Day by day and week by week there are different stars in the spring migration show. Here are the birds that brightened last week in Pittsburgh’s Schenley Park with a look to the week ahead.
For six days, April 22-27, I saw the largest influx of ruby-crowned kinglets (Regulus calendula) I’ve ever experienced in Schenley Park. Each day I counted 25 to 35 of them though I’m sure my numbers were low.
Steve Gosser’s photos, above and below, display these tiny birds from two perspectives. Did you know they have golden feet and black legs? It’s hard to see their feet because they move so fast!
On 23 April a large flock of yellow-rumped warblers (Setophaga coronata) paused on a foggy morning and foraged on the ground. The males were quite bright in their black, white and yellow spring plumage. I’m waiting for the next flock to arrive soon.
Monday 27 April was a stellar day for hermit thrushes (Catharus guttatus) when I tallied seven near the Falloon Trail. Steve Gosser’s two photos, below, show their distinctive reddish tail and plain face. All were silent but they provided an additional behavioral hint: They raised and slowly dropped their tails.
In the week ahead I expect more thrushes and warblers.
My first wood thrush (Hylocichla mustelina) in Schenley was photographed on 23 April by Donna Foyle. Yesterday there were three more.
Notice the wood thrush’s distinctive rusty head and back, dotted breast and mottled cheek in these two photos by Steve Gosser.
More warblers are on their way. Yesterday I saw my first black-and-white warbler (Mniotilta varia) of the year. Yay! This one was photographed by Lauri Shaffer in May 2018.
And here’s an audio star that I heard in Frick Park on 25 April.
At dusk at the intersection of Falls Ravine and Lower Riverview Trail in Frick Park you’ll hear American toads trilling in the wetland by the fence. Check out the video below for their look and sound, recorded on 11 May 2014 in East Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania. At the end of the video you’ll hear a bird sing, an orchard oriole. They’ll arrive soon at the Lower Nine Mile Run Trail near Duck Hollow.
UPDATE AT NOON, 29 April 2020:Two more stars arrived today! Baltimore oriole and rose-breasted grosbeak.
As the weather warms, ruby-throated hummingbirds (Archilochus colubris) are traveling north to their nesting territories while citizen scientists are recording their progress on the Journey North website.
Reports on the map show us where they are now. As of 7 April 2020, four intrepid hummingbirds were ahead of the big wave, seen at Mashpee, MA, Geneva, NY, and Tipton and Muncie, IN. Click here to see today’s map.
I have not seen a gray catbird in Pittsburgh yet but I know they’re on their way. Next month they’ll arrive from their wintering grounds in the southern U.S., the Caribbean and Central America. How do they get here?
Migratory birds are born with an innate sense of direction and distance to their goal but must learn how to get there on their first trip south. After they’ve made the trip once, they create a mental map and can use the sun, stars, earth’s magnetic field and their sense of smell to return home.
Their sense of smell? Yes! Birds do have a sense of smell and they use it.
The scientific name for Bushtit is Psaltriparus minimus and the second half of Psaltriparus, “parus,” is Latin for titmouse. And the “tit” in titmouse comes from Old Icelandic “titr” meaning something small.
Bushtits are extremely social, hanging out in flocks of 10 to 40 birds, moving through the trees and bushes gleaning tiny insects off leaves and branches. At night, they roost together. During the breeding season the entire family and their helpers sleep together in their oversized hanging nest.
Whether they’re eating, perched or hiding, bushtits are fond of bushes.
p.s. This video by John Hamil shows how the safety of bushes applies to all backyard birds. When you set up a birdbath, make sure to place it near a bush to provide a safe zone for the birds. They need a place to hide when they’re wet.
On Monday morning, 20 January 2020, a sparrow-sized songbird, colored like an exotic parrot, showed up at a backyard feeder in suburban Pittsburgh. It happened to choose the backyard of Brian Shema, Operations Director at Audubon Society of Western PA. His Rare Bird Alert immediately attracted a steady stream of birders to see this gorgeous visitor. (If you want to see the bird, instructions are at the bottom of this article.)
