Archive for the 'Migration' Category

Sep 24 2014

Local And Vocal

Carolina chickadee (photo by Cris Hamilton)

Chickadees don’t migrate(*) but they’re a big help when you’re looking for migrating songbirds in late September.

Waves of warblers are still passing through Pennsylvania but they’re usually silent and hidden by leaves so you probably won’t see them … unless you listen for chickadees.

Black-capped and Carolina chickadees are vocal experts on the local scene.  They know the best places to find food and where the predators lurk.  And they’re such chatterboxes!  Visiting migrants clue into chickadee locations and often stay with them in mixed flocks.

At this time of year don’t ignore the local, vocal birds.  They may have visitors with them.

 

(photo by Cris Hamilton)

(* Well, I’ve since heard that some chickadees do go places … but others stay behind.)

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Sep 23 2014

Orange Or Yellow?

Published by under Migration

Orange-crowned warbler (photo by Dan Arndt)

Orange-crowned warbler (photo by Dan Arndt)

In good light with a clear view these two warblers don’t look alike.

Female yellow warbler (photo by Dan Arndt)

Female yellow warbler (photo by Dan Arndt)

But in poor light and partially hidden by leaves a fast-moving yellowish fall warbler without wing bars can be … confusing.

Last Sunday one of these birds had me stumped.  Without a camera to take its picture, how could I find out what it was?

Using a technique I learned from Chuck Tague, I wrote down what I saw as if I was going to draw the bird.

“Long, all-yellowish warbler with blank face, round head, blunt beak, no wing bars, no stripes.”  (Wish I’d seen the tail and leg colors.)

With this note and several field guides I was able to figure it out at home.

“No wing bars, no stripes” narrowed the field considerably.

By “all-yellowish” I meant pale yellow from throat to undertail with drabber, darker yellow on back, wings, head.  The light made the bird look very drab.  Lots of book-searching finally pointed to two possibilities:  an orange-crowned warbler or a female yellow warbler.  Range maps indicate both can occur now in western Pennsylvania so I had two viable candidates.

“Long” and “round head” can be deceiving because a squat, no-neck warbler might stretch out its neck to see me but together they lean toward yellow warbler.

“Blank face” is an excellent hint, not just a patternless face but actually flat looking.  The orange-crowned warbler has tiny white accents above and below its eyes that give its face topography even if you don’t see the accents.  Yellow warblers are known for their plain blank faces.

“Blunt beak” describes the yellow warbler’s stout bill rather than the orange-crowned’s sharply pointed bill.

So what did I see? Most likely a yellow warbler.

Oh well.  An orange-crowned would have been nice.

The key is:  Write everything down.  Pretend you’re going to draw the bird when you get home.

 

(photos by Dan Arndt, Creative Commons license on Flickr.  Click on the images to see the originals.  Dan lives in Calgary and writes for two blogs: Birds Calgary and Bird Canada.)

p.s.  I used the The Warbler Guide by Tom Stephenson and Scott Whittle to figure this out.  It’s excellent for deciphering confusing fall warblers.

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Sep 22 2014

Highest Hawks

Kettle of hawks, Kittatinny Ridge, PA (photo by Meredith Lombard)

Every dot is a hawk.  Can you count them?  Better yet, can you identify them?

Pennsylvania’s hawk watches see their highest daily counts this month.  On a busy day the sky looks like the photo above, taken by Meredith Lombard at Kittatinny Ridge in September 2011.

Experts can tell you these are broad-winged hawks — except perhaps that white one — but you can accurately guess the species if you know the month and location of the photo.  Broad-winged hawks pass through our state in record numbers in mid September.

Up close they look like this.  Not so blurry.  Actually a bit colorful.

Broad-winged hawk on migration in Pennsylvania (photo by Meredith Lombard)

Why are there so many of them?  Broad-wings are woodland hawks.  What’s the most common and widest-ranging habitat north of here?  Woods.

By the third week in September the bulk of broad-wings has passed by.  The Allegheny Front Hawk Watch had its highest daily total of 1,880 birds on September 14.  Hawk Mountain saw 975 on September 15 and Waggoner’s Gap saw 1,333 hawks on September 16.  None of the sites have seen higher counts since but never fear, great birds are still on the way.  The Allegheny Front will make up for quantity with quality when the golden eagles come through in November.

Where are the broad-wings now?  More than 80 hawk watch sites report in daily at Hawkcount.org where you can find a snapshot of the totals on the home page (scroll down).  Drill into the sites with the highest counts and you’re likely to find the broad-wings.

Last week’s winner was…

Detroit River Hawk Watch in Brownstone, Michigan where there were incredible numbers:  39,720 on September 18, 53,055 on September 17 and 68,655 on September 16 (68,193 broad-wings!).  The site is flat (no mountain, no cliff) but southbound hawks have to cross the Detroit River somewhere and this is it.

Check out the counts at Corpus Christi, Texas.  Some of the broad-wings are already there.

 

(photos by Meredith Lombard)

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Sep 21 2014

Not Confusing

Published by under Migration,Songbirds

Hooded warbler (photo by Steve Gosser)

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.

Not confusing!

 

(photo by Steve Gosser, September 2014)

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Sep 11 2014

TBT: A Sound Like Spring Peepers

Published by under Migration

Swainson's Thrush (photo by Chuck Tague)

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)

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Sep 04 2014

TBT: Compass Errors

Published by under Migration

Suunto Compass (from Suunto Watches)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)

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Aug 31 2014

Swift Migration

Published by under Migration

Vaux's Swifts go to roost in Chapman Elementary School chimney in Portland, OR (photo by Dan Viens)

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)

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Aug 18 2014

Last Month Of Summer

Published by under Migration,Quiz

Common nighthawk closeup (photo by Dan Arndt)

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.

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May 15 2014

Remarkable Journeys

Swainson's thrush (photo by Steve Gosser)

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)

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May 10 2014

The Biggest Weekend For Birds

Published by under Migration

Blue-winged warbler (photo by Shawn Collins)

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)

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