Category Archives: Migration

Red Admirals’ Mass Migration

Red admiral butterfly in April in Germany (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Monarch butterflies are famous for migrating long distances from North America to Mexico but they’re not the only butterfly that travels far. Red admirals migrate, too.

Red admirals (Vanessa atalanta) occur in Europe, Asia and North America. Though the European population can hibernate, red admirals on this continent migrate south to places where their favorite host plant — stinging nettle — grows throughout the winter. In eastern North American they spend the winter in south Texas.

Over the winter a new generation of red admirals matures to fly north and repopulate the continent. We usually don’t notice them but in the spring of 2012 hot weather came so fast that red admirals passed through Presque Isle State Park in a couple of days on mass migration.

On Throw Back Thursday read about the amazing number of red admirals in 2012 in this vintage blog: Mass Migration.

Why don’t we see them migrating more often? Perhaps they’re traveling high above our heads. According to Wikipedia: “During migration, the red admiral flies at high altitudes where high-speed winds carry the butterfly, requiring less energy.” Oh my!

(photo from Wikimedia Commons; click on the caption to see the original)

Late April: What’s Next?

Great horned owl with yawning nestling, April 2019 (photo by Dana Nesiti)

Spring is popping in southwestern Pennsylvania. Here’s what to look for in late April.

  • Branching! Great horned owlets are growing up fast. At the earliest nests owlets will walk on nearby branches before the leaves come out. Dana Nesiti photographed this yawning owlet in early April.
  • Nest building: Songbirds are building nests especially American robins, song sparrows and Carolina wrens. House sparrows flutter by with cellophane for their nests.
  • Migration: Blackbirds and tree swallows are here. Gray catbirds are coming soon. Also Louisiana waterthrush, yellow-throated warbler, hermit thrush, ruby-crowned kinglet, blue-headed vireo, brown thrasher, blue-gray gnatcatcher, pine warbler, northern parula, chimney swift, barn swallow and house wren. See them on an outing with the Three Rivers Birding Club.
  • Trees: Flowering trees include redbud, downy serviceberry, cherry and more. “Leaf out” comes in early May.
  • Wildflowers: Violets, large-flowered trillium, trout lilies, Virginia bluebells and much more. Get outdoors with the Botanical Society of Western PA or Wissahickon Nature Club. Visit Enlow Fork on the last Sunday in April for the Enlow Fork Extravaganza starting at 8:00am.
  • Butterflies: Spring azures, cabbage whites, eastern commas, orange sulphurs, red admirals.
  • Turkey season: Be careful if you hear a turkey calling; it might be a hunter. Spring Gobbler hunting season runs from the last Saturday in April through all of May. Junior hunters get a one-day early start on the next-to-last Saturday (April 20).

In late April, spring is happening fast. Don’t miss it!

(photo by Dana Nesiti)

Why Birds Get Here Last

Map of 1st 2019 ruby-throated hummingbird sightings as of 11 April 2019 from Journey North

This time of year can be frustrating for Pittsburgh birders. Migration is underway and the “good birds” are everywhere but here. Why do we keep missing them? Is there something wrong with us?

It’s not us. It’s where we live. Sometimes the “good birds” get here last.

Ruby-throated hummingbirds are a case in point. Their arrival is tracked every year on the Journey North website (screenshot above) where we can see what we’re missing. In the very warm spring of 2012 they arrived in Ohio and Wisconsin by the end of March but weren’t in most of western Pennsylvania in early April. Hummingbirds surrounded us but they weren’t here yet.

On Throw Back Thursday, see the 2012 maps in this vintage article: Why Birds Get Here Last.

Watch the hummingbirds approach on Journey North’s 2019 first ruby-throated hummingbird map.

p.s. Our definition of a “good bird” is part of our problem. The “good” ones are uncommon so of course they get here last, if at all.

LATER THAT SAME DAY (Thursday April 11, 2019): As if to prove me wrong, birding was exceptionally good today with many new migrants that arrived overnight.

(screenshot of first 2019 ruby-throated hummingbird sightings as of 11 April 2019 from Journey North)

Where Are They Going?

Lesser black-backed gull (photo by Marek Szczepanek via Wikimedia Commons)

5 April 2019

In late March more than 440 lesser black-backed gulls congregated in a damp field in northeastern Pennsylvania — an exciting find because they used to be very rare in North America. Why are they here and where are they going? The Pennsylvania Game Commission is using satellite telemetry to find out.

