Category Archives: Migration

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)

Birds Burst Into The Sky After Sunset

Immature male rose-breasted grosbeak (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

19 September 2020

Birding in Pittsburgh has been great this week and will continue today and tomorrow, Saturday & Sunday 19-20 September, as shown on BirdCast’s local migration alert for Pittsburgh below.

screenshot of BirdCast local migration alert for Pittsburgh, PA, 18 Sept 2020

Birding is great on the morning after high migration because the birds travel at night. They start their journey after sunset and land before sunrise, flying over us when it’s too dark to see them.

On good weather nights they’re so anxious to leave that they burst into the sky after sunset, a phenomenon that’s visible on time lapse weather radar. The slideshow below shows this effect on the evening of 15 September 2020 when the birds took off only 20 mins after sunset.

Note that the image is circular because the radar’s reach is circular and it is fainter on the edges because radar fades as it gets far from the source.

Who was flying that night? In addition to warblers, which will be waning soon, we now see thrushes, tanagers, and rose-breasted grosbeaks (Pheucticus ludovicianus). The grosbeaks may resemble females, but don’t be fooled. If they have a touch of orange or red color on their breast they are immature males as shown at top. Here’s another immature male.

Immature male rose-breasted grosbeak (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

This weekend is a great time to go birding in Pittsburgh. Let’s get outdoors!

p.s. Click here to get BirdCast local migration alerts for your hometown.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons, slideshow from KPIT weather radar, Migration alert screenshot from BirdCast; click on the captions to see the originals)

Massive Die Off of Birds in New Mexico … why?

Dead orange-crowned warbler (photo from Wikimedia Commons used as an illustration, not taken in New Mexico)

18 September 2020

In late August reports started trickling in that high numbers of migratory birds were being found dead in New Mexico. The first report was at White Sands Missile Range on 20 August but as time passed the reports became more frequent, the locations increased, and so did the death toll. By now experts believe that hundreds of thousands of birds have died — perhaps millions — not only in New Mexico (red on map below) but in Colorado, Arizona and western Texas (orange highlight on map).

General area of U.S. where massive bird die off is occurring (map from Wikimedia Commons). New Mexico is red

Austin Fisher took a video of the carnage last Sunday, 13 September 2020 in Velarde, New Mexico.

Science Alert reports that only migratory birds are affected, not the local residents. Most of the dead birds are warblers, swallows and flycatchers and “the affected travelers seem to act strangely before their deaths, spending more time on the ground than perched in trees, and generally appearing dazed, sleepy, and lethargic.”

Dr. Andrew Farnsworth at Cornell Lab of Ornithology believes the smoke from the western wildfires is a big factor.

While birds migrate south through the Rockies this fall they must fly through the ubiquitous wildfire smoke blowing across the US from California, Oregon and Washington. Here’s what it looked like via satellite on August 20, the first day dead birds were reported in New Mexico. Notice that the smoke had reached New Mexico that day.

Satellite image of wildfire smoke across the U.S. west, 20 August 2020 (image from NASA)

Unfortunately birds’ respiratory systems are so different from ours and so efficient that they succumb quickly to bad air.

We turn oxygen into CO2 in one breath — in/out. Every exhalation releases the CO2/remains of the air we just breathed in.

When birds breathe, the air that enters their bodies stays inside for two breaths — in/out + in/out. During its 4-step journey, the air molecule travels through the lungs, two sets of air sacs and into the birds’ hollow bones where it waits for the next step. Click on the diagram below to watch the airflow inside a bird.

Birds’ respiratory system, screenshot from animation at Oxford Learning Link

Sadly, the western fires are damaging much more than we realize. UPDATE 23 Sept 2020: a recent study found that the birds died of hypothermia and starvation. See: Explaining the recent mass mortality of western birds.

Read more about the bird die off at Science Alert and the New York Times.

(images from Wikimedia Commons, NASA and a screenshot from Oxford Learning Link. Click on the captions to see the originals)

Emergency Rest Stop For Birds

Mount Desert Rock, 2006 (photo by Justin Russell via Flickr, Creative Commons license)

If this were a normal year(*), my husband and I would be at Acadia National Park right now and I’d go on a whale watch tour in the Gulf of Maine to see shearwaters, storm-petrels and (rarely) a south polar skua. Overhead, far from shore, I’d also see migrating songbirds crossing the water from Nova Scotia to Acadia, still traveling during the day in order to make landfall.

Their journey across the Gulf of Maine — about 100 miles — mimics their 600-mile journey over the Gulf of Mexico from Louisiana to the Yucatan which takes 15-25 hours of non-stop flying. Even during the shorter Gulf of Maine journey some have to make an emergency rest stop on Mount Desert Rock, an inhospitable way station for songbirds, shown above.

Gulf of Maine (left) and Gulf of Mexico (right) — not to scale — non-stop journeys for migrating songbirds (maps from Wikimedia Commons)

This week millions of songbirds are crossing both the Gulf of Maine and the Gulf of Mexico.

Read about what they find if they stop on Mount Desert Rock in this 2013 article No Food, No Water.

p.s. (*) Alas, it’s not a normal year. We wish we could go to Maine but COVID-19 precautions canceled any idea of flying and even if we drove to Maine we’d have to quarantine in the hotel for 14 days, using up our entire vacation and prohibiting any whale watch tour. Sigh.

1,500 Chimney Swifts

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

11 September 2020

In September chimney swifts (Chaetura pelagica) migrate through western Pennsylvania on their way to South America. Unlike songbirds, swifts migrate during the day but we often don’t see them because they travel so high. Birds of the World says they’ve been recorded above the clouds on the warm leading edge of a cold front, 7000 feet up!

At night swifts sleep in chimneys, choosing the most convenient place. The roost may hold more than 1000 birds per night though the individuals change as some leave for the south and others arrive from the north.

Since moving to Oakland in early August I now live within sight of the Cathedral Mansions chimney, one of the largest migratory roosts in the Pittsburgh area. When the weather’s fine I step out to watch them circle the chimney and dive into the roost. Last Sunday I invited Michelle Kienholz to join me. Her videos show some of what we witnessed.

Chimney swifts swirling around Cathedral Mansions chimney, 4 Sept 2020 (photo by Michelle Kienholz)

We started watching while the sun was up but the swifts didn’t come close to the chimney until a few minutes after sunset. By that time it was obvious they were making very large circles around the chimney, flying out of our peripheral vision.

As the sky got darker the swifts circled closer and closer, faster and faster. To enter the chimney they stalled upright, then dove in. There were so many swifts they had to wait in line or circle out and try again.

We tried to count as they dove in but they were quick.

It was almost too dark to see when the last swift disappeared 20 minutes later.

My estimate was 1,500 chimney swifts.

Watch them live at the Audubon Society of Western Pennsylvania’s Virtual Chimney Swift Night Out, 25 September 2020, 7-9pm. Click here for details.

p.s. The swifts leave before dawn if the weather is good but this morning it’s overcast. A few swifts popped out of the chimney 15 minutes before dawn but all went back in.

UPDATE 18 SEPT 2020: I counted 1,300 chimney swifts tonight. The flock completed its dive into the chimney by 7:52pm.

(photo of three swifts by Jeff Davis; still shot and videos of Cathedral Mansions chimney swifts by Michelle Kienholz)