Category Archives: Songbirds

Birdlab: Banding Birds at Hays Woods

Red-eyed vireo, held by bander Nick Liadis, 31 Aug 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

8 September 2022

Yesterday Charity Kheshgi and I visited Nick Liadis’ bird banding project — Birdlab — at Hays Woods, the City of Pittsburgh’s newest, most remote, and least developed park.

Nick runs Birdlab at three sites: Hays Woods plus at two private properties, Upper St. Clair and Twin Stupas in Butler County. During migration Nick is out banding six days a week unless it’s raining or windy.

Hays Woods is unique for its size and habitat so close to densely populated Downtown and Oakland. Like an oasis it’s an appealing stop for migratory birds. We were there to see Nick band five birds on a slow day compared to the day before when he banded 60!

Hays Woods, The Forest in the City (image courtesy Friends of Hays Woods)

Oakland is visible from the Hays Woods powerline cut.

Oakland in the distance, view from Hays Woods, 31 Aug 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

Nick has placed the mist nets in a variety of habitats. They are intentionally hard to see. When birds see the nets they avoid them.

Bird banding mist net at Hays Woods, 7 Sep 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

Every 30 minutes the banders walk the nets to check for birds. Lisa Kaufman assists at Hays Woods on Wednesdays. Here she is walking the powerline cut.

Walking to check the nets, 31 Aug 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

Each netted bird is gently placed in its own cloth bag and brought back to the banding table. Here Nick tells Lisa what time to record.

Nick Liadis and Lisa Kaufman, bird banding at Hays Woods, 7 Sept 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

It’s an ovenbird.

Ovenbird to be banded, held by Nick Liadis, 7 Sep 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

To age the birds Nick checks their wings, tail and body feathers for molt stage. Below he points out the very faint fault bars on the tail feathers that indicate feather growth. If all the bars line up, then these tail feathers grew in at the same time, which means the bird is still wearing his very first tail feathers and thus hatched this year.

Examine the feathers for molt stage and age, ovenbird at Hays Woods, 7 Sep 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

Nick blows on the belly of a Nashville warbler to check the lump of fat that is fuel for migration. This Nashville warbler had a high fat score so he may be ready to leave tonight for his wintering grounds in Mexico.

Checking the fat score on a Nashville warbler, Hays Woods, 7 Sep 2022 (photo by Charity Kheshgi)

Nashville warblers are one of the smallest birds but it’s not noticeable until they are in the hand. Nick prepares to apply the band.

Applying the band to a Nashville warbler, 7 Sep 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

Nick holds an ovenbird after banding.

Bander Nick Liadis holds an ovenbird, Hays Woods, 7 Sep 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

Each of us got to release a banded warbler.

Kate St. John holds an American restart before releasing it, Hays Woods, 7 Sep 2022 (photo by Charity Kheshgi)
Charity Kheshgi holds an ovenbird before releasing it, Hays Woods, 7 Sep 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

And we learned how much northern cardinals hate to be captured. Cardinals of all ages screech and bite! We were grateful not to hold one.

Female northern cardinal awaits her bands, Hays Woods, 7 Sep 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

To learn more about Nick’s banding project and schedule a visit, see his website at birdlab.org.

Support Nick’s efforts with a donation at his GoFundMe site: https://www.gofundme.com/f/help-nick-to-conserve-birds-their-habitats.

(photos by Kate St. John and Charity Kheshgi)

Female Mockingbirds Sing in the Fall

Northern mockingbird (photo by Cris Hamilton)

30 August 2022

Northern mockingbirds (Mimus polyglottos) are special because they challenge our assumptions.

It was a wonder in 2014 when, after centuries of ornithologists saying that only male birds sing, Karan Odom at University of Maryland documented singing females. Most of the species live in the tropics but even back then 150 female-singing species were documented in North America.

After this breakthrough female singing became a hot study topic and more species were added to the list. Recent studies delve deeper. Do northern mockingbird females mimic like males? A study published this April found that they do.

Mockingbirds are also unusual because they sing in autumn when other birds are silent. They do it because they change location. Those that nest in the northern end of their range migrate south while others move locally (see animated eBird map). When mockingbirds “reappear” in September they are singing again to claim new territory.

Northern mockingbird, Nov 2015 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Males and females look alike and they aren’t paired up in winter so we cannot tell which sex is singing. Nevertheless we can hear them. Here are some examples.

28 Sep 2021 in Cincinnati, Ohio:

7 Nov 2019 in Harlingen, TX:

I see mockingbirds in Pittsburgh in the winter. Are they local transplants or from further north? Are they male or female? I dunno.

Northern mockingbird wing flash (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

(photos by Cris Hamilton and from Wikimedia Commons; click on the caption to see the original)

Insects, Deer, a few Birds Yesterday at Schenley

7-point buck in Schenley Park, 28 Aug 2022 (photo by Connie Gallagher)

29 August 2022

A year ago in Schenley Park we had such a slow birding day that I wrote, “We worked for every bird.” A year later, nine of us were there yesterday and the birding was even slower! (14 species instead of 19.) However we found lots of insects and two white-tailed bucks in velvet. Here’s the story in pictures, thanks to Connie Gallagher.