Lesser black-backed gulls (Larus fuscus) are an Old World species that breeds in Iceland, northern Europe, Russia and Kazakhstan and spends the winter in Europe, Africa and coastal Asia. They were never seen in North America until one showed up in New Jersey in 1934. Slowly their wintertime numbers increased until they’re now considered non-regular winter visitors to North America’s Atlantic and Gulf Coasts. See the map below.

Range map of the lesser black-backed gull (image from Wikimedia Commons)

They still don’t breed in North America in numbers that count on that map. However, they might be thinking about it.

In 2007 a single lesser black-backed gull began breeding on Appledore Island Maine, paired with a female herring gull because there were no other lesser black-backed gulls around. (Lesser black-backed and herring gulls are closely related.)

Meanwhile their migration numbers through Pennsylvania are high enough that ornithologists began to wonder if lesser black-backed gulls are bothering to cross the Atlantic to breed. Are they going to Iceland? We would know that answer if we knew where the Pennsylvania flock was going.

Last spring the PA Game Commission attached satellite transmitters to nine adult gulls when they stopped over in Pennsylvania. The map of the gulls’ movements tells an interesting tale.

Screenshot of 9 lesser black-backed gulls’ movements in North America (map from PGC telemetry study)

The satellite-tagged gulls don’t go to Europe. They stay in North America. Based on their sedentary lifestyle in June they seem to be breeding in Greenland and northeastern Canada.

Screenshot of 9 lesser black-backed gulls’ movements in North America (map from PGC telemetry study)

Click here for the interactive Lesser Black-Backed Gull Telemetry map that zooms in and follows the gulls’ paths. (There’s more about the study here.)

Is there a breeding population of lesser black-backed gulls in North America now? This year we’ll watch again to find out where they’re going.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons, maps from PA Game Commission’s Lesser Black-backed Gull telemetry project; click on the captions to see the originals)

Tree Swallows Soon

Tree swallows fighting over a nest box (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

You might not see any tree swallows in Pittsburgh yet, but there are flocks in the north at Custards, Geneva Marsh and the Linesville Fish Hatchery.

Last Tuesday March 19 Patience Fisher and I were amazed by the millions of midges in the air at Custards. There were so many that they coated my car and attracted hundreds of tree swallows that wheeled over the marsh.

Tree swallows (Tachycineta bicolor) are short distance migrants who spend the winter as close to us as coastal North Carolina. The males tend to migrate first and arrive on the breeding grounds to claim territory and fight over nest sites, including bluebird boxes. When the females arrive they pair up quickly and place a little nesting material in their chosen nest site. The pair won’t nest for a few weeks but they like to stake their claim early.

Keep an eye out for tree swallows in the days and weeks ahead … and hope for warm weather so they have enough insects to eat.

Tree swallows are coming soon.

(photo from Wikimedia Commons; click on the caption to see the original)

When Will The Bonnies Arrive?

Bonaparte’s gulls, Palo Alto Baylands, Dec 2012 (photo by Elka Lange via Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Some years spring migration is early. Some years it’s late. March is the time for ducks, blackbirds, phoebes, and gulls. I’m waiting for Bonaparte’s gulls (Chroicocephalus philadelphia) to arrive.

Bonaparte’s gulls pass through Pittsburgh from late March through April. Seven years ago I wrote about their sudden appearance on 21 March 2012 on the Ohio River and at North Park.

Read about their arrival — and their unusual nest location — in this vintage article: Bonnies On The Move.

When will the “bonnies” arrive? It’s time to check the rivers. 🙂

(photo by Elka Lange on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

It’s Time For Ducks and Robins

Ruddy duck (photo by Lauri Shaffer)

If you like to watch the seasons change take some time to go birding this weekend. Ducks, robins and blackbirds are on the move.

Last Tuesday at Moraine State Park, my friends and I saw 16 species of waterfowl including tundra swans, three kinds of mergansers, a rare red-throated loon, and ruddy ducks like the one pictured above. (Notice his breeding plumage, blue bill.)

Migrating species change as you travel east. Last Tuesday at Yellow Creek State Park — only 70 miles east — there were 855 canvasbacks! We didn’t see any at Moraine.

Meanwhile American robins are arriving in good numbers. They sing at dawn in my neighborhood even though they haven’t reached their destination. Pretty soon they’ll be singing in the dark, too.

