Category Archives: Migration

New Arrivals

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

24 April 2022

Bird migration picked up last week. I saw 10 new arrivals between April 17 and 23. The photos above, though not my own, give you a flavor of the new birds in town.

  • Chimney swift
  • Broad-winged hawk, migrating overhead
  • Swamp sparrow
  • Ovenbird
  • Black and white warbler
  • Northern parula
  • Pine warbler
  • Rose-breasted grosbeak
  • House wren
  • Wood thrush

More to come this week!

(photos by Jeff Davis, Meredith Lombard, Chuck Tague, Marcy Cunkelman, Lauri Shaffer, Steve Gosser, Tony Bruno)

Early Warblers and Spring Ephemerals: What to Expect in April

Louisiana waterthrush (photo by Steve Gosser)

4 April 2022

Spring was on hold during last week’s long hard frost but it’s coming back this week. Here’s what to expect outdoors in the Pittsburgh area.

The earliest warblers arrive in April before the leaves open.  Last weekend a Louisiana waterthrush returned to Tom’s Run Nature Reserve in Sewickley PA. Look for them walking along clean streams, bobbing their tails, and singing their very loud song.

Purple martin scouts are back at Harrison Hills County Park and Murrysville Wetland Community Park and tree swallows have returned to Moraine State Park. Watch for northern rough-winged swallows, barn swallows, and the rest of the purple martins in the weeks ahead.

Tree swallow (photo by Jessica Botzan)
Tree swallow (photo by Jessica Botzan)

Yellow-throated warblers will return to Pittsburgh area creeks and streams on or before 20 April. You’ll hear them before you see them, walking the high trunks and larger branches of sycamores. 

Yellow-throated warbler (photo by Anthiny Bruno)
Yellow-throated warbler (photo by Anthony Bruno)

Watch for gray catbirds, blue-gray gnatcatchers, and ruby-crowned kinglets returning soon.

Meanwhile, don’t miss April’s ephemeral wildflowers.

Snow trillium (Trillium nivale) was out in full force yesterday at the Botanical Society of Western PA walk at Little Sewickley Creek in Westmoreland County.

Snow trillium, Little Sewickley Creek, Westmoreland County, 3 April 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

Soon we’ll see spring beauty, spicebush, hepatica, harbinger-of-spring, bloodroot, spring cress, twinleaf, violets and more. 

Spicebush in bloom, Schenley Park 2013 (photo by Kate St. John)
Spicebush in Schenley Park, 13 April 2013 (photo by Kate St. John)
Bloodroot blooming at Cedar Creek Park, Westmoreland County, 19 April 2014 (photo by Kate St. John)
Bloodroot at Cedar Creek Park, Westmoreland County, 19 April 2014 (photo by Kate St. John)

For more details check out my Pennsylvania Phenology page.

It’s a good month to be outdoors.

(photo credits: bird photos by Steve Gosser, Anthony Bruno and Jessica Botzan.  Plant photos by Kate St. John)

The Clean Up Crew Is Back

Turkey vulture in flight (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

31 March 2022

Have you noticed them lately?

Turkey vultures (Cathartes aura) are migrating over Pittsburgh during the warmest parts of the day. They returned to Hinckley, Ohio on 15 March. Now they’re here.

Since my first sighting of a lone turkey vulture on 10 March I now see groups of at least four every day, especially near their roosts.

Turkey vultures at the roost (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Very soon we are going to appreciate that the Clean Up Crew has returned to eat the dead things that rot in warm weather.

Unlike us, vultures can always eat what they want. Find out why in this vintage article.

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

The Grackles Are Back!

Common grackle. “Skrinnnk!” (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

4 March 2022

The grackles are back!

During the winter common grackles (Quiscalus quiscula) are mostly absent from Pennsylvania but in early March they head north to nest. Their return began this week with a trickle of solo birds on Tues 1 March which grew to small flocks of 5-7 on Thursday. Very soon large flocks will pass through on their way to Canada, taking over feeders and backyards as they did at Marcy Cunkelman’s in this 2005 photo.

Common grackles take over the yard, spring 2005 (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

Even if you don’t see them you will hear the grackles announce themselves. Look to the treetops to see the males puff and “skrinnk!”

This week’s scouts are the early birds. More grackles are definitely on the way. Look at the difference in eBird reports between December-February and March-May!

  • eBird: Common grackle sightings, Dec-Feb past 10 years

Common grackle (Quiscalus quiscula) sightings, winter vs spring, past 10 years (retrieved from eBird on 3 Mar 2022)

Use eBird and your sightings will be added to the maps.

(photos from Marcy Cunkelman and Wikimedia Commons; distribution maps from eBird retrieved on 3 March 2022; click on the captions to see the originals)

Where is The Sea Eagle?