Connie saw the very Best Bird, a blue-gray gnatcatcher.

Blue-gray gnatcatcher, Schenley Park, 28 August 2022 (photo by Connie Gallagher)

We pondered the identity of these wasps and then remembered, all at once, that they are bald-faced hornets (Dolichovespula maculata), a type of yellowjacket wasp.

Bald-faced hornets at their paper nest in a pignut hickory, Schenley Park, 28 Aug 2022 (photo by Connie Gallagher)

There was still dew on the wild senna as this bumblebee gathered nectar.

Bumblebee on wild senna, Schenley Park, 28 Aug 2022 (photo by Connie Gallagher)

The browseline is so severe in Schenley Park that there’s no cover for the deer who sleep there during the day. Looking down from the Falloon Trail we saw two bucks, a 7-point buck (at top) and a 10-point below.

10-point buck in Schenley Park, 28 Aug 2022 (photo by Connie Gallagher)

Fortunately some of us heard these birds flying overhead. I can tell their identity by shape and the yellow tips of their tails. Cedar waxwings.

Cedar waxwings fly over, Schenley Park, 28 Aug 2022 (photo by Connie Gallagher)

Here’s the group that worked for every bird on Sunday. Thank you all for coming!

Schenley Park outing, 28 August 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

See our checklist at https://ebird.org/checklist/S117700393 and printed below.

Schenley Park–Panther Hollow, Allegheny, Pennsylvania, US
Aug 28, 2022 8:30 AM – 10:30 AM, 1.5 mile(s), 14 species

Mourning Dove (Zenaida macroura) 5
Chimney Swift (Chaetura pelagica) 4
Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) 1
Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus) 2
Downy Woodpecker (Dryobates pubescens) 1
Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus) 1
Eastern Wood-Pewee (Contopus virens) 1
Blue Jay (Cyanocitta cristata) 7
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher (Polioptila caerulea) 1 Seen by Connie
American Robin (Turdus migratorius) 1
Cedar Waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum) 5
American Goldfinch (Spinus tristis) 3
Common Grackle (Quiscalus quiscula) 1
Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) 3 Including a bald female Cardinal

(photos by Connie Gallagher (group photo by Kate St. John))

The Traveling Nest

The Rivers of Steel Explorer (photo from Ryan O’Rourke)

3 August 2022

What do you do when your nest and babies sail away without you? A house finch couple on Pittsburgh’s North Shore have learned to wait for the boat to come home.

Male and female house finches, Nov 2010 (photo by Steve Gosser)

This spring a pair of house finches (Haemorhous mexicanus) were very quick to build a nest atop a loud speaker on the aft deck of the Rivers of Steel Explorer, docked behind the Carnegie Science Center. By the time the crew caught up with them the female had finished the nest and laid eggs, so the nest had to remain undisturbed until it was empty.

House finch nest on top of loud speaker on Rivers of Steel Explorer vessel, 29 July 2022 (photo by Ryan O’Rourke)

When would it be empty? Not yet. In August? In September?

House finches are masters at back-to-back nesting, raising three to six broods per year. As the young approach fledging the male takes charge of them while the female starts the next round of egg laying. On the Explorer the female doesn’t pause between one brood and the next.

When I met the Explorer finch family on 26 July they had already raised several broods and were caring for young approximately two days old. While our tour waited on deck for the boat to depart the father fed three tiny nestlings. They are growing fast! Here they are three days later on 29 July.

Close up of house finch nest, 29 July 2022 (photo by Ryan O’Rourke)

Our tour pulled away from the dock and I forgot about the house finches for 90 minutes while we traveled Pittsburgh’s three rivers. Mother and father house finch were absent but they had not forgotten. Waiting on shore they were so attuned to the habits of the Explorer that when the vessel maneuvered to dock they raced across the channel to the aft deck. “The kids are home!”

The Traveling Nest is one of many birding highlights on Rivers of Steel Explorer tours. Captain Ryan O’Rourke explained, “In addition to hosting a bird-watching cruise with the National Aviary, part of our educational program for students includes a lesson in birding and how birds can be indicators of the health of our rivers.”

And then there are rare birds that the Explorer is first to see. On 26 April 2022 O’Rourke reported 13 American avocets on the Monongahela River at Station Square. I chased these birds and missed them. Wish I’d been on the boat!

Next month you can join Rivers of Steel and the National Aviary for Riverboat Birding on the Explorer, 3 September 2022. Sign up below or click here.

(photos by Ryan O’Rourke and Steve Gosser)

Eating Salad?

American goldfinch eating thistle (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

28 July 2022

Is there a bright yellow bird with black wings in your vegetable garden poking among the salad greens? Or perhaps a drab female or juvenile bird (shown below)?

