Category Archives: Migration

Leaves Early To Raise Another Family

Male orchard oriole (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Why haven’t I seen an orchard oriole (Icterus spurius) in Pittsburgh since June? They probably left early on migration. Some have a reason to hurry — they raise a second family in Mexico.

A 2009 study by Rohwer and Hobson found that some yellow-billed cuckoos, orchard orioles, hooded orioles, yellow-breasted chats and Cassin’s vireos breed in North America, then on their migration south they stop off at the thorn forests of western Mexico and raise a second family.

This “migratory double breeding” discovery was stunning. Scientists knew of just two Old World species who did this on their journey north, but until this study no birds were known to do it in the western hemisphere and none anywhere were known to double-breed on the southbound trip.

Gathering the evidence was daunting. July and August are monsoon season in western Mexico with temperatures at 100+ degrees, humidity at 100% and lots of biting insects.  Rohwer’s team was there to study the molt cycles of migratory songbirds.  Instead they found five species breeding! In addition to orchard orioles they found …

… the tellow billed cuckoo (Coccyzus americanus) that breeds in eastern North America and western Mexico:

Yellow billed cuckoo (photo by Chuck Tague)

Hooded oriole (Icterus cucullatus): breeds in southeastern Texas, the Southwest, parts of California and western Mexico.

Hooded oriole (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Yellow-breasted chat (Icteria virens): breeds across the U.S. and into southern Canada and Mexico.

Yellow-breasted chat (photo by Anthony Bruno)

and Cassin’s vireo (Vireo cassinii): breeds in the Pacific Northwest, southwestern Canada and surprisingly in western Mexico.

Cassin’s vireo, New Mexico (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Who would have guessed they’re in such a hurry to raise another family half a continent away.

(photos by Chuck Tague, Anthony Bruno and from Wikimedia Commons)

Stars Of The Show

Ruby-crowned kinglet, April 2017 (photo by Steve Gosser)

29 April 2020

Day by day and week by week there are different stars in the spring migration show. Here are the birds that brightened last week in Pittsburgh’s Schenley Park with a look to the week ahead.

For six days, April 22-27, I saw the largest influx of ruby-crowned kinglets (Regulus calendula) I’ve ever experienced in Schenley Park. Each day I counted 25 to 35 of them though I’m sure my numbers were low.

Steve Gosser’s photos, above and below, display these tiny birds from two perspectives. Did you know they have golden feet and black legs? It’s hard to see their feet because they move so fast!

Ruby-crowned kinglets wear golden slippers (photo by Steve Gosser, 2013)

On 23 April a large flock of yellow-rumped warblers (Setophaga coronata) paused on a foggy morning and foraged on the ground. The males were quite bright in their black, white and yellow spring plumage. I’m waiting for the next flock to arrive soon.

Yellow-rumped warbler, May 2012 (photo by Steve Gosser)

Monday 27 April was a stellar day for hermit thrushes (Catharus guttatus) when I tallied seven near the Falloon Trail. Steve Gosser’s two photos, below, show their distinctive reddish tail and plain face. All were silent but they provided an additional behavioral hint: They raised and slowly dropped their tails.

Hermit thrush, April 2020 (photo by Steve Gosser)
Hermit thrush (photo by Steve Gosser)
Hermit thrush, 2014 (photo by Steve Gosser)

In the week ahead I expect more thrushes and warblers.

My first wood thrush (Hylocichla mustelina) in Schenley was photographed on 23 April by Donna Foyle. Yesterday there were three more.

Notice the wood thrush’s distinctive rusty head and back, dotted breast and mottled cheek in these two photos by Steve Gosser.

Wood Thrush (photo by Steve Gosser, 2008)
Wood Thrush (photo by Steve Gosser, 2008)

More warblers are on their way. Yesterday I saw my first black-and-white warbler (Mniotilta varia) of the year. Yay! This one was photographed by Lauri Shaffer in May 2018.

Black and white warbler, May 2018 (photo by Lauri Shaffer)

And here’s an audio star that I heard in Frick Park on 25 April.

