Category Archives: Songbirds

Count Nightjars By The Light Of The Moon

Common nighthawk (photo by Chuck Tague)
Common nighthawk (photo by Chuck Tague)

Next week the last survey window opens for counting nightjars by the light of the moon. It’s a fun way to go birding on a moonlit night — June 20 to July 6, 2018.

Nightjars are a worldwide family of nocturnal/crepuscular birds that eat flying insects on the wing.   They have long wings, short legs, short bills and very wide mouths. Two of these cryptically-colored species are found in Pennsylvania:

  • Common nighthawk (Chordeiles minor), in flight above, breeds in cities and open habitat, grasslands, dunes.
  • Eastern whip-poor-will (Antrostomus vociferus), roosting below, breeds in forests near open areas.
Whip-poor-will, 2014 (photo by Cris Hamilton)
Whip-poor-will, 2014 (photo by Cris Hamilton)

Both populations are in steep decline and so are other nightjars in North America. Scientists don’t know why and they need more data.  That’s where we come in.

The Center for Conservation Biology set up the Nightjar Survey Network to collect population data about these birds. Their website describes how it works:

Nightjar surveys are easy to perform and will not take more than two hours to complete. Volunteers conduct roadside counts at night, on scheduled bright moonlit nights, by driving and stopping at 10 points along a predetermined 9-mile route. At each point, the observer counts all Nightjars seen or heard during a 6-minute period.

Wait for a moonlit night, drive your route, stop and listen. Count by sound!  Click here for their voices.

Register for the Nightjar Survey Network here, then select or create your own 9-mile route. For more information see http://www.nightjars.org

The Nightjar Survey needs volunteers across the continent — not just in Pennsylvania.  Here are the species to count.

  • Antillean nighthawk
  • Buff-collared nightjar
  • Chuck-wills-widow (named for its call)
  • Common nighthawk (named for its behavior)
  • Common pauraque
  • Common poorwill (named for its call)
  • Lesser nighthawk
  • Eastern whip-poor-will (named for its call)
  • Mexican whip-poor-will

 

p.s. While you’re out there you might hear owls. 🙂

(photo credits: common nighthawk in flight by Chuck Tague; roosting whip-poor-will by Cris Hamilton)

Purple Martins Sing

Purple martin male, singing near his nest, Chicago (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Purple martin male, singing near his nest, Chicago (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

We don’t think of swallows as songbirds but indeed they do sing.  Our largest swallow, the purple martin (Progne subis), has a unique sound that carries far.  With practice, you can recognize their voices even when you can’t see them.

Purple martins nest communally so the best place to learn their song is near a purple martin colony.

As you approach you’ll hear them singing as they fly, a liquid gurgling warble with throaty chirps.  (This in-flight recording, Xeno Canto XC13689 by Chris Parrish, includes other bird songs in the background.)

 

In early summer near their nests, you’ll hear songs, creaky rattles and the sound of begging juveniles. (Purple martins vocalizing near their nest, including begging calls of young, from Xeno Canto XC139568 by Russ Wigh)

 

The throaty, gurgling chirps are unique to purple martins.  When you hear it overhead, look for a nearby colony and go see the swallows sing.

For more sound samples visit the purple martin sound page at All About Birds.

 

(photo from Wikimedia Commons; click on the image to see the original.  Audio from Xeno Canto; click the links for the original recording pages)

It’s Warbler Time!

Blackburnian warbler (photo by Steve Gosser)
Blackburnian warbler (photo by Steve Gosser)

In early May it’s warbler time!

This is the Biggest Week in American Birding in northwestern Ohio and I’m not going to miss it.  I expect to see my favorite warbler, the Blackburnian (Setophaga fusca) above, and up to five warblers whose names are out of place in Ohio.

The birds listed below were named for the location where a scientist first described them though they were on migration at the time.   The name tells you more about the ornithologist’s travel schedule than it does about the bird.

Tennessee warbler (Oreothlypis peregrina).  From Birds of North America Online:

“Described by Alexander Wilson in 1811 from a migrant specimen on the banks of Tennessee’s Cumberland River, its common name belies the fact that its breeding range is restricted almost entirely to the boreal forest zone of Canada, southeastern Alaska and the extreme northern fringe of the U.S.”

Tennessee warbler (photo by Donna Foyle)
Tennessee warbler (photo by Donna Foyle)

Nashville warbler (Oreothlypis ruficapilla):  Found by Alexander Wilson in Nashville in 1811, and so named.

Nashville Warbler at Magee Marsh (photo by Brian Herman)
Nashville Warbler at Magee Marsh (photo by Brian Herman)

Kentucky warbler (Geothlypis formosa). Named by Alexander Wilson in 1811 while he was in Kentucky.