Steller’s sea eagle in Hokkaido, Japan, its native range (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

11 January 2022

When a bird is extremely rare, very large, nomadic, and easily recognizable it quickly becomes a celebrity. There is only one wild Steller’s sea eagle in North America(*) and wherever he goes birders flock to see him. He lingers sometimes then leaves for parts unknown. Every day the question is, Where is The Steller’s sea eagle?

Closely related to bald eagles, Steller’s sea eagles (Haliaeetus pelagicus) are the largest eagle on earth weighing up to 20 pounds with a wingspan as much as 8 feet. They breed on the coast of Far Eastern Russia and winter on the coasts of Russia and Japan.

The total population of Steller’s sea eagles is only 5,000 and they are declining. One has come to North America. Here’s his story so far.

History of the bird as of 23 Dec 2021 when last seen in Massachusetts:

Video of the bird in Maine on 31 Dec 2021:

Photographed in Maine on 8 Jan 2022 by Erin @ourtravelintale:

As of 9 January the sea eagle was last seen flying away near the bridge at Southport, Maine. Today everyone’s asking “Where is The sea eagle?”

Track his Maine locations via Maine Audubon’s Rare Bird Alert Steller’s Sea Eagle or at https://linktr.ee/StellersSeaEagle or on Twitter at https://twitter.com/WanderingSTSE.

Meanwhile in Pittsburgh, 300 miles from the nearest ocean, I will probably never see this bird. I can imagine the disappointment and expense of spending a day or two flying or driving to the sea eagle’s last known location and arriving after it had left. Sigh.

UPDATE 10 March 2022: The Steller’s sea eagle is still in Maine as of 5 March 2022.

(*) The closest we come to a Steller’s sea eagle in Pittsburgh is at the National Aviary. Their sea eagle, Kodiak, escaped on 25 September 2021 and was captured on 3 October. For eight days the National Aviary was definitely asking “Where’s The Sea Eagle?”

(photo of sea eagle in Japan from Wikimedia Commons; videos, tweets and Instagram embedded from original sources)

In Quest of Moby Beak

Male red crossbill at Spruce Flats Bog, Westmoreland County, PA, 26 Dec 2021 (photo by Donna Foyle)

2 January 2022

In mid-December Pittsburgh birders were a-buzz with the news of five red crossbills on Laurel Mountain in Westmoreland County. The birds are so rare in southwestern Pennsylvania that many made the trek to Rector-Edie Road in the Forbes State Forest hoping to see those beaks.

Red crossbills (Loxia curvirostra) are conifer specialists whose crossed beaks are specially evolved to pry open the cones of spruce, hemlock, fir and pine. Because conifer seed abundance varies year to year they are naturally nomadic and highly irruptive. Few are resident anywhere, even in their northern forest breeding range. You can see why they’re so fascinating in this 5-minute video from the Netherlands.

Video of red crossbills in De Koog, Netherlands, 2013 via Wikimedia Commons

Crossed beaks are worth seeing and not easy to find so at times I’ve been as obsessed with them as Ahab was with Moby Dick. Unfortunately I was out of town on 26 December when five friends drove up Laurel Mountain to find the red crossbills. In three hours on the mountain they heard the birds at Rector-Edie Road and had good looks at Spruce Flats Bog where Donna Foyle took these pictures.

Zoomed in on female red crossbill, 26 Dec 2021 (photo by Donna Foyle)

The weather stayed warm last week so seven of us met up at Spruce Flats Bog on Friday 31 December. In the warmth we felt comfortable waiting for two hours for the views Donna had earlier in the week. Instead three red crossbills flew over once without stopping. We couldn’t see their beaks. Aaarrg! That’s exactly why they are called …

Despite my quest for Moby Beak I’m not going back up the mountain any time soon. The weather is now icy and the roads are barely maintained up there. Better luck next time.

(photos by Donna Foyle, video from Wikimedia Commons; click on the captions to see the original)

Seen This Week in Frick

Winter wren, Frick Park, 9 Dec 2021 (photo by Charity Kheshgi)

11 December 2021

On Thursday 9 December Charity Kheshgi and I took a walk in Frick Park on the third day in a row of cold weather. Light snow dusted the leaves and logs but the temperature promised to push above freezing by noon.

Moss with snow, Frick Park, 9 Dec 2021 (photo by Charity Kheshgi)

Best Bird was a very obliging winter wren who finally posed for his portrait, at top, after showing us his tail. Who knew that a winter wren’s tail is so speckled? It’s worth saving a butt shot to see it.

Winter wren’s tail end, Frick Park, 9 Dec 2021 (photo by Charity Kheshgi)

Yellow-bellied sapsuckers were back in town, perhaps a second wave of migrants after the first set left in early November.

