Category Archives: Migration

A Big Day For Tundra Swans

Yesterday, 11 Nov 2018, was a really big day for tundra swans  in western Pennsylvania.  Flyover sightings on PABIRDS included:

All the flocks were flying southeast, heading for their wintering grounds at Chesapeake Bay and eastern North Carolina.

At Moraine State Park, 13 of us searched the sky for tundra swans when we heard them overhead.  The sky was so blue and they were flying so high that it was a real challenge to see them.  Ultimately we counted four flocks totaling 260 birds. Here’s the flight call that cued us to look up.

Tundra swans (audio by Paul Driver via xeno-canto XC72958)

Listen and look for tundra swans (Cygnus columbianus) early this week in western Pennsylvania. They usually pass through on or near Veterans’ Day.  Yesterday they were right on time.

(photo by Steve Gosser)

Rare Hummingbirds In November

Immature male rufous hummingbird, 1 Nov 2018 (photo by Donna Foyle)

It’s November, but are you keeping your hummingbird feeders filled?  Is your salvia still blooming?  If so, you may see a hummingbird that’s rare in Pennsylvania.

Rufous hummingbirds (Selasphorus rufus) breed from the south coast of Alaska to western Montana and spend the winter in Mexico and along the Gulf Coast. (Click on the range map to see details.)

screenshot of rufous hummingbird range map from IUCN Red List

However, a few have compass errors that lead them east instead of south.  Often these are immature birds who’ve never made the trip before.

Rufous aren’t the only western hummingbirds that make this mistake but they are the most common.  Allen’s, Anna’s, calliope and black-chinned hummingbirds also come from cool climates so they can survive Pennsylvania’s autumn weather but they must have food — midges and other insects, nectar, or sugar water.

On Halloween Donna Foyle looked out her window in Pittsburgh and saw a visitor from the Pacific Northwest.  A rufous hummingbird, pictured above, had flown in for a sip at her feeder.  On Saturday afternoon 3 Nov, Bob Mulvihill banded it and confirmed it’s a first-year male Selasphorus rufus.

First-year male rufous hummingbird held by Bob Mulvihill, Pittsburgh, 3 Nov 2018 (photo by Kate St. John)

It’s unclear how long this bird will stay in Pittsburgh but others may come.  To give you an idea of the numbers, during the winter of 2012-2013 one hundred vagrant hummingbirds were reported in Pennsylvania. 48 of them were rufous. 

So keep your hummingbird feeder filled and shelter your blooming salvia.  If you see a hummingbird this fall in Pennsylvania, contact one of the hummingbird banders listed at the end of this 2016 eBird article by Wayne Laubscher and Doug Gross.   In Pittsburgh contact Bob Mulvihill of the National Aviary, 412-258-1148.

p.s. Though many were watching for him, this hummingbird was last seen Sunday morning 4 Nov. He may have moved on.

(photo by Donna Foyle; screenshot of rufous hummingbird range map from IUCN Red List, click on the image to see the real map; photo of birds in hand by Kate St. John)

Diving In

During migration chimney swifts (Chaetura pelagica) travel during the day and roost at night in chimneys and hollow trees.  Because they eat insects on the wing, they have to leave our area before it’s too cold for flying insects to survive.

This fall was so mild in Pittsburgh that there were still chimney swifts going to roost on Tuesday evening in Squirrel Hill.  Steve Tirone filmed them that evening, though he hasn’t seen them since.

Watch Steve’s real time and slow motion video as the swifts dive into a chimney on Wightman Street at dusk on 23 Oct 2018.

(video by Steve Tirone)

Hooray! Good News For Birds!

Pitt’s Victory Lights on-off for birds (simulated image by Kate St. John)

Good news for birds today! 

On October 8th I reported how migrating birds are fatally attracted to artificial lights and how Pitt’s new Victory Lights trapped birds in its blue beams.  Within 24 hours the Audubon Society of Western Pennsylvania (ASWP) and the University of Pittsburgh began collaborating on a solution. Here’s the good news from Pitt this week:

Just want you to know that we’ve worked on the Victory Lights issue in conjunction with the Audubon Society of Western Pennsylvania. During migration season, the light — which is only on after Pitt football victories and championship victories by other Panthers teams — will be cycled on for 45 minutes and off for 15 every hour. We’re really glad to have been made aware of this situation. Thank you.

