Archive for the 'Migration' Category

Jul 14 2015

Find The Whimbrel

Whimbrel with eggs (photo by Dr. Matthew Perry, USGS)

Whimbrel with eggs at Churchill, Manitoba, Canada (photo by Dr. Matthew Perry, USGS)

Can you see the whimbrel and four eggs?

These ground-nesting shorebirds have natural camouflage but I’ll bet you can see the one above because the eggs have shadows and the bird’s mouth is open.  If you were holding the camera you’d hear the whimbrel shouting like this.

Whimbrels (Numenius phaeopus) nest in the northern tundra around the world.  In North America they lay eggs in the first week of June that hatch in the first week of July.  Mom stays with the family 3-14 days after the chicks hatch.  Then she leaves on migration while dad stays with the kids until they fledge in August.  The kids don’t leave until September.  This means that some sort of whimbrel is on the move in North America from July through September.

Successful mothers and birds whose nests have failed arrive on northern coasts in July on the first stage of their long migration.  Mary Birdsong saw this one yesterday at Presque Isle on Lake Erie’s shore (video below).

Their early stops are only way stations where the whimbrels fatten up for their transoceanic trips.  Some North American whimbrels fly non-stop 2,500 miles to South America.  (Others save time by wintering on the southern U.S. coast.)

Asian whimbrels spend the winter as far south as Australia. Here’s a group in Singapore.

Whimbrels wintering in Singapore (photo by Lip Kee via Wikimedia Commons)

Whimbrels wintering in Singapore (photo by Lip Kee via Wikimedia Commons)

But on migration they travel alone.

This month, if you’re lucky, you might see a whimbrel on the shore.  You’ll see it when its long down-curved bill stands out. Woo hoo!


(photo of whimbrel at nest by Dr. Matthew Perry, USGS. Video of whimbrel at Presque Isle State Park 13 July 2015 by Mary Birdsong. Photo of whimbrels in Singapore by Lip Kee via Wikimedia Commons.)


p.s. I often go to Conneaut Harbor, Ohio to find shorebirds but the sandspit is inundated right now because the harbor water level is 20 inches higher than normal.  See this message at OhioBirds.

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Jun 09 2015

How Deforestation in Central America Affects Your Wood Thrush

Published by under Migration,Songbirds

Wood Thrush (photo by Steve Gosser, 2008)

Wood Thrush (photo by Steve Gosser)

Though you may not have noticed, wood thrushes aren’t as plentiful as they used to be.  According to the Second Atlas of Breeding Birds in Pennsylvania, “they are down by almost half since 1966 … though they remain widespread.”

The change is due to loss of breeding habitat (suburban sprawl for instance), acid rain (which affects their breeding success), and an interesting fact we learned a few years ago.

A team from the University of York headed by Bridget Stutchbury has conducted a long term study of wood thrush migration. Using geolocators they’ve tagged wood thrushes on both their breeding and wintering grounds to find out where the birds go and how long it takes them to get there.  In 2009 they reported that wood thrushes take their time going south but are quick to return in the spring taking only two weeks to get ‘home.’

The data also revealed that regional populations of wood thrushes stick together on both their wintering and breeding grounds.  Birds that breed in Crawford and Erie Counties, Pennsylvania spend the winter together in a small section of eastern Honduras and Nicaragua.  Birds that breed in Vermont spend the winter at one location in Nicaragua. The map below from the study’s press release shows a star for each tagging site and round circles for the birds’ destinations.  Notice that Pittsburgh’s birds spend the winter in Belize.

Breeding-wintering connections for wood thrushes. Each star is a site where geolocators were deployed on wood thrushes. Round circles are birds’ sites in the opposite season.  Credit: Image courtesy of York University

Breeding-wintering connections for wood thrushes. Each star is a site where geolocators were deployed on wood thrushes. Round circles are birds’ sites in the opposite season.
From: Connectivity of Wood Thrush Breeding, Wintering, and Migration Sites Based on Range-Wide Tracking. Conservation Biology, 2014
Credit: Image courtesy of York University

Now that we know where the wood thrushes go it’s easier to find out what’s happened.  If the one place your region’s wood thrushes spend the winter is logged, fewer will survive to return in the spring.

That’s how deforestation in Central America affects your wood thrush.

