Archive for the 'Migration' Category

May 05 2013

On Erie’s Southern Shore

Published by under Migration,Songbirds

Cape May warbler (photo by Bobby Greene)

Cape May warblers are some of the many wonderful birds at Magee Marsh, Ohio this year.

Other highlights on the south shore of Lake Erie include:

  • An eye level look at a cerulean warbler,
  • Discovering that a brown lump in a field was an American golden-plover when he turned around,
  • Finding two soras in the reeds … and then they mated,
  • Seeing a great horned owl nestling with pretty face feathers,
  • And watching a sora cross the road. He made himself into a ball so he looked like a very slow, round muskrat without a tail (was this camouflage?) and risked his life by walking slowly in front of traffic.  Fortunately all the drivers were birders and we stopped to stare and spare his life.

Glad to be here!

(photo by Bobby Greene)

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Apr 07 2013

Major Migration In The Ohio Valley

Published by under Migration

NWS Central Great Lakes radar, 4/7/13, 4:18am (image from the National Weather Service)

The wind was finally from the south overnight.  This morning’s pre-dawn weather radar shows a little rain and a lot of birds.

The blue circles over the cities are radar locations picking up lots of small bodies flying north.  Yes, birds!

If you live in any of these blue circle zones, today would be a great day to go birding — unless it’s storming.

p.s.  There was not a lot of migration activity on the East Coast.  Their wind was probably unfavorable.

(radar image from the National Weather Service Central Great Lakes. Click on the image to see the most recent view.)

6 responses so far

Mar 27 2013

Sniffing Their Way North

Gray Catbird (photo by Alan Vernon from Wikimedia)

Conventional wisdom says that birds can’t smell anything, but this isn’t so.

Did you know they use their sense of smell to guide them on migration and that it’s more important for navigation than magnetic field detection?

Back in 2009 the Max Planck Institute of Ornithology ran an experiment to see which mattered  more.  During fall migration they captured 67 gray catbirds and put tiny radio transmitters on them.  48 were captured at the Princeton field station, 19 were captured in Illinois and delivered overnight to New Jersey.  This presented the Illinois birds with a big navigational challenge.

All of the birds were fitted with tiny radio transmitters and divided into three groups.  One third had scramblers to impair their magnetic field sense, one-third had a temporarily impaired sense of smell, one third had no impairments.

When released to continue their migration, where did the birds go?

The juvenile birds performed as expected.  Having never made the trip before they had no mental map so they flew due south to Cape May and had to cross Delaware Bay at its widest point.

Unimpaired adults and those with an impaired magnetic sense used their mental maps and sense of smell to fly southwest and avoid Delaware Bay.  Even the “blown off course” Illinois birds flew west or southwest to correct for their new location.

But those who couldn’t smell anything were a little lost.  The adults with mental maps fell back on their original inborn guidance system and flew due south.  So, yes, their sense of smell matters a lot more than we expected.

Next month gray catbirds will arrive in Pittsburgh from their winter range in Florida, Cuba and the lands surrounding the Gulf of Mexico.  When they get here, you can be sure they sniffed their way north.

I wonder what they’re smelling…


(photo by Alan Vernon from Wikimedia Commons.  Click on the image to see the original)

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Feb 19 2013

Robin Hiatus

Published by under Migration,Songbirds

AAmerican Robin (photo by Chuck Tague)

Have you noticed?  There aren’t many robins in Pittsburgh right now.

In December it was another story.  Every day I watched hundreds feast on the ornamental fruit trees in Oakland.  Their numbers fell slightly in early January, then surged again on the 13th when I saw so many that I recorded their number as (infinity) in my notebook.

But they ate all the fruit and the ground was too frozen to find worms and invertebrates, so they left. If I’m lucky I see one or two robins a day.

This situation is only temporary. The robins wintering in Florida are getting restless. Soon they’ll come north, following the 37oF average daily temperature isotherm and the arrival of the Spring.