Female American goldfinch feeding juvenile (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

American goldfinches (Spinus tristis) nest in July so they are very busy bringing food to their young.

Their favorite choice is thistle seed, above, but they will occasionally taste reddish salad greens like Swiss chard, below.

Swiss chard (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Don’t worry for your garden. Goldfinches only take a nibble.

Find out more about the “Salad Birds” in this vintage article:

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

Swallow or Swift?

Chimney swifts (from the Crossley ID Guide Eastern Birds via Wikimedia Commons)

20 July 2022

Whoosh! Fast moving birds circle, swoop, rise and fall as they eat flying insects. Swallows and swifts move so fast that it’s hard to identify them in flight. With one swift and six swallow species in our area(*) the first step is to decide: “Is that a Swallow or a Swift?

This stop-action photo by Patrick bx (@bronxfxdc) makes it easy to see the differences described by audubon.org below.

Is That a Swallow or a Swift? Identification clues from Audubon.org.

Even from a distance these two swallow plates from Crossley ID show many features that are different from the chimney swifts at top.

Tree swallows and northern rough-winged swallows (from Crossley ID Guide to Eastern Birds via Wikimedia Commons)

And finally, chimney swifts make a unique chittering sound in flight.

Swallow or swift? You’ll get plenty of practice in the coming weeks as the birds gather for fall migration.

(*) p.s. Here are the swallow and swift species that occur in our area — southwestern Pennsylvania.

(photos from Patrick bx (@bronxfxdc) embedded tweet & the Crossley ID Guide to Eastern Birds via Wikimedia Commons; click on the captions to see the originals)

July: If You Can’t Clean Feeders Every Week, Stop Feeding Birds

House sparrow at bird feeder (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

13 July 2022

Mid to late summer is a good time to be a bird in Pennsylvania. Fruit is ripe, seeds are plentiful, insect food is everywhere and for raptors there are plenty of naive young animals to capture. With so much natural food available and with songbirds’ preference for insects in summer, birds are not dependent on backyard feeders in July.

You can safely bring in your bird feeders now. In fact, if you cannot clean your feeders every week, they are unsafe for birds. Highly pathogenic avian flu has ebbed this summer but there is apprehension that it will return during fall migration. And it’s not the only disease that kills birds.

Yesterday I encountered three dead or dying birds in my neighborhood within half a mile of each other: a house finch that fell over unless it propped itself on open wings, a dead fledgling robin standing in the street (below), and a fluffed house sparrow that could not walk.

Frozen in place: dead American robin fledgling standing in the street, 12 July 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

I have no idea what was killing them. It could have been a different reason for each species. I do know that if it was contagious, finches and sparrows would have spread it at bird feeders.

Clean your feeders every week. In hot weather clean your hummingbird feeder twice a week because the nectar spoils! Are you leaving on vacation? Bring your feeders in so you don’t lure the birds into an unsafe environment.

Feeder cleaning advice from Audubon Society of Western PA, April 2022

Be kind and thoughtful of your backyard birds by keeping your feeders clean.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons, ASWP and Kate St. John)

How To Tell When a Song Sparrow is Angry

Song sparrow (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

16 June 2022

Male song sparrows sing to claim territory and avoid fighting with rivals. Each male has a unique song that creates an audio boundary marker that other males are expected to honor. When a rival intrudes, the owner escalates with aggressive signals before he attacks. If you know what to look for, you can tell when a song sparrow is angry.

To learn the escalation steps, “researchers [in a 2013 study at University of Washington led by Çaglar Akçay] recorded songs from 48 sparrows living in Discovery Park in Seattle. To feign an intruder, they perched a stuffed song sparrow in a bush or tree and played the recorded song.

The owners reacted to the stuffed singing intruder as if he was real and escalated as follows:

  1. When the intruder first arrived, the owner matched the intruder’s song. If this didn’t drive off the intruder …
  2. The owner repeatedly flew and landed near the intruder, wing-waving and singing softly. “Wing waving” is vibrating one wing at a time. Soft song is more aggressive than shouting.
  3. When none of this worked the owner attacked the intruder.

This video from the Univ of Washington shows the second step — wing waving and soft song — with narration by one of the researchers. Notice one wing raised and waved at 0:27. Wing raising is a happy greeting between male and female cardinals. Not so with song sparrows!

The stuffed intruder would not leave, even when the owner sang softly, so the owner attacked. Yow!

If a male song sparrow is speaking softly and waving one wing, he’s angry. Learn more at Get off my lawn: Song sparrows escalate territorial threats — with video.

(photo from Wikimedia Commons, embedded video from University of Washington study in 2013)

Best In Song

14 May 2022

Wood thrushes (Hylocichla mustelina) are back in Schenley Park after their winter sojourn in Central America.

Yesterday this one used his beautiful voice to claim a nesting territory near the Bartlett tufa bridge. Click here or on the screenshot below to hear him sing.

Of all the birds he wins “Best In Song.”

(photo from Wikimedia Commons, video by Kate St. John)