In the middle of May, Schenley Park’s bird population bursts at the seams as migrants stopover on their way to Canada. Early this week one of the most numerous visitors was the Swainson’s thrush.
We tend to take their migration for granted, knowing the birds make long journeys from South to North America, but we’re unable to visualize it. How far do they go? How long do they live?
Last December in the Columbian highlands a bird banding station captured a previously banded Swainson’s thrush. Its bands revealed the bird was captured more than five years earlier while on its journey north.
The thrush was banded near Unadilla, Nebraska in May 2008, heading home to breed in central Canada. At that time it was at least one year old. In December 2013 it was recaptured near Las Margaritas, Columbia 2,700 miles away, probably at its winter home. It was more than six years old and had made the journey at least 13 times.
From Canada to Columbia, read about this bird’s journey and see the map at Klamath Call Note.
(photo of a Swainson’s thrush on migration in Pennsylvania by Steve Gosser)
This weekend is a great time to see migrating warblers. So many are on the move that you don’t have to go to a hotspot to see them. They’re in every tree.
Blue-winged warblers prefer shrubland and old fields but during migration you might find one anywhere, even in Downtown Pittsburgh.
Don’t let his name fool you. At first glance you may not see blue wings. Your brain will register “yellow body, white wingbars, black eyeline.” Are his wings blue? Not always. In many light conditions they look gray. The clincher is his black eye-line — a long black line that connects his eye and beak.
You might find a blue-winged warbler near home right now.
This is the biggest weekend for birds.
(photo by Shawn Collins)
Join BirdSafe Pittsburgh volunteers this coming Monday May 12 at 5:30am at PPG Plaza. Learn how to rescue injured migratory birds and tally those killed in Downtown Pittsburgh’s hall of mirrors.
Contact Matt Webb at (412)53-AVIAN (412-532-8426) or email@example.com for more information. Click here to read more.
p.s. In just 3 days last week volunteers found and rescued wood thrushes, an ovenbird, a Kentucky Warbler, and a magnolia warbler. Every bird counts!
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)