At dusk at the intersection of Falls Ravine and Lower Riverview Trail in Frick Park you’ll hear American toads trilling in the wetland by the fence. Check out the video below for their look and sound, recorded on 11 May 2014 in East Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania. At the end of the video you’ll hear a bird sing, an orchard oriole. They’ll arrive soon at the Lower Nine Mile Run Trail near Duck Hollow.

UPDATE AT NOON, 29 April 2020: Two more stars arrived today! Baltimore oriole and rose-breasted grosbeak.

Baltimore oriole (photo by Steve Gosser)
Baltimore oriole (photo by Steve Gosser)
Rose-breasted grosbeak, May 2011 (photo by Steve Gosser)

(photos by Steve Gosser, Donna Foyle and Lauri Shaffer)

A Good Day For Birding? Check These Maps

Migrating birds detected on radar, Tues 28 April 2020, 4am (screenshot from BirdCast)

28 April 2020

Will today be a good day to go birding? Will there be new migrating birds in our area? You don’t have to guess the answer. Just check these maps.

Above, Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s BirdCast uses national radar data to show where, when and in what direction the birds are moving in real time. The screenshot, above, from 4:00am this morning shows intense movement (bright yellow-white) in the Central Great Plains and Mississippi Valley. Birds were also migrating over Pittsburgh but not Philadelphia.

Click on the BirdCast link and play the video to see sunset (red bar) sweep across the continent and the birds start to move. Hotspots soon develop on the map, especially in the pre-dawn hours. That’s where you want to be. When sunrise (yellow bar) sweeps across, migration stops for the day.

If you can’t get outdoors today, see the 2-3 day prediction at CSU’s Aeroeco Lab’s Lights Out Alerts. The website combines historical migration counts with the weather forecast to predict three days of bird migration and alert cities to turn off their lights to save the birds.

According to Lights Out Alerts, last night (April 27-28 “Tonight”) almost 350 million birds flew over the U.S. on their way north. Tomorrow morning (April 28-29) we’ll see the same. Then the weather will suppress movement on the night of April 29-30. NOTE: The labels are a little off. “Tonight” always means “Last Night” if you view the website during the day.

Screenshot from CSU Aeroeco Lab’s Lights Out Alerts, 28 April 2020, 4:30am

Kyle Horton and his colleagues used historical migration patterns and the current weather forecast to produce the maps. Here’s his long view: A map of peak migration, week by week, across the U.S.

Based on these maps I’d say that birding will be good today in Pittsburgh … when the rain stops.

UPDATE September 2020: In late August BirdCast added migration forecast tools to their website. Click here for Forecast Maps, Live migration maps and Local Alerts.

(screenshots from BirdCast Live Migration Maps and CSU’s Lights Out Alerts; click on the captions to see the latest maps)

Hummingbird Migration: Where Are They Now?

Ruby-throated hummingbird (photo by Steve Gosser, 2014)

As the weather warms, ruby-throated hummingbirds (Archilochus colubris) are traveling north to their nesting territories while citizen scientists are recording their progress on the Journey North website.

Reports on the map show us where they are now. As of 7 April 2020, four intrepid hummingbirds were ahead of the big wave, seen at Mashpee, MA, Geneva, NY, and Tipton and Muncie, IN. Click here to see today’s map.

Screenshot of ruby-throated hummingbirds’ Journey North as of 8 Apr 2020

You can help the tracking effort. Clean and fill your hummingbird feeder and contribute your first sighting at Journey North’s Ruby-throated Hummingbird map. This is an easy and fun activity while we’re home bound for COVID-19.

Click here to see the map. Click here to participate.

(photo by Steve Gosser; map from Journey North)

Like Angels

Bridled common murre in flight (photo by Andreas Trepte, via Wikimedia Commons)

The beautiful Twitter video below from @Finnmarkbirding has happy news from the Varanger Peninsula in Finnmark county, Norway.