Kentucky warbler (photo by Tony Bruno)
Kentucky warbler (photo by Tony Bruno)

The elusive Connecticut warbler (Oporornis agilis) is so hard to find in the spring that Steve Gosser’s photo below is from September 2013. Alexander Wilson first saw one in autumn, too. From Birds of North America Online:

Alexander Wilson first described this species in 1812 and named it after the state of Connecticut, where he collected the first specimen, a fall migrant. The common name is something of a misnomer, however, because the species does not breed in Connecticut, nor is it a common migrant there.

Connecticut warbler in western PA, September 2013 (photo by Steve Gosser)
Connecticut warbler in western PA, September 2013 (photo by Steve Gosser)

And finally, the Cape May warbler (Setophaga tigrina) was one of the last birds Alexander Wilson described. He found it at Cape May, New Jersey in May 1813. He died three months later at age 47.  From Birds of North America Online:

“Its English name refers to the locality from which Alexander Wilson first described the species— Cape May, New Jersey—where it was not recorded again for more than 100 years .”

Cape May warbler (photo by Bobby Greene)
Cape May warbler (photo by Bobby Greene)

If I’d named the warblers for my first sightings they’d be Ohio warbler, Magee Marsh warbler, Maumee Bay warbler, and Ottawa (county) warbler.

It’s warbler time in Ohio!

 

(photo credits: Steve Gosser, Donna Foyle, Brian Herman, Tony Bruno, Bobby Greene)

The Warblers Are Coming!

American redstart (photo by Tony Bruno)
American redstart (photo by Tony Bruno)

The warblers are coming!  In fact the second wave is already here.

Ten days ago I listed four new arrivals: Louisiana waterthrush, yellow-throated warbler, pine warbler and yellow-rumped warbler.

This week brought in five more beauties, illustrated in photos by Tony Bruno and Steve Gosser.  I saw most of them at Enlow Fork (SGL 302), just 45 air miles south of Pittsburgh.  I’m sure they’ll be in town this weekend.

American redstart (Setophaga ruticilla), at top.  Black, white and orange, as soon as the redstarts arrive they’re easy to find because they’re hyperactive and just above eye level.  We saw 10 of them at Enlow Fork yesterday, April 26.

Northern parula (Setophaga americana), below. Smaller and slower moving than a redstart, parulas are usually in the tops of the trees, especially sycamores. We were lucky to see one at eye level at Enlow Fork.

Northern parula (photo by Steve Gosser)
Northern parula (photo by Steve Gosser)

Palm warbler (Setophaga palmarum), below:  This warbler is easier to identify that you’d think because he pumps his tail and is willing to walk on the ground. I found him on the grass at Frick Park.

Palm warbler (photo by Steve Gosser)
Palm warbler (photo by Steve Gosser)

Black-throated green warbler (Setophaga virens), below. Usually found at mid-height in the trees, he sometimes hovers like a redstart to glean insects from the leaves. Enlow Fork.

Black-throated green warbler (photo by Steve Gosser)
Black-throated green warbler (photo by Steve Gosser)

Common yellowthroat (Geothlypis trichas), below:  This one like to hide in thick bushes so we heard him before we saw him — and then just caught a glimpse.  “Witchity, Witchity, Witchity” at Enlow Fork.

Common yellowthroat (photo by Steve Gosser)
Common yellowthroat (photo by Steve Gosser)

There are plenty of opportunities to see warblers this Sunday April 29.  Click the links for details:

It’s time to get outdoors.  The warblers are coming!

 

(photo credits: American redstart by Tony Bruno; all other warblers by Steve Gosser)

 

Good News You May Have Missed

Hermit thrush (photo by Steve Gosser)
Hermit thrush (photo by Steve Gosser)

After a turbulent week for Pittsburgh’s peregrines, here’s some good news you may have missed.

Spring migration is bringing new birds to Pittsburgh almost every day.

Wednesday’s new arrival (for me) was a hermit thrush at Bird Park in Mt. Lebanon, illustrated by Steve Gosser’s photo above.

On Thursday morning birders discovered that huge flocks of migrating buffleheads, scaup, horned grebes and Bonaparte’s gulls had landed on Pittsburgh’s rivers Wednesday night.  This phenomenon, called a “fallout,” was a one day wonder.  Most of the birds left that evening.

And songbirds that arrived last weekend are still here.  Check out more good news in Tuesday’s article: New Birds In Town.

 

(photo by Steve Gosser)

New Birds In Town

Louisiana waterthrush (photo by Anthony Bruno)
Louisiana waterthrush (photo by Anthony Bruno)

April 17, 2018: Despite this morning’s snow …

Last weekend’s warm weather and south winds brought migrating birds to western Pennsylvania.

