Category Archives: Songbirds

Seen On Laurel Mountain

Canada warbler, Laurel Mtn, 9 June 2024 (photo by Charity Kheshgi)

15 June 2024

During spring warbler migration I try to see as many species as possible as they pass through Pennsylvania and Ohio. Unfortunately, I missed some of my favorites this year, most notably the Canada warbler (Cardellina canadensis), so Charity Kheshgi and I went to Laurel Mountain last Sunday to find them on their breeding grounds.

The air was filled with veery (Catharus fuscescens) songs when we arrived at Laurel Summit State Park.

We thought we’d be able to see at least one of the two Canada warblers we heard singing along Spruce Bog Trail, but not. However, we got lucky on the Picnic Trail when the bird pictured above and below approached us making his warning call.

Canada warbler, Laurel Mtn, 9 June 2024 (photo by Charity Kheshgi)

Here’s an example of what he sounded like:

There was plentiful shade in the forest, but that made the birds harder to see. This ovenbird (Seiurus aurocapilla) is nicely lit but still in the dark.

Ovenbird, Laurel Mtn, 9 June 2024 (photo by Charity Kheshgi)

We found other delights on the mountain. A tiger swallowtail butterfly sipped nectar from pitcher plant flowers at Spruce Bog.

Tiger swallowtail at pitcher plant flowers, Spruce Bog, Laurel Mtn, 9 June 2024 (photo by Kate St. John)

Pennsylvania’s state flower, mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia), was in bloom.

Mountain laurel in bloom, Laurel Summit State Park, 9 June 2024 (photo by Kate St. John)

This trillium gone to seed showed well in dappled sunlight.

Trillium gone to seed, Laurel Mtn, 9 June 2024 (photo by Kate St. John)

We heard more birds than we could see, ultimately tallying 24 species in our checklist here.

Little Bird Attacks Big

Blue-gray gnatcatcher attacks peregrine fledgling, Cleveland Zoo, June 2021 (photo by Chad+Chris Saladin)

11 June 2024

During the breeding season birds try to drive predators away from their nests and young. Though small birds aren’t equipped with sharp beaks and talons, they relentlessly dive bomb raptors to make them leave the area.

In June 2021, Chad+Chris Saladin filmed a pair of blue-gray gnatcatchers (Polioptila caerulea) attacking a recently fledged young peregrine at the Cleveland Zoo. Gnatcatchers are really small so they barely ruffle a peregrine’s feathers.

Blue-gray gnatcatcher (photo by Steve Gosser)
Blue-gray gnatcatcher (photo by Steve Gosser)

But the young peregrine was so new to flying that she wanted to stay put for a while. One of the gnatcatchers pecked her head. “Hey!”

Blue-gray gnatcatcher attacking peregrine fledgling, Cleveland Zoo, June 2021 (photo by Chad+Chris Saladin)

Watch the encounter in this video by Chad+Chris Saladin. Chris explains what’s going on to passersby.

(video embedded from Chad+Chris Saladin on YouTube)

You may see chickadees attack blue jays, blue jays attack crows and red-winged blackbirds attack just about anything. This is the time of year when Little attacks Big.

UPDATE on the Pitt Peregrines: Yesterday, 10 June 2024, I was happy to find all four peregrines at the Cathedral of Learning at 12:15pm. Ecco was on camera on the green perch, Carla was on a stone peak at 38NW, one of the juvies was eating on the southwest dining ledge (approx 28th floor) and the other was on a grommet at 25SE. (The adults never perch on the grommets.) The Pitt peregrine juvies have been flying for more than a week now and are learning valuable skills.

Crowded Nest But A Mother Can Dream

Sitting Room Nuthatches have a full house, 30 May 2024 (screenshot from WildlifeKate (@katemacrae)

7 June 2024

We last caught up with WildlifeKate’s (@katemacrae) Sitting Room Nuthatches just after their eggs hatched on 13 May. You may remember them as the tenants who yanked out the decorations, added mud to the walls, and filled the room with dried leaves at Gwyllt Hollow, Wales.

By 30 May the youngsters had grown so large that the apartment was very, very crowded.

The crowding didn’t last long. They all left the nest.

screenshot from Live Feed of Sitting Room Nuthatches on 7 June 2024 (from WildlifeKate (@katemacrae)

From harried mother to empty nest, the kids grow up so fast!

p.s. these are Eurasian nuthatches (Sitta europaea).

Seen This Week

Kentucky warbler, Harrison Hills Park, 27 May 2024 (photo by Charity Kheshgi)

1 June 2024

This week was “All Peregrines All The Time” with a notable exception.

On Memorial Day Charity Kheshgi and I wanted to see a Kentucky warbler (Geothlypis formosa) so we went to Harrison Hills Park where they breed. It didn’t take long to hear one singing in an extensive thicket along the Pond Trail but we could not see him. We waited patiently for him to appear.