Check the maps for yourself on page 9 of the study –> here.


p.s. Louisiana:  This study also found that in the spring all wood thrushes cross the Gulf of Mexico and land at one specific spot near New Orleans.  If that spot goes bad, it’s bad news for wood thrushes!

(credits: Wood thrush photo by Steve Gosser, map courtesy of York University press release via Science Daily)

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May 04 2015

Coming To Lake Erie’s Shore

Published by under Migration

In early May millions of birds fly north in the night, then stop where they find good food, bad weather, or natural barriers that give them pause. By next weekend they’ll pile up at Lake Erie’s southern shore.

The best warbler “rest stops” are at Magee Marsh /Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge in Ohio and Presque Isle State Park, Pennsylvania.  The birds’ timing is so predictable that the second Saturday in May is always International Migratory Bird Day and the date of many bird festivals.

Warbler-viewing is excellent at the Magee Marsh Boardwalk but it’s very crowded as you can see in the video.  Ohio’s DNR expects 10,000 people along the Western Lake Erie Marshes birding loop  during the Biggest Week in American Birding.

If the crowds are too much for you, Presque Isle offers a calmer experience.  It’s also the site of Presque Isle Audubon’s Festival of the Birds.

Despite the crowds, I don’t want to miss my “warbler fix” in early May so I, too, will be flocking to Lake Erie’s shore.


p.s. So many Pittsburgh and Ohio birders visit Magee Marsh that you might recognize someone in the video. I did!


(YouTube “location preview” filmed at Magee Marsh Boardwalk in May 2013)

p.s. New arrivals at Schenley Park on May 4:  Scarlet tanager, least flycatcher, Blackburnian warbler, cerulean warbler.  There are so many Baltimore orioles that, though they only arrived last week, they are boring.

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Mar 24 2015

The Scouts Are Coming

Adult male purple martin (photo by Cajay on Wikimedia Commons)

You know Spring has sprung when the swallows return.  Tree swallows arrive first (seen in Allegheny County already!) but soon the bravest purple martins return from Brazil.  Though they rely on flying insects for food, adult males are so anxious to begin breeding that they fly home as soon as they can.

Purple martins (Progne subis) are cavity nesters with a long term relationship to humans.  Native Americans first provided nesting gourds and European immigrants followed suit so that now, for more than 100 years, all the purple martins in eastern North America nest in human provided housing.

Purple Martin house, Cape May Point, NJ (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Last Thursday at Wissahickon Nature Club Bob Allnock, a purple martin landlord from Butler County, taught us about the housing and habits of these amazing birds.  We learned that the same purple martins return year after year to their successful nest sites.   The earliest males get the best condos so they hurry to get home.  The landlords call them “scouts.”

Scouts are always adult males who’ve bred before and know exactly where they’re going.  Adult females return later and then, weeks later, the subadult males and females arrive.  They’re in their first year of breeding and haven’t found a home yet.  If you’re trying to establish a new purple martin colony, these are the birds you wait for.

Right now purple martin landlords in western Pennsylvania are anxiously awaiting their first scouts.  As soon as one arrives the landlord updates the Purple Martin Conservation Association (PCMA) website with the date and location.  They also update when they see the first subadults so that landlords of unoccupied colonies can be on the lookout to attract these new birds.

How far north has Spring advanced? Where are they scouts right now?  Click here on the PCMA website for the Scout Report.


(photos from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the images to see the originals)

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Mar 16 2015

This Many!

Snow Geese take off from Middle Creek (photo by Kim Steininger)

How many snow geese are in this picture?  Imagine if it was your job to count them!

Snow goose migration got off to a slow start this spring because the lakes remained frozen in Pennsylvania.  In warm winters they start to arrive at Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area on the Lebanon-Lancaster County border in late February.  But that was out of the question this year.  The narrow north end of Chesapeake Bay was frozen in mid-February and there were 10-12 inches of ice on Middle Creek lake.  The geese stayed south.

The situation changed rapidly, though.  A week ago there were 100 snow geese at Middle Creek.  On Thursday March 12 there were suddenly 20,000.  On Friday there were 75,000 with more arriving throughout the day.  The count this morning is anyone’s guess.

Actually, the number of snow geese at Middle Creek is Jim Binder’s very educated estimate.  Jim has been the manager of Middle Creek WMA since 1997 and has decades of experience counting these birds.

The trick to counting is that snow geese always rest on the lake’s open water at night.  Jim comes out before dawn and counts them at first light before they leave for the day.  He knows the lake well and the numbers it can hold.  He’s so good at counting that he can tell the number by their sound.  The record is 180,000!

