Gulls always nest on the ground, right?
Wrong! There’s one gull species in North America, migrating through western Pennsylvania this week, that nests in trees.
Bonaparte’s gulls seem to lead double lives. In the winter they’re just like any other gull on the coast, loafing near humans on the beach and skimming the ocean to catch small fish. Their beautiful moth-like flight sets them apart but otherwise they’re unremarkable. In winter they look like this:
In the spring they molt into sharp black, gray and white breeding plumage.
But even before their heads turn black they migrate north, passing through Pittsburgh along the Ohio River. Their peak numbers often occur on the same day every year, April 10 at Dashields Dam.
When the Bonaparte’s get home to the boreal forest they eat insects on the wing, build their nests in conifers, and become so secretive that they’re hard to find. That’s the other half of their double lives.
Here come the ”Bonnies.” They’re heading for the trees.
(nest photo by Dr. Matthew Perry, Pawtuxent Wildlife Research Center USGS. Click on the image to see the original. Bonaparte’s gull portraits by Chuck Tague)
Though this photo could have been taken in Wisconsin it’s actually from Crawford County, Pennsylvania where a few sandhill cranes hang out near Miller’s Pond.
Sandhills breed in northwestern Pennsylvania so right now they’re calling and courting. Here’s what a pair of cranes sounds like. Not exactly melodic, but they put a lot of spirit into it.
Life every voice and sing!
(photos by Shawn Collins)
Though the lake at Middle Creek is ice-covered, snow geese and tundra swans are here in great numbers.
I say “here” because I’m at Middle Creek this morning. I was considering the 8-hour round trip when Dave Kerr’s photos from Friday convinced me it was worthwhile.
Here are my favorites: three tundra swans landing, a string of snow geese …
… and the glance.
(photos by Dave Kerr)
Despite today’s awful forecast, despite the prediction of 7oF tomorrow morning, gusty winds and up to 2″ of snow, be assured that spring is here. The tundra swans are back!
This morning at 4:45am I awoke to the whoo-ing call of swans in flight. I opened the window and … Yes! a flock of tundra swans was flying over my city neighborhood in the dark.
At that moment it was 49oF with no rain and a light wind out of the east-northeast, almost perfect flying weather for birds heading northwest. Their goal is the Arctic coastal tundra from Alaska to Baffin Island. In the fall they typically fly 1,000 miles non-stop from Minnesota to Chesapeake Bay but they make the trip in easy stages in the spring, pausing to wait for the lakes to thaw.
“My” swans were probably heading for Pymatuning and Lake Erie where there’s not much open water yet. Meanwhile other flocks are heading for Middle Creek where the situation is much the same. But the birds know spring is coming. They’re heading north.
Soon Middle Creek will be filled with the spectacle of snow geese and tundra swans on the move. Click here for information and a video.
The show is on!
(photo from Middle Creek by Dave Kerr)
Yesterday Jerry McWilliams reported a single-day record of red-breasted mergansers at Presque Isle State Park: 46,600 birds!
Every fall Jerry conducts a daily waterbird count for several hours at Sunset Point. On Friday he and Roger Donn watched “huge flocks [of red-breasted mergansers] flying in off the lake and concentrating north of Gull Point, later moving west in groups of 100 to 300 birds for the entire morning.”
Where did these birds come from and where are they going? Red-breasted mergansers breed along the ocean and lake shores of tundra and boreal forests. They spend the winter at the coast from Canada to Mexico or at the Great Lakes. The birds Jerry is counting at Lake Erie have reached their final winter destination unless the lake freezes over. If that happens they’ll move on.
How is Jerry McWilliams sure of these numbers? For you and me the count would be quite a challenge but not for him. Jerry’s an expert at identifying and counting birds. He know the shapes of waterbirds, their flying style and habits. Color hardly matters. He uses a scope and estimates in groups. I watched him do it for a brief time last weekend when I visited Presque Isle. There were only 7,858 red-breasted mergansers that day and I thought that was a lot!
If you’re at Presque Isle looking for snowy owls, stop by Sunset Point and you can watch, too.
