Category Archives: Travel

Better Birds Desired

Lewis’s woodpecker (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

6 October 2021

In early October it’s easy to find pigeons, red-bellied woodpeckers, northern flickers, blue jays and chickadees in Pittsburgh. Ho hum! I wish for better birds.

At Jackson Lake in Los Angeles County, California last Sunday, there were similar but more interesting species. Here’s a sampling from Ted Keyel’s eBird checklist.

Instead of rock pigeons there were band-tailed pigeons (Patagioenas fasciata), North America’s largest wild pigeon.

Band-tailed pigeons in southern California (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Instead of red-bellied woodpeckers (Melanerpes carolinus) there were two other Melanerpes. A flock of 40-60 migrating Lewis’s woodpeckers (Melanerpes lewis) …

Lewis’s woodpecker from the Crossley ID Guide via Wikimedia Commons

… and six acorn woodpeckers (Melanerpes formicivorus).

Acorn woodpecker (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

We have northern flickers in Pittsburgh but they are yellow-shafted (click here to see). In California northern flickers (Colaptes auratus) are red-shafted. Wow!

Northern flicker, red-shafted (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Instead of blue jays California has Steller’s jays (Cyanocitta stelleri).

Steller’s jay (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

And instead of black-capped or Carolina chickadees they have mountain chickadees (Poecile gambeli).

Mountain chickadee (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

These are much better birds!

Note: Ted posted photos on his checklist but I do not yet have permission to use them so these are from Wikimedia Commons. Click here to see Ted’s photos.

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

How Fast Do Songbirds Migrate?

Flock of robins, early morning (photo by Carl Berger Sr on Flickr via Creative Commons license)

27 September 2021

During fall migration warblers pass through Pittsburgh, followed by thrushes, then sparrows. We see them during the day after they’ve flown all night. Where were they yesterday? How far will they fly tonight? How fast are they traveling? What is their destination?

The answers are weather dependent, of course, but they also vary by species. Here are three recent songbird examples.

Wood thrush (Hylocichla mustelina)

Wood thrush in September (photo by Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren from Wikimedia Commons)

Wood thrushes (Hylocichla mustelina) breed across the eastern U.S. and southeastern Canada, then spend the winter in Central America.

Wood thrush range (map from Wikimedia Commons)

In 2009 a geolocator study of wood thrushes by Bridget Stutchbury found that:

  • Wood thrushes fly more than 311 miles a day on migration. If they fly 8-10 hours per night their air speed is 30-38 miles per hour.
  • They dawdle in the fall by stopping over in the southern U.S. or the Yucatan for one to four weeks before proceeding to their final destination.
  • Wood thrushes return two to six times faster in spring because they barely stop at all.
  • They shorten the trip by flying across the Gulf of Mexico overnight, a distance of 600 miles from the Yucatan to Louisiana.

Where was that wood thrush yesterday? Maybe north of Toronto, Ontario. When he leaves how far will he fly? Perhaps to Lexington, Kentucky.

Blackpoll warbler (Setophaga striata)

Blackpoll warbler in autumn (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Blackpoll warblers (Setophaga striata) spend a lot of time fattening up before they leave North America for their wintering grounds in Brazil because they fly non-stop over the Atlantic Ocean to get there.

Their route averages 1,900 mi (3,000 km) over open water, requiring a potentially nonstop flight of around 72 to 88 hours. They travel at a speed of about 27 mph (43 km/h).

Wikipedia Blackpoll Warbler account
Blackpoll warbler breeding and wintering range (map from Wikimedia Commons)

Some blackpolls take off from Cape Cod. Some launch from coastal Virginia. Where was that blackpoll yesterday? If you’re asking this in Pittsburgh he might not have been very far north. Where will he be tomorrow? If you’re asking this on the U.S. coast the answer is “over the Atlantic Ocean.”

American robin (Turdus migratorius)

American robin (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

American robins (Turdus migratorius) take their time in the fall. Since they can live year round in much of the U.S. those that leave their breeding grounds (yellow on map) can afford to linger on their way south. Robins leave when the ground freezes or is covered by snow. Some travel as far as Florida, Mexico and Central America but most do not.

American robin range (map from Wikimedia Commons)

When on the move American robins have been clocked at 20-36 mph. They are faster when migrating than when they fly in our backyards.

So where was that robin yesterday? Probably here in Pittsburgh. Where will he be tomorrow? If he decides to fly all night he can reach Lexington, Kentucky with the wood thrush.

(photos and maps from Carl Berger on Flickr and Wikimedia Commons; click on the captions to see the originals)

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)

Easter Island has Christmas Birds

Moai on Easter Island (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

4 April 2021, Easter Day

When Europeans explored the Pacific they sometimes named islands for the day they found them. Thus Easter Island (Rapa Nui) was named by Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen who encountered it on Easter Day 5 April 1722 and Christmas Island (Kiritimati) was given its English name by Captain James Cook on Christmas Eve 1777.