But Jim has to work fast. The flock wakes up and stretches its wings. Small groups leave in a leisurely fashion to feed in nearby fields but if something scares them — an airplane, a helicopter, or a bald eagle — the entire flock goes airborne at once with a roar.

When I want to see this spectacle I read Jim Binder’s snow goose count and arrive at Willow Point before dawn.  Kim Steininger took this photo on a day when there were 80,000 to 100,000 snow geese at Middle Creek.

How many snow geese do I hope for?  This many!


Note: Because the ice melted so late this year, snow goose migration is likely to be intense and over quickly.  The geese are running out of time to get home.

(photo by Kim Steininger)

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Feb 23 2015

Across The Sahara

Eleanora falcon with satellite tracking backpack (photo by Pacual López/ SINC via Science Daily)

When you know a bird’s winter and summer homes, can you guess the route it takes on migration?  Not necessarily.

Eleonora’s falcon (Falco eleonorae) spends the summer on islands in the Mediterranean and winters at Madagascar.  How does it travel from Europe to that big island east of Africa?  For decades ornithologists assumed it followed the coast — the Mediterranean Sea to the Red Sea to the Indian Ocean.

The assumption makes sense because in Europe Eleonora’s falcons eat small birds that they capture in the air over the sea.  Of course this falcon would take a water route … until a 2009 tracking study proved it wrong.

From 2007 to 2009, researchers from the Universities of Valencia and Alicante satellite tagged and tracked 16 Eleanora falcons on the Balearic and Columbretes Islands off the coast of Spain.  The data showed the falcons indeed spent the winter on Madagascar but they didn’t take the long, dog-leg coastal route to get there.

If you draw a straight line from the western Mediterranean to Madagascar it crosses 6,000 miles (more than 9,500 km) of the African continent.  That’s what the falcons did.  Flying both day and night they even crossed the Sahara.

Perhaps they were eating insects as they flew.  That’s what they do in Madagascar.

Read more here at EurekAlert.


(photo of satellite tagged Eleonor’as falcon by Pacual López/ SINC via EurekAlert)


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Jan 28 2015

Incredible Site Fidelity

Published by under Migration,Travel

Whimbrel ready for release in migration tracking study (photo by Barry Truitt, courtesy Center for Conservation Biology via William&Mary news)

Whimbrel ready about to be released for migration tracking study (photo by Barry Truitt, courtesy the Center for Conservation Biology)

The U.S. Virgin Islands are so beautiful it’s no wonder people come here every winter, year after year.  Some birds do too, and they show incredible site fidelity even in their choice of rest stops along the way.

Whimbrels are large shorebirds with long decurved bills who breed on the marshy tundra of Alaska, Northwest Canada and Hudson Bay.(*)  Their breeding season is short so they make 14,000 mile annual migrations to spend most of the year in Brazil or the Caribbean.  On migration they often use the same favored stopovers on the U.S. coast.  That’s how one particular whimbrel nicknamed Hope encountered biologists from William & Mary’s Center for Conservation Biology (CCB) in May 2009.

Since 2007 CCB had been tracking shorebird migration by fitting whimbrels with satellite backpacks at their staging areas on the Delmarva peninsula.  The satellite data, mapped by CCB and The Nature Conservancy, provided astonishing results.  For instance, from 2009 to 2011 Hope traveled faithfully from the Mackenzie River Delta to Great Pond at St.Croix, nearly always stopping at Delmarva along the way.

Migration journeys of Hope the Whimbrel, 2009 to 2011 (map from Center for Conservation Biology and The Nature Conservancy, courtesy Center for Conservation Biology)

Migration journeys of Hope the Whimbrel, 2009 to 2011 (map courtesy of the Center for Conservation Biology)

Her amazing migration made news at Audubon Magazine and, and became a conservation story in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

In 2012 shortly after returning to St. Croix, Hope’s satellite antenna broke, rendering the tracking unit useless.  Rather than replace the unit, CCB decided to remove it and put colorful tags on her legs so that local birders could recognize her.  Here, Fletcher Smith holds her one last time before releasing her at Great Pond.