This week guillemots (we call them common murres, Uria aalge) and puffins (Fratercula arctica) are returning to Hornøya bird cliff in Vardø, Norway.

In slow motion they look like angels.

(photo by Andreas Trepte, via Wikimedia Commons; embedded Tweet by @Finnmarkbirding)

p.s. Common murres in the Norwegian Arctic often have “bridled” eye marks, shown above, and are called bridled guillemots.

Migration By Smell

Gray catbird (photo by Shawn Collins)

I have not seen a gray catbird in Pittsburgh yet but I know they’re on their way. Next month they’ll arrive from their wintering grounds in the southern U.S., the Caribbean and Central America. How do they get here?

Migratory birds are born with an innate sense of direction and distance to their goal but must learn how to get there on their first trip south. After they’ve made the trip once, they create a mental map and can use the sun, stars, earth’s magnetic field and their sense of smell to return home.

Their sense of smell? Yes! Birds do have a sense of smell and they use it.

On Throw Back Thursday, learn how gray catbirds proved they navigate by smell in: Sniffing Their Way North.

(photo by Shawn Collins)

Winter Crows Will Soon Be Gone

Crows burst off a building as they prepare to roost in Oakland, 4 Nov 2016 (photo by Kate St.John)
Crows burst off a building as they prepare to roost in Oakland, 4 Nov 2016 (photo by Kate St.John)

There’s one thing we can count on with the coming of spring. Pittsburgh’s winter crows will soon be gone.

Every year thousands of crows come to town in November, build to a crescendo by the end of the year and disperse in late February through March.

Residents near the corner of Bellefield and Bayard Avenues in Oakland can hardly wait. This winter a nightly flock of 3,000 to 4,000 crows plagued their area, roosting in trees near the Western Pennsylvania School for Blind Children. The scene in North Oakland looked a lot like this 2013 video from Minneapolis.

The video’s author, Chuck Smith, points out that the crows usually don’t spend the night in his neighborhood but when they do they leave their calling cards behind.

I like watching crows but I don’t have to live with them.

(video by Chuck Smith on YouTube)

It’s A Wonder

Painted bunting in Allegheny County, 22 Jan 2020 (photo by Steve Gosser)

On Monday morning, 20 January 2020, a sparrow-sized songbird, colored like an exotic parrot, showed up at a backyard feeder in suburban Pittsburgh. It happened to choose the backyard of Brian Shema, Operations Director at Audubon Society of Western PA. His Rare Bird Alert immediately attracted a steady stream of birders to see this gorgeous visitor. (If you want to see the bird, instructions are at the bottom of this article.)

Painted buntings (Passerina ciris) are seed-eaters that breed in the coastal Southeast and south central U.S., and spend the winter in Florida, the Caribbean and Central America. Though one occasionally shows up in eastern Pennsylvania this individual is quite out of range in the western part of the state. He’s only the third Allegheny County record.

He’s also extra special because he’s male. Female painted buntings are nice to find but their green color is not so photogenic.

To highlight the male and female difference here’s another male, photographed in Florida by Chuck Tague in 2012. (The border emphasizes that this is not the Pittsburgh bird.)

Painted bunting, Florida, 2012 (photo by Chuck Tague)

Of course we all wonder where the bunting came from and hope for his continued success. So far, so good. He’s hanging out with juncos and successfully avoiding predators, including the merlin that watched Brian’s backyard on Thursday afternoon.

If you’d like to see him, go to this location pinpointed on eBird’s map. Make sure you stay on the street, don’t walk in anyone’s yard, and park without blocking anything. The house is on a corner lot so you can see the feeders from the street. He was there all day yesterday (Friday 24 Jan). Chances are very good that you’ll find other birders looking at him when you get there.

(photos by Steve Gosser, Wikimedia Commons and Chuck Tague; click on the captions to see the originals)

Bird Migration on Merchant Ships

This 9-minute video, filmed on merchant ships by Odysseas-Froilan Papageorgiou, provides a unique perspective on migratory birds.