American robin in March (photo by Lauri Shaffer)

Watch for red-winged blackbirds, common grackles and killdeer. They’ve just arrived in Pittsburgh.

(photos by Lauri Shaffer,

Cranes: The Great Migration

Sandhill cranes at the Platte River, Nebraska (photo by USFWS via Wikimedia Commons)

When I saw forty sandhill cranes near Volant, Pennsylvania on Monday, I thought of the time I saw 500,000 in Nebraska in March 2004. Half a million sandhill cranes are a breathtaking, exhilarating, stupendous experience! It has to be seen in person. Here’s what it’s like.

Every spring the cranes leave their wintering grounds in Mexico and Texas to converge on an 80-mile stretch of the Platte River in Nebraska. Their numbers peak in March when 80% of all the sandhill cranes on Earth are there.

Map of sandhill crane spring migration in the central flyway (linked from Visit Grand Island website)

Cranes are drawn to this location because the Platte is still “a mile wide and an inch deep” between Lexington and Grand Island. The water is shallow enough to roost in overnight and there’s abundant plant food in local wetlands and waste corn in the cattle fields(*). The cranes spend three to four weeks fattening up for their 3,000 mile journey to their breeding grounds in Canada, Alaska and Siberia.

At dusk and dawn they move to and from the Platte River in spectacular numbers. Their sight and sound is amazing, especially when you’re in a bird blind near the action. They dance with their mates and jump for joy.

I saw their great migration in late March 2004. Before my trip I booked dusk and dawn visits to the bird blinds at the Platte, then I flew to Omaha and drove west to Grand Island and Kearny (pronounced Karney). I didn’t mind the 2.5 hour drive because I wanted to see a piece of the Great Plains and experience this: For over 100 miles there are no cranes at all then suddenly, just as I-80 approaches the Platte River, the sky is filled with them. I’d arrived!

I saw hundreds of thousands of sandhill cranes at dusk and dawn and spent my days at local birding hotspots where my highlights were white pelicans, burrowing owls, lapland longspurs, and a Harris’ sparrow. I had hoped to see a whooping crane but I was too early that year. (Whoopers leave Texas later than the sandhills.)

This 8-minute video from The Crane Trust gives you another view of the spectacle.

Nothing can beat the sandhill cranes’ migration in Nebraska in March! Don’t miss it!

For information on seeing the cranes’ migration visit Nebraska Flyway‘s website with links to Sandhill Viewing, lodging and food, brochures and maps.

(photo credits: cranes at the Platte from Wikimedia Commons, map of crane migration linked from Visit Grand Island, click on the captions to see the originals. YouTube video by The Chicago Tribune)

(*) There’s a connection between beef and cranes: Half a million sandhill cranes get enough to eat in Nebraska because there’s leftover corn in the cattle fields. There are more cattle than humans in Nebraska.

Evening Grosbeaks!

Evening grosbeak and American goldfinch, Nov 2012 (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

When I mentioned Ron Pittaway’s Winter Finch Forecast a month ago, I didn’t list evening grosbeaks because (silly me) I didn’t believe they’d get this far. I was wrong. Evening grosbeaks have made it to western Pennsylvania.  Woo hoo!

Evening grosbeaks (Coccothraustes vespertinus) are stocky yellow, black and white finches with heavy bills for cracking open seeds.  They live year-round in coniferous forests across Canada, the northern Rockies, and the Cascades but move south when seed cones become scarce. This winter is one of those years.

Evening grosbeaks are a very big deal in Pennsylvania. They used to visit regularly in the 1970s but their population is declining, conditions changed, and they stopped coming our way.   Their visits have been extremely spotty and intermittent for four decades. The one pictured above (left) visited Marcy Cunkelman’s feeder in November 2012.  In Mt. Pocono, Pennsylvania they returned to Bruce Johnson’s feeders this month after an absence of 42 years!

The eBird map below (12 Nov 2018) shows where they’ve been seen since September. I added seven purple dots for locations mentioned on PABIRDS that weren’t entered in eBird.  Notice the sightings in Crawford and Erie Counties!

PA evening grosbeak reports as of 12 Nov 2018 (eBird map + PABIRDS reports)

Fill your feeders with black sunflower seed and cross your fingers. Check here for the latest evening grosbeak sightings on eBird (Sep-Dec 2018)

I hope we get lucky!

(photo by Marcy Cunkelman, screenshot of evening grosbeaks sightings Sep-Dec 2018 from eBird + enhanced from PABIRDS reports)