In early summer Pittsburgh birders tire of searching among dense leaves so we travel to Clarion County’s recovered strip mines for grassland birds. Yesterday five of us drove 90 minutes to look for open country birds we’ve found there in the past.
Dickcissels (Spiza americana) are back again this year and easy to find singing on the wires at Concord Church Road. These rare nomads were a Life Bird for me in 2012. Read this vintage article, Dickcissels, for the reason why they to come to western Pennsylvania.
This year’s weather has made for a lackluster spring migration season in southwestern Pennsylvania. It was suddenly warm in late April then surprisingly cold in the second week of May. During the cold spell migrating birds avoided us by traveling along the Atlantic coast or up the Mississippi valley and Great Plains.
Their absence here was noticeable. Other than one spectacular birding day on 6 May the rest of the month has had a good mix of species but few individual birds. I find it bizarre to spend three hours birding in mid May and see/hear just one American redstart (Setophaga ruticilla) or one Tennessee warbler (Leiothlypis peregrina).
But there have been rewards. Last week in Frick Park Charity Kheshgi found a couple of gray-cheeked thrushes and two mourning warblers on two different days. One gray-cheeked thrush perched in the open.
The mourning warblers remained in the shadows. Scroll right to see his eye shine in the third photo.
Brown-headed cowbirds (Molothrus ater) are the blackbird we love to hate.
Well known as a brood parasite, the female cowbird lays her eggs in the nests of smaller birds. The hosts foster her eggs and chicks while their own nestlings die. It’s particularly sad when we see a warbler feeding a cowbird chick knowing that his own nestlings did not survive.
Every once in a while we find a very unusual bird that defies identification.
This one was filmed by pacificnorthwestkate (@pnwkate) at the Delta in Vancouver, BC, Canada on Thursday 6 May 2021. Its chest and belly look like an eastern towhee (Pipilo erythrophthalmus) but its shape, beak, voice and behavior are like a red-winged blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus). The final clue is that he hangs out in marshes with red-winged blackbirds.
As you watch him move and hear him sing you know who he is.
Early May is exciting for Pittsburgh birders as beautiful migratory songbirds arrive in our area. Some come from as far away as South America and are en route to northern Canada. Some stay to nest, others move on. What map are they using? How do they get here?
Much of migration remains a mystery. This list is just a summary of the high points. If you have more to add, please leave a comment!
Basic Onboard Navigation System:
Migratory birds are born with a basic navigation system that improves with experience. First-of-year birds fly south in the fall with these instructions: Fly in [this] direction for [this] long.
Those born with a faulty compass head the wrong way and end up on Rare Bird Alerts.
My Life Bird lark sparrow was found at Seal Harbor, Maine. Though usually a western bird, he flew east instead of south.
After a bird has made the trip just once, it remembers the route and retraces it year after year. The lark sparrow in Seal Harbor showed up every September for the typical life span of a lark sparrow. His compass error didn’t hurt him.
Birds can be thrown off course by bad weather but they have additional navigational aids.
Orienting by polarized light at sunrise and sunset:
Before 2006 scientists knew that birds orient themselves at sunset. Then they learned how.
Researchers from Virginia Tech in Blacksburg and Lund University in Sweden say experiments with savannah sparrows in Alaska show the birds take readings of polarized sunlight at sunrise and sunset and use them to periodically recalibrate their magnetic compasses.
Barred owl, Frick Park, 2 May 2021 (photo by Charity Kheshgi)
Baltimore oriole, Frick Park, 1 May 2021 (photo by Charity Kheshgi)
Chipping sparrow, Frick Park, 2 May 2021 (photo by Charity Kheshgi)
Great-crested flycatcher, Frick Park, 28 April 2021 (photo by Charity Kheshgi)
Northern flicker, Frick Park, 23 April 2021 (photo by Charity Kheshgi)
Blackburnian warbler, Frick Park, 28 April 2021 (photo by Charity Kheshgi)
Purple finch, Frick Park, 2 May 2021 (photo by Charity Kheshgi)
Yellow-rumped warbler, Frick Park, 2 May 2021 (photo by Charity Kheshgi)
Rose-breasted grosbeak, Frick Park, 2 May 2021 (photo by Charity Kheshgi)
Red-winged blackbird, Frick Park, 23 April 2021 (photo by Charity Kheshgi)
Mallard and spotted sandpiper, Duck Hollow, 30 April 2021 (photo by Charity Kheshgi)
Barred owl, Frick Park, 2 May 2021 (photo by Charity Kheshgi)
2 May 2021
Frick Park and adjacent Duck Hollow are two of the hottest birding hotspots in southwestern Pennsylvania. So many birds show up during spring migration that we birders spend hours there in April and May.
Frick’s 644 forested acres are a green oasis halfway through Pittsburgh’s developed metro area. The Monongahela River at Duck Hollow beacons to water and shorebirds while the woods attract songbirds to refuel before continuing north.
The Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy map of Frick Park shows how Duck Hollow (furthest point south) connects to the larger park. The birding is so good in that corridor that I often walk from Duck to Frick. If the two locations were a single hotspot their combined species count would probably surpass 200. Click here to download the Frick Park map.
Charity Kheshgi photographs birds at Frick Park and/or Duck Hollow nearly every day. Her slideshow above includes a few of the birds she saw on the cusp of May. See more by following her on Instagram at https://www.instagram.com/charitykheshgi/
p.s. I was there for the Blackburnian warbler but missed the barred owl because I didn’t visit Frick on 2 May. So many birds, so little time!
Though there were only 11 birds, these “cigars with wings” were the leading edge of the huge flocks heading north. Those who nest in Pittsburgh will pair up quickly and start building nests in early May.
There’s a black bird with red wings in South Africa that resembles North America’s red-winged blackbird except for his outrageously long tail.
The long-tailed widowbird (Euplectes progne) is not related to red-winged blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus). The widowbird is a weaver (Ploceidae), red-wings are New World blackbirds (Icteridae), yet male and female widowbirds have very similar coloring to male and female red-wings. The similarity ends when you see his tail.
His tail is an important part of his courtship flight display.
As loud as blue jays are all year they are very secretive when they nest, so sneaky that it’s hard to find a nest unless you see them build it.
Last week I was lucky to see four pairs of blue jays working on nests in Schenley Park. Both participate in the project though the male does more gathering while the female does more shaping.
Each phase of nest construction uses different materials. You can assess a pair’s progress by noting what they gather.
The outer shell is made of strong fresh twigs which they yank from live trees.
The middle may include bark, moss, lichen, dry leaves, grasses, mud, bits of paper, cloth, string or plastic.
The cup lining is made of tough rootlets and sometimes wet, partially decomposed leaves.
I found a pair in Schenley Park working on the outer shell when I noticed a blue jay vigorously pulling on a long twig until it broke from the tree. He flew up to a crotch in a nearby tree where his lady was waiting to add it to the foundation.
Two blue jays jousted over this valuable mud puddle. One held a muddy clump in his beak while he chased the other away. The second jay persisted.
Others pulled rootlets from an overturned tree, apparently in the final stage of construction.
Blue jays will travel 1,000 feet to gather nest material and even more for good rootlets, so I wasn’t surprised when I lost track of them when they flew away.