Read the count details for Friday December 6 are at this link on PABIRDS.
(photo of red-breasted mergansers in flight by lgooch on Flickr via Creative Commons License. Click on the image to see the original)
p.s. This is more than twice the number of crows we’ve ever counted in Pittsburgh in the winter.
It’s not news that migrating sparrows are back in town but it’s always news to see a fox sparrow in any setting.
Steve Gosser photographed this one (top) with another migrant, a white-throated sparrow, at Harrison Hills Park last week.
Some sparrows come to western Pennsylvania in the fall and stay all winter, including dark-eyed juncoes, American tree sparrows, and the white-throated sparrow shown above.
But fox sparrows are few and far between and right now they’re just passing through, headed for the southern U.S.
If you don’t see one before Thanksgiving you’ll probably have to wait until March to catch them on their return trip back north.
I’ve been looking, but so far no luck.
(photo by Steve Gosser)
These double-crested cormorants are drying their wings after diving for fish. Are they visiting our area? You bet.
Double-crested cormorants were on the move last week along Lake Erie’s shore. According to Jerry McWilliam’s waterbird count, 2,125 flew past Presque Isle State Park last Sunday (Oct 27), 227 on Monday, and 680 on Tuesday. Then their numbers dropped.
When cormorants are on the move, the ducks aren’t far behind.
November may be cold but it’s a great month for watching waterfowl.
(photo by Steve Gosser)
In one way this is very old news. In another way it’s sadly up-to-date.
In the early days of radar surveillance, scientists learned that those mysterious blobs on the screen in spring and fall were flocks of night-migrating birds. In 1965, as part of his graduate study at Louisiana State University, Dr. Sidney A. Gauthreaux, Jr. studied spring migration using radar images at Lake Charles and New Orleans along with his own on-the-ground counts as birds flew past his light beam or the moon.
Twenty years later, the news said that songbirds had declined. Gauthreaux wondered if this was evident on radar so he collected data from the same two sites and compared the images from good-weather migration nights in 1965-1967 to those in 1987-1989. In only 20 years he could see that the number of migrating songbirds had declined by 50%. Half the number of warblers, tanagers, hummingbirds, shorebirds, flycatchers and thrushes made the trip.
That was 24 years ago. It has only gotten worse. I don’t know of a recent radar comparison (was there one comparing the 1980′s to 2000′s?) but our ground-based counts show that birds such as the king rail, cerulean warbler and olive-sided flycatcher are in dangerous decline now. Just last month the eastern red knot was proposed for Endangered Species protection by US Fish and Wildlife.
Meanwhile, it seems ironic that so many people are becoming interested in birds while birds are becoming scarce, but it’s a good thing too. The more of us that care about birds, the more likely we’ll learn what they need and work to insure their future.
(screenshot of NOAA weather radar, 9 Oct 2013, 6:38am EDT. Click on the image to see the current radar page. Today’s Tenth Page is inspired by page 278 of Ornithology by Frank B. Gill.)
p.s. This NOAA image shows the radar stations that were part of Dr. Gauthreaux’s study. On Wednesday morning the weather concentrated migrants east of the Mississippi as they approached the Gulf Coast.
They’re here! The yellow-rumped warblers are back from Canada, on their way to the lower Ohio Valley, the southern U.S., and Central America for the winter.
Yesterday Karyn Delaney and her husband stopped counting at 100 when they found so many yellow-rumps on the Pine Tree Trail at Presque Isle State Park. Shawn Collins snapped this one in Crawford County.
Like the first snowfall I’m excited to see my first big flock of yellow-rumped warblers in southwestern Pennsylvania. I haven’t found a flock yet but I think I’ve heard one bird — just one — at Schenley Park.
Unfortunately, just like snow I soon tire of them. I remember at Magee Marsh last May when my first reaction to seeing yellow-rumped warblers was “Wow!” and within an hour it was “Darn! Another yellow-rump.” Their abundance becomes boring.
But I haven’t seen them yet, so for the moment this bird is exciting.
(photo by Shawn Collins)