Here are some of the new arrivals, illustrated in photos by Tony Bruno, Steve Gosser and Don Weiss. My descriptions include the locations where I saw the birds last weekend in case you’d like to look for them.

Louisiana waterthrush (Parkesia motacilla) at top: Found along clean, rushing streams. This bird bobs his tail even when standing still. Walks the water’s edge. Perches just above eye level when he sings. At Cedar Creek Park and Walker Park.

Yellow-throated warbler (Setophaga dominica) below: Found near creeks and often in sycamores. Walks on the trunk and large branches, often quite high. At Raccoon Creek Wildflower Reserve and Walker Park.

Yellow-throated warbler (photo by Anthony Bruno)
Yellow-throated warbler (photo by Anthony Bruno)

 

Pine warbler (Setophaga pinus) below: Slow-moving warbler who favors pines but can be found in any tree on migration. Walks on the trunk and large branches. At Snead’s.

Pine warbler (photo by Anthony Bruno)
Pine warbler (photo by Anthony Bruno)

 

Yellow-rumped warbler (Setophaga coronata) below: An active warbler with a tiny dark vest and yellow rump. Flits among smaller branches.  Seen at Walker Park, but found nearly everywhere during migration.  This bright-colored bird is male. The females are brown where this one is black.

Yellow-rumped warbler (photo by Steve Gosser)
Yellow-rumped warbler (photo by Steve Gosser)

 

Ruby-crowned kinglet (Regulus calendula) below:  Not a warbler but can be confused due to its similar size. Very hyperactive. Flits and hovers among small branches.  You’ll find this bird nearly everywhere on migration.  By the way, ruby-crowned kinglets stay all winter in eastern Pennsylvania.

Ruby-crowned kinglet (photo by Steve Gosser)
Ruby-crowned kinglet (photo by Steve Gosser)

 

Swallows and chimney swifts:  If you’re desperate to see swallows and swifts in the spring, stop by a sewage treatment plant.  The nutrient rich outflow spawns flying insects that these birds eat on the wing. I saw my first tree swallows (Tachycineta bicolor) along Route 65 near the McKees Rocks Bridge, just downstream from Alcosan.

Tree swallow (photo by Don Weiss)
Tree swallow (photo by Don Weiss)

 

Winter wren (Troglodytes hiemalis) below:  “Winter” is passing through. Petite with striped flanks and a tiny cocked tail.  Look for him poking for insects among fallen logs and rocky outcrops.  Nests north of Pittsburgh and in the Laurel Highlands.  Seen at Schenley Park, Raccoon Wildflower Reserve and Walker Park.

Winter wren (photo by Steve Gosser)
Winter wren (photo by Steve Gosser)

 

If it hadn’t turned cold, it would be a good week to get outdoors.

 

(photos by Tony Bruno, Steve Gosser and Don Weiss)

I’m A Tanager


(video by Daniel CR on YouTube)

With their big orange bills the slate-colored grosbeaks I saw in Panama must certainly be related to northern cardinals, right?

Slate-colored grosbeak, northern cardinal (photos from Wikimedia Commons)
Slate-colored grosbeak, northern cardinal (photos from Wikimedia Commons)

They also sound like cardinals. (recording of slate-colored grosbeak in Panama Xeno-canto XC354030 by William Adsett)

But are they related?  No, they’re not.

Slate-colored grosbeaks used to be classed in the cardinal family (Cardinalidae) but DNA studies show that Saltator grossus is in the tanager (Thraupidae) family instead.

Don’t be fooled, “I’m a tanager.”

 

(video by Daniel CR on YouTube; photos from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the names to see the original photos: slate-colored grosbeak, northern cardinal)

Where Are They Now?

Ruby-throated hummingbird (photo by Steve Gosser)
Ruby-throated hummingbird (photo by Steve Gosser)

Despite the cold weather a ruby-throated hummingbird arrived in eastern Pennsylvania this week.  He appeared April 2 on the hummingbirds migration map.

Observers in North America enter their first spring sightings of male ruby-throats at the hummingbirds.net website and their entries populate the map.

This screenshot taken at 5am April 5, 2018 shows the northernmost pioneers are in New Jersey and the Delaware watershed.

Spring 2018 (zoomed) map of Ruby-throated hummingbird migration as of 4/4/2018 (screenshot from hummingbirds.net)
Spring 2018 (zoomed) map of Ruby-throated hummingbird migration as of 4/4/2018 (screenshot from hummingbirds.net)

Hummingbirds move north when it’s warm but this spring’s weather has held them back.  In 2012 it was so hot that they’d already reached Minnesota by now (click here to see).

Follow their migration on the hummingbirds.net map.  Enter your own first sighting at this link.

Where are they now?  Check the map to see.