What an elusive bird! We never saw him fly from one end of the thicket to the other though he did it many times. He even flew, unseen, over the trail we were standing on. We must have waited half an hour before we got a glimpse of him in the shadows.

Kentucky warbler, Harrison Hills Park, 27 May 2024 (photo by Charity Kheshgi)

And then he perched and sang (photo at top). Ta dah! A Life Bird Photo for Charity.

We also saw an eastern wood-pewee (Contopus virens) building a nest.

Eastern wood-pewee with nesting material, Harrison Hills Park, 27 May 2024 (photo by Charity Kheshgi)

She had already decorated the exterior with lichen …

Eastern wood-pewee nest in progress, Harrison Hills Park, 27 May 2024 (photo by Charity Kheshgi)

… and was now working on the nest lining. She placed material inside the cup and used her belly to form the interior.

Eastern wood-pewee building nest, Harrison Hills Park, 27 May 2024 (photo by Charity Kheshgi)

Her mate sang “Pee Wee” in the woods nearby.

Birds of the World says the “female often gives a plaintive, two-noted wee-ooo when nest building” but we didn’t hear that sound. She was busy.

The Tenants Have a Family

banner from Gwyllt Hollow Sitting Room Nuthatches

17 May 2024

In early April WildlifeKate (@katemacrae) introduced us to a pair of Eurasian nuthatches (Sitta europaea) who were remodeling a nestbox she’d provided at Gwyllt Hollow in southern Wales.

The sitting room was beautiful before they yanked out the decorations, added mud to the walls, and filled the room with dried leaves up to the chair rail.

Before remodeling: screenshot from April 09 video from WildlifeKate at Gwyllt Hollow

Having built the nest to their liking the female laid eggs that hatched last Sunday 12 May. (yes there’s a rooster on the sound track.)

video embedded from WildlifeKate at Gwyllt Hollow

This pair now has a large and hungry family.

video embedded from WildlifeKate at Gwyllt Hollow

The chicks are growing fast. As of this morning their eyes are still closed.

Watch the live feed at Gwyllt Hollow – Sitting Room Nuthatches. See the adults hand off food to feed their growing the family.

NOTE: This live stream is 5 hours ahead of U.S. Eastern Time.

Have You Seen Any Nighthawks?

Common nighthawk, Tower Grove Park, Oct 2020 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

16 May 2024

When I was a kid in the 1960s common nighthawks (Chordeiles minor) were so common that they attracted my notice and inspired my love for birds. In the late 1970s many flew above my neighborhood on summer nights, hawking moths over the Magee Field ballpark lights. In the 1990s their population began a steep decline and by the late 2000s I noticed it in my neighborhood. This year I haven’t seen a nighthawk yet. Their decline has gotten worse in the last 20 years.

Nighthawks are nightjars and they are all in trouble including whip-poor-wills and chuck-wills-widow.

How many nighthawks are left? Where are they now?

You can help answer these questions by participating in the 2024 Nightjar Survey conducted by the Center for Conservation Biology(*).

The survey window for the entire continental US opened yesterday, running from 15 May to 30 May.

Nightjar Survey Locations during 15 May — 30 May Window

Interestingly you only have to count nighthawks by the light of the moon because they call more often when the moon is shining. The next full moon is 23 May, right in the middle of the survey period.

Rainbow around the nearly full moon, North Park, Pittsburgh, 16 March 2022, 8:01pm

Check out the survey instructions PDF here or on their website at nightjars.org. (*)Update on 18 May: The nightjars.org website is temporarily unreachable.

Read more about the decline of nighthawks in this vintage article from 2009.

p.s. I participated in the nightjar survey with Michelle Kienholz in 2018. The maximum number we counted at any one stop was only two.

See survey results from all years here.

Putting Fluff to Good Use

Warbling vireo using cottonwood fluff to build its nest in St. Louis, MO, 19 May 2019 (photo by Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren via Wikimedia Commons)

12 May 2024

Eastern cottonwoods (Populus deltoides) rely on the wind for both pollination and seed dispersal. In the spring the male and female trees each produce an inflorescence.

The males produce catkins which drop off the tree when the pollen is gone. The females produce flowers whose seeds are embedded in fluff to carry them away on the wind.

Eastern cottonwood inflorescences: male and female (photos from Wikimedia Commons)

By the time the cottonwoods have gone to seed warbling vireos (Vireo gilvus) have returned to the trees on the shore of Lake Erie. Though the birds look nondescript their song is the sound that fills the air in the parking lot at Magee Marsh in May.

Yesterday at Presque Isle State Park we watched a warbling vireo building a nest in a cottonwood. The nest is a cup that hangs from the fork of two small branches. Both sexes help build it.