You can watch their progress and contribute your own observations on the Journey North website.  Click here to see an animated map of the Robin Wave.

We’re in a robin hiatus now but they’ll be back soon.  My prediction is March 5.  What do you think?

(photo by Chuck Tague)

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Jan 15 2013

Look Closely

Published by under Migration,Songbirds

If you merely glanced at this feeder from afar, you might assume all the birds are goldfinches.

They’re all the same size, but the two birds at the top are common redpolls, the latest arrivals in a massive irruption of winter birds.

In western Pennsylvania they’ve joined purple finches, red and white-winged crossbills, pine siskins, evening grosbeaks, and red-breasted nuthatches, all of whom came south because of the drought up north.

I’ve chronicled other irruptions (see list below) but I don’t remember a year in which so many species visited at the same time.  This year the only thing we seem to be missing are snowy owls.

Look closely at your feeders.  You might have some exciting visitors.

(photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

9 responses so far

Dec 04 2012

They’re In The Maples!

Published by under Migration,Songbirds

This was it. If I was going to see an evening grosbeak it had to be this winter while they’re irrupting across Pennsylvania.  I missed them at Marcy Cunkelman’s (above), but flocks of 40 to 80 are reported every day at Dave Yeany’s feeders in Marienville.  Last Sunday I made the 2+ hour trip to see them.

Before I left I studied the sound and appearance of these beautiful birds and learned that their call resembles the chirp of a house sparrow (Click here to hear.  If that link doesn’t work, try this one).

When I arrived at 7:30am I heard loud chirps like a house sparrow who’d taken voice lessons.  Close by I saw and heard a real house sparrow.  Aha!  The grosbeaks were here but I couldn’t see them.

I crossed the street to view Yeany’s feeders but there were no grosbeaks there nor in any of the trees.  Another car pulled up.  Surprise!  Fellow birders Tom and Nancy Moeller from Pittsburgh.

Dave Yeany came out to say hello and assured us the grosbeaks would come in at 8:00am.  They would start in the spruce, then settle in the maples, then come to the feeders.  So we waited.

Sure enough at 8:00am the grosbeaks came to the spruce.  Yay! Life birds at last!  But the light was poor.  Rain was coming.  We wanted to see them closer.  We waited.  By 8:30am the grosbeaks landed in the maples but something spooked them and they flew away.  No!

We had come this far and couldn’t bear to leave without seeing the grosbeaks at the feeders.  It began to rain so we retreated to Moellers’ car. It was nice to be waiting with friends.

When the rain subsided at 9:00am we found 40+ evening grosbeaks in the maples preening and nibbling the buds.  They fluttered down level by level.  At last they came to the feeders.  Here, Tom Moeller captured them surrounding a starling.


Thanks to Dave Yeany’s hospitality and advice we waited for the grosbeaks to come to the maples.  Our surprise was that the grosbeaks like to eat sugar maple buds.

People like maple products, too.  Dave Yeany has acres of sugar maples that he taps to create pure Pennsylvania maple syrup.  If you visit when he isn’t home you can buy it from the red cupboard on his front porch.

We had the advantage of chatting with Dave and learning about his additional maple products.  I couldn’t resist the maple cream which I’d never tried before.  It looks like honey butter and it tastes great.  Mmmmmmm! Good!

If you visit Dave Yeany’s evening grosbeaks you’ll find a big flock of beautiful birds and a sweet treat at the end.  In the meantime you can “like” Yeany’s Maple Syrup on Facebook.


(Male evening grosbeak by Marcy Cunkelman, Nov 2012.  Flock at the tray feeder by Tom Moeller, 2 Dec 2012.  Photo of Yeany’s delicious maple cream by Kate St. John)

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Dec 02 2012

Another Winter Visitor

Published by under Migration

Here’s another bird that visits western Pennsylvania in winter.