Yellow-bellied sapsucker, Frick Park, 9 Dec 2021 (photo by Charity Kheshgi)

A female red-bellied woodpecker was very vocal as she checked out this potential nest hole.

Red-bellied woodpecker, Frick Park, 9 Dec 2021 (photo by Charity Kheshgi)

And a wave of juncos (30 of them!) munched seeds in the tall grass blending into the background.

Dark-eyed junco in grasses, Frick Park, 9 Dec 2021 (photo by Charity Kheshgi)

We were surprised to see a northern harrier heading south. At first we identified him by shape (below). Charity was able to see his light underside and black wingtips.

Northern harrier flyby, Frick Park, 9 Dec 2021 (photo by Charity Kheshgi)

Perhaps the migrants will stick around for a while. On Saturday morning, though rainy, it is 65 F.

(photos by Charity Kheshgi)

Why Aren’t The Ducks Here Yet?

Mixed ducks in flight, San Luis National Wildlife Refuge, Jan 2008 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

8 December 2021

Fifteen years ago Pittsburgh birders waited for migrating waterfowl to start arriving in late October and watched as numbers peaked in November and dropped when our lakes froze in December. We remember that schedule and have been visiting wetlands since late October but waterfowl are still scarce. Low variety, low numbers.

Why aren’t the ducks here yet?

In a word, it’s not cold enough.

Except for the few species that are hardwired for more dependable long-distance migrations, such as blue-winged teal, waterfowl are adapted to migrate only as far as is necessary for them to find food, open water, and places to rest. For some species, it may take several consecutive days of freezing temperatures and snow cover to push them southward. 

— Ducks Unlimited: Are Waterfowl Migrations Changing?

Ducks save energy and avoid danger by staying put when conditions allow. They also shortcut their trip north in the spring by not traveling too far from their breeding grounds.

There was no reason for ducks to fly south in October, which was the world’s fourth warmest on record. November was also warm with no highs below freezing in Erie, PA and only four days completely below freezing in typically cold Bismarck, North Dakota. As of Monday December 6 the Great Lakes were completely ice free.

NOAA CoastWatch Great Lakes Ice Analysis. NO ICE as of 6 Dec 2021

So we’ll just have to wait for a week of real winter before we’ll see good flocks of migrating ducks.

Follow the weather up north to get a prediction of waterfowl arrival. Did it freeze in Saskatchewan, Manitoba or Ontario? Did the Great Lakes start to freeze? What about Lake Erie? (click the link to see Great Lakes ice conditions.)

When the ducks get here they might not leave until spring if our lakes stay open.

Mixed ducks in Ohio, March 2014 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

p.s. Yesterday’s high was below freezing but we’re not having a run of cold weather. Friday’s high will be 52oF, Saturday’s 64oF.

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

Long Distance Migrant to …

Common swifts in flight (illustration by Jos Zwarts via Wikimedia Commons)

12 October 2021

North American birds that eat flying insects migrate to Central and South America for the winter. Where do Asian insectivores go? Until 2015 the winter home of the common swifts that nest in Beijing was a mystery.

Common swifts (Apus apus) breed across Europe and Asia from Ireland to North China. Those from Europe are known to winter in Africa but where do the far eastern swifts go?

Breeding range of the common swift (altered from range map on Wikimedia Commons)

In the spring of 2014 the Beijing Swift Project tagged 31 common swifts with geolocators at the Summer Palace. The birds nested in China, then left in July. When they returned nine months later in April 2015 thirteen were recaptured. Their geolocator data revealed that the swifts had traveled east to the Caspian Sea then south to South Africa, a round trip of 16,000 miles (26,000 km). During those nine months the birds never landed! Their destination is yellow on the map below.

Range map of the common swift from Wikimedia Commons

This tweet from October 2020 shows their journey.

Since Africa is this species’ winter home, those that breed in North China must travel farthest to get there. The journey is so long for Beijing’s swifts that they spend more time in Africa (4 months) than they do in Beijing (3 months).

Read more about the common swifts of China and see their migration maps at the Beijing Swift Project.

Common swift in flight; this one is from Barcelona (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

(photos, maps and illustrations from Wikimedia Commons)

Birding in the Rain

Brown thrasher in a puddle (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

1 October 2021

Pittsburgh has been warm and sunny for a week now and will continue to be pleasant through tomorrow. Then we’ll have to go birding in the rain.

@GetToKnowNature found unexpected beauty in the rain at Sandy Hook, part of the Gateway National Recreation Area in New Jersey that includes the historic Fort Hancock.

Map of Gateway National Recreation Area highlighting Sandy Hook (map from Wikimedia Commons)

The narrow peninsula is a natural stopoff for migrating land birds in inclement weather.

Can you identify the bird songs in the video? The photos provide a hint.

Brown thrasher in the shadows (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

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