Category Archives: Songbirds

Reprise of Grassland Birds

Dickcissel in Clarion County, June 2012 (photo by Robert Greene, Jr)

24 June 2021

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.

At Piney Tract (actually a grassland) we saw Henslow’s sparrows (Centronyx henslowii) …

Henslow’s sparrow, Clarion County, Summer 2011 (photo by Steve Gosser)

and heard them …

And we saw a grasshopper sparrow (Ammodramus savannarum) singing …

Grasshopper sparrow, June 2017 (photo by Steve Gosser)

… but I could not hear him because I’ve lost the upper frequencies. Can you hear the really loud trill of this grasshopper sparrow?

We also looked for upland sandpipers (Bartramia longicauda) but, alas, they were not there. Seven years ago I saw four of these Magical birds at Mt. Airy.

Interested in exploring the Clarion County’s grasslands? Check out two locations plus photos in this vintage article: In The Scrubby Fields.

(photos by Robert Greene, Jr and Steve Gosser)

The Most Beautiful Song

Wood thrush singing (photo by Shawn Collins)

13 June 2021

Right now Schenley Park is full of singing wood thrushes. In recent days I’ve counted a dozen every time I walk the trails.

On Friday morning, 11 June, this wood thrush sang his heart out at the Bartlett end of Panther Hollow. It’s the most beautiful song in Schenley Park.

Get outdoors now to hear the wood thrushes. They will stop singing in July.

(photo by Shawn Collins, recording by Kate St. John)

Few Migrating Birds But Some Rewards

Gray-cheeked thrush, Frick Park, 21 May 2021 (photo by Charity Kheshgi)

23 May 2021

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.

Gray-cheeked thrush among leaves, 21 May 2021 (photo by Charity Kheshgi)

The mourning warblers remained in the shadows. Scroll right to see his eye shine in the third photo.

And it’s baby season for robins. Cuteness is its own reward.

p.s. Today (and yesterday) there was an olive-sided flycatcher in Frick Park. Click here to se a photo of one that Charity Kheshgi saw at Presque Isle.

(photos by Charity Kheshgi)

The Passerine Chicken

Female (top) and male cowbird (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

20 May 2021

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.

Brown-headed cowbird chick fostered by common yellowthroat warbler (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

According to Birds of Stanford only 3% of cowbird eggs make it to adulthood but this is achieved by flooding the market with cowbird eggs.

One brown-headed cowbird egg among 5 of an eastern phoebe’s (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

An average female cowbird can lay 40 eggs per season, usually one per nest, from mid-or-late April to mid-July. She doesn’t have a physical boundary between clutches, no regression of ovaries to shut off egg laying between clutches, so she just keeps going. This has lead ornithologists to characterize female cowbirds as “passerine chickens.”

Considering her output the female brown-headed cowbird is the white leghorn chicken of songbirds. Fortunately she doesn’t lay as many eggs as a leghorn, 300 per year!

(photos from Wikimedia Commons; click on the captions to see the originals)

Color Is Not The Only Clue

Screenshot from video tweet by pacificnorthwestkate

14 May 2021

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.

A commenter on the tweet remarked that this bird has been frequenting the Delta for about three years now. Speculation is that he’s leucistic rather than hybrid.

When you identify birds, color is not the only clue!

(tweet and screenshot from pacificnorthwestkate @pnwkate)

How Do They Get Here?

Canada Warbler at Schenley Park, 25 May 2019 (photo by Kuldeep Singh)

5 May 2021

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.

Experience:

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.

“Seeing” Earth’s Magnetic Field:

European robin (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

There’s evidence that birds can “see” Earth’s magnetic field to help them navigate, though we’re not sure how. A 2018 study of European robins and zebra finches reported that a cryptochrome protein in their eyes (Cry4) helps them see the blue light associated with magnetism. Cry4 increases during migration season and ebbs thereafter. Intriguing!

Orienting by polarized light at sunrise and sunset:

Savannah sparrow in Juneau, Alaska (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

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.

The Baltimore Sun: Sunlight is key for Bird migration

Navigating by smell:

Gray catbird (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Birds even use their sense of smell! A study of gray catbirds in 2009 showed that those who’d made the trip before used smell to course-correct.

How do they get here? It’s even more amazing than we thought!

To learn more, click the embedded links above.

(photos by Kuldeep Singh, Suunto, and Wikimedia Commons; click on the captions to see the originals)

Frick Park on the Cusp of May

  • 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.

screenshot of Pittsburgh, PA regional map, google.com

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.

screenshot of Frick Park map from Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy. Click here to download the 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!

(photos by Charity Kheshgi, maps from Google and Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy)

Chimney Swifts Are Back In Town

Chimney swifts illustration from Crossley ID Guide to Eastern Birds via Wikimedia Commons

29 April 2021

Yesterday a small flock of chimney swifts (Chaetura pelagica) returned to my city neighborhood and swirled to roost in the Cathedral Mansions chimney.

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.

How do chimney swifts court and build nests? Check out these Fun Facts About Cigars With Wings.

Chimney swift in hand at banding (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Red-Winged Black Bird in South Africa?

Long-tailed widowbird, South Africa (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

16 April 2021

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.

Long-tailed widowbird, male and female, South Africa (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

His tail is an important part of his courtship flight display.

Long-tailed widowbird in flight (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

In the video he briefly lands near a female on the ground.

Female long-tailed widowbirds don’t have long tails but they must exert a lot of selective pressure for the longest tailed males.

That tail doesn’t look like a safe accessory. I’m sure some females are widowed during the breeding season. 😉

(photos from Wikimedia Commons)

Blue Jays Building Nests

Blue jay gathering nesting material (photo by Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren via Wikimedia Commons)

11 April 2021

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.

Valuable nesting material in a puddle, Schenley Park, 9 April 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

Others pulled rootlets from an overturned tree, apparently in the final stage of construction.

Blue jays gather rootlets like these to line their nests (photo by Kate St. John)

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.

Learn more about blue jay (Cyanocitta cristata) nesting in this 11 minute video by Lesley The Bird Nerd. Then watch closely as they gather nesting material. Perhaps you’ll find the nest.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons and Kate St. John)