I always see snow buntings near Miller’s Pond in Crawford County — the same place as the rough-legged hawk pictured last weekend — but they can be anywhere that resembles their tundra home.

In summer snow buntings are black and white.  In winter they’re cream and brown to match the vegetation.

Cory DeStein found this one two weeks ago while on a Pitt bird club outing to Imperial grasslands in Allegheny County.

(photos by Cory DeStein)

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Nov 25 2012

Occasional Fisher

Belted kingfishers don’t nest in Schenley Park but they do visit during migration.  Panther Hollow stream and lake are their favorite haunts.

Visiting kingfishers shuttle up and down the valley to find favorable fishing spots.  They perch above the man-made lake and stare at the cloudy water.  The fish are hard to see.  If they don’t catch a meal at the lake the birds head down Junction Hollow to the Monongahela River.

Junction Hollow must be amazing to kingfishers because it’s a waterless valley.  Four Mile Run was there but it’s buried beneath the playing fields and bike trail.  Those amenities are making the best of an unnatural situation.

The Run was buried long ago but any hope of daylighting it was dashed in 1989 when Sol Gross bought 28 acres of Junction Hollow and further buried the valley under construction debris generated by his demolition company.  The City stopped his dumping and everyone ended up in court, but the damage was done.  The creek is so far underground now that it’s way too expensive to remove the debris.  Hence the fields.

Kingfishers come and go through Schenley Park in the fall.  Gregory Diskin found this female at the lake on September 30, then saw none until last week.

When the lake freezes this bird will leave for a site with open water.  Until then, keep your ears open for the rattling call of an occasional fisher.

(photo by Gregory Diskin)


p.s.  Want to see a kingfisher soon?  Check Duck Hollow where Nine Mile Run empties into the Monongahela River.

5 responses so far

Nov 18 2012


…Specifically, tundra swans!

Last week we were blessed by the sights and sounds of gorgeous white birds on their way from Canada’s Arctic coast to Chesapeake Bay and beyond.

Most of them didn’t stop but that didn’t matter.  They’re beautiful in flight.

Marcy Cunkelman had her camera ready as the flocks flew over her house.

Bye bye, swans.

(photos by Marcy Cunkelman)

4 responses so far

Sep 24 2012

Please Take A Number!

Published by under Migration

Last week Peter Bell alerted me to this awesome photo of more than two dozen ruby-throated hummingbirds.   Taken on September 18 by Illinois photographer jeffreyw, the feeders are mobbed by tiny birds.   Jeffrey aptly calls this, “Please take a number.”

If you feed hummingbirds, I’m sure you find this scene as amazing as I do.  Normally a single hummer dominates the feeder and chases all others away.  Who knew that when large numbers feed together they line up peacefully!

See how nicely they’re behaving?


And here’s a quick video of Jeffrey’s feeders in mid-August. You can hear them chirping. Wow!

I asked Jeffrey how he attracts so many hummingbirds.

He wrote,  “We mount feeders according to demand, one early [in the season], then adding until we get to 5 feeders. We could add more but have restricted ourselves lest the project gets out of hand. As the birds migrate away we remove feeders until we are back to one and leave that one till the freeze.
We have been building our flock for 25+ years.”

Persistence pays off.  Feed them (a lot!) year after year, and they will come.

Thanks to JeffreyW for permission to use his photos.  Hummingbirds aren’t his only subject.  Check out his photos and food on the What’s 4 Dinner Solutions blog.

(photos and video by jeffreyw)


p.s.  Very soon all the ruby-throats will have left the eastern U.S. for their winter home.  If you’re addicted to hummingbirds and up for a challenge, leave your feeder out, keep it from freezing, and you just might attract a Selasphorus (rufous or Allen’s) hummingbird newly arrived from western North America.  Here’s Scott Weidensaul’s advice on how to attract these unusual western hummingbirds and Rob Protz’ history of rufous hummers in Pennsylvania.

16 responses so far

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