 

(photo by Steve Gosser, screenshot of map from www.hummingbirds.net)

p.s. Thanks to Donna Foyle for sending this news.

Tanagers Galore!

Crimson-backed tanager (photo by Francesco Veronesi via Wikimedia Commons)
Crimson-backed tanager (photo by Francesco Veronesi via Wikimedia Commons)

Before I left for Panama I wondered, Would I see any new tanagers there?  I’d been to Costa Rica all the way to the Panama border so surely every tanager would be the same.  Not so!

60% of all tanagers (Thraupidae) live in South America.  Some of the southern birds have seeped into eastern Panama because it borders Colombia.  Those that prefer South America don’t make it to Costa Rica because the topography and habitat change in western Panama.  Eight of my 97 Life Birds in Panama were tanagers.

Here are just a few of the most colorful tanagers we saw last week.   Some of them occur in Costa Rica and one of them, the bay-headed tanager, was a Life Bird for me last year.

The crimson backed tanager (Ramphocelus dimidiatus), at top, shows a flash of red from below.  His beak stands out because the lower mandible is bright blue-white.  He reminds me of Costa Rica’s Cherrie’s tanager.

In Cerro Azul we saw lots of shining honeycreepers (Cyanerpes lucidus) at the hummingbird feeders.  Check out those bright yellow legs!

Shining honeycreeper (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Shining honeycreeper (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

 

Gray-headed tanagers (Eucometis penicillata) are even prettier than this.  Their backs are the color of green olives.

Gray-headed tanagers in Columbia (photo by Julian Londono from Wikimedia Commons)
Gray-headed tanagers in Columbia (photo by Julian Londono from Wikimedia Commons)

 

Bay-headed tanagers (Tangara gyrola) are as colorful as painted buntings. I first saw this bird in Costa Rica but he’s worth a second look.

Bay-headed tanager (photo by Dominic Sherony via Wikimedia Commons)
Bay-headed tanager (photo by Dominic Sherony via Wikimedia Commons)

 

This flame-rumped tanager’s (Ramphocelus flammigerus) yellow color is a regional characteristic in Panama.  He used to be called the lemon-rumped tanager for obvious reasons but he was lumped with flame-rumped tanagers because they interbreed. His Colombian relatives have bright orange-red rumps.

Lemon-rumped tanager (photo by Francesco Veronesi via Wikimedia Commons)
Lemon-rumped tanager (photo by Francesco Veronesi via Wikimedia Commons)

 

And finally, the white-shouldered tanager (Tachyphonus luctuosus) resembles a red-winged blackbird but his beak shows us he’s not in the blackbird family.

White-shouldered tanager (photo by Francesco Veronesi via Wikimedia Commons)
White-shouldered tanager (photo by Francesco Veronesi via Wikimedia Commons)

In Panama there are tanagers galore!

 

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

Splitting Scrub Jays

Woodhouse's Scrub Jay (from the Crossley ID Guide via Wikimedia Commons)
Woodhouse’s Scrub Jay (from the Crossley ID Guide via Wikimedia Commons)

I got a new Life Bird two years ago and didn’t even know it.

In 2016 the American Ornithological Union split the western scrub jay into two species:  the California scrub jay (Aphelocoma californica) whose West Coast range extends from Washington state to Baja California, and Woodhouse’s scrub jay (Aphelocoma woodhouseii) that lives in the interior Southwest from southern Idaho to southern Mexico.

Woodhouse’s is pictured above, California scrub jay below.

California scrub jay (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
California scrub jay (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

I finally learned of the split last month but it wasn’t in my eBird records.  Duh!  I hadn’t entered my “western” scrub jay sightings from Nevada.  When I did I got a new Life Bird at Red Rock Canyon.

Splitting is nothing new to scrub jays.  The Aphelocoma genus is particularly likely to change and already has split many times.

Since 1995 the “western” scrub jay split into four species and the western name disappeared into the Florida scrub jay (Aphelocoma coerulescens only in Florida), the Island scrub jay (Aphelocoma insularis only on Santa Cruz Island, California), the California scrub jay and Woodhouse’s.

More splits may be on the way.  Woodhouse’s has a tenuous hold on its sumichrasti subspecies and the Mexican jay (Aphelocoma wollweberi) — shown below — lives in such isolated populations in the sky islands of the southwestern U.S. and Mexico that he may split, too.

Mexican jay in Madera Canyon, Arizona (photo by Alan Vernon via Wikimedia Commons)
Mexican jay at Madera Canyon, Arizona (photo by Alan Vernon via Wikimedia Commons)

Interesting as this is, there’s not room in my brain to keep up with it.  eBird will do it for me if I enter all my sightings.   I’ll have to backload my birding history to keep up with splitting scrub jays.

 

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