— Joe Miksch, Dir. of Media Relations, Univ of Pittsburgh, 22 Oct 2018

The photos above simulate the effect: Left side is 45 minutes on, right is 15 minutes off. 

The solution is based on studies done at the 9/11 Tribute of Light in New York where 88 beams light the sky once a year.

Every September New York Audubon mobilizes volunteers to watch the 9/11 Tribute for trapped birds. When volunteers count 1,000 birds circling in the beams or if a bird is found dead, the lights are turned off for 20 minutes.  Radar shows that after only 10 minutes of darkness trapped birds have left the 9/11 Tribute and are flying south toward Governor’s Island.   The Tribute is kept dark for 20 minutes for good measure.

The “45 minutes on, 15 minutes off” solution takes advantage of Pitt’s computerized light system and the unscheduled nature of the Victory Lights display.  Every hour during migration — whether birds are trapped or not — the blue beams will cycle.  After 15 minutes of darkness, any birds that are trapped at Pitt will probably be flying over Schenley Park, headed for Hays Woods.

This solution is just the beginning. Pitt and ASWP will continue to monitor the situation during migration and tweak the timing if necessary.

Kudos to the University of Pittsburgh and Audubon Society of Western Pennsylvania for collaborating and handling the issue so quickly.  Special thanks to Pitt for setting such a great example for building owners. Thank you, Pitt and ASWP!

If Pitt beats Duke this Saturday, October 27, the blue lights will cycle every hour.  Go Pitt!

For more information see:  Deadly Attraction, Part 2 (Pitt Victory Lights)Deadly Attraction (Pittsburgh city lights), New York Times Opinion: The Deadly Lure of City Lights (9/11 Tribute)

(photo simulation by Kate St. John)

(*) Special thanks to Jim Bonner Executive Director of ASWP and Chancellor Gallagher at the University of Pittsburgh and to everyone behind the scenes who made this good news possible. Thank you! 

Get Ready for Crows

Crows gathering at dusk, Alumni Hall, November 2013 (photo by Kate St. John)

I heard them coming last Friday when 50 crows flew over my neighborhood late in the afternoon.  I heard them again Monday morning before dawn, flying over my house in the dark.

Pittsburgh’s winter crow flock is building.  Right now the number is small but by Halloween we’ll see 1,000 of them at dusk near Pitt’s Alumni Hall. Even more of them in November.

Crows gathering on Alumni Hall, November 2013 (photo by Kate St. John)

By December expect 10,000 crows.  In March they’ll be gone.

Winter’s coming. Get ready for crows.

p.s. Here’s what they were like last year By the Light of the Supermoon.

(photos by Kate St. John, November 2013)

The Finches Are Coming

Common redpoll, January 2013 (photo by Cris Hamilton)

Winter birding can be boring in Pittsburgh but not this year. The finches are coming!

According to Ron Pittaway’s Winter Finch Forecast, we’re going to see a lot of northern finches this winter because the “cone, alder and birch seed crops are poor to low in most of Ontario and the Northeast.”  These irruptive birds usually stay in Canada all year but move south, east and west in autumn when there’s not enough to eat.  Here are a few of the “treats” in store for us in western Pennsylvania.

Above, common redpolls (Acanthis flammea) are a goldfinch-sized birds with rosy chests, rosy caps, and black faces.  When they first arrive it takes them a while to notice bird feeders but when they do they cause a mob scene.  Look carefully in the flock for a very similar white-chested bird, the rare hoary redpoll (Acanthis hornemanni).

Below, pine siskins (Spinus pinus) look like very stripey goldfinches with faint yellow wing and tail markings. Listen for their unique call like a zipper going up.

Pine siskin (photo by Shawn Collins)

Purple finches (Haemorhous purpureus) are northern visitors that resemble our familiar house finches but male purple finches are “purple” as if they were dipped head first in berry juice.  Even their flank stripes are rosy, not brown.  Here’s a guide for telling the difference between Purple and House finches.