Painted buntings (Passerina ciris) are seed-eaters that breed in the coastal Southeast and south central U.S., and spend the winter in Florida, the Caribbean and Central America. Though one occasionally shows up in eastern Pennsylvania this individual is quite out of range in the western part of the state. He’s only the third Allegheny County record.
He’s also extra special because he’s male. Female painted buntings are nice to find but their green color is not so photogenic.
To highlight the male and female difference here’s another male, photographed in Florida by Chuck Tague in 2012. (The border emphasizes that this is not the Pittsburgh bird.)
If you’d like to see him, go to this location pinpointed on eBird’s map. Make sure you stay on the street, don’t walk in anyone’s yard, and park without blocking anything. The house is on a corner lot so you can see the feeders from the street. He was there all day yesterday (Friday 24 Jan). Chances are very good that you’ll find other birders looking at him when you get there.
(photos by Steve Gosser, Wikimedia Commons and Chuck Tague; click on the captions to see the originals)
This week is much too warm for snow in Pittsburgh but we can dream as we listen to seasonal music. A favorite is Winter Wonderland, written in Pennsylvania in 1934, that includes these famous lines:
Gone away is the bluebird here to stay is a new bird. He sings a love song as we go along walking in a winter wonderland.” — Winter Wonderland
Back then eastern bluebirds left northern Pennsylvania in the winter but a new bird had arrived and its population was growing. The song’s writer, Richard Bernhard Smith, may have been referring to northern cardinals.
Most robins move south in the fall but some remain north in large flocks that wander in search of abundant fruit. They choose Pittsburgh in December because we have lots of fruit on our native trees, ornamentals, invasive vines, and shrubs.
We usually see American robins (Turdus migratorius) with their wings closed. They perch in a tree, sit on a nest, or walk with their classic 3-steps-and-stop gait. Even in flight robins close their wings, flapping and gliding in a pattern similar to their walk.
This view of a robin with open wings reveals a surprise. The robin’s armpits, called axillaries, match its belly.
Williamson's sapsuckers, immature and adult, Bend, OR (photo by Pati Rouzer)
Red-naped sapsucker (photo by Andy Reago & Chrissy McLarren)
Red-breasted sapsucker (photo by Patty McGann)
Lewis's woodpecker (photo by Mick Thompson)
Acorn woodpecker (photo by Patty McGann)
Gila woodpecker (photo by Mick Thompson)
American three-toed woodpecker, Bend, OR (photo by Pati Rouzer)
Black-backed woodpecker (photo by Patty McGann)
Downy woodpecker (photo by Patty McGann)
Nuttall's woodpecker (photo by Mick Thompson)
Ladder-backed woodpecker (photo by Mick Thompson)
Hairy woodpecker (photo by Mick Thompson)
White-headed woodpecker, Bend, OR (photo by Pati Rouzer)
Pileated woodpecker (photo by Patty McGann)
Northern flicker (photo by Patty McGann)
Gilded flicker (photo by Steve Valasek)
If you’re from Pennsylvania you may not realize we have few woodpecker species compared to the western states of California, Oregon and Washington.
Sixteen of North America’s 22 woodpecker species regularly occur in the Pacific states while only seven occur in Pennsylvania. Five of our species are also found out west though the yellow-bellied sapsucker is rare.
Let’s take a look at western woodpeckers compared to Pennsylvania’s.
Western Woodpeckers (Pacific states)
(Yellow-bellied sapsucker is rare)
Gila woodpecker (California & southwest)
American three-toed woodpecker (not in California)
Nuttall’s woodpecker (California only)
Ladder-backed woodpecker (California & southwest)
Northern flicker (red-shafted)
Northern flicker (yellow-shafted)
Gilded flicker (California & Arizona)
With the most habitat diversity and a lot of trees, California wins the prize in the western woodpecker tableau.