Terrestrial birds that migrate over the ocean will land on ships to rest and refuel, especially during bad weather. Some birds are exhausted by the time they land. The ships attract insects that are eaten by songbirds. The songbirds attract birds of prey and shrikes.

The video showcases 70 species seen during Europe voyages. Each half of the video is in taxonomic order. My favorites were the birds of prey and a colorful bird that was new to me — the black-headed bunting. Don’t miss the hobby, the peregrine and the long-eared owl.

Best Bird is saved for the end!

(video by Odysseas Froilan on YouTube)

MOTUS Peregrines On The Move

Downtown Pittsburgh juvenile peregrines. Bird on left has a MOTUS tag, 20 June 2019 (photo by Lori Maggio)

In June 2019 the Pennsylvania Game Commission fitted 10 of the state’s fledgling peregrines with MOTUS tracking devices to study where they go and how many survive their first year of life. Five months later the network has data locations for three (or maybe five) of them.

Keep in mind that only a few data points have been captured, the MOTUS data is still preliminary, and false positives sometimes occur. That said, here’s what we know so far.

Harrisburg female, Red, 46/BS (ID# 24660)

The path of the Harrisburg female peregrine (Red, 46/BS, ID#24660) looks quite promising. She flew first to Nockamixon (19 Sept), then west and south to Lamb’s Knoll (2 Oct) and Newtowne Neck near Compton, Maryland (4 Oct). The enhanced map below includes her banding location in Harrisburg. Click here for her path on the Motus website which does not include her banding location.

Map of Harrisburg Red peregrine, ID#24660, enhanced from MOTUS tracking map

Harrisburg male, White, 22/BZ (ID# 24662)

Initial data on the Harrisburg male (White, 22/BZ, ID#24662) were clouded by inaccuracies that placed him in both Reading, PA (Drasher) and Saskatchewan, Canada — 1,600 miles away — on the same day.

After removing the Saskachewan error there was still one more puzzle. The data table indicates that Harrisburg White flew 766 miles four times — from western Ontario (Harrington) to the Bay of Fundy (Gardner Creek) and back again. Would a bird have done this? And could he have made one of those trips in a single day, 24-25 August, in a head wind? Hmmm! Doubtful.

screenshot of Harrisburg White data table as of 25 Nov 2019

With those questions in mind I created the enhanced map below, adding his banding location and removing Gardner Creek (which may still be on his MOTUS map here). While his data is under review Harrisburg White is still on the move. He showed up near Aurora, Ontario on 16 November.

Map of Harrisburg White peregrine, ID#24662, enhanced from MOTUS tracking map

Nazareth, female, Red, 20/CA (ID# 24665)

Hatched on a clinker silo at Lehigh Cement in Nazareth, Pennsylvania this female (Red, 20/CA, ID#24665) logged three data points on Amherst Island in Lake Ontario: 51 seconds on 17 and 19 July and three hours on 6 August. Without other locational data MOTUS cannot generate a map so I created one below with two points while her data is under review. Click here for her data table on the MOTUS website.

Proposed map of Nazareth Red peregrine, ID#24665, constructed by Kate St. John and enhanced MOTUS tracking data

Data uncertain: Pittsburgh, female, Blue, 19/CA (ID# 24664)

Interestingly there is a single 51-second data point for the Pittsburgh female (Blue, 19/CA, ID#24664) at Nazareth Red’s location on Amherst Island on 22 July. Its validity is uncertain. I marked it in orange on Nazareth’s map above.

Data uncertain: Bethlehem, male, Yellow, 60/AP (ID# 24666)

Bethlehem Yellow has a smattering of data points at the Allan Hills tower in Saskatchewan, but like the other Saskatchewan error this is 1,700 miles away from his banding site without any intervening locations. The data is under review.

As the MOTUS system gathers more information the picture for each bird will come into better focus. Meanwhile check out the tables and maps as they look today at the links below.

(photo of Pittsburgh juvenile peregrines by Lori Maggio, enhanced maps by Kate St. John from MOTUS tracking data; click on the captions to see the originals)