Easter Island is best known for its nearly 1,000 stone statues, moai, created by the Rapa Nui people. Kiritimati (pronounced “Ki-rismas” in the local language) is so remote that it was used for nuclear bomb tests 60+ years ago. Today the entire coral atoll is a wildlife sanctuary.

Range map from Birds of the World via Wikimedia Commons

Christmas shearwaters (Puffinus nativitatis) are pelagic birds that nest on remote Pacific islands (map) and were named for their largest breeding colony at Kiritimati, Christmas Island.

Christmas shearwaters roosting on Tern Island, French Frigate Shoals, Hawaii (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Christmas shearwater on nest with its single egg, Midway Atoll (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

They also nest on Easter Island … so Easter Island has Christmas birds.

p.s. Happy Easter 2021.

(photos and map from Wikimedia Commons, sound from Xeno Canto. Click on the captions to see the originasl)

Uncommon Starlings

Spotless starling (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

3 March 2021

Why is this starling all black?

The European starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) we love to hate in North America are just one of 123 species in the Starling family (Sturnidae). In Europe their English name is “common starling.” Here are seven of their uncommon looking relatives.

Spotless starling (Sturnis unicolor): The common starling’s nearest relative is a non-migratory resident of Spain, Portugal, northwest Africa, and nearby areas. Shown above, he is indeed spotless.

Rosy starling (Pastor roseus): Looks uncommon to us but is common in India in winter.

Rosy starling, Pakistan (photo by Imran Shah via Wikimedia Commons)

Violet-backed starling (Cinnyricinclus leucogaster): Native to sub-Saharan Africa, the male is beautiful amethyst, the female is boring brown.

Superb starling (Lamprotornis superbus): Lives in Africa. Definitely superb. Imagine seeing more than one!

Superb starlings, western Serengeti, 2012 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Greater blue-eared starling (Lamprotornis chalybaeus): A very common bird of open woodlands in the Sahel and the eastern half of Africa.

Greater blue-eared starling, Botswana Africa (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Hildebrandt’s starling (Lamprotornis hildebrandti): Lives in Kenya and Tanzania. Oh my!

Hildebrandt’s starling, Tanzania (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Mysterious starling (Aplonis mavornata): There is no photo of the mysterious starling because cameras had not been invented when he was found in Polynesia in 1825. Ornithologists went looking for him in 1975 but he was already extinct. Due to the mystery of his origin, there are probably two extinct species of mysterious starlings. Read more here.

Mysterious starling non-photo (screenshot from Birds of the World)

Our European starlings certainly look common compared to these.

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

Seeds Travel By Sea

Monkey-ladder vine (highlighted in red) and its heart-shaped seeds (photos from Wikimedia Commons)

5 February 2021

Many plants that grow near water disperse their seeds by riding the water wherever it goes. Fabulous among this group are tropical plants whose drift seeds cross the ocean.

The monkey-ladder vine or sea bean (Entada gigas), above, produces hard-covered heart-shaped seeds that contain an air pocket to keep them buoyant. Seeds from the Caribbean and Central America wash into the ocean and float on the Gulf Stream. Some make landfall 15 months later on the shores of Scotland.

Map of the Gulf Stream from NOAA Scijinks

This selection of drift seeds was found at the Outer Hebrides.

Drift seeds collected in Western Isles, Outer Hebrides, Scotland (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

They can also be found at Orkney as seen in this video from BBC Winterwatch.

The drift seeds traveled more than 4,000 miles to reach Orkney’s beaches and so did a lot of other things.

p.s. Click here to see a map of Scotland showing the Outer Hebrides and the Orkney Islands.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons, tweet embedded from BBC Winterwatch)

Benefits of A Rare Bird

White-crowned sparrow (photo by Tim Lenz via Wikimedia Commons)

12 January 2021

White-crowned sparrows (Zonotrichia leucophrys) are not rare in North America but are extremely rare in Britain. In 2008 a white-crowned sparrow showed up in the small town of Cley next the Sea, Norfolk and stayed for many weeks thanks to Richard and Sue Bending who put seed for it in the drive to their Dawn Cottage home, shown below.

Dawn Cottage, Cley Next The Sea, Norfolk (photo from Zoopla real estate site)

In the UK there’s a lovely tradition of birders (called twitchers) making a donation to a local charity when they come visit a rare bird. In 2008 the parish church St. Margaret’s at Cley next the Sea, built in 1320-1340, was in need of restoration funds so the donations were given to the church. The bird stayed for weeks, ultimately raising 6,000 pounds, more than $11,000 in 2008 dollars. At the time it was the most ever raised by a rare bird.

St. Margaret’s, Cley Next the Sea, Norfolk, 2008 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

St. Margaret’s honored the bird with a stained glass window.