Purple finch (photo by Brian Herman)

Two irruptive non-finch species have already arrived as indicators of good birds to come.

Red-breasted nuthatches (Sitta canadensis) are already here, searching for cones and seeds in local conifers. Listen for their tin horn calls.

Blue jays!   Yes, those crowds of blue jays (Cyanocitta cristata) are visiting from Canada.  They love acorns. 

Blue jay (photo by Cris Hamilton)

Learn what to expect in the 2018 Winter Finch Forecast. Fill your feeders and keep watch.

Don’t be disappointed if blue jays come to visit. They’re the harbinger of good things to come.

(photo credits: common redpoll and blue jay by Cris Hamilton, pine siskin and red-breasted nuthatch by Shawn Collins, purple finch by Brian Herman)

Deadly Attraction, Part 2

Bright specks in the beam, migrating birds swirl in Pitt’s Victory Lights as seen from 0.4 mile away, 7 Oct 2018, 11:05pm (photo by Kate St. John)

Last night at 11pm I looked at Pittsburgh’s weather radar for isolated thunderstorms. Instead I found intense songbird migration in progress. The colors in this radar print show them flying over western Pennsylvania.

Pittsburgh weather radar showing intense bird migration at 11:37pm, 7 Oct 2018 (image from the National Weather Service)

Some of these birds would be fatally attracted to Pittsburgh’s city lights — that was nothing new — but last night there was an additional deadly attraction.  Pitt won their football game on Saturday and the new Victory Lights were on.  Would birds be stuck in the beams?

Saturday evening I had emailed PABIRDS asking folks to check the Victory Lights to see if this was happening.  Was I going to ignore my own call to action just because it was 11pm?  Well, no. I packed up my gear and drove to the Cathedral of Learning.

Before I got there I parked near Phipps Conservatory 0.4 miles away and looked at the beams (photo at top).  Indeed there were bright specks circling inside the beams but I was so far away that only the brightest specks were visible.

Birds circling in the Victory Light beams, 7 Oct 2018, 11:17pm (cellphone photo by Kate St. John)

I parked at Schenley Plaza near Forbes and counted about 100 bright specks. No, those aren’t moths in my blurry cellphone photo above (11:17:42pm).  Those are trapped birds. 

In the marked up photo below (11:18:19pm) the bent arrow points to a bird that’s so fatally trapped that it’s flying into the light where it will die.  I saw another bird “ditch” out of the column to the roof.

Circling in the beam. Bent arrow points to a bird that’s totally trapped, approaching the lights. It will die on the roof (photo by Kate St. John)

This morning I predict there will be dead or stunned songbirds on the Cathedral of Learning’s many roofs, especially near the source of the Victory Lights. 

As I wrote on September 21, the 9/11 Tribute of Light had this problem and solved it.  I hope we can solve it at Pitt, too. 

UPDATE, Tues 9 Oct, 11am: I have received hopeful news of collaboration on this issue between Pitt and Audubon Society of Western PA. Stay tuned.

p.s. Click here for my original Deadly Attraction blog post including information on city lights and the 9/11 Tribute’s solution.

(photos by Kate St. John, radar map from the National Weather Service; click on the caption to see the radar)

Monarchs On Radar

Male monarch butterfly (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

After several years of low monarch butterfly populations in southwestern Pennsylvania, this year has been spectacular.  With the weather still as warm as summer I see monarchs flying south every day — even in October.

We know that migrating birds can be seen on radar. Did you know that clouds of monarch butterflies are visible too?

Back in September 2014 AOL reported that a dense flight of monarch butterflies was visible on radar in the St. Louis area.  Here’s what the National Weather Service radar looked like at the time.

Radar image from 19 Sep 2014, St. Louis, MO (National Weather Service)

Learn how the butterflies made this impression in a 2014 AOL article: Mysterious clouds spotted in radar explained.

(photo of monarch butterfly by Marcy Cunkelman, 2008; radar image from the National Weather Service St. Louis, Missouri via AOL’s article cited above)

Today in Schenley Park, Sept 30

At the end of the hike, I forgot to tell everyone to smile (photo by Kate St. John)

Despite the Great Race road closures, eleven of us met at Bartlett Shelter this morning for a walk in Schenley Park.  The air was chilly but the birding was good because the north wind brought us new migrants.

