September and May are the two best months to find warblers in Pennsylvania, but in the fall many are confusing. Adult males, like this hooded warbler, are not.
Confusing Fall Warblers got their name from four scary pages in the Peterson Field Guide to Birds where immatures and a few females are lined up to show their differences. Hah! They all look the same.
But I’ve learned a trick to overcome the problem. The more you watch non-confusing adults the easier it is to identify their confusing “kids.”
Within each species the birds have the same body-shapes, feeding habits, perching styles and favorite locations (on the ground vs. thickets vs. treetops). Often, the confusing birds have colors and markings that hint at their non-confusing cohorts. Sometimes there’s one indelible clue — like the square of white on the female black-throated blue’s wing that matches the male’s.
Get some practice seeing adult male warblers on Steve Gosser’s new Warbler Page where he displays beautiful photos of Pennsylvania’s best.
(photo by Steve Gosser, September 2014)
Throw Back Thursday (TBT):
This is the month: Listen before dawn on a calm or north-wind night and you’ll hear a sound like spring peepers passing overhead. Swainson’s thrushes are calling to each other as they migrate in the dark!
Read more about their call in this blog post from September 2009. Click here to listen.
(photo by Chuck Tague)
Throw Back Thursday (TBT):
Did you know that birds have built-in compasses that they use for migration? Unfortunately a few young birds are born each year with compass errors that send them in the wrong direction. Their mistakes spawn Rare Bird Alerts but their errors can be fatal.
In November 2008 when a young brant stopped at Pittsburgh’s Duck Hollow, I learned that migratory birds make mistakes in direction but not distance. They fly as far as they’re supposed to go but some head in the wrong direction.
Click here to read more about bird navigation in this 2008 article entitled Compass Errors.
(photo of a Suunto compass from the Suunto website)
Just a reminder that swift migration is heating up across the continent: chimney swifts in the east, Vaux swifts in the west.
Stake out a chimney at dusk and watch the excitement as the swifts swirl and drop into the chimney to roost for the night.
Early to mid September is prime time for this activity in southwestern Pennsylvania. Check out these chimneys in Pittsburgh:
- At South St. Clair Street, across the street from 5802 Baum Boulevard, look at the chimney across the parking lot. Three Rivers Birding Club usually visits this chimney at least one evening during migration… and then we go to The Sharp Edge for beer.
- In Oakland on Clyde Street near Central Catholic High School, watch the tall chimney on an apartment building on the left.
- In Dormont, start at the corner of West Liberty Ave and Edgehill Ave. Walk up the right side of Edgehill Ave to the second telephone pole that has a sign on it saying Weight Limit 9 Tons. Stop and look across the street & you’ll see the chimney.
- In Squirrel Hill at the corner of Murray and Forward Avenues there are lots of chimneys. I’m not sure they’re used by swifts but it’s worth a look. Stand on Pocusset.
- Check out the closed public schools: the former Schenley High School, former Gladstone Middle School, etc. I bet you’ll find swifts.
If you’ve never seen this you’re in for a treat. It’s awesome!
Here’s more information about swift migration from Georgia Wildlife. Or watch the trailer for On The Wing, a movie about Vaux swifts in Portland, Oregon and their famous chimney.
(photo from Dan Viens, creator of On the Wing)
August. The last month of summer. School starts next week in Pittsburgh.
This bird knows summer is almost over. By the end of the month he’ll leave for South America.
Do you know who he is? Do you know why he leaves so soon?
(photo by Dan Arndt, Creative Commons license on Flickr. Click on the image to see the original. Dan lives in Calgary and writes for two blogs: Birds Calgary and Bird Canada.)
p.s. Check the comments for the answer.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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)