Finch Forecast predicted that the pine siskins (Spinus pinus) of eastern Canada would move south this fall. Indeed they have. Friends started seeing them in backyards north of Pittsburgh in late September but I don’t have a backyard anymore. I live in a high-rise and thought I’d have to drive far away to see them. Not!

Yesterday afternoon Aidan Place shared a photo of a flock of 40 pine siskins bathing in the roof gutter outside his window in North Oakland. I rushed over to his street and there they were!

The flock had found a favorite food, the cones of northern white cedar (Thuja occidentalis) also called arborvitae, in front of Aidan’s apartment and in a long row near the parking lot across the street. Here are the cones they were eating.

Pine siskins like the cones on this arborvitae, Pittsburgh, 7 Oct 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

The natural range of arborvitae (below) overlaps the breeding range of pine siskins so the birds probably felt like they’d found a taste of home.

The flock was easily startled by loud noises (cars, for instance) but tolerant if I stood quietly. I was able to take a very bad photo with my cellphone. The bird is the stripey thing in the middle of the picture with his head down. Yes, they are camouflaged.

Pine siskin feeding on arborvitae, North Oakland, Pittsburgh, 7 Oct 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

If you have a backyard, put out nyjer seed to attract pine siskins and American goldfinches. Watch carefully. Siskins look a bit boring and are smaller than goldfinches as you can see in this 2018 photo by Lauri Shaffer.

Goldfinch and pine siskin (photo by Lauri Shaffer)

If you don’t have a backyard, visit a cemetery and pause near the arborvitae trees. I bet you’ll find pine siskins.

The birds aren’t picky about being in the city as long as they find conifers — ornamental or otherwise.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons, Kate St. John and Lauri Shaffer)

The Hottest Spots During Autumn Migration

Map of regionally-classified predicted bird stopover use during autumn 2008-2014 within USFWS region 5 (map from page 95, Validation of NEXRAD data and models of bird migration stopover sites in the Northeast U.S., Final Report, August 2017)

Several years ago this map of nocturnal fall migration stopover sites in the Northeastern U.S. caught my attention. My initial reaction was personal, “Dang! The birds don’t stop in Pittsburgh.”

The map itself is from a 2017 study conducted by the University of Delaware for US Fish and Wildlife Service (downloadable here). Researchers analyzed radar data from 2008-2014 paying particular attention to bird density where nocturnal migrants burst into the sky after sunset, showing where they stopped the night before.

A similar map using vertically-integrated reflectivity (bird density) predicts the stopover sites in 2008-2014. I’m happy to see those orange stripes of higher bird density in Pennsylvania’s Appalachians and Laurel Highlands but I’m disappointed that I live so far away from the hottest inland hotspots — the Adirondacks, Catskills, Poconos, Maine and Southside Virginia.

Map predicting mean vertically-integrated reflectivity (bird density) for autumn 2008-2014 in USFWS region 5 (map from page 93, Validation of NEXRAD data and models of bird migration stopover sites in the Northeast U.S., Final Report, August 2017)

Sadly, during the study the bird population in the study area dropped 29% in only seven years. The worst declines were in coastal Maine and Virginia with modest increases in Connecticut, New Jersey, the Delmarva peninsula and near State College, PA.

If you were birding in coastal Maine or Virginia in the early 2000’s you probably have a hunch there are fewer birds. There are.

I suppose that’s a bittersweet silver lining for Pittsburgh birders. We never saw those migrants anyway so we haven’t noticed they’re gone. 🙁

(maps from USFWS Validation of NEXRAD data and models of bird migration stopover sites in the Northeast U.S., Final Report, August 2017)

Expect Red-breasted Nuthatches And …

Red-breasted nuthatch (photo by Chuck Tague)

21 September 2020

According to this year’s Winter Finch Forecast we should expect red-breasted nuthatches and two winter finch species in Pennsylvania this winter.

The Winter Finch Forecast is an annual tradition founded by Ron Pittaway and carried on by Tyler Hoar. Combining information on bird movement and food availability in northern Canada, it predicts whether finches and three other species(*) will bother to leave their northern homes this winter. The birds only irrupt into southern Canada and the U.S. if the cone and seed crop is low.     (* red-breasted nuthatches, blue jays, bohemian waxwings)

Red-breasted nuthatches (Sitta canadensis) began leaving Canada in mid-August and the vanguard is here, as you can see by these eBird sightings in Allegheny County, 1 Aug through 20 Sep. Offer black oil sunflower seeds, peanuts and suet if you want to see them at your feeders.

The forecast says that most purple finches (Haemorhous purpureus) will leave Canada this winter and some are already on the move. They’ve been seen at least 10 times in Allegheny County since August 1.

Be careful when you identify a purple finch as it closely resembles the house finches we see every day. Female purple finches have sharp brown stripes compared to blurry gray-brown on female house finches. Male purple finches are rosy-purple as if dipped head first in berry juice. They have rosy flank stripes, not brown.  Check out this guide for telling the difference between Purple and House finches.

Purple finch, 2009 (photo by Brian Herman)

The forecast also says that evening grosbeaks (Coccothraustes vespertinus) are now moving south in the highest numbers seen in 25 years. These coniferous woodland finches are expected to come to Pennsylvania but they prefer the forest so don’t expect to see them unless you’re near a woodlot. If you live in suitable habitat, they’ll come to your feeder for black oil sunflower seeds.

Evening grosbeak, January 2013 (photo by Steve Gosser)

Remember this sound and you’ll hear them coming.

And finally, the forecast for pine siskins (Spinus pinus) is mediocre but Steve Gosser has already seen one in his Allegheny County backyard last Saturday. Listen for their chatter and distinctive zipper sound and you’ll know they’re here. They like nyger seed just like goldfinches.

Pine siskin in Steve Gosser’s yard, 19 Sept 2020 (photo by Steve Gosser)

Check out the Winter Finch Forecast 2020-2021 to learn more and find out what Canada’s blue jays are up to.

p.s. You can learn where a particular species is within a particular timeframe by going here to explore eBird. Choose species, then date range, then location.

(photos by Chuck Tague, Brian Herman and Steve Gosser. screenshot of eBird red-breasted nuthatch sightings)