I took the group photo, above, at the end of the walk because we were distracted from the start. There were warblers in the trees above us! Cape May, Black-throated Green, Magnolia and Blackpoll.  

Ultimately we saw 23 species + an unidentifiable flycatcher (listed as Empidonax sp).  We were surprised to find no thrushes or sparrows so we crossed the road beyond our cars to find two song sparrows at the end. Still no thrushes other than robins.

Best find for the day: Mushrooms!  My favorite was spectacularly orange but I’m saving it for late October.

And here’s another mushroom. Do you know what it is?  (I don’t remember.)

Thanks to all for coming out today.  My last scheduled walk for the year will be on October 28 at Duck Hollow.

p.s. Here’s today’s bird list on eBird

(photos by Kate St. John)

Deadly Attraction

Downtown Pittsburgh glows at night (at left) while the Pitt Victory beams rise from behind the dark spruce tree, 17 Sept 2018 (photo by Kate St. John in Greenfield)

For migrating songbirds there are two deadly attractions in this photo.

On the left, Downtown Pittsburgh glows in the distance illuminating the night sky.  At center-right, Pitt’s blue Victory Lights beam up from the Cathedral of Learning roof. (The building itself is hidden by the dark spruce.)

Downtown Pittsburgh glows every night.  Pitt’s Victory Lights glow on Saturday and Sunday nights after Pitt wins a football game.  Photographer Dave DiCello tweeted his photo, below, of the Victory Lights on 15 September after Pitt beat Georgia Tech.

City lights are a fatal attraction for songbirds because they migrate at night using celestial lights for navigation. Lured by artificial lights they become confused and circle them. Some crash into buildings. Others land in the city and try to leave after dawn but mistake glass reflections of trees and sky for the real thing. They fly headfirst into glass buildings and windows. Some are stunned, many die. Warblers and wood thrushes are especially vulnerable. Every year nearly half a billion birds die this way in the U.S.

You can help birds survive Pittsburgh’s bright lights, both now and in the future.  Jon Rice at BirdSafe Pittsburgh is mobilizing volunteers to help stunned birds now and to collect data on deaths to mitigate the future.

Here’s what you can do:

  • Report Dead Birds:  If you find a dead bird pause to report it. Enter what, where and when in BirdSafe’s I Found A Bird online tool.  Your smartphone automatically knows “where.”
  • Volunteer with BirdSafe: Walk a route for BirdSafe to rescue stunned birds and collect the dead ones(*). See the BirdSafe Volunteer page for more information.  Contact BirdSafe here.

A 10 September 2018 op-ed in the New York Times by Andrew Farnsworth and Kyle G. Horton explains how the 9/11 Tribute of Light made an easy change that solved this problem.

WTC Tribute of Light, New York City, 11 September 2010 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

After the Tribute began in 2003, people noticed that thousands of birds were lured to the lights and dying there, so in 2005 New York City Audubon mobilized volunteers to monitor the beams. When volunteers count 1,000 birds circling in the beams or if a bird is found dead, the lights are turned off for 20 minutes.  That’s all it takes for the “stuck” birds to resume their migration and not become trapped again.  Since 2005 only two birds have died during the Tribute of Light!

The article also describes how we can apply this knowledge across the U.S., including in Pittsburgh.

We also discovered that on average, half of the total passage of autumn bird migration density over the continental United States occurs on fewer than 10 nights. With migration forecasts developed by scientists at the Cornell Lab, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and Oxford University, these cities and others could determine the optimal nights to dim or extinguish lights so that birds can pass safely.

(from Farnsworth and Horton New York Times 9/10/2018 op-ed)

This easy solution will save migrating birds but we need the data to convince others to make it happen. Please help the birds by helping BirdSafe Pittsburgh.

(photo credits: Downtown Pittsburgh and Pitt Victory Lights by Kate St. John. Cathedral of Learning and Pitt Victory Lights embedded tweet by Dave DiCello. 9/11 Tribute of Light from Wikimedia Commons; click on the caption to see the original)

(*) The dead birds are valuable for science. They become part of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History’s collection.