Category Archives: Migration

Go Birding Today

Bird migration over the US, 27 April 2021, 4:45am (screenshot from BirdCast)

27 April 2021, 5am

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.

Birding in Schenley Park, May 2019 (photo by Anne Marie Bosnyak)

Use BirdCast’s Migration Tools to plan your next birding adventure.

(screenshot of map from BirdCast; photo by Anne Marie Bosnyak)

Cleared For Take Off?

Volcanic eruption plume of La Soufrière, 9 April 2021 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

21 April 2021

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.

map of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines in the Caribbean (Wikimedia Commons)

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.

NOAA VAAC maps, Saint Vincent
Tracking La Soufrière’s plume (image from NASA Earth Observatory)

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.

p.s. Click here for a video of satellite imagery showing the atmospheric effect of La Soufrière volcano.

(images from Wikimedia Commons, NOAA and NASA Earth Observatory)

What’s Changed In 7 Years?

Ruddy duck in breeding plumage (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

8 April 2021

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.

Spring peeper calling in the Ozarks (photo by Justin Meissen via Wikimedia Commons)
Spring peeper calling in the Ozarks (photo by Justin Meissen via Wikimedia Commons)

On 31 March 2021 I found bloodroot and hepatica blooming at Cedar Creek: Before The Freeze. Seven years ago they bloomed a couple of weeks later on 12 April 2014: It Was Fun While It Lasted.

Bloodroot blooming at Cedar Creek Park, Westmoreland County, 19 April 2014 (photo by Kate St. John)
Bloodroot blooming at Cedar Creek Park, Westmoreland County, 12 April 2014 (photo by Kate St. John)

What’s changed in seven years? The climate is warmer. Nature is responding.

It will be interesting to see what happens next.

(photos from Wikimdeia Commons and by Kate St. John)

Is It Grackle Day?

Male common grackle (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

1 March 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, Barnacle Geese

Goose barnacles, Lepas anatifera (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

20 February 2021

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. 

Goose barnacles and barnacle geese have similar names because people linked them to explain where the geese came from.

Every fall barnacle geese (Branta leucopsis) migrate to Britain and the east coast of the North Sea where they spend the winter. Those in Britain arrive from their breeding grounds in Greenland.

Barnacle geese (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

In the Middle Ages people didn’t know that birds migrate so they worked to explain the sudden appearance of full grown geese that they never saw nesting. Their explanation was that goose barnacles floated to shore, took root, and produced a tree that produced barnacle geese. This notion persisted for hundreds of years, from at least the 12th to 16th centuries.

Barnacle Geese. Facsimile of an Engraving on Wood, from the “Cosmographie Universelle” of Munster, folio, Basle, 1552

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)

Why Do Rare Gulls Visit in February?

Lesser black-blacked gull in the UK (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

1 February 2021

If you want to see a rare gull that breeds in Europe or the arctic, February is the best time in Pittsburgh.

Gulls need open water for food and shelter so when ice forms they have to leave. Arctic breeders move to openings in the sea ice (polynyas) or fly south along the coasts or to the Great Lakes. When it’s very cold the Great Lakes freeze by February and the gulls move further south. That’s when they find Pittsburgh.

Though our city is 300 miles from the ocean a few gulls stay here year round. Several dozen herring gulls (Larus argentatus) breed on our rivers and a few non-breeding ring-billed gulls (Larus delawarensis) spend the summer. In winter they are joined by hundreds more.

Last week a single lesser black-backed gull (Larus fuscus) appeared at the gull roost where the Allegheny meets the Ohio. This species breeds on the coast of Europe and Iceland — and possibly now in Greenland and maritime Canada — but Pittsburgh is west of its normal range.

How did this bird get here? Here’s a wild guess: Perhaps he flew from the Atlantic to the St. Lawrence Seaway, Lake Ontario and Lake Erie and stopped when he got to Cleveland.

According to the Great Lakes Total Ice Coverage Map from 30 Jan 2021, the Toledo end of Lake Erie is fully iced up and it’s pretty thick now at Cleveland. If he was staying near Cleveland he would have to leave.

Great Lakes Surface Environmental Analysis for 30 Jan 2021 from NOAA

Will more rare gulls arrive this month? Check the Great Lakes ice conditions at NOAA for a hint of what’s to come.

(photo from Wikimedia Commons; click on the caption to see the original. map from NOAA’s Great Lakes Environmental Research Lab)

p.s. UPDATE 20 Feb 2021: Lake Erie was almost completely ice covered on 19 February 2021. See map below

Great Lakes Surface Environmental Analysis for 19 Feb 2021 from NOAA

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)