Fletcher Smith about to release Hope in St. Croix after removing her damaged satellite backpack, 2012 (photo courtesy the Center for Conservation Biology)

Fletcher Smith about to release Hope in St. Croix after removing her damaged satellite backpack, 2012 (photo courtesy of the Center for Conservation Biology)


Hope retired from the tracking program but she didn’t stop her normal life.  True to her habits, she still makes her faithful journey. In August 2013 she was photographed at St. Croix having completed her first round trip to Canada without the backpack.  Here she is sporting her yellow and green leg tags at Great Pond.  She’s there this winter, too.

Hope returns to Great Pond at St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands, August 2013 (photo from the Center for Conservation Biology)

Hope returns to Great Pond at St. Croix, August 2013 (photo courtesy of the Center for Conservation Biology)

We humans may visit the same places every year but for truly incredible site fidelity follow a whimbrel.

Read more about CCB’s Center for Conservation Biology shorebird tracking program and watch cool videos of the Mackenzie Delta and a whimbrel with chick here at the Center for Conservation Biology.


(photos and map courtesy of the Center for Conservation Biology)

And … two more messages:

1. Though I visited St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands I did not go to St. Croix to see “Hope.”  St. Croix is 43 miles south of St. John and there is no longer any ferry service. Like a whimbrel, you have to fly.

2. (*) These breeding and migration ranges refer to the Atlantic-migration whimbrels of North America.  Whimbrels have a worldwide distribution.

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Nov 15 2014

Swans On The Move

Tundra swan flock in migration (photo by Steve Gosser)

Tundra swans are migrating now over western Pennsylvania.  They’re traveling 3,600 miles from Canada’s Northwest Territory and Alaska’s North Slope to Chesapeake Bay and eastern North Carolina.

Steve Gosser photographed this flock on November 12.  I saw 60 at Moraine State Park on November 13.

The flocks are composed of families: mother, father and one or two youngsters.  In the fall their trip takes about 12 weeks, a slower pace than their springtime return because their “kids” are young and need to rest longer.

Sometimes they’re hard to see.  On an overcast day they’re white birds in a white sky so listen for their voices and look up.

Do you know their call?  Click here to hear.  Start the player at the 6:00 minute mark to hear a flock approach and land at Pungo Lake, North Carolina.

Tundra swans are on the move.


(photo by Steve Gosser)

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Nov 03 2014

Siskin Surge

Published by under Migration,Songbirds

Pine sisken (photo by Shawn Collins)

Ron Pittaway’s Winter Finch Forecast predicted pine siskins would move south this winter but no one expected the numbers seen in eastern Pennsylvania in the third week of October.

Hawk Mountain Sanctuary counted about 3,000 per day for several days, including 3,147 on October 23.  Andy Markel and Bill Oyler counted 739 heading southwest in Horse Valley, Franklin County on October 25.

Numbers were lower in western Pennsylvania where the largest count mentioned on PABIRDS was 50 on October 20 in Allegheny County.

Interestingly, Pittaway’s forecast accounts for this.  In his assessment of northern tree seed crops (i.e. finch food) he wrote:  “Spruce cone crops are variable in Ontario … East of Ontario cone crops are generally poor in the Atlantic Provinces, New York State, New Hampshire and other northern New England States.”  That means that pine siskins northeast of the Appalachians would certainly move through Pennsylvania while those directly north of Pittsburgh might find a good seed crop and not bother to fly this far south.

Though they’re still being reported in Pennsylvania the numbers are more normal now in random flocks of 15 to 20 — at least on PABIRDS.

Where will that surge of siskins end up?  West Virginia?  The Great Smoky Mountains (where it snowed already)?  It’s probably too soon to tell.


(photo by Shawn Collins, Crawford County, 2 November 2014)

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Oct 18 2014

Lots Of Robins

Published by under Migration

Flock of American rovins on the grass (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

Have you tried counting robins lately?  This week it’s been a challenge.

Though it may seem pointless I usually count birds when I’m outdoors.  The reward comes later when I look back at the numbers.

Based on my counts I know that a first wave of migrating American robins came through Pittsburgh in September.  Their numbers dropped, but a second wave arrived last week to feast on the fruit in the city’s trees and bushes.

Unfortunately these birds are camouflaged by the autumn foliage.  Rust-and-brown robins match rust-and-brown leaves.  On walks in Brookline, Oakland and Squirrel Hill I counted 20, 50, 100 robins.  Why the round numbers?  I don’t know exactly how many there were.

All I know for sure is:  There are lots of robins right now.


(photo by Marcy Cunkleman)

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