The white-crowned sparrow of St. Margaret’s, Cley (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

And British twitchers honored the bird with a nickname — “badger bunting” — for the badger-like stripes on its head.

Beyond the thrill of seeing a rare bird there can be tangible benefits.

p.s. A tip of the hat to @RyanFMandelbaum for his tweet that tells the story.

p.p.s. I saw the church from a distance in late June 2017 when I visited Cley & Salthouse Marshes on a birding tour with Oriole Birding. I had 12 Life Birds there; Best Bird was Eurasian spoonbill. It’s a great place for birds!

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

Red-tailed Hawks Look Different In the West

Dark morph red-tailed hawk, San Mateo County, CA (photo by Robin Agarwal, via Flickr Creative Commons license)

4 January 2021

One of the surprises when traveling in North America is that our most common hawk in Pittsburgh, the red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis), looks very different out west.

In western Pennsylvania, red-tailed hawks are best identified by the belly band of stripes below their breasts and dark patagial marks on their underwings. Some have dark markings, some are pale. Adults are redder than immatures.

Red-tailed hawks in western PA: Adult (by Steve Gosser) and immature (by Donna Foyle)
Red-tailed hawk at the Allegheny Front, PA, 2016 (photo by Steve Gosser)
Adult red-tailed hawk at the Allegheny Front, PA, 2016 (photo by Steve Gosser)
Red-tailed hawk, Lawrence County, PA, 2013 (photo by Cris Hamilton)

Though most western red-tailed hawks are similar to their eastern cousins they are generally darker, as shown below in Washington state. There’s also a dark morph that’s completely chocolate brown as in the photo at top from San Mateo County, California.

Adult red-tailed hawk in Kirkland WA, Immature red-tail in Stanwood, WA (photos by Mick Thompson via Flickr Creative Commons license)

Here are more examples.

Arizona: Underwings on this adult are darker and redder than back east.

Adult red-tailed hawk, Maricopa County, AZ (photo by Steve Valasek)

Utah: Dark underneath on an immature red-tail.

California: While many red-tails in California are merely darker, the dark morph is over the top.

Dark morph red-tailed hawk, San Diego County, CA (photo by Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren)
Adult dark morph red-tailed hawk, San Diego County, CA (photo by Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren)

Some day when we can travel again I’m looking forward to seeing a dark morph red-tailed hawk.

(photos by Robin Agarwal, Steve Gosser, Donna Foyle, Cris Hamilton, Mick Thompson, Steve Valasek, Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren; click on the captions to see the originals posted in Flickr with Creative Commons license)

African Hawk With a Red Tail

Augur buzzard starting to fly in Serengeti National Park, Tanzania (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

This is not a red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) but it sure resembles one. The augur buzzard (Buteo augur) of Africa also has a lifestyle that resembles North America’s red-tailed hawk.

Take a 6-minute trip to Kenya and learn more about augur buzzards in this video from the Kenya Bird of Prey Trust. You’ll see some parallels with our most familiar hawk.

(photo from Wikimedia Commons; click on the caption to see the original)

Quiz: Where Is The Largest Desert on Earth?

Rippled sand of Sharjah Desert, UAE (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Quiz! Where is the largest desert on Earth? What continent is it on?

By “largest” I mean square miles. By “desert” I mean …

A desert is a barren area of landscape where little precipitation occurs and, consequently, living conditions are hostile for plant and animal life. The lack of vegetation exposes the unprotected surface of the ground to the processes of denudation. About one-third of the land surface of the world is arid or semi-arid.

Wikipedia entry for Desert

Did you know that the majority of deserts are not composed of sand dunes?

To get you in the mood, here are photos of deserts around the world.

The road to Mar Musa, Syria (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Gobi Desert, Mongolia, in autumn (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Valle de la Muerte, Atacama Desert, Chile (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Arizona National Scenic Trail (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Leave a comment with your answer. I’ll post the answer later today (see below).

Click here for a map (By the way, this map includes the answer but it doesn’t look that way!)

ANSWER: Antarctica! In fact both poles are deserts. The Antarctica Polar Desert is 5.5. million square miles, the Arctic Polar Desert is 5.4 million sq mi and the Sahara is 3.5 million sq mi. Read more about the largest deserts at

Snow surface at Dome C Station, Antarctica (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Why is it a desert? Because the air is so dry. As the Dan Satterfield explains in Scientific Facts That Are Not True:

It cannot be too cold to snow some. It can be too cold to snow a lot. As air gets colder, it can hold less moisture. This is why the Antarctic is the greatest desert on Earth. It’s drier in many places than the Sahara! Climate change is expected to cause more snow in polar regions, not less. Now you know why. (warmer air means it can snow more)

— Wild Wild Science Blog: Scientific Facts That Are Not True

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