Warbling Vireo on nest, Ruby Mountains, Nevada

In s. Ontario [the region of Lake Erie], nest exteriors fashioned with insect and spider silk and cocoons, paper and string, and bits of birch bark; exterior walls composed of grasses, plant fibers, bark strips, plant down, hair, leaves, fine twigs, lichens, and rootlets. Linings were fine grasses, pine needles, plant fibers, rootlets, feathers, and leaves.

Birds of the World: Warbling vireo account

Warbling vireos put the fluff to good use.

p.s. Here’s a mnemonic to help you remember their song:

 The mnemonic of “If I see you, I will seize you, and I’ll squeeze you till you squirt!” is very useful in identifying and remembering this bird’s song.

While easily heard, the Warbling Vireo can be difficult to spot. They tend to perch themselves high in treetops. When they are seen, this common bird is often described as “nondescript”.

— from Indiana Audubon description of warbling vireo

Don’t Miss These Birds!

7 May 2024

If you’re wondering whether to go birding, don’t wait! Spring migration has been exceptionally good in the past few days migration. The slideshow, above, shows just a few of the 58 species Charity Kheshgi and I saw at Schenley and Frick Parks on Sunday 5 May.

The birds are here right now and they’re fairly easy to see despite the early leaf cover. They’re on the move. Don’t miss them. It’s time to get outdoors!

p.s. Did you notice that the first two birds in the slideshow are “Nashville” and “Tennessee” ?

(photos by Charity Kheshgi)

Best Warbler This Week

Brewster’s warbler, Tower Grove Park, May 2014 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

4 May 2024

As I mentioned on Thursday morning, I spent a few days this week at Magee Marsh boardwalk where I experienced the quiet days before The Biggest Week in American Birding. On Thursday 2 May the weather was great, there were more birds to see, and there were 5 times as many people compared to Tuesday. That’s when I re-learned the advantages of birding with a (small) crowd.

I happened to be on a quiet section of the boardwalk when I noticed a crowd forming ahead. Many people were focusing binoculars and cameras at the spot where two guides were pointing and explaining a bird. I rushed over to find out what was up.

On my first look at the bird, I thought “golden-winged warbler” because of its yellow wing, yellow crown, and whitish chest (see example at top), but something wasn’t quite right. Word was spreading through the crowd that this was a Brewster’s warbler, the hybrid offspring of golden-winged x blue-winged warblers. Though not technically a species, for me it was a Life Bird.

The big difference between a Brewster’s and a golden-winged is that the Brewster’s looks pale with a white throat (not black) and a black eyeline (not a wider face patch). Here’s a side-by-side comparison of a male golden-winged warbler vs. a Brewster’s warbler.

Compare male golden-winged warbler to Brewster’s warbler hybrid (photos from Wikimedia Commons)

This diagram embedded from Cornell Lab’s All About Birds shows the warbler’s parents on the left and the Brewster’s in the top right corner. The parents can also produce another variation: a Lawrence’s warbler (bottom right) which I have never seen. Click on the caption to read about their genetics.

I left Magee Marsh yesterday morning while it was raining steadily so I missed the Brewster’s reappearance but my friend Kathy Saunders saw him on 3 May in the same place as the day before.

Yay! Best Bird!

(credits are in the captions)

Playing Music With Birds

28 April 2024

Now that the breeding season is here the air is filled with birdsong from dawn to dusk. Birds sing to claim territory and attract a mate, but they also appear to sing for the joy of joining others in song. Is the dawn chorus actually a community performance?

In the 1920s British cellist Beatrice Harrison discovered that when she played her cello in the garden the birds responded, approached, and sang along.

Europe’s great songster, the common nightingale, was especially drawn to join her performance. (Click here for the nightingale’s song.)

Common nightingale, singing (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

In 1924 the BBC recorded her playing in the garden with a nightingale joining in.

video embedded from Kall48 on YouTube

Fast forward to modern times. Two decades ago in Chicago, musician Lisa Rest lived in a third floor apartment whose windows were level with the tree canopy. On warm days she played her piano with the window open and eventually noticed that birds approached her window and sang while she was practicing.

Because Lisa has perfect pitch she could tell the birds were singing in key with her music. Soon she became interested in birds, continued playing music with them, and started a blog named Goldbird Variations. The birds were especially drawn when she played Bach’s Goldberg Variations.

Read how her journey began at her blog post below or click here to listen to Aria to the Goldberg by Lisa Rest in which she’s accompanied by house sparrow, house finch, white-throated sparrow and northern cardinal.

Nowadays Lisa Rest often goes birding and blogs about birds and the changing seasons. Catch up with her at Goldbird Variations (https://musicbirdblog.com/).

For more information about Beatrice Harrison and the nightingales see The Cello and Nightingale Sessions at publicradio.